The Fens, Cambridgeshire
As she came to the bend above the Forty Foot Drain she slowed down. Also known as the Black Sluice Navigation, the road running alongside it had a fifty mile an hour speed limit and was notoriously dangerous. She peered ahead through the gloom. Mist rose from the flat Fenland fields around her giving the landscape an otherworldly feel, the sun smeared across the horizon.
Until the age of nine she had lived with her parents near Inverness in the village of Drumnadrochit on the shores of Loch Ness, and she had spent some of the happiest years of her childhood there, a magical landscape of soft rounded hills and forest folded around the forbidding vastness of Loch Ness. Then her father had been offered a teaching post in marine biology at Cambridge, moving her mother, younger sister and her to a modest house in the small town of Godmanchester. In contrast to her father’s fascination, she had always been repelled by the Fens: a watery marshland of drains and dikes clawed from the sea, a monotonous land of hedgeless fields, of feathery reeds and bulrushes, of uneven lanes and tilted houses, the black peaty soil pulling them earthwards, water oozing upwards to drown them.
Having scarcely slept the previous night, she was fighting to stay awake. She turned off the heating and moved to press the switch to open the window, hoping a blast of cold air might help. As she reached, the window still shut, there was a loud bang, the car juddering and swerving violently across the road. Her heart exploded in her chest. She drove down the brake pedal. The car spun and tipped forward. There was a brief sensation of weightlessness, of time suspended, then a hard upward shove as the car hit water.
She stared in horror as ice-cold water welled up from the footwell, rising quickly to her waist, her breath choked off in her throat. She reached again for the switch on the door panel to open the window. There was no response. She tried again, and then again, a frantic jabbing. Nothing. She drew her arm back and punched the glass as hard as she could. Pain shot up through her hand into her arm. The glass was still intact. Ignoring the pain, she rammed her elbow against it. There was a new jolt of agony as it bounced off to add to the symphony of agony she was already feeling. The water was now at chest level. She tore off her seat belt, and eased herself up, moving across, and then scrabbling backwards between the front seats into the rear of the car. Because of the angle of the car, nose down in the ditch, the water was at a lower level there and she could still lift her head and neck above it.
Her breathing was coming in short panicky bursts, her heart pounding furiously. She knew that barely three months earlier, a mother and her toddler had drowned here. The water still rising, she craned her neck upwards to keep her mouth and nose above it.
She stared at the windscreen, a thin sliver of light at the top. Then darkness. The front of the car was now entirely immersed. She knew she had seconds to live.
Kings Cross, London, the same day
Eighty miles away another woman stepped onto a tube escalator. She was smartly dressed, professional, her brown hair immaculately styled. Fifteen years had elapsed since a carelessly dropped match on the same stairs ignited a fire which killed thirty-one people. Then wooden, now they were gleaming steel. Where once they shuddered and squealed, now they slid silently into the bowels of the station. A nervous traveller, she had more in common with the tourists who stood, bewildered, staring at the tube maps displayed in bright primary colours on the walls than the seasoned commuters who pushed against them.
The convention was that people stood on the right on the down escalators to allow those either braver or less patient to walk down on the left. The woman stood on the right. The immediate two steps below her were empty but below that was a tourist with a suitcase propped on the stair below. The tourist was small, elderly, with untidy grey hair and her frailty was to prove fatal to the woman above her who was suddenly and violently shoved in the back. She fell forward, lost her grip on the rail and pushed hard into the woman in front. The elderly woman crumpled, and she toppled over her, tumbling helplessly to the bottom. She hit the ground as screams erupted around her and lay there, a broken marionette, her knickers flashing white beneath her blue dress.
As she pulled into the drive the rain increased in intensity; it was as though a wall of water had suddenly descended on her. Claire sat exhausted as it roared outside, pounding against the car’s roof. She would have to wait until the rain relented a little before she dared make a dash for her front door.
She could feel the tension in her shoulders and neck; it had been a difficult day with two autopsies, the first for a ten-year-old girl and the second a man in his late twenties who had been crushed under the wheels of a lorry whilst cycling to work. The girl was particularly upsetting; she had died suddenly at school; the autopsy CTI uncovered a cerebral AVM, a tangle of abnormal blood vessels in her brain which had suddenly ruptured causing a catastrophic bleed. She had died almost instantly. The knot was congenital; the poor girl had been carrying a time bomb from birth. It was rare that such a genetic abnormality was passed down among families but, nonetheless, Claire had recommended that CTIs should also be carried out for her two brothers. If they were affected, they would probably need immediate surgery. It would also depend, of course, on the precise location of the AVMs – it might well be decided that such surgery was too risky.
