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Authors: Minette Walters

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The Ice House

BOOK: The Ice House
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The Ice House
Minette Walters

When a rotting, unidentified corpse is discovered it marks the beginning of a nightmare murder investigation for the three women living there. But is it the beginning? Or does the body lying in the ice-house mean that the police can close an old file?

Minette Walters

 

The Ice House

Revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more man's nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out.
-Francis Bacon

O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us

To see oursels as others see us!

It wad frae mony a blunder free us,

And foolish notion.

– Robert Burns, "To a Louse"

 

Southern Evening Herald -23rd March

GROWING POLICE ANXIETY

 

Following intensive questioning at airports, docks and ferry terminals in the search for the missing businessman, David Maybury, police have expressed concern for his welfare. "It is now ten days since he vanished," said Inspector Walsh, the detective in charge of the investigation, "and we cannot rule out the possibility of foul play." Police efforts are being concentrated on a thorough search of Streech Grange Estate and the surrounding farmland.

There have been numerous reported sightings of the missing man over the past week, but none that could be substantiated. David Maybury, 44, was wearing a charcoal-grey pinstripe suit on the night he vanished. He is 5'10" tall, of average build, with dark hair and eyes.

 

Sun -15th April

TO THE MANOR BURIED

 

Mrs. Phoebe Maybury, 27, beautiful red-haired wife of missing businessman David Maybury, looked on in fury as police dug up her garden in their search for her husband. Mrs. Maybury, an avid gardener herself, declared: "This house has been in my family for years and the garden is the product of several generations. The police have no business to destroy it."

Reliable sources say that David Maybury, 44, was in financial difficulties shortly before he disappeared. His wine business, funded by his wife and run from the cellars of her house, was virtually bankrupt. Friends talk of constant rows between the couple. Police are treating his disappearance as murder.

 

Daily Telegraph -9th August

POLICE TEAM DISBANDED

 

Police admitted last night to being baffled over the disappearance of Hampshire man, David Maybury. In spite of a long and thorough investigation, no trace of him has been found, and the team involved in the enquiry has been disbanded. The file will remain open, according to police sources, but there is little confidence in solving the mystery. "The public has been very helpful," said a police spokesman. "We have built a clear picture of what happened the night he vanished, but until we find his body, there's little more we can do."

1

"Fred Phillips is
running
." Anne Cattrell's remark burst upon the silence of that August afternoon like a fart at a vicar's tea-party.

Startled, her two companions looked up, Diana from her sketch-pad, Phoebe from her gardening book, their eyes watering at this abrupt transition from the printed page to brilliant sunlight. They had sat in contented stillness for an hour, grouped about a wrought-iron table on the terrace of their house where the wreckage of a lazy tea jostled with the flotsam of their professional lives: a pair of secateurs, an open paint-box, pages of manuscript, one with a circular tea stain where Anne had dumped a cup without thinking.

Phoebe was perched on an upright chair at right angles to the table, crossed ankles tucked neatly beneath her, red hair corkscrewing in flaming whorls about her shoulders. Her position was hardly changed from half an hour previously when she had finished her tea and guiltily buried her nose in her book instead of returning to the greenhouse to finish off a bulk order for five hundred Ivyleaf Pelargonium cuttings. Diana, unashamedly glistening with Ambre Solaire, reclined on a sun-lounger, the pleated skirt of her printed cotton dress spilling Over the sides and brushing the flagstones. One elegant hand toyed with the underbelly of the Labrador lying beside her, the other drew swirling doodles in the margin of her sketch-pad which should have been filled-but was not-with commissioned designs for a cottage interior in Fowey. Anne, who had been struggling between intermittent dozes to conjure up a thousand words on "Vaginal Orgasm-Fact or Fiction" for an obscure magazine, was drawn up tight against the table, chin on hands, dark eyes staring down the long vista of landscaped garden in front of her.

Phoebe glanced at her briefly then turned to follow her gaze, peering over her spectacles across the wide expanse of lawn. "Good lord!" she exclaimed.

