Also by Samantha Hayes

Until You’re Mine

About the Book

The gripping new psychological suspense novel from the author of Until You’re Mine.

Oh God, please don’t let me die.

It has taken nearly two years for the Warwickshire village of Radcote to put a spate of teenage suicides behind it.

Then a young man is killed in a freak motorbike accident, and a suicide note is found among his belongings. A second homeless boy takes his own life, this time on the railway tracks.

Is history about to repeat itself?

DI Lorraine Fisher has just arrived for a relaxing summer break with her sister. Soon she finds herself caught up in the resulting police enquiry. And when her nephew disappears she knows she must act quickly.

Are the recent deaths suicide – or murder?

And is the nightmare beginning again?

About the Author

Samantha Hayes grew up in the West Midlands, left school at sixteen, avoided university and took jobs ranging from being a private detective to barmaid to fruit picker and factory worker. She lived on a kibbutz, and spent time in Australia and the USA, before finally becoming a crime writer.

Her writing career began when she won a short story competition in 2003. Her novels are family-based psychological thrillers, with the emphasis being on ‘real life fiction’. She focuses on current issues, and when she writes, she sets out to make her reader ask, ‘What if this happened to me or my family?’

With three children of her own, Samantha is well-versed to talk about how the aftershocks of crime impact upon families and communities.

To find out more, visit her website www.samanthahayes.co.uk

1

DETECTIVE INSPECTOR LORRAINE Fisher slowed as she pulled off the main road. The journey from Birmingham was less than an hour but still long enough for her to make it only two or three times a year.

There was no space in her life for regrets and should-haves, therefore time spent with her younger sister in the country was usually limited to Christmas, birthdays, or the routine summer holiday visit as she was doing now. An entire week away from work suddenly seemed like an awfully long time. Or was it that an entire week in her sister’s company was daunting?

She loved Jo, had always protected her, watched out for her, picked her up and dusted her off, but there was usually a price. Lorraine wondered what it would be this time.

She glanced down at her daughter’s lap. ‘Don’t you feel sick?’ Stella had been staring at her phone for the last forty-five minutes, texting, tapping messages into Facebook, playing games.

Lorraine had been hoping to catch up with her, find out about her end-of-term test results, see how she was getting on with her Geography project, but instead she’d ended up filling the rumbling void of the M40 with a programme on Radio 4, which was now coming to an end. Stella had not been pleased by the early start, and had had to be cajoled into the car, still in her pyjama bottoms and an old sweatshirt, with the promise of hastily made bacon sandwiches and crisps for breakfast.

‘Dad would have a fit if he could see this lot,’ Stella giggled as they’d wrapped the food in foil and dropped various other junk into a carrier bag.

‘Then we won’t tell him, will we?’ Lorraine said, feeling slightly smug.

‘Dad can force Grace to eat his organic yoghurt and bucketloads of berries later,’ Stella said, also enjoying the subterfuge.

Lorraine had said goodbye to her older daughter the night before, knowing she wouldn’t be up before they left. Grace was meeting a friend later and they were off to an athletics camp. She’d been looking forward to it for ages.

Their week together would be, Jo had said on the phone a few days ago, just like old times. Lorraine hadn’t said anything, but that’s exactly what worried her. ‘Old times’ implied Jo getting herself into an emotional pickle, making ludicrous decisions and bad choices – and, as ever, Lorraine bailing her out.

She’d always called her a restless soul. Jo, it seemed, was never satisfied with what she had.

‘Why do you have to drive so bumpy?’ Stella asked.

Lorraine rolled her eyes and smiled. ‘It’s not my driving, it’s these country lanes. We’re not in the city now you know. If you look up from that phone you’d see . . . cows or something.’

She flicked her hand towards the windscreen. Endless fields dotted with dark green wooded areas, ripening crops scattered across the undulating earth, and the meandering lane tacked on to the farmland spanned the breadth of their view. Everything was vibrant and lush, as if it had been coloured in from an entirely different palette to that of their built-up neighbourhood in Moseley.

If she was honest, Lorraine envied her sister still living in the country. It was where they’d both grown up. Moving to Birmingham at the age of eighteen had been an escape for her at the time – twenty-five years ago now – and she admitted the city was in her blood, part of her life, a place she couldn’t imagine not being in.

