'Just the thing to chase the blues away...' M. C. Beaton Vicky Hill has two goals in life: to escape the never-ending boredom of funeral reporting and find the right man. Then a tip leads to what might be the scoop of a lifetime. There is a bizarre connection between three grisly chicken corpses and the unusual death of a local hedge-jumping enthusiast Sir Hugh Trewallyn. Suddenly, it seems that this quiet market town harbours more than its fair share of secrets but when Vicky opens Gipping's Pandora's box, her own secrets come back to haunt her... Praise for Hannah Dennison: 'A dizzy romp with an endearingly gullible investigator' Ann Purse 'A laugh a page ... a hilarious debut' Carolyn Hart 'Dennison delivers a novel that both Monty Python and Miss Marple would approve of' Fresh Fiction
Release date: May 17, 2012
Publisher: C & R Crime
Print pages: 336
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A Vicky Hill Exclusive!
I wish to extend my heartfelt gratitude to:
Claire Carmichael: instructor extraordinaire, Australian guru, and wonderful friend. Thank you for your irrepressible humour, genius suggestions, and endless support. I hope to repay your many services one day with the gift of a small island.
Mark Davis: chairman of Davis Elen Advertising and amazing boss. Thank you for supporting my dreams and embracing them as your own.
Linda Palmer: fellow author, kindred spirit, and sister-in-crime. Thank you for your selfless advice, kindness, and infinite generosity in sharing your publishing experiences.
Kerry Madden: author and teacher who discovered the character of Vicky Hill and insisted I bring her to life.
Sarah Smith, aka Pose: my daughter, who never stopped believing in me.
The Dennisons: with special thanks to my parents for passing on their sense of humour and for sharing their unusual and often intriguing insights on life and love. Happily, they have never been wanted criminals.
Readers and well-wishers: James Ward, Kevin Butterworth, Cam Galano, Andra Berkholds, Rob Nau, Gavin Reardon, the Elen clan, Giles Instone, and Tamara Sobel. An extra-special thank-you to Mark Durel, who has enthusiastically read every incarnation of Vicky from day one.
Natalee Rosenstein: editor at Berkley Prime Crime. Thank you, not just for taking a leap of faith, but also for the brilliant suggestions without which Vicky might still be languishing in a bottom drawer. Thanks also to Michelle Vega, assistant editor at Berkley Prime Crime, who does everything with a smile and is the most efficient person I know.
My agent, Betsy Amster: for taking a chance on an unknown writer.
The UCLA Writers Program: For enabling me to transition from amateur writer to professional author.
And, last but by no means least, Jason Elen: my husband, who willingly took on the roles of nursemaid, drill sergeant, cheerleader, therapist, cook, launderer, man Friday, and without whose love and support this book could never have been finished. You are my hero.
The brown envelope addressed to Annabel Lake sat on her empty chair.
Of course, it was marked confidential, but given that Annabel was home, suffering from a severe case of food poisoning, I thought it prudent to open it. After all, it could be urgent and what was in a name, anyway? Weren’t we journalists all seeking truth and justice?
The note bore today’s date but was tantalizingly unsigned. I felt a thrill of excitement. Apparently, something ‘macabre’ had been discovered at Gipping County Council Rubbish Tip, and ‘could Annabel Lake go there straight away.’
Within minutes, I had my headline: RUBBISH REVEALS ROTTING REMAINS: A VICKY HILL EXCLUSIVE! Or, should the discovery prove really grisly: GIPPING TIP TORSO TERROR.
All I had to do was persuade Pete Chambers, my boss and chief reporter of the Gipping Gazette, to give me the story.
I tapped on Pete’s office door and braced myself for the usual barrage of obscenities.
‘Who the hell is it?’ he shouted.
‘It’s Vicky.’ I opened the door a crack and waved the note and envelope at him. ‘Just got this in. Could be a big one.’
‘That’ll be the day.’ Pete sneered, gesturing for me to step through a wall of cigarette smoke into his cramped office. ‘You’ll soon learn, luv.’
I felt sorry for Pete. Somewhere along the line, he’d grown disillusioned. Apparently, this happened to a lot of middle-aged journalists who saw too much of life’s cruelties. It would never happen to me.
Pete scanned the note with a frown. ‘This is addressed to Annabel. Where the bloody hell is she?’
‘She’s got diarrhoea.’ I tried to sound sympathetic. ‘It’s really bad. Every five minutes—’
‘This is marked confidential, Vicky.’
‘I thought it looked urgent. Diarrhoea could go on for days. I’d never have opened it otherwise – honestly.’
