Cover Missing

Contents

About the Book

About the Author

Also by Ruth Rendell

Title Page

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Copyright

CHAPTER ONE

MAXINE WAS PROUD of having three jobs. These days more and more people had none. She had no sympathy for them but congratulated herself on her own initiative. Two mornings a week she cleaned for Mrs Wexford, two mornings for Mrs Crocker, afternoons for two other Kingsmarkham women, did gardening and cleaned cars for Mr Wexford and Dr Crocker, and babysat every evening where she was wanted for those young enough to need a babysitter. Cleaning she did for the women and gardening and car-washing for the men because she had never believed in any of that feminism or equality stuff. It was a well-known fact that men didn’t notice whether a house was clean or not and normal women weren’t interested in cars or lawns. Maxine charged maximum rates for babysitting except for her son and his partner. She took care of her granddaughter for free. As for the others, those who had kids must expect to pay for them. She’d had four and she knew.

She was a good worker, reliable, punctual and reasonably honest, and the only condition she made was payment in cash. Wexford, who after all had until recently been a policeman, demurred at that but eventually gave in like the tax inspector up the road did. After all, at least a dozen other households would have paid almost anything to secure Maxine’s services. She had one drawback. She talked. She talked not just while she was having a break for a cup of tea or while she was getting out or putting the tools away but all the time she was working and to whoever happened to be in the room. The work got done and very efficiently while the words poured out on a steady monotone.

That day she began on a story of how her son Jason, now manager of the Kingsmarkham Questo supermarket, had dealt with a man complaining about one of his checkout girls. The woman had apparently called him ‘elderly’. But Jason had handled it brilliantly, pacifying the man and sending him home in a supervisor’s car. ‘Now my Jason used to be a right tearaway,’ Maxine went on and not for the first time. ‘Not in one of them gangs, I’m not saying that, and he never got no ASBOs, but a bit of shoplifting, it was like it came natural to him, and out all night and underage drinking – well, binge drinking like they call it. As for the smack and what do they call them, description drugs – mind Mr Wexford can’t hear me, hope he’s out of hearshot – all that he went in for, and now, since him and Nicky had a kid he’s a changed character. The perfect dad, I still can’t believe it.’ She applied impregnated wadding to the silver with renewed vigour, then a duster, then the wadding once more. ‘She’s over a year old now, his Isabella is, but when she was a neo-nettle it was never Nicky got up to her in the night, she never had to. No, it was my Jason had her out of her cot before the first peep was out of her. Walked her up and down, cooing at her like I’ve never heard a bloke go on so. Mind you, that Nicky never showed no gratitude. I call it unnatural, a mum with a new baby sleeping the night through, and I’ve told her so.’

Even Maxine sometimes had to pause to draw breath. Dora Wexford seized her opportunity, said she had to go out and Maxine’s money was in an envelope on the hall table. The resumed monologue pursued her as she ran out to the conservatory to tell her husband she’d be back in an hour or so.

Wexford was sitting in a cane armchair in autumn sunshine doing what many a man or woman plans to do on retirement but few put into practice, reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He had embarked on it expecting to find it heavy going, but instead becoming fast enraptured and enjoying every word. Reaching the end of the first volume, he was happy to anticipate five more, and told Dora she’d picked her moment to desert him.

‘It’s your turn,’ she whispered.

‘I didn’t know we had a schedule.’

‘You know now. Here starts your tour of duty.’

As Dora left, Maxine swooped, pushing the vacuum cleaner and continuing to hold on to it while she peered over his shoulder.

‘Got a guide to Rome there, I see. Going there on your holidays, are you? Me and my sister took in Rome on our Ten Italian Cities tour. Oh, it was lovely, but hot, you wouldn’t believe. I said to my Jason, you and Nicky want to go there on your honeymoon when you get around to tying the knot there’s no untying, only these days there is of course, no point in getting married if you ask me. I never did and I’m not ashamed of it.’ She started up the vacuum cleaner but continued to talk. ‘It’s Nicky as wants it, one of them big white weddings like they all want these days, costs thousands, but she’s a big spender, good job my Jason’s in work like so many’s not.’ The voice became a buzz under the vacuum’s roar. She raised it. ‘I don’t reckon my Jason’d go away on a honeymoon or anything else come to that without Isabella. He can’t bear that kid out of his sight for his eight hours’ work let alone a week. Talk about worshipping the ground she treads on, only she don’t tread yet, crawls more like.’ A pause to change the tool on the end of the vacuum-cleaner hose, then, ‘You’ll know about that poor lady vicar getting herself killed and me finding the body. It was all over the papers and on the telly. I reckon you take an interest though you’re not doing the work no more. I had a cleaning job there with her up till a couple of weeks back but there was things we never saw eye to eye on, not to mention her not wanting to pay cash, wanted to do it online if you please and I couldn’t be doing with that. She always left the back door open and I popped in to collect the money she owed me and it gave me a terrible turn. No blood, of course, not with strangling, but still a shock. Don’t bear thinking of, does it? Still, I reckon you had to think of things like that, it being your job. You must be relieved getting all that over with –’

Standing up, clutching his book, ‘I’m going to have a bath!’ Wexford shouted above the vacuum’s roar.