But these Warwickshire villages, especially her childhood home of Radcote, would never leave her heart. The mellow ginger stone of the local buildings, the low brows of thatched cottages, the cow parsley verges, the tiny post office with its musty wooden floor and big jars of penny sweets on crooked shelves, the landmark churches with their towers and spires marking the route on endless summer bike rides – it was all tattooed on her heart.

As the road narrowed and curved, bending between farms and livestock, crops and Dutch barns with stacks of hay, Lorraine wound down the window and breathed in deeply, tasting the air. It was sweet and slightly cloying. Just how she remembered it. Already she felt the feeling of coming home seeping into her skin.

She smiled. This week was going to be just what she needed. A damned good rest.

She indicated right and turned down an even narrower lane. The hedges pulled in close, cloaking their passage with varying shades of green, as well as brighter patches of white or yellow flowers. Every so often they passed a gateway with a crusted muddy entrance where tractors had been coming and going.

‘What happens if another car comes?’ Stella asked, dropping her phone into her bag. Her arms were folded across her stomach as if she might be sick at any moment.

‘One of us has to back up to a passing point,’ Lorraine stated.

‘But what if no one will?’

‘Then I guess we sit there all day,’ Lorraine replied, quite used to her daughter’s endless questions. Occasionally her wayward line of thought would contain a shred of what seemed like brilliance or unusual insight, which prevented Lorraine from silencing her when other mothers might have grown impatient. As far as she was concerned, Stella could babble on. It was white noise that she enjoyed, a welcome contrast to her job. ‘But people are generally friendly in the countryside.’

‘What if they have a gun?’

‘Well, you’re in trouble then,’ she said, speeding up again as the lane straightened into a more driveable stretch. ‘Know what they call this road?’ Lorraine asked, pointing ahead. It used to scare her as a kid, give her a creepy yet slightly irresistible feeling. She’d always pedalled that bit harder when cycling along it to the next village to visit a friend.

‘A road?’

‘Devil’s Mile,’ Lorraine said, with a slight growl to her voice. Before Stella had a chance to ask, she added, ‘I have no idea why.’

‘Probably because the Devil lives here or something,’ Stella said matter-of-factly. She was obviously feeling less nauseous all of a sudden as the phone came out of her bag again in response to the bleep of an incoming text. ‘It would liven this place up a bit if he did. It looks dead boring.’

‘There’s another straight road not far from here called the Fosse Way,’ Lorraine continued.

She’d been going to explain about the Roman road’s route but slowed at the sight of a dozen or so wilted bunches of flowers laid at the base of a tree to their left. There were a couple of notes and cards pinned to the trunk, drooping and soggy from all the recent rain. Lorraine hated seeing these temporary shrines to lost loved ones. Usually these cases were tragic accidents rather than anything sinister, but occasionally she’d have to deal with the clean-up, the painful aftermath of assessing what had happened when Traffic, the first officers on the scene, called her in. She’d worked a number of times with the Serious Collision Investigation Unit when initial findings weren’t entirely clear-cut and a more disturbing outcome was suspected.

She glanced in the rear-view mirror at the faded floral tribute as they passed and wondered if it was anyone local.

‘Very sad,’ she said.

‘What is?’

‘Those flowers. Someone must have died in an accident.’

Lorraine flicked the indicator again and turned down the final lane that would take them to Radcote.

‘Maybe the Devil killed someone,’ Stella said, pulling open another bag of crisps and stuffing a handful into her mouth.

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‘I can’t believe you didn’t bloody tell me,’ Lorraine said, easing out of the sisterly embrace. ‘It’s pretty up there as family crises go.’

They’d barely got out of the car before Jo had emerged from the front door, picking her way across the gravel with bare feet, cotton skirt swishing at her ankles. She was at her sister’s side, unperturbed by Stella’s indifference to their arrival, and had simply stated, calm as anything, ‘Malc’s buggered off.’

‘When?’ Lorraine beeped the car locked, thrust a bag at Stella to carry, and walked across the drive with Jo.

‘Two months ago.’

‘Two months? And it didn’t occur to you to pick up the phone and tell me?’

‘I didn’t want to worry you. You’re always so busy.’

