DEATH IN THE PHYSIC GARDEN sample

Cow Parsley © Barry Lowe Home

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Death in the Physic Garden is on sale in paperback or as a Kindle download. For a taster of the novel, here are the opening chapters.

CHAPTER ONE
Thursday 21 June

'Hello? Who is that?'
    Silence. Just silence. It wasn't the first time either. He never spoke; she couldn't even hear him breathing, but she could picture him, listening to the rising inflection of fear in her voice. At first she had been angry that Daniel was still trying to control her life, but his silence was unnerving. If he had sworn at her, she could have coped better. There would have been something to react to. She slammed down the phone, her hands shaking. Even now, though he was a hundred miles away in London, she was scared. The phone rang again. She snatched it up. 'Look, you've got to stop this.'
   'Is that Star Gardens?'
  'What?'
   'Is that Star Gardens?' The old man's voice was frail but commanding. A potential client for her new garden design business, and she'd probably just scared him away. Damn you, Daniel.
  'I'm sorry. Someone keeps ringing and hanging up. Children, I expect. I'm Fern Green, Star Gardens.'
   'My name is Joshua Hamble. I saw your advertisement in the local paper. I've decided it's time I did something about my garden,' the old man said. 'I have some help but I really need something easier to manage.'
   'Yes, of course,' she responded. Thank you, she breathed, for not being scared off by a mad woman. She just hoped he had a large garden and the finances to match. Her survival depended on it. Her fledgling garden design business was barely a month old and as yet she hadn't earned enough to buy a packet of seeds.
  In her panic to escape from London and Daniel's tyranny, Fern had given little thought to what she was running to. There hadn't been time to grab more than a bag and whatever she could cram into it. Catching the next train out of Euston, her only lodestone had been a memory of a family holiday spent in those remote South Shropshire hills, a time she remembered of happiness and security.
  Huddled into her corner seat in the near empty carriage, she watched the sulphur lights of London's suburbs speed by, and realised she knew exactly where she was going. Star Gardens had been no more than a dream until that moment, but suddenly she felt as if she had always been headed in that direction.
  There had been gardens in her life for as long as she could remember, from her grandmother's windswept Devon cottage to the luxuriant borders of the walled garden in Croydon's municipal park. While some people remembered favourite teddies or dolls, for her it was the tall scented lupins with their jewelled starfish leaves, the foxgloves and rosebay willowherb higher than she was, that were her treasured memories.
  Across the aisle of the carriage, an elderly woman studied her over her magazine. Her appearance was the last thing on her mind. She felt raw and bruised, both physically and mentally. Instinctively she put her hand to her throat. Did the marks of his fingers show? As the train hurtled through the darkness of an unseen landscape, she caught sight of her harum-scarum reflection in the glass, her long coppery hair wild and unbrushed. She felt like a refugee, fleeing in the dead of night, headed for another country, another planet even. As she closed her eyes she saw again the incandescent anger in Daniel's eyes the last time she had seen him, that precarious mix of rage and contempt. He wanted to own her, body and soul, and when she rebelled, he had tried to stifle her into submission.
  'Where do you think you're going?' Daniel had been drinking, his usual after-office relaxation in the City wine bars. He held onto the bedroom door, swaying slightly as he studied with mounting fury the coppery silk dress she wore, the high heeled shoes, the rare gloss of lipstick.
  'There's a party. I told you,' she said, picking up her bag from the bed. 'We won a gold medal at Chelsea.'
  'You can't go without me!'
  Her stomach clenched into a knot. She knew the warning signs too well, but this time there could be no surrender. She stood her ground.
  'Yes. Without you,' she said and, saying it, it was as if a spell was somehow broken. She knew she could no longer be with him. 'I'm leaving you.'
   'You can't!' he snapped. 'You can't just walk out of my life.'
  'That's just it,' she said. 'It's your life, not mine.'
  His Docklands flat of polished beech floors and minimalist furniture of chrome, glass and leather, his obsession with the right designer labels, had become a prison to her. There was never room for any of the things she wanted. Not even the consolation of a garden.
  'You were keen enough to move in here.'
  'I thought I was in love with you,' she said patiently. How long ago it seemed now. But this was only their second spring together. It should have been a time for growth and renewal, yet she felt daily more stifled.
  'What about me? Don't my feelings count for anything?'
  'Do mine?' she countered. 'I'm just something you had to acquire for the flat, like that Philippe Starck chair or the latest plasma screen. It was never about me, as a person, was it?'
  'That's nonsense! I love you. You know I do.'
  'No, you don't,' she said as softly as she could, trying to balance his outrage with her calm. 'I don't think you ever did.'
  She started towards the door but he did not give way.
  'You can't go. You belong here with me,' he insisted, kicking the door shut behind him. Close to, his breath smelt sourly of wine. His eyes were bloodshot and glassy. His usually sleek blond hair was damp with sweat.
  'I can't stay,' she said simply.
  She saw the anger flare in his eyes. She had betrayed him. After all the time and money he had invested in their relationship, to have it count for nothing was the ultimate humiliation.
