CHAPTER 9

[W]omen have been deprived of the narratives, or the texts, plots, or examples, by which they might assume power over… their lives.

CAROLYN HEILBRUN,

from Writing a Woman’s Life

… Do you think there’s a far border town,

somewhere,

The desert’s edge, last of the lands we know,

Some gaunt eventual limit of our light,

In which I’ll find you waiting; and we’ll go

Together, hand in hand again, out there,

Into the waste we know not, into the night?

RUPERT BROOKE,

from “The Wayfarers”

Kincaid tossed the last of his paperwork in his Out basket, glanced at his watch, and yawned. Only half past six… Mondays were reputed to be the longest day of the week, but this bleak Tuesday had far surpassed its predecessor in tediousness and he would be happy to go home.

Now he had only to wait for Gemma, who was out dredging up the last facts on a case that was over, bar the shouting. At least it had got her out of the bloody office, he thought as he rocked back in his chair and stretched. His phone rang and he picked it up lazily, expecting to hear Gemma’s voice. “Kincaid,” he answered, cradling the phone with his shoulder as he tidied a few things into his drawer.

“Duncan? It’s Alec Byrne here.” The reception was poor and Byrne’s voice faded tinnily in and out. “Sorry about the… it’s this bloody mobile phone. There, that’s better,” he said, coming in more clearly. “Listen, Duncan…”

Byrne sounded hesitant, almost diffident. Amused, Kincaid said, “What’s the matter, Alec? Did you change your mind about the Lydia Brooke case?”

“No. Listen, Duncan, I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I have some bad news.”

Kincaid brought the front legs of his chair back to the floor with a thump. “What are you talking about, Alec?” He couldn’t remember Byrne having a penchant for bad jokes.

“I happened to be in Control when the call came through, so I came myself. I recognized the name from our conversation the other day. You said your ex-wife was called Victoria McClellan?”

Kincaid knew the drill too well. His heart jerked in sudden fear. “What do you mean was, Alec?”

“I’m sorry, Duncan. She’s dead. The medics say probable heart attack. There was nothing they could do.”

The room receded oddly and he heard a buzzing in his ears. Byrne’s voice came distantly to him, then the words seemed to assemble themselves into something that made sense.

“Duncan, are you all right?”

“There’s been a mistake, Alec,” he managed to say against the weight pressing on his chest. “It must be a different Victoria McClellan-”

“An English lecturer living in Grantchester?” Byrne said with reluctant certainty. “I’m sorry, mate, but I thought you should know. Can you tell me how to contact her hus-”

It couldn’t be. Byrne was wrong, there must be some silly mistake, Kincaid thought, but he heard himself saying, “I’m on my way.” Byrne’s voice still came faintly from the handset as he replaced it in the cradle.

Struggling into his jacket in the corridor, he ran full tilt into Chief Superintendent Childs.

“Been sneaking out to the pub?” said Childs, steadying him with a hand on his shoulder. Then, as he looked into Kincaid’s face, “I say, Duncan, are you all right? You’re white as a sheet, man.”

Kincaid shook his head and pulled away from Childs’s restraining fingers. “Have to go.”

“Wait, lad.” Childs reached for him again with a hand the size of a ham, and it was the sheer bulk of him that finally made some impression on Kincaid’s dazed mind. “Tell me what’s up,” Childs said. “You can’t just go haring off like that without a word.”

“It’s Vic,” Kincaid managed to say. “My wife… ex-wife. They say she’s dead. I’ve got to go.”

“Where?” Childs asked, to the point as always.

“Cambridgeshire.”

“Where’s Gemma? You don’t look fit to drive.”

“I’m all right. I’ll be all right,” Kincaid repeated as he slipped from his superior’s grasp like a footballer evading a tackle and dodged his way towards the lift.

Even in his shock, he realized his chief was right. He had no business driving the Midget at high speeds in bad weather, so he took the best car available from the pool, a late model Rover with a powerful engine.

All the way to Cambridge he repeated his litany of disbelief to the rhythm of his tires on the motorway’s wet tarmac. It couldn’t be Vic. Vic couldn’t die of a heart attack, for God’s sake-she was too young. It couldn’t be Vic.

Some small rational voice in his head reminded him that he and Vic both were getting near forty, they weren’t all that young. And a few months ago, the wife of one of his mates, younger even than Vic, had died suddenly of an aneurysm.

All right, it happened. Of course it happened. But not to him. And not to Vic.

His armor began to weaken as he reached the Grantchester turn-off. He clamped his hands tighter on the wheel to stop them from trembling, and tried not to think at all.

He saw the blue flash of the emergency lights as he made the turn into the High Street. Two patrol cars were parked up on the curb in front of Vic’s cottage, but there was no sign of an ambulance. Kincaid pulled the Rover up into the graveled drive and stopped it where he had parked on Sunday. On Sunday, he thought, Vic had been fine on Sunday.

