When Alex Duggins comes across a terrifying scene at the site of a new housing development, once again she is drawn into a case of brutal murder.
A new year arrives and winter holds Britain’s Cotswold Hills in its icy grip once more. But it’s the construction of a new housing development that’s causing the residents of Folly-on-Weir most concern. As she passes the site late one afternoon, pub owner Alex Duggins is confronted by the terrifying scene of a construction trailer on fire and a man desperately trying to break the door down.
Her efforts to help – and the subsequent findings of the police forensic pathologist – draw Alex and her friend Tony Harrison into a major murder investigation whose tentacles will reach right to the heart of the tight-knit Folly community – and into Alex’s own past …
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He seized the neck of the open bottle and slid it to rest on his chest, cradled the cool glass, closed his eyes to the lullaby sound of the whisky inside the bottle gurgling to the top.
A few drops hit his face and he reached for them with his tongue. 'Got you,' he whispered, sniggering, feeling the aromatic trickle on his lips. 'Waste not, want not.' And there it was within the subtle floral burst of scent, the soft, wood-smoke bite of eighteen-years-old Glenmorangie.
Sweet, sweet oblivion come to me.
He upended the bottle, used both hands to steady it. When his eyes slid open he couldn't see much. The lamp was off ... wasn't it? Glass scraped between his teeth, chuddered, screeched. He choked, scrunched backward onto the pillows, heard the door to the sleeping compartment slam, closing him inside. The door. It closed, yeah. Being alone now was what he needed. Alone to fly.
Not enough room.
Gagging – couldn't breathe.
The bottle was too heavy for him to lift. It crammed down into his mouth, his throat. Too heavy to push away.
He struggled to grab the bottle and found someone else's hands there. That hand – two hands – slapped his away.
Cracking under his teeth. Let me go. Blood. It tastes sharp, sharp like the glass feels. Blood and glass.
There was nothing to hold.
Alex Duggins sniffed, and blinked at an acrid stench coming to her in the waning afternoon light. That was not smoke from the chimney of some isolated cottage or farm.
The wipers pushed snow across the windshield of her Range Rover, packed in into a blinding sheet. Alex leaned forward, flinched away from flying mud.
Hurtling at her, bouncing over ruts in the frozen ground, a small filth-covered utility vehicle didn't slow down. If the driver saw her Rover, he ignored it, speeded up even, shot forward as if he wanted a collision. She didn't see the driver, only got the impression of a camouflage paint job that might be used in a war.
Alex yanked the wheel, steered onto the verge and pumped her brakes. Her tires were the best. They dug in and shuddered to a stop. She bowed her head and pressed a hand to her chest. Her heart thundered.
Still shaken, she searched the heavy, grey skyline for a source of the filthy smell of burning. She parked and got out. Her boots crunched into frosty grass and bracken beside a wide track leading up a gentle incline. If there weren't mature, leafless trees lining the way, anyone standing beside the rutted construction access might have concluded the developers had cut out a path for convenience. But they had used a lane that had been there a long time.
Perhaps she was getting a sign that she should have gone straight home from Stanton to Folly-on-Weir rather than deliberately taking a longer route.
Darkness began to gather but Alex didn't want to go back yet.
She carried on walking and watching. Ahead, wide utility gates stood open beneath a sign that stretched across the width of the track: Robert Hill. Just the name of the developer turning acres of perfect Cotswold land into a purportedly 'attractive' village. 'Luxury living at affordable prices.'
That wasn't the scuttlebutt throughout the surrounding villages and towns. 'One more cover-up to get damn good Cotswold farmland gobbled up by the elite incomers who can afford it,' was the way Alex had heard it described, far too many times. On a whim, today she had decided to see the new village for herself.
The final stretch was steeper, climbing to the top of a rise, and Alex leaned into the incline. It was Sunday, and that must account for the lack of traffic or the sound of any activity. This development was the talk of the Black Dog, the pub and inn she owned in Folly. People in these parts didn't welcome, or even in many cases, accept change, even if that change involved a large swathe of land already owned by the developer. According to Doc James, the local GP in Folly who remembered the Hill family from years earlier when they lived in the area, Robert Hill was building on his own property and it had never been farmed.
The oily smell grew stronger. Alex's eyes stung and she squeezed them shut repeatedly. Were they burning old tires? She didn't know what you could legally burn outdoors. If she hadn't seen the 'Robert Hill' sign at the junction of the B4632 toward Cheltenham and the B4077 which she would normally have taken on her way toward Folly from a small book auction in Stanton, she wouldn't have thought of stopping.
She wanted to see what all the fuss was about. And she wanted to delay getting back to Folly and to her mum's out-of-character and increasingly grim mood – not a welcome or pleasant feeling when it meant she didn't like the idea of going home.
Alex walked through the open gate. There was no sign ordering her not to come in. The nearest proposed buildings were little more than corner stakes with orange plastic ribbons that snapped in a brisk wind. Beyond this were houses in various stages of completion. The lots weren't huge but each building was very individual in design and cleverly sited to allow for privacy.
