- Published: 2 July 2021
- ISBN: 9780241426630
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 384
- RRP: $32.99
The Sunday Times Top 5 Bestseller
18 July 2009, Cheltenham, Day One
‘What on earth has Harry got now?’ Maureen Willis asked her husband Rob, pointing to their Border Terrier, which appeared to have found something interesting a little way ahead of them under a bush.
‘Harry. Leave it!’ Rob yelled. He looked back to his wife, with a shrug of resignation. ‘Please don't let it be fox poo. Seven on an already hot morning and we’ll never get the stink off him.’
The couple speeded up to get their dog under control. Rob reached him first and Maureen heard him gasp in horror.
‘What is it?’ she called, panting a little with the exertion of getting her twelve-stone weight up the hill.
Rob had stopped short. Even from a distance Maureen could see, from the way he’d clapped his hand over his mouth, it was something gruesome.
‘Don't come any closer,’ Rob shouted, waving his arms as further warning, then he bent over to put the dog on his lead.
‘What is it?’ she called. Rob looked down at the young girl sprawled on the ground, half under a bush. Her long blonde hair was matted with congealing blood, which also covered her bare arms and clothing. He could tell by her coltish limbs she was no more than twelve or thirteen. His stomach heaved at the savage attack.
Turning away, he said to Maureen, ‘Call the police, love. It’s a child who’s been attacked. I’m pretty certain she’s dead.’
At nine thirty the same morning, Conrad Best drove a hired van loaded with his and his wife Nina’s belongings into Willow Close, and paused, taking in the carefully tended open-plan front gardens, and the serenity of the street. He turned to Nina in the passenger seat. ‘Do you think we could be in swingers’ territory?’
Nina laughed. She could always rely on Conrad to think of something smutty. But she could follow his thinking. In her opinion Willow Close in the bright sunshine was more Stepford Wives than swingers. Everything was perfect, from the neat borders of petunias and busy lizzies to the snowy white nets at sparkling windows, and gleaming, recently washed and waxed cars on drives.
But maybe Conrad had picked up on something else, a darker side to such perfection. Was it possible the residents threw parties where they swapped partners? If so, she hoped they weren’t watching her and Conrad right now with a view to drawing them into it.
‘Just keep that thought to yourself. I want to get on well with my new neighbours,’ she said reprovingly. Conrad had no filter: he was quite likely to come right out and ask someone which people were swingers.
‘It’s so good to finally get a house of our own. Even the sun’s shining today.’
‘And the police have come to welcome us.’ Conrad pointed out a squad car parked just beyond their house. ‘Unless, of course, a swingers party got out of hand?’
‘You always think the worst.’ Nina giggled. ‘They might not be on criminal business. Maybe the policeman lives here and popped home for a coffee.’
Conrad parked the van outside the garage of number three, and looked thoughtfully across the road, where some neighbours had suddenly come out of their houses to get together. ‘Look at that lot. They’ve come out for more than a lost dog or a broken window.’
Nina saw he was right. The body language and facial expressions of the people clustered together suggested they were discussing something distressing.
But the young couple had been dreaming of their own home for so long that their joy wiped out anything else that might be going on. They leapt out of the van gleefully.
They had first viewed the link-detached house back in January, and although they liked its space and the three good-sized bedrooms, they felt they were too young, in their mid-twenties, to settle for what they thought was a ‘granny house’. They soon found, though, that all the houses they liked close to town were beyond their price range, and the cheaper ones needed far too much renovating, or had no off-street parking.
Then in the spring, when they heard the price of this one had been reduced for a quick sale, they viewed it again. Only then did they see that the south-facing garden was full of daffodils and blossom trees. They imagined having barbecues on the patio and, in time, a baby asleep in its pram on the lawn. They loved the way the whole house was full of sunshine. The trees beyond the garden fence had new leaves unfurling. It no longer seemed a ‘granny house’, but a for-ever home, with everything they needed.
Now they were moving in.
Conrad opened the front door and, regardless of people looking on, scooped Nina into his arms to carry her over the threshold. She giggled helplessly as he took her right to the French windows at the back of the house and dumped her rather unceremoniously on the floor.
‘I didn’t think they ’d leave this carpet,’ Nina said, stretching out on the floor, like a starfish. It was a light biscuit colour in exceptionally good condition. ‘That ’ll save us some money, won't it?’
‘They’ve left the stair carpet too,’ Conrad said, as he ran up it. ‘Wow, they ’ve left all the carpets!’ he shouted down to Nina. ‘How great is that?’Nina jumped up and went to join him. Sure enough the lovely neutral carpet was everywhere. They had very little money left after the solicitor’s fees and they’d resigned themselves to living without carpets for months.
