Fran turned her phone off on the journey home to Llangaerthen. It was the only way should could silence the incessant beeps and rings, that were most definitely an irate Bridge trying to get hold of her. Christ, even when he wasn’t with her, Bridge could still be the most infuriating of characters. The sky was gradually growing darker, as she reached the outskirts of Llangaerthan and she flipped on the car’s central heating to ward off the chill night air pervading the lumbering vehicle.
She slowed, as the police station came into view. The lobby lights were on, which most likely meant Desk Sergeant Paul was busy manning the fort. In other words, ignoring the phone and playing scrabble on his tablet. Fran had a moment’s guilt and deliberation. What she should really do is park up, go in and use the phone to call Bridge. Then have a look over the forensics report and straighten this messy case out once and for all.
A car’s horn jerked her suddenly back into the present and she glanced in the rear view mirror to be met with harsh headlights and an irate looking driver. Realizing, she was stopped in the middle of the road, Fran pulled away and left the police station in a cloud of dust.
As she got home and climbed up the cracked and weed infested stone steps, Fran couldn’t help but thank the impatient driver outside the police station. Her whole body ached to such a severe degree, that Fran was worried she was about to break entirely and crumble into a pile of dusty bones. The case could wait, she had decided. There were more important things she needed to see to. In particular, a hot bath and a generously sized glass of wine.
As ever she was greeted inside the door by her excitable Labrador, who danced around giddily, jumping up and down, as if he hadn’t seen her for an eternity. To be honest, with the hours Fran had been pulling of late, the house had felt more like a glorified Bed and Breakfast then her humble abode. Despite her fatigued state, she paid ample attention to the big dog. There was something comforting about a living animal’s presence. Human contact was pleasurable and rewarding in certain respects but homo-sapiens tended to be unnecessarily complicated. There was something simple and easy going about the company of an animal, that it was seldom difficult to find with people.
Fran noticed that something was different about the house, as she made her way through to the living room but she wasn’t quite sure what it was. She paused in the hallway to remove her work boots and heard the familiar sounds of her husband Steven swearing at the television. However, as she staggered through the living door, Fran was greeted with an entirely different scene to the one she had expected. Whilst Steven was in his usual spot on the sofa, glued to his latest video game, the living room and adjoining kitchen itself looked drastically different. The pile of washing up had vanished to be replaced with an empty sink and spotless counter. Even the floor had been vacuumed, resembling the original colour it had once been.
‘Hi Honey.’ Steven said joyfully, pausing his game and climbing to his feet with a groan.
‘Hey.’ Fran replied, still recoiling from the immaculately clean living room and kitchen.
‘Cup of tea?’ Steven offered, appearing next to her with a steaming mug of tea.
Fran took the tea gratefully, cupping it in her hands to help warm them up. She moved to the sofa and sat down heavily. Steven joined her, Fran assuming to jump straight back into his game.
‘How was your day?’
‘Long, as per usual but productive. We may have made some headway on the case.’
‘Really? That’s good right.’
‘Yeah, I suppose.’
She eyed Steven with a look of curiosity. First he had cleaned the house and now he was asking her about her day. This was strange behaviour indeed.
‘Why are you looking at me like that?’ Steven said with a grin.
‘I…don’t know….you just seem…very cheerful is all.’
‘Well I didn’t realize that was a crime officer.’
Fran slapped his arm playfully.
‘Of course not. I was just wondering why so chipper this evening. Anything interesting happen today?’
‘Nothing in particular. Just woke up on the right side of bed this morning I guess.’
Fran smiled, relaxing all of a sudden. On another night she may have persisted with the matter further but this evening she was just happy that Steven was clearly in a good mood.
‘Thank you.’ She said, resting her head atop his shoulder.
‘Cleaning the house, putting up with me and my ways and for this blessed mug of tea you have brought me.’
‘Anything for you my dear.’
The two of them sat there for a moment, enjoying the silent but peaceful company of one another before Fran remembered her tea. She sat up and took a large gulp.
‘Argh, that’s the ticket.’
She gestured at the television.
‘What’s this one then?’
‘You bet. Wanna go?’
Fran chewed on her cheek for a moment.
‘Yeah, why the hell not? What are the controls?’
