The White Shepherd256
The White Shepherd256
Anna Hopkins’ daily walk through Oxford’s picturesque Port Meadow is rudely interrupted one autumn morning when her white German Shepherd, Bonnie, unearths a bloodsoaked body in the undergrowth. For Anna it’s a double shock: she’d met the victim previously. Naomi Evans was a professional researcher who had told Anna she was working on a book about a famous Welsh poet, and who offered to help Anna trace Bonnie’s original owner.
From her conversations with Naomi, Anna is convinced that she was not the random victim of a psychopathic serial killer, as the police believe. She was targeted because of what she knew. With the official investigation heading in the wrong direction entirely, Anna teams up with fellow dogwalkers Isadora Salzman and Tansy Lavelle to discover the truth.
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|Publisher:||Severn House Publishers|
|Series:||An Anna Hopkins Mystery , #1|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)|
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The White Shepherd
An Oxford Dogwalkers' Mystery
By Annie Dalton
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2015 Annie Dalton and Maria Dalton
All rights reserved.
The windowless interview room at St Aldates Police Station had that airless feel that Anna recognized from before, and the same tang of disinfectant. Isadora and Tansy had separately given their versions of the discovery of Naomi's body. Now it was Anna's turn to sit at the bolted-down table across from DI Chaudhari, a stocky, weary-looking man in his forties with thick glossy black hair. 'Apologies that we're having to talk to you in here. You're obviously not a suspect. All the care suites are currently in use.'
The young detective sergeant seated himself next to the DI and flipped back the cover of his notebook.
At the exact moment Anna had handed Bonnie over to Tansy before she went in, she'd felt herself break into a cold sweat. Possibly, Tansy had noticed, because she'd whispered, 'That Sergeant Goodhart is annoyingly hot!' in a misguided attempt to cheer her up. Anna thought that Tansy's hazel-eyed sergeant looked far better-rested – and far better toned – than the world-weary Inspector Chaudhari. But tired or not, there was no doubt whose show this was. Behind the inspector's oddly old-fashioned gallantry Anna felt a sly intelligence that put her on her guard.
She could feel her nerves trying to take over as she told them that her name was Anna Hopkins, that she was thirty-two years old and currently lived in Park Town. This mention of her prestigious North Oxford address sent a faint flicker across the inspector's features, and Anna felt stung into adding, 'It was my grandparents' house. I let most of it out. I live on the ground floor.' She explained that she had lived away from Oxford since leaving school, but had returned six months ago to take up a part-time post at Walsingham College. 'I came back because of my grandfather,' Anna added before the inspector could ask. 'My grandmother died last year, and he was becoming increasingly frail. He's the only —' She stopped, then continued more carefully, 'He's my only close family now. I wanted some time with him while I still have the chance.'
'Your grandfather doesn't live with you?' the inspector said.
'He lives in a retirement home. He hated the idea of me having to do – personal things for him.'
The inspector briefly rubbed at his face. Anna had noticed dark pouches of exhaustion beneath his eyes. Maybe he was coming to the end of a long shift, or perhaps he had young children who woke him in the night. 'So if you could just tell us in your own words what happened this morning when you found the body of Naomi Evans.'
Anna flashed back to earlier that morning at Coffee on the Green. Sitting at an outdoor table, with Bonnie at her feet, she'd managed to spin out her skinny latte for twenty minutes before she'd decided that Naomi wasn't coming.
'Ms Hopkins,' the inspector prompted.
'I'm sorry. I'm not quite sure where you need me to —'
'Start wherever it makes sense for you to start,' he reassured her.
'OK, well, I just recently acquired a rescue dog. She's a White Shepherd. She's still young and needs a lot of exercise. I take her to Port Meadow. It's the nearest place that I can let her off for a good run.' Anna felt herself suddenly short of oxygen, as if she'd been running. She made herself take a steadying breath before she said, 'She normally waits for me to unclip her lead. But this morning as soon as we walked into the meadow she seemed unsettled. She started whining – not normal whining, it was a really harrowing sound. I've never heard any dog make that sound before. Then she took off with her lead still attached. It was all I could do to hang on. It's like she knew exactly where she had to go and what she was going to find.'
