House of Lies
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A dark secret. A haunted past. And a house full of lies.
When two teenage girls vanish without a trace from an educational retreat at Chidlow House in Lincolnshire, the students and teachers are put on high alert.
Called in to investigate, Detective Karen Hart questions everyone who came into contact with the two girls, Cressida and Natasha, in the days leading up to their disappearance.
Stories of Chidlow House being haunted abound, but Hart—still coming to terms with the suspicious circumstances surrounding the tragic loss of her own family—knows that while the house might be otherworldly, the crime is grimly real.
But nothing is quite as it seems at Chidlow House. When it becomes clear that someone at the estate must know more than they’re letting on, Hart faces a race against time to find the culprit and save the girls.
While there is no shortage of suspects, Hart comes up against one dead end after another. And when she too begins hearing eerie whispers in the walls, she is forced to wonder: was she too quick to dismiss Chidlow’s supernatural reputation?
Release date: September 29, 2020
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
Print pages: 335
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House of Lies
Alison King swallowed nervously as she looked around the wood-panelled hall. Oil paintings covered the walls. On her first day at Chidlow House, she’d made the mistake of taking a close look at the artwork. It was disturbing. The hunting scenes were violent, and the portraits were odd. Stern-faced men and miserable woman were scattered among the bloodthirsty canvases.
She shuddered. It was just a house. A big, grand, empty house, but a house all the same. The Chidlow family had a long, chequered history, which delighted the teenage students Alison was teaching. At lunchtime she’d overheard them sharing ghost stories about the Drowned Lady. Of course, she didn’t believe in ghosts. She was a grown-up, not a naive, pliable teenager. But there was something about this house . . .
Giving herself a mental shake, she squared her shoulders and walked on. The smells of old wood and dust from the thick curtains hung in the air as she walked past a large window which looked out on to the extensive gardens. It had a large windowsill with a cushioned seat, in theory a perfect reading nook. Somewhere to curl up and disappear into a novel. In daylight, the house didn’t seem nearly as scary. The sun streamed in through the large pane of glass and the view across the lawns to the lake was undoubtedly beautiful. But when the shadows began to lengthen and the creaks and groans of the old house took on an ominous tone, it was the last place Alison wanted to read. No, she couldn’t imagine curling up and reading in a spot like this. Alison hadn’t read more than a couple of pages since she’d arrived. She hadn’t been able to relax enough to enter a fictional world, because that meant letting her guard down and she couldn’t do that. Not here.
The house was oppressive. Malevolent.
Where had that thought come from? A house couldn’t do any harm. The people in it, on the other hand . . .
She paused and turned in a circle, confused, sure she’d heard something – dripping water, a whisper. She stood still, her ears straining against the silence, but heard nothing. She was alone.
This place was making her hypersensitive. It wasn’t like her to be so skittish. Once she made it to her room, she could bolt the door and feel safe. But she couldn’t go to her room yet. She had some important information for the director of the study programme.
Last night she’d heard water trickling in the old pipes and scratching behind the walls. The scratching had probably been mice. Rodents creeping in through cracks and crevices wouldn’t be unusual in a house of this age and size. That was the logical explanation. But at night, her mind played fanciful tricks, and though she didn’t believe in spirits or otherworldly beings, the noises meant she’d stayed awake most of the night.
A house she’d shared in her student days had had a rodent problem. They’d been nesting in the loft insulation and chewed through various wires, causing untold damage.
She was annoyed at herself for getting spooked. When the students spoke about the haunting of Chidlow House they did so in awed, thrilled whispers. They weren’t scared of the Drowned Lady. If a group of teenagers could get through a week in the old house without having a panic attack, surely she could do the same. After all, she was the one who was supposed to be responsible for their welfare.
Earlier two of the students had asked if she’d heard the sound of dripping water and whispering last night.
She hadn’t been able to reply at first. Then she’d stammered something about how the gurgling of the pipes was the most logical reason for the odd noises. The students accepted her explanation readily enough, but she hadn’t really convinced herself.
