Read Constant Lovers Online

Authors: Chris Nickson

Tags: #General Fiction

Constant Lovers (3 page)

But that season had been a bad time for them all. After Rose had died, slipping away to a wraith in just a week, their lives had simply crumbled. Slowly, painfully they'd managed to look ahead. And now, with Emily gone, he and Mary were gradually becoming used to life alone again, cast back on themselves.

It had been a tenuous easing back to old familiarities and intimacies. They were finding each other again, reminded of the pleasure of each other's company once more. With the good weather they'd taken to walking together, just as they had when they were younger, letting their grief evaporate in the long, warm evenings.

The grating squeak of a cart turning the corner on to Kirkgate roused him from his thoughts and he glanced through the dust on the window. The man had made good time from Kirkstall. He gulped the last of the ale and rushed into the street.

The carter had stopped in front of the jail. He was a squat, bearded man, dressed in breeches and shirt, an old leather apron bulging over his large stomach, sleeves rolled up to show brawny, tanned arms.

‘Got summat for you,' he said, gesturing idly at the bundle in the back of the wagon. The girl had been covered with a dirty sheet, but there was no mistaking the fact that a body lay underneath. ‘I'll help you get her in.'

She was an awkward load, but together they managed to ease her through to the cell the city used as a mortuary.

The carter wiped his hands on the apron. ‘Nasty business, that.'

‘Do you know who she was?' Nottingham asked.

‘No.' The carter answered. ‘Not local, though, I can tell you that.' He paused, head tilted to one side. ‘Oh aye,' he remembered, ‘I've summat else to give you. Come with me.'

The Constable followed him out to the cart. The man reached under the seat and brought out an object in an old sack.

‘The knife,' he explained. ‘We had to take it out to wrap her. Bugger of a job it was, too. The blade was twisted and caught, didn't want to come.'

He climbed up to the wagon and flicked the reins lightly. The horse started to move. The man didn't bother to look back.

Removing the sheet, Nottingham could see her properly for the first time. The flies had gathered around her mouth and nose and he had to keep brushing them away. Already there was the smell of decay about her, sickening and sweet like overripe fruit.

She was smaller than he'd first thought, no more than five feet and dainty, with the easy slimness of youth. Eighteen, he thought, possibly twenty, but no older than that. She had blue eyes and even features, a girl who was pretty, but with looks that stopped shy of beauty.

He lifted her left hand, turning it over to examine the palm. It was exactly as he'd thought; the skin was soft and pale, she'd never had to work in her life. Her fingernails were clean, not bitten or worn to the quick. He held up the ring finger to the light, noticing a paler band of flesh, the sign of a wedding ring taken from her. There was a small, faint scar, shaped like a C, in the triangle between her thumb and forefinger.

Her feet were tiny, the toes all straight, with no indication they'd ever been forced into shoes that didn't fit. Finally he pushed her on to her side and exposed the wound in her back. The maggots were already there, tiny white creatures crawling and feasting around the gash. He flicked them away with a fingernail, bending to look more closely. There was just one cut, and judging from the position it would have pierced her heart.

Gently he laid her back down and closed her eyelids. There were small bruises on her upper arms as if someone had held her too tightly, keeping her helpless. So perhaps there had been two of them, he thought, one to hold her still while the other stabbed.

Nottingham ran his hands over the dress, feeling slowly along the seams for anything that might be hidden there. Moving down, his fingertips touched something, a pocket cleverly concealed in the fabric. He opened it carefully and took out a piece of paper, folded several times into a tiny square. He opened it up and held it to the light. A note in a man's handwriting:
Soon we'll be together and our hearts can sing loud, my love. W.
Was that just a keepsake she kept close to treasure or something hidden for a reason, he wondered?

He stood back, staring down at the fragile body. Someone had loved this girl, raised her, seen her go when another wedded her. She'd come from a family with enough money that she'd never wanted for anything. People would miss her very soon.