Fran was awoken early the next morning by her energetic Labrador bounding up the stairs and shoving his large head into her pillow. She groaned and sat up, shaking out her messy bed hair. She glanced to her left, half expecting to see a dozing Steven, half hidden under the blankets. To her surprise however, the mattress was unoccupied, the crumpled sheets and bunched up duvet and slight depression, the only indication someone had been there previously. Fran yawned and rolled over onto her other side. The bedside clock showed the time as nearly eleven. Shit. She had slept in late. No doubt Bridge would be on the war path once she made an appearance at work. Part of her wanted to remain in bed and doze for another hour. It was so warm and comforting and the world outside was bitter and cold. Unfortunately, Fran knew this wasn’t an option afforded to her and so with a deep sigh, she staggered out of bed.
Steven wasn’t laid out on the sofa playing his video console, as Fran had suspected but was instead sat up at the kitchen table. He was studying a collection of papers, which he had set out on the table in front of him.
‘Morning.’ He said, smiling at Fran’s disheveled and sleepy state. ‘There’s coffee in the pot.’
Fran nodded gratefully and got herself a mug, pulling out a chair and collapsing into it beside Steven. The two sat in silence for a while, Fran waiting for the caffeine to hit her system, Steven consulting his documentation. It was on her second mug, it was going to be that sort of day, that Fran felt ready for conversation.
‘You shouldn’t of let me sleep in so late.’
Steven paused for a moment and rested his hand atop hers. It was warm and reassuring.
‘You needed it. You have been working hard of late.’
Fran gave his hand a squeeze and nodded.
‘Even so. I shouldn’t have slept in as long as I did.’
‘I’m sure they can handle the situation for a few hours without your supervision.’
Fran sighed deeply.
‘I wouldn’t be to sure of that.’
Steven didn’t say anything. He had returned his attention to the documents. Fran frowned. There were photos mixed in with the other pieces of paper. A stack of folded letters were piled on one corner of the table.
‘Steven. Is that my case file?’
Steven looked up guilty and pursed his lips.
‘I thought I might have a look at it….you know….a fresh pair of eyes.’
Fran gave him a disapproving look.
‘I could get into serious trouble for that.’
‘You’re right.’ Steven agreed and began to put the various documents away but Fran held out her hand.
Steven paused and scratched his chin thoughtfully.
‘Possibly. There is something about these letters that doesn’t sit well.’
Fran dragged her chair closer to Steven, so they could scan over the paperwork together.
Steven sat back and folded his arms.
‘Well for all intense and purposes most of the evidence at the moment points towards Maggie as being the prime suspect or involved to a certain degree. Right?’
Fran nodded, watching Steven’s mind tick over with fascination.
‘It doesn’t make sense.’
‘The letters.’ He picked one up and unfolded it.
‘If Maggie had a relationship with Arthur then the assumption would be that Gareth is the killer.’
‘I guess so.’
‘Then why is Darren Rhion dead. If it was a crime of passion, then why was Darren murdered?’
Fran rubbed her eyes. It was still far too early for her brain to keep up yet.
‘Maybe Rhion discovered who the killer was and so Gareth took him out of the equation.’
Steven nodded but didn’t look entirely convinced by that theory.
‘Possibly but both these murders are ritualistic. They are cold, calculated and precise. Does that really sound like a jealous husband to you?’
‘No.’ Fran admitted.
‘Plus, we have known Gareth and Maggie for years. Not once have they mentioned this Arthur character. Hell, you didn’t even know him until last week.’
‘So…what are you saying?’
Steven mulled over his thoughts for a moment.
‘I just find it all a little too convenient. The letters being found so easily, almost as if they were left there deliberately. Plus, if Gareth was the killer then they did a poor job of disposing the body, considering it was found on their property.’
‘I must admit that Gareth seemed genuinely shocked by the discovery of the body.’
She ran her finger around the ring of her coffee mug.
‘So where do we go from here?’
Steven blew out his cheeks exasperatedly.
‘Couldn’t tell you but I definitely think that there is more to this then meets the eye. Maybe you missed something at the house. Another clue perhaps.’
‘You think I should go back to Arthur’s house?’
‘I do but what do I know…I’m no expert.’
Fran smiled and put her arms around his chest, pulling him into a deep bear hug.
‘Steven Thomas, you are full of surprises and I love it.’
Bridge had given up on trying to reach Fran. He had returned to the station to look over everything, including the new report on Darren Rhion. His intention was to wait there until Fran eventually turned up. However after a few hours, it looked unlikely she was going to make an appearance. He had half a mind to go to her house and give her an earful. Only problem was he didn’t actually know where she lived. He could ask Desk Sergeant Paul but then that would ultimately end up with him sticking his nose in and that was the last thing Bridge wanted at the moment.