Slowly now, he got out of the car and shut the door. His knees felt insubstantial as he stepped deliberately onto the gravel, and he took a breath to clear the sudden swimming in his head. Vertigo. What a solid word for such an unanchored feeling. The door opened and a dark form appeared, silhouetted against the light. Vic. No, not Vic. Alec Byrne, crunching across the gravel to meet him.

Byrne reached him, touched his arm. “Duncan. There was no need for you to come all this way. We’ve everything in hand.”

“Where is she?”

“I’m afraid they’ve taken her to the morgue,” Byrne said gently. “The medics pronounced her dead on scene.” He searched Kincaid’s face. “Come on. We’d better get you a cup of tea.”

Morgue. No, not yet. He wasn’t ready to think of it, not yet.

Kincaid allowed himself to be led into the house, then through to the sitting room, while the detached part of his mind commented on how odd it was to be the one ministered to. Byrne directed him to sit on the sofa, and a constable brought him hot, sweet tea. He drank it obediently, thirstily, and after a few moments his mind began to function again.

“What happened?” he asked Byrne. “Where was she? You’re sure it was-”

“Her son found her in the kitchen when he came home from sports. Unconscious, or perhaps already dead-we can’t be sure.”

“Kit?”

“You know the boy?” asked Byrne. “We’ve not been able to contact the father, and he ought to have someone with him he knows.”

Kit, dear God. He hadn’t even thought of Kit. And Kit had found her. “Where is he?”

“In the kitchen with Constable Malley. I believe she’s made him some tea as well.”

“In the kitchen?” Kincaid repeated, and all the things he’d pushed out of his mind came rushing back. Lydia Brooke found dead in her study, of apparent heart failure. A suicide note that wasn’t. Candles and music and gardening clothes. He stood up. “You’re not treating it as a crime scene?”

Byrne looked at him warily. “I really don’t see that it’s necessary, under the circumstances-”

“You don’t know the circumstances!” Kincaid shouted at him, then made an effort to lower his voice. “Don’t let them touch anything until after the postmortem. God knows what damage has been done already.” His anger came as a relief, making a clean burn through the fog in his head.

“Look, Duncan,” Byrne said, standing to face him. “I realize you’re upset, but this is not your jurisdiction, and I’ll handle a routine death in the way I see fit-”

Kincaid stabbed a finger at him. “What if you’re wrong, Alec? Can you afford to be wrong?”

They stared at each other, both flushed, then after a moment Byrne relaxed and said, “All right. I’ll humor you. After all, what do I have to lose?”

“I’m going to see Kit,” said Kincaid. “And you can keep everyone else out of the bloody room.”

Kit sat huddled in the near kitchen chair, his back to Kincaid, while a female constable occupied the other.

“We’ve notified the grandparents,” Byrne said in Kincaid’s ear as they stood in the doorway. “They’re on their way.”

“Vic’s parents?”

“Yes. Her mother was quite… distraught.” Byrne jerked his head at the constable and she rose, coming to join them. “We’ll wait for you in the sitting room,” he said to Kincaid, and they went out, closing the door behind them.

The room looked ordinary, domestic, unmarred by what had happened in it. Kincaid walked round the small table and slid into the chair the constable had vacated. “Hullo, Kit.”

The boy looked up. “You came,” he said with a sort of distant puzzlement, and so blank was his face with shock that Kincaid wasn’t sure he’d have recognized him had he passed him on the street.

“Yes.”

“I couldn’t wake her,” Kit said, as if continuing a conversation. “I thought she was asleep, but I couldn’t wake her. I rang nine-nine-nine.” The cup of tea before him was untouched.

“I know.” Kincaid reached out and felt the cup; it was cold. He took it and poured the contents down the sink, then set about making fresh cups for them both. Kit watched him without interest.

When the kettle boiled, Kincaid ladled a generous amount of sugar into Kit’s tea and added enough milk to cool it to drinkable temperature. He returned to the table with both cups and pushed Kit’s across to him. “Drink your tea.”

Kit lifted the cup with both hands and drank it without stopping, like a small child. Kincaid watched him, waiting, and after a few moments a little color returned to his cheeks.

“You had sports after school today?” Kincaid asked, sipping his own tea.

Kit nodded. “Running. I’m going for the five hundred meter.”

“Do you walk home?”

A negative shake. “Too far. I ride my bike, most days.”

“What time did you get home today?” The questions came out of habit, a need to lay the details out like a grid, perhaps to build a framework that would support them both.

“Fiveish. The usual.”

“Tell me what happened next.”

Kit moved his feet restively. “She wasn’t in her office, so I looked in the sitting room. We started Monopoly yesterday, and she promised we’d play when I got home.”

Kincaid had seen the game without registering it, pushed to one side of the sitting room table. “And then what?” Gently, gently, but he must know.

No response. The silence stretched so long that Kincaid thought he’d lost his tenuous link with the boy, then Kit said, violently, “They didn’t believe me.”

