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Authors: Nancy Buckingham

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Murder in the Cotswolds

BOOK: Murder in the Cotswolds
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MURDER IN THE COTSWOLDS

 

Nancy Buckingham

 

Chapter One

 

Not even the dog scented danger. As its mistress climbed over the stile it wriggled its sleek back under the bottom rail, then obediently came to heel to cross the lane. After several days of rain the May evening was fine and balmy, with scarcely a whisper of breeze. A clump of beeches on the hill crest stood out as a dark silhouette against the last pale gleam of daylight in the western sky. Woman and dog both revelled in the clean earthy scents of the cooling countryside.

Somewhere very close at hand a car engine burst into life; at the same instant headlights flashed on. Startled, the woman spun round, only to be blinded by the glare. She froze in panic, the dog beside her, as the car came hurtling towards them. Instinctively, uselessly, she raised her hands against it. Too late she tried to throw herself out of its path.

The violent impact knocked her down and the front near-side wheel lurched over her chest. Metal protrusions on the underside of the chassis rolled and dragged her along the lane’s rough asphalt surface, ripping her clothing and tearing into her flesh. With a final roar of triumph the car shook off its victim, swayed as a rear wheel jolted over her thighs, and vanished round the bend.

The golden cocker spaniel had been catapulted into the hedgerow, its right eye spiked by a hawthorn twig. Mortally wounded, whimpering in agony, it dragged itself inch by inch to the lifeless body of its mistress and started to lick her hand.

 

* * * *

Less than two miles away, on the far side of Chipping Bassett, Detective Chief Inspector Kate Maddox was relaxing with a glass of whisky in the chintzy living room of her aunt’s cottage.

“Just what I needed,” she said appreciatively. “Today has been a real bitch, Felix.”

Felicity Moore, a large, ungainly woman with a mass of grey hair loosely bundled on top of her head, was flopped in an armchair opposite. She looked more amused than sympathetic.

“Blame yourself for that, girl. You know what they say ... the higher you climb, the harder the wind blows. Still, it’s a shame you were kept so late on your very first day at Marlingford.”

“Fair’s fair. Staying late was my own choice. I thought it would be a smart move to spend time at my desk getting wised up on the current divisional caseload. So tomorrow I can dazzle one and all with the brilliance of their new DCI.”

“Those poor men! They won’t know what’s hit them.”

“Hey, whose side are you on?” Kate pulled a face. “Of all the damnedest luck, I got off to a miserable start this morning. Would you believe, I burst a radiator hose on my way over, so I was late arriving at Divisional HQ. Which handed dear Superintendent Joliffe the chance to insert snide little cracks about women and cars and timekeeping into his welcoming spiel. He kept harping on about it throughout the conducted tour, making sure that all the lads enjoyed a giggle at my expense.”

“Too bad.”

“Not to worry, I got a giggle myself from the dismay and horror behind their smirks. A bloody woman to boss them around. The end of the civilised world as the sweet darlings know and love it.”

“They feel threatened, of course,” said her aunt. “That’s the trouble.”

“Threatened?” Kate ran impatient fingers through her short black hair. “By one solitary female DCI? I’ve got no illusions. It’s going to be a long, slow haul for women officers to batter down the barriers of male prejudice in the police. Oh God, I’m getting solemn.”

“You’re also mixing your metaphors.”

“So obviously I need another whisky.” Kate held out her glass. “Hey, steady on, Felix, you’ll have me legless.”

Up until yesterday Kate Maddox had been one of three female inspectors on the strength of the South Midlands Force. A rarity, but not unique. Now, with this latest promotion that had brought her fifty miles across country to the Cotswold Division, she was pushed out front on her own. It was a challenge that Kate accepted eagerly, but not without a few qualms.

She took another sip of her refill. “It’s great of you to let me stay here with you, Felix. It’ll give me breathing space to look around for a place of my own. I won’t leave it too long.”

“Don’t rush on my account. If I could put up with your visits as a child, I dare say I can now.”