'And what did she find?'
'She found Naomi lying by this little stream.' Anna tried to swallow, but her throat couldn't seem to remember how. 'She'd been stabbed over and over. There was blood everywhere. It was still flowing from her wounds.' She glanced across at the inspector. 'That means it had happened quite recently, doesn't it?'
He didn't answer, just waited. Anna took a sip from her glass of water with its slight aftertaste of dust, while she steeled herself to tell the worst part. 'Her face was – terribly damaged. Hardly recognizable.' Noticing that she was unconsciously touching her own face, she forced both hands down into her lap.
'But you still recognized her?' said the inspector, gently steering Anna's narrative. 'You knew Ms Evans, is that right?'
She saw Isadora tenderly laying her scarf over Naomi, the scarlet stains blossoming on the silk.
'I'd seen her out running, when I was walking my dog. One morning she stopped to admire her, and we just got talking.' Anna had found it alarming, this unlooked for consequence of dog-ownership; the way total strangers would see her and Bonnie together and feel entitled to start a conversation. British people were supposed to be reserved, but apparently if you added a dog to the mix, reserve went straight out the window.
Naomi had taken things one step further. She had dropped to her knees beside Anna's dog. And Bonnie, normally shy with people she didn't know, had pressed her snow-white forehead intensely against Naomi's, as if they were old soulmates who'd been reunited.
Anna had felt childishly jealous. She and Bonnie were still in the early stages of getting used to each other. Certainly, Bonnie had never yet leaned adoringly against Anna. But then Naomi had said in a tone of awe, 'This has to be the most beautiful dog I have ever seen in my life! Actually, the two of you look like you've just stepped out of a fairy-tale!' and she had smiled up at Anna with such innocent delight that Anna had felt all her carefully maintained defences melt. She registered that the inspector had asked a question. She forced herself back to the present. 'I'm sorry?'
'I said, do you remember what you and Ms Evans talked about?'
'We talked about my dog. I said I'd only had her a few weeks and that she was almost spookily well-behaved. For the first couple of weeks it was like having a ghost dog. I thought maybe she was grieving for her previous owner. The Rescue Centre told me she'd been brought in after the old lady who owned her died. Naomi agreed with me that Bonnie didn't seem like the kind of dog an old lady would normally have, and I said I wished I knew more about her background; Bonnie's, that is.'
'Were there any subsequent occasions when you spoke to Ms Evans?'
'I saw her again about two weeks ago. Naomi told me that she was a researcher and that if I wanted she'd do a bit of digging around for me, try to find out some more about how Bonnie ended up in the rescue centre.' At this point the rain clouds that had been piling up over Port Meadow had decided to empty themselves. Anna, Naomi and Bonnie had rushed to the car park through the near-tropical downpour, to shelter in Naomi's sporty silver Audi. Bonnie had performed her magic trick of gracefully folding her snowy limbs small enough to fit exactly inside the footwell, while Naomi scrolled through her phone, trying to find a mutually convenient date to meet up.
'We decided on an early breakfast at Coffee on the Green,' Anna told the inspector. 'So she could tell me what she'd found out, if anything.' She remembered Naomi's breezy confidence that she'd be sure to have some info for Anna by then.
The inspector moved fractionally in his chair. 'You and Ms Evans had arranged to see each other? When?'
Anna felt her mouth go dry. 'This morning. It's my day off. But she didn't show up.'
'She didn't call or text to let you know?'
Anna shook her head. 'I left the house in a hurry. I didn't have my phone. I didn't sleep very well last night.' She hadn't slept at all until, finally, at around five, she'd fallen into one of those pitch-black sleeps that always left her totally exhausted. She'd barely had time to throw on some clothes and grab Bonnie's lead.