The outlook over valley and forest, and what she could see of the houses, gave credence to comments that this was no 'affordable' project. But whose business was that except the construction company, the Cotswold District Council, the surveyors and all the other official departments that got their hands into the building business? Leave it to them.
The roads were in place and Alex followed the first one branching to the right.
The noise came from the west, over her right shoulder, and continued in spurts. She stopped walking and turned to watch, open mouthed, as a plume of black smoke rose from the visible end of a construction trailer surrounded by muddy equipment.
Run! No, someone could need help – desperately. Alex sprinted in the direction of the smoke, her gut clenching and the blast of rubbery smoke attacking her throat. And as she ran, she wrenched out her mobile and punched in the number for the emergency services. She was no shrinking violet. The worst that could happen would be that she had been too hasty in raising the alarm – or she hoped that would be the worst.
She didn't have far to go. The end of a large trailer jutted out just beyond two framed houses. The sound of crackling fire made her pause until the flicker of flames showed through the windows.
With her mobile in her hand, she kept her distance from the spreading pall of smoke until she saw the whole scene. A long trailer on blocks, a flight of metal steps leading up to a door, all large and modern, began to give off shimmering waves of heat.
Alex slammed the phone to her ear.
'Which service?' a male voice asked.
She opened her mouth to yell, 'Fire,' but suddenly a man staggered into the open, slapping at his smoking trouser legs. 'Ambulance,' she cried. 'At the Hill construction site near Winchcombe. Fire in a trailer. It's going up ... it's happening quickly. Send help now.'
While she watched, and listened to the dispatcher give instructions, she tried to get closer. The man with smoking clothes fell to the ground and rolled, shouting, but not screaming. She couldn't hear what he was yelling.
Alex struggled out of her coat and kept going until she felt heat closing around her. She dashed at the man and threw her anorak over him, started beating him with her hands and arms, following him as he rolled.
She heard a loud crack and saw flames shooting into the air at the front of the vehicle. The top of the trailer bubbled and swelled. The skin rolling away from the metal bones of the thing, left it standing in outline, black and insubstantial. Everything appeared to melt in the intense heat.
'Ambulance on the way, madam,' the disembodied voice said from her mobile. 'Don't hang up.'
'We need fire trucks, too.' Alex's voice sounded like a series of loud croaks now, but the dispatcher said he understood and repeated his order that she stay on the line. 'Fire on their way already, madam.'
Throwing aside the phone, Alex beat at the man on the ground with everything she had, smacked at his legs, worked to roll him in her coat.
The smell of burning, the sooty smoke, brought tears, but the urgency subsided a little. He lay, heaped, partially wound in her blackened coat, while diminishing smoke wafted away from him.
Another explosion sounded, louder than the first. The burning structure sent a spray of ragged pieces jetting from the back.
She knelt beside the man. 'The medics are coming,' she told him, trying for a calming voice. 'I expect it's painful but you'll be OK. Hold on, they're coming. Thank God you got out of there.'
He let out a sound that was more a muffled moan than a shout, and grabbed for her hands. 'Did they?'
He squeezed his eyes shut and arched his back.
Alex shook him, wincing at the thought of causing him pain. 'What do you mean? Speak to me.' She jumped up, turned this way and that, hoping to see someone, anyone, coming in their direction. 'Who are you?' She knelt beside the man who looked to be in his mid-fifties at most. But who could be sure when he was covered with soot?
'They're in there.' He gasped the words out, coughing every few seconds. 'Couldn't get to them. It was so bloody hot. Oh, my God, what am I going to do?'
Sirens sounded, shrieked, growing closer. The volume suggested every fire station and constabulary for miles around had emptied out.
A voice came distantly from her mobile and Alex picked it up. 'I'm still here,' she said. 'We may have people inside the fire. I don't know what to do.'
'You do nothing,' the dispatcher said, kindly enough, but all efficiency. 'Who is the victim you have.'
'Just a minute.' She turned to the man on the ground who sat up now, scrubbed at his face, and she realized tears were coursing through the black muck on his cheeks. 'Your name, please? The emergency services want it. The vehicles are getting closer.'
'Thank God,' he said. 'Bob Hill. That's my name, Robert Hill. I have so messed up.'
Medics had lifted Robert Hill onto a stretcher and moved him rapidly to an emergency vehicle. Although its lights still flashed, the siren was silent, but fire service activity made enough noise to cancel out any lessening of the racket from elsewhere.
Alex shivered, not just from cold but from horror. Alone and beyond the zone where people were intent on saving what they could, she felt useless.
There was a good reason why firemen were called fire fighters. They were fighting now, aiming powerful jets of water toward the all but demolished trailer, running swiftly about their determined struggle to douse the flames. The men worked as a practiced team, totally focused and confident, but forbiddingly intent.
Weren't they worried the water would smash what was left of the trailer, float it away even? What did she know?
