The woodland was alive with birdsong. Small feathered bodies flashed and fluttered through the branches of the trees, breaking through golden shafts of sunlight that slanted through the forest canopy to the leaf-littered floor. In late March, the buds on the twigs of the beech trees were just beginning to unfurl, adding a faint green fuzz to the skeletal outline of the trees.
John Dawson strode through the woods towards the distant college building, a white mass beyond the treeline. The list of jobs that awaited John once he arrived at his workplace was topmost in his mind as he walked along, but the beauty of the morning was such that, even in his hurry, he was pleasantly aware of the awakening woodland. The first bluebells were beginning to mist over the floor of the forest; the liquid, lilting sound of birds marking their territories; the strengthening warmth of the sunlight on the back of his neck.
Abbeyford School of Art and Drama stood in a hundred acres of woodland and fields, the bucolic setting a pretty contrast to the white bricks of the large Victorian building that made up the main part of the college. John Dawson had been caretaker at the collage for seventeen years and felt that he knew the woods as well and as intimately as he’d ever known a person. He was a solitary man and enjoyed the time on campus when the students and teachers had not yet appeared. For a short time every weekday morning, the college and its grounds belonged to him and to him alone.
John entered the campus by the back entrance, taking the footpath that wound through the woods, past the outdoor theatre. The drama department building was the furthest from the main part of the college, set back into woodland with the outdoor amphitheatre located about twenty feet from the building. The amphitheatre’s architect had clearly been influenced by the outdoor theatre in Regent’s Park; this more modest version was set into a naturally occurring dip in the ground with the audience seats arranged in tiers around it. Trees and bushes formed a natural backdrop to the stage and the permanent lights were attached to metal gantries, which had been colonised by ivy and other creeping plants.
John would have walked past the theatre without a second glance, as he normally did. But this morning, something on the level grass platform that was the stage caught his eye. At first he thought someone had left a bundle of clothes out – perhaps one of the students had left their costume behind, was his first thought. As John walked closer, he could see that there were two piles of clothing. Had someone dumped some rubbish? He heard himself make a noise of annoyance, a noise that died abruptly as he got close enough to see what was really lying there on the ground.
John Dawson was tough. He had served several years in the army before he became a caretaker, and he had seen enough on his last posting to Northern Ireland to not become faint or nauseous when he realised what was there before him on the grassy stage of the theatre. For all that, he could feel his heart beat faster as he looked at the two bodies lying there, side by side, joined by their clasped hands. He knew they were dead; he could see that from the pallor of their skin and the slackness of their mouths, but still he went forward and reached out to feel for a pulse in each neck. His shaking fingers touched cold skin. No blood beat beneath his fingertips. John looked at each empty dead face, realising that he recognised them. Shock was laid upon shock. How could this have happened? It seemed unreal. For a moment, as he stood up again, his head swam and the birdsong that had seemed so beautiful a moment ago now seemed to swell around him until the sweet melodies morphed into something more insistent and sinister. John took another disbelieving glance at the two bodies and again at their pale faces. He knew it was them, it was unmistakeable them but…why? And why here?
Shaking his head, he backed away until the back of his legs met the edge of one of the front row seats. He almost collapsed onto the chair, unable to take his eyes from the bodies in front of him. This was going to cause a hell of a fuss, he thought, and some semblance of clear-headedness came back to him. Still breathing quickly, he reached for his mobile phone and dialled the three numbers that he had hoped never to dial again.
“…and I’m sure you’ll all join me in raising your glasses and toasting the happy couple.” Kate Redman took up her own glass of champagne and waited for the rest of the guests to follow suit. She raised her glass in the air. “To Mark and Jeff!”
“To Mark and Jeff,” echoed the room full of people. There was a few seconds of silence as everyone drank and then laughter, cheers and clapping broke out.
Flushed and relieved, Kate sat back down again. People were still clapping and cheering and, for a second, she thought she might have to get up again and go on speaking – please, God, no – but no, there you go, the tumult was gradually dying down, people were sitting back down and – thank God – the torment was over.
“Well done,”Tin said, refilling Kate’s glass for her. “See? That wasn’t as bad as you expected, was it?”
“It was worse,” said Kate. “But it’s over now.” She looked over to where Olbeck and Jeff were sat and felt a rush of sentiment at their happy faces.
It was something of a shock to see Olbeck smartly dressed in a suit, his hair cut short, a silk cravat bunched under his chin. What had surprised Kate about the wedding was how traditional Olbeck and Jeff had kept it. The reception was being held in the same place as the service – a stately home situated about eighteen miles from Abbeyford. Kate glanced around at the former ballroom where the wedding breakfast had been laid out. There were large arrangements of flowers in the centre of white tablecloths on every round table. Swathes of white silk were tied around the gilded chairs. The surface of every table glittered with a myriad assortment of wine glasses and there were even little gold organza bags of sugared almonds and miniature packets of Lovehearts next to each plate. Kate had already eaten hers in a nervous frenzy before her speech.