Lorraine felt a surge of familiar guilt. Her work spilled into family time, into everything. It was the way it was, always had been. Yet Jo was making it sound as though the break-up was somehow her fault.

‘And I knew you were visiting soon anyway, so thought I’d tell you in person,’ she added.

They went inside the hallway of Glebe House. The cool, slightly musty air immediately transported Lorraine back to her childhood. The smell of the place never changed. She wouldn’t have been in the least surprised if her mother had come through from the kitchen to greet her, wiping flour-covered hands on a faded floral apron, her hair twisted behind her head in a tight grey knot, a handmade skirt over the dark tights she always wore, winter or summer.

Lorraine shook the memory of her mother from her head. This was Jo’s house now, and she was glad.

She gazed around and gave a little shiver, realising she’d left her cardigan in the car. It was cooler inside. The thick-walled house remained a constant temperature all year round. Only once all three fires had been blazing for at least half a day during the winter months did the pervading chill lift, allowing them to stretch out of all but the essential layers of clothing.

‘Oh, come here,’ Jo said as they dumped the bags on the uneven flagstones.

It was then that they hugged properly. Lorraine felt her sister’s slightly leaner body pressed against hers, felt her ribs and slim waist beneath the cotton of her white blouse. She suddenly felt ashamed of the two rounds of bacon sandwiches and crisps she’d consumed on the journey. But Jo’s bucolic lifestyle was more conducive to keeping healthy than her own frantic, grab-any-food-going, busy-working-mum routine as a detective inspector.

‘Are you OK for money?’ It had to be asked. Jo hadn’t had a paying job in years.

They were in the kitchen now. Nothing much had changed in here since her last visit either. In fact, you wouldn’t even know that Malc had left, Lorraine thought, noticing a pair of man’s sunglasses on the dresser and a tweed cap hooked over the peg beside the back door.

She’d never thought of Malc as a cap man. He worked in the City, commuting some days, but more often than not he’d be holed up in his Docklands studio flat, returning to Radcote at weekends.

Lorraine would never have guessed he’d give up the country life so easily. But if she was honest, she thought Jo looked better for being single. Her skin seemed healthier and brighter, and her eyes had a mischievous sparkle to them.

‘Malc’s being generous. Giving me what I need.’

Stella dragged a wooden chair from under the table, making a terrible noise on the quarry tiles. She slumped down, earphone wires winding out from within the unbrushed tangle of her hair. She rested her head on the table and made an overstated yawn.

‘Oh, poor little Stell,’ Jo said. ‘Didn’t you get all your beauty sleep last night?’ She rubbed her back playfully. She had always doted on her nieces.

Stella made a grumbling sound from within the nest of her arms.

‘You can do me a favour if you like and wake Freddie up. He’s still in bed. A couple of bombs and an earthquake should do the trick.’

Another indignant moan and squirm from Stella made Jo stop teasing.

‘Shall I make some tea?’

Lorraine nodded, trying not to show her irritation with her sister’s news. Whatever she felt about Malcolm and the way he’d so speedily stepped into Jo’s life eight years ago (although that was almost certainly down to Jo’s impulsiveness at work) and now his sudden retreat, he was the man her sister had chosen to marry, the man who had adopted her son, the man who’d looked after her and supported her financially. And knowing Jo as she did, that was no mean feat.

But she still thought he was a complete shit for deserting his wife.

No doubt, she thought as the kettle boiled, he’d found something younger, something less tarnished by the nagging drudgery of running a large house and bringing up a teenage boy mostly alone while he was living it up in London.

They sat outside in the mid-morning sun, the tray set down on the white-painted iron table that she remembered her father sanding and lacquering every couple of years. It was clear to Lorraine that Jo had kept up their mother’s high standards around the place since she’d moved in five years ago. It looked as if she’d worked her fingers to the bone weeding and maintaining the acre of garden. It was immaculate, and the crammed-in shrubs and herbaceous plants were in full bloom. The thick scent of the overhead jasmine winding around the pergola and the nearby thicket of roses made Lorraine feel almost dizzy. She marvelled at the patchwork of coloured borders that she knew had taken years to mature.