  'Didn't you hear me?' he demanded, his chin thrust out. 'You're not going anywhere.' He grabbed at her arm as she tried to open the door.
  'Daniel, please ...'
  'How would it look if I let you go? You're mine! Don't you ever forget that! You do as I say!' he thundered. His hand clasped her throat. 'You can't leave me.'
  She struggled, choking, as his grip tightened. She kicked at him but her high-heeled shoes tumbled ineffectually to the floor. She tried to push him away, her fingers clawing at him. Though her garden work had blunted her nails, it had made her strong. With an effort she balled her fists together and jabbed them upwards between his hands, breaking the lock of his grip.
  'You have to let me go!' she said fiercely. He stared at her, surprised and outraged, as she tugged open the door.
  'You bitch!' She felt her hair tugged almost from its roots. He swung her away from the door and hit her hard across the side of her face. Her skull thudded back against the wall. She slithered to the floor feeling giddy and sick. Dimly she was aware of the thump of his footsteps over the stripped wood floor, then a metallic jangle of sound from the kitchen.
  'You're not going anywhere!' he warned as he returned. Through the tangle of her hair she saw the long blades of the scissors glint in his hand as he pointed them towards her. He meant to kill her, she was sure of it. She gave a gasp of panic. But instead he wheeled away, pulling open the wardrobe door. He jabbed wildly, tearing and cutting all the designer label clothes he had chosen for her. He swung back to her then, panting from the exertion. 'You'll never leave me!'
  He caught her hair and yanked her head back, pressing the blades against the taut flesh of her throat. She stared up at him in terror as she fought for breath. Panic drummed through her. He would never let her go. She would never be free till she was dead.
  'Daniel, you have to listen to me.' But she knew he could not hear her.
  'I'll show you, you bitch. No-one will look at you again!' he hissed. He peered down into her face as if relishing the fear he saw there. Still he held her, the blades against her throat as he leaned over her. She saw him sway, his balance uncertain. It was more by instinct than calculation that she launched herself forward, crashing against him. He staggered backwards, the scissors clattering to the floor, and stumbled over her shoes. He crashed heavily like a felled tree and lay on his side, unmoving.
  With a new sense of panic Fern scrambled after him. What had she done? Had she killed him? His eyes were closed, but she could hear his breathing, heavy and regular. His mouth gaped, dribbling. Presently he began to snore.
  She sat back on her haunches, the dread evaporating. She could almost have laughed. How pathetic he looked. And yet how dangerous she knew him to be. She was not going to be there when he woke. Hurriedly she pulled on her work clothes and took her rucksack from the cupboard, cramming in what she could of her belongings.
  She glanced at Daniel again. On the floor the scissors gleamed. There was a scar in the wood where they had fallen. She bent and picked them up. She had loved him once. Now she felt nothing but contempt. She had trusted him. She would never forgive him for the fear he had roused in her.
  Kneeling beside him, she took a handful of his fine blond hair and sheared it raggedly. By morning he would have slept off the Chardonnay, but he would have cause to remember what he had done.

  'Is everything all right?'
   Travelling into the night, towards a town she didn't know, a landscape she remembered from sixteen years ago, with no job and a bank balance of fifty-eight pounds? From deep inside her welled a smile of triumph.
   'Everything,' Fern assured her fellow traveller, 'is fine now.'


But escape hadn't been quite the solution she had thought it. Ever since the silent phone calls started, she realised Daniel had meant what he said. He was not going to let her go. He showed no remorse for the way he had behaved. He wanted revenge. Wherever she went, he would come after her. Sooner or later he would find her. She thrust the unwelcome thought to the back of her mind as she focused determinedly on Joshua Hamble's voice.
   'How big is the garden?' she asked.
   'About two acres,' he informed her. Big, she thought, smiling. She began to work out her fee. Initial consultation and outline design ideas, then a follow-up visit and survey, full design and planting plans; maybe two thousand pounds. With luck he might ask her to project manage the garden's redesign. 'But it's just the physic garden I need redesigning,' he explained. 'It's been my life's work. It will be hard to let that go, but my mind is made up.'
   Maybe not so wealthy, she revised, since he balked at employing more help. Five hundred, tops.
   'I'll see what I can do.' She hoped he didn't hear the thud of her enthusiasm.
   'When can you come?'
   Noisily, Fern turned the empty pages of her diary.
   'Early next week?'
'Tomorrow morning would suit me. At nine fifteen,' he said as if the precise time were important to him. 'I'm at Martyns Court, just outside Lydford on the Clee road. I believe we're near neighbours.'


