Authors: Deborah Crombie
Tags: #Fiction, #General
Kincaid couldn’t help remembering the hours he’d spent on similar theorizing when he and Vic had first been married, and how utterly disinterested she’d been in his cases. It had been understandable, he supposed, as he’d been new to homicide then, and fascinated with it to the point of boring even the most patient listener. “Why not?” he asked mildly.
Vic slid her feet to the floor and sat forwards. “Both early suicide attempts coincided with long periods where she seemed unable to work. I think Lydia was truly happy only when she was writing, and writing well. If her personal problems coincided with a dry spell, she had difficulty coping, and I believe that’s what happened after the breakup of her marriage. But as she grew older she seemed more and more content alone. If she had a serious relationship in the last ten years of her life, I’ve not been able to discover it.”
“And was she suffering writer’s block before she died?” Kincaid asked, finding himself intrigued.
“No.” Vic put her cup on the side table and rubbed her palms together as if her hands were cold. “That’s it, you see. When she died, she was in the process of editing the manuscript of a new book, the best thing she had ever done. The poems have such depth and richness—it’s as if she suddenly discovered another dimension to herself.”
“Maybe that was it,” Kincaid suggested. “There was nowhere left for her to go.”
Vic shook her head. “At first I considered that a possibility, but the better I know her, the less likely it seems. I think she’d found her stride at last. She could have done so much more, given so much—”
“Vic.” Kincaid leaned forwards and touched her hand. “You can never be sure what’s in another person’s heart. You know that. Sometimes people just wake up one day and decide they’re tired of life, and they don’t leave behind any explanation at all. Maybe that’s what happened to Lydia.”
She shook her head, more vehemently this time. “That’s not all. Lydia died from an overdose of her own heart medication. Don’t suicides usually keep to the same pattern, escalating the violence if they’re not successful?”
“Sometimes, yes. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s always the case.”
“The first time she slit her wrists in the bath—it was only a friend coming in unexpectedly that saved her. The second time she drove her car into a tree and managed to give herself a serious concussion. Later she said her foot slipped from the accelerator just at the crucial moment. Do you see?”
“The third attempt should have been more violent still?” Kincaid shrugged. “I suppose it’s possible. So what are you suggesting?”
Vic looked away for a moment, then said slowly, “I’m not sure. It sounds so daft in the light of day…”
“Come on, out with it.”
“What if Lydia didn’t kill herself? I know with her history it was a logical assumption, but just think how easy that would have made it for someone else.” Vic stopped the rush of words and took a breath, adding more slowly, “What I’m saying is … I think Lydia might have been murdered.”
In the silence that followed, Kincaid counted to ten in his head.
, he cautioned himself.
Don’t tell her she’s too close, that she’s lost her perspective. Don’t tell her how far people go to deny the suicides of loved ones
—and he had no doubt that Vic felt closer to Lydia Brooke than many did to their own flesh and blood—
and for God’s sake don’t tell her she’s hysterical
. “All right,” he said finally. “Three questions. Why, how, and who?”
Voice rising, Vic said, “I don’t know. I’ve interviewed everyone I could contact, and I can’t even find anyone who had a minor quarrel with her. But it still doesn’t feel right.”
Kincaid drank the dregs of his tea while he considered how to answer. Ten years ago, twelve years ago, he’d been a by-the-book copper, and he probably would have laughed at her suspicions. But he’d learned not to discount intuition, even as unlikely as it sometimes seemed. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s assume for a moment that you’re right, that there is something fishy about Lydia’s death. What is it that you want
Vic smiled, and he saw to his astonishment that her eyes had filled with tears. “I wanted you to tell me I’m not crazy. You can’t imagine what a relief it is just to talk about it.” She hesitated, touching her fingers to her throat. “And then I thought maybe you could look into it a bit…”
Trying to contain his exasperation, he said, “Vic, the case is five years old, and it’s not in my jurisdiction. What could I possibly do? Why don’t you talk to someone on the force here—”
She was already shaking her head. “You’ve got to be kidding. You know perfectly well they’d send me away with a condescending pat on the back and never open the file. They’ve too much to do with gangs and drugs these days to spend time on something like this. Surely there’s something you could do, someone you could talk to, at least open a door for me.”
Kincaid thought of his own caseload, of the scramble for time to spend with Gemma, of his credibility—he’d be an idiot to take this on. Then out of the corner of his eye he saw the photograph, silver-framed on the side table—Vic and her son, and Ian McClellan, smiling into the lens—and he knew he couldn’t refuse her.
