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The Outcast Dead(2)

By:Elly Griffiths



If they have found the remains of Mother Hook, the publicity implications are tremendous. There have been countless books written about Jemima Green, even a rather dubious musical comedy entitled Hook, Line and Sinker. No wonder a TV programme is interested. But every time Ruth thinks about the skeleton, still with a hood over its head, iron hook glinting in the light, she feels a chill to the bone. She almost feels like saying that she doesnt want to be involved in this dig any more but, remembering Phils ecstatic expression, she knows that she has no chance of escaping.

Kate is asleep by the time she reaches Sandras house, which only adds to Ruths feeling of guilt. She carries her daughter out to the car but, as she manoeuvres her into the baby seat, Kate wakes up. Mum, she says accusingly.

Hi Kate. Were going home.

Home, says Kate, shutting her eyes.

Home. As Ruth drives through the summer evening, past the outskirts of Kings Lynn, the tantalising glimpses of sea, the caravan parks filling up for the season, she thinks about their home, hers and Kates. Ruth lives in an isolated cottage on the very edge of the Saltmarsh. For most of the year her only neighbours are the birds that fly above the coarse grass and sand dunes leading to the sea. Sometimes she has the company of her nomadic Indigenous Australian neighbour, Bob Woolunga, or the weekenders who have the cottage on the other side. But mostly its just her and Kate. And mostly thats just how Ruth likes it. But recently, particularly this winter when they were snowed in for several days, she has begun to wonder if this is really the best place to bring up a child. Shouldnt she be nearer to civilisation, playgroups, Chinese takeaways, that sort of thing? The trouble is that Ruth doesnt always like civilisation very much.

Its still light when she reaches her house but the shadows are darkening. The security light (fitted by Nelson three years ago) comes on as she carries a still-sleeping Kate up to the front door. Ruths ginger cat, Flint, greets them enthusiastically, weaving around Ruths legs as she climbs the stairs with Kate in her arms. Dont wake up, Ruth implores silently. She loves her daughter more than life itself, but the prospect of an evening watching TV with Flint and a glass of wine is more attractive than the thought of hours singing nursery rhymes and reading about Dora the Explorer. But though Kate snuffles and sighs when Ruth puts her in her bed, she doesnt wake up. Ruth tiptoes downstairs with Flint close on her heels. He wants to make sure that his supper is her highest priority.

Ruth feeds Flint, makes herself a sandwich and pours a glass of red. Then she pushes a pile of books off the sofa and sits down to flick through the channels. Cookery? No thanks, she has enough problems with her weight without indulging in cup-cake porn. Restoration Homes? No, her sympathy for people who buy million-pound mansions and then have trouble with dry rot in the orangery is limited. The News? Oh, all right then. She really should know something about the real world.

The screen shows a heavily built dark-haired man scowling at the camera.

DCI Harry Nelson, says the announcer, refused to comment today, but Kings Lynn police confirmed that they are questioning thirty-seven-year-old Liz Donaldson in connection with the deaths of her three children.

Now the picture is of a blonde woman, laughing as she holds her baby in her arms.





CHAPTER 2


By the time DCI Harry Nelson reaches home he feels as if hes been awake for several years. Seeing his wifes car on the drive he wishes, for almost the first time in their married life, that Michelle was out with the girls or visiting her mother, not waiting for him with a hot meal and wanting to know the details of his day. What can he say? Ive been questioning a young mother, a woman not unlike you  –  attractive, independent, intelligent  –  asking her if she held a pillow over the mouths of her three children and choked the life out of them. Ive been asking a woman who has just lost her third child whether her loss was not, in fact, tragedy but outright murder. Ive been doing this in the face of open hostility from my team. Judy, who believes Liz Donaldson is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Clough, who says no mum could do a thing like that though he knows that they can and do. Even Tim, who Nelson has brought down from Blackpool to be the calm voice of reason on the team, says he feels uncomfortable about the whole process. The coroner found natural causes in the cases of the first two children. Its possible that were talking about a congenital health defect here. Possible but not, in Nelsons view, probable. Hes been involved in cases like this before and he knows that it goes against all human feelings to believe a mother capable of killing her children. As a devoted father he finds it rather insulting to realise that people are all too happy to pin the blame on Daddy. But Mummy  …  Mummys different.
 