“Didn’t believe what?” Kincaid asked, frowning.

“I saw someone. I came in the kitchen… looked out the window. Before I saw-” His glance skittered away from Kincaid’s.

Kincaid knew what he couldn’t say. “What did you see before that? When you looked out the window?”

“A shape. A dark shape. By the gate at the bottom of the garden. Then I didn’t think of it again.”

Kincaid’s pulse quickened. “Man shape or woman shape?”

“I don’t know.” For the first time, Kit sounded close to tears. “It was too quick, just a flash. But I saw it. I know I did. Why won’t they listen to me?”

“I believe you,” Kincaid said with growing conviction.

Kit met his eyes. “You do?”

The door opened and Byrne looked in, motioning for Kincaid to join him.

“I’ll be right back,” Kincaid said to Kit, and went out into the corridor.

“There’s nothing more we can do here tonight,” said Byrne. “Would you be willing to wait for the grandparents?”

No, Kincaid thought, dealing with Vic’s parents was not an obligation he’d take on willingly, but he couldn’t see leaving Kit, either. “All right,” he said. “I’ll wait. Alec, you didn’t tell me Kit said he saw someone in the garden.”

Byrne shrugged. “He was incoherent, poor kid. Imagining things.”

“He’s not incoherent now. And he’s a reliable kid, Alec. You had better get the crime scene lads out there at first light.” Seeing Byrne start to bristle, he added, “Just in case. It always pays to cover your arse, Alec, just in case. And bloody hope it doesn’t rain between now and then.”

After a moment, Byrne said grudgingly, “All right. And I’ve rung the pathologist, but he says he can’t get to the PM till tomorrow afternoon. Do you want to attend?”

Kincaid shook his head, said harshly, “No.” Not that, not yet It didn’t bear thinking of.

“Sorry,” said Byrne. “Tactless of me. Listen, Duncan, I really am sorry about all of this.” He shrugged his thin shoulders. “I’ll ring you after the PM.”

Kincaid, finding the words lodged in his throat, nodded his assent.

“We still haven’t a clue as to how to contact the husband. Do you think you could get something out of the boy? Or her parents? We’ll try his college in the morning.” Byrne grimaced. “Bloody nuisance.”

They made arrangements about the keys and the closing of the house, then Byrne took himself off with poorly concealed relief. Kincaid watched him drive away, followed by the other officers, then went slowly back into the house.

In the kitchen, Kit sat as if he hadn’t moved at all since Kincaid had left him. Without speaking, Kincaid made a quick search of the provisions. He found bread in the bin and cheese in the fridge, and within a few minutes had put together a cheese sandwich with butter and pickle. He’d touched as little as possible, making do with a small paring knife from the drawer and a paper towel from the roll under the cabinet. They had already contaminated the scene, but he saw no point in making it worse.

He set the sandwich before Kit and sat down opposite. “I know you think you can’t possibly eat,” he said. “But it’s important that you do. Give it a try.”

For a moment, Kit looked as if he might protest, then he raised the sandwich to his mouth and took a listless bite. He chewed mechanically at first, then he seemed to realize he was hungry and wolfed down the rest. “I hate pickle,” he said when he’d finished the last crumb.

“Sorry.” Kincaid smiled. “I’ll do better next time.”

“Are you staying?” asked Kit, a spark of hope in his eyes.

Shaking his head, Kincaid said, “Only until your grandparents come for you.”

“I won’t go,” Kit said vehemently. “I hate them. I want to stay here.”

Kincaid closed his eyes and wished desperately for Gemma. She would know what to do. She would say, “Come on, love, let’s get your things together,” in her soft, matter-of-fact way. She might even put her arm round Kit, or tousle his hair, but those were things Kincaid did not dare attempt.

He blinked and said, “You can’t stay here, Kit. And as far as I know, your grandparents are your legal guardians until we can contact your father. Have you any idea how to reach him?”

Kit shook his head impatiently. “No, I already told them. He didn’t write to us. Mummy didn’t even have an address for him.”

“We’ll find him,” Kincaid said with more certainty than he felt. “He must have left instructions with his college. But in the meantime, you’ll have to go to Reading with your grandparents, and I doubt you want your grandmother packing for you.” He gave Kit a conspiratorial smile, and after a moment Kit smiled grudgingly back.

“All right. But I’m not staying more than a day. There’s nothing to do, and they won’t even let me watch telly.”

Kincaid didn’t comment. He remembered the sterile household all too well, and suspected there would be little solace for a grieving child. He led Kit to the bottom of the stairs, and when Kit hesitated, Kincaid said, “I’ll come up in a bit, shall I? See how you’re doing.”

He watched Kit disappear up the staircase, all long legs and big feet from that angle. Then he turned and wandered down the hall into Vic’s office. Almost, he thought to see her turn from her keyboard and smile, and he knew he still hadn’t taken in the undeniable fact of her death. But he could go on pretending, and he could use his eyes to observe and his mind to record, just as he would on any case.