Claire peered through the windscreen. She was feeling anxious; ten months previously there had been an almost biblical fall of rain over a three-day period. The Great Ouse was less than half a mile from their house but, ironically, it was not the river which had caused the problem. The drains choked on the rain and spewed it back onto the streets; a number of houses on the Causeway had flooded and the floodwaters had run in torrents down the street.
Some of the residents had access to sandbags. Others, less fortunate, filled black bin bags with sand, or wedged old bits of carpet or plastic sheeting against their doors. The floodwater was relentless; it punched through front doors, oozed through air bricks, came up through floorboards, laid waste to gardens.
At last, the rain eased. She twisted round to grab her coat from the rear seat, slid herself out and ran. The post was piled up against the front door inside and she bent to pick it up. As she did this, she noticed a letter still wedged in the metal flap of the letterbox. She frowned, tugged it out. There was no postmark or stamp and it had obviously been hand delivered. Curious, she tore it open. Inside was a single card, edged in black.
There was a photograph of her, passport sized, at the top of the card, and underneath, in an elaborate copperplate black script:
You are respectfully invited to the funeral of Claire Evans, much beloved, on 13th June 2012 at 9 AM at St Mary the Virgin Church, Chadley Lane, Godmanchester, Huntingdon.
No floral tributes. The family’s wish is that, instead, donations should be made to the Bradbury Oaks Hospice in Brampton
She stared again at the photograph. Looking back at her was a younger version of herself: mid-twenties, blonde straight hair parted in the middle, blue-grey eyes.
She could feel her breathing becoming shallow as her heartbeat quickened. Who could have sent this? She opened the door and peered out into the darkness. There was a car parked a little way down the street, its headlights on. From the shape she was sure it was a Ford, either a Focus or a Fiesta. She could just make out the hunched figure of the driver, but it was impossible to see whether it was a man or a woman. For a moment she thought about walking down to the car and challenging the person inside. No, that was ridiculous. Whoever had delivered the card was hardly likely to have stuck around. It could have been delivered hours ago. She closed the door and forced herself to breathe more slowly. Putting the card and envelope down on the glass-topped hallway table, she shrugged off her wet raincoat, hanging it on the coat stand.
Claire looked again at the envelope and noticed to her annoyance that the handwriting was now smeared with water. Pulling a tissue from her pocket she hurriedly blotted it. Neat cursive penmanship. Female? She needed to calm down. This was just some horrible, twisted joke; a spiteful hoax but no more serious than that.
Her professional instincts kicked in. Paper had a porous surface so it would be a simple task to lift fingerprints off it. If she kept both the envelope and card, she could arrange to do that back in the lab. The problem, of course, was then finding a match. If whoever had sent this had never been required to provide prints to the police, then the prints themselves wouldn’t get her very far. Both paper and card might have been handled by others before it arrived at her door so there could be multiple prints. Whoever had sent the card though, had made one crucial mistake – they had provided a sample of their handwriting and she knew courts accepted the testimony of handwriting experts.
She took both the card and envelope and walked into the kitchen; granite worktops, a central island, gleaming white cupboards and mid-grey walls. Elephant’s breath, her husband had told her, or some such nonsense. Clearly an elephant with very bad halitosis. Bi-folding doors took up the entire front of the kitchen opening out onto cream composite decking, a seating area and an expensively landscaped garden. There was still a faint smell of the takeaway curry from the previous evening. I need to empty the waste bin she thought. Not now though.
Claire grabbed a bottle of Chablis from the fridge. It was half full. Every night now, the first thing she did on arriving back home was to treat herself to a large glass of wine. If it had been a particularly stressful day there would be a second, and sometimes a third. Sean had given her a hard time about her supposedly excessive drinking, but he wasn’t here was he? Yet another week with his mates playing golf in the Algarve, so to hell with it. He was probably getting tanked up himself every night so who was he to preach? If he was home, he would have asked her whether she’d taken her medication that day. He was quite scrupulous in that respect, almost as though he feared she would slip into madness if she missed even a single day. She tried to remember if she had taken it that morning, gave up, and turned instead to pick up the card again. She stared hard at it, as though she could force it to give up its secret with the intensity of her glare.
Taking the bottle from the fridge again, she refilled her glass to the brim, shaking the last drops from the bottle. So, who? Who could have sent it? Could it be Alan’s wife, Rachel? Could his wife have found out? Claire had persuaded Alan to buy a separate mobile phone in addition to his work one. She told him to tell Rachel that he was fed up getting work calls during his hard-earned downtime, so he’d decided to get a second one for his personal use. Claire said she would do the same. They had agreed they would only communicate with each other via WhatsApp. No phone calls.