“They’ve ticked every wedding cliché in the book, bless them,” she murmured to Tin. He grinned and topped up his own glass. “Mind you,” Kate went on, “Mark always was a bit of a traditionalist at heart.”
“They’ll be having kids next,” said Tin.
Kate smiled quickly to hide the jab his remark had given her. Her mind was inescapably thrown back to the argument that she’d had with Olbeck over that very subject – when he’d told her he and Jeff were engaged and she’d gone crazy and yelled abuse and screamed. Remembering it, she winced and then quickly hid her distress. She hadn’t yet told Tin everything about her past – most particularly the event in her teens that had psychologically shaped so much of her adult life – and this, in particular, was not the time to be having that conversation.
The elation of having successfully given her speech died. Kate drank her champagne moodily. The black cloud that now so often dogged her was coming back. She looked around the room again, at the happy couple on their own top table, at her colleagues laughing and drinking and eating, and tried to feel happy for everyone. But she only felt worse. She stood up abruptly. “Want a proper drink?” she asked Tin.
He looked at her in surprise. “What’s wrong with champagne?”
“Nothing. It’s just – I want a gin and tonic.”
“That’s not like you,” Tin said.
Kate tried to smile. “It’s a wedding! I’m celebrating.”
Tin shrugged and smiled back. “Knock yourself out. I’ll stick with the bubbly, for now.”
Kate made her way over to the bar, which stood in the corridor outside the ballroom. This place was a maze, she thought and then had a secondary thought that she really shouldn’t be knocking back the spirits. It really wasn’t like her, just like Tim had pointed out. As she waited in line to order her drink, she had a flashback to her mother’s kitchen, the clinking piles of empty bottles waiting for the recycling truck. Kate hugged her arms across her body, feeling her stomach cramp and roll. Her mother had drunk whiskey for choice. I’ll never drink that, Kate thought, staring ahead. I’ll never drink whiskey.
She came back to reality with a start, realising that someone was asking her a question. She reared her head back, blinking.
“I said, what can I get you?” said Detective Chief Inspector Anderton, who was stood next to her at the bar.
Kate stuttered out something about, “Nothing, it’s fine, I’m fine,” and then managed to get a grip on herself. “I’ll have a G and T, please…Sir.” She added a moment later.
“Oh, we’re very informal tonight,” Anderton said with a twinkle. Kate took the glass he handed to her and took a sip of the effervescent liquid within to cover her confusion. “Great ceremony, don’t you think? I’ve never seen Mark look so happy.”
They made small talk for some minutes, shifting over to the side of the corridor to allow other guests access to the bar. Kate tried to surreptitiously look around, to see if Anderton had brought anyone with him as a guest. That blonde piece he’d once brought to the office? Even as she was thinking it, she was chastising herself for using such a sexist term. I hang out with too many men, she thought grimly.
After five minutes or so, Kate started to wonder whether Anderton might actually be there on his own. Why else would he still be talking to her, to the exclusion of everyone else?
After another five minutes of small talk, conversation began drying up a little. Kate was conscious of something rather like awkwardness between the two of them. Why, though? She thought back to how it had been after they’d slept together, all those years ago. Perhaps it’s just me being paranoid, she thought gloomily.
“Are you here with anyone?” she asked boldly, deciding to clear the matter up once and for all.
“Nope,” Anderton said but made no other comment. He pulled his mobile phone from his pocket and regarded it with a frown. “You in tomorrow?” was all that he said.
Kate shook her head. “Monday.”
Anderton slipped the phone back into his jacket pocket. “You’ve heard about the suicides at the art collage?” He corrected himself. “Apparent suicides, I mean.”
Kate was interested, despite herself. “You think there might be something more to it than a straightforward suicide pact? Why?” It was her turn to recollect herself. “I mean, I know we can’t really discuss it here, but…”
“I don’t know,” Anderton said. He tipped the last of his pint into his mouth and, after looking around in vain for a suitable surface, put his empty pint glass on the floor. “I need my team to do a bit more digging. We haven’t even done the PM yet.”
“My brother went to that college,” said Kate.
“Yes? So you know it?”
“Not well. I went to meet him there a few times. He did Art, though, he didn’t have much to do with the drama sides of things.”
“Right,” Anderton said. Kate could see him looking over her shoulder, semaphoring a ‘hello’ to someone with his eyebrows. “Let’s all sit down on Monday and do a proper debrief.”
Kate was just opening her mouth to reply when she was slammed into from behind and a pair of arms lifted her clean off the floor. She screamed and the arms quickly put her down and released her. She turned angrily, although she was pretty certain of who would be stupid enough to do that.
