Fran manoeuvred her lumbering Volvo up the various winding and narrow country roads that led to Vera Mayhew’s house. At least that’s where she thought they were going. It was hard to tell this far out of town. All the roads and fields looked the same, each one carbon copies of the next. Fran was convinced she had seen the same amount of sheep in at least three fields.
Gethin sat in the passenger seat, staring out the window with an air of melancholy. As much as Fran was pleased that this meant she wasn’t subject to his usual antics of eating sweets noisily, Gethin’s increased despondency was beginning to worry her. She had made several attempts during the journey to broach the subject with her young protege but it had either resulted in Gethin clamming up yet further or diverting her attention and getting them lost. Even now, Fran was under the impression that she had taken the right turning back at the crossroads. But for all she new, they could be further away from their destination and she wouldn’t know any different.
Both Fran and Gethin had visited the house in their youth but Fran’s memory was so bad, to the point she didn’t even remember what she eaten for dinner last night. And Gethin had stumbled upon the place by accident with Dylan and Rhys. He had chosen wisely never to return, after the three of them had been chased away by Vera but Dylan and Rhys were too much of a thrill seeking duo to be persuaded otherwise.
The edge of a low, thatched topped building came into view and Fran squinted at it through her muddy windscreen.
‘Please be the right house.’ She muttered in a half pray and clutched hold of the steering wheel in whitened fingers.
She was growing tired of this wild goose chase and her arms and hands were aching from trying to keep the car in the centre of the rocky and uneven lane. Gethin looked up from his brooding and recognition dawned on his face, as the cottage grew more visible in the distance.
‘That’s the one.’
Fran gave him an imploring look.
‘Are you sure?’
Gethin nodded firmly, as the ivy adorned walls and rustic style windows came into view. Any doubts of it being the house in question were soon put to rest by Fran herself, when she caught sight of the forest-esque garden blooming wildly in front of it. The garden that had been both the subject of her fascination and her revulsion.
Age eight, she had snuck into this garden, entranced by the exotic towering plants and seedlings, only to be met with the hideous sight of a Venus fly trap devouring a half mutilated frog. She had been so disgusted by the scene, that she had thrown up right there in the garden. This had then been followed by a loud rap on one of the darkened windows of the cottage and the loud voice of Vera screaming at her inaudibly.
As they drew up alongside the house, Fran noticed another small cottage further down the lane. In stark contrast to the beautiful and picturesque front garden of Vera’s house, this one appeared bleak and barren. The grass was overgrown and unkempt, infested here and there with clusters of thistles and weeds. The few plants that did grow there were brown and wilted, so frail that Fran was pretty sure that one strong gust of wind would tear them loose from the earth. They wouldn’t be sent swirling through the air so much, as simply crumble and dissolve into the atmosphere.
Gethin was already halfway out the door. He was still upset that he hadn’t been allowed to take his car up instead of Fran’s. The journey had been horribly slow. Granted, they had encountered trouble navigating the route properly, not aided by the fact that the GPS app on Gethin’s phone was about as reliable as a chocolate fire guard. Still Gethin felt it had been more of a trundle then an actual drive.
Fran had joined him outside the car and was taking a few puffs on her e-cigarette. Gethin sniggered at the sight of it. Fran thought about blowing it in his face to get him back but realized it was more vapour then smoke and would have a less impacting effect. Under normal circumstances she would have just lit up a normal cigarette but there was something about Vera’s house that changed her mind. She wasn’t sure if it is was born out of a fear that she would be reprimanded by an irate Vera for smoking near her house or the fact that she felt bad for poisoning the luscious garden with her dirty toxins.
‘I’m guessing that is the victim’s house?’ Gethin pondered, focusing on the more run down of the two cottages.
‘Must be.’ Fran said between puffs.
They stood there for a moment, both slightly daunted by the solitary houses. Vera’s house was a little too overwhelming to the point it became slightly intimidating and the victim’s dwelling was just plain creepy.
‘You sure you don’t want me to come in to?’ Gethin offered and nodded at Vera’s cottage.
Fran shook her head. She had to do this alone. It wasn’t about facing her demons. At the end of the day it was a silly incident in her youth. It was more to do with the fact that she had to woman up and do her job as police sergeant, no matter what the situation.
‘Okay then…I guess I should take a look around…the victim’s house.’ Gethin said and scratched the back of his head awkwardly.
‘Yeah you do that.’ Fran replied with less conviction then she intended.
They remained there for thirty seconds longer, both stood there apprehensively like two school kids who are about to do something that they are not supposed to. Then Fran smoothed down her uniform, took a deep breath and opened the gate to Vera’s garden. Gethin watched her until she was swallowed by the tall foliage, before turning and setting off towards the other house.