It was an odd sensation sitting alone in the police offices. He worked quietly by the light of the desk lamp, occasionally making a trip to the kitchen for a refill of coffee or tea. Bridge had done this countless times back at his station in London but due to the building being so big and always well lit, as well as the constant activity outside on the streets, Bridge had always felt some form of human presence nearby. This was different. He had Desk Sergeant Paul to hand but there wasn’t exactly the most thrilling of conversations to be had with him. For the first time in a long while, Bridge felt lonely.
The next day he rose later then planned but it was still early enough that the roads outside were only just becoming busier. He prepared himself for an awkward morning with Fran, as he made his way into the station lobby. However, Fran had still not dropped by, according to Desk Sergeant Paul.
‘Everything alright between you two?’ Desk Sergeant Paul asked, giving Bridge the eyebrow.
‘Of course. I expect she is working from home today. Long day yesterday.’ Bridge replied, attempting to act as casual as he could.
‘Right you are.’ An unconvinced Desk Sergeant Paul said with a slight nod.
Bridge made tracks before the situation became any more horrendously uncomfortable for the two of them. If Fran had decided to avoid him and hide at home, that was her business but Bridge had work to do. He was still keen to pursue the lead regarding Gareth and Maggie Owen. The letters although not concrete were the best trail he had and he didn’t want to wait around and do nothing until another body turned up.
With no lift, Bridge had to rely on public transport. The bus journey out of town was pleasant enough, even if it did seem to take forever. On the plus side he had plenty of leg and seat room. A luxury not afforded to commuters in the heart of London. The bus could only take him so far. Alighting at the bottom of the hill to the farm, Bridge made his way up the steep track. There was a strong smell of manure on the breeze. Bridge liked that he associated it with the countryside but couldn’t help feel slightly nauseated by it. Unfortunately, it reminded him of vomit, which in turn reminded him of his past university days.
Halfway up the hill, Bridge began to struggle, his lungs and legs protesting at the steep incline. He felt incredibly unfit. Not overweight but the opposite. He was rag and bones, a diet of coffee and ready meals leaving him with a weak and skinny build. That was the problem with the police force. Everyone started out at the peak of their physical prowess but soon the lack of sleep, time spent behind a desk and lack of any sort of yearly fitness test ruined all the hard work that had been put in.
Bridge didn’t head in the usual way over the cattle grille and into the farm courtyard but instead, veered off the main track and climbed into the first of several fields encircling the farmhouse. He recalled their first visit to the Owen’s farm. Bridge and Gareth hadn’t got off to the best of starts and he was pretty certain that without Fran, he wouldn’t be welcome. Not that sneaking into their property was any better but Bridge had never been very good, at doing what he was told.
He had to cross two more fields, navigate an overgrown and unstable wooded area and climb over several fences before he reached the field in which they had first found Arthur’s body. By the time Bridge got there, his jacket was covered in fern and twigs, his skin was littered with pin pricks and white bumps from catching it on holly and stinging nettles. He had given up on any hope of keeping his shoes clean, as they were now caked in a layer of mud and leaves.
He sighed, taking a moment to catch his breath and watched the morning sun peeking through the drifting clouds moving lazily above the field. He should be tired and irritable but there was something exhilarating about his trek up here. He hadn’t felt this sense of escapism and freedom since he was young boy and his mother and father had taken him out of the city for the summer holidays.
He was just thinking what a lovely day it was turning out to be, when he heard a twig snap behind him, followed by a mechanical click. He tried to spin around in time but was beaten to it, as something blunt and hard hit him square in the temple. Bridge crumpled to the floor, his vision swimming. A pair of dark, green wellies were the last things he saw before everything turned to black and he passed out of consciousness.
Fran knew she should have gone to the station to try and convince Bridge that it would be a better use of their time returning to Arthur’s house, instead of pursuing the Owen’s. However, she really didn’t have the energy in her to start an argument, especially this early since rising. Besides, if she knew Bridge at all, Fran expected him to go ahead of his own prerogative and surely it would be a more sensible use of their time to split up and hit two birds with one stone. Or that was what Fran told herself anyway, to avoid having to actually deal with Bridge.
