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The Outcast Dead(10)

By:Elly Griffiths



I thought you had her down for it, says Clough.

Nelson doesnt answer for a few minutes. He doesnt like to think that Clough can read him so well. I do suspect her, he says again. There are just too many coincidences. All three children dying when alone in the house with her. And theres something about her. Shes altogether too perfect for my liking. Her house is perfect, she was the perfect mother, she looks perfect. Its just too  …  manufactured.

Maybe she is perfect.

Nelson laughs. Nobodys that perfect. Youll find out when you have kids.

Theres a brief silence and then Nelson says, I just dont know if weve got enough for the CPS. Theres the forensic evidence but that could be challenged. We can paint a picture of this depressed, psychotic woman but shell be sitting in the witness box looking like Mary Poppins.

I always thought Mary Poppins was psychotic, says Clough.



They park the car behind the station and walk round to the front. As they approach they see a young woman coming down the steps. She has long blonde hair and is wearing a green jacket.

Nelson puts a hand out to stop Clough. That girl, he says, she was one of the reporters this morning.

Clough squints at the retreating figure. Shes a looker all right.

How can you tell from the back?

Clough leers. I can tell.

Nelson sighs. Since splitting up with Trace last year Clough has reverted to full Benny Hill mode. He has had a stream of girlfriends but none has lasted more than a few weeks. Nelson thinks that Clough was deeply hurt by the news of Traces engagement, although of course hed never admit it and Nelson would never ask.

He asks Tom what the reporter wanted.

She wanted to talk to you, says Tom. I told her you were out on a case.

What did she want to talk to me about? asks Nelson.

Scarlet Henderson.





CHAPTER 9


Ruth is making breakfast when she hears the news that Liz Donaldson, 37, has been charged with the murder of her son David, eight months old. She stops, toast in hand, wondering whether Cathbad knows this latest. Its only on the local news (she has switched from Radio 4 to get a traffic update) so its possible that he hasnt heard. She wonders whether to tell him but decides against it. Bad news travels fast and, besides, Cathbad has his sixth sense to rely on.

Toast, says Kate, waving an imperious hand.

Please, says Ruth. She has been trying, without much success, to get Kate to say please and thank you. Strange, when you think how easy it was to teach her the words to Incy Wincy Spider or even Thunder Road.

She gives Kate the toast and pours herself another cup of tea. Shed better get a move on. She needs to drop Kate at the childminders at eight and then get into the university for the meeting with the dreaded TV people. She imagines them incredibly cool and trendy, wearing designer outfits and those little glasses that make everyone look clever. She peers at herself in the kettle. Shes wearing her normal work-day uniform of black trousers and loose white shirt. Her only concession to summer is leaving off her black jacket. Does she have any cool, trendy clothes? The newest item in her wardrobe is an all-weather cagoule for digging. She doubts if this counts.

More toast, says Kate, wiping her hands on Ruths sleeve.

Eventually she makes do with a red scarf wound round her neck. People like Shona are born knowing what to do with a scarf but Ruth is always left with too many loops.

Red, red, red, sings Kate softly. Its her favourite colour. Ruth wonders what this says about her character. Ruths own preference is for cool green.

As they set out along the Saltmarsh road, Ruth slots in a nursery rhymes tape. Kate objects immediately. Thunder Road, she demands.

Please, says Ruth automatically, but she is only too pleased to swap the wheels on the bus for Bruce and his car waiting by the screen doors, ready to scorch off across the black heart of America. She sings along as she drives. Its a beautiful morning, the mist just rising from the sea, the sky high and clear.
 
 

 

Kate sings too. Woo thunder road, woo-oo thunder road. They pass the roundabout and the caravan site and the boarded-up pub then take a turning inland. Ruth looks at the clock on the dashboard. Seven-fifty but thats five minutes slow so its  …  She drives between overhanging trees and takes the turn onto the Lynn Road.

What happens next seems almost dreamlike. One moment Ruth is driving along the familiar road, the next a car is heading straight for her. She can see the drivers shocked face and hears Bruce singing about promises being broken. Even as Ruth brakes and swerves she thinks of Kate, sitting happily in the back seat. Oh God, dont let Kate be harmed. If Ruth dies surely Nelson will look after Kate, and even if he insists on a Catholic school at least shell be safe with him and Michelle. All this passes through Ruths mind in the split second between pulling out onto the road and finding herself in the hedge.