It was Theo, already half-drunk, tie askew and a beer stain on his white shirt. “Sorry, Kate, I was only being friendly.”
“Yeah, right,” said Kate. “You’re friends with Mark. Go on, go up and do that to him and see what happens.”
Theo grinned even more widely. “Mark? He’d love it, the dirty bastard.”
Kate gave him a shove. “It’s his wedding day, you idiot.”
“Children, children,” Anderton said patiently. “Let’s not fight, today of all days. Theo, go and get yourself another drink, and me too.” He looked at Kate, who was still trying to remove the annoyed frown from her face. “Kate, you too?”
They were both expecting her to refuse – Kate had never been a big drinker. But ever since her mother died, something had changed. She felt both more reckless and more anxious. She needed something to take the edge off.
“Yes, thanks, I will. Gin and tonic, please.”
Anderton raised his eyebrows a little but said nothing. Theo stumbled off towards the bar with the twenty-pound note Anderton had slipped him.
“You all right?” was Anderton’s next question.
“I’m fine,” Kate said curtly. The last thing she felt like doing was discussing anything – anything – personal with her boss. Particularly here and now.
Her prickly tone must have been sufficient to warn Anderton off from probing any deeper. “Good,” was all he said. Another awkward silence fell before Kate, recollecting what they’d been talking about before Theo so rudely interrupted them, asked him a question.
“Do we have an ID on the bodies yet?”
A minute flash of relief passed over Anderton’s features. Talking shop was always something they could do. “Yes, they were identified quickly. Joshua Widcombe and Kaya Trent. They were boyfriend and girlfriend, had been together for over a year. They were the golden couple of the college, apparently. That’s what makes it so strange.”
Kate frowned. “What – that they killed themselves?”
Anderton shrugged. “That’s a direct quote from one of their parents. Kaya Trent’s mother. The golden couple bit, I mean.”
Kate persisted. “But is that what you meant? Why would a couple so popular and successful – that’s what I assume you meant by ‘golden couple’ – why would they kill themselves?”
“I suppose so. By all accounts – and we’ve barely begun to scratch the surface yet – they were good-looking, popular, lots of friends, no family dramas, nothing that looked like a source of distress.”
“But that doesn’t mean anything, really,” Kate said. She shifted position, her feet aching in the unaccustomed high heels. “You don’t know what secrets they were hiding, what was really going on in their relationship. We don’t have a clue what other stresses they might be under. Remember Elodie Duncan?”
“Oh, yes,” Anderton said. They were both silent a moment. Kate remembered the beautiful blonde girl that had been pulled from an icy river, all those years ago, not long after Kate had arrived in Abbeyford. All the secrets and lies that case had been hidden, hidden down deep away from first glances.
Anderton spoke up. “You’re right, Kate. I’m sure there’s more to it than meets the eye. But you know how it is, it might not even be our case. Double suicide or not, if there’s nothing suspicious about it, then it’s not our problem, tragic as it may be.”
Kate shifted again and caught sight of Theo making his way back from the bar with a wobbling tray of spilling drinks in his hands. Hurriedly, not wanting him to overhear them, she asked. “But you think there might be something more to it than that?”
“Not sure,” said Anderton. He too had clearly caught sight of Theo. “Listen, let’s wait for the PM, and we’ll talk about it on Monday.”
By now Theo had reached them. Kate and Anderton took their drinks with thanks. Theo swigged back half of his fresh pint in one go.
“Steady,” said Kate. “We haven’t even hit the dance floor, yet.”
“Oh, so you’re dancing with me then, are you?” Theo said cockily. There was a trace of a slur in his voice. “Whass Tin going to say about that, then?”
With a guilty start, Kate realised she hadn’t even given Tin a thought for the past – she checked her watch – shit, the past forty minutes. He barely knew anyone here and she’d just gone and left him by himself for ages. He’s a big boy, she told herself defensively, but all the same she said a hurried goodbye to her colleagues and made her way back to the table where she’d left him nearly an hour ago.
Tin wasn’t there, unsurprisingly. No one was. Kate stood for a moment, looking around the ballroom. Most of the tables had been cleared and the chairs pushed underneath, to enable people to get to the dancefloor at the other end of the room. She could see people gathering there in a ragged circle to watch Olbeck and Jeff revolve slowly around to the strains of I’ve Got You Under My Skin. Kate swigged her drink, feeling the gin move like quicksilver down to her stomach and – it felt like – straight to her bloodstream. I’m going to get drunk tonight, she told herself, half fearfully, half defiantly. With each swallow she could feel that black cloud lift a little. Where the hell was Tin? She scanned the crowd, catching Rav’s eye and smiling, seeing Jane with her new partner over by the far wall, talking together intently. There was Olbeck’s mother, sitting where she could see the dancefloor, white hair glowing under the flashing coloured lights, walking stick by her side, laughing and clapping her hands to the music. Kate made a mental note to have a chat with her later in the evening; it was ages since she’d seen her. She kept looking around for Tin’s face in the crowd but couldn’t see him. Others were pouring onto the dance floor now, joining the happy couple. Kate saw Stuart, dressed in a very sharp dark blue suit, pull his girlfriend onto the floor and start twirling her around. Kate grinned and then the grin faded. Where was Tin?