It was nothing like her modest, sun-deprived suburban patch that only ever got used a few times in the summer when they threw a last-minute barbecue for friends or work colleagues, or when she ducked outside for a sneaky cigarette, usually at the end of a long day during an investigation that didn’t allow for any kind of routine. She hadn’t done a scrap of gardening this year, and Adam had only cut the grass a handful of times.

‘You’re going to tell me it was an affair, aren’t you,’ she probed, but with a casual inflection so it didn’t sound as if she had an issue with the word. Jo wouldn’t respond to an inquisition.

She thought she noticed a small nod.

‘You know, if dog-ends grew into flowers, mine would look way better than this,’ Lorraine said with a laugh, sweeping her hand out in front of her.

‘Yes,’ Jo said with a curt nod. ‘And I mean about the affair, not the dog-ends.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that, Jo. I hope you kicked him out in a good and proper village-rousing, suit-slashing display of emasculation, rather than allowing him to slink off with his tail between his legs when no one was looking.’

Jo fished the teabag out of Lorraine’s mug, added milk and stirred in some sugar. ‘He left quietly of his own free will.’

‘I bet he bloody did.’

‘Lorraine . . .’ Jo sighed. ‘It’s me having the affair, not him.’ She slid the mug towards her sister.

Lorraine took a breath. ‘I see,’ she said, picking up her tea.

The first thing she thought about was the house. It had belonged to their parents. It was their family home – Freddie’s inheritance now. When their father had died ten years ago, their mother, June, had continued to live there for several years. But the place was no good without him, she’d said. Too big, too empty, too heartbreaking . . .

Too much to cope with, Lorraine suspected but never said.

And then, one day, her mother had packed up a few essentials and, without telling anyone, moved into her caravan on the north Cornish coast. It was a month before they knew where she’d gone. She’d since relocated to a more substantial park home, and had never set foot inside Glebe House again. No one really understood why. It was just the way she was.

In the meantime, she had made arrangements for the property to be signed over entirely to her youngest daughter, as if she was already dead and buried. Lorraine’s theory was that she wanted to leave a family feud in her wake that she could actually witness and enjoy. She gave nothing to Lorraine.

Lorraine had barely finished reeling from the unfairness of this transaction when, without prompting, Jo did the right thing and bought out her stunned sister’s imaginary share – or rather, Malc bought it out soon after he’d married Jo.

‘She’ll have to try harder than that, sis,’ Jo had said once the paperwork was finalised.

Lorraine was grateful. There had been no family feud for her mother to enjoy. But the gesture had made her feel indebted to Jo – something she continued to feel uncomfortable about, and even, if she was honest, a bit resentful of.

‘Tell me he wasn’t . . . you know, hurting you or anything,’ Lorraine said now, taking a sip of tea.

There was silence, interrupted only by the buzzing of insects driven wild by the garden scents. Lorraine had brought this up a couple of Christmases ago, after noticing a pale green bruise around Jo’s upper arm, but had been told in no uncertain terms to let it drop, that she’d bashed herself while hauling the tree inside.

‘I just met someone else,’ she finally responded. ‘We clicked. Malc’s job was taking him away all the time. We weren’t really getting on.’ She batted a wasp away with her hand, flinching when it returned.

‘You were lonely, then?’

‘No, I wasn’t lonely.’ Jo seemed certain about that.

‘Then what?’

‘I can’t honestly say,’ she replied.

Lorraine wasn’t sure if it was more a case of won’t say or that she simply didn’t know. Or, she wondered, was it another of Jo’s manically bad decisions that she would live to regret?

Either way, the moment of finding out had passed because Freddie emerged from the kitchen door, stumbling out on to the terrace wearing pyjama bottoms and a tatty blue dressing gown. His feet were bare and huge, Lorraine noted, thinking back to the last time she’d seen him – far too long ago, considering they only lived an hour or so from each other. Every time she saw Jo and Freddie she made a mental promise that she’d come up more often, every month or every couple of months at the very least. But promises soon fell by the wayside when work took over.

‘Freddie, my God, you’ve grown another six feet!’ Lorraine stood up. She opened her arms wide, trying to ignore the pained expression that spread across her nephew’s face.

Freddie absorbed the hug as best he could. Lorraine was grateful for that. She released his limp body and held him at arm’s length. She thought he looked a little pale, washed-out, and he smelled of sleep.