Are you OK Kate? she asks.

Yes, says Kate in a very small voice. Ruth looks round and her daughter smiles at her, almost as if she is reassuring her. Clarence Clemons is beginning a saxophone solo. After a few seconds Ruth becomes aware that someone is banging on her window. She tries to wind down the window, cant find the handle and opens the door instead. She gets out, dimly aware that her legs are shaking.

A man is standing on the grass verge. His car, a black Lexus, is on the opposite side of the road. Ruth notices a dead rabbit in the gutter and hopes that it wasnt an innocent victim of the crash.

Jesus Christ, the man is saying. Are you OK?

Yes, says Ruth and her voice sounds strange and dreamy. Look at that rabbit.

You need to sit down, says the man, you must be shocked. Look, it was all my fault. I was on the wrong side of the road.

An indignant squawk from the back of the car rouses Ruth.

Kate, she says. Coming darling.

Oh God, says the man, youve got a baby in there. Is she OK?

Ruth opens the back door and lifts Kate out. She stands there, holding her daughter. .

Is the baby OK? says the man again.

Im not a baby, says Kate scornfully.

Sorry, honey, says the man. I can see youre not. Are you all right, sweetheart?

Im nearly three, says Kate. Not a baby. In fact, shes just over two and a half but Ruth doesnt correct her.

Ruth thinks she should put a stop to this conversation. Shouldnt we be exchanging numbers or something? she says.

Sure, says the man, getting a notebook from his pocket. But, like I say, its all my fault. I thought Id got used to driving on the left but I guess I lost concentration.

Ruth notices for the first time that he has an American accent. Hes a tall man, powerfully built with thick grey hair. Theres something rather powerful about him too, even though he is apologising and promising to pay for the damage. Ruth thinks of a sheriff or an old-style New York cop. Maybe its just the way he drawls his rs.

Is your car damaged? says the man, handing Ruth a page from the notebook.

I dont think so, says Ruth, scribbling. Her ancient Renault looks pretty battered but then it always looks like that. Nelson often mutters about her needing a new car. Something safer for Katie. She wont tell him about todays adventure.

I think I swerved just in time, she says. I must have driven right over to the other side of the road. As she says this, she realises that she doesnt remember anything after swerving to avoid the Lexus.

But you might have whiplash, says the man. I think you should see a doctor.

Whiplash always sounds dodgy to Ruth. Im OK, she says.

They exchange addresses and Ruth puts Kate back into the car.

Look, says the man. Im not sure you should drive. Youve had one hell of a shock.

Im OK, says Ruth again. And Ive got to go. Got to drop my daughter off and Im late for work. She gives him a bland, social smile. Goodbye. She has to stop herself from adding nice to meet you.

She starts up the car and bumps over the verge, back onto the road. In the mirror she can see the American standing by the hedge, gazing after her.



She doesnt tell Sandra about the crash as she doesnt want to get into the whole are you all right, have a cup of tea, are you sure you havent got whiplash thing. Kate seems unconcerned and thats all that matters. Besides, now Ruth really is late. The TV people are coming at nine and shed wanted to have half an hour to prepare herself but its now eight forty-five. So she gives Kate a quick kiss, says goodbye to Sandra and dives back into her car.

She feels fine until she gets to the university. Then, as shes parking outside the Natural Sciences block, she sees her hands shaking on the wheel. She turns off the ignition and notices, with a kind of detached interest, that now her whole body is shivering. For Gods sake Ruth, she says to her reflection in the driving mirror, pull yourself together. Youve got to impress Phils TV mates. She attempts a professional-looking smile but realises that shes grinning like a loon. And now she cant stop smiling. Its as if shes had four cups of espresso, a totally spaced-out feeling, not unpleasant in a way, but not terribly helpful today of all days.

She manages to stop smiling and shaking as she climbs the stairs. Calm, she tells herself, calm and professional. Oh God, wheres her scarf, her cool TV scarf? She feels at her neck. She must have left it in the car or even at the side of the road where she had the accident. Never mind, you dont need a scarf to look like a good archaeologist. She pushes open the door to Phils office.

The room seems to be full of people. Dimly, as if looking through water, Ruth sees Phil, a woman in jeans and a tall, grey-haired man.

Phil is doing the introductions. And this is Frank Barker, the celebrated historian, he is saying. Poor Franks a bit shaken up. He had a shunt on the way here. Some woman driver.

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