Authors: Shirley Wells
To Matilda and Murphy, with love
Also by Shirley Wells
I’m grateful to all at Constable & Robinson for their hard work in bringing this book to you. In particular I owe thanks to Krystyna Green for having faith in Jill and Max.
A huge thank you also goes to my husband, Nick, who somehow copes with living with a writer whose mind is usually elsewhere.
Finally, I’d like to thank you, the reader. So many of you have taken the time to contact me via my website, www.shirleywells.com, and I’m grateful to each and every one of you. Without you, there would be little point to this.
‘Sod you!’ Lauren yelled, slamming out of the house. ‘You can go to hell!’
She yanked his key from the bunch and hurled it across the garden.
Tears of anger smarted in her eyes as she jumped in her car and fired the engine. She slammed it into reverse, clipped the edge of the wheelie bin, and sent the contents flying across his drive.
Charlie was curled up on the passenger seat. His small white body was trembling and his front paws were hiding his face.
‘Hey, I’m not angry with you, Charlie.’ She took a hand from the steering wheel to ruffle his fur. ‘I’m never angry with you.’
She slowed for the T-junction at the bottom of Longman Drive.
‘I’m probably not even angry with him, either. But I
angry with Josh. And I’m angry with myself. Hell, I’m just bloody angry!’
The fuel gauge was close to empty, but the warning light wasn’t glowing yet. She should have enough fuel to get to Kelton Bridge and back.
‘Tell you what, Charlie, we’ll go to your favourite place. I’ll take you for a good run over the hill, OK?’
Charlie looked at her briefly, then returned his face to its hiding place behind his paws.
‘Come on,’ she said. ‘Forgive me, eh?’
She smiled as she spotted a quick twitch of his tail.
She drove out of Harrington, over Deerplay Moor, and took the turn for Kelton Bridge. Once through the village, she parked at the bottom of a rutted track and reached into the footwell for Charlie’s lead. It wasn’t there. She must have left it at home. They were unlikely to meet anyone so it didn’t really matter.
‘Come on, Charlie.’
He leapt out of the car and raced around in circles while she locked it and pocketed the keys.
The wind was in her face as she strode past the spinney and on up the hill towards Clough’s Shelter.
Decades had passed since the stone building had been used by shepherds and the roof had long gone. These days it only had three walls and they were too dilapidated to offer protection from the harsh weather experienced in the Pennines.
Lauren liked to sit on the low wall, though. From there, she could see the valley below – the village of Kelton Bridge as well as Bacup and Stacksteads.
Charlie ran on ahead, chasing leaves that blew in the wind. Snow had been forecast for later, but there was no sign of it.
When there were no leaves, Charlie chased his tail. No matter how bad things were, her dog always made her smile. Always. Even today, when things were about as bad as they could be.
‘If you had a bank account with a few grand in it, Charlie, you’d be perfect.’
He barked happily in response.
Until recently, Lauren hadn’t spared God a thought and she’d never believed in spirits or fairy godmothers. As far as she was concerned, life was what you made it. You were on your own to make of it what you could.
Yet she could never explain the way Charlie had found her. It was as if he’d known he was needed, as if he’d been sent to help her through the worst years of her life.
Six years ago, on a Friday that should have been like any other, Lauren had walked into the house, dumped her school bag on the table, made a sandwich and asked her mum how she’d got on at the hospital.
‘Not too well,’ her mum had said. ‘You’d better sit down, Lauren. I need to talk to you.’
At fourteen years of age, Lauren had listened to her mum telling her how kind the staff had been as they’d done the tests, and how they were going to try chemotherapy but how they weren’t too hopeful.
Lauren had run from the house. She’d gone to the park and she’d howled. All the while, her mum’s words had echoed in her head.
It might be all right, Lauren.
It might. But then again, it might not. And what if it wasn’t? How would they cope?
Walking back home, the tears still wet on her face, she’d been aware that she was being followed. A scruffy white dog, little more than a puppy, was trotting behind her. There was no one in sight and her companion wasn’t wearing a collar.
‘Go home, you’ll get lost!’
The dog wagged its tail in response and continued to walk beside her.
‘Go on. Scram!’
She’d stopped and tried to shoo the animal away, but, despite her efforts, he’d followed her all the way home.
Her mum, glad of the distraction Lauren supposed, had found some scraps of food and they’d both watched the poor mite eat as if he hadn’t swallowed anything for weeks. One of his ears had been bent back as he’d scoffed the food.
‘He looks a right Charlie,’ her mum had laughed.
He’d been Charlie ever since.
He slept on the foot of Lauren’s bed that night. She’d been aware of the weight of his body, and the comforting warmth he provided, and any thoughts of trying to trace his owner had vanished. Instead, she went out the following day to buy collar and lead, food and a bed.