'She had your contact details?'
'Yes, she said she has – had – to put everything in her phone, because she had such a bad memory.'
'Did we find a phone?' the inspector shot at his second in command.
Sergeant Goodhart had been so quiet that Anna had genuinely stopped noticing he was there. She wondered if it was something they taught in police training. One to talk and a second, invisible, cop to watch.
He shook his head. 'We didn't find a phone with her body, and so far one hasn't turned up at her flat.'
Absorbing what they'd told him, Inspector Chaudhari was tapping lightly on the table-top, as if accompanying some internal soundtrack.
Anna pictured Naomi leaning out of her car, her face shiny with rain, wet hair plastered to her head. 'I'm so sorry I can't give you and Bonnie a lift,' she'd called. 'I've managed to land an interview with this guy, and I need to rush home to change first.' Then she'd driven away, out of Anna's life forever.
The inspector had stopped tapping. 'If I could just take you back to the moment you discovered the body. You say your dog led you there. But you were still alone at this point?'
'Yes,' said Anna. 'It was just me and Bonnie.'
'Can you remember when you first saw the body – did you maybe cry out or call for help?'
Anna shook her head. She didn't tell him that finding Naomi's body had totally robbed her of her voice; something that had previously only afflicted her in dreams.
For the first time Inspector Chaudhari looked sceptical. 'You didn't make any sound at all? That's unusually controlled given the circumstances.'
Anna felt stung. Did women invariably scream when they found bodies? Yet another epic fail for her unconvincing attempt to impersonate a human being. She settled for a half shrug. Let Inspector Chaudhari think what he liked.
The inspector resumed delicately tapping his fingers. 'I just want to be quite clear. You don't think that you cried out or made any kind of sound, yet nevertheless Ms Salzman and Ms Lavelle came to find you? And you hadn't previously met either of these women before?'
Anna took another sip of dust-flavoured water which, if anything, left her feeling more dehydrated. 'I'd seen them both separately walking their dogs, but I'd only spoken to Tansy.'
The inspector frowned, and DS Goodhart obligingly became visible again. 'Ms Lavelle, sir.'
'Actually, Tansy – Ms Lavelle – spoke to me,' Anna said, correcting herself. 'She asked me if Bonnie was my pet wolf. That was the only time we'd talked until – until today.'
'And though the three of you didn't know each other, Ms Salzman and Ms Lavelle elected to come to your aid, until the emergency services arrived?'
'Yes. I think they thought I shouldn't have to handle it on my own.' Now they were minding Bonnie while Anna was being interviewed. Anna's grandfather had dubbed the twenty-first century the 'walk on by era'. But these unknown women had given up their entire morning to help her. Anna should feel grateful, but she found their kindness claustrophobic. It implied that the three of them had some kind of connection, but after this morning she didn't want a connection with anyone ever again.
The inspector asked a few more desultory questions, but Anna had the feeling that he was gradually winding things up. He had toyed with her a little, mainly for form's sake, she thought, but now his fatigue was winning out. When Sergeant Goodhart handed her a card with the name and number of Thames Valley Support Services, and smiled at her, with a smile that reached his eyes, she felt herself start to breathe more easily. 'So is that all?' she asked, trying to keep her voice even.
'That's all for now,' Inspector Chaudhari said, placing a slight emphasis on the last word. He ran his hands through his hair. 'You probably know that two young women were recently stabbed to death in Oxford in a similar manner to Naomi Evans? It's too early in our investigations to know if we're dealing with the same killer. Either way, we are dealing with an extremely dangerous individual, someone who isn't afraid to strike in broad daylight in a public place. So until he or she is caught, I'd advise you to take extra care in your day-to-day movements.'
He pushed back his chair as the cue for everyone to stand up. 'Well, thank you for your cooperation,' he said in an almost cheerful voice. Anna heard his stomach give a prolonged gurgle. 'Was that you or me, Goodhart?' he asked, straight-faced.