At the desk he picked up the sack and shook out the knife. Blood had dried on the edges of the blade in veins like rust. It might have been made for cutting meat in the kitchen, but it had still cost someone deep in the purse, an expensive weapon for a killing. This didn't look like a random murder by thieves. If it had been, they wouldn't have left her where the body would be found so easily. There was more going on here.

He sat back, steepling his fingers under his chin. Girls of quality didn't disappear in the West Riding. Especially wives. Today, tomorrow at the latest, he'd have word that someone was frantically searching for her. Then he'd have a name and he could start seeking the person who'd done this.

The easy, languorous mood of early morning had vanished and in its place Nottingham felt a growing tension. From long experience he knew that most murders were solved quickly; the more time went by, the harder his job would become. Half a day had passed already since she'd been found. He needed to know who she was.

He was still wondering, half expecting someone to arrive and give the girl a name, when Sedgwick returned.

‘Hot out now,' he commented, shedding his coat to show large patches of sweat darkening his old, darned shirt. ‘Starting to get close.'

‘Any problems?' Nottingham asked.

‘Nothing. The heat must be making them lazy.'

‘Just wait until later. Saturday night, plenty of drink and the temperature – there'll be trouble enough.'

The deputy nodded his agreement, pouring the last of the small beer.

‘Did they bring her in?'

‘A little while ago.'

‘And?'

‘She grew up around money, no doubt about that. And she was married, by the look of it.' He pushed the knife across the desk. ‘Take a look at that.'

Sedgwick hefted the blade, balancing the handle on his finger. ‘That's what killed her?'

‘Yes.'

‘That's not cheap. So either the killer's rich or he panicked a little.'

‘The carter said the blade had caught in the bone. They probably couldn't pull it out. There must have been two of them. Someone else was holding her; there's bruising on her arms.'

‘But we've no idea who she was?'

‘None at all. Go and take a look at her, see if the face is familiar.'

The deputy vanished for a few moments and came back out shaking his head.

‘Then we'll have to wait until someone claims her,' the Constable continued. ‘Go on home, John; they'll be keeping you busy tonight.'

With a bright grin Sedgwick drained his cup, gathered up his coat and left, vanishing into the warmth of the street.

Three

No one came for the girl that day or the next. Emily arrived home as the Sunday morning bells at the Parish Church rang eight; she'd set off early from Headingley, her shoes covered in dust from the road. She carried herself with pride and confidence these days, Nottingham thought with pleasure as they all strolled together to morning service.

Later he heard the laughing burble of voices from the kitchen as she prepared dinner with Mary, the scent of cooking meat making him hungry. It was good to have the family together, however briefly it might be. He enjoyed having his wife to himself, to rediscover why they'd fallen in love and do it all over again, but this  . . . it brought a different, deeper contentment.

Emily was full of tales of her charges, Constance and Faith. She cared about the girls, that much would have been clear to a blind man, her eyes smiling whenever she talked about them. He listened, basking in her joy, thinking of her when she was small and still in apron strings herself, then a little older and gawky, her head always in a book.

In the evening he walked her back into the city, her arm daintily crooked in his, the late warmth rising from the ground.

‘Are you happy?' he asked as they crossed Timble Bridge and began the gentle climb up Kirkgate.

‘Yes, I am, papa.' Her answer was heartfelt. ‘I love the girls, and the Hartingtons are very good to me. I sit with them at dinner, and they listen to my opinions.'

‘Then you'd better make sure you're not too free in what you say,' he advised.

She blushed. ‘I'm always very careful, papa.' She paused, and he could tell she was looking for a neutral topic. ‘They took me to see the oak last week.'

‘The oak?'

‘The big oak tree on the main road in Headingley. People say it's been there for hundreds of years. Mr Hartington explained how important it used to be, how people met there to govern things long ago.'

He smiled. Thoresby, the historian, had told him about the old shire oak years before, but he'd never paid much attention. In those days he'd been too busy surviving the present to concern himself with the past.