‘You look well,’ she said tentatively, with a forced grin and a wink at Jo. ‘What’s your mum been feeding you?’

Freddie laughed pleasantly, humouring his aunt. He’d always been a good-mannered boy, brought up properly by his mum and stepdad. By Jo, Lorraine thought to herself, not wanting to give Malc too much credit. She hoped by the end of the week’s stay she would know more about what had gone wrong, but for now she wasn’t entirely prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. There must be a good reason for Jo to have acted this way, she told herself.

‘You look well too, Aunty Lorraine,’ he said, pulling the dressing gown tightly around his chest. He folded his arms, wrapping himself up as if it was winter rather than the twenty or so degrees it must already be.

‘What’s the plan before we go to the theatre this afternoon, then?’ Jo said to her son in an expectant way.

Lorraine knew that tone of voice well, having used it on her girls many times. It contained the vague hope that the morning might consist of something other than lounging around watching TV, and military manoeuvres on the fridge every half hour.

Freddie shrugged. His hand paddled through his hair, as if sweeping away the idea that he might be required to do something useful. ‘Dunno. Not sure I’m coming. I haven’t woken up yet.’ He shifted from one foot to the other and his eyes narrowed to slits in the sunlight. He was clearly wishing that he hadn’t come outside.

‘Did you say hello to Stella?’ Jo asked him.

At the mention of his young cousin, Freddie allowed a slight grin. ‘Yeah, but she’s asleep at the kitchen table. Sensible girl.’ That endearing laugh again, followed by another ruffle of his unruly blond hair. There was nothing short back and sides about it.

‘Why don’t you take her up to the Manor?’

Lorraine immediately noticed the change in her sister’s voice. It was lighter, expectant.

‘What for?’ Freddie said.

Jo hesitated. ‘You know,’ she said, looking across the garden, shielding her eyes with her hand. ‘Take Stella to see the horses or something. Maybe you’ll bump into Lana. It’s such a nice morning. There’s no point spending it indoors.’

Freddie made a noise – a cross between a laugh and a snort. He stared at the ground and shook his head a couple of times. ‘Yeah, OK, I’ll take Stella out. But you wake her up.’ He turned and disappeared through the French doors into the darkness of the kitchen.

Once he was out of earshot, Jo frowned. ‘How do you think he seemed?’ she asked.

‘Tall,’ Lorraine replied flippantly. ‘Why?’

Jo wrapped her fingers around her mug. She brought it to her mouth and took a long sip, taking a moment to gaze around the garden again. Lorraine could see she wasn’t admiring the flowers, rather trying to figure out how to say what was on her mind.

‘I’ve been worried about him, that’s all.’

‘How come?’

‘He’s just not been himself recently. He’s quiet, sullen, rude even. Some days he doesn’t even get out of bed. And he’s stopped seeing his mates.’

‘Sounds like a normal eighteen-year-old. Girl troubles, perhaps?’

‘I wish,’ Jo said. ‘That would mean he’d actually made an effort, bothered to go out, meet friends, socialise, be normal. He’s just spent all his time in his room on his computer the last few months.’

‘Probably just a phase.’ Lorraine looked at her sister, admired her deep blue eyes and glossy blonde hair, and sighed. ‘But maybe he’s taken your separation harder than you thought. He is really close to Malc.’

Jo shifted uncomfortably. ‘I wondered about that too, but he was like it before Malc left.’ She rubbed her eyes, and when she looked at Lorraine again, there was real fear in her face. ‘I often hear him crying,’ she said. ‘Up in his room. Not just normal crying, but a deep, soul-ripping, aching crying.’ There was a pause. ‘It scares me.’ She paused again. ‘You know, after everything, I couldn’t bear it if anything happened to him.’

2

FREDDIE LUGGED STELLA’S bag upstairs, and left her to change. When she came down to the kitchen ten minutes later dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, he tossed a can of Coke at her, thinking how grown-up she looked. He watched as she held back her blonde curls and drank.

‘Are you sure you want to go out?’ he asked. He wasn’t keen on taking her to the Manor. He had other things to do. He sighed and glanced at his watch. He had that stupid theatre trip to worm out of, too.