Conrad hugged Nina. ‘I think I must be one of the luckiest men in the world,’ he said. ‘A beautiful wife, a job I love and now a house of our own.’
Nina thought she was the lucky one. Conrad was a care worker at what he liked to call ‘a naughty boys’ home’. Boys who had mostly been taken into care because they were running wild and getting into trouble. Conrad understood their underlying problems, which were not just poverty and neglect, but lack of self-worth caused by parental disinterest. He’d had a troubled childhood, though very different from the ones ‘his’ boys had, and kept his tough-guy image, muscles, tattoos and heavy-metal T-shirts because he knew it helped the boys feel he was on their side.
To Nina his true nature shone out of his kind grey eyes, his sense of fun in his wide smiling mouth. He was astoundingly sensitive too: he picked up on people’s problems with barely a word from them. He kept in touch with many of his old boys, who had gone on to live in flats of their own. As he often said, that was the time when young lads could go off the rails. His mission was to make sure they didn’t.
Nina had fancied Conrad, who looked at first sight like a Gypsy, with his black curls and perma-tan, but when she found his soft centre, she fell in love with him. ‘A bit of an exaggeration calling me beautiful.’ She laughed. Nina had no illusions about herself: she was five foot five, slim, and had long mousy hair, which at present was dyed auburn. She saw nothing remarkable in her face ‒ her eyes were brown, her complexion was clear and her nose small, but she wouldn’t win any beauty contests.
But Conrad, her friends and family saw her differently. They said her enthusiasm for everything, the way she cared about people and her ability to make any occasion fun made her a human tonic.
Nina was a florist. She worked at Petals in the Montpelier area of Cheltenham. While kids who needed help were her husband’s passion, she was passionate about flowers and hoped one day to own a floristry shop. She had already made quite a name for herself in wedding flowers, and she was lucky in that Babs, who owned Petals, loved her ideas and allowed her free rein with the designs.
A few minutes later the couple went outside again to get the first of the many boxes. In the last two years of living together their belongings seemed to have multiplied tenfold. As Conrad opened the van doors, a big, powerful-looking man in his late forties or early fifties, came across the road to greet them. ‘Welcome to Willow Close. I’m Alfie, and I live at number eight. I popped over to warn you what’s happened. It’s about as nasty as anything could be when you’re just moving into the street. A young girl was murdered this morning, right over there.’ He pointed to the trees behind their house.
‘No!’ Conrad exclaimed in horror. ‘Is that why the police car is here?’
‘Yes. They’re talking to Maureen and Rob Willis, your neighbours. They found the girl earlier when they were walking their dog. But we haven't heard yet who she is.’
‘How awful for her parents.’ Nina’s voice shook with emotion. ‘And a bad time for us to be moving in.’
‘I’m sorry to spoil your day. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything.’ He hung his head, looking contrite.
‘There’s never a right time to get news like that,’ Conrad said, and touched the older man’s forearm in understanding. ‘Better to hear it straight away than to put your foot in it later. I’m Conrad Best, and my wife is Nina.’
Alfie had the look of a boxer, a nose that might have been punched flat, but still had thick brown hair with only a touch of grey at the temples. His voice was muted Cockney, as if he’d left London many years ago. Conrad felt he was going to like the man: the laughter lines around his eyes were a good omen, and his grey eyes suggested intelligence.‘ Marge and Jack moved out of your house the day before yesterday, but they’ll be so shocked when they hear what’s happened, as we all are. But don't let me hold you up, and if you need anything, some milk, bread or an extra pair of hands, I’m just across the road.’
Conrad and Nina were unnaturally quiet as they unpacked the van, speeding up now, desperate to get all their goods inside and shut the front door. Nina looked out of the back window, and although the fence at the bottom of the garden was virtually hidden by bushes, the trees behind it were enough to remind her that a child had been killed there. She shuddered at the thought.
What if the murderer came over that way to kill her?
The stink from the bags of rubbish piled against a wall in Scotts Road made Amelia involuntarily gag and cover her nose.
The wind and heavy rain coming right off the sea rattled the cottage windows and pounded on the glass.
At the bang of a car door out in the street, Katy glanced out of the bedroom window.
Maisy was woken by a piercing scream. Startled, she sat up in bed, assuming the sound was coming from the street.
I never would have done what they say I’ve done, to Madame, because I loved her. Yet they say I must be put to death for it, and they want me to confess. But how can I confess what I don’t believe I’ve done?
‘I don’t remember.’ Or rather, she didn’t want to remember, which was not the same thing.
There was once an inn that sat peacefully on the bank of the Thames at Radcot, a long day’s walk from the source.
Carl said I was absolutely the right person for this job. I think he meant it. He didn’t actually say it was a job for a woman, but I could tell that’s what he thought.