Maxine was startled from her monologue. ‘It’s ten thirty.’

‘A very good time to have a bath,’ said Wexford, making for the stairs, reading as he went the last lines of Volume 1, describing another murder, that of Julius Caesar . . . during the greatest part of a year, the orb of the sun appeared pale and without splendour. This season of obscurity, which cannot surely be compared with the preternatural darkness of the Passion, had been already celebrated by most of the poets and historians of that memorable age . . .

His mobile was ringing. Detective Superintendent Burden, known to the phone contacts list as Mike.

‘I’m off to have a look at St Peter’s Vicarage, taking Lynn with me, and I thought you might like to come too.’

Wexford had already had a shower that day. A bath at 10.30 a.m. wasn’t needful, only seized upon as a refuge from Maxine. ‘I’d love to.’ He tried to keep the enthusiasm out of his voice, tried and failed.

Sounding surprised, Burden said, ‘Don’t get excited. It’s no big deal.’

‘It is for me.’

He closed the bathroom door. Probably Maxine wouldn’t open it but would perhaps conclude that he was having an exceptionally long bath. The vacuum cleaner still roaring, he escaped out of the front door, closing it after him by an almost silent turning of the key in the lock. Taking an interested member of the public – that, after all, was what he was – on a call or calls that were part of a criminal investigation was something Wexford had seldom done while he was himself an investigating officer. And his accompanying Superintendent Ede of the Met on the vault inquiries was a different matter as he, though unpaid, had had a kind of job as Ede’s aide.This visit, this opportune escape from Maxine, was undergone, he knew, because, once senior and junior officers, over the years they had become friends. Burden knew, none better, how much Wexford would wish to be involved in solving the mystery of who had killed the Reverend Sarah Hussain.

All Wexford knew of the death, apart from what Maxine had mentioned that morning, was what he had read in yesterday’s Guardian and seen on the day before yesterday’s regional television news. And seen of course when passing the Vicarage. He could have pursued more online but he had cringed from the colourful headlines. Sarah Hussain was far from being the only woman ordained priest of the Church of England but perhaps she was the only one to have been born in the United Kingdom of a white Irishwoman and an Indian immigrant. All this had been in the newspaper along with some limited biographical details including information about her conversion to Christianity. There had been a photograph, too, of a gaunt woman with an aquiline nose in an academic cap and gown, olive-skinned with large deep-set black eyes, and what hair that showed, a glossy jet black. She had been forty-eight when she died and a single mother.

Her origins, her looks, striking but not handsome, her age, her single parenthood and, above all, that conversion, made him think that her life cannot have been easy. He would have liked to know more and, no doubt, he soon would. At the moment he wasn’t even sure of where the murder had taken place; only that it was inside the Vicarage. It wasn’t a house he had ever been in, though Dora had. He was due to meet Mike and DC Lynn Fancourt in St Peter’s Church porch, the one at the side where the vestry was.

The Vicarage was some distance away and he had no need to pass the church to reach it. Heading for the gate that led out of Queen Street, he passed a young man pushing a baby buggy, a not particularly unusual sight these days, but he recognised this one as Maxine’s son Jason. As industrious as his mother if not as vociferous, he must be having a day off from his job as a supermarket manager. Curious to see the child whose father worshipped the ground she crawled on, Wexford looked under the buggy hood and saw a pretty pink-cheeked blonde, her long-lashed eyes closed in sleep. Wexford hastily withdrew his head from Jason’s glare. No doubt the man was wary of any male person eyeing his little girl. Quite right too, he thought, himself the parent of girls who were now middle-aged women.

He was a little early and by design. In his position it was better from him to be waiting for them than they for him. But Burden was seldom late and the two of them appeared almost immediately from the high street. All the years he had known him, Wexford had never ceased to marvel at Burden’s sartorial elegance. Where did he learn to dress like that? As far as he knew, Mike went shopping no more than any other man of his acquaintance. And it couldn’t be the influence of his wives, neither of whom, Jean long dead or Jenny the present one, had much interest in clothes, preferring in their own cases no more than attention to ‘neatness and fashion’, as Jane Austen has it. But here was Burden today, his abundant but short hair now iron grey, his beige jacket (surely cashmere) over white shirt with beige-and-blue figured tie, his beautifully creased trousers of denim, though discernibly – how? how could one tell? – not jeans.

‘Good to see you,’ Burden said, though he had seen him and eaten lunch with him three days before.

Lynn, whom he hadn’t seen for as much as a year, said in a very respectful tone, ‘Good morning, sir.’

They walked along the path among gravestones and rose bushes towards Vicarage Lane. It was October and the leaves had only just begun to fall. Green spiky conkers lay on the grass under the chestnut trees.

‘I don’t know how much you know about this poor woman’s murder, Reg,’ Burden said.