The room looked odd to him, and he studied it for a moment without touching anything. On Sunday, her desk had been covered with books and papers, but it had had the look of organized clutter, with everything in its proper place. Had she moved the books? One lay facedown on the floor, its pages crumpled. Vic had been almost obsessively neat-surely she would not have left a book like that?

Unless, said the small, detached voice in his mind, she had begun to feel ill, and knocked the book from its place as she got up to go to the kitchen, perhaps for a glass of water.

A logical explanation, possibly, but he couldn’t yet allow himself to think of Vic ill, in pain, frightened, alone. So he ignored the voice, and went on with his examination of her desk. A thick stack of manuscript pages lay beside the computer. He closed his eyes and thought of how it had looked on Sunday-the edges of the pages had been neatly aligned, and now they lay askew. They were also out of sequence, he discovered when he rifled through them. He thought of how much Vic had cared for her book, and he felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck.

He felt suddenly unwilling to leave the manuscript here, untended, and he straightened up, looking for some way to carry it. There, on the floor, an empty leather book satchel-it was, he imagined, what Vic used to carry papers back and forth to work. It would do.

Carefully, he put the pages into the satchel, then, seized by an urge he didn’t understand, he started on the milk crate file beside the desk. It held the original materials for the biography, letters in a strong hand he didn’t recognize-Lydia’s, of course-notes in Vic’s handwriting, photos, even a few postcards. He put them all into the bag, and anything else that seemed relevant that he could glean from her desktop, and then he carried it all outside and locked it in the boot of the Rover.

In her office once more, he had a brief look at the computer, but Vic had apparently saved her work on the hard disk rather than a floppy, and he knew he hadn’t time to access the files properly. He’d left Kit alone too long as it was, so he would just have to hope that Vic had been as obsessive about printing hard copy as she had been about everything else.

He was climbing the stairs when he realized he had not seen the notes he’d given Vic, or the copies of the poems she’d found.

Kit sat on the edge of his bed, an open grip at his feet. When Kincaid came in, he looked up and said dully, “I don’t know what to take.”

The room might have been Kincaid’s own at that age, cluttered with books, and sports equipment, and barely outgrown toys. One shelf held a collection of bird’s nests, another of rocks.

Glancing in the bag, Kincaid saw one jersey and a pair of jeans. “Um, pajamas?” he suggested. “Toothbrush? A dressing gown?”

Kit shrugged. “I suppose. They’re all in the bathroom.”

He’d need things to wear to the funeral, Kincaid realized, but he also needed a few days before he even had to think of it. “I’ll tell you what,” he said. “Why don’t you go and get them, and I’ll throw somethings in the bag for you?”

“All right,” Kit agreed, and when he’d gone, Kincaid went quickly to the closet. A school blazer, a tie, some dark trousers, a white shirt. They would have to do. He found some black lace-up shoes and those went in first, in the bottom of the bag. Then the other things, neatly folded, and on top of them the jeans and jersey. Next he added socks and underpants from the bureau drawers, then a Cambridge sweatshirt. Sitting back on his heels to survey the room for last-minute necessities, he spied a worn teddy bear on the shelf above Kit’s bed, and that he tucked in last.

Kit came in with a bundle of night things, and when Kincaid took them to fold he discovered the purple tunic Vic had worn on Sunday among the folds of the dressing gown. It smelled of her perfume and, very faintly, of her skin.

Their eyes met as they knelt either side of the bag, and after a moment Kincaid folded the tunic and packed it without a word.

Kit’s room was on the front of the house, and as they zipped his bag they heard the sound of car tires on gravel, then the slam of a car door.

“Just in time, eh?” said Kincaid, attempting a casual tone.

“No.” Kit sat back on his heels, almost quivering with distress.

The boy looked like a frightened rabbit ready to bolt, and Kincaid knew he mustn’t let him lose control now. “Come on, mate,” he said, standing and lifting the bag. “I’m right behind you. We’ll do this together.”

“No, wait, I forgot Nathan’s books. I can’t go without Nathan’s books.” Kit swept a pile of books from his bedside table and they stuffed them in the already bulging bag, then Kincaid guided him down the stairs with a hand on his shoulder.

Kincaid had not seen Vic’s parents since the Christmas before she left him, and he doubted whether time or circumstance would have altered their mutual dislike. He and Kit met them at the door, and he, at least, had the advantage of foreknowledge.

Eugenia Potts’s face, already red and puffy with weeping, went slack with shock at the sight of him. An expression of mild surprise furrowed Bob Potts’s bland face, and Kincaid wondered if, even now, the man felt anything at all.

“Hullo, Bob. Mrs. Potts.” He had never been able to bring himself to call her Eugenia, and Mum had been unthinkable.

“You!” she breathed. “What are you doing here?”

Her tone was accusing, but he answered as mildly as he could. “They rang me, I’m afraid. Look, you’d better come in.”