Under his breath he muttered, “Oh, bloody hell.” He knew
someone on the Cambridgeshire force, a colleague who’d transferred there, hoping for a less stressful life. Just how far could he impose on past acquaintance? “All right, Vic. I’ll try to get a look at the case file. Just don’t expect miracles, okay? More than likely everything in that file is so clean and aboveboard you could eat off it.”
She gave him a quick smile. “Thanks.”
A crack of thunder made them both jump, and as he looked up, rain began pelting against the window. He glanced at his watch, aware suddenly of the lateness of the hour, and wondered if Gemma would be back from her parents’ and waiting for him. “I’m sorry, Vic,” he began, standing and depositing his cup on the side table with a clink, “I’ve got to—oh, Christ,” he swore as the thought struck him. “I’ve left the bloody top down.”
“You’ll get soaked,” Vic said, jumping up. “I’ll get a brolly and a towel.”
Before he could say, “There’s no time,” she’d slipped out of the room ahead of him, and when he reached the door she had a towel and an old umbrella waiting. He grabbed them and sprinted across the gravel, trying to work the catch on the umbrella as the rain stung his skin. As he reached the car the brolly sprang open with a pop, pinching his finger, and he struggled to hold it with one hand while he wrestled the top up with the other. When the latches clicked into place, he looked down at the towel, now sodden, which he’d dropped on the bonnet, and laughed. He carried it ruefully back to Vic, and after trying unsuccessfully to wring it out with one hand, said, “Sorry.”
“I can’t believe you still have that car,” she said, so close to him now that he could see the faint dark flecks in the irises of her eyes. “You know I always hated it.”
“I know. Here’s your umbrella,” he said, hand on the catch.
“You’ll let me know, won’t you, what you find?” She touched his arm. “And Duncan, that’s not the only reason I called. I owed you something. It’s been eating at me for a long time.”
“It’s okay.” He smiled. “They say time heals all wounds—well, sometimes it even brings a little wisdom. We both had a lot of growing up to do.” He touched his cheek to hers, an instant’s brushing of damp skin, then turned away.
As he eased the car out of the drive he looked back, saw her still standing motionless behind the curtain of rain, watching him.
“You agreed to do what?” Gemma turned and lifted a soapy finger to push a stray wisp of hair from her face. Kincaid had shown up just as she and Toby were sitting down to their tea. Taking Toby on his lap, he’d zoomed carrot sticks into the child’s open mouth with appropriate airplane commentary, but he’d hardly touched anything himself, not even the warm meat pies her mother had sent from the bakery. Nor had he said anything about his day until she had asked him, and then his account of his meeting with Vic had been cursory at best.
“I only said I’d get in touch with an old mate of mine on the Cambridge force, see if I could have a look at the file,” he said now, and it seemed to her that his tone was deliberately casual.
Gemma unstoppered the sink in her cupboard-sized kitchen and dried her hands on a tea towel before she turned. From where she stood she could see Toby in the boxroom that served as his bedroom, rooting in a basket for a favorite picture book Kincaid had promised to read to him. “Why?” she said, trying to pitch her voice low enough so that Toby wouldn’t hear. “Why would you volunteer to do anything for her? This woman walked out on you without a word, without a note, marries another bloke as soon as the ink on the divorce papers is dry, and twelve years later she reappears and wants you to do her a favor? What are you thinking of?”
Kincaid had been sitting on the floor, playing at blocks with Toby. Now he pushed himself to his feet and looked down at her. “It’s not like that—it wasn’t like that at all. You don’t know her. Vic’s a decent person and she’s having a rough time just now, as
certainly should know. What would you have had me do?”
The direct jab stung, but she knew from his tone that she’d ventured into forbidden territory, so she smiled, trying to make light of it. “Oh, tell her to sod off, I suppose. To wherever it is ex-wives are supposed to go and never be heard from again.”
“Don’t be silly, Gemma,” he said, not sounding the least bit amused. “Look, I’ll ring Alec Byrne in Cambridge tomorrow, see if he’ll let me have an unofficial look at Lydia Brooke’s file. Then I’ll
put Vic’s mind to rest, and that will be that. Let’s not quarrel about this, all right?”
“Me found it, Mummy!” shrieked Toby as he came trotting into the sitting room bearing aloft a book in a tattered dust jacket.