As she approached Arthur’s small run down house, she couldn’t help her attention being drawn to Vera’s overly colourful front garden. Vera was nowhere in sight. The curtains were closed and no visible sign of life from within. There was something nagging Fran concerning Vera. Perhaps she should pay her visit after looking around Arthur’s house once more.
Fran slammed the brakes on suddenly, as she nearly collided with a large 4×4 parked in the middle of the path. She took a deep breath and loosened her tight grip on the steering wheel. She should have been keeping an eye on the path ahead of her. Not that she had expected a jeep to be parked there. Both Vera and Arthur owned no vehicles, hence why they shared the same food delivery service. Was it something to do with that, which was bothering her? Possibly. Turning off her engine, Fran climbed out of her rust bucket Volvo and wandered over to the stationary jeep.
There was something familiar about this particular jeep. Fran had seen it somewhere before but she couldn’t place where. She peered in the dusty window. The interior was empty. There was an assortment of gardening related tools on the seat and a bobble head of a dancing farmer on the dashboard. She stepped back from the hulking vehicle and glanced around. There was nowhere else around. Feeling her hairs prickle slightly on her neck, Fran moved towards Arthur’s house, trying to focus on the real reason she was here. As she reached the front door however, she hesitated. The police caution tape was still up but something red was caught on it. Fran took a closer look. It was soft woolen cloth, possibly from a scarf or jumper. It could have belonged to one of the three of them or perhaps a scene of crime officer. But Fran doubted anyone would be that careless.
Despite not wanting to appear paranoid and a chicken, Fran got out her phone and dialed Bridge’s number. No answer. She cursed and tried again. Still no answer. She left a answerphone stressing the importance of her discovery and sent off a quick text to cover all basis. Fran waited for a minute. There was a creak from inside the house. Fran felt a shiver course down her spine. Pull yourself together she told herself. It was only the house buffeted by the wind. Fran had to make a decision now otherwise she was just going to stand on the doorstep all day long. Finally, she put in a call to the station and told Desk Sergeant Paul to keep trying Bridge and send up a couple of officers for her own backup.
Then she popped the phone back into her pocket, took a deep breath and opened the door. Fran was going against protocol doing this. Even Desk Sergeant Paul, the most unprofessional of policeman had advised her to hang fire until backup arrived. But Fran was keen to get in the house and look around before more bodies clogged up the crime scene.
The house smelt fusty and dust mites hung on the air, illuminated by the morning sunlight filtering through the glass surface of the front door. Her foot connected with a small tennis ball that rolled away down the hallway. She bent down to retrieve it and almost toppled backwards in shock, as a woman burst into the hallway and darted away from Fran. She was heading for the kitchen, which led out into the back garden.
Body tensing, Fran extracted a walking cane from the nearby umbrella stand and moved cautiously down the hallway. The sheer brightness of the large white kitchen contrasted heavily with the dim hallway and it took her eyes a few moments to acclimatize to the new room. The rear kitchen door was open and there was a distant scrabbling and scurrying noise from the garden.
Gripping the cane to steel herself, Fran stepped out into the neat back garden. She was confronted with an extremely peculiar sight. The woman who had startled Fran in the house was at the foot of the garden. She was attempting rather unsuccessfully, to clamber over the garden fence. To the woman’s dismay, she neither had the height nor strength to pull off the task as intended.
As Fran neared the fleeing woman, her eyes widened in surprise, as she recognized who it was.
The woman froze, mid scrabble and turned reluctantly to face Fran. There was no doubt about it. Maggie Owen, the nervous farmer’s wife stood before Fran. Her knees were muddy from her sorrowful attempts to scale the fence and there was a layer of gunk under her nails, where she had scraped against the fence.
‘Hi Fran.’ Maggie said awkwardly.
Fran sat in stunned silence at the kitchen table, the mug of tea Maggie had made, lay untouched and losing heat by the second. It was clearly evident that Fran was still in the process of absorbing what Maggie had relayed to her. Fran was a notorious tea addict and the fact that she hadn’t even touched her brew, was evidence of her shock at Maggie’s news.
‘Say something.’ Maggie pleaded anxiously, pacing up and down behind the kitchen counter.
Fran’s mouth was dry and her hands clammy.
‘How….long?’ She finally managed in a hoarse whisper.
‘Five years, give or take.’
‘Five years!’ Fran repeated, astounded.
Maggie shrugged awkwardly.
‘You saw the letters. It wasn’t just a summer’s romance.’
‘I know but still…five years.’
There were both silent for a moment. Fran frowning hard out the window and Maggie returning to her jaguar like pacing.