CHAPTER TWO
Friday 22 June


In that remote Shropshire hill country, anyone within fifteen minutes' drive could be counted a near neighbour. It was a landscape of sandstone ridges and steep hidden valleys laced with streams, a quiet hinterland cloaked with the remnants of old forests, where sheep grazed on high heathland among ancient craggy rocks. But the tranquillity was deceptive. The dairy herds, the pasturing sheep, were threatened by a silent, deadly enemy. It was more than thirty years since foot-and-mouth had last devastated the county, but now the chilling 'Keep Out' signs, the barred footpaths and barricades of disinfected straw were daily reminders that the countryside was once again under siege. The billowing smoke and stench of pyres bore witness to its casualties, and daily the TV news pictured empty stockyards and the anguished faces of the farmers and their families. Despite the beauty of flowery hedgerows, the green swell of the hills, and the lush green and gold fields, this was a land of suffering. Yet Fern felt safer in that remote valley; a hundred and twenty miles from London, it felt like as many years.
   Spinning down the lane on her bike on Friday morning to meet Joshua Hamble, she had shaken off her fear of Daniel like a burr. With the warm June air stinging her cheeks with its peppery dust, her hair whipping back from her face, she felt an exhilarating sense of freedom. At the crossroads, instead of taking the road down into the village, she swung right. The lane meandered along the lower slope of the valley, its narrow span of tarmac crusted with dried mud and dung. To either side, the verges crowded in towards her, head-high with grasses, docks and the creamy umbels of ground elder. The thorn hedge gave way to a drive that tunnelled between overgrown laurel, dark and midge-ridden. She could feel the sting of bites on her skin. Emerging into sunlight, it took her a few seconds to adjust to the glare. Shading her eyes, she looked up for the first time at the mullioned windows and honey sandstone walls of the Elizabethan manor house, its high twisted chimneys in silhouette against the dazzling summer sky.
   So this was Martyns Court, Joshua Hamble's home. She had not expected it to be so beautiful. How much harder it made her task, ensuring the garden she created did justice to this legacy of craftsmanship. She tried to envisage the sterile plain of lawn as a wildflower meadow, feathery grasses rippled through with scarlet poppies, golden-eyed daisies and sky-blue cornflowers, an Impressionist painting breathed into life. But would Joshua Hamble welcome so radical a transformation? She glanced at her watch. Twenty-five past nine. She was late as usual.
   She rapped at the oak front door. Indoors a vacuum cleaner droned. She knocked again and waited. Now she was really late. One of her worst faults, according to Daniel. She had a feeling Joshua Hamble would be with him on that one.
   She made her way round the side of the house. Her skin, already reddened from working outdoors to rescue her acre of neglected garden, burned under the sun's glare. It was going to be the hottest day yet. Maybe Joshua Hamble was waiting for her on the terrace with an iced drink.
   The blank canvas of the front garden left her unprepared for the view that confronted her as she opened the side gate. It was like walking into a sweetshop. The wide flower borders glowed with colour. Clouds of white phlox merged into the blues and mauves of campanulas; huge poppies, the sultry Patty's Plum and soft pink Mrs Perry, cast petals to the lawn like harem dancers shedding their veils. Gold and amber day lilies dazzled against the dark purple of cotinus, with its smoky haze of flowers. Sceptres of blue agapanthus, the African lily, thrust up from mounds of spear-like leaves, basking in the sun's heat. She noticed the snagging coils of bindweed that weighted the spires of lemon verbascum. Dandelions breathed fluffy seeds across the garden. Joshua Hamble had warned her that the garden was becoming too much for him to maintain. But how could he dispense with any of its treasures? It would be like abandoning his children.
   Still there was no sign of her new client. The stone-flagged terrace at the back of the house was deserted, save for the bees that droned over the thymes and lavenders that sprawled from terracotta pots. The scents of the herbs mingled seductively in the hot still air. As she climbed the low steps she pinched off a sprig of rosemary, pressing it between her fingers to draw in its exquisite scent. In front of the open French doors was a black cast-iron table. On one of its cushioned chairs lay a newspaper folded to the morning's crossword, uncompleted.
   'Mr Hamble?' she called out. 'It's Fern Green.'
   Perhaps he was working in the physic garden he had spoken of, and had lost all sense of time. She knew only too well how gardens had a clock all of their own, and how seductively they detained you at their pleasure.
   She followed the path down over the lawn to the rose pergola. Fallen petals of lemon and pink smothered the interlacing brickwork of the path, their sultry sweet scent exhaling as she walked. She ducked beneath an unpruned briar, her fingers itching for secateurs and a length of twine. She drank in the scents of sugar pink New Dawn and the apricot confections of Gloire de Dijon. She would have roses in her own garden, myrrh-scented English roses with petals like many-layered petticoats, and the snowstorm blossoms of ramblers, a profusion of flowers and scent from May until late into November, and then the jewel hips, the flagons of orange Rosa moyesii, the rich scarlet globes of Rosa rugosa. At that moment she would have claimed the rose as her favourite flower, well aware that she felt an equal passion for the irises, peonies, lilies and poppies, and any of a hundred other flowers that clamoured for her attention. Such was gardening. She loved them all.
   At the centre of the rose pergola a path led off to the right, towards a stone bench flanked by urns brimming with pelargoniums. To her left she saw a Gothic archway cut into the dark mass of a high yew hedge. It was the glimpse of a garden beyond that drew her irresistibly.