It could be one of the students playing a practical joke. She wouldn’t be surprised. Teenage boys often made very odd efforts to gain attention from their female peers. Or her first guess could be correct – gurgling pipes. Air trapped within them could cause knocking or other unusual sounds. Perhaps the noise was from an animal? They could make all sorts of strange noises. She’d read that foxes could make a sound like a baby crying.
With a sigh of relief she realised she’d reached the corridor leading to Graham Doyle’s suite. She needed to talk to the programme director as soon as possible. Though she would have liked to leave the matter until morning, it really couldn’t wait. Handling the problem was way above her pay grade. Doyle could do it. He was immensely proud of holding the study week at Chidlow House and would want to know if there was a chance something could tarnish the programme’s reputation.
Only a few days left, Alison told herself as she walked along the narrow hallway. She could cope with a few more days. She would never do this again though, no matter how good the money was. The stress simply wasn’t worth it.
She’d only taken a few steps when a flash of something white streaked across the end of the corridor, in front of the window.
Her limbs froze and she couldn’t even take a breath, let alone call for help.
What was that? It was no mouse or gurgling pipes. She’d definitely seen something, a figure in white racing along the hall.
She turned around desperately, looking for someone else who could have seen the apparition. Doyle’s room was only a few feet away. But her legs refused to move. Her feet felt like they were bolted to the floor.
She forced herself to take a breath, clenched her fists in her pockets.
No, she wouldn’t ask Doyle for help. When she’d mentioned the noises to him earlier, he’d looked at her as though she’d lost her marbles and then patronisingly patted her hand.
Don’t panic. Think logically. There’s no such thing as ghosts so it must be a student messing about.
‘Who’s there?’ she called. She was trying to make her voice sound authoritative, but it came out reedy and weak, and she sounded exactly how she felt – scared.
Gathering all her courage, she rushed forward just as all the lights went off.
Plunged into darkness, she stopped, paralysed by fear. Something moved past her. There wasn’t enough light from the window to see anything, but she felt the rush of air as it passed.
‘What? Who was that?’ She didn’t even try to hide the fear in her voice this time.
A second later, the lights came back on. Alison took a breath. Then she heard the whispering again. A door opened.
She felt sick.
It had to be a student playing a practical joke. That was the only explanation that made sense. Her fear ebbed away and was replaced by anger. It really wasn’t funny. Turning off the lights like that could have resulted in someone getting hurt. The carpet along the hallway was threadbare in parts and crumpled in others. Definitely a tripping hazard. Especially in the dark.
At the end of the corridor was a rickety old staircase that would have been used by the servants more than a hundred years ago. What if someone had taken a wrong turn in the dark and tumbled down the stairs?
She walked quickly to the door, which had been left ajar. It led to the roof. Alison smiled. They clearly weren’t as clever as they thought. This was the only entrance and exit to the roof.
She’d been up there several times, sneaking a cigarette, as Doyle had banned the students and teachers smoking anywhere near Chidlow House. She climbed the narrow staircase, determined to locate the practical joker.
She pushed open the upper door, struggling as the wind was ferocious up here. She staggered outside as the blustery wind whipped her hair around her face. Scanning the area, she quickly ruled out the possibility of someone hiding on the pitched portion of the roof. It was far too steep and the slate tiles were too slippery.
The flatter section of the roof was smaller and not completely flat, but there weren’t many places to hide. She walked towards the edge – holding on to a stone gargoyle to steady herself.
For a moment she was distracted by the view. Lights glittered from farmhouses nestled snug between fields, and small villages sparkled like jewels partially hidden by trees. She took a deep breath of cold night air and felt invigorated. On the roof she felt free of the dread that crept around her when she was inside Chidlow House.
A muffled clunk made her spin around. There was no one there, but the door to the staircase was now closed. Had the wind blown it shut? Or had her practical joker taken the opportunity to scurry away? She sighed and ran a hand through her hair, which had become tangled thanks to the bracing wind.
At least now she knew it was a student, and not the Drowned Lady. There wasn’t a ghost singling her out. She took one more look at the spectacular view, then peered down at the dark gardens. The view from the roof was the only thing she liked about Chidlow House.
With a shake of her head, she decided to go back to find Doyle. She’d speak to the students tomorrow and make sure they understood that practical jokes like this weren’t acceptable, and she would make it clear she’d be talking to their parents if this behaviour continued.