Her gardener, a man of massive proportions, was pounding across the grass, naked to the waist, his huge belly lapping at his trousers like some monstrous tidal wave. The semi-nudity was surprising enough, for Fred held strong views about his position at Streech Grange. Among other things, this required Phoebe to whistle a warning of her approach in the garden so that he might clothe himself suitably for what he referred to as a parley-vous, even in the heat of summer.

"Perhaps he's won the pools," suggested Diana, but without conviction, as the three women watched his rapidly slowing advance.

"Highly unlikely," countered Anne, pushing her chair away from the table. "Fred's inertia would demand a more powerful stimulus than filthy lucre to prompt this bout of activity."

They watched the rest of Fred's approach in silence. He was walking by the time he reached the terrace. He paused for a moment, leaning one hand heavily on the low wall bordering the flagstones, catching his breath. There was a tinge of grey to the weathered cheeks, a rasp in his throat. Concerned, Phoebe gestured to Diana to pull forward a vacant chair, then she stood up, took Fred's arm and helped him into it.

"Whatever's happened?" she asked anxiously.

"Oh, madam, something awful." He was sweating profusely, unable to get the words out quickly. Perspiration ran in streams over his fat brown breasts, soft and round like a woman's, and the smell was all-pervading, consuming the sweet scent of the roses which nodded in beds at the edge of the terrace. Aware of this and of his nakedness, he wrung his hands in embarrassment. "I'm so sorry, madam."

Diana swung her legs off the lounger and sat up, twitching a rug off the back of her chair and placing it neatly across his shoulders. "You should keep yourself warm after a run like that, Fred."

He wrapped the rug around him, nodding his appreciation. "What's happened, Fred?" Phoebe asked again.

"I don't rightly know how to say it"-she thought she saw compassion in his eyes-"but it's got to be told."

"Then tell me," she prompted gently. "I'm sure it can't be that bad." She glanced at Benson, the golden Labrador, still lying placidly by Diana's chair. "Has Hedges been run over?"

He reached out a rough, mud-caked hand from between the folds of the rug and with a familiarity that was quite out of character placed it on hers and squeezed gently. The gesture was as brief as it was unexpected. "There's a body in the old ice house, madam."

There was a moment's silence. "A body?" echoed Phoebe. "What sort of body?" Her voice was unemotional, steady.

Anne flicked a glance in her direction. There were times, she thought, when her friend's composure frightened her.

"To tell you the truth, madam, I didn't look too close. It was a shock, coming on it the way I did." He stared unhappily at his feet. "Stepped on it, like, before I saw it. There was a bit of a smell afterwards." They all looked in fascination at his gardening boots and he, regretting his impulsive statement, shuffled them awkwardly out of sight under the rug. "It's all right, madam," he said, "wiped them on the grass soon as I could."

The cup and saucer in Phoebe's hand rattled and she put them carefully on the table beside her secateurs. "Of course you did, Fred. How thoughtful of you. Would you like some tea? A cake perhaps?" she asked him.

"No, thank you, madam."

Diana turned away, suppressing an awful desire to laugh. Only Phoebe, she thought, of all the women she knew would offer cake in such circumstances. In its way it was admirable, for Phoebe, more than any of them, would be affected by Fred's shocking revelation.

Anne scrabbled among the pages of her manuscript in search of her cigarettes. With an abrupt movement she flicked the box open and offered it to Fred. He glanced at Phoebe for a permission he didn't need and she nodded gravely. "Thank you kindly, Miss Cattrell. My nerves are that shook up."

Anne lit it for him, holding his hand steady with hers. "Let's get this straight, Fred," she said, her dark eyes searching his. "It's a person's dead body. Is that right?"

"That's right, Miss Cattrell."

"Do you know who it is?"

"I can't say I do, miss." He spoke with reluctance. "I can't say anyone will know who it is." He drew deeply on his cigarette, the sweat of suppressed nausea breaking out on his forehead. "The truth is, from the quick look I had, there's not much of it left. It must have been there a while."