‘Only what I read in the paper and saw on TV.’

‘You don’t go to church, do you?’

‘I hesitate to say my wife does, though it’s true, and you know it already. She knew Sarah Hussain, but through church, not socially. Where was she killed?’

‘In the Vicarage. In her living room. You tell him, Lynn. You were one of the two officers who were the first to see the body.’

About the Book

Sarah Hussain was not popular with many people in the community of Kingsmarkham. She was born of mixed parentage – a white Irishwoman and an immigrant Indian Hindu. She was also the Reverend of St Peter’s Church.

But it comes as a profound shock to everyone when she is found strangled in the Vicarage.

A garrulous cleaner, Maxine, also shared by the Wexfords, discovers the body. In his comparatively recent retirement, the former Detective Chief Inspector is devoting much time to reading, and is deep into Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He has little patience with Maxine’s prattle.

But when his old friend Mike Burden asks if he might like to assist on this case as Crime Solutions Adviser (unpaid), Wexford is obliged to pay more precise attention to all available information.

The old instincts have not been blunted by a life, where he and Dora divide their time between London and Kingsmarkham. Wexford retains a relish for work and a curiosity about people which is invaluable in detective work.

For all his experience and sophistication, Burden tends to jump to conclusions. But he is wise enough to listen to the man whose office he inherited, and whose experience makes him a most formidable ally.

About the Author

Ruth Rendell was an exceptional crime writer, and will be remembered as a legend in her own lifetime. Her ground-breaking debut novel, From Doon With Death, was first published in 1964 and introduced readers to her enduring and popular detective, Inspector Reginald Wexford.

With worldwide sales of approximately 20 million copies, Rendell was a regular Sunday Times bestseller. Her sixty bestselling novels include police procedurals, some of which have been successfully adapted for TV, stand-alone psychological mysteries, and a third strand of crime novels under the pseudonym Barbara Vine.

Rendell won numerous awards, including the Sunday Times Literary Award in 1990. In 2013 she was awarded the Crime Writers’ Association Cartier Diamond Dagger for sustained excellence in crime writing. In 1996 she was awarded the CBE, and in 1997 became a Life Peer.

Ruth Rendell died in May 2015.

CHAPTER TWO

LYNN SPOKE IN the same respectful tone as before. ‘I expect you know this, sir, but it was a woman called Maxine Sams who found her. She’d been the Reverend Ms Hussain’s cleaner and she came in to collect some money that was owed her. She’s not a suspect.’

‘I know her, Lynn. She cleans for us.’

‘She says she rang the back-door bell and when Ms Hussain didn’t answer she came in. Apparently that had happened before. If the vicar was upstairs she might not hear the bell. The back door was left unlocked in the daytime. Maxine called out to her, called her by her Christian name, which most people did –’

‘Which I think you should do with me. It’s the way we live now.’

‘Yes, sir, I know, but I couldn’t. It wouldn’t be respectful.’

‘Try,’ said Wexford. ‘Go on about Maxine.’

‘When she didn’t seem to hear her she looked in the study, then went into the living room and found her body on the carpet. She’d been strangled.’

‘It was,’ said Burden, taking up the narrative, ‘as she kept on saying, a terrible shock. She phoned us – well, she called 999 – and we got there in under five minutes. I must say, she acted very properly apart from talking too much. The shock hadn’t deprived her of her voice. It was such an unusual killing, such a dramatic event you might say, that I went along with Lynn and Barry Vine. And in a few minutes Mavrikiev turned up. Remember him?’

‘How could I forget the prince of the pathologists? A white-blond creature of moods, ice and incandescence. He got the news of his first child’s birth while he was poking about with some corpse here and it changed him for the better.’

‘He’s got four kids now and I don’t notice much of a change. He wouldn’t say much beyond telling me she’d been killed sometime between two and five in the afternoon and the strangling was from the front. Her killer facing her, in fact. It was half past six when Maxine Sams called us. He’d maybe be more precise later on and there followed some rude remarks about how the police in their ignorance – his words – expected pathologists to be clairvoyants.’

They had come in sight of the Vicarage, a Victorian building, dating from the ugliest architectural phase of the nineteenth century, now festooned in blue-and-white tape round its front garden and the temporary porch of battens and tarpaulin covering its front door. The back door, in fact on the side of the house, stood open and PC Copeland was on the top one of the three steps leading up to it.

He said, ‘Good morning, sir,’ and it took Wexford a second or two to realise that this relative newcomer to the force wasn’t addressing him but Burden. This was something he must get used to and perhaps increasingly in the next few days.

They went inside, finding themselves in a kind of vestibule at the end of a passage. This Victorian Gothic house was one of the few vicarages or rectories which hadn’t been sold off to wealthy people wanting weekend houses, but retained as incumbents’ homes. As they moved along into a hall large enough to be the entire ground floor of a modern house, Wexford thought of the family that would have lived here 150 years before, the paterfamilias on a stipend of perhaps eight hundred a year if he was lucky and had a good living, his wife old before her time, worn out with child-bearing, and their progeny, seven or eight of them, all the boys expensively educated at public school because these people were gentry, the girls learning French, music and needlework at home from Mother, another task for the parson’s wife to perform. And now the incumbent was or had been a woman with one child.