They parted at the jail, and he waited by the door until she vanished up Briggate with a wave. Grown up and gone, off into her own life. He smiled and unlocked the door.

He expected a note from Sedgwick, saying the body had been claimed and giving her a name, but there was nothing. He could smell her corpse, rotting by the hour in this weather, the stink of her decomposition clawing at his throat.

The Constable was surprised, and worried. By now, surely, someone must have missed her and come looking. She couldn't have lived too far away. Then his mind fell to the practicalities. The way her body was turning, if no one arrived tomorrow they'd have no choice but to put her in the ground, to tip her into a pauper's grave before she became too rank.

There was something wrong, skewed, about all of this. Why would someone leave her at the abbey where she was going to be found? Who wanted to kill her and leave her that way? And the biggest question – why was she still nameless? It was as if someone wanted her to be a mystery, to tantalize.

It could have been her husband who'd killed her, he mused. If that were the case, no one would report her missing for a time. It was easy enough to spin tales to cover a wife's absence. He gave a sigh; until he had information, everything was just a guess. He pulled a ragged old handkerchief from his breeches, put it over his mouth and glanced around the cell door at her face, so empty and lonely in death.

She was buried the next day. They could do nothing else; the foul stench of her filled the jail. Once she'd been carried out, it still took hours for the air to sweeten enough so they didn't gag when they breathed.

On Tuesday morning, as Nottingham sat with his quill, scratching at the paper to ask for more money from the city for the night watch, the door opened and a man entered cautiously, glancing around as if not sure he should be there. He cleared his throat, clutching his hat in his hands, blunted fingernails scratching at the felt of the brim as the Constable looked up at him.

‘My wife's disappeared,' he said.

Four

The Constable was instantly alert, sitting up sharply at the desk.

‘What's your name?' he asked.

‘Samuel Godlove,' the man answered. He looked to be in his late forties, comfortable in his coat and stock, his face wind burnt and his eyes like next year's hope. A farmer, Nottingham judged from his appearance, but definitely a prosperous one, dressed for a visit to the city. The material of the coat was expensive, the cut that of a fine tailor, his face glistened with a fresh shave, pores wide, a full-bottom wig of the best chestnut hair hanging far over his collar. But for all he might be worth, there was no authority in his bearing. He looked like a man who was fearful of life.

‘Sit down, Mr Godlove.' The Constable gestured at the chair. ‘Your wife's disappeared?'

The man perched on the edge of the chair, shoulders pulled in awkwardly close to his body. ‘Yes,' he said hesitantly. ‘I expected her back yesterday, but she never arrived.'

‘She didn't send word?'

‘No.'

The man's eyes darting nervously round the room. This wasn't going to be easy, Nottingham thought.

‘Where had she gone?'

‘To see her family. She gets lonely out where we live, there's not much for her to do. She wanted some time with her mother and father. She went Thursday last. She was going to surprise them.'

‘And where are they?'

‘Roundhay,' Godlove answered. The Constable knew it vaguely, farming land a few miles to the north east of the city.

‘Where do you live?'

‘Near Horsforth. I have a farm  . . .' He let the words tail away, as if he didn't want to reveal too much.

Horsforth wasn't far from Kirkstall, Nottingham mused.

‘Have you seen her parents?' he asked. ‘Did she leave there?'

Godlove looked up at him, his eyes wide and moist.

‘I was worried. I rode over late yesterday. They said she'd never arrived.'

The words hung in the air. Nottingham sat up straighter and rubbed a hand across his chin. The farmer looked lost, trying to blink the tears away.

‘What's your wife's name, Mr Godlove?'

‘Sarah.' He said the word tenderly, lovingly, a caress as much as a sound. ‘We've only been married a year.'

The Constable kept his eyes firmly on the man's face. There was no dissembling here, just a tumult of grief and confusion. Godlove was a lost man.

‘How old is she?'

‘Eighteen.' Even as his skin flushed, Godlove raised his head higher, as if daring the other man to question him about age.

Nottingham just waited, not rising to the bait.

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