 

 

Michelle comes out of the kitchen when she hears his key in the lock. As usual she looks beautiful, still wearing her work outfit of tight grey dress and high heels. Her blonde hair is tied back in a complicated French plait and her careful make-up is only slightly smudged around the eyes. The house is filled with the savoury aroma of shepherds pie. It is true, as Nelsons mother is always telling him, that he really does have the perfect wife. What would it be like to come home to Ruth? Shed probably be slouched on the sofa with her cat, drinking wine and watching intellectual crap on the telly. Nelson shakes his head, annoyed with himself. Why the hell is he thinking about Ruth?

Hi love, says Michelle, inclining her scented head for a kiss. Good day?

Bloody awful.

Your mum rang to say shed seen you on TV.

Nelson groans, opening the fridge and searching for a beer. As if things werent bad enough, now his mothers on the warpath.

Its that case, he says. The woman with her kids. All the press are on to it. Weve even had calls from the States. Whitcliffes in seventh heaven.

Gerry Whitcliffe, Nelsons boss, adores publicity. One of the many ways in which he and Nelson are diametrically opposed.

Do you really think she did it? asks Michelle, getting the plates out of the oven. Killed all three of her children?

Nelson sits at the kitchen table and holds the sweating beer can against his forehead. I dont know, he says wearily. But I have to consider the possibility. Thats my job.



The problem is he does think she did it. As soon as he saw Liz Donaldson, he suspected her. He hadnt been the first on the scene when the hospital had reported a sudden infant death. That had been DS Judy Johnson with her training in child protection and family liaison, not to mention bereavement support, grief counselling and all the rest of it. Judy had visited the Donaldsons home with the family doctor, following police procedure. She had asked sensitive questions and had seen the site of death (a cot in an upstairs bedroom). Judy had reported that the mother displayed the calm, almost disconnected, manner of a person deeply in shock. That had set Nelsons alarm bells ringing for a start. Calm? Disconnected? If anything happened to one of his daughters hed be climbing the walls. He remembered the occasion last summer when Kate was in danger and Ruths wild eyes as shed clung to him, begging him to save their daughter. Calm certainly didnt describe either of them. But Judy said that it was a perfectly natural reaction. Shell be feeling unreal, almost as though shes sleepwalking. Remember, shes already lost two babies. She wont be able to believe that its happening again.

But, of course, it was this tragic history that had sent Nelson to Liz Donaldsons door. One infant death and you get a caring family officer, three and you get a DCI with a notebook and a nasty suspicious mind. Judy had accompanied him, checking all the time that he was being sympathetic enough. And he had felt sympathetic, of course he had. The woman had just lost a child, for Gods sake. And Liz Donaldson was, at first glance, very likeable. She was tall and slim with short, blonde hair and a low, attractive voice. She had greeted them that day without animosity, seeming to accept the continuing police intrusion as just another burden that she had to bear. She had been on her own, which surprised him. Judy said there was a husband but they were separated.

That was quick. The kid was only a few months old.

David was eight months old, said Judy, emphasising the name. And the marriage hadnt been going well for some time. The deaths of Samuel and Isaac put a tremendous strain on the parents.

All boys, Nelson had commented.

Yes. Which makes it more likely that were looking at some genetic disability.

Biblical names, thought Nelson. But he kept this thought to himself.

Liz had invited them in. The terraced house was painfully tidy, the smell of lilies almost overpowering. Lilies for death, Nelsons mother always said. The front room was full of cards and flowers. Nelson wondered if Liz had been thinking about Davids birth, less than a year ago, and whether the house had been full of flowers then. But now, of course, the tone was muted. Mauves and purples, footsteps on sand, angels and sad teddy bears. Deepest sympathy, in our prayers, safe in the arms of Jesus. Sitting on the edge of Liz Donaldsons sofa, Nelson had surprised himself with a powerful animal instinct to run, to put as many miles between him and this tragedy-filled room as possible. But Judy was leaning forward, asking Liz how she was doing, whether she was getting enough sleep, enough support  …

Mums just left, said Liz. Bob was here yesterday but he was in pieces, poor thing. Sometimes I think its harder for men.

Bob must be the ex-husband, Nelson noted. He thought he detected something almost smug in Lizs tone. Bob was going to pieces but Liz sat, pale yet still undoubtedly whole, answering their questions with sad dignity.

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