They weren’t a bad lot, really. Spoiled, but that was to be expected with their rich and powerful parents. They’d never had to want for anything in their lives. But they were good at heart. She’d explain it in a way that didn’t embarrass them, but made sure they knew not to do anything like it again.
She even managed to smile at her earlier fright and was just turning away from the edge of the roof when her breath caught in her throat.
‘What are you doing up here?’ she asked as her thumping heart slowly returned to its normal rhythm.
But the only response to her question was a hard and definite shove. Two hands pushed against her chest and Alison King tumbled backwards into the darkness.
It was Thursday night, and Natasha Layton was getting ready to go out with her friend, Cressida.
Students weren’t supposed to leave Chidlow House unsupervised. But they did plenty of things that they weren’t supposed to. Sneaking out was Natasha’s way of rebelling against her strict parents. She’d managed to creep out unnoticed four times so far.
She was good at rebelling in secret. But not so good at standing up to her orthopaedic surgeon father. And terrible at openly defying her mother, a lecturer in history at Lincoln University.
Natasha slumped into the seat at her desk and pushed the textbooks away with a sigh. It wasn’t that she hadn’t tried. She had. Multiple times. But whenever she attempted to have a rational conversation with her parents and explain how she felt, she ended up sulking like a five-year-old. She couldn’t help it. It happened every time. To be fair, it was her mother who had a special way of frustrating every argument Natasha put forward. Her father did little more than raise his bushy eyebrows and look at her disapprovingly when she brought up the subject of having more freedom.
She was seventeen, after all, and not a child. Though her mother clearly didn’t think so. Natasha wasn’t allowed to do anything alone. She had to be driven to socially approved events and collected at a respectable time.
Her mother certainly wouldn’t have approved of visits to the local pub, which was where Natasha was intending to go tonight with Cressida.
Natasha opened up her compact and studied her face in the mirror. Then she picked up an ink-black liquid eyeliner and added an upward flick to each eye. She grinned at her reflection. That was better. Now she looked like someone going out to have a good time.
Of course, her mother would have been appalled. She liked the no-makeup look. That was a joke. The no-makeup look took her forty minutes to apply every morning.
Natasha scoffed under her breath and rummaged in her makeup bag, taking out a hot-pink lip gloss and applying a thick, shiny layer to her lips. It might have been a little over the top for a visit to the local pub, but Natasha liked to make the most of her opportunities.
Her mother preferred to dress conservatively even on nights out. ‘Elegant yet understated’ was her catchphrase. If she’d seen what Natasha was wearing tonight, she would have been horrified.
Natasha tugged the green stretchy top a little lower, pleased at how the tight material hugged her curves. Then she caught another glimpse of herself in the mirror and frowned. Her eyebrows were far too bushy – she had her father to thank for those – but she didn’t dare pluck them. That was another thing her mother would pitch a fit about.
She frowned. Her eyebrows almost joined together! She swore softly under her breath and grabbed the tweezers. Plucking a few hairs from the middle of her brow line, Natasha swore a little louder. It hurt so much! It made her eyes water.
She glanced at the time on her phone. Cressida was supposed to be here in about five minutes. Did she have everything she needed? Money – which wasn’t as easy to come by as you would think. Her mother and father both came from wealthy families but they kept a tight grip on the purse strings. Natasha didn’t have as much money as most of the other teenagers on the study week. She’d only managed to gather change here and there – from occasions when her mother had given her cash to go and buy a cup of coffee when they’d been out.
Fortunately, Cressida’s parents were far more generous. Cressida had an allowance and was not shy in sharing her wealth. Still, Natasha didn’t like to go out without her own money as insurance. She didn’t want to get stuck in the middle of nowhere without being able to get a taxi. As her mother constantly told her, it was a dangerous world out there for a young woman.
Natasha rolled her eyes. If her mother had her way, Natasha would never see anything of the real world. Her parents expected her to be either a surgeon like her father or a lecturer like her mother. They’d gone to Oxford – in fact, that was where they’d met – and they took it for granted that Natasha would do the same. Hence the intensive study programme before her second year of chemistry, biology and maths A levels.
