Authors: Lindsay Jayne Ashford
The author and publisher have provided this e-book to you for your personal use only. You may not make this e-book publicly available in any way.
Copyright infringement is against the law. If you believe the copy of this e-book you are reading infringes on the author's copyright, please notify the publisher at:
For all those who have been wrongly accused
Thanks to my editor, Janet Thomas, whose help and advice was invaluable. Also to Nicola Craddock at Honno for her unwavering encouragement and support. Last, but not least, to Kevin for those long walks on the beach when everything fell into place.
Delva Lobelo had never got used to going into the houses of the dead. Wheedling her way into the confidence of the bereaved, exploiting their grief, was not something she had ever felt good about. It was her job, of course, but not part of it she enjoyed. Last Thursday night the flock of professional vultures who thrived on every morsel of misery they could claw from a scene of death had gathered here. She wondered how they would take the news that she had been granted sole access.
She was early. Too early. Sitting in her car in the quiet cul-de-sac she glanced at the blue-and-white police tape stretching across the front garden. It was the only distinctive feature of this anonymous house on a sprawling estate so bland that strangers could drive around for hours without realising they had passed the same spot half a dozen times.
The white PVC windows were blinkered by hastily drawn curtains. Delva noticed that the ones in the living room overlapped at an untidy angle. That was not the way Tessa Ledbury would have drawn them, she was certain. The neat garden, the white, unscuffed front door â everything else spoke of a woman whose home had been the focus of her life. Even the football stickers and pennants in the upstairs bedroom window were arranged just so.
Delva scanned the houses on either side and turned to look at those further down the road. There was evidence of children in most of them; stickers or mobiles or miniature hammocks bulging with furry toys. But in the gardens, on the drives, there was nothing. It was a warm, sunny morning. Spring Bank Holiday week and half-term for the schools. Bikes and rollerblades and little feet should have been squashing the cherry blossom petals on the pavement. But the blossom lay in plump pink drifts where the breeze had blown it.
Wolverhampton woman stabbed to death
The words of the headline she had read out on Friday's programme flashed through her mind again. There
to be more to it. Delva had reported from enough scenes of violent death to know what sort of reaction could be expected from the neighbours. And keeping kids indoors five days after the event was not something she had ever encountered, even in the sniffiest suburbs.
No, she thought, reaching into the glove compartment for her notebook, there was definitely something the police were holding back. Some gruesome detail had seeped along this self-respecting street like sewage from a cracked pipe. What was it these people knew that made them scared to let their children out of sight?
She glanced down at her skirt, rubbing at a mark she had suddenly noticed on the black fabric. She hated this suit. Her mother had once told her she looked like a skinny crow in black. And she was probably right, Delva thought, glancing at the sleeve of her jacket against the dark brown skin of her wrist.
The sound of a car made her look up and at the same moment she caught a flicker of movement from across the street. A curtain falling back. Someone had been watching her. Wondering what she was doing here.
The car drew to a halt behind hers and she watched in the mirror, waiting for the doors to open. Terry Bond got out of the driver's seat. He was the press office boss at West Midlands Police H.Q. in Birmingham and she had met him many times before. The man in the passenger seat was Detective Superintendent Steve Foy. For a minute or two the men stood glancing at each other over the roof of the car. Then one of the back doors opened and Delva caught a side view of a woman with black hair. For a split second she thought it was Megan Rhys. She had been half expecting her to be in on the interview. At the press conference on Friday Foy had mentioned the possibility of bringing in a profiler.
But as the woman turned face-on to the mirror Delva saw she looked nothing like Megan. Probably a plain clothes policewoman, Delva thought, watching her frown at Foy and give a quick shake of her head as she walked round to the back passenger door. Opening it she bent down, her head level with that of the other person inside the car. The husband. Delva could tell from the woman's posture and the way her head moved that she was trying to persuade him to come out. Richard Ledbury was obviously having second thoughts.
Delva sat rigid in her seat, not sure what to do. If she opened her door and got out now it might put him off completely. On the other hand she had often found that the sight of her face â a face from the television â had an unexpected effect on the bereaved. Many times she had gone to a house, steeling herself for a barrage of abuse, only to be invited in and plied with endless cups of tea while a shell-shocked relative poured their heart out. It was almost as if they were grateful that someone was taking an interest. Delva had never really understood it. She was sure that if anyone in her family met a tragic death a journalist would be the last person she would want to talk to.
She put out her hand to open the door but as she did so she caught sight of Steve Foy coming towards the car. He tapped on the window. She pressed the button to open it and he leaned in, pursing his lips before whispering a suggestion.
âI think perhaps if
were to askâ¦' His words sent puffs of peppermint breath wafting into the car.