Fran moved through the garden slowly, taking care not to make too much noise. There was no need for this, it was more of an animalistic instinct. She had no way of knowing if this was the killer or not but Fran couldn’t help shaking the feeling that they were on to something with this one.
As she wound her way through the jungle like front garden, she was wary to keep an eye out for the Venus fly trap that had been the subject of so much grief as a child but it was nowhere to be seen. Fran wasn’t sure if she preferred this or not. Surely not knowing where a threat waited was scarier then the threat itself. At least that’s what Fran thought.
Eventually after many twists and turns, she found what resembled, a half buried garden path and proceeded down it. The house stood in front, still and silent. It was an old cottage, the paint of the front and sides of the dwelling peeling from lack of attention. All the windows were covered in a thick layer of dust, which made it hard for Fran to discern if there was anyone home. If it hadn’t been for the fact that the plants in the garden were so well tended to, Fran would have presumed that the cottage was uninhabited.
She reached the front door and scanned it for any sign of a knocker or a bell. There was none so instead she gave the door a loud rap with her knuckle. The door was slightly ajar and drifted open upon her knock. Fran flinched and reached for a gun that she did not have. Caught up in the chaos of the moment, she couldn’t help but laugh bizarrely. Why had she done that? Maybe it was because she had never actually been involved in a police situation of this type and had instantly assimilated her little knowledge of it from cop shows. Or perhaps it was just instincts kicking in like before in the garden. Either way she felt ridiculous.
Tentatively, she slipped inside the house, her heart beginning to hammer like a snare drum. The hallway was dark and dingy and Fran almost slipped on a pile of unopen mail strewn across the carpeted floor. Fran’s unease rose. She sincerely hoped that she wasn’t going to find another body. Surely not, the smell would have reached her by now. Moving cautiously down the hallway, she shook out het trembling hands and tried to get a grip of herself.
‘Hello, is anybody home?’ Fran called, her voice more mouse like then she intended.
Fran nearly jumped out of her skin, as a silhouetted figure appeared in the doorway to the living room, situated at the far end of the hallway.
‘….I’m Francesca Thomas….Sergeant….I’ve come to talk to you…about your neighbour?’
‘Arthur? What’s this about? Is he alright?’
The figure stepped forward out of the doorway and the hallway burst into light. Fran flinched, as her eyes were forced to readjust the bright glare. The shadow was now revealed to be an elderly lady, who shuffled slowly towards her. Fran squinted, taking in the woman’s appearance. It was Vera Mayhew, there was no doubt about that. She may have been a lot older then she was in the photograph on the evidence board but it was apparent that over the years Vera had taken good care of herself.
‘Well…I’m afraid I have some bad news…’
Fran moved forwards, her fear dissolving, along with the myth that Vera was a cranky old hag.
‘I’m sorry to inform you this Mrs. Mayhew…but Arthur is dead.’
Vera’s raised her eyebrows in momentary surprise before announcing;
‘Well…you best come and have a cup of tea then hadn’t you?’
And with that she turned on her heel and disappeared through a door to her left, that presumably led to the kitchen. Fran was left stood in the hallway, feeling rather puzzled at how Vera had taken the news in her stride.
‘Do you take sugar my dear?’ Vera called from the kitchen.
‘One please.’ Fran replied and followed her into the kitchen, still slightly numbed by the strangeness of her current situation.
Fran sat perched on the edge of a once pretty floral sofa that had become faded and frayed with age. Vera stood at the fireplace, one arm leant nonchalantly on the mantle, the other clasping a cup and saucer of tea, both made of fancy looking china. Fran held her own cup and saucer, the latter of the two she held on for with dear life.
She had never been accustomed to the airs and grace of proper tea making. At home growing up, it had mostly been a case of finding the least tea rimmed, stained mug and dumping a teabag in, adding water and pouring in a generous helping of sugar. Fran had been treated, rather pleasantly on this occasion to a brewed teapot, sugar lumps, milk that didn’t smell like it was on the turn and a plate of moorish biscuits.
She had expected to be nervous of the old woman and find herself in a grubby living room, surrounded by stuffed birds and piles of knitting. On the contrary, Vera’s house couldn’t be more inviting. It was rustic with many pieces of carved furniture, some elegantly shaped into the distinct forms of animals. Fran particularly liked a small footstool designed with an otter clasped around it.
‘Feel free to sit if it is more comfortable.’ Fran offered helpfully.
‘No no dear, I’m fine. I am trying not to become glued to the thing.’ She gestured at her armchair, bearing the same floral pattern as the sofa.