She’d really wanted to study English, but her mother hadn’t felt that was appropriate.
When Natasha had complained, she’d said, ‘Darling, there’s nothing stopping you reading books as a hobby, but it’s hardly a career, is it?’
Natasha tried to argue her point, but Imogen Layton had pinched the bridge of her nose as though the subject pained her. Whenever Natasha tried to talk about her plans for the future, it brought on one of her mother’s headaches.
Another thing that brought on her mother’s headaches was the mere mention of boys. If she so much as suggested going to a party where there would be members of the opposite sex, that would almost certainly bring on a nasty migraine and her mother would need to lie in a dark room to recover.
Natasha rolled her eyes again and grabbed her coat. It was a sensible garment – tailored wool – and it hardly went with tonight’s outfit, but then her mother would never sanction buying something fashionable. She liked black, grey and beige. Nothing bright or exciting.
She reached for a pair of clip-on earrings, held them up to her earlobe and then put them back down in disgust. They looked horrid and clunky. Seventeen years old and she wasn’t even allowed her ears pierced, for goodness’ sake. How ridiculous was that?
They were halfway through the study week now, which meant only a few more days of relative freedom. She was determined to make the most of it. Though they weren’t supposed to leave Chidlow House, no one was monitoring their movements now, except the programme director, Graham Doyle, who felt it was beneath him to interact with students anyway. The other teachers went home at seven. They were supposed to be supervised overnight by two adults – Doyle and a young teacher called Alison King. But Miss King had fallen from the roof.
Natasha shivered. That had been awful. The police had been called and everyone was talking about it. Some of the students had treated the whole affair as an opportunity to gossip and spread rumours. Had she jumped or had the Drowned Lady of Chidlow House pushed her off the edge? It was childish. Only kids were scared of ghosts.
It was a shame; Natasha had liked Miss King. She had to admit her death meant . . . but no, she wouldn’t think about that now. Tonight she was supposed to be having fun.
The ghost rumours were daft, but inevitable really. According to some of the other students, Miss King had told Graham Doyle she’d heard dripping water and whispering in the hallways at night.
Of course, that set all the boys off. They made up more stories about the Drowned Lady, trying to frighten anyone who’d listen. Natasha and Cressida were far too mature to fall for that nonsense, but there was something about this old, creepy house that made her almost believe the stories could be true. She’d never admit that though. Cressida would think she was a baby.
She heard a noise outside the door and assumed it was Cressida. With a wide smile she flung it open, but there was nobody there.
She frowned and looked up and down the hall. Empty. Then she noticed the note. Her name was scrawled in blue biro on the piece of lined A4 paper, which was folded into quarters.
Someone must have shoved it under the door and run off. No doubt one of the immature boys on the course.
Natasha leaned down, snatched it up and skimmed the jerky writing. When she’d finished reading, she scrunched the paper up into a ball and then chucked it into the wastepaper bin under her desk.
‘Stuff and nonsense,’ she muttered, and then realised she sounded exactly like her mother.
There was a knock at the door. This time it really was Cressida.
Her friend’s eyes were bright. Her long, shimmering blonde hair fell almost to her waist. She smiled, showing off dimples. ‘Well, are you ready?’
‘Of course. Can’t wait to get out of here.’ Natasha tossed her hair, wishing it shone as prettily as her friend’s.
After locking her door, she linked her arm through Cressida’s and they set off along the corridor.
When they reached the main staircase, they saw Ethan. He was a police officer’s son, and Natasha found him creepy. His eyes were close-set and he was . . . watchful. Every time she glanced his way, he was looking at her. And even when she didn’t look at him, she could feel his eyes on her.
‘Where are you off to?’ he asked.
‘None of your business,’ Cressida said, and shared a smirk with Natasha.
‘If you’re going to the pub, I could come,’ Ethan said. He constantly tried to tag along. Yesterday he’d sat, uninvited, at their table for lunch. Today he’d lingered behind them in the library, burying his head in a copy of The History of Chidlow House when they’d noticed him.