“You! What right have you to invite us into our daughter’s house?” Pushing past him as he stepped back, she continued, her voice rising, “You don’t belong here, and I’ll thank you to get-” She saw Kit then, for he’d been using Kincaid’s body as a shield. Changing gears in mid-tirade, she shrieked, “Christopher, oh, my poor darling,” while grabbing him to her and pressing his blond head against the bosom of her tweedy coat.

Kincaid saw Kit stiffen, then struggle to extricate himself. A touch on his arm reminded him that he had, as usual, forgotten Bob Potts.

“Duncan, thank you for coming,” Potts said with quiet courtesy. “But there’s no need now for you to stay Is there anything… I mean, should we…”

Feeling that perhaps he’d misjudged the man, Kincaid said softly, “No, there’s nothing you can do. Not until tomorrow, at least, and I’m sure someone will be ringing you. The police are very anxious to contact Kit’s father, however. Have you any idea-”

“That man,” hissed Eugenia, for having finished throttling Kit, she’d caught the tail end of their conversation. “I blame him for this. If he hadn’t abandoned her, none of this would have happened. My baby would be alive-”

Kit’s face lost all color, then he turned and ran from the room.

Kincaid rounded on Mrs. Potts with a shout of anger. “Enough! Keep your useless speculations to yourself, you silly woman, where they won’t do any more damage.” He left her standing open-mouthed, and ran after Kit.

He found him in the sitting room, crouched on the floor over the wreckage of the Monopoly game. “I kicked it,” Kit said, looking up at Kincaid. Tears streamed down his face. “I shouldn’t have, but I was so angry. And now I can’t… I can’t put it back…”

Kneeling beside him, Kincaid said, “I’ll help you,” and began sorting the paper money into its slots. “Kit, don’t pay any attention to what your grandmother said. She’s just upset. You did absolutely the right things this afternoon, and no one could have done better.”

“Why does she have to be so beastly?” Kit said, hiccuping. “Why did she have to be so beastly to you?”

Kincaid sighed. He felt suddenly too exhausted to think, much, less talk, but he made an effort. “She doesn’t mean to be cruel, Kit. She just doesn’t think. Some people are like loose cannons-they go off all the time at the nearest target, and it makes them feel better. And I’m afraid the more your grandmother hurts inside, the worse she’s going to be, so try to be patient with her.”

“You weren’t,” said Kit. “I heard you shouting.”

“No, I wasn’t, was I?” Kincaid admitted, grinning at him. “So don’t take me as an example.” He’d been half listening to the murmur of voices from the hall, hers rising in protest, her husband’s coaxing, and now he heard the front door close softly. “They’ve gone to the car, I think,” he said, fitting the board into the top of the box and closing the lid. “Come on. I’ll walk you out.”

When they reached the porch, Potts climbed out of the car and came over to them. “So sorry about all that,” he said. Light from the porch lamp glinted from his spectacles, so that Kincaid couldn’t see his eyes. “A sedative, and bed, I think, is what she needs.”

And what about Kit? thought Kincaid, but he didn’t speak.

“Eugenia thinks… that is, we feel that the house should be secured, and that we should keep the key…” Potts said, twisting his hands together. “That is, if you don’t mind…”

Kincaid fished the key Byrne had given him from his pocket. “I didn’t intend going off with the silver, Bob,” he said dryly as he held the key out.

“No, no, I didn’t mean… what I meant was…” Potts gestured helplessly at the house. “Would you… could you possibly, before you go… I don’t think I could possibly go back in the house just now, you see.”

Kincaid did see, finally, and silently chided himself for an insensitive clod. “Of course. You wait here with your granddad, Kit, and I’ll be back in a tick.”

He checked the house quickly, securing the French doors in the sitting room, then the kitchen door, and turning out most of the lights. Then he grabbed Kit’s bag from the hall and went out, locking the front door behind him.

They waited for him in the drive, their breath forming clouds of mist in the still, cold air. Kincaid pressed the key into Vic’s father’s hand, said, “All right, then. You’d best be on your way.

“I’ll see you, mate,” he said to Kit, and thumped him on the shoulder.

They walked away across the drive. When Kit reached the car he turned round and looked at Kincaid once more, then opened the back door and disappeared into the dark interior.

Kincaid watched the car pull out into the street, watched its tail lamps flash at the Coton Road junction before it vanished from his sight.

His inadequacy rose up to engulf him, and he protested aloud, “What else could I have bloody done?”

There was no answer except the echo of his voice, and it was only then, standing alone before the dark and empty house, that he let himself believe she was gone.

Ralph was the first to break the stunned silence in Margery Lester’s dining room. “But how… where… an accident?”

Iris shook her head. “Apparently not. They seem to think it was heart failure, but that’s all I know.”

“Iris, are you all right?” asked Darcy, with sharp concern.

Galvanized into action by Darcy’s words, Adam leapt to his feet and helped Iris into her chair.