Burden opened the door to the study. ‘It’s all of it still as she left it, desktop computer, printer, tablet or whatever you call it. A good many books and not all them theological by any means.’

‘That isn’t her, is it?’ Wexford indicated a framed photograph on the desk. It looked about the same age as the woman in the Guardian picture or a little older but far better-looking, even beautiful. He couldn’t recall ever having seen the Reverend Sarah Hussain but this was no forty-eight-year-old woman.

‘Her daughter Clarissa, sir,’ said Lynn.

‘Does she live here?’

‘She did,’ Burden said. ‘We were afraid she might arrive while we were all here and the cars outside and – well, you can imagine. Lynn here found the dead woman’s mobile and Clarissa’s number on it.’

‘She wasn’t answering and I couldn’t leave a message on her voicemail, not a message like that. Maxine told us there was a man called Dennis Cuthbert who’s something called the vicar’s warden and I phoned him but when he heard what had happened he got in such a state he was useless. In the end I rang a friend in Kingsmarkham and got her to agree to leave a message for Clarissa saying her mother had had an accident and to come to her house. She’s a woman called Georgina Bray who was a friend of Sarah Hussain and Maxine gave me her number. I went round to her place later, it’s in Orchard Road, so I was there when Clarissa arrived. It was pretty awful – well, like Mr Burden says, you can imagine, sir.’

The living room where the body had lain was even bigger than the hall, a huge chamber with a vaulted and beamed ceiling, windows with peaked tops that faced the front, a pair of French windows, evidently a fairly recent addition, and a good deal of heavy dark brown woodwork. There was no longer any trace of what had taken place there but that would have been true once the body had been removed. Strangling is as fatal as shooting or stabbing, and in a dreadful way, he thought, cleaner. He looked away from the floor where she had lain and up to the wall above the fireplace where there hung a portrait in oils of the girl in the photograph.

‘She looks less Indian than her mother,’ Lynn said. ‘I suppose I shouldn’t say that, it’s maybe politically incorrect. Actually, she’s very attractive, isn’t she? She looks like someone in one of those Bollywood films.’

Wexford noticed how fair-skinned the girl in the portrait was and beautiful rather than ‘attractive’. ‘Where is she now?’

‘Still with Ms Bray, sir. She’s at school here, Kingsmarkham Comprehensive. They’re one of those schools that have kept a sixth form. Mr Burden will know all about that.’

‘Jenny’s her form teacher,’ Burden said. ‘Clarissa’s still off school and will be for a week or so, I suppose.’

They did no more than put their heads round the doors of the dining room and other downstairs rooms. The kitchen had been refitted at about the same time as the French windows put in. It hadn’t aged as well as the windows and with its woodgrain cupboard doors and mottled blue-and-white tiling now looked antique. Letting Lynn go before them up the stairs, Burden said quietly to Wexford, ‘Can you make it for lunch tomorrow? I’d like to give you some details.’

‘Of course,’ Wexford said, relieved because he was asked and didn’t have to ask.

‘I remember how you used to say, “We will talk further on’t,” which you said was a quotation from Shakespeare.’

Wexford laughed. ‘I expect I did.’

Sarah Hussain’s bedroom was bleakly furnished, not exactly a nun’s cell but conspicuously austere: a single bed, one small mirror rather high up, a wicker chair and small round-topped wicker table serving as a bedside cabinet. The books on it were Herbert’s collected poems and Newman’s APOLOGIA PRO VITA SUA, Sarah Hussain’s place marked with a folded letter. Another book that threatened to be dull but was anything but, thought Wexford who had read it. While Burden was opening the door to the built-in cupboard, Wexford put the letter in his raincoat pocket. After that bedroom, the cupboard’s contents were, with one exception, no surprise to him. Two dark trouser suits, two dark skirt suits, a black wool dress, two cotton dresses, a cotton skirt, two cardigans and two pairs of Indian dress trousers and two patterned tunics. On a shelf above the hanging clothes were some neatly folded sweaters.

‘What was she wearing when she was killed?’

Burden seemed surprised at Wexford’s question. ‘Lynn? I’m afraid I don’t remember.’

‘The salwar kameez,’ Lynn said. ‘Very much like one of those in there, sir. And a necklace of coloured stones, the kind they call sea glass.’

‘Did she often dress like that?’

‘Never in church, apparently. But sometimes when she was at home.’

Clarissa’s room was exactly what one would expect of a seventeen-year-old’s, highly coloured, a blind instead of curtains, a duvet without a cover, clusters of photographs on the walls and two posters, Blur on one and Lady Gaga on another. Wexford picked up a framed photograph off the Ikea desk.

‘She was close to her mother?’

‘It would seem so, sir.’