   Through the yew arch, she emerged into a garden of such different mood that for a moment she stopped, disoriented. The narrow beds were set out in a grid pattern, separated by gravel paths. Instead of the overflowing luxury of the flower borders, here the plants were austerely spaced with bare soil between. She bent to read the neatly lettered labels tucked into the soil: starry flowered camomile 'used in pain relief and to cure fevers', the tall mauve-flowered clary 'for swellings and splinters'. So this was Joshua Hamble's physic garden, his life's work; a living catalogue and medicine chest, as meticulously tended as the monks' and alchemists' physic gardens of medieval days.
   A high brick wall enclosed the garden, trapping the day's heat. Against the warm bricks grew roses trained along a mesh of wires. She recognised the old varieties of Rosa alba and Damask rose that would have yielded soothing oils for the monks' infirmary. The first rosaries were probably composed of their bead-like hips.
   Fern moved along the path, studying the plant labels as she went. She passed the tall yellow spires of woad, source of a blue dye that was used well into the twentieth century for dying uniforms, and was once prized for healing wounds. There were lowly plantains and shepherd's purse, for even weeds had their uses in the medicinal armoury. Chickweed, rich in minerals, was eaten as a salad or cooked like spinach. As an ointment, it helped heal ulcers; dug into the soil it was a valuable manure.
   'I made my fortune out of medicinal plants,' Joshua Hamble had told her on the phone. 'The physic garden is my tribute to all the herbalists who went before me.'
   It was not a style of garden she found beautiful, but Fern had to admire Joshua Hamble's skill and dedication in creating it. And this, she realised as her gaze swept on past the towering angelica and the airy foliage of fennel, tinged with bronze, was the garden she had been brought here to destroy. The gardener and plant lover in her rebelled. Surely there must be some way to preserve it? So many modern medicines were derived from plants like these. Willow, with its bitter quinine flavoured bark, contained the same chemical, salicin, as meadowsweet, and yielded salicylic acid for aspirin. Foxgloves, long renowned for their extracts for treating heart conditions, shared the same glycosides with some thirty other genera. Even the yew, with deadly cyanide locked inside its fruit stones, yielded paclitaxel, used to treat ovarian cancer. How many more remedies were yet to be discovered? Didn't the garden and its life-giving plants deserve to survive? She had to talk to him, persuade him. Her mind was already racing ahead, arguing, fighting, both with him and against him, if need be, to save the physic garden. It was his life's work. How could he abandon it now?
   So engrossed had she been in the plants that she did not notice the straw hat lying on the path until she almost trod on it. She stooped to pick it up.
   'Mr Hamble?'
   She had reached the sundial at the centre of the garden where the paths met. In the high brick wall a door leaned open, inviting her to explore further. Beside it grew a handsome bush of red blossomed Rosa gallica, its scent overpowered by the seductive fragrance of Madonna lilies. She could see the gleam of creamy petals against the rose's darker foliage. But the elegant trumpet flowers were bent and broken. She felt a surge of outrage at such vandalism, but as she made her way towards them she saw the cause of their destruction. Sprawled face down in their midst was a man's body.
   She peered cautiously at the slumped figure. He made no move, no sound. His left arm was flung out through the broken stems as if to brace his fall, his right arm trapped beneath him. Around him the white petals of the lilies were spattered red like tulip virus. Blood oozed over the soil and seeped into the gravel of the path, staining the grey stones like rust. As her shadow fell across his body, a buzz of iridescent flies swarmed up around her. She dropped the hat in alarm and pressed her hand to her mouth to smother the welling nausea. On her fingers the sharp aromatic scent of rosemary jolted her senses. Now was not the time to be squeamish. He needed her help.
   Wary of the blood, she touched his neck, searching for a pulse. His skin was cool despite the heat of the day. The old man's face was turned towards the open door, his eyes a dull grey. How awkwardly he lay, hunched, as if he had been trying to crawl. Close to, she saw the reason for all the blood. Between his fingers he clutched dark-stained metal. With a lurch of horror she recognised the curved blade of secateurs buried in his gut.
   She started back appalled, staring at the crushed and broken lilies around her, their beauty violated. The calm order of the physic garden had been destroyed. Its creator, Joshua Hamble, was dead.


'So you were the one who found him?'
   Reluctantly Fern switched her gaze from the solace of the flower border beyond the terrace. She seemed to have been waiting for hours since she had first run into the house to phone for an ambulance. She had watched the police busy themselves in house and garden, preferring to remain outdoors. Sitting on the bench in the far corner of the terrace, distant from the table where Joshua Hamble had last sat to study the morning crossword, she felt remote from the violent death she had seen, suppressing the memory by focussing on the luxuriant beauty of the garden.
   'Detective Inspector Drummond,' he introduced himself. He stood outlined against the sunlight so that it was painful for her to look up at him for long. Imprinted in her mind was an image of him standing, legs apart, chin thrust forward as if in defiance. Something in his stance would have made her believe in his nickname 'Bully'. DI Drummond had inevitably been called 'Bulldog' all through the early days of his police career, shortened to 'Bull' by those who said he was full of it, and then later, acknowledging his match-clinching goals for the local team, 'Bully' in honour of Steve Bull, Wolves and England striker. The name had stuck though he hadn't kicked a football in three years. 'Fern Green, isn't it?' She gave a nod, her stomach still queasy, not trusting herself to speak. 'I have to ask you some questions.'