'I couldn't possibly say, sir,' Goodhart said, equally dead-pan.
Their jokey exchange felt like final confirmation that her ordeal was over. Anna felt light-headed with relief as the inspector opened the door, politely moving aside to let her go through.
She already had her back to him as he said casually, 'You don't remember me, do you? Of course, I was a lot younger then. I was with the first-response team that night. It's not something you easily forget.'
Behind her, the sergeant softly cleared his throat. Anna had gone rigid with the effort not to react. Inspector Chaudhari had known all along. He'd known exactly who she was, and he'd waited until she thought she was home free before he showed his hand.
Somehow she found her way back to the concrete stairs with jaunty blue-painted handrails, along institutional looking corridors, past noisy open-plan offices. By the time she arrived back at reception she was frantic to get out into the air. She had just reached the external doors as two burly male police officers came through with a shaven-headed youth in handcuffs.
Isadora and Tansy were waiting with the dogs outside. Isadora was cuddling Hero. Tansy was loosely holding Buster's and Bonnie's leads in one hand as she talked on her phone. She gave Anna a relieved smile. 'And obviously I would have done,' Anna heard her say, 'but I genuinely thought we'd be finished by now. I'm sorry, Julie, but in my world a murder counts as an emergency.' She pulled an apologetic face at Anna. 'Yes, I've already said I'll be in tomorrow. Look, I've got to go now.' She ended her call. 'Unfeeling bitch,' she said, shaking her head. 'Unbelievable.'
'Sorry if I've caused problems,' Anna said stiffly. 'It was good of you both to wait.'
'Of course we waited!' Isadora said, over the top of Hero's curly head. 'We wanted to make sure you were OK.'
'Don't you worry about Julie,' Tansy said. 'She's a passive-aggressive vegan; not a good mix.'
They were trying too hard. There was something different in their faces. Anna didn't want to identify it. She just needed to get away. 'Well, thanks for everything. I'd better get going.' She moved to take Bonnie's lead, knowing she was being totally graceless, but too frantic to care.
Isadora laid her hand on Anna's arm. 'The desk sergeant told us someone would drive us all home.'
Anna felt a flash of naked panic. 'No, honestly! Bonnie didn't get her run, and I could do with some air.' She was ready to scream with the need to escape, but Isadora didn't seem to notice.
'I'm supposed to be going to a book launch tonight,' she said, her hand still lightly detaining Anna. 'Kit Tulliver, an old student of mine, has written a rather well-received biography of Owen Traherne, but I simply can't face going now. Anyway, Tansy and I thought we'd meet up later for a drink. Perhaps you'd like to come?'
'I can't, sorry. I'm really not in a very —' Anna began when Tansy fervently interrupted.
'I shouldn't think you are, sweetie!'
Anna was horrified to see tears glittering on her lashes.
'Inspector Chaudhari told us all about your family. I'm so sorry. This morning must have just brought it all —'
Anna coldly cut her off. 'Thanks again for all your help.' Gripping Bonnie's lead with whitening knuckles, she hurried away, not bothering to say goodbye. In her mind, the women and the game-playing detective inspector had now become equally threatening. Inspector Chaudhari had exposed her – betrayed her – to these women. He had done it as a form of shock tactics, or maybe just to test their claim that they had never met Anna until that morning. Whatever his reasons, she hated him with a white-hot hate.
She had just reached the gates of Christchurch College when Tansy caught her up. She pushed a wilted business card into Anna's hand. 'It's from the cafe where I work,' she said breathlessly. 'I've written my number on the back. I just thought, in case you ever —' She registered Anna's stony expression and pulled a face. 'You probably never want to set eyes on us again, right?'
Excerpted from The White Shepherd by Annie Dalton. Copyright © 2015 Annie Dalton and Maria Dalton. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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