She smiled up at him gratefully before she went on. “The police rang Laura trying to get in touch with me, and she rang Enid. They’re very anxious to notify Ian, of course.”

“Who’s Ian?” asked Adam.

“Her husband,” explained Darcy. “We should all be so lucky. Beginning of Michaelmas term, he packed himself off to the south of France with a delectable graduate student. No forwarding address.”

“Darcy-” began Margery, but she really hadn’t the heart to continue her reprimand, and for once his tone had held no malice. She felt surprised at her own sense of loss, for she had met Victoria McClellan only a few times at Faculty gatherings, but something about the younger woman had reminded Margery of herself at that age. Vic had been raising a son-more or less on her own, Margery had guessed, even before her husband’s disappearance-and she’d had a sense of purpose about her own work that Margery recognized.

“Sorry, Mother,” said Darcy. “Habit, I’m afraid. This is all rather dreadful.”

Iris looked near tears. “I know it’s selfish of me even to think it, but it’s a dreadful blow to the department as well. How will we possibly replace her?” She shook her head. “It makes me wonder if the department really is unlucky. First there was poor Henry’s awful business-”

“Let’s not talk about it tonight, Iris, please,” said Margery as a wave of exhaustion washed over her.

“I met her-Dr. McClellan, that is,” said Ralph. “Did I tell you that, Margery? I liked her very much. I wonder what will happen now to her biography of Lydia Brooke?” He met his wife’s eyes across the table and read some reproof in them. “Oh, sorry. That was rather inappropriate, I suppose, but it wasn’t meant avariciously. I was just curious.”

“We ought to be going, Ralph,” said Christine affectionately, “before you put your foot in any further. Why don’t you let us take you home, Iris? You’ve had a shock and there’s no need for you to drive.”

Iris made a halfhearted protest. “But Enid will need the car tomorrow. It’s her shopping day.”

“Ride with me, then, and Ralph can drive your car,” Christine said firmly. “There, it’s settled.” She rose, the others followed suit, and they all made their way into the hall with murmured apologies and thanks.

“You’ll come again, won’t you, Adam?” said Margery as he bid her good-bye, for he seemed a bit lost. “Under better circumstances?”

Adam smiled at her, and his genuine pleasure warmed her. “Yes, I will, if you’ll have me.”

Then the door closed behind them, and Margery and Darcy moved to the sitting room in unspoken accord.

“Pour me a drink, please, Darcy,” said Margery as she sank into the chair nearest the fire. “A generous one.”

“Don’t you think I should help you into bed?” he asked solicitously. “It’s been a very trying evening.”

“Don’t cosset me,” she said crossly. “Grace is bad enough without you starting in, too.” She glared at him until he sighed and went to the drinks trolley.

“You’re impossible,” he said, but he brought her a whisky, and he hadn’t stinted too much.

Margery relented. “If I need any help getting into bed, you can be sure Grace will provide it. And to tell you the truth, I’m too unsettled by all this to think about sleep.” She looked with concern at her son, who had poured himself a drink and sunk onto the sofa. “The question is, Darcy, will you be all right? It’s you who will have to deal with the repercussions of this… awful business.”

“I know,” he answered, sounding suddenly weary. “Why is it, Mother darling, that we always leave our good intentions too late?” He met her eyes over the rim of his glass. “I kept meaning to put things right with her, and somehow I never managed. It was the same with Father.”

“I don’t know,” Margery said slowly. “But one always seems to leave things unsaid. It’s as inevitable as dying.”

Adam shivered in his heaterless car and wrapped the scarf more tightly round his throat. Why had he not spoken up at Dame Margery’s table and said that he had known Vic? And that he, too, had liked her? He felt a stabbing of guilt, as if he had personally betrayed her by his silence.

“Don’t be a silly bugger,” he said aloud. “You hardly knew the woman.” But it didn’t help, and tears smarted behind his eyelids. She had been so lovely, sitting on the moth-eaten velvet chair in his parlor, drinking the sherry he’d poured her. In his mind’s eye he saw the smooth swing of her fair hair as she turned her head and laughed at something he’d said.

There had been a delicacy about her, a waifish quality, that had reminded him somehow of Lydia. But she’d had Lydia’s determination as well, he had sensed that, sensed that she wouldn’t be satisfied with easy answers, and yet he hadn’t been capable of giving her more.

He’d failed Lydia, too, in the end, as he’d failed everyone who mattered to him.

Suddenly the thought of going home alone to the vicarage seemed unbearable, and at the Queens’ Road roundabout he kept to the right, along the Backs towards Grantchester. He would go and see Nathan-Nathan had known her, too. They could talk about her, and perhaps that would ease the dreadful emptiness inside him.

Newnham

4 July 1963

Dear Mummy,

I understand your distress at my news, but it simply can’t be helped. I have too much work over the Long Vac to come home even for a few days. And as much as I would love to see you, it’s probably not a good idea for you to visit me.