   The rising inflection in his voice betrayed a Welsh ancestry. She watched him as he opened his pocket book. He was wearing sunglasses, his face square-jawed and faintly stubbled. His dark brown hair, centre-parted, flopped over his forehead. He wore no jacket; his white short-sleeved shirt was open at the neck. She found that irritating, perhaps because she sensed that Joshua Hamble, in his grey trousers and cream linen jacket, had been meticulous about his dress. Didn't his death deserve more respect?
   'What was the purpose of your visit here today?'
   'Mr Hamble asked me to meet him,' she said. 'He wanted something done about his garden. I'm a garden designer.'
   'Garden designer,' he repeated as he wrote. He made it sound distasteful. As a child, he'd moved house so often with his father they'd never put down roots themselves, let alone succeeded in growing anything. His only memories of plants were the dying remnants of a Venus Flytrap he'd had as a child. He'd even managed to kill a cactus. He hated all that mumbo jumbo of Latin names. A conspiracy, he thought it, like the jargon lawyers used to make their work mysterious and exclusive. And those arcane rituals, pruning and mulching, it was just like a secret society. He was relieved that his second floor flat was safely remote from anything vegetal.
   'Mr Hamble asked me to redesign the physic garden for him,' she explained. Her voice sounded brittle and weak. It did not seem to belong to her. Saying his name brought back the vision of the old man sprawled among the lilies, the blood spattered like paint over the white petals, the insects swarming over the dried blood on the gravel. She remembered the bloodied secateurs. How long had he lain there? How long had it taken him to die? He must have suffered. Again she felt a stir of nausea.
   'The what?'
   'Physic garden. Where I found him,' she said. The dark glasses hid his eyes. She found that disconcerting, as if she could not fully understand him unless she could also read his expression.
   'Physic garden.' He wrote it down, labouring over the spelling. 'When was that?'
   She drew a breath. 'Medieval times. Monks and apothecaries used the plants for medicines.'
   'I mean when did you find the body,' he said. She squinted up at him against the sun. She could feel the blood burn in her face. If he enjoyed her discomfort, she did not detect the slightest curl of a smile. Perhaps he had no sense of humour, just the blunt bovine acceptance of someone who dealt daily with such appalling horror.
   'About two hours ago.'
   'Dead, was he? When you found him?'
   'Of course he was bloody well dead!' So much blood. Red spattered over white petals. Unwillingly she remembered the physic garden, wandering its paths. She remembered the cloying scent of the Madonna lilies, the iron smell of blood. Blood on the soil. Blood and bone. Only a few days ago she had used it in her own garden to improve the soil's fertility. Now it seemed suddenly obscene.
   'What time was that?'
   'Time?' She flashed a glare at him. As if her first thought when she walked down that path and found the old man dead was to check her watch.
   'What time did you arrive at the house?' he tried again with only a hint of impatience.
   It seemed as if aeons had passed since she had first come to the house that morning. And yet the memory was ever present. She had only to close her eyes. She dared not close her eyes. She glanced at him again. The sun burned a fiery halo round him. Pain stabbed through her head. Such heat. The sun was at its zenith. Quickly she bowed her head. She could feel the sun's heat burn her scalp. The stone flags burned beneath her bare feet. Where had they taken her shoes?
   Scent drifted up from the herbs in the terracotta pots basking on the terrace. She made herself focus on untangling the scents, unpicking each strand of thyme, rosemary, lavender, a profusion that was almost strident, vying with that underlying tang of mint that was eerily medicinal.
   'Miss Green?' Drummond's voice boomed distantly. She stared blankly at him, her vision pulling in and out of focus in time with her breathing. Blackness closed in like a tunnel. She felt as if the air were being squeezed from the day. The drone of insects, the distant thrum, the vibrant colours of the garden telescoped muzzily away from her. She was scared she would faint and dug her nails into her palms as if clinging to consciousness. How distant the garden was, the sounds coming from far off.
   'Swain!' he called to the young officer coming up the terrace steps. 'Get Miss Green a drink. Beckett's in the kitchen with the housekeeper.' He sat down beside her on the bench. 'Are you OK? Do you want to go on?'
   She gave a nod. Anything to get away from there as quickly as she could, to escape the pictures in her mind.
   'What time did you get here?' he asked more gently.
   'Half past nine,' she said. Again that distant voice. Was it really hers? She could see the newspaper on the chair across the terrace. Just a few hours ago Joshua Hamble had put down the paper and walked out into the garden to his death. He hadn't finished his crossword. Not even that small consolation before he died. 'I was late. He was expecting me at quarter past.'
   She did not look at him again. His presence seemed to fill the space around her, the heat from his body, the faint tang of sweat, his every drawn breath. She could see the dark hairs on his tanned forearm, the glaring white page of his pocketbook as it rested against the navy of his trousers. She tensed, seeking her chance to escape but still he did not release her.
