18 July 2009, Cheltenham
‘What on earth has Harry got now?’ Maureen Willis asked her husband, Rob, pointing to their Border terrier who appeared to have found something interesting some way ahead of them under a bush.
‘Harry. Leave it!’ Rob yelled. He looked back to his wife, making a shrugging gesture of resignation. ‘Please don’t let it be a fox poo? It’s baking hot already, and we’ll never get the stink off him.’
The couple sped up to get their dog under control. Rob reached him first, and Maureen heard him gasp in horror.
‘What is it?’ she called out, panting a little.
Rob had stopped short. Even from a distance Maureen could see by the way he’d clapped his hand over his mouth it was something gruesome.
‘Don’t come any closer,’ Rob called out, waving his arms as further warning, then he bent over to put the dog on his lead.
‘What is it?’ she called out.
Rob looked down at the young girl sprawled on the ground, half under a bush. Long blonde hair, matted with congealing blood, covered her face, 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 called back to Maureen, ‘Call the police, love. It’s a child who has been attacked. I’m pretty certain she’s dead.’
At nine thirty that same morning, Conrad Best drove a hired van loaded with his and his wife Nina’s belongings into Willow Close. He paused for a moment, taking in the carefully tended open-plan front gardens and the serenity of the close. 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. Although 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 recently washed and waxed cars gleaming on the 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 in.
‘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 is 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. ‘The car might not be here on official business, maybe the policeman lives there and has just popped home for a coffee?’
Conrad parked up the van outside the garage of number three, and looked thoughtfully across the road, where some neighbours had suddenly come out of their houses 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 that it had space and three good-sized bedrooms, they felt they were too young, in their mid-twenties, to settle for what they thought was a ‘granny’ house.
But they were soon to find 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 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, and could imagine having barbeques 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 forever home, with everything they needed.
Now they were finally moving in.
Conrad opened the front door and regardless of people looking on scooped Nina up in 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 before dumping 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. The carpet 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, running up the stairs. ‘Wow, they’ve left all the carpets!’ he shouted down to Nina. ‘How great is that?’
Nina leapt up from the floor and ran to join him. Sure enough, the lovely carpet was everywhere. They had very little money after 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 the boys’ underlying problems, not just poverty and neglect, but lack of self-worth caused by parental lack of interest in them. He’d had a troubled childhood himself, though very different to 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, and his sense of fun in his wide smiley 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 too, ones who had gone on to live in a flat 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 the guy who looked tough, with his black curls and perma-tan, at first sight, 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 mousey hair, which at present was dyed auburn. She saw nothing remarkable in her face: her eyes were brown, her complexion clear and her nose was small. She wouldn’t win any beauty contests.
But it seemed 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, and worked at Petals in the Montpelier area of Cheltenham. While kids that needed help was her husband’s passion, she was passionate about flowers and hoped one day to own her own 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 a free rein with 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 fifties came across the road to greet them.
‘Welcome to Willow Close, I’m Alfie, I live at number seven. I popped over to warn you about what has 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 are 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 the murdered girl is.’
‘How awful for her parents,’ Nina’s voice shook with emotion. ‘There are no words!’
‘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 reached out to touch 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, my wife is Nina.’
Alfie had the look of a boxer, a nose that might have been punched flat, and 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 from your house the day before yesterday, but they are going to be so shocked when they hear the news, 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 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 was killed there. She shuddered at the thought of it.
What if the murderer came through that way to kill her?
Later that day, Rob Willis glanced at the way Maureen was slumped in dejection on the sofa and wished they hadn’t decided to walk Harry before setting off for their impromptu weekend in Lyme Regis.
They were unaccustomed to making spur of the moment decisions. Or, indeed, of changing their routine. Every Saturday morning they put the dog in the car at seven, drove to the park near to Sainsbury’s and exercised Harry before getting the week’s shopping. They even bought the same grocery items each week with only slight changes according to what fruit and vegetables were in season.
They had an annual two-week holiday each year in August, always the same cottage in Ilfracombe in north Devon. At Christmas they booked into a country house hotel on Dartmoor.
It was the sweltering weather that made them rash. Yesterday, in the office of their stationery supplies company, they felt they were melting with the heat. Suddenly a weekend away in Lyme Regis by the sea was irresistible.
There was also a cutting remark John Freeman, one of their neighbours, had made about them last Friday at his barbeque that had influenced the decision.
They had only gone to be neighbourly. Rose Freeman was the street snoop and gossip, and they were wary of becoming involved with her on any level. They also hated standing around eating overcooked burgers and making small talk with people they had nothing in common with. By nine thirty they thanked John for having them and made the excuse that they had some work to do.
John imagined himself to be very funny, and instead of just saying goodnight and he was glad they could come, he had to make a joke about them leaving early as they were always up at the crack of dawn. He said their car starting up early every Saturday morning to go to Sainsbury’s woke him.
‘Always on the dot of seven,’ he chortled. ‘I bet you two even schedule having sex into your diary. What day is that? Sunday afternoon?’
His wife roared with laughter, and no doubt would spitefully repeat her husband’s comment again and again.
Rob had shrugged the remark off, but it had stung to feel people were laughing at their predictability. He decided they must do something out of character every now and then.
So, as he and Maureen walked off to the park earlier that morning with Harry, they had both agreed it was refreshing to do something spontaneous.
But just twenty minutes later when he looked down at the dead girl, he wished he was on his way to Sainsbury’s as usual, and tears started up in his eyes at the horror of the scene.
Dried blood was caked on her head, face and arms, and her pretty cotton dress was pulled up, showing her white knickers. She couldn’t be more than thirteen, her life over almost before it began. Who could do such an evil thing?
The police and an ambulance arrived simultaneously. But after checking the girl was indeed dead, the ambulance drove off. Rob heard one of the police say the Pathologist and Forensic team were on their way.
After giving the police their details, Rob and Maureen were relieved to be told they could go home, where they would be formally interviewed later. A shelter had been erected over the child’s body and the crime scene cordoned off. Police were heading off other dog walkers who were trying to see what was going on.
‘Has a local child been reported missing,’ Maureen asked a WPC. ‘Her mother must be panic stricken if she didn’t come home last night?’
‘I don’t know,’ the policewoman said, her tone a little frosty, as if she resented questions from the public. ‘I haven’t heard anything.’
As they walked away to go home, Maureen turned to her husband. ‘Have you seen the girl before?’ He usually had a good memory for faces.
‘Her hair was across her face and there was so much blood I couldn’t say,’ Rob’s voice shook, and she could see he was close to breaking down. ‘Well that’s put paid to our weekend. Even if the police weren’t calling for a statement, my heart wouldn’t be in it.’
Maureen slipped her hand through his arm. She’d only seen the body from a distance, and that was more than enough for her. Rob was far more sensitive than she was, and the shock of finding the girl was likely to give him nightmares.