‘What else is there to do around here?’ she asked, shrugging.

‘Nothing,’ he replied, picking up an apple from the fruit bowl. He gave it to Stella when he saw the look on her face and took another for himself. ‘Come on then. Let’s get this over with.’

They left the house and headed off down the lane, Freddie with one hand thrust deep into his jeans pocket, striding off at speed. He heard Stella’s smaller footsteps struggling to keep up with him.

‘I’m sorry you have to do this,’ she called out.

He felt a pang of guilt. He didn’t want to be mean to her. She had no idea about all the crap on his mind.

‘You don’t have to look after me,’ Stella continued. ‘You can just leave me over there and I’ll sit in the bus stop for a bit if you like. Our mums won’t know.’

Freddie stopped and turned. He stared down at her through the frizzy tendrils of his unkempt fringe, watching as she fiddled with the cluster of bracelets on her wrist. He couldn’t prevent a half-hearted smile from forming. She was far from grown-up, he decided, and hoped she stayed that way. He’d hate to think of her dealing with problems like his.

‘Don’t be daft,’ he said in the kindest voice he could manage. ‘I needed to get out of the house.’ He watched her for a moment before striding off again. ‘Come on, I’ll take you to see the horses. All girls like horses, don’t they?’

‘Not really,’ Stella muttered, running to keep up.

The entrance to the Manor was well hidden off the lane leading out of the village. It was opposite the church, tucked between two oak trees, and was heralded by a rather crooked and rotten five-bar gate rather than anything grand like the house’s name suggested. The drive was a couple of hundred metres long and ended with a shabby little building made of pale red brick and a slate roof. Ivy was knitted into the mortar.

‘It’s not very big,’ Stella commented as they approached. ‘And it’s grotty.’

Freddie laughed. ‘That’s not the Manor, that’s just the old tack room. The stables are behind it and the main house is beyond that. It’s huge.’

‘So no one lives in there then?’ Stella said.

She walked up to the building and tried to peer in through the ground-floor window, but there were waist-high nettles growing in a skirt around the base, preventing her from getting close. She stood on tiptoe, moving her head from side to side, trying to get a better view through the dirty cobwebbed glass.

‘Is it haunted?’ she asked.

The look in her eyes made Freddie wish he was her age all over again.

He drew up beside her, putting on a scary voice. ‘They say someone who escaped from a mental hospital lives in there, that he’s a mad murderer.’

Really?’ Stella’s breath snagged in her throat.

Freddie didn’t get a chance to reply as a figure suddenly appeared from round the side of the ivy-clad building. He tensed but then relaxed when he saw who it was.

‘Hi,’ she said cheerily.

Seeing her, he felt a temporary wave of lightness. He’d hoped she’d be here. There were things they needed to discuss. He forced himself to speak, to stop staring at her, wondering what life would be like without all the shit going on.

‘Hi, Lana,’ he replied.

Stella was suddenly beside him, clearly intrigued by the older girl. He put a hand on one of her shoulders. ‘This is my cousin, Stella,’ he said, pushing his other hand into his pocket when his phone vibrated, feeling the familiar wave of nausea.

‘Hello, cousin Stella,’ Lana said. ‘I’m Lana, Freddie’s . . . friend.’

Freddie’s heart clenched. Had she been going to say girlfriend? They weren’t a couple, not really, not yet.

‘Nice to meet you.’ Stella offered her hand politely.

Freddie couldn’t help the grin of affection towards his little cousin. However indomitable and sometimes unapproachable his Aunty Lorraine had seemed over the years, she’d brought her daughters up right. He wondered if his mum sometimes got it wrong, that Lorraine wasn’t the powerhouse, the workaholic, the never-at-home mother she thought her to be. Surely Stella wouldn’t be so nice if that was true? He was still a bit wary of his aunt though – she was a police detective, after all.

‘How long are you staying in Radcote for?’ Lana asked. She pulled out a packet of mints from her shorts pocket and offered them to Stella.

‘A week,’ Stella said, prising a sweet from the tube.

‘Do you like horses?’ Lana said, slipping her arm through the crook of Stella’s.

Love them,’ Stella replied.

They walked off together, leaving Freddie standing alone. He sighed. There was no way they’d be able to talk now.