   'Been here before, had you?'
   She shook her head. 'First time.' Last time too, she thought. She could imagine the old man in those last few moments, the pain he must have felt, his despair and helplessness. Had the prospect of death terrified him?
   'Anyone else about?'
   'No. Only the housekeeper. I could hear a vacuum cleaner. No-one else.'
   'You're sure?'
   Was she sure of anything? She tried to think but all she felt was the heat burning her skin, and the scent of thyme. He leaned slightly forward as if impatient for her answer. He was too close, his presence invasive, trapping her into the corner of the terrace. Panic rose in her. Anxiously she sought her nearest escape. She hated to be shut in.
   'Quite sure,' she said.
   'How did you get here this morning?'
   'Cycled.'
   'See anyone on your way here? Any cars pass you?'
   'No.' How many more times? There had been no-one else. Why did he seem unable to believe her? Her glance lifted desperately to the garden, focused on the distant line of thorn trees on the boundary, grown up from the old farm hedge. Beyond lay a barley field, restless like the sea, the sunlight gleaming in its iridescent ripples. She imagined herself wading out into its midst, trailing her fingers amongst the whiskered stalks. Only there was nowhere she could walk freely now. The woods, the fields, the footpaths were closed off, forbidden, thanks to the foot-and-mouth epidemic. And Joshua Hamble was dead. She could see them bringing up his body from the garden, a long black bag on a metal stretcher. Men sweating in white protective suits. Like the men she'd seen earlier that week, gathered at a farm beyond the village. Another cull. A land of plague. And now this death. Was it ever going to end?
   'Clyve Cottage, Lydford Cross,' he read out. 'That's your address?'
   He had taken off his sunglasses. Tucked them into the breast pocket of his shirt. She could see their designer tag. Expensive. Daniel had a pair like them. Were labels important to him too? She saw the dark purple bruising around his left eye that the sunglasses had been hiding. An accident? A fight? She remembered her own bruises. Her fingers strayed to her neck, afraid that he would see the faint traces where Daniel had tried to strangle her. He had come close to killing her. Yet what if she had killed him that night? Would she still have tried to escape? An accident, self-defence, yet would they have believed her? Confronted by Drummond now, she felt unsure. And if she had not defended herself, what then? Her thoughts trod a tightrope between the chasms of her nightmares. Flowers of arnica for bruises, she thought, determined to resist the treacherous memories.
   Drummond watched the tensing muscles in her face, the ebb and flow of colour in her cheeks. His gaze intensified with curiosity, his attention focused more on her face than on his pocketbook.
   'Near here, is it?' he asked.
   'Up on the hill, past the Lydford crossroads.'
   'How long have you lived there?'
   'A few weeks. I left London on 25 May to start my own business here.' No need to tell him any more. Not about Daniel. Especially not about Daniel. He made a note of the date. Just a day like any other. No flicker of recognition that it had been the end of the Chelsea Flower Show. The last time she would be bullied by Daniel. She would not stay to be bullied by Drummond either. 'There's really nothing else I can tell you, Inspector,' she said determinedly as she got to her feet.
   'Risky, wasn't it?' he said, looking up at her.
   'What?'
   The startled look in her eyes intrigued him. It vanished quickly but it left an indelible impression in his mind. An oval face with a scatter of freckles across her nose, eyes that seemed to hesitate between grey and green, depending on her temper. He sat quite still. No unnecessary movement, no distraction. The way his dad had shown him to get the robin to take food from his hand. The way to win the trust of a wild creature, like the semi-feral ponies on the Brecon Beacons he used to coax to feed.
   'Coming all the way out here to start a business,' he said. 'Why Lydford?'
   She glared at him. What did he want from her? What could she tell him? That emotionally those remote South Shropshire hills were as far away from London as she could get? The land that time forgot, her father called it. A different world from their gloomy Victorian semi in Croydon, within earshot of the main line rattling into London. She must have been ten, chasing after her older brother through woods and streams, making hay slides on the next door farm. It was the last time they had been together as a family, and Fern had never been happier. Not long after, her mother had left them, but all that summer there had been not so much as a shadow of a storm cloud. Had she really had no inkling of what was happening between her parents?
   But then, why should she? She should know well enough how adept adults were at pretence. No-one in her family knew the truth about her break-up with Daniel. She preferred to cope alone.
   'I came here once as a child,' she said, unwilling to explain any more than she had to. He did not deserve it. She stood her ground, refusing to sit down, and enjoyed for a moment what she knew was now his discomfort at having to look up at her against the sun's glare. 'Besides, with the internet, we're never far from anywhere.' True though it was, saying it made her uneasy. In her flight from London, she consoled herself that those South Shropshire hills seemed beyond reach, at the end of the earth. But how quickly Daniel had found her phone number. Directory enquiries only listed her under the name of her new business, Star Gardens. Apart from her father and her bank, in whose debt she was living, only her ex-employers, Acanthus, knew her number. Doubtless Daniel had come up with some plausible excuse as to why he didn't know where she had gone. Why should they suspect him? She had never confided in them. We make a good team, Daniel always said. We don't need other people. Once she had been proud of his faith in her and their relationship. Now she saw how isolated and vulnerable that made her, without allies to defend herself against him. She would never be so dependent on anyone again. 'There's nothing more I can tell you.'