If the daughter looked like a Bollywood star, the mother was more a younger version of Indira Gandhi, the face gaunt, deeply intelligent, dedicated.

‘She looks clever, doesn’t she, sir?’

‘Stop it, Lynn,’ said Wexford. ‘I’m not “sir” to anyone any more. If you can’t bring yourself to call me Reg or, come to that, Mr Wexford, when I was a young copper my contemporaries used to call me Wex.’

Lynn only smiled and they went downstairs.

Burden said to her, ‘Time to get over to Orchard Road. Clarissa’s expecting you. She may feel more able by now to talk about Thursday, how much she knows of what happened that day starting with breakfast.’

‘I’d like to go with her,’ Wexford said rather tentatively. ‘It’s on my way home.’

‘I don’t see why not,’ Burden said. ‘I don’t have to warn you to go easy with her, I know that.’

Except that saying it was itself a warning. Their route took them along Vicarage Lane past a big house called Dragonsdene whose garden, Burden said, abutted on the Vicarage garden. There were no others nearby. ‘At first I thought the way everyone else did, certainly the way the media did, that this was the work of some lunatic-at-large, some nut without a motive. The kind of character newspapers love who go about the country killing women and elderly couples, the people who leave their doors unlocked because nothing ever happens in the country, the country is safe. And it may be so but I’m not thinking that way any more. She wasn’t that sort of victim, her past was too – what shall I say? – too involved, too exotic.’

‘You’re going to tell me more tomorrow?’

‘I am,’ said Burden, leaving them to return to the police station.

The woman who opened the door of number 14 Orchard Road had been crying and began crying again as soon as she saw them. Not the best kind of carer for an orphan whose mother had just been murdered, Wexford thought, but he could be wrong. This kind of overflowing sympathy might be just what the girl needed.

‘I’m so sorry,’ said Georgina Bray. ‘I can’t seem to stop crying. It’s all so awful. Clarissa’s in here, she doesn’t cry, I really wish she would.’

Sarah Hussain’s daughter was at least as beautiful as her portraits. She had a calm, still face, perfect features and ivory skin. Nodding to Lynn, she turned her large blue eyes on Wexford.

He glanced from one woman to the other. ‘I’m not a police officer, though I used to be. If you’d rather I wasn’t present when DC Fancourt talks to you I can easily go.’ He smiled. ‘You don’t have to put up with me.’

‘No, please stay.’ Georgina Bray looked at Clarissa and Clarissa nodded her head once more.

Suddenly, having been absolutely silent, she spoke. ‘It’s not just that it’s devastating, what happened to my mother, not just that it’s so horrible but that it’s so unfair. She’d had such a hard life, such a lot of things to make her unhappy. Now she was like due for some sort of compensation and what she got was being – being choked to death . . .’

Whatever those things were that had happened to Sarah Hussain, he thought, now was not the time to ask about them. But perhaps Lynn or Burden or Karen Malahyde knew already. Lynn was waiting as if she knew Clarissa would go on talking, that she would need no prompting, and she was right.

‘I don’t believe in God. I haven’t for years, though I never told Mum. I didn’t want to make her unhappy, not now when she’d come here and was – well, she called it serving God. It didn’t matter her getting those filthy letters and being told she wasn’t fit to be a priest and her parishioners turning their backs on her and that man Cuthbert disapproving of her, she could bear all that because she had the love of God.’ Tears welled in the girl’s eyes but her voice remained steady. ‘She thought God had deserted her when her parents died and then when her husband died and then more awful things happened, but God came back and told her to study theology and get ordained and she did and she was happy at last because God loved her. But He didn’t, did He? He doesn’t love anyone. He never told her anything because He doesn’t exist.’ Wexford thought the tears would come now and overflow but they didn’t. Her face had grown stony white and hard as marble. ‘I was the one good thing in her life apart from God.’ She turned to Georgina. ‘I think I’ll go up to my room now. I’m tired, I’m tired all the time.’

They sat in silence as she left the room and closed the door quietly behind her.

Wexford was the first to speak. ‘Ms Hussain was a good friend of yours, Ms Bray?’

Wexford didn’t really know if they were Miss or Mrs or one of each but he seemed to have got it right as Georgina didn’t correct him. Her eyes were wet but the weeping had stopped. ‘I met her at university. That was thirty years ago and we lost touch, sent each other Christmas cards, that sort of thing. Her coming here to St Peter’s was a bit of a coincidence, she’d no previous connection with Kingsmarkham, and I was living here because my husband’s work is here. I don’t go to church but I do take part in local activities and we met at the Mothers’ Union.’ She stared defiantly at Wexford. ‘Don’t laugh. The Mothers’ Union does lots of good work especially in the area of domestic violence, something I know a lot about.’

‘I wasn’t going to laugh,’ said Wexford mildly. ‘You campaign against domestic violence?’

‘I don’t campaign against anything. I just know about it.’

The way she said it made her seem personally involved. Wexford thought he had said enough for now and left the field to Lynn.