Alan, being Alan, of course had initially suggested they should just get two burners, pay-as-you-go mobiles, where the only calls and texts would be between them. Claire thought this was too obvious, a suspicious partner could still find the phone. Its very existence would lead someone to wonder. Burners. He’d been watching too many episodes of The Wire.
There were other possible suspects, though, the ones she had encountered through her work. Some singularly unpleasant people. Claire felt a tight knot of fear in her stomach and her hands were still shaking as she reached for her glass of wine.
She remembered Toby and glanced at the clock. It was just after six. Her friend Jessica would be bringing him home around now. She stuffed the card back into the envelope and pushed it into one of the overstuffed drawers in the central island, tucked away under a pile of receipts and bank statements. Taking her wine with her, she went upstairs to the master bedroom and changed into leggings and a loose top. She took another mouthful. It was beginning to work its magic, a slow drifting of her mind from its moorings, her thoughts becoming fuzzy and indistinct.
Then the chime of the doorbell. She left the wine on the bedside table and walked down. She could hear Toby’s excited chatter through the door as she reached for the latch. Jessica and Toby tumbled through, laughing, coats and lunchboxes spilling onto the floor, Toby’s pink rabbit with buttons for eyes clutched tightly to his chest.
“Mummy!” he cried, launching himself into Claire’s arms.
“And how are you, light of my life?”
“We played pirates at nursery; I had a sword.”
“Not a real one, I hope,” Claire said in mock horror, “I hope you didn’t hurt anybody with it?”
“I stuck it in Amy – she screamed, but it was only a pretend scream. It didn’t hurt – look”
She was crouching down in front of him and he pushed the sword into her upper shoulder; it was plastic, the blade retracting back into the handle as it hit her arm. She laughed and pretended to be upset. “You monster, you could have killed me.”
“Only a little kill, Mummy, not a big one.”
“Good to know. Let me know when you’re planning your big kill and I’ll try to arrange to be somewhere else that evening.”
“Me too,” said Jessica, laughing. Claire looked up at her.
“Jess, there’s something I need to talk to you about.”
“Yes, no problem. I need to learn a part for some rehearsals starting next week but it can wait. Can’t say it’s much of a part anyway.”
“What’s the play?”
“Merchant of Venice – and no, before you ask, I haven’t been cast as Portia. I’m Nerissa, her lady-in-waiting and confidante.”
“Oh, well, never mind – who knows where it could lead? Perhaps, some Hollywood producer might be in the audience.”
“Doubt it, since it’s in Kilburn. But enough about me, what did you want to talk about?”
“Pour yourself a glass of wine, Jess, and I’ll take this monster up to bed and see how well I can frighten him with a strong dose of Roald Dahl. Then we can have a proper talk.”
Jessica had already fed Toby, who was going through a phase of only eating chicken nuggets and baked beans. Claire was worried about this, but Jessica said it was just a phase they all went through. Then they become foodies as adults, acquire a taste for garlic bread and olives, and complain bitterly that they were force-fed rubbish as children. Jessica had an older daughter, about to take her GCSEs, and a younger son who had just started secondary school.
Claire bundled Toby into his pyjamas, searched for the Roald Dahl book they had been reading, failed to locate it, and settled instead on a Winnie-the-Pooh book. She was struggling to focus, her thoughts circling in a tight loop. Who? Who could be so nasty as to—
“That’s not Mr Twit,” cried Toby.
“No, Mr Twit’s gone missing, so we’ll have to look for him tomorrow. I found Winnie though. Is that alright?” she said, nestling in beside him.
“But I want Mr Twit.”
“Perhaps tomorrow, Toby, but tonight, for one night only, we’ll have Pooh Bear.”
“Does Pooh smell?”
“What? I don’t think so… well, if he does, he smells of honey – honey and possibly bees.”
“George, Elaine’s son?”
“He smells,” Toby giggled. “He had to be taken out of the class – he did a poop in his trousers.” He repeated the word, relishing the sound of it on his lips, the soft explosion of sound. “A poopy pooh.”