   Swain stepped out on onto the terrace, carrying a cup. His peachy complexion and cropped blond hair would not have looked out of place in a boy band, she thought.
   'Why did you say it was an accident?'
   'What?' Her attention snapped back to Drummond.
   'When you rang for an ambulance, you said there'd been an accident.'
   'What was I supposed to say?'
   'It's just the way he died,' he said, screwing up his eyes against the sunlight. 'You didn't think it - unusual?'
   'Of course it was bloody unusual!' she fired back. 'But I've no idea what happened to him.'
   'No. That's my job, Miss Green,' he said coolly, one arm outstretched along the back of the bench where she had been sitting. 'To find out how he died.'
   'I'd have thought that was obvious. He bled to death, slowly and very painfully, I should imagine. I saw the secateurs in his stomach.' She gave him an accusing glare. Didn't he care what Joshua Hamble had suffered in those last minutes? 'No-one deserves to die like that.'
   'Perhaps someone thought he did,' he said in that soft melodic Welsh accent.
   He studied her wide shocked gaze for a moment, letting the possibility drip into her mind. Slowly he rose to his feet.
   'You think someone killed him?' she said as his gaze levelled with hers. But if Joshua Hamble had been murdered, the killer must have been at the house that morning, had been in the garden where she had walked. If she had been on time instead of fifteen minutes late ... She frowned. How could it be so? How could anyone have harmed the old man? Yet once she had believed Daniel could never hurt her. The two separate worlds clashed together. She had felt safe in Lydford, but there was danger here too and she had not foreseen it. Were her instincts really so dulled? What if Daniel had already found out where she was living? What if he were on his way to the cottage right now? How would she defend herself against him next time?
   'I have to go,' she said. She fled back across the terrace, past the iron table, the flagstones hot beneath her feet.
   'I may have some more questions, Miss Green,' he called after her, flipping his pocketbook shut.
   He watched her hurry barefoot down over the steps of the terrace, her dark coppery hair bobbing against her shoulders. Long legs, a good figure, more Amazon than stick-insect. Yes, he reflected, he would definitely have more questions for Miss Green. First he needed more time to dig deeper into the garden designer's story. She was hiding something. How else to explain that game of cat and mouse that had passed for an interview? Shock in all its many states he had met before, and finding Hamble's body had unnerved her. But there was something more, he was sure of it. Guilt? Fear? She could be protecting someone. Perhaps she was closer to the Hambles than she pretended. He hated being lied to, and Miss Green was not telling him the whole truth. He took the cup Swain held and drained it.
   'No bloody sugar,' he grimaced.
   'Sorry, sir,' Swain said, pink faced, his glance switching from Fern's hastily retreating figure. 'You were hard on her, sir, weren't you?'
   'Bloody garden designer? Criminal, isn't it?' Drummond said, shoving the cup back at him. 'Find out what Ms Green was up to in London. The estate agent will have a reference for her.'
   'Is she a suspect, sir?'
   'No-one's ruled out yet,' he snapped. 'I want to know why she really came running out here to Lydford. See if there's a link.' There wouldn't be, he was confident. All the same he wanted to know if he was right about her. Just what was she hiding? Too bloody nosy, his gran said, that was his trouble. Couldn't help being a policeman though, could he? Ten years in the force and the habit ran deep like veins in Stilton. 'You'd better go after her, Swain.'
   'Sir?'
   'Her shoes. Forensics must have finished with them by now. Give her back her shoes.'
   Drummond stood with his arms locked about himself, and scowled at the garden. He had a feeling like indigestion. On his drive out to Martyns Court, he had realised just how much of a pain Hamble's death could prove to be. He reviewed the victim profile. Joshua Hamble, wealthy, reclusive, retired Chairman of Allheal Herbs on a pension worth more than he'd earn in a lifetime. No, a suspicious death like his could not be put on the back burner. It would need hustling along to a conclusion. There'd be all sorts of interest, not least from the press. Pressure from above to get it sorted. Not the kind of case that got you promotion, but he'd suffer for it if he got things wrong. Facts, that's what he needed. But he had Fern Green to deal with, and that murky brew of emotion and imagination. He had to stick to the facts and let the coppery hair and freckles, and those wide scared eyes take care of themselves. Most likely whatever she was afraid of didn't have a bearing on the case, and he didn't have time for her problems, even if he had been the Sir Galahad type. He just wanted a neat clear-cut case. He gave a heavy sigh and wandered back to the cast-iron table. He glanced down at the paper on the chair. Six down. Back in the bike store.
   'Shafted,' he said aloud. That's just how he felt.
