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The Outcast Dead(5)

By:Elly Griffiths



Hi Cathbad. Im walking across the Saltmarsh with Kate.

She thought he would respond to this  –  the Saltmarsh is one of his favourite places and Kate is one of his favourite people  –  but Cathbads voice is tough, businesslike.

Ruth. Have you heard about Liz Donaldson?

Who?

Liz Donaldson. The woman accused of killing her three children.

For a moment Ruth is no wiser and then she sees a womans face, a laughing blonde-haired woman holding a baby.

She was on the news the other night, she says.

Yes. Theres been a lot of coverage. Its Nelsons case you know.

I know. She thinks of something. I didnt think shed actually been accused. The report I saw just said she was being questioned. Nelson refused to comment.

Cathbad laughs, rather bitterly. Yes, hes doing that a lot at the moment. They took her in for questioning. There was no evidence so they had to let her go again. But its obvious what they think. The police think she did it.

And you dont?

No. I know she didnt do it. I know Liz. Shes a friend of Delilahs, she used to babysit for the kids. Shes a lovely woman. She would never harm anyone.

Ruth is silent. Delilah is Cathbads ex-girlfriend and they have a child together, though she must be almost grown-up now. But thats not what is making Ruths heart beat so fast. Delilah was the mother of Scarlet Henderson, the little girl whose disappearance first led to her collaboration with DCI Harry Nelson. It was Scarlets death that plunged her into this terrible world where children can be killed and horror is never far from the surface. Sometimes Ruth feels that she would give anything to go back to her pre-Scarlet life but she knows that this is impossible. Kates second name is Scarlet.

I didnt know you were still in touch with Delilah, she says. After Scarlet died, Delilah and her family moved away from Norfolk.

We speak on the phone now and again, says Cathbad. Maddies at university now. Leeds.

Have you talked to Nelson? asks Ruth. About Liz Donaldson?

Oh, Ive talked to him, says Cathbad. Ive told him that if he doesnt stop hassling Liz hell be in for some serious karmic backlash.

What did he say to that?

He said hed take his chances.

Ruth can just imagine the exchange. She has reached a narrow gravel spit with water on each side. Kate tugs at her hand, wanting to jump in the puddles. No, Kate. You havent got your wellies on.

Is that Hecate? Cathbads voice softens. Give her my love.

Her names Kate, says Ruth. But her voice too is soft.

Ruthie, says Cathbad. I want you to talk to Nelson.

Me?

Yes. Youve got a special bond with him. I want you to convince him that Liz is innocent.

Ruth is silent, walking along the path through the beautiful and dangerous marshland. Has she got a special bond with Nelson? Hes Kates father but she knows that he will never leave his wife. She has come to terms with that and, if it still hurts, she keeps the pain to herself. As a forensic archaeologist she has helped the police on several occasions and, whilst Nelson has always respected her professional opinion, she can just imagine his reaction if she tries to interfere on a case that has nothing to do with her.

He wont listen to me, she says. Hell say its none of my business. And hed be right.

Ruthie  …

Dont call me Ruthie. Only Erik was allowed to use that name.

Think about it, says Cathbad. This woman has lost three babies. Shes been through the worst nightmare that you can imagine, the darkest places of the human heart. And now the police want to say that she killed her own children.

Maybe she did, thinks Ruth. But she knows there is no point saying this to Cathbad. He is on one of his crusades. She can hear it in his voice.

Ill try, she says at last.

Thanks Ruthie.





CHAPTER 5


Let me get this straight. Cathbad thinks she didnt do it so I have to back off? Case closed?

It isnt going well. Its Sunday afternoon and Ruth, Nelson and Michelle have taken Kate to a horse rescue centre near Yarmouth. Ruth had thought that it would be hard to imagine a more innocent place for her to raise the subject of Liz Donaldson. Nelson and Ruth are watching Kate ride a donkey and the fields are full of adorable ponies saved from fates worse than death. But, whilst the setting may be idyllic, the situation isnt entirely free from tension. Under an uneasy agreement brokered two years ago, Nelson sees his daughter maybe once every two weeks. Michelle knows about Kates parentage and often accompanies Nelson on these visits. It would be too much to say that she has forgiven Ruth but she is always scrupulously polite to her and is genuinely fond of Kate. The future, though, remains uncertain. Nelsons role in Kates life has not been made public and even his own daughters do not know that they have a half sister. Ruth sees storm clouds ahead. Nelson has already shown signs of wanting to be involved in the choice of Kates school, for example. What happens when he wants to come to parents evenings? And when Kate is old enough to question the exact nature of her relationship with the man who takes her on day trips and buys her inappropriate gifts? She calls him Dada but she calls all men Dada, even the postman. Ruth doesnt like to think what this means.
 