‘Did you always know?’ Fran queried, wrenching her gaze from a Robin, bobbing about on the garden paving slabs.
‘No, of course not.’ Maggie scoffed loudly. ‘I mean I had my suspicions but…’
‘And the M. Why M?’ Fran interjected quickly.
‘Oh that. Yeah well…Gareth’s middle name is Mark and they needed a code of sorts so as to avoid detection.’
Fran nodded slowly and sat back. When she had caught Maggie trying to sneak out of Arthur’s garden, she had discovered Maggie had come here to find the love letters. Putting two and two together she had thought she had finally got it all figured out. Maggie was having an affair with Arthur. So it took Fran by shock, when Maggie revealed that it was actually her husband Gareth who was having the affair with Arthur.
‘But why keep it a secret all this time…I mean it’s not like homosexuality is frowned upon in the same way. Arthur and Gareth could have come forward.’
Maggie sighed heavily and pulled out one of the kitchen stools, sitting for the first time since the pair had entered the kitchen.
‘Look, Arthur is an ex army man and Gareth is a fifty year old man, who comes from a traditional family of farmers.’
‘So, you think they would have felt ashamed.’
Maggie rubbed her arms, her method of trying to relax herself.
‘Partly but it was more to do with their age. They are both from a generation where the concept is alien. I think they were just coming to terms with themselves, as well as each other.’
Fran let that sink in a moment. She had never considered that. The length of time this relationship had been going on. Perhaps they had been working to help bring it to light over the course of a few years.
‘And you just let them get on with it? I can’t believe you just took a back row seat during the whole duration.’
Maggie sighed. She looked suddenly aged in that moment. Her wrinkled skin and tired eyes showing evidence of great strain.
‘You’re telling me.’ Fran said, shaking her head. ‘Sorry.’ She followed up, catching Maggie’s expression.
‘Believe me, I hated him with a passion when I first found out. So much so that I threatened to expose their relationship…’
Maggie paused, her gaze wandering to the window. She contemplated the sky outside thoughtfully.
‘But the funny thing about the whole situation is that I never stopped loving Gareth and I don’t think he ever stopped loving me. When I saw how happy they were together, I couldn’t bring myself to expose them. I can’t really explain it very well.’
Fran took a sip of tea for liquid strength more then anything.
‘So why come back here to get the letters and why run when I found you. Those are not the actions of an innocent woman.’
Maggie groaned in frustration.
‘To save Gareth. Arthur is gone and I wanted to prevent their relationship getting out. All it would result it is more pain for Gareth, where nothing could be gained by revealing the truth.’
Fran mused on this for a moment. It did make sense, in a messed up sort of way. Not to mention that there was still the matter of Rhion’s death. It was possible that it was a revenge killing for the arson attacks but Fran wasn’t entirely convinced by that. She had known Maggie for several years and although a little bit out there, she found it highly doubtful that she was the culprit.
‘You will have to come down to the station to answer some questions. Routine procedure of course.’
Maggie looked taken aback.
‘You don’t think I am the killer do you?’
Fran flashed a smile.
‘Honestly…no but I wouldn’t be a very good cop if I took every one by their word.’
Maggie nodded understandably.
‘Fair enough…I have nothing to hide.’
Fran gave her a cynical look.
‘Nothing else…that is.’ Maggie further explained.
Fran reached for her tea but was interrupted by the low hum of her mobile in her pocket. She sighed and whipped it out. Any hopes of actually finishing this cup of tea were fading fast. It was Bridge. She was very tempted to decline the call, adding it to the long list of unanswered ones collated from yesterday and this morning. However, she chose instead to accept it. Pillock or no pillock, Bridge was her colleague and it was her duty to inform him of this break in the case.
‘Hello Bridge.’ She said shortly. ‘Wait…what…slow down.’ She shot Maggie a nervous glance, who sat up curiously.
‘Okay…calm down…we will straighten this out…don’t do anything stupid…I’m on my way now.’
She hung up and hurriedly got to her feet.
‘What’s up?’ Maggie asked.
‘We need to get to your farm now.’
Fran threw on her coat and quickly rushed into the hallway.
‘Why….Fran what’s going on?’
‘Your husband caught Bridge trespassing on his land.’ Fran called over her shoulder, throwing open the main door.
Maggie grew very pale all of a sudden. She snatched her keys off the kitchen counter and made after the departing Fran.
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