‘You said last time I saw you that you were her only friend.’

‘That was what she said, though she did have a friend in Reading where she once lived. Oh, and she said she seemed to have missed out on the knack of making friends. She didn’t know how it was done but I did, she said, and our reunion came about through me. But still I felt guilty. I’ve got a husband, as you know, and three children, but they’re grown up and gone. I do voluntary work. I didn’t have the time for her I should have had. I keep saying to myself that I should have been at the Vicarage that afternoon, I should have been with her, poor darling Sarah . . .’

‘You had made no arrangement to call in at the Vicarage, had you?’ For a moment Lynn hoped she might be on to a lead.

‘Oh, no, no. If only I had. I would have been there and none of it would have happened. I shouldn’t blame myself but I do, I do.’ And Georgina Bray burst into noisy tears, soaking handfuls of the tissues.

When he walked in Dora was at home and Maxine, on the point of leaving, never a swift process, was telling her the tale of his perfidy. ‘Well, like I said, I’m sure I’m very sorry but I couldn’t clean the bathroom. If you find a nasty tidemark round the bath Mr Wexford has only himself to blame. Mind you, the idea of having a bath when you’ve got two showers in the house seems very peculiar to me, not to say weird. But to cut a long story short, I went upstairs with the Mr Muscle and the sponge et cetera and found the door shut as I expected. He’d been a long time in the bath but if people are going to use all that water when we’ve got a drought on the horizon, they may as well make the most of it, is what I say.’ Here a long stare at Wexford, lips temporarily compressed. ‘Well, I went back after a good twenty minutes and the door was still shut. Locked, I suppose, though I wasn’t going to try it, was I?’

‘I don’t know why not,’ interrupted Wexford.

A humourless laugh and, ‘Well, if you don’t know I’m certainly not going to tell you.’ Maxine proceeded to do so. ‘Naturally, I presumed you was in there in the altogether, though I must say an hour and a half had gone by. It was all of twelve, past midday, and then Mrs Wexford come in and I felt I was called upon to explain, not that she did call upon me. I hope I know my duty, that’s all.’

Dora placated her, checked that she had taken her money, exchanging those smiles of wonder and exasperation women typically produce at the incomprehensible behaviour of men, and hurried her out.

‘Why did you have a bath at ten thirty in the morning?’ she asked.

‘I didn’t. I said I was going to. But maybe I will on Maxine’s days in future. If I hadn’t escaped I think I’d have sacked her.’

‘Oh, for God’s sake don’t do that, Reg.’

Maxine spent ten minutes chatting without respite to Dr and Mrs Crocker while they tried to watch a DVD of Mad Men, season three. She had given them a biographical account of her son Jason from his breech birth – an agonising labour, they nearly lost him and her – until the present day, so now embarked on her horrible discovery at St Peter’s Vicarage. Dr Crocker was an altogether tougher customer than Wexford when it came to being forceful with women and told her to get on with her work, he and his wife were concentrating on the television. Maxine left them alone for about a quarter of an hour, she had to while she swept leaves from the front path and the patio, but then returned to remark that there were some people who said you shouldn’t watch TV in the daytime, it was bad for your health, not to mention your eyesight, and she’d never allowed her kids to watch it before 6 p.m.

‘I’m the health expert, not you,’ said Dr Crocker. ‘You leave our eyesight to me. Now off you go and shut the door behind you.’

It wasn’t the way she was accustomed to her clients talking to her, as she told Jason and Nicky when she dropped in on them on her way home.

‘Is that what you call them? Clients?’ Nicky didn’t dislike her mother-in-law – well, as good as a mother-in-law or as bad as – but she kept up a mild feud with her because you weren’t supposed to get on with your husband’s mother, it was a well-known fact. ‘That’s really weird.’

Maxine was a worthy adversary for she too approved of mother-in-law versus daughter-in-law discord. ‘Don’t you use words like that to me. I happen to know you left school without no GCSEs.’

‘Knock it off, Mum,’ said Jason. He was watching television with Isabella on his knees. ‘Weird’s not a bad word. Nicky wouldn’t use one of them in front of Issy. Go on about Dr Crocker.’

So Maxine went on about Dr Crocker, her audience expressing the opinion that his conduct was very likely the onset of Alzheimer’s, the same applying to Wexford when the tale was told of his bath or non-bath.

‘I saw him this morning when I was out with Issy. He’s aged since he retired. Going into the churchyard he was with a cop and a lady cop and then on to take a look at the Vicarage, I reckon. Well, I don’t know but that’s what it looked like, didn’t it, Issy?’

‘Dada, Dada,’ said Isabella, repeating the only word she so far knew.

‘That’s my sweetheart,’ said Jason, kissing the top of her head. ‘She’s talking very early. It’s a sign of intelligence. I’ll not be surprised if she gets to uni, maybe Oxford. Unless she does modelling. Why not both?’

No one argued. This was a subject on which they were unanimous. ‘Time for bed, my honey,’ said Jason and took her upstairs himself. ‘Mum will come up and say goodnight.’