Yes, Charlie had been with her through the best of times and the worst of times. And he was still with her.
She spotted a figure leaning against the stone wall and smiled as recognition dawned.
‘Hi, Jimmy,’ she said when she neared him.
‘H-hi,’ he stammered, blushing scarlet.
Jimmy had a crush on her. Even if she’d wanted to, which she didn’t, she knew there was no point striking up a conversation. He was too tongue-tied in her presence to make any sense. She guessed he’d watch her, though. He’d probably follow her, too.
As she walked on, she thought of the way she’d stormed out of her dad’s house that morning. Even as the door had slammed, she’d regretted it. She had a mental picture of her dad carefully picking up the rubbish from the drive and putting it back in the wheelie bin. It would never be mentioned, she knew that.
Later, when they’d both had a chance to calm down, she’d go back and talk to him. Perhaps she’d suggest they spend Christmas Day together. It was years since they’d been together during the festive season.
Then again, he’d drive her mad with his ‘You can’t cope, Lauren’ chant. That’s all he seemed to say to her these days. ‘You can’t cope, Lauren. You’ve never coped with your mum’s death.’
cope. Better than him probably.
Her life was in a mess, true, but her mum had been dead six years. She was over it. If only her dad could see that.
She walked on and, as always, the beauty of the hills calmed her. Her mum had been a keen walker and she’d loved to come here. It was where Lauren felt closest to her. Sometimes, she would even talk to her.
Charlie suddenly barked with excitement and Lauren’s spirits sank as she recognized the dog he’d met. The dog was gentle and affectionate. Its owner was a pain in the arse.
Besides, she didn’t want company. Not today.
DCI Max Trentham turned his car into Pennine View where two elderly ladies, clad in wellington boots and standing beneath the streetlamp as they waited for a bus perhaps, waved at him. Given the poor light, they must have recognized the car rather than him, but he waved back.
Although he didn’t know them, he could imagine the conversation: ‘There’s the copper who spends the night with lovely Jill Kennedy now and again. You’d think she could do better for herself, wouldn’t you?’
The thing about villages in general, and Kelton Bridge in particular, was that you only had to clear your throat and locals knew your life story.
His car slid on the packed snow and he swore as he righted it. Who in their right mind would choose to live in such a place? Bleak, lonely, isolated.
He thought of the young woman whose body had been found out on the hill late yesterday afternoon. A lone hiker had spotted her. If he hadn’t, she could have lain there for days beneath a blanket of snow. The first flakes had fallen in the early hours and it was almost six inches deep now.
He drove a few more yards, but it was hopeless. There was no way his car was going to make it along the lane and he didn’t want it stuck in a drift.
Thinking it unlikely that any other vehicle would venture this way, he left it as close to the hedge as he dare and got out. He had a torch in the boot and he walked the rest of the way with the light from that swinging left to right. The snow went over his shoes, and his feet were soon soaked.
He walked on to Jill’s driveway where her smug-looking four-wheel drive Suzuki was neatly parked.
In the summer months, with the garden a riot of colour, Lilac Cottage was, quite literally, the stuff of postcards. Even a calendar, produced to show off this corner of east Lancashire, featured her home with the towering Pennines providing a spectacular backdrop. This evening, however, with the garden hidden beneath snow, and only one light visible from inside, it looked a dark, almost forbidding place.
Just as he stepped up to the door, the beam of light from his torch caught something.
He shone the light straight at it. A cat, attached to a hanging basket bracket with a thin rope, was swinging in the wind.
Max had a knife in the car but, not wanting to tramp back for it, he tried the knot. It was easily undone and the cold, stiff body was released.
Did he tell Jill or not? The good thing, if there was anything good about having an animal hanged by your front door, was that, technically, it wasn’t one of hers. It was the old stray that had been calling on her for the last month or so.
He could say he’d found it in the snow, dead from cold or old age. On the other hand, some sick bastard had done this. The cat had been declared terminally ill by the vet, but Max very much doubted it had decided to end it all. He’d have to tell her.
With the animal in his arms, he hammered on the door, then tried the handle. It wasn’t locked.
There was no sign of her so he shouted up the stairs.
When she appeared on the landing, she was wearing skin-tight jeans, a chunky blue sweater, wet hair and a scowl that she’d been perfecting over the last week.
‘Why the hell is it so difficult to lock—?’ He broke off, reminded by the weight in his arms that it wasn’t the time for a lecture on security. That could wait until later.
‘Yeah.’ A hand flew to her mouth. ‘Oh, no!’
She ran down the stairs, shock giving way to sadness. ‘Oh, no,’ she said again, stroking the lifeless head. ‘The poor thing. The vet said she might live for months yet.’