Cressida said he was sad and desperate. That didn’t stop her using him though. She’d copied his answers from the algebra assignment, made him run errands and given him little tasks. Cressida was right. He was desperate. Desperate to impress.
‘I really don’t think so,’ Cressida said, and pulled Natasha along.
Before they passed him, Natasha saw Ethan’s cheeks flush a deep red. For a split second Natasha felt bad but then pushed the guilt away. She shouldn’t care so much about other people. Cressida was always saying it was about time she put herself first. Natasha worried too much about what other people thought of her, especially her mother.
Cressida often told her to stop being such a boring goody-goody.
A secret smile played on Natasha’s lips as she hugged her arms to her chest. She turned away so Cressida wouldn’t see. She didn’t want her friend to suspect anything, and there were some things she couldn’t talk about. Especially with Cressida.
Cressida unlocked the French windows, then pushed them open before stepping out on to the patio. Natasha followed, trying not to look at the stone slabs beneath her feet. Miss King had landed on the patio. The area had been cleaned, but Natasha still didn’t want to look down.
The moon was huge in the sky, and in the distance, the surface of the lake – home to the Drowned Lady – shimmered through the trees. The grounds were beautiful and looked after by the gardener, Mike. He was a bit odd, but all the girls on the course had a crush on him. He was the dark and brooding type. An interesting man, not a silly little boy like Ethan.
Mike used a stick to get around and rumours swirled about how he’d injured his leg. Ethan said he’d heard the gardener had been wounded when he’d been in the army, but Cressida reckoned he’d been born with a twisted, deformed leg. Ella said she was positive he’d hurt his leg in a car accident. But none of them knew for sure. And he wasn’t the type of man you could just ask about that sort of thing. He wasn’t friendly. A shouted hello and a wave might get you a nod if you were lucky. He was secretive and silent, and the air of mystery around him only made him more interesting.
Even Cressida was fascinated by him, though she wouldn’t admit it. Natasha suspected it was because he’d ignored her when she’d tried to flirt with him. She hadn’t liked that at all.
The air was cold, making Natasha’s eyes water and her nose run. She sniffed as they headed across the lawns.
‘Are we still going to the pub?’ she asked, surprised at the route they were taking.
‘We’re going to meet someone first,’ Cressida said with a grin. Her face fell into shadow as a cloud drifted over the moon.
Natasha blinked in surprise. ‘Who?’
But Cressida just laughed and said, ‘It’s a surprise.’
They were heading in the general direction of the gardener’s cottage. Natasha’s mouth was dry. She felt a flutter in her stomach – a mixture of anticipation and fear. It was one thing to watch Mike roam the grounds during the day. Then he seemed fascinating, like an angry, misunderstood hero from a romance novel. But now, in the dark, as the shadows shifted around them, the gardener was less appealing. What was thrilling and exciting during daylight now felt dangerous and threatening.
Once they reached the cover of the trees to the right of the lawn, Cressida said, ‘Did you know Lord Chidlow’s staying at home this week?’
‘The owner?’ Natasha had seen a portrait of him somewhere in the house. She couldn’t remember where. Perhaps the dining hall. He looked intimidating, with piercing eyes and a long sharp nose, greying hair and jowly cheeks.
‘Yes. And he’s super rich. I thought I might try to seek him out tomorrow. Maybe accidentally stumble into his private quarters.’ She winked.
Natasha pulled a face. ‘But why? He’s ancient.’
Cressida shrugged. ‘I’m into older men.’
There was older and then there was older. Natasha stared after her friend, but Cressida was moving quickly along the tree line towards the lake. Natasha hurried after her. She was pretty sure Cressida was just trying to sound mature and impressive. But with Cressida, you never really knew.
At seven forty-five on Friday morning, Karen Hart got out of the shower after another sleepless night. She wrapped herself in a towel and ran a hand through her short, dark hair. Despite taking the same route from the bathroom to the bedroom every day for years, today she managed to stub her toe on the bathroom cabinet.
A string of curse words left her lips and she put a fist to her mouth to smother them. She limped down the hallway to the bedroom with gritted teeth.
She had just finished buttoning her blouse when her mobile phone rang. She snatched it up from the nightstand.