Now Claire was giggling herself and pulled him closer to her, his body exuding an intoxicating perfume of its own, a complex mix of milk, shampoo and his own body odours. She inhaled deeply and for a moment felt calmer. She read aloud to him for a little, curled up beside him, and despite her unease, found herself starting to nod off. She awoke with a start. She wondered how long she had been asleep. She glanced at the bedroom clock which emitted a soft green digital glow: 7:05 PM. Twenty minutes? Longer? Toby was asleep. She eased herself out of the bed, taking care not to wake him. She gazed down at his prone form and kissed him gently on his forehead. The guilt of what she had done during her pregnancy never left her.
She remembered Jessica was still waiting downstairs. Stretching upwards like a cat, she smoothed her top down and crept out of the door, pushing it shut behind her.
Jessica was sitting on the cream sofa in the living room, her shoes off, her legs tucked under her. Claire observed her for a moment through the glass-panelled doors before she entered. Jessica had always been the sensible one in their friendship, the one able to switch off her emotions, bringing a coolly analytical approach to a problem. It was odd; Claire was all of these things in her work, but her personal life was something else again.
Claire was also a little envious of her looks. Jessica had auburn hair, an expensive layered cut, with blonde and gold highlights. She had a flawless complexion, and the sort of pert nose Audrey Hepburn would have been proud of. She was pretty – in some lights, beautiful. Claire’s own nose was a more patrician affair, one which people said gave her face a strong, almost masculine look. Claire was holding the funeral card down at her side as though to hide it, but when she sat down beside Jessica she handed her the card.
Jessica looked at it blankly for a moment, comprehension slowly dawning, a look of horror finally emerging. “When did you get this?”
“It was hand-delivered today. I can’t tell when. Anyway, there’s a reason it was delivered like this; the funeral’s tomorrow. Whoever sent it didn’t want to leave it to chance that the card might arrive too late. It also means I have little or no time to try and find out what’s going on.”
“Have you rung the church?”
“No, I meant to, but then you two came back and—”
“You must phone them now. Look, I’ll google their number.”
Jessica fished out her phone from her shoulder bag, which had been dumped on the floor. It was black, with an ornate gold chain strap. New, Claire thought, and she could tell from the etched logo of a tree on the tag that it was a Mulberry bag, very expensive. It would have cost far more money than Claire was prepared to spend on a bag. She thought about commenting on it but then decided against. Jessica had been at university with her, studying English and drama. She had become an actor, but her career had never flourished and now she combined temp work as a waitress or barmaid with the odd stint in provincial theatre. It was a precarious existence and money was often tight. Realising this, Claire had asked her to help out with childcare, taking and collecting Toby from nursery three days a week. She insisted on paying and Jessica had reluctantly accepted. Brenda, Claire’s aunt, did the nursery runs on the remaining two days of the week.
Jessica found the number and handed the phone to Claire. Claire pressed the small telephone icon. The call went to voicemail. She pressed cancel, sighed, and handed the phone back.
“And?” said Jessica.
“Well, call them back – leave a message, explain it’s urgent.”
“Yes, sorry, of course, give it back to me.”
She rang again. Voicemail. Waited for the monotonous greeting to finish, inviting her to leave a message, and took a deep breath. “I’m calling about a funeral service which is taking place at your church tomorrow morning at 9.30. I believe it’s for a Claire Evans. Could you call me back, please? It’s very important I speak to you. My number is 07700 334208. I’ll repeat that: 07700 334208. Thank you.”
Jessica leaned towards her, covering one of her hands with her own.
“I’m so sorry, Claire, this must be so frightening. Are you okay?”
“No, not really.”
“Have you thought about who might have sent this?”
Claire gave a bitter laugh. “I’ve thought of nothing else. But I can’t… my mind’s in a complete… I can’t think straight. I’m sorry, I just—”
Tears pricked her eyes.
“Don’t go to the church tomorrow; it’s obviously a hoax. It’s just someone playing a very nasty trick. I think they stopped burials there anyway in the 1970s.”
“They stopped using the graveyard, but they still hold funeral services there. I have to go – even if it is a hoax, and I’m sure it is, I still need to go. I might find something, a clue, something that helps me find out who did this.”
“All you’re going to find,” said Jessica, “is a closed-up church. It’s a waste of time.”
“Even so, I still think I need to be there. There’s always a clue, my job has at least taught me that. Even the most careful person will leave something behind.”
“Not if they didn’t go there in the first place. The person sending that card wouldn’t have needed to visit the church. They probably don’t even live locally, just looked up your address on Google Maps and worked out where the nearest church was.”
“The card was hand-delivered.”
“Oh, of course, it was. Sorry, I’m sure I’d make a lousy detective. Do you want me to stay over? I could come to the church with you tomorrow.”
“No, Jess, it’s fine. I think I have to do this on my own.”