   DC Rebecca Beckett had long held the belief that she was the only woman capable of saving Ross Drummond from a wasted life. She knew there'd been a string of girlfriends, but none of them had stayed the distance. It was obvious he needed a soulmate, someone who understood the demands of his job. Who better to fill the vacuum in his life than her? She understood him completely. Oh yes, he needed her, there was no doubt about it. Only problem was, he didn't know it yet. Detectives could be thick like that. The moment he walked into the kitchen she scrambled to her feet, clenching in her stomach.
   'Sir, Mrs Cartwright says she got here at five to eight this morning.'
   Drummond's glance flicked past her to the elderly woman, Joshua Hamble's housekeeper, sitting hunch-shouldered at the kitchen table. Her scrawny fingers clutched a sodden handkerchief. She looked all skin and bone like a starved cat. Above an elongated face her hair was tightly curled and dyed a pale metallic blue. Her smeared lipstick was the sharp pink of her
  rose-patterned apron. 'I come in for eight to get him his breakfast,' Mrs Cartwright said with a sniff. 'Then I work through, cleaning, polishing. Whatever needs doing.'
   'She comes in from the village six mornings a week, not Sundays. Church,' she explained. 'Says she didn't hear a thing. Stone deaf,' she whispered.
   'Then why are you whispering?' he whispered back. She blushed. Second time that day he'd made a woman blush, he realised. Sometimes he felt like a stranger in their country. He didn't understand the language. Whatever he said got lost in translation. Stick to the facts. He lowered himself into a chair opposite her. 'Mrs Cartwright?'
   Her stony glance fixed upon the morning's detritus of cups, jugs and sugar bowl on the table top between them.
   'Did you see anyone come to the house this morning?' His voice echoed, louder than usual, in the green tiled kitchen with its jaded cream formica cupboards. So many cupboards. He wondered what was inside them. A hoard of Mrs Cartwright's home-made jams, jars of gentleman's relish? Best china, like his gran had? Only ever seen for Sunday best and funeral teas. Always making jams and chutneys, his gran. The year was marked out by their scents: oranges and lemons for marmalade, rhubarb, strawberry, raspberry, plum, then the tomato and bean chutneys and the vinegar tang of pickling cabbage and onions, and the year's crescendo of rich spices and marzipan that magically transformed into mincemeat and Christmas cake. So many school holidays he had spent with her. In his memory, it was always summer in her Swansea kitchen with wasps buzzing at the window and the house filled with the sticky sweet smell of strawberry jam. Just thinking made him feel hungry. That and the distinct aroma of fried bacon in the room. On the table in front of him a torn packet of shortcake biscuits was spilled onto a plate. He reached across and helped himself.
   Mrs Cartwright gave him a sharp, disapproving glance.
   'No,' she said.
   'Did you see Miss Green arrive?'
   She was watching his lips move. 'The garden designer. Fern Green,' he said with exaggeration. He was aware that pronouncing her name produced the semblance of an inane grin. He glared at Beckett, daring her to snigger.
   'I told that girl,' she said, nodding towards DC Beckett. 'I was hoovering through.' Her eyes were tearful again. She leaned across to Drummond, desperate for reassurance, for something to make it all right again. 'How could it have happened? He was a real gentleman.'
   'What time did you last see Mr Hamble?'
   'Half past eight. I took his breakfast out to him on the terrace. He was doing his crossword.'
   'What did he have to eat?'
   'Grapefruit, toast and a boiled egg. Soft boiled three minutes, just the way he likes it. And a pot of tea, Earl Grey. Same as usual,' she insisted.
   No mention of the bacon, Drummond noted.
   'And after that?'
   'He told me ...' The thin voice struggled through the weight of grief. 'He told me Miss Green was coming at nine fifteen. He said he'd show her round the garden first. I was to make a pot of coffee for ten thirty. And biscuits,' she finished, her glance falling on the open packet. She shot Drummond an accusing glare.
   He licked away a crumb and thought better of taking a second.
   'And after eight thirty?'
   'I went out to clear his tray just before nine. He'd already gone off down the garden. Doing his rounds, he calls it. Never misses. Never ...' Again a shuddering sniff. 'I never saw him again ... '
   'And how do you get here, Mrs Cartwright? It's quite a walk up from the village. Catch a bus, do you?' he enquired.
   'Bus? It's not the town, you know,' she said indignantly. 'There's a school bus weekdays and Venners' coaches do a run into market twice a week. Tuesdays and Saturdays.'
   'So how did you get here, Mrs Cartwright?' he persisted.
   She sat back in her chair, dabbing her eyes.
   'Bike,' she said crisply. 'Same as always.'
   He glanced at Beckett. 'Bike. That would be the one round by the front door?'
   'S'right,' she snapped. 'Not more than a few minutes by bike. Look at this mess,' she said, clattering the cups together. 'I've all this to clear up, and I've not started on his lunch ...' She gave a choked cry.
   Drummond got to his feet. 'We'll take you home in a police car, Mrs Cartwright. Can't have you cycling after a shock like this.'
   Mrs Cartwright looked far from grateful but DI Drummond was insistent. There was only one bike outside the house after all and Fern Green had just ridden home on it. He was intrigued to know why the housekeeper had lied.
  

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