A man scuffed toward her in his heavy, rustling gear and boots, his face already blackened beneath his helmet.
'You Alex Duggins?' he shouted. 'You called in the alarm?'
Shifting from foot to foot she told him, 'Yes,' and a familiar prickle of anxiety ran up her spine. 'I just came up here to see the place because I've heard so much about it and I was curious. Everyone's talking about it.'
He bore down on her purposefully. 'The man who's hurt talked to you?'
'What did he say about the trailer? Dispatch reported he'd said something about others who didn't get out?'
Without her anorak and with the sweat cooling on her skin, even in a thick jumper and wool slacks Alex shivered and wrapped her arms across her body. 'He wasn't very clear but his trousers had started burning. We put that out but he's bound to be hurting.'
'Yes.' The tone suggested he wasn't interested in obvious details. 'But what did he say? The medics won't let us speak to him yet.'
'He said "did they?" after I talked about being grateful he got out. Then he said he couldn't get whoever he was talking about out. He was really ... he was as upset as anyone would be.'
'Right. Don't leave. The police are on their way and they'll want to talk to you. We'll get your particulars from them in case we need to contact you.'
'Can't you just take my address and I'll get on my way there now? The Black Dog in Folly-on-Weir.' She avoided using her actual home address since she didn't spend a lot of time there.
'I know where it is,' the man said, glancing back at her. 'You'll have to wait here for the police, miss.' He nodded toward the entrance to the development. 'Someone's up there to make sure no one goes in or out without clearance.'
'I can't do anything helpful here,' she protested. 'They'll be worried about me in Folly if I don't show up.' She so wanted to get away from here.
The fireman didn't respond this time.
Alex thought longingly of the blanket she kept in her Range Rover and considered going to get it, but she quickly realized she'd have to say what she needed to before she left and looking at the scene there was no one she could consider distracting for an instant. Trying to talk her way past some guard at the gate was a bad idea.
She paced, sending long glances toward the aid car where she could see movement inside. She didn't believe Robert Hill was severely injured but it would take a while to make him comfortable and calm him down.
Talking to anyone in fire response was out of the question. She could feel the intensity there, both in dealing with the fire and in finding out if there were victims inside the burned shell of the trailer.
Robert Hill would have survived well enough without her intrusion, and she couldn't have changed the outcome of the fire. She should have gone straight home after the book sale, as she had originally planned.
Reluctantly she used her mobile to call the Black Dog.
'Good evening.' Her manager, Hugh Rhys answered. 'Black Dog. How can I help you?'
Alex bowed over and stared toward her feet in the darkness. 'It's Alex. I'm held up for a bit. If anyone asks, I hope to be back before too long.'
A short silence, then: 'And that's it? You'd rather not tell me what you're held up with, or if you're all right, or ask me to give a message to Tony – or Lily?'
Hugh was an enigma, a man of means who chose to manage a country pub and who kept his private life, private. For him to ask her questions meant that someone was agitated about her being so late back and had said as much. That would either be Tony Harrison, who was her lover and her best friend, or, just as likely, Lily Duggins – Alex's mother.
'Is my mother fussing?' Alex asked, deliberately avoiding the other possibility since Tony hated any discussion of their combined lives with others. 'Go ahead and tell her I got tied up but I'm fine and having a good time. I hope not to be too long.'
'If you're having such a good time, why are you hoping it ends quickly?' Typical Hugh verbal callisthenics. 'Sounds noisy where you are.'
'Another point to you, m'dear. Hold down the fort, please.' She hung up and considered calling Tony, but another siren made her pause.
The headlights of a vehicle bounced over the higher points in the track to enter the construction compound. A marked police car followed. On the unmarked car a bubble on the roof near the passenger door rotated light.
The sedan paused, its siren whining to a stop and the flashing light disappearing, then the driver cut the engine and both front doors opened.
Two men strode downhill toward the fire trucks and aid car.
Alex stared hard but didn't think there was anyone she recognized. That, at least, was something. She wasn't in the mood for any falsely cheerful reunions – not that she could even be certain of any cheer, false or otherwise. Her too frequent encounters with the Gloucestershire Police had set up an 'interesting' dynamic between her and several detectives.
A fireman's shout captured her entire attention. One of the men who had been using a hatchet on the smoldering trailer framework jogged back toward one of the trucks. They'd found something. Alex scrunched the neck of her jumper between her fingers. Someone? Or what was left of them? You didn't need a working knowledge of what happened to a human inside a conflagration like she'd just seen to know what it would do to a body – or bodies.
Intent on the dark and moving silhouettes in the huddle of police and firemen, Alex didn't notice one figure separated from the rest until a torch beam landed at her feet and flashed away. The man with the light jogged toward her, coat flapping, his hat tipped forward over his forehead.
When he drew near he looked up and called, 'Alex? For God's sake, you do get around. What are you doing here?'
Excerpted from "Whisper the Dead"
Copyright © 2017 Stella Cameron.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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