But even the warmest of welcomes could wear thin. Now sixty-six, and all he an independent and self-sufficient woman, Kate’s aunt didn’t take easily to changes in her domestic routine. And why should she? Felix had already done more than enough in helping Kate through the traumas of her life ... starting from the time when, at only thirteen, she’d lost her mother. The day would come, Kate mused, when she’d have to repay her debts and be the supportive one. But Felix had no plans as yet to retire from her work as a free-lance equestrian photographer, for which she was much in demand. Right now, though, Kate thought in amused affection, she looked more like an amiable English sheepdog in her shaggy home-knit jumper, with her hair spilling from its pins, than a successful career woman.

Kate drained her glass and stood up, rubbing the muscles of her neck that ached from too much deskwork.

“I think I’ll get my head down, ready for the fray tomorrow. If I know anything, it’s going to be another heavy day. But heavy.”

Kate spoke truer than she could have guessed.

                        

                            * * * *

The persistent ringing of the telephone woke Kate from deepest sleep. Ten past six by her bedside alarm. It had to be for her, of course. Who’d want to phone her aunt at this ungodly hour? She swung her legs out of bed and reached for her dressing gown, but Felix had beaten her to it.

“Kate,” she called up the stairs. “You’re wanted.”

“Coming.” Barefoot, Kate hurried down the narrow, boxed-in staircase. “Sorry you were disturbed, Felix. This sort of thing is likely to happen now and then while I’m staying here.”

“Oh well, it’ll do me no harm to be up early for once.” Her aunt vanished into the kitchen as Kate dived into the living room and picked up the phone.

“Chief Inspector Maddox here.”

“Good morning, er ... ma’am. Detective Sergeant Boulter speaking.”

Kate’s mental radar scanned rapidly, and homed in. “You’re stationed here in Chipping Bassett? What can I do for you, Sergeant?”

“It’s a fatal Road Traffic Accident, ma’am, on the outskirts of town. A Fail to Stop.”

“Oh.” Kate felt the familiar jolt of pain. Of all crimes, hit-and-run was the one she hated most; the one that too closely touched her own personal experience. She asked briskly, “Has the victim been identified?”

“Yes, it’s a well-known local lady, Mrs. Belle Latimer. The body was discovered by a cowman on his way to early milking, and he made a treble-nine call. A patrol car’s at the scene, and they don’t like the way it looks.”

“You mean, it could have been with intent?”

“That’s how it appears to PC Farrow. So I thought, ma’am— knowing you were staying right here in Chipping Bassett—that you’d want me to contact you immediately rather than wait till I’d had a look-see myself.”

“You thought correctly, Sergeant.” Kate rubbed sleep from her eyes with her free hand. “I suggest you come and collect me. Stonebank Cottage, do you know it?”

“In Mill Lane?”

“Yes, just past the sharp bend. Give me ten minutes.”

“Okay. I mean, very good, Chief Inspector.”

Felix came to the kitchen door as Kate hurried for the stairs. “Time for a cuppa?”

“I guess so, just about. I’d better get dressed first.”

“I’ll bring it up, then.”

By the time Kate returned to her room from the bathroom, her aunt was sitting on the bed with two cups of tea on a tray beside her.

“What’s the panic, Kate? Or shouldn’t I ask?”

“It’s a fatal hit-and-run accident.”

There was a small silence. Felix could guess all too well what such an incident would mean for Kate. “Do you have to attend personally? It won’t be easy for you.”

“No, it never is, but I have to attend.”

At her wardrobe, Kate passed over the smart navy suit and red blouse she’d planned to wear today and chose instead a denim skirt and zipper jacket more suitable for a possibly blood-spattered scene of crime. When she turned back to Felix, her voice revealed no emotion.

“I don’t have any details, but apparently there are suspicious circumstances.”

“Suspicious circumstances? What does that mean?”

“It means that it might not have been a pure accident.”

“But that would make it murder, wouldn’t it? I can’t believe it, Kate, not in Chipping Bassett. The person killed ... do you know who it was?”