Fran nodded and took a tentative sip of her tea. It was an odd sensation being in the hot seat. Usually, she was the one in the driving seat and it was the interviewee’s who felt slightly nervous. There was something ever so commanding about Vera. Not so much aggressive. In fact that was the most unsettling part. She was so calm and well mannered, that Fran would have felt at ease, if it wasn’t for the fact that Vera’s high attention to detail and meticulous method of self preservation, made her feel she was almost compelled to follow suit. It was like she had reverted to a child. Slightly awed but a little frightened at the self made adult in front of her.
‘You’ve got a nice place here.’ She said, clearing her voice in attempt to gain authority over the conversation.
Vera smiled and took a sip of tea. Her eyes searched Fran intently. They were vividly green and Fran couldn’t help but gaze at them in amazement. She had never seen eyes that green before. A troubling thought crossed her mind. She was sure that when she had looked at the picture of the younger Vera, her eyes had been brown not green. But that couldn’t be possible? Fran ran an eye over her face as a whole. There was no doubt, it was definitely the same woman.
‘Have another biscuit dear.’ Vera said sweetly and gestured at the tray on the footstool in front of Fran.
Fran patted her stomach and shook her head.
‘Probably shouldn’t. Need to get rid of the Christmas belly.’
‘Go on dear, I insist. Otherwise they will only go to waste.’
There was something a bit sinister about how insistent Vera was and the smile she wore was so wide, Fran thought she glimpsed just for a moment, a dark presence beneath her sweet disposition. A shiver ran over her and hearing a rattle of wood she glanced up.
Suspended from the ceiling on long, thin pieces of string were a multitude of dream catchers, with a plethora of colours and a wide range of sizes. Fran almost split some of her tea, so taken aback by this new discovery.
‘Impressive isn’t it?’
‘I’ll say.’ Fran managed, not sure whether to be impressed or concerned.
‘That collection I have built up over the last thirty years.’
Fran nodded, examining as many different ones as she could.
‘What made you start collecting?’
Vera moved over and stroked the feathers of one of the lowest ones, which was cherry red in colour.
‘I have always been fascinated with dreams and I like the idea of something being able to trap the bad ones, like a karmic spider trapping evil flies in its web.’
Fran regarded the woman that stood before her. She appeared for all intense and purposes like an elegant older woman from the 50s with her grey hair styled into a bob, glamorous jewellery and a long, blue dress that embraced her curves, which despite her age were not half bad. In stark contrast, her house appeared like something out of a living green magazine with its rustic furnishings, blossoming garden and homely décor. Fran was faced with an enigma. Usually by now in the interview, she would have gauged the measure of the subject. But now she was totally at a loss to draw a conclusion.
‘Do you really believe that?’
Vera shrugged and threw her head back in laughter.
‘Maybe, maybe not. I might have believed that at some point but I think now I just collect them because they look nice.’
Fran smiled slightly but it felt strained and so she hastily returned to her tea. It was starting to get cold. She glanced at her watch. It had already been half an hour and they hadn’t actually got onto the topic of the deceased neighbour Arthur. This supposedly innocent old lady was certainly good at distracting attention and stalling. Fran placed the cup and saucer carefully on the tray and clenched her hands together, resting them in her lap and leaning forwards.
‘So, Mrs. Mayhew.’
‘It’s Ms. I’m afraid I never made it that far my dear.’
Fran blushed. She should have known that. It was quite a common fact that Vera Mayhew had never married, even some of the more uncouth of the slighter old boys she hung around with when she was a child, claimed that she enticed men into her cottage and then boiled them up in her cauldron. A few said she was infertile. Fran didn’t know either way and she was not going to ask. One blunder was enough for one interview. Although she did think it would be darkly ironic if Vera Mayhew, who spent such much of her time fertilizing plants, couldn’t produce seeds of her own.
‘No worries, more tea dear?’
‘Which one is it dear?’
Fran blew out her fringe hair exasperatedly. It was obvious what Vera was doing. She was trying to derail the interview. Make Fran lose her flow. But why? What did Ms. Mayhew have to hide?
‘Ms. Mayhew? I was wondering if you could give me some more information about your neighbour Arthur?’
Vera pursed her lips, thinking hard.
‘I’m afraid I don’t know that much. Despite being neighbours, I rarely see him. He keeps to himself and so do I. I sometimes see him reading on his porch, when I am in the garden but other then that, he mostly stays shut up in his house. Bit of a hermit if you ask me.’
Fran snorted tea.
‘You alright dear?’
She wiped her nose with the back of her sleeve and recomposed herself. It was just ludicrous to hear Vera rant on about her neighbour’s hermit style life choice, when she herself had been guilty of the same crime for the last thirty years. Fran cleared her throat.
‘Do you know his last name by any chance?’
‘I think it is Babbock or Bammock. Sorry my memory is a little sketchy these days.’