‘DS Karen Hart.’
There was a pause and then, ‘Karen? Is everything all right?’
It was her boss, DI Scott Morgan. She wasn’t surprised at the concern in his voice. She knew she sounded angry, and her bad temper wasn’t only down to the pain in her foot.
It was now October, and despite efforts by Internal Affairs, DI Freeman still hadn’t been charged over his involvement with the Cooks, a local family who’d been trafficking vulnerable people. Every day, Karen tried and failed to put the matter behind her. The idea that Freeman might get away with everything he’d done was sickening, and Karen’s fury made it hard to concentrate on anything else.
‘I’m fine. I just stubbed my toe coming out of the bathroom. What is it?’
‘Two missing kids,’ he said, pausing to let his words sink in.
‘Again?’ Karen’s grip tightened on the phone. A previous investigation, when two schoolgirls went missing in Heighington, was still fresh in her mind. It had been the first important case they’d worked on together.
If there was one thing guaranteed to take her mind off her own problems, it was working on a time-sensitive case. She didn’t know where she’d be without her work and the rest of her team.
‘This one’s different. They’re seventeen-year-old, female A-level students. They attend Markham but have been taking part in an intensive study week at Chidlow House, in Harmston.’
Karen grabbed her suit jacket and left the bedroom with her phone tucked between her chin and shoulder. ‘How long have they been missing?’
‘No one’s sure. One of the other students saw them leaving at nine p.m. last night, and no one saw them return. Their absence was only noticed when they didn’t turn up for breakfast this morning.’
Karen frowned as she made her way downstairs. ‘And we’re already on the case?’
‘Yes, the superintendent called me directly. She wants us to act quickly on this one.’
‘I understand,’ Karen said. But she didn’t understand, not really.
Two teenagers sneaking out at night wasn’t unusual. The fact they hadn’t returned was worrying, but it wasn’t yet eight a.m. Not much time had passed since it was noticed the girls were missing. Karen liked to think her team was conscientious and quick to act in cases like this, but that was pretty fast even for them. What was behind this eager response? Were either of the girls known to be a high-risk target for abduction? Children of diplomats and heirs to foreign thrones were known to attend Markham School for Young Ladies.
Karen shook her head. The school sounded like a relic from a previous century!
‘They could have gone to a party, stayed out all night and crashed at a friend’s house,’ Morgan suggested. ‘With any luck they’ll turn up soon looking sheepish.’
‘But the super wants us to investigate straightaway? Talk to the parents, check local CCTV?’
‘Actually, she wants us to get to Chidlow House ASAP. There’s a lot of pressure on this case.’
‘I’m not sure yet, but I’m sure we’ll soon find out.’
Karen marched through the kitchen looking for her handbag and eyeing the coffee machine sadly. She wouldn’t have time to get her usual fix before leaving today.
‘I take it the parents have been informed and the youngsters haven’t just got sick of studying and gone back home?’
‘Correct. Both sets of parents are coming to Harmston. They live locally so they might be there before us.’
‘All right, I’ll meet you there.’
After she hung up, Karen grabbed her bag and car keys and headed for the door, hoping this was a case where she could really make a difference. She needed something to get her teeth into and to take her mind off the failing investigation into DI Freeman’s corruption.
She returned her neighbour’s wave before getting into her Honda Civic, but didn’t pause for a chat. She was growing tired of explaining to Christine that there were no new updates on the corruption investigation and of seeing her own disappointment mirrored on her friend’s face.
A few months ago, the team had come across a criminal network paying off members of Lincolnshire Police. Although two traffic officers had been kicked off the force for their role in bungling the investigation into the accident that had killed Karen’s husband and daughter, their informant had also named DI Freeman, an officer who Karen had been very close to and trusted, as the man behind the cover-up. He had been taken off active duty but hadn’t been punished in any other way. It was bad enough that he wasn’t behind bars; the idea of him returning to active duty made Karen furious.
Last month, Karen had made an appointment with the assistant chief constable, Kenneth Fry, to ask that he pay particular attention to the case. But he hadn’t seemed particularly responsive. Though his face was a mask of pity as they talked, Karen couldn’t help thinking he was putting it on. His sympathy was an act, and not a particularly good one. All he really wanted was to make the right noises, tick the correct boxes and get Karen out of his office.