The three women looked at him aghast. "But surely it's got clothes on, Fred?" Diana asked nervously. "At least you know if it's a man or woman."

"No clothes that I could see, Mrs. Goode."

"You'd better show me." Phoebe stood up with sudden decision and Fred rose awkwardly to his feet. "I'd rather not, madam. You shouldn't see it. I don't want to take you down there."

"Then I'll go on my own." She smiled suddenly and laid a hand on his arm. "I'm sorry but I have to see it. You do understand that, don't you, Fred?"

He stubbed out his cigarette and pulled the rug tighter about his shoulders. "If you're that intent on going, I'll come with you. It's not something you should see alone."

"Thank you." She turned to Diana. "Will you phone the police for me?"

"Of course."

Anne pushed her chair back. "I'll come with you," she told Phoebe. Then she called after Diana as she followed the other two across the grass. "You might lay on some brandy, I'll be needing some, even if no one else does."

 

They grouped themselves in a nervous huddle a few yards from the entrance to the ice house. It was an unusual structure, designed and built in the eighteenth century to resemble a small hillock. Its function as an ice-store had ceased years ago with the advent of the refrigerator, and Nature had reasserted her dominion over it so that ranks of nettles marched in their hundreds around the base, making a natural fusion between the man-made dome and the solid earth. The only entrance, a wide low doorway, was set into the ice-house wall at the end of an overgrown pathway. The doorway, too, had long since lost itself in a mass of tangled brambles which grew over it in a thorny curtain from above and below. It was revealed now only because Fred had hacked and trampled the curtain aside to reach it.

A lighted torch lay abandoned on the ground at their feet. Phoebe picked it up. "What made you go in there?" she asked Fred. "We haven't used it for years."

He pulled a face. "I wish I hadn't, madam, God knows. What the eye doesn't see, the heart doesn't grieve over and that's a fact. I've been repairing the kitchen garden wall, where it collapsed a week ago. Half the bricks are unusable-I understood, when I saw the state of them, why the wall collapsed. Handful of dust, some of them. Anyway, I thought of the bricks we stored in here some years back, the ones from the outhouse we demolished. You said: 'Hang on to the good ones, Fred, you never know when we might need them for repairs.' "

"I remember."

"So I wanted to use them for the wall."

"Of course. You had to cut the brambles away?"

He nodded. "I couldn't see the door, it was that overgrown." He pointed to a scythe lying to one side of the ice house. "I used that and my boots to reach it."

"Come on," said Anne suddenly. "Let's get it over with. Talking isn't going to make it any easier."

"Yes," said Phoebe quietly. "Does the door open any wider, Fred?"

"It does, madam. I had it full open before I stepped on what's in there. Pulled it to as far as I could when I left in case anyone came by." He pursed his lips. "To tell you the truth, it's wider now than when I left it."

He walked forward reluctantly and, with a sudden movement, kicked the door. It swung open on creaking hinges. Phoebe crouched and shone the torch into the interior, bathing the contents with warm golden light. It wasn't so much the blackened and eyeless corpse that caused her to vomit, as the sight of Hedges rolling quietly and purposefully in the decomposing remains of the bowels. He came out with his tail between his legs and lay on the grass watching her, head between paws, as she heaved her tea on to the grass.

2

Silverborne Police Station, a modern triumph of polished chrome features and sealed tinted windows, baked in the sun amid its more traditional neighbours. Inside, the air-conditioning had broken down again and as the hours passed and the atmosphere overheated so did the policemen. They grew sticky and squabbled amongst themselves like young children. Those who could, got out; those who couldn't, jealously guarded their electric fans and prayed for a quick end to their shift. For Detective Chief Inspector Walsh, sweating profusely over some paperwork in his office, the order to take a team to Streech Grange came like a miraculous breath of air through the sealed windows. He whistled happily to himself as he made his way to the briefing room. But for Detective Sergeant McLoughlin, detailed to assist him, the knowledge that he was going to miss opening time and the cold lager he'd promised himself was the last straw.