The slam of the door seemed to ricochet between the silent houses like a bullet. She followed Foy along the pavement. Standing on the podium at the press conference he had seemed taller. Skinny Crow meets Little Red Rooster, she thought, looking down at the carrot-coloured mop that had defied a liberal application of hair gel.
âRichard, this is Delva Lobeloâ¦'
Delva tried a smile that was a mixture of friendliness and concern. She sometimes practised such faces in the mirror at home, although she would never have admitted it. It was one thing doing them in a mirror. Doing them in real life was incredibly difficult. The news editor had told her she looked too happy when she was was doing serious stories. Too bubbly, he'd said. And she had been made to feel so self-conscious that now, as she approached the poor, broken man huddled in the car, she felt as if her face were a grotesque mask.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
In a smart guesthouse in Ballsbridge Doctor Megan Rhys was taking a shower. Over the course of the weekend her olive skin had turned nut brown in the unexpectedly hot Spring sunshine. On her back a pale cross marked the place where the straps of a red silk sundress had been. She reached for the shampoo, unaware that as she did so the contents of her handbag were being emptied onto the bed in her room. Patrick van Zeller grabbed the tiny silver mobile phone as it slid onto the rumpled sheets. With one eye on the bathroom door, he erased the messages without listening to them.
âCould you pass me a towel?' Megan called, her hand groping the empty rail. âI think there's one on the back of the chair.'
Seeing her head emerge in a cloud of steam Patrick shoved the mobile back into the bag along with the lipsticks, pens and assorted junk.
If Megan had seen what he was doing she would have flipped. No doubt about it. But really, he thought as he grabbed the towel and whipped back the shower curtain, she ought to thank him for it.
âDon't s'pose we've got time for a quickie before breakfast?' he murmured, breathing in the coconut scent of her long black hair as he nibbled the wet skin of her shoulder.
âNo, only joking,' he said, wrapping the towel around her. âI've got one final treat lined up â we've just about got time before the flight.'
âDon't tell me,' she said, âCoffee and cream cakes at Fitzer's? Lunch at Peacock Alley?' The tiny diamond stud in her nose glinted as she cocked her head.
âNot quite.' He grabbed her Rough Guide and flicked through the pages. âThere we are,' he said, handing it to her.
âKilmainham Jail?' She stared at him, open-mouthed.
âDon't worry, you'll love it,' he said, snatching the book back. âWe're going to see an exhibition about the chap who invented hanging.'
âAre you mad?' Megan threw a pillow at him and he ducked.
âWell, that's not strictly true,' he said, throwing back the underwear she had laid out on the bed. âHe actually invented the modern method of hanging. Saved the poor buggers from choking to death.' He gave her a wicked grin. âCome on,' he said, âDon't want want to miss breakfast, do you?'
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
âThis isÂ â¦ wasÂ â¦ her on our wedding day.' Richard Ledbury handed Delva a large photograph in a heavy gilt frame.
âShe's beautiful,' Delva said, trying to make her voice chatty and natural. It wasn't a lie. The face staring up at her would not have looked out of place on the cover of
âIt was our anniversary last Monday.' He took it back and stared out of the conservatory window. âShe bought me a sundial. Can you see it?'
Delva stood up and walked deliberately over to the window. There was a loud crackle as the cameraman pegged a blue filter across one of his lights. And he was humming. Humming, for God's sake! Delva couldn't believe they'd sent Barry Hudson to do this job. Of all the insensitive, wise-cracking jerks she had ever had the misfortune to work with, Barry had to be the absolute worst. He was taking forever to set up. And Richard Ledbury was a hair's breadth from cracking up again, she could tell.
âWhat a lovely garden,' she said, trying to lighten the atmosphere. As she spotted the pretty sundial in the middle of the manicured lawn a songthrush flew down and perched on its rim.
âOh, look at that,' she said, thankful of a means of avoiding the inevitable platitude about his wife's gift.
He rose from the wicker armchair by instinct, but his glazed look seemed to melt momentarily when he saw the bird.
âI can understand why you wanted to do the interview in here,' she said, careful not to look at him directly. âIt's a lovely room. So peaceful.' Barry's humming was getting louder and she willed him with all her might to stop.
âYes,' Richard said. âTessa spent a lot of time in here. It was her idea to build it. I tried to put her off but really I think it's the nicest room in the house.'
Delva heard the trembling in his voice as he spoke the last few words. She put out her hand to touch his shoulder and as she did so she noticed traces of fingerprint powder on the window frame a few inches from her face. Was this where the killer had got in? She cast a quick sideways glance at Richard Ledbury. If it was, he couldn't know, surely? Masking the movement by pretending to cough, she shifted her body so that her shoulder concealed the telltale grey residue.