He tugged on Duncan’s trouser leg. “Read me it, Duncan. You promised. Read me
, lovey,” corrected Gemma. Toby had developed a strong sense of identification with the little blond boy in Shirley Hughes’s books and demanded the stories so often that Gemma knew them by heart. Kneeling, she took the book from him. “I’ll tell you what, darling. Why don’t you go back in your room and find
, too. Then
read them both to you before bed.” She gave him an encouraging pat on the bottom as she stood and faced Duncan again. “I’m not quarreling,” she said. “You’re being patronizing.”
“You’re making a fuss over nothing, Gemma,” he said, leaning back and propping his hip against the black half-moon table that served as both dining area and worktop in her tiny flat. “You wouldn’t be so upset if I’d agreed to do this for someone else.”
“That’s just too bloody condescending,” she hissed at him. “You wouldn’t have done it for someone else!”
A shadow passed across the uncurtained garden windows, then a moment later came a tap at the door. Gemma took a breath and rubbed at her already flushed cheeks.
“Expecting someone?” Kincaid asked. Arms folded, he looked maddeningly unperturbed.
“It must be Hazel.”
Gemma gave him one last furious look, crossed the room, and slid back the bolt. When Gemma had given up the house she’d shared with her ex-husband and moved into the garage flat in Islington, she’d acquired an unexpected friend in her landlady, Hazel Cavendish, and Toby an ally in her daughter, Holly.
“Hullo, love.” Hazel greeted Gemma with a hug, then brandished a video in one hand while waving at Kincaid with the other. “Hullo, Duncan. We’ve rented
The Lion King
—again—and I thought maybe Toby could watch it with us before bed. And if the kids should happen to fall asleep on the sofa in front of the telly,
we’ll just tuck them up and let them snooze.” She gave Gemma and Duncan a conspiratorial grin.
“You’re too good, Hazel,” said Gemma in an effort to recover a little composure.
“I’m not. You’ve had him out all day and Holly’s pining for him. I can’t bear listening to her whine another second. Humor me.” Hazel crossed the room to Kincaid and gave him a peck on the cheek. “Mmmm, you smell lovely. Nice shirt, too,” she added, rubbing a bit of the sleeve fabric between her thumb and forefinger.
“Thanks, Hazel. I’m sure that’s the nicest thing anyone’s said to me all day.”
It was Gemma’s favorite shirt, a fine-textured dark blue denim that made Kincaid’s gray-blue eyes look uncompromisingly blue. The realization that he’d worn it to visit Vic made her temperature start rising again.
“Auntie Hazel!” Toby darted into the room and clung to Hazel’s leg like a limpet. “Are we going to watch
The Lion King?”
He made growling noises and pranced round them, king of the jungle.
“I suppose you are,” said Gemma, giving in gracefully. “We’ll get no peace otherwise, now.” She tousled his fair hair.
“You, too, Mummy,” he demanded. “You watch, too.”
“No, sweetheart, I—”
“Do, Gemma,” Kincaid broke in. “I’ve got to go, anyway. It’s been a long day, and we’ve an early start in the morning.” He retrieved his jacket from the back of the chair, gave Gemma a quick kiss that just missed the corner of her mouth, then knelt and held out a palm for Toby to slap, saying, “See ya, sport.” At the door he turned back. “’Bye, Hazel. Gemma, see you at the Yard first thing, all right?” He smiled at them and slipped out.
Gemma and Hazel stared at each other as the echo of the door closing died away, then they heard the distant sputter of the Midget’s engine.
“Gemma, love, did I do something wrong?” asked Hazel, frowning. “Put my foot in somehow?”
Gemma shook her head wordlessly, then managed a strangled, “Of all the bloody cheek…”
Assessing the situation, Hazel said, “I think it’s time for a bit of
female bonding. I vote we move the party. What do you say, Gemma?” Seeming to take Gemma’s nod for acquiescence, she shepherded her and Toby out the door.
The garage flat stood at a right angle to the Cavendish’s Victorian house, below and behind its garden. Gemma locked the flat’s yellow door, then they climbed the steps that led up from the garage forecourt. Squeezing through the iron gate, they picked their way along the flagged garden path in the dark, Toby leading as comfortably as a cat. The flat’s windows were now at a level with Gemma’s knees, and glancing down, she could see through the half-open slanted blinds. Empty, the flat looked serene in its simplicity, yet lived in, and with a jab of awareness Gemma realized how much she loved it. To her it represented escape from the conventional, semidetached life she’d been expected to embrace—and independence, for she could afford it without help and without strain.