Diana heard the approaching cars before the others. She finished her brandy and put the glass on the sideboard. "Fingers out, girls. Here they come."

Phoebe walked over to the mantelpiece, her face abnormally white against the vivid red hair. She was a tall woman who was rarely seen out of checked shirts and old Levis. But on her return from the ice house she had taken the trouble to change into a long-sleeved, high-collared silk dress. There was no doubting she looked at home in the elegant room with its pastel shades and draped velvet curtains but, to Anne at least, she had the air of a stranger. She smiled distantly at her two friends. "I'm terribly sorry about this."

Anne, as usual, was chain-smoking. She blew a stream of grey into the air above her where she sat on the sofa, head resting against the back. "Don't be a fool," she said bluntly. "No one's going to hold you responsible because some idiot chooses to die on your property. There'll be a simple explanation: a tramp took shelter and had a heart attack."

"My thoughts precisely," said Diana, walking to the sofa. "Give me a cigarette, there's a dear. My nerves are like piano wires, waiting for a Rachmaninov concerto to hit them."

Anne chuckled and handed over the packet. "Do you want one, Pheeb?"

She shook her head and started to polish her spectacles on her skirt hem, absent-mindedly lifting it to waist level and revealing her lack of knickers. Anne found the vagueness of the gesture reassuring.

"There won't be any glass left if you go on doing that," she pointed out gently.

Phoebe sighed, dropped her skirt and put the spectacles back on. "Tramps don't have heart attacks on other people's property in the nude," she said.

The doorbell rang. They heard Molly Phillips, Fred's wife, walk to the front door and without a word, indeed quite by instinct, Anne and Diana positioned themselves on either side of the mantelpiece, flanking Phoebe. As the door opened it occurred to Diana that this might not have been a wise move. To the police mind, she feared, they would seem not so much to be supporting her-the intention-as guarding her.

Molly ushered in two men. "Chief Inspector Walsh and Detective Sergeant McLoughlin, madam. There's a whole lot more outside. Shall I ask Fred to keep an eye on them?"

"No, that's all right, Molly. I'm sure they'll behave themselves."

"If you say so, madam. Me, I'm not so sure. They've already scuffed their great clumsy feet over the gravel where Fred raked it so careful this morning." She glared accusingly at the two men.

"Thank you, Molly. Perhaps you could make tea for everyone. I'm sure it will be welcome."

"Right you are, madam." The housekeeper closed the door behind her and stomped off down the corridor towards the kitchen.

George Walsh listened till her footsteps died away, then he came forward and held out his hand. He was a thin stooping man who had a bizarre habit of jerking his head from side to side, like a sufferer from Parkinson's disease. It gave him an appearance of vulnerability that was deceptive.

"Good afternoon, Mrs. Maybury. We've met before, if you remember." He could recall her vividly as she had been that first time, standing where she was now. Ten years, he thought, and she had hardly changed, still the lady of the manor, remote and aloof in the security of her position. The dramas of those years might never have been. There was certainly no evidence in the calm, unlined face which smiled at him now. There was a quality of stillness about her that was unnatural. The village called her a witch, and he had always understood why.

Phoebe shook his hand. "Yes, I do remember. It was your first big case." Her voice was low-pitched, attractive. "You had just been made Detective Inspector, I think. I don't believe you've met my friends, Miss Cattrell and Mrs. Goode." She gestured to Anne and Diana who shook hands solemnly in turn with the Chief Inspector. "They live here now."

Walsh studied the two women with interest. "Permanently?" he asked.

"Most of the time," said Diana, "when our work doesn't take us away. We're both self-employed. I'm an interior designer, Anne's a freelance journalist."

Walsh nodded, but Anne could see that Diana had told him nothing he didn't already know. "I envy you." He spoke the truth. He had coveted Streech Grange since the first time he had seen it.