 

 

But today the sky is clear. Its another beautiful June day and Kate is shouting with delight as she is led around the paddock. Last summers trip to Blackpool may have dark memories for Ruth, but for Kate its abiding legacy is a love of donkeys. And a fear of roller coasters. Michelle has gone to get coffee (she often leaves them alone for tactful, but rationed, spaces of time) and Ruth has seized her moment. Nelson, though, is glowering.

Did Cathbad put you up to this?

Of course he did, Ruth wants to shout. Bloody Cathbad. How can he still be pulling the strings from two hundred miles away? But all she says is, He says he knows Liz Donaldson very well.

Im sure he does. Im sure he knows all sorts of nutcases.

Is that what she is, a nutcase?

Ruth looked up the case last night. There are any number of internet experts prepared to bet on the odds of three children from the same family dying from cot death. Articles range from The horror of mums who kill to A mothers worst nightmare. Other cases are trawled out: mothers jailed for killing their children, only to be released when new medical evidence comes to light, mothers who poison their babies and then act the heartbroken parent for the cameras. She can see them all, the mothers and their babies, in endlessly repeating patterns, like wallpaper. She sees Mother Hook too, in the one surviving photograph of Norfolks worst murderess. A square, heavy-browed face, scowling out of the gentle sepia. There was a gruesome lullaby written at the time: Dont cry little darling. Dont cry little dear. Dont cry little darling. Or Mother Hook will hear.

Kate waves. Ruth and Nelson wave back.

Look Ruth, says Nelson, in the voice that he uses when hes trying to be reasonable. Im sympathetic to any parent who loses a child, but three children are dead and Ive got to keep an open mind. Thats all Im doing. Keeping an open mind.

Shes a friend of Delilahs, says Ruth.

Nelson doesnt respond to the name. He stares straight ahead but Ruth knows that hes not seeing Kate wobble past on her donkey. Hes seeing the Saltmarsh at first light, the seagulls calling overhead, the sudden silence as the sand revealed its secrets. Nelsons hand is clenched on the gatepost. Ruth has a crazy desire to touch it.

Delilah was an irresponsible hippie, says Nelson, his voice harsh. Its no recommendation being a friend of hers.

Liz used to babysit for the children, says Ruth. She doesnt say she may have known Scarlet. She doesnt have to. She knows that Nelson is thinking about Scarlet, about the family. There were three other children too.

If shes innocent shes got nothing to worry about.

Do you think shes innocent?

Like I say, Ive got an open mind.

What do Judy and Clough think?

Judy thinks shes the bloody Virgin Mary. Clough believes everything he reads in the Sun.

What about Tim? Ruth, too, is a little wary of Tim. They met in rather inauspicious circumstances and Ruth feels that Tim  –  like his old boss Sandy  –  slightly disapproves of her.

Tims just doing his job. Hes a good copper.

He looks as if hes about to say more, but at that moment Kates ride comes to an end. Excited children rush to the fence to claim the next go. Dada! shouts Kate as she is lifted out of the saddle. Look at me, Dada. Michelle arrives just in time to see Nelsons fleeting expression of pure delight.



Nelson and Michelle leave soon afterwards. Ruth thinks that Michelle may have had enough for one day, especially after a carthorse slobbered on her pink cardigan. But before Ruth can go, Kate demands that they visit Ranger. In a weak moment last year Ruth agreed to sponsor Ranger, a bad-tempered Shetland, and many pictures of his cross, hairy face now adorn their fridge. Ranger sends nice letters to Kate, enthusing about eating carrots and frolicking in the fields with his mates, but when they meet face to face he usually seems distinctly underwhelmed. Today is no exception. Visitors arent allowed to feed the horses, so when Ranger realises that they arent about to be forthcoming with the carrots he turns his back on them.

Oh, look at his tail, says Ruth in desperation, Isnt it swishy?

She is aware that another couple are doing their best to interest their child in the ponies.

Look, the father is saying, Lovely gee-gees. Look Michael.

Michael. Ruth turns. A ginger-haired father is holding a baby on the gate. The mother stands nearby with an empty pushchair. She looks rather bored.

Judy?

Ruth! Fancy meeting you here.

Oh, Kate and I love the horses, says Ruth airily. What would have happened if Judy had seen her with Nelson earlier? What if shed heard Kate say Dada  …

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