‘Where is everyone?’
‘Tony has a cold – flu, actually – and Edward’s covering that abused sheep love-triangle case in court that could go on all week.’ I smiled. ‘But I can—’
‘No you bloody can’t.’ Pete flicked ash onto the floor. ‘You’re reporting Trewallyn’s funeral. Christ! Why did Annabel do this to me? She knew today was important.’
I wanted to point out that Annabel had not deliberately chosen to eat a dicey curry, but thought it wise to keep quiet. Besides, I knew exactly the reason for Pete’s angst – though I would never let on. He and Annabel were secretly working on something important. I’d caught snatches of ‘Biggest story Gipping has ever had,’ and ‘The report will confirm it all.’
Then, yesterday, when I brought their afternoon tea and made an innocent remark about Sir Hugh Trewallyn’s funeral, Annabel had become flustered. She’d quickly hit ‘sleep’ on her computer keyboard so I couldn’t see the screen. Honestly! How immature! Didn’t she know I was aiming to become a famous international correspondent like Christiane Amanpour? It was only a matter of time until I would find out what was going on.
‘I thought I could go via the rubbish tip on my way to the funeral,’ I ventured.
‘No.’ Pete drummed his fingers on the desk. ‘It’s Annabel’s lead, Vicky. Not yours.’
I longed to shout aloud, ‘It isn’t! It isn’t! I was here before her. It’s not fair!’ but instead, I gave a bright smile and said, ‘Just trying to help.’
‘Well, don’t.’ Pete angrily stubbed one cigarette out and lit another.
I knew this so-called report was due to be delivered today and, judging from Pete’s reaction, I guessed one of his informers would be slipping it to him on the quiet.
‘Why don’t you go? I’ll wait here for that special report,’ I said, with wide-eyed innocence.
‘Report?’ Pete snapped. ‘Did Annabel tell you?’
‘Oh, you know how she is,’ I said, airily. Annabel hadn’t said a word to me.
‘I’ve got no bloody choice, have I? My balls are in a vice.’
I pushed that image firmly to the back of my mind. Before Pete could change his, I put on my beige safari jacket – Christiane wears hers in the field all the time – and headed for the door. ‘You won’t regret it,’ I said.
‘Wait!’ Pete took a key out of his pocket, unlocked the bottom drawer of his desk, and retrieved a Nikon digital camera. ‘You’d better borrow this. Annabel tells me you don’t have one.’
‘Of course, I do! It’s being repaired,’ I said mentally cursing Annabel who always loved to make me look incompetent. Dad had given me a Canon Digital Rebel before they left for Spain, but the batch had turned out to have a faulty flash. Thanks to the barcode tracking system, I couldn’t even use the guarantee to get a replacement. It was most annoying.
‘I hope you didn’t take it to Ken’s Kamera,’ Pete said. ‘He’s worse than bloody useless.’
‘No,’ I said quickly. Of course, I had.
‘No reporter should ever be without a camera these days,’ Pete scolded, ‘Especially if it’s for the front page.’
Front page! This could be it – my lucky break! ‘What do you think I’ll find at the dump?’
‘How would I know?’ Pete snarled. ‘That’s your job.’
Pete handed me the camera. ‘Know what to ask?’
‘Who-what-when-where-how-and-why,’ I recited crisply, automatically giving Pete a nautical salute.
I hurried out of his office. With Annabel out of action, this was my long-awaited chance to prove my mettle and escape from what seemed like the never-ending world of funeral reporting.
When my parents fled the country four months ago, I moved from northern England to begin an apprenticeship with the Gipping Gazette in Devon. I imagined I’d be working on the crime desk – or recording gruesome murders at the local Magistrates’ Court. I was sorely disappointed.
Gipping-on-Plym had to be the most boring town in all of England. Divided by the River Plym, Upper Gipping, to the north, was home to toffs, wealthy farmers, and the nouveau riche – the sort of place where Dad would do a lot of business. By comparison, Lower Gipping, to the south, resembled a mining slum from a D. H. Lawrence novel. Once a bustling community that took pride in working for Trewallyn Wool and Textiles, the old factory had long closed down leaving the residents disillusioned and unemployed.