Please, please, don’t worry about me. I’m quite all right, it’s just that the pressures of work are a bit much right now, and I can’t see anything for it but to keep my nose to the grindstone.

And there’s the writing, too. Having gained some momentum, I feel I must keep it up, degree or no degree, because after all, that’s the object of all this, isn’t it? Everything has been to further my success as a poet, and if I lose sight of that now it’s all for naught.

Love, Lydia

Adam pounded on the door of the darkened cottage, more out of reluctance to go home than in hopes that Nathan would answer. But just as he gave one last rap and turned away, he heard footsteps, and the door swung back.

He knew at first glance that his friend was very drunk, for Nathan held on to the doorknob like a man drowning, and his eyes absorbed the light like bottomless wells.

“Nathan?”

Nathan blinked, then opened his mouth and closed it again, as if his brain couldn’t quite make the connection with his tongue. He tried once more. “Adam, it’s you,” he said, enunciating with care. Owlishly, he blinked again. “Of course it’s you. You know it’s you. Silly of me. I s’pose you’d better come in.” Turning away, he walked off down the dim corridor, leaving Adam to shut the door and follow.

Adam fumbled after him, unsure of his footing in the dark and unfamiliar passage. He reached the door at the far end, and once through it he stopped to let his eyes adjust to the room’s illumination. A faint light came from the decorative tubes installed under the kitchen cabinets, and from a few embers glowing in the hearth. Nathan sat in the chair nearest the fire, and on the table beside him a bottle glinted in the firelight.

Adam picked his way across the rug and lowered himself into the chair opposite. He had seen Nathan drink like this only a few times since they’d left University, and then only under great stress, and he feared he knew what had prompted it.

“Nathan, you’ve heard, haven’t you? About Vic McClellan?”

“In College,” said Nathan, reaching an unsteady hand for the whisky bottle. “Dinner… High Table. Round like wildfire. Had to… ‘pologize to the Provost.” His enunciation was failing.

“You left in the middle of dinner?” asked Adam, picking the sense out of what he’d said.

Nodding, Nathan said, “Had to. Didn’t b’lieve it, you see. Went there. House all dark, locked, no one at home.” He raised his right hand and Adam saw a makeshift bandage wrapped round it, stained with dark blotches. “Canna play piano now” The hand fell to his lap again, as if a puppeteer had dropped the strings. “Neighbors came, said it’s true, all true.”

“Nathan, are you saying you tried to break down her door? And the neighbors came?”

Nathan smiled at him as if he’d made a brilliant deduction. “That’s it. Must’ve been shouting. Can’t ‘member.”

“Did someone look at your hand? You should see a doctor.”

“Doesn’ matter,” Nathan mumbled, then he pulled himself up in his chair a little and seemed to try to focus on Adam’s face. “It doesn’t matter,” he said carefully. “Nothing matters now.”

Oh, dear Lord, thought Adam, he’d been a fool, a blind fool, not to have seen it. Nathan’s veiled hints about someone in his life, his air of nervous excitement. And the expression on Vic McClellan’s face when he’d mentioned Nathan’s name.

“I’m so sorry, Nathan. I didn’t know.”

Nathan sat forwards suddenly in his chair, knocking his glass from the side table. It hit the rug and rolled against the edge of the hearth with a soft clink. “I need to see her,” he said clearly, as if his anguish had burned momentarily through the haze of alcohol. “Do you see? I need to hold her, touch her, so I’ll know it’s true. I held Jean until she wasn’t Jean anymore. That’s how I knew.” He frowned at Adam and reached for his tumbler again, then stared in puzzlement at the vacant spot on the table.

Adam got up and retrieved the glass, and as he returned it to the table he saw that the bottle was almost empty. How full had it been in the beginning, he wondered, and need he worry about alcohol poisoning?

“Let me help you to bed, Nathan,” he said gently.

Nathan poured the last bit of whisky into his glass and swallowed it. “Don’ wanna sleep. Hafta wake up then, see?” He leaned his head against the back of the chair and closed his eyes. “Go home, Adam. Nothing to do.” After a moment he repeated, as if to himself, “Nothing to do.”

Adam sat on, watching him until his breathing changed. Whether Nathan had fallen asleep or passed out, he couldn’t tell, but his breaths were deep and regular, and he didn’t respond when Adam softly said his name.

Carefully, Adam knelt by the hearth and banked up the fire, then fixed the screen in front of it. He took the lap rug that had been folded over the back of his chair and spread it over Nathan’s still form, and then, not knowing what else he could do, he let himself out.

It was only when he woke in the cold hour before dawn, in his bed in the vicarage, that he realized what he’d seen in the sudden blaze as he’d made up the fire: Nathan’s father’s old shotgun, propped in the shadows by the back door.

As he turned the corner into Carlingford Road, Kincaid saw Gemma in the halo of light cast by the streetlamp. She wore jeans and the old navy pea coat she used for knocking about on weekends, and she sat on the steps of his building with her arms wrapped round her knees as if she were cold.