But the vet hadn’t counted on lunatics with a sense of the macabre.
‘Let me fetch her blanket.’ She took the corpse from him as if it were a newborn. Tears glistened in her eyes, but he guessed they wouldn’t spill over. Not until she was alone, at any rate. ‘We’ll bury her in the garden. She liked lying under the lilac tree.’
‘Bury her—?’ Beneath the snow, the ground would be as hard as granite. What else could they do, though?
‘I’ll start digging,’ he said, resigned.
He found the spade in the shed, put it to the ground, and was surprised when he managed, fairly easily, to push it down several inches.
While he dug, he wondered, not for the first time, what people saw in cats. He was inclined to agree with Fly, one of his sons’ dogs, that they were neither use nor ornament and should be banished from the face of the earth. There was one advantage to them though; they only required small graves.
Jill had put on wellington boots and a thick coat before joining him. The corpse, wrapped in its pink blanket, was safe in her arms.
‘Jill,’ he began, as the moon, full and huge, peeped out from behind a cloud.
But this wasn’t the time or the place. The weather was against him, too. His feet were squelching in sodden shoes and his hands were numb with cold.
‘Let’s get her buried,’ he said.
Ten minutes later, the job done, they headed for the warmth of Jill’s cottage.
‘Have I got any clothes here?’ he asked, the bottoms of his trousers wet and heavy.
She shrugged. ‘Who knows?’
‘Right.’ He wasn’t in the mood for sulks, so he went upstairs to her bedroom, opened the drawer that was unofficially his and found a pair of jeans.
When he joined her in the kitchen, she was fussing Sam, her old tabby cat.
A newspaper on the table was open at the racing page and he could see where she’d written the results and the betting odds. A large cardboard box with ‘Decorations’ scrawled on the lid offered an unwelcome reminder that Christmas was less than three weeks away.
‘You OK?’ he asked.
‘Fine. And thanks for burying her.’
He couldn’t put it off any longer.
‘Jill, she didn’t die from natural causes.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Someone had – she’d been hanged. By the front door.’
‘She’d been what?’
She was furious, yes. She was shocked, too. Yet, there was something else.
‘Any ideas?’ he asked curiously.
‘No.’ Short and to the point. ‘But if I lay my hands on the bastard—’
‘Not a clue?’
‘No.’ She shoved her hands in the back pockets of her jeans. ‘Although I have had a couple of odd phone calls.’
‘Oh for – What sort of odd? When? And how many?’
‘Only two. Both late at night, early hours of the morning. The first time, he didn’t say anything. Last time, that was Friday night, he laughed and said I’m coming to get you.’
‘And you didn’t think to mention it?’
‘I just did.’
‘And you still leave the bloody door unlocked? Christ, why not put up a sign? All lunatics welcome.’
She sighed at that. ‘I usually do lock it.’
‘Right, we need to look into it. Your job’s like mine. You help put people behind bars. They bear grudges.’
That wasn’t news to her.
‘We need to see who’s been released from prison recently—’ he began, only to be cut off.
‘I’ve looked. There’s no one.’
‘Then we’ll look somewhere else.’ What a bloody day! ‘Is there anything alcoholic here?’
‘Red wine. And white. Brandy, too, I think.’
There was a god. He was playing some cruel practical jokes at the moment, but at least there was booze.
He went to the cupboard and chose a decent bottle of red.
She put two glasses on the table and he filled them both.
‘Thanks.’ She took a large swallow.
Max took an equally large one, then reached into his pockets for his cigarettes. He’d given up really, and had only bought a packet for emergency use. He lit one, then looked around for an ashtray.
With a sigh that would have measured a good three on the Richter Scale, she took a heavy glass ashtray from the cupboard and banged it down on the table.
‘You don’t mind me smoking, do you?’
‘I don’t have to, do I?’
He thought of extinguishing it, but changed his mind. As he was already in the doghouse, he may as well get his money’s worth.
‘This isn’t a social call,’ he said.
‘I didn’t think it would be.’
He let that go.
‘Have you heard about the body found at the back of here?’
‘What? God, I saw several patrol cars in the village, but I didn’t know—’
‘You’re currently living near a crime scene. There’s an axe murderer on the loose.’
He saw a brief flicker of impatient amusement. He wasn’t surprised. Axe murderers had become something of a joke. They didn’t exist.
‘I know, I know,’ he said. ‘In all my years as a copper, I’ve never known anyone to be murdered with an axe. Until now.’
‘You’re joking.’ She dropped down into a chair. ‘You’re not, are you?’
‘Sadly not. The body of a young woman, late teens or early twenties, was found on the hill at the back of here late yesterday afternoon. We haven’t managed to identify her yet. A white dog was guarding the body so we’re assuming it was hers. She was carrying car and house keys. Other than that, nothing. No ID on her, no mobile phone, the dog wasn’t wearing a collar and it hadn’t been microchipped. But yes, someone killed her with an axe.’