During the meeting, Karen had calmly stated her case, but the ACC hadn’t seemed interested, and when she’d pushed him, asking for actions rather than words, his faux sympathy had slid away, revealing his irritation.
‘I can assure you, DS Hart, that procedures are in place and followed to the letter,’ Fry had said. ‘We can’t simply take the word of a criminal informant against one of our officers, who I might add has never made a single misstep in the past. How would you like it if an accusation was levelled at you and we acted before a thorough investigation?’
Karen had only just managed to keep her temper. ‘I’m not asking you to act without one. I’m asking you to make sure there is one.’
‘I realise you have suffered a terrible tragedy, but this is starting to feel like a witch hunt against DI Freeman, which I can’t condone. I know it’s extremely difficult for you, but I must ask you to be patient while we conduct the inquiry.’
Patient! It had been months and they seemed to be no further on.
The superintendent had been kind enough to keep Karen updated, but there weren’t many updates to be had. As time drew on, she began to feel that DI Freeman was going to get away with his part in covering up the story behind her husband and daughter’s deaths, and it made her blood boil.
* * *
The rain hammered down as Karen drove into Harmston. The small village sat on the Lincoln Cliff. Though Lincolnshire was well known as a flat county, it certainly had a few steep hills scattered here and there.
Wet brown and yellow leaves carpeted the sides of the road, impairing drainage, and the heavy rain made it hard to see more than a few feet ahead. The windscreen wipers clunked rhythmically from side to side. She was impatient to get there but knew in this weather she had to take it slowly.
Chidlow House was one of two grand houses in Harmston; the other was Harmston Hall. Both houses had been constructed along the cliff line, overlooking the countryside for miles and boasting a view of the Derbyshire Hills on a good day. Though she doubted anyone could have seen more than a few metres in this rain and visibility.
Finally locating the turnoff at the gatehouse for Chidlow House, Karen indicated and then stopped at the police barrier. Tape had been set up and a policeman in a waterproof coat and hat stood miserably beside the stone gatepost.
He shuffled over to the car as she lowered the window.
‘DS Karen Hart.’
The officer held up his notepad to make a note and then re-covered it with a waterproof top sheet. ‘Doesn’t look like there’s much chance of it clearing up.’ He nodded up at the heavy grey clouds.
‘No, forecast says it will be like this all day.’
He nodded again, looking even more despondent.
Karen thought of the evidence. If this was a crime scene, vital information could be washed away, making it much harder for them to do their job.
The police officer hunched his shoulders and returned to his sentry position after lowering the police tape.
Karen drove along the winding lane leading up to the property. A flurry of leaves swirled around the car as she turned the final corner and got a proper view of the house.
It was an impressive sight. Perhaps even more impressive than Harmston Hall. She didn’t know too much about Chidlow House, and identifying the owners would be a top priority. Many of these old ancestral homes weren’t in private use anymore, but rather used for hotels or conference centres. The upkeep of such huge buildings took its toll on even the richest members of society. Karen imagined the heating bill alone would make her eyes water. The front was imposing. The building was constructed from local stone, and a parapet, decorated with gargoyles, gave the impression of a mostly flat roof, though some green slate was just visible.
Karen understood that Harmston Hall, which was less than a mile away, had once been used as a home for the ‘mentally defective’. A chilling term, and a reminder of how a lack of understanding had led to people being incarcerated for years with no hope of ever getting out. As far as she knew, however, Chidlow House had always been privately owned. Times must have been hard if the owners had taken to letting it out for a study week.
She pulled up at the front of the building, parking between a marked police vehicle and DI Morgan’s car. Then she took a moment to take in her surroundings. There was a grand portico entrance, with stone steps leading up to it. On the left she could make out a terraced area looking out on to fading flowerbeds and lush green lawns leading to a wooded area. The heavy rain made it difficult to see any further.
Glancing up at the house, she judged it to be three storeys, unless there were more rooms in the attic. In one of the upper-storey windows she saw a flash of movement. Someone was watching.
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