First he felt a flooding of relief, just knowing that she was alive and well, not snatched away from him, too-and then, mixed with the relief, the sort of senseless anger one feels towards a child who has narrowly escaped mishap.

He pulled the Rover into an empty spot at the right-hand curb, got out, and walked across to her. “Why didn’t you let yourself into the flat?” he said. “Look at you-you’re freezing.”

“I tried,” she said, looking up at him. “I couldn’t settle.” She pushed herself up from the steps and stood, her face on a level with his. “The Chief told me about Vic, Duncan. I’m so sorry.”

It was then he discovered that her sympathy was the one thing he couldn’t bear, and that any response he might make would threaten his precarious control. Looking away from her, he said, “Let’s go upstairs, why don’t we, and have a drink.”

When they reached the flat, he discovered that Gemma had switched on the lamps and turned up the heating, and when he’d poured them both a small whisky he joined her on the sofa. Sid jumped into his lap, purring as if he’d been gone a week. “Hullo, mate,” he said, stroking the cat’s sleek, black fur. “It’s been a bloody long day, hasn’t it?”

“Tell me what happened,” said Gemma. “I only know what you told Denis.” She’d curled up in the corner of the sofa, feet beneath her, so that she could face him.

He took a sip of his drink, and while his throat still burned from it, he said harshly, “Kit found her in the kitchen when he came home from school. The medics said there was nothing they could do, probable heart attack.”

“Oh, no,” breathed Gemma, shaking her head. “It’s so hard to believe. She seemed so well on Sunday.”

“I don’t believe it, Gemma.” Sid put his ears back, affronted, and Kincaid made an effort to lower his voice. “It’s just too much bloody coincidence.”

Warily, Gemma said, “What are you talking about?”

“If you discount all the suicidal trappings, Lydia Brooke died suddenly and unexpectedly of heart failure, too.”

“But Lydia had a heart condition,” protested Gemma. “Her heart failure was brought on by an overdose of her own medication.”

“And what if the suicide was manufactured? What if someone gave Lydia an overdose of her medication? That’s what Vic suspected, even though she tiptoed round the obvious.”

“But why? Why would someone kill Lydia?”

“That’s what Vic was trying to discover. And I didn’t take her seriously.” Kincaid finally looked at Gemma, and saw the truth of it reflected in her eyes.

“You couldn’t have known,” Gemma said softly, but they both knew it didn’t absolve him. “This is all speculation. And Vic didn’t have a heart condition, did she?”

“Now you’re arguing against yourself. That makes it all the less likely that she would die of heart failure, and it wouldn’t keep an overdose of heart medication from doing the damage.”

“No, I suppose you’re right,” Gemma admitted. “But you can’t be sure of anything until the toxicology scans come back.”

“Bloody Alec isn’t even treating it as a crime scene.” Kincaid moved restlessly, causing Sid to stir in his lap.

“You can’t very well blame him, under the circumstanc-”

“I can and I will, if the PM results come back positive. It’s sloppy police work, and you know it.” He glared at her, then seeing her expression, said contritely, “I’m sorry, Gemma. I don’t mean to be churlish. It’s just that…”

“Do you want me to go?”

He stood up, dumping Sid unceremoniously to the floor, and went to the French windows. He looked out onto the darkened balcony, and after a moment said, “No. Stay. Please.” Turning to face her again, he asked, “What about Toby?”

“Hazel offered to keep him for the night,” she said, then frowned. “Duncan, what about Kit?”

“That’s another thing.” He came back to the sofa long enough to retrieve his glass, then began to pace. “No one seems to know how to contact his father, so he’s gone to his grandparents.”

“So?” said Gemma, sounding puzzled. “I’d think that would be the best thing.”

“You don’t know them,” he said vehemently, and felt surprised at the bitterness in his voice. “Oh, I suppose you’re right, and I’m letting my dislike of them color my judgment. But Kit was so… desolate.” He cleared his throat. “I shouldn’t have let them take him away.”

“Duncan, don’t be absurd. What else could you have done?”

“We keep coming back to that, don’t we? Nothing, nothing, and nothing! But I feel so bloody useless!”

They stared at each other for a long moment, then Gemma sighed. “I think I’ll go to bed. Leave you on your own for a bit. All right?”

He nodded. “Sorry, love. I’ll be along soon.”

She came to him and laid her hand lightly against his cheek, then she turned away and went into the bedroom.

Kincaid listened to the click of the door closing, and in the silence that followed he heard the cat begin to purr. Sid had jumped into Gemma’s spot on the sofa, and stood kneading his paws against the warm cushion, his eyes slitted in pleasure.

“You’re easy enough to comfort, aren’t you, mate?” Kincaid asked softly. “Maybe I should take lessons.”

Tipping Gemma’s untouched whisky into his own glass, he went to stand at the window again. He saw his own reflection, distorted by the lights in the house opposite, alien and unfamiliar.

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