‘Dear God. And when you say at the back of here, where do you mean exactly?’
‘Flat Top Hill. There’s an old stone building, or what’s left of one.’
‘That’s the one.’
‘I know. How can such things happen in lovely, idyllic Kelton? Move to the countryside, eh? Cats hanged and people axed to death.’ He took another swig of wine. ‘Sorry.’
‘Have you found the murder weapon?’
‘It wasn’t lost. It was between the victim’s eyes.’
She pulled the sleeves of her sweater over her hands and hugged herself for warmth.
‘Any ideas?’ she asked.
‘Is she local?’ She shook her head at the stupidity of her question. ‘Late teens or early twenties, you say? What does – did she look like?’
‘Five feet five. Long blonde hair. Wearing jeans and a bright red anorak.’
‘And no one’s been reported missing?’
‘No.’ He extinguished his cigarette. ‘I don’t suppose you’ve heard anything? Seen anything out of the ordinary?’
‘No, but I haven’t been here. I’ve been in Preston all day. Yesterday I was in Manchester and, over the weekend, I was in Liverpool with Mum and Dad.’
Avoiding him, he guessed. Usually, things were good between them. At least, he thought so. He asked her to marry him on a regular basis and she turned him down. They knew where they stood with each other. At the moment, however, things were far from good.
‘Are your parents well?’ he asked.
‘Fine.’ Short and to the point. ‘Who’s in charge of the case? I thought you were still busy looking into the disappearance of Yasmin Smith.’
He was, but the fifteen-year-old had been missing for four months and they’d exhausted all ideas.
‘There’s no one else available,’ he explained. ‘People are either on a training course, in hospital or abroad.’
‘You’re having a bad time of it then,’ she said, her voice heavy with sarcasm. ‘With the shortage of officers, you’ll struggle to make up a decent team.’
‘That’s true,’ he agreed, refusing to rise to the bait.
This atmosphere had hung between them for almost a week now. People believed that Jill, a forensic psychologist, did nothing but build profiles that led the police to criminals. The reality was that she spent much of her time on mundane tasks and staff assessments. As part of this, she had deemed one of his officers, a damn good sergeant in Max’s opinion, unfit for work. Max had made his views clear on that, and she’d sulked ever since. He wondered if sulking was a gender thing, and thought it probably was. Men would have a quick argument over a pint and the whole thing would be forgotten.
Jill’s other cats, Tojo and Rabble, ambled into the room and he watched her make a fuss of them. She’d be keeping a close eye on them in future. The cat flap would be locked at night, he guessed.
‘How busy are you right now?’ he asked.
‘Too busy. You think people will talk to me because I’m local, but you’re wrong. I’m still considered an outsider and I’m too close to the force. Besides,’ she added, and he could see her chest rising and falling with anger, ‘you’ve made it quite clear you don’t trust my judgement.’
‘I didn’t say I didn’t trust your judgement. I merely—’
‘If you’d told me you had no faith in my professional opinion, that would have been one thing. But, oh no. You have to tell everyone else at the blasted nick!’
‘Everyone else’ was an exaggeration. In Max’s opinion, DS Clive White was a damn good officer and keeping him away from a job he loved was ludicrous. If Jill had been within earshot when Max found out, he would have voiced his feelings to her face. As it was, he’d had to content himself with a few choice expletives that had been overheard by half a dozen officers. Unfortunately, word had flown round headquarters in record time.
‘Will you help, please?’ he asked. ‘We’re going to be speaking to everyone in Kelton. I could do with you along.’
‘If I can spare the time,’ she replied grudgingly. ‘I’ve got a few radio interviews coming up.’
And that was another thing that niggled. As well as being a damn good forensic psychologist, she wrote self-help books. She was getting a name for herself and her books were growing more popular. It took up too much of her time. Not that Max was going to say so at the moment.
‘And I’m in court tomorrow,’ she reminded him. ‘Expert witness on the Jason Lyle case.’
Damn, he’d forgotten that.
‘That’s fine,’ he lied. ‘If you can spare some time, I’d be grateful.’
She acknowledged that with a slight inclination of her head.
‘Look,’ he began, ‘I’m sorry, OK? I was angry. If you’d been anywhere near when I found out you’d declared Clive White unfit to do his job, I would have bent your ear. But you weren’t. I was angry, and I’m sorry. You shouldn’t have heard what I thought about it from someone else.’
‘Good God, pigs
fly and Trentham
know how to apologize. Apology accepted,’ she said, adding, ‘even if it only came because you want my help and realize it’s time to grovel.’