The most gripping front-page scoops from the past twenty years were framed and mounted on the walls in reception: THE FLOOD OF ’93 that closed Withybottom for two whole days; THE STAMPEDE OF ’80 when twenty-five cows escaped from a neighbouring farm and thundered through town in the dead of night; and, most exciting of all, last week’s PLYM VALLEY TOWER TRAGEDY, the latest bungle by eco-activists trying to stop Devon Satellite Bell from erecting a mobile phone transmitter on top of St Andrew’s church tower. Adopting the name ‘Eco-Warriors,’ this rogue band of troublemakers are convinced that electromagnetic waves could expose the community to dangerous radiation. Unfortunately, their candlelit protest ended when a bird’s nest caught fire, engulfing the fifteenth-century belfry in flames.
I yearned to cover real news but up to this point had done nothing other than stand outside church doors taking names of local mourners, paying particular attention to correct spelling.
The Gazette was famous for being one of the few remaining newspapers in the country to record the names of all the bereaved. It was very proud of its reputation for accuracy and attention to detail. According to my funeral log, I had attended 157 so far. It astonished me just how many old people lived – or should I say, died – in the area. I concluded it must be the countryside. Most people imagined a staple diet of fresh air and open spaces was marvellous for one’s constitution. I disagreed. As an expert on death, I believed it was the endless farmyard smells – raw pig manure being the worst – that eventually overwhelmed the elderly.
Downstairs in reception, I grabbed an umbrella from Barbara Meadows, our plump receptionist who was proud of the fact she started work here, ‘when the Beatles released “A Hard Day’s Night”’ and thrived on local gossip. It was threatening to rain – again.
‘You’re off early,’ she said. ‘Trewallyn’s funeral doesn’t start until eleven.’
‘I’m off to the rubbish tip,’ I said, unable to contain my excitement. ‘Big story down there.’
‘Oh! You don’t want to take any notice of Ronnie Binns, dear,’ Barbara said dismissively.
‘The dustman! Such a smelly little man.’ She laughed. Barbara may think she knows everything but she doesn’t have a reporter’s instinct for hard-boiled news.
‘Always dropping in with his silly anonymous notes for Annabel. Always crying wolf. I told Annabel, if she had wanted a reliable informer, I could have listed a dozen lusty, virile men who would—’
‘Maybe this time it’s for real,’ I said, trying to ignore the unwelcome news that Annabel had her own personal informer. ‘Anyway, Pete seems to think it’s worth investigating.’
‘Suit yourself.’ Barbara shrugged. ‘Frankly, you’ve got to take anyone born in Lower Gipping with a pinch of salt.’ She dropped her voice – not that she needed to, reception was empty. ‘Such an untrustworthy sort.’ Barbara lived in The Marshes – a small section of swampland reclaimed from the River Plym and highly susceptible to flooding.
‘I’ll bear that in mind. Bye.’ I felt instantly deflated. Surely, if Pete had been aware of the note’s origins, wouldn’t he have told me not to bother? Unless he just wanted me out of the way when the report arrived?
Out in the High Street, rain fell in sharp, windy gusts. I set off at a brisk pace. The walk to the rubbish tip would take approximately twenty minutes. It was already nine thirty. Sir Hugh’s funeral was on the other side of town, so I’d have to get a move on. If only I could afford a car.
Annabel drove a new silver BMW 328i, yet we both earned the same paltry trainee salary. I suspected she had wealthy, generous parents. Perhaps her father was a banker, rather like my dad who also dealt in money – albeit somewhat unconventionally.
Unlike myself, Annabel could always afford the latest fashions. I remembered her first day at the Gazette when she turned up dressed in Dolce & Gabbana low-rider jeans exposing a naked, perfectly toned midriff with pierced navel. A cropped, matching jacket accentuated her voluptuous figure. Pete was so shocked he nearly swallowed his cigarette. Even Wilf Veysey, our reclusive editor, made a rare appearance from his corner office to see what all the fuss was about. He declared it was unprofessional to expose so much flesh in public despite Annabel’s protests that she’d always found her choice of attire a journalistic asset. Much to Pete’s sorrow, Annabel was sent home to change.
As I splashed through the puddled streets of the small market town, greeting everyone I passed with a smile – a reporter could never have too many contacts – it was hard not to dwell on my rival. Initially, I’d been looking forward to making a friend. We’d talk about boyfriends – even though I’d never really had one. We’d spend our free time getting drunk at The Three Tuns on Friday nights or going clubbing in Plymouth.
The moment Annabel arrived I realized friendship was the furthest thing from her mind. From the start, she made it clear she did not see me as her equal, even though we were the same age. She repeatedly rejected my suggestions that we eat our sandwiches together in the park, preferring to hang around Pete and reapply her lipstick.