Left alone with Nicky, Maxine reinstituted the bickering. ‘You don’t know how lucky you are, getting hold of a fella like him. You don’t have to do a stroke for that baby.’

‘Leave it out, will you?’

Nicky went off upstairs to say goodnight to Isabella and without waiting for either of them to come down, Maxine started for home. On the corner of Peck Road and Khouri Avenue (named after a local council leader of Asian parentage) she met Jeremy Legg who was Jason and Nicky’s landlord. They had never been on good terms – no one except his girlfriend was on good terms with Legg – but they spoke, they even maintained a show of politeness.

‘Good evening,’ said Maxine. It was a form of greeting uttered in a scathing tone that she wouldn’t have used to anyone else.

‘Hiya,’ said Legg. ‘Been to see your son, have you?’

‘There’s a broken window in the front bedroom needs seeing to. Little job for you when you can spare the time from your busy schedule.’

Everyone knew that Legg, who had suffered from a mysterious back complaint since he was twenty-nine, subsisted on the Disability Living Allowance, his rents and his girlfiend’s income. ‘Tenant does repairs, not landlord,’ he said, remembering to limp a bit before getting into his car. He drove home to Stringfield and Fiona’s cottage.

CHAPTER THREE

THE ONE PROPERTY Jeremy Legg owned was in Ladysmith Road and had been left him by his mother when she died five years before. This was let to an immigrant couple. His other house, the one in Peck Road, was not his at all but belonged to Kingsmarkham Borough Council. He had lived there for years with his wife, now long departed with another man. No more social housing was available in Kingsmarkham or the villages or was likely to be in future, so the sole recourse open to young couples who could only dream of getting a mortgage to buy a house, was to rent. The pretty cottage he lived in with Fiona Morrison belonged to her. They had met in a pub where Fiona was drinking whisky and Jeremy orange juice. As far as anyone knew, he didn’t drink or smoke while she did both. She had drunk so much that night that he’d had to drive her home. He was quite a bit older than her, nothing special to look at, and he had that limp which came and went when it suited him, but she fell in love with him. That also suited Jeremy. If he could move in with her he could let the Peck Road house he was living in on the Muriel Campden Estate. He could and he did.

Fiona had it all worked out. She wanted a baby and at forty-one she reckoned she had about three years left in which to conceive. Jeremy was the ideal partner and putative father of this dream-child. He had his Disability Living Allowance plus two lots of rent, each of which amounted to about twice as much as the DLA, he had a car and – this was as important as anything – he stayed at home, was a house husband, idle, and had no desire ever to get a job. And as a result, she could return to her work as an optician’s receptionist after the baby was born. In a property-owning nation, as the United Kingdom once was and possibly still was, it was inevitable that a great many people lived in houses or flats which had become theirs when their parents died.

‘Best to be an only child,’ as Wexford remarked to his wife that evening. ‘Behave so horribly as an infant that they don’t have any more. Later on make sure that your parents own their house and that you get on with them. What could be worse than that you fall out with the surviving one on his or her – probably her – deathbed? Then it all goes to donkeys or kids in a developing country.’

‘What a cynic you are.’

‘No. Just a realist.’

‘We had two, though,’ said Dora.

‘Yes, but we’re the exception. Neither of our children is in need of a house.’

Fiona Morrison had been in need of a house and the one she got on her grandmother’s death was a very pretty thatched cottage at the end of Church Lane, Stringfield. She attended to the front garden because that was the bit visitors and passers-by saw. The back garden was less pretty; Fiona got too tired to do this as well as receive the optician’s patients and send out the optician’s bills while Jeremy was too lazy to pull out weeds or mow the lawn. She didn’t reproach Jeremy because she was fond of him and he was going to give her a baby. Jeremy’s suggestion, made out of the blue, that they could adopt a baby, rather upset her, the way he said it as if it were an easy option open to anyone. ‘Or foster one like a sort of trial, see how we get on.’

‘What and send it back if we don’t like it?’

She had never until very recently questioned the rightness of her choice of Jeremy, though she recognised that her decision to share her home with him had been very hastily taken. And now, as he walked in, she was again conscious of a remoteness that came over him when he entered the house or came down the stairs or even simply sat in an armchair opposite her. It was as if he enclosed himself inside his head, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, unaware particularly of her. He could move while in this condition, did move, and the only state she could compare it to was sleepwalking. Was autism like this or could it be? She didn’t know and didn’t know who to ask. Now, as several times before, she asked him if he was all right.

He answered her in what she imagined might be a sleepwalker’s voice, the same slow monotone as when he suggested they adopt a baby. ‘Fine. I’m fine. How are you?’

His fugue, if that was what it was, lasted perhaps five minutes and then it was over.

Restaurants of every nationality had opened in Kingsmarkham ever since the death – sometime in the sixties – of the English cafe where fish and chips, sausage and mash, toad-in-the-hole, boiled ham and pork chops had been served. Fish and chips had never gone out of fashion while sausage and mash had come back into it and it was this which Detective Superintendent Burden had ordered in the restaurant called Spirit of Montenegro while Wexford would be having grilled sardines and couscous.