Phoebe put out her hand to the other man. "Good afternoon, Sergeant McLoughlin. May I introduce Mrs. Goode and Miss Cattrell."

He was in his mid thirties, of an age with the women, a dark, brooding man with cold eyes. In the twist of his lips, he had brought with him the irritability of the Police Station, concentrated, malignant. He regarded Phoebe and her friends with weary contempt and paid lip-service to etiquette by brushing their fingers with his in the briefest of exchanges. His dislike, uncalled-for, slapped against their unprotected cheeks.

To the consternation of her friends, who could feel the vibrations of her anger, Anne rose recklessly to the challenge. "My, my, Sergeant, what
have
you been hearing about us?" She lifted a sardonic eyebrow then deliberately wiped her fingers down her Levis. "You're scarcely off your mother's breast, so won't have been around the last time the Grange was the centre of police attention. Let me guess now. Our reputation-" she indicated herself and the other two women-"has preceded us. Which of our widely talked-about activities upsets you the most, I wonder? Child abuse, witchcraft or lesbianism?" She searched his face with scornful eyes. "Lesbianism," she murmured. "Yes, you would find that the most threatening but, then, it's the only one that's true, isn't it?"

McLoughlin's temper, already fired by the heat of the day, nearly erupted. He breathed deeply. "I've nothing against dykes, Miss Cattrell," he said evenly. "I just wouldn't stick my finger in one, that's all."

Diana stubbed out her cigarette with rather more violence than was necessary. "Don't tease the poor man, Anne," she said dryly. "He's going to need all his wits to sort out the mess in the ice house."

Stiffly, Phoebe took the seat nearest her and gestured the others to sit down. Walsh sat in the chair opposite her, Anne and Diana on the sofa, leaving McLoughlin to perch on a delicate tapestry stool. His discomfort, as he folded his long legs awkwardly beneath him, was obvious to all.

"Take care you don't break that, Sergeant," snapped Walsh. "I don't like clumsiness any more than the housekeeper does. Well now, Mrs. Maybury, perhaps you'd like to tell us why you called us out."

"I thought Mrs. Goode explained it on the telephone."

He fished a piece of paper from his pocket. " 'Body in ice house, Streech Grange. Discovered at 4:35 p.m.' Not much of an explanation, is it? Tell me what happened."

"That's it, really. Fred Phillips, my gardener, found the body about that time and came and told us. Diana phoned you while Fred took Anne and me to look at it."

"So you've seen it?"

"Yes."

"Who is it? Do you know?"

"The body's unrecognisable."

With an abrupt movement, Anne lit another cigarette. "It's putrid, Inspector, black, disgusting.
No one
would know who it was." She spoke impatiently, her deep voice clipping the words short.

Walsh nodded. "I see. Did your gardener suggest you look at the body?"

Phoebe shook her head. "No, he suggested I shouldn't. I insisted on going."

"Why?"

She shrugged. "Natural curiosity, I suppose. Wouldn't you have gone?"

He was silent for a moment. "
Is
it your husband, Mrs. Maybury?"

"I've already told you the body is unrecognisable."

"Did you insist on going because you thought it
might
be your husband?"

"Of course. But I've realised since it couldn't possibly be."

"Why is that?"

"It was something Fred said. He reminded me that we stored some bricks in the ice house about six years ago when we demolished an old outhouse. David had been gone four years by that time."

"His body was never found. We never traced him," Walsh reminded her. "Perhaps he came back."

Diana laughed nervously. "He couldn't come back, Inspector. He's dead. Murdered."

"How do you know, Mrs. Goode?"

"Because he'd have been back long before this if he wasn't. David always knew which side his bread was buttered."

Walsh crossed his legs and smiled. "The case is still open.
We've
never been able to prove he was murdered."