I never wore makeup. There was no time for vanity in the front line. I favoured warm clothes and comfortable shoes. As an ex-Girl Guide, I always liked to be prepared. Tucked in one of my safari jacket pockets, I carried a Swiss Army knife, a flash-light, and a whistle.
It made no difference to Annabel that I started at the newspaper months before she had. As the most junior, it should have been her responsibility to make the tea for all of us. Instead, I was still doing it. Annabel had claimed it was too dangerous for her to go down the steep, rickety stairs to the basement where our makeshift kitchenette harboured a cracked porcelain sink, gas water heater, and small refrigerator.
Announcing she was allergic to gas fumes, Annabel had insisted that Pete accompany her to check the equipment for leaks. They were gone for at least half an hour and, when they did reappear, Annabel looked smug and claimed making tea would be a health risk for her lungs. Pete, red in the face, held a copy of a newspaper in front of his crotch. The headline read UNEXPECTED HEAT WAVE CAUSES RUPTURE IN TANK, which I thought highly apt under the circumstances.
Of course, I realized what had gone on in the basement! The birds and the bees were no mystery to me. My mum had warned me how men, confined in small spaces with big-breasted girls, could rarely control themselves. Promptly, I pushed the image of Pete and Annabel away. I was finally embarking on my first real reporting job and, until it turned out to be a hoax, refused to dwell on such frivolities.
The note said the discovery was ‘macabre’. This was a strange word. It conjured up horrible scenes from Voodoo Vixens, the thriller I finished reading late last night. In the book, the word macabre is used to describe the grotesque voodoo dolls and mutilated chickens that littered the jungle floor. Perhaps one had made its way from darkest Africa to Lower Gipping? I really hoped so.
As I turned onto Refuse Dump Drive, my stomach filled with butterflies. No doubt the place would be seething with ill-mannered onlookers, anxious to enjoy other people’s tragedies. I suspected the police would have cordoned off the area with blue and white tape, like they did on telly.
I steadied myself for what horrors lay ahead. To my annoyance, the tip showed no sign of any activity at all. It looked like Barbara was right.
The giant, iron gates were closed and padlocked, though frankly, the broken, rusty fence surrounding the tip would never deter a determined trespasser. Other than a muddy dustcart – emblazoned with the logo, GIPPING COUNTY COUNCIL: REFUSE WE WON’T REFUSE – parked alongside a trailer, the place was deserted. I felt a stab of disappointment, but reminded myself that I still had a job to do. I headed for the trailer – a soulless box on wheels, which I presumed to be the site office.
‘Gipping Gazette!’ I called out, feeling a sudden thrill of importance. I knocked smartly on the door. ‘Press!’
‘Won’t be a moment,’ shouted a male voice from inside.
I waited for what seemed like aeons.
The door flew open. ‘Morning,’ said a wiry, balding man in his early sixties. He was dressed in dirty gabardine overalls and thigh-high rubber boots that looked too snug for comfort.
‘Ronnie Binns?’ I asked, trying not to gag as a vision of Ronnie and Annabel passionately kissing flashed before my eyes.
‘Who are you?’ Ronnie’s voice was edged with suspicion. ‘Where’s Annabel Lake?’
‘Vicky Hill,’ I said, offering my hand and swiftly withdrawing it again as I was practically poleaxed by a boiled-cabbage like stench that surrounded him like atmosphere. Barbara was right again.
‘Annabel’s ill,’ I said pleasantly. ‘The Gazette sent me instead.’ This was perfectly true.
‘Oh, aye.’ Ronnie wiped his nose with the back of his hand and looked me up and down with what seemed like ill-disguised lust. ‘I suppose you’ll do. Same arrangement?’
I felt my face grow hot. There was no question of any form of payment, bodily or otherwise, with this revolting little person.
Dad had told me a lot about handling informers, particularly those who seemed too cocky: first, never feel intimidated; second, never pay up front; and third, be willing to walk away.
‘I’m afraid not,’ I said firmly. ‘The deal has changed.’
‘A deal’s a deal,’ Ronnie said flatly. ‘No money. No story. Good day to you.’ Ronnie neatly stepped back inside and tried to shut the door. I slipped my foot into the crack.
‘Let’s not be hasty, Mr Binns!’ I said, immensely cheered by the knowledge that sex was off the menu. ‘As you can imagine, we have a lot of loyal readers willing to tip off their favourite newspaper. For free.’ This was probably true. ‘In exchange, they get a special thanks for looking out for the community. Sometimes, their name even gets in the paper.’
‘That’s their lookout.’ Ronnie pushed the door hard against my foot. ‘Excuse me, but I’ve a phone call to make.’