Fran pulled out her notepad, which in stark contrast to Bridge’s was messily crammed full of untidy notes and odd bits of paper glued and stapled in, at an assortment of wonky and slanted angles. She flipped it open and began noting down the names hurriedly. Vera sat quite still, watching her with an air of infuriating patience and composure.
‘And…did Arthur have any family that you know of? A wife or kids perhaps?’
‘He mentioned a daughter that he doesn’t talk with anymore, who lives somewhere in England. He’s never mentioned a wife but I noticed he did have a wedding ring. Whether he be a divorcee or a widower, I have no idea.’
Fran nodded, making quick, concise notes. She looked up, contemplating the best way to phrase her question.
‘…so sorry if I sound forward Ms. Mayhew…’
‘Please call me Vera.’ She interjected with another wide smile.
Fran restrained herself from saying something rude. She was beginning to get a little tired of this woman’s continual sweetness. It felt at times like she was dealing with a hippie version of Dolores Umbridge.
‘Vera.’ She continued with mock stress on the name. ‘How were you able to phone the police?’
Vera looked rather alarmed all of a sudden. It was the first time Fran had seen her gentle disposition drop. A fact that Vera quickly hid. Fran had clearly not meant to see that side of her.
‘…I don’t quite follow?’
Fran moved forwards and placed both her hands on her knees, fixing Vera with a determined eye. She was going to swing the tide in her favour. Now it was time for Vera to feel uncomfortable.
‘Well, you previously mentioned that you and Arthur didn’t have much of a rapport, so why did you grow concerned? Surely if he was hermit, you would have gone long periods without seeing him at all?’
Vera answered so rapidly and smoothly that Fran was sure it had to have been rehearsed several times.
‘The home dinner delivery service didn’t turn up.’
‘Home dinner service?’
Vera nodded eagerly and took a biscuit from the tray.
‘One of the few things me and Arthur have in common is we both get food delivered to our house. You know, meals on wheels and all that jazz.’
Fran noted it down and tried to suppress the mounting anticipation growing in her chest. The case had taken so long to break but now new clues and trails seemed to be popping up at every corner.
‘Who delivers these meals?’
‘That would be Simon…Simon Barnes. Lovely guy, has the most remarkable eyes? Suffers from a condition called Hetechromia.’
When Fran didn’t ask what that was she carried on.
‘He has one blue eye and one green. Like David Bowie.’
Fran smiled. She wondered if he delivered on Saturday nights.
‘So you noticed that Simon hadn’t turned up and assumed he was missing, just like that?’
Fran looked slightly irked at Fran’s to the point tone.
‘Well, me and Simon always have a natter after he has dropped off Arthur’s meal and every week without fail Arthur puts in an order.’
‘So why didn’t you phone Simon?’
‘I did, he said he had cancelled, so I went over there and knocked to see if he was alright. Couldn’t see anyone in there, so I let myself in with his spare key he had given me. Nowhere in sight. I even walked up and down the lane a few times, calling his name.’
‘That’s very considerate of you to be so concerned for him.’ Fran said with a testing look.
Vera returned a challenging look and for a moment the two women looked at each other, waiting to see who would break first.
‘We may not be best friends Sergeant Thomas but we look out for each other. When your this far out in the valleys, you need someone to watch your back.’
Vera waited for her to fire back with a retort but Fran’s attention was focused on something in the gap between Vera’s elbow and the mantle.
‘Those are interesting. May I enquire what they are?’
Vera turned side on, so as to allow Fran a better view of the mantle. Lined along its top were roughly ten small dolls, each with different hair, clothes and material. Fran got up out of the low sofa, the springs had long since gone but Vera had kept it because of her obsession with flowers, and moved closer to inspect them.
‘They are made out of sack material, stuffed with hay and the clothes and hair are a mixture of felt, cotton and silk.’ Vera stated proudly.
‘Their very lifelike.’ Fran commented, feeling another shiver course through her spine.
Much too life like. There was something familiar about them but Fran couldn’t think what. Maybe she had owned creepy dolls of her own when she was a child and the memory had been suppressed. She noticed a blurred movement out of her eye and glanced out the window. Gethin waved at her eagerly, half concealed by a tall fern. Glossing over it, she straightened up and held out her hand.
‘Thank you for cooperation Ms. Mayhew. I shan’t take up your time any longer.’
‘Not at all dear. I’m sorry about poor Arthur. I hope you find the person responsible and they get what they deserve.’
She squeezed Fran’s hand surprisingly tight and showed her to the door.
‘Feel free to come any time.’
Fran stood on the doorstep, feeling altogether peculiar and ran a hand through her hair. She was dying for a cigarette.
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