It was shortly after noon when Detective Inspector Isabelle Ardery first saw Celandine Cottage. The sun was high in the sky, casting small pools of shadow at the base of the fir trees that lined the drive. This had been sealed off with yellow police tape. One panda car, a red Sierra, and a blue and white milk-float were lined up on the lane.
She parked behind the milk-float and surveyed the area, feeling grim despite her initial pleasure at being called out on another case so soon. For information gathering,the location didn't look promising. There were several houses farther along the lane, timber-framed with peg-tiled roofs like the cottage in which the fire had occurred, but they were each surrounded with enough land to give them quiet and privacy. So if the fire in question turned out to be arson--as was suggested by the words questionable ignition scrawled at the bottom of the note Ardery had received from her chief constable not an hour ago--it might prove unlikely that any of the neighbours had heard or seen someone or something suspicious.
With her collection kit in hand, she ducked under the tape and swung open the gate at the end of the drive. Across a paddock to the east where a bay mare was grazing, half a dozen onlookers leaned against a split chestnut fence. She could hear their murmured speculation as she walked up the drive. Yes, indeed, she told them mentally as she passed through a smaller gate into the garden, a woman investigator, even for a fire. Welcome to the waning years of our century.
"Inspector Ardery?" It was a female voice. Isabelle turned to see another woman waiting on the brick path that led in two directions: to the front door and round towards the back of the house. She'd apparently come from this latter direction. "DS Coffman," she said cheerfully. "Greater Springburn CID."
Isabelle joined her. She offered her hand.
Coffman said, "The guv's not here at the moment. He rode with the body to Pembury Hospital."
Isabelle frowned at this oddity. Greater Springburn's chief superintendent had been the one to request her presence in the first place. It was a breach of police etiquette for him to leave the site before her arrival. "The hospital?" she asked. "Have you no medical examiner to accompany the
Coffman gave her eyes a quick rise heavenward. "Oh, he was here as well, graciously assuring us that the corpse was dead. But there's to be a news conference when they i.d. the victim, and the guv loves that stuff. Give him a microphone, five minutes of your time, and he does a fairly decent John Thaw."
"Who's still here, then?"
"Couple of probationary DCs getting their first chance to suss things out. And the bloke who discovered the mess. Snell, he's called."
"What about the fire brigade?"
"They've been and gone. Snell phoned emergency from next door, house across from the spring. Emergency sent the fire team."
Coffman smiled. "Luck for your side. Once they got in, they could see the fire'd been out for hours. They didn't touch a thing. They just phoned CID and waited till we got here."
That fact, at least, was a blessing. One of the biggest difficulties in arson investigation was the necessary existence of the fire brigade. They were trained to two tasks: saving lives and extinguishing fires. Intent upon that, more often than not they axed down doors, flooded rooms, collapsed ceilings, and in the process obliterated evidence.
Isabelle ran her gaze over the building. She said, "All right. I'll take a moment out here, first."
"Shall I --"
Coffman said, "Quite. I'll leave you to it," and strode off towards the back of the house. She paused at the northeast corner of the building, turning back and pushing a curl of oak-coloured hair from her face. ""The hot spot's this way when you're ready," she said. She began to raise an index finger in comradely salute, apparently thought better of it, and disappeared round the side of the house.
Isabelle stepped off the brick path and crossed the lawn, walking to the far corner of the property. There she turned back and gazed first at the cottage and then at the grounds that surrounded it.
If arson had been committed here, finding evidence outside the building wasn't going to be easy. It would take hours to conduct a search on the grounds because Celandine Cottage was an amateur gardener's dream: hung on the south end by wisteria just coming into bloom, surrounded by flower beds from which grew everything from forget-me-nots to heather, from white violets to lavender, from pansies to tulips. Where there weren't flower-beds, there was lawn, thick and lush. Where there wasn't lawn, there were shrubs in bloom. Where there weren't shrubs, there were trees. These lastprovided a partial screen from the lane and another from the nearest neighbour. If there were footprints, tyre prints, discarded tools, fuel containers, or matchbooks, it was going to take some effort to find them.
Isabelle circled the house carefully, moving east to northwest. She examined windows. She scanned the ground. She gave her attention to roof and to doors. In the end, she made her way to the back where the kitchen door stood open and where, under an arbour across which a grapevine was beginning to unfurl its leaves, a middle-aged man sat at a wicker table, with his head sunk into his chest and his hands pressed together between his knees. A glass of water stood, untouched, before him.
The man lifted his head. "Took the body, they did," he said. "She was covered up all from head to toe. She was wrapped up and tied down. It looked like they'd put her in some sort of bag. It's not proper, that, is it? It's not quite decent. It's not even respectful."
Isabelle joined him, pulling out a chair and setting her collection kit on the concrete. She felt an instant's duty to comfort him, but making an effort at compassion seemed pointless. Dead was dead no matter what anyone said or did. Nothing changed that fact for the living. "Mr. Snell, were the doors locked or unlocked when you arrived?"
"I tried to get in when she didn't answer. But I couldn't. So I looked in the window." He squeezed his hands together and took a tremulous breath. "She wouldn't have suffered, would she? I heard one of them say the body wasn't even burnt and that's why they could tell who it was straightaway. Did she die from the smoke, then?"
"We won't know anything for certain until a postmortem is done," DS Coffman said. She'd come to the doorway. Her answer sounded professionally cautious.
The man seemed to accept it. He said, "What about them kittens?"
"Kittens?" Isabelle asked.
"Miss Gabriella's kittens. Where're they? No one's brought them
Coffman said, "They must be outside somewhere. We've not run across them in the house."
"But she got herself two little 'uns last week. Two kittens. From over by the spring. Someone'd dumped them in a cardboard box next to the footpath. She brought them home. She was caring for them. They slept in the kitchen in their own little basket and--" Snell wiped the back of his wrist against his eyes. "I got to see to the milk delivery. Before it goes bad."
"Have you got his statement?" Isabelle asked Coffman as she ducked beneath the low lintel of the doorway to join the DS in the kitchen.
"For what it's worth. Thought you might want to have a chat with him yourself. Shall I send him off?"
"If we've got his address."
"Right. I'll see to it. We're in through there." Coffman gestured towards an inner door. Beyond it, Isabelle could see the curve of a dining table and the end of a wall-sized fireplace.
"Who's been inside?"
"Three blokes from the fire brigade. The CID lot."
"Just the photographer and the pathologist. I thought it best to keep the rest out till you had a look.
From the Paperback edition.