Diana's face was suddenly grim. "Because you concentrated all your energies on trying to pin the murder on Phoebe. You gave up when you couldn't prove it. You never made any attempt to ask me for a list of suspects. I could have given you a hundred likely names; Anne could have given you another hundred. David Maybury was the most out-and-out bastard who ever lived. He deserved to die." She wondered if she had overdone it and glanced briefly at Phoebe. "Sorry, love, but if more people had said it ten years ago, things might have been less hard for you."

Anne nodded agreement. "You'll waste a lot of time if you think that thing out there is David Maybury." She stood up and walked over to sit on the arm of Phoebe's chair. "For the record, Inspector, both Diana and I helped clear years of accumulated rubbish out of the ice house before Fred stacked the bricks in it. There were no corpses in there six years ago. Isn't that right, Di?"

Diana looked amused and inclined her head. "It wouldn't have been the place to look for him, anyway. He's at the bottom of the sea somewhere, food for crabs and lobsters." She looked at McLoughlin. "Are you partial to crabs, Sergeant?"

Walsh intervened before McLoughlin could say anything. "We followed up every known contact or associate Mr. Maybury had. There was no evidence to connect any of them with his disappearance."

Anne tossed her cigarette into the fireplace. "Balls!" she exclaimed amiably. "I'll tell you something, you never questioned me either and in my list of a hundred possible suspects
I
should have featured in the top ten."

"You're quite mistaken, Miss Cattrell." Inspector Walsh was unruffled. "We went into your background very thoroughly. At the time of Mr. Maybury's disappearance, in fact throughout most of our investigation, you were camped with your lady friends on Greenham Common under the eyes not only of the guards at the American Air Force base but also of the Newbury police and assorted television cameras. It was quite an alibi."

"You're right. I'd forgotten. Touche, Inspector." She chuckled. "I was researching a feature for one of the colour supplements." Out of the corner of her eye, she saw McLoughlin's lips thin to a disapproving line. "But, hell, it was fun," she went on in a dreamy voice. "That camp is the best thing that's ever happened to me."

Frowning, Phoebe laid a restraining hand on her arm and stood up. "This is all irrelevant. Until you've examined the body, it seems to me quite pointless to speculate on whether or not it's David's. If you care to come with me, gentlemen, I will show you where it is."

"Let Fred do it," Diana protested.

"No. He's had enough shocks for one day. I'm all right. Could you make sure Molly's organising the tea?"

She opened the French windows and led the way on to the terrace. Benson and Hedges roused themselves from the warm flagstones and pushed their noses into her hand. Hedges's fur was still fluffy from his bath. She paused to stroke his head gently and pull his ears. "There's one thing I really ought to tell you, Inspector," she said.

Anne, watching from inside the drawing-room, gave a gurgle of laughter. "Phoebe's confessing to Hedges's little peccadillo and the Sergeant's turned green around the gills."

Diana pushed herself out of the sofa and walked towards her. "Don't underestimate him, Anne," she said. "You're such a fool sometimes. Why do you always have to antagonise people?"

"I don't. I simply refuse to kowtow to their small-minded conventions. If they feel antagonised that's their problem. Principles should never be compromised. The minute they are, they cease to be principles."

"Maybe, but you don't have to shove them down reluctant throats. A little common sense wouldn't come amiss at the moment. We do have a dead body on the premises. Or had you forgotten?" Her voice was more anxious than ironic.

Anne turned away from the window. "You're probably right," she agreed meekly.

"So you'll be careful?"

"I'll be careful."

Diana frowned. "I
do
wish I understood you. I never have, you know."

Affection surged in Anne as she studied her friend's worried face. Poor old Di, she thought, how she hated all this. She should never have come to Streech. Her natural environment was an ivory tower where visitors were vetted and unpleasantness unheard of. "You have no problem understanding me," she pointed out lightly, "you have a problem
agreeing
with me. My petty anarchies offend your sensibilities. I often wonder why you go along with them."

Diana walked to the door. "Which reminds me, next time you want me to lie for you, warn me first, will you? I'm not as good at controlling my facial muscles as you are."

"Nonsense," said Anne, dropping into an armchair. "You're the most accomplished liar I know."

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