God! He’s going to call Annabel. ‘I wouldn’t do that,’ I said quickly. ‘She’s very ill. She might even be in a coma.’
‘I wasn’t going to call her,’ Ronnie said. ‘I’m sure another newspaper will be interested in what I found yesterday. It’s your loss.’
Blast! What an infuriating little man, I thought, but instead gave an indulgent chuckle. ‘Oh, Mr Binns, I haven’t come about whatever you found at the tip.’
‘You haven’t?’ Ronnie blinked. ‘What do you want, then?’
I paused trying to think up another reason. ‘I’m afraid it’s come to our editor’s notice that some of the stories you have brought to our attention are a load of codswallop.’
‘Who said that?’
‘Who do you think?’
Ronnie’s eyes flashed. ‘She told me what passed between us was private.’
‘Ah, well, Annabel’s new and overenthusiastic,’ I said cheerfully. ‘Just take this visit as a friendly warning, Mr Binns. We love the public to tip us off, but one can cry wolf too many times! Nice to meet you. Must be off. Bye.’ I turned to go, one ear ready for the inevitable.
‘Wait! Come back here!’ Ronnie shouted, hurrying after me. ‘Cry wolf! No one calls me a liar.’
I stopped. ‘Mr Binns, you’re wasting Gazette time. I’m afraid I just can’t pay you.’
‘It’s not about the money! It’s about respect!’ Ronnie seemed genuinely upset. ‘No one insults the Binns’s family name and gets away with it!’
‘If you feel you really want to tell me, then go ahead. I’m all ears.’ I whipped out my reporter notebook and mentally prepared my routine list of questions.
‘And no cops. This is between you and me.’
I heartily agreed with that remark, having heard my father say countless times, ‘The only good copper is a dead copper.’ Personally, I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I did view the police with somewhat of a jaundiced eye.
‘Where exactly is it now?’
‘Like I said, in there.’ He gestured towards the locked gates.
‘When did it happen?’
‘Like I said, yesterday.’
‘What is it?’
Ronnie paused, and gave me a strange look. ‘It’s the work of the devil. That’s what it is.’
Blast! What a complete waste of time. These country folk saw the devil everywhere. I went on with my next question out of pure habit. ‘How did you find it?’
‘Like I said, picking up at The Grange.’
‘Trewallyn’s place?’ What a small world, I thought, considering my next port of call was Sir Hugh’s funeral. Rumours were flying about Sir Hugh’s body being found mysteriously spread-eagled in the middle of a yew hedge on the estate. I thought the idea of foul play rather far-fetched.
Sir Hugh was seventy-five, which was a perfectly acceptable age to go. He was a notorious hedge-jumper – the local pastime – and probably suffered a heart attack whilst attempting a jump at a particularly challenging, large yew. I reminded myself it was important for a reporter not to make assumptions until I’d gathered all the facts, which I would have following the service later today.
‘Do you want to see it?’ Ronnie whispered as he extracted a key from his pocket and gestured for me to follow him.
I shrugged. ‘If we’re quick.’
We stopped outside the padlocked gates.
BEEP! BEEP! BEEEEEP!
The car horn startled me. I spun around, momentarily blinded as a pair of flashing headlights filled my vision.
Ronnie stood transfixed as a silver BMW barrelled towards us. He spun to face me, his expression filled with accusation. ‘You told me she was at death’s door!’
Blast! It was Annabel.
‘Thank God you’re alive!’ I said, opening Annabel’s car door. ‘She’s alive! It’s a miracle!’ I yelled out to Ronnie who was standing over by the open gates with a face like thunder.
‘For heaven’s sake, Vicky, you’re such a hypochondriac!’ Annabel sneered. ‘It was just a touch of food poisoning. You’ll never survive out in the field if you’re worried about little things like that.’
‘I’ll take over now.’ Annabel checked her reflection in the rear view mirror. With her auburn hair (Nice ’n Easy Natural Copper Red), she looked pale and beautiful. She was wearing another new outfit – an indecently short, denim miniskirt and leather bomber jacket – obviously for Ronnie Binns’s benefit. ‘Is there a loo around here?’
‘I think there’s one in the office.’ I know it sounded uncharitable, but I couldn’t help hoping she’d suffer a hideous relapse.
‘Haven’t you got a funeral to go to?’ Annabel opened the glove box and retrieved an envelope that, to my practised eye, looked thick with banknotes.
‘You don’t have to pay Mr Binns,’ I declared. Ronnie was striding towards us flushed with self-righteous indignation. ‘He says he’s happy to give us. . .
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