“A woman named Latimer. Mrs. Belle Latimer.”

Felix’s hand flew to her throat. “Belle Latimer? How dreadful! It was only last week that I was talking to her on the phone. Who on earth would want to kill Belle Latimer?”

Kate gulped down half the cup of tea before applying lipstick. As she slipped on her wristwatch, she glanced at the time. “I have to leave in three ... no, two and a half minutes. The fact that you knew the victim could be helpful, Felix. What can you tell me about her?”

“Well, she’s a sort of lady of the manor round these parts. She owns Hambledon Grange ... owned, rather.”

“Hambledon Grange? That rings a bell. I seem to remember a rambling old Tudor house with lots of land attached.”

Felix nodded. “Lots of land is right. The estate runs to nearly a thousand acres all told.”

“You said
she
owned it. Was Mrs. Latimer a widow? Divorced?”

“No, her husband is still around, but Belle Latimer owned the place. She inherited the estate from her father, Sir Peter Stedham. That must have been about fifteen years ago.”

“What would her age have been?”

“Forty-three or-four, somewhere around that.”

“Children?”

Felix shook her head. “I believe she couldn’t.”

“How about the husband? Does he run the estate? Or what?”

“No, Matthew Latimer owns a small plastics factory in Marlingford.”

“Doing well?”

“I don’t know about that. There was a rumour a short while ago that his wife had to bail him out when Precision Plastics nearly went bust. Actually, Mrs. Latimer employed a manager to run the farming side of the estate. Her main interest in life was breeding and schooling horses for dressage competitions ... you know, not just doing all kinds of clever things on a horse, but doing them stylishly. She often commissioned me to take pictures for one or another of the horsey magazines, or to send to a prospective buyer or whatever. That was the reason she phoned me last week. She wanted photos of a horse that she’s entering in the European Championships at Goodwood in July, and I was going to take them next week.”

Another ninety seconds gone. Kate had no intention of keeping the sergeant waiting. The story of her late arrival at DHQ would be all over the division by now, a bad start to live down. Getting anywhere on time had never been one of her strong points, but where the job was concerned she’d drilled herself to be meticulous. That was why yesterday’s cock-up galled her so much.

“Quickly, fill me in on what the local grapevine has to say about the Latimers. Did they get along together?”

“I never heard different. Why? You surely aren’t thinking that he ... ?”

“Nope, just asking. Anything else you can tell me about them?”

“Well, let’s see. He’d be several years younger than she was.”

“Would he, now? Oh damn, that sounds like the car already.”

Detective Sergeant Tim Boulter had clearly not been expecting the chief inspector to emerge, all set to go, before he’d even walked to the garden gate. Embarrassed, he hastily swallowed down whatever it was he’d been chewing. He took the hand Kate proffered with a certain wariness.

“How do you do, Sergeant? I was planning to visit the Chipping Bassett station later on today and meet you then. But this has thrown out my schedule.”

“Sorry about that, ma’am, but—”

“No need to apologise. It
comes with the job.”

Sergeant Boulter was a stockily built five foot ten, closing up on thirty, at a guess. Not a man for a villain to tangle with. He had sandy hair and a pleasant open face, pink and squarish. But just at the moment it was as if he’d lowered a blind and was peering through the slats trying to sum her up. Even so, Kate could read him like a book.
Must be tough as old boots to have got where she is. Or who did she sleep with to get her promotion? Not a bad bit of crumpet, really, if I was ten years older.

In his car, as they moved off, Kate blanked out everything except the case in hand.

“Has the victim’s husband been informed?”

“Not yet, ma’am. The lads at the scene report that it seems Mr. Latimer went to London on business yesterday, and he’s not expected back till this afternoon.”

“He’ll have to be contacted wherever he’s staying.”

“We don’t know where that is, ma’am.”

“Has anyone asked at the house?”

“There’s no one there.”

“A big place like that? No staff?”

BOOK: Murder in the Cotswolds
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