‘What do they eat in Montenegro, anyway?’

‘What we’re having, I suppose,’ said Wexford. ‘But don’t imagine the sausages are going to taste like the bangers you were brought up on.’

‘You can have a glass of wine but I shan’t. It doesn’t look well.’

Both were thinking of the time Wexford, taking a well-earned respite from very hard work, had been photographed in a pub garden with a tankard in his hand, a shot which later appeared on the front page of the local paper. He had never forgotten that photograph, though it no longer mattered.

‘I suppose a picture of me could be in the Courier lying in the gutter overcome by Chardonnay and no one would turn a hair.’

‘I wouldn’t say that,’ said Burden. After all these years he still wasn’t always sure when Wexford was serious. ‘Anyway, you don’t care for Chardonnay.’

Their food came with a glass of claret and a jug of tap water. Burden said, ‘When the body was first found by that cleaner of yours I made an assumption I shouldn’t have made. I almost took it for granted the perpetrator was one of those nutters who go about quite a wide area killing lone women. But I’ve told you about that. There’d been a woman who lived alone in a cottage outside Myringham a couple of weeks ago and I was foolish enough to think Sarah Hussain might have been another one of his victims. Of course I was wrong. The Myringham psycho was caught the following day and he was being questioned by police at the time of her murder.’

‘Anyway,’ said Wexford, ‘Sarah Hussain wasn’t a lone woman, was she?’

‘You mean she had her daughter living with her? Yes and no. Seventeen-year-old girls, as you must know, don’t usually spend their evenings at home alone with their mothers. Whoever did this may have known Clarissa lived there but also that she either came home from school and went out again pretty soon or went straight from school to whatever she did.’

‘So you gave up your stranger as killer theory?’

‘I’d moved on to a new one. We’d no possible witnesses, you see. It was odd. We’d done a house-to-house, looked at all the CCTV – not that there’s much, though there is a camera on the church porch. It was installed because of the increase in metal theft from churches. Nothing that was on the tape would have helped with finding whoever went into the Vicarage between two and five that afternoon.’

Burden nodded doubtfully. ‘How’s your fish?’

‘Not at all bad. Why is it that fresh sardines are so different from sardines in a tin? They might almost be a different breed of fish. It’s the same with pineapple.’

Burden knew Wexford well enough not to have to ask for elucidation. ‘These sausages are over-spiced and vastly over-garlicked. The mash comes out of a packet.’ He gave a small sigh and shook his head. ‘The Vicarage furniture – well, you’ve seen it – is nearly all what old Mr Kirkbride left behind. We got a lot of fingerprints off it: Sarah Hussain’s, Clarissa’s, Maxine Sams’s, no men’s. A woman could have killed her, of course. A lot of women are strong enough for that these days.’

‘I take it you got nothing from the house-to-house?’

‘Well, there aren’t really any houses to call at, are there? Vicarage Lane is mostly deserted unless someone’s calling at the Vicarage – as of course someone was that afternoon.’

‘The man in the gloves.’

‘I’m sorry?’

‘He must have worn gloves, mustn’t he? Just to enter the house, just to be there. If, that is, the killing was premeditated.’

‘True. We did a house-to-house in the lane at the back. St Peter’s Path. That meant calling at the most at six cottages because the rest of it is all lock-up garages. No one saw a stranger in St Peter’s Path. The most important witness, in a negative kind of way, is the chap who was working in the garden of the nearest house to the Vicarage, whose land has a boundary with the Vicarage garden in fact. That’s the place called Dragonsdene – don’t ask me why – we passed yesterday. The gardener, who’s called Duncan Crisp, was planting bulbs in flower beds in a big paved area close to the Vicarage fence. He’s only been living here for a month or so and he’s only been doing the Dragonsdene garden for two or three weeks. He told Barry Vine he saw no one come into the Vicarage garden from St Peter’s Path all the time he was there.’

‘And that was when?’

‘The relevant time. He started at one and knocked off at four thirty. Barry Vine had a good look at the next-door garden and if anyone had come into the Vicarage garden he would have seen them. It was a fine sunny day. Crisp is an elderly man but there’s nothing wrong with his eyesight.’

‘What’s your definition of elderly? It’s a sensitive point with me as you may imagine.’

‘Oh, I don’t know. Sixty to eighty.’

‘And what happens after that?’

‘Ask me again when you get there,’ said Burden, laughing. ‘Do you want a dessert?’

‘No, I want a pudding but I’m not going to have one. Coffee, please. So when you’d abandoned your wandering psychopath theory, what did you light on next?’

‘Well, I do try to be politically correct without being ridiculous,’ said Burden, ‘but the fact is she was half-Indian and there’s a lot of sort of apologetic racism around here. I can say Indian, can’t I?’

‘You can say it as far as I’m concerned but “Asian” might be wiser.’