She gulped the last of her drink, put the glass down on the empty table, and made her way over to the exit. He must be in the loo, she told herself. Stop panicking. Stop panicking over a man. All the same, she couldn’t help looking from side to side, looking for his familiar face in a crowd of unfamiliar faces. As she reached the entrance hallway that led to the outside terrace, she was almost grabbed again by a visibly swaying Theo.
“Kate! Come ‘n dance, you said you would—”
“Nope, not this time,” said Kate, side-stepping. She felt tipsy but she was stone-cold sober next to her fellow DS. “And for Christ’s sake, Theo, have some black coffee or something. If I lit a match in your mouth, it’d burn for a week.”
“Huh?” said Theo, blinking owlishly. His date for a night, a very young, very pretty girl, came up beside him and dragged him away sharply, giving Kate daggers over her shoulder as she hauled her boyfriend away. Kate smiled despite herself. Don’t worry love, you can keep him.
She walked outside onto the terrace and immediately felt calmer and more in control. Perhaps it was the sobering slap of the cold air in her hot face, or the quietness after the noisy din of the ballroom, or the fact there were only a few people out here, mainly smokers. Kate wrapped her arms across her body as she walked slowly down the steps to the main terrace below. Candle lanterns had been placed at regular intervals on the wall that encircled the terrace. Beyond the wall, the gardens of the house were mere black and grey shapes in the darkness. There was another flight of steps that led from the terrace down to the lawn, and Kate caught a glimpse of a shadowy figure sat right at the bottom of the steps. There was something familiar about it; the set of the shoulders, perhaps. Shivering, she walked closer and as she got within a few feet, breathed a sigh of relief. It was Tin.
“What are you doing here?” she exclaimed, coming up to him. She didn’t sit down but remained standing, teetering a bit on her heels.
Tin didn’t look up. He was looking across the dark gardens with great concentration. After a moment, he lifted a lit cigarette to his lips.
“You’re smoking,” Kate exclaimed.
“Yes. I do, sometimes.”
“Oh. I didn’t know that,” Kate replied, a little lamely. There was so much about Tin that she didn’t know. There’s so much about me that he doesn’t know, she said silently to herself. “Listen, I’m sorry I’ve been so long…”
Tin said nothing.
“I ran into Anderton, and you know how it is, we just got talking. I lost track of time.” Tin still said nothing. “I’m sorry,” Kate finished.
Tin took a final drag of his cigarette and pitched it into the darkness before him. Kate and he both watched the orange tip describe a glowing parabola in the dark before it hit the wet grass and fizzled out. “Have you finished talking shop, now?”
His tone was polite, but there was a fine needle of – what? Something unpleasant – underneath that stung. “Yes,” said Kate, not wanting to get into an argument. “I’m sorry,” she said again.
Tin sighed and got up. “Christ, it’s freezing out here. Let’s go inside.” He looked at Kate, who stood shivering, and some of the anger in his face melted away. “Do you want my jacket?”
Kate shook her head, trying to stop her teeth chattering. “No. Thanks. Let’s just – come on, let’s go and have a dance.”
They walked back up the steps, side by side but apart. It wasn’t until they had almost reached the house that Tin finally took her hand. Kate took it gratefully but a small part of her was wondering if one of them was overreacting. Her? Him? She put the thought aside for a later perusal.
“Want a drink?” she asked Tin, wanting to make up her inattention. He nodded.
Kate joined the queue at the bar, Tin waiting for her a few feet over. Goddamn it, I am going to get drunk tonight, thought Kate with a sudden anger. She was aware that her feet were now aching viciously.
She bought their drinks and they went and chatted to Rav and his fiancée, and then they danced and bought more drinks and danced some more and eventually went home and fell into bed in a drunken, giggling haze. The argument, if it had been one, appeared to be long forgotten. Kate stumbled to the bathroom and forced herself to drink a pint of water and take an ibuprofen tablet before staggering back into bed and curling up next to Tin, who was already snoring. Just before sleep claimed her, Kate had an odd vision. She’d never seen the crime scene, if it had been a crime at all, but her last thought was of the two young people in the grassy clearing in the woodland, lying there with their clothes jewelled with tiny drops of the morning dew, their cold hands clasped together, their sightless eyes staring up at the gradually brightening sky.
(c) Celina Grace 2015
Creed will be released for pre-order in the next couple of days on Amazon, iBooks, Nook and Kobo. Google Play to follow.