Stella glanced over her shoulder, beckoning Freddie on with her eyes.

They reached the paddock fence, and Freddie leant on the wooden crossbar of the gate. He stared out across the Manor’s acreage. The level field was dotted with five or six horses and ponies, most with heads bowed, munching the lush grass. Stella squinted at them, her hand shielding her eyes from the bright sun. Two of the horses looked up and began slowly to plod over to where they were standing.

Freddie closed his eyes and finally dared to take his phone from his pocket. The messages were always similar. He wasn’t sure how much more of them he could take.

Beside him, Stella was looking at the Manor looming behind them in a great shadow of red brick, twirling tall chimneys and gingery stone windows. He knew it was very different to her house in Birmingham. Lana lived a privileged life.

Freddie watched, pensively, as the bigger of the two horses – brown and white, with a stubbly beard and massive feet – approached, and Stella nervously stuck out her hand.

‘It smells,’ she said, wrinkling her nose.

A cluster of flies had followed the horse across the field, forcing the creature to swish its tail every few seconds and shake its head in annoyance. Stella suddenly retracted her outstretched fingers when it wrinkled its lips and threw back its head. It let out a fearsome noise.

‘Oh, Bruce,’ Lana said, laughing. ‘Stop being a grump.’

She removed the mints from her pocket again and levered several of them into her palm, which she held out flat for the horse to take. They were gone in a second. The horse head-butted the fence and scraped at the bare earth with his hoof.

While they were both preoccupied, Freddie took a deep breath and read the message, feeling sick. Would it ever stop?

‘Are you OK, Freddie?’ he vaguely heard Stella asking.

He was aware of the flush on his cheeks, the tremor in his hands as he put his phone away. ‘Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,’ he managed, catching sight of someone approaching.

A couple of crows clapped out of a nearby tree.

Stella and Lana turned.

‘Hello, Gil,’ Lana said affectionately in the same voice she’d used to speak to the horse. ‘How are you today?’

There was no reply.

Freddie noticed how Stella stepped back, pressing against the gate. Gil had come right up close, but it was as if he hadn’t even seen them. He approached the fence, squeezing between Lana and Stella, where both horses were idly scratching the wood with their foreheads. He stared across the field.

‘He doesn’t always want to talk,’ Lana explained to Stella. ‘Do you, Gil?’

Stella nodded nervously. Freddie wanted to tell her it was OK, Gil was harmless, but the text had knocked the air from his lungs.

Die, you useless fuck. Go kill yourself.

‘But when he does . . .’ Lana trailed off with a giggle. ‘He’s hard to stop.’

‘Who are you?’ Gil suddenly asked, staring at Stella. He sounded like a kid reading out loud to a teacher, even though he was an adult.

Stella recoiled visibly and looked at Freddie.

‘She’s Freddie’s cousin, Gil,’ Lana said, stepping in.

‘Will you be my friend?’ he asked Stella, shifting from one foot to the other. ‘Good,’ he continued, even though Stella hadn’t replied. He stared down at the ground. ‘You’re my friend now and I am glad to have you as a friend because I don’t have very many.’

‘Do you want to feed Bruce?’ Lana asked him, going over to where the grass grew long just outside the reach of the horses’ mouths. She picked some, wincing as she bent down, and gave a handful to Gil.

‘Shall we go now?’ Freddie heard Stella ask. But he was looking at his phone again, wondering whether to reply, see if he could make them back off.

Gil fed the horse, then suddenly spun round and hurled himself at Stella. His arms went round her body, knocking her off balance and pushing her against the gate. Her eyes grew huge and she opened her mouth to scream.

Freddie dropped his phone and was immediately between them, fighting Gil off Stella, getting him in an armlock.

‘I’m OK,’ Stella said weakly, attempting a laugh. She was hugging herself.

Freddie saw the tears gathering in her eyes.

‘Let him go, Freddie.’ Lana prised Freddie’s arms off Gil. ‘He didn’t mean to scare her. He just gets over-enthusiastic sometimes.’

Gil was clapping clumsily and nodding, unashamed by what he’d just done. He pulled at Bruce’s mane. ‘They say I’m bad but I’m not,’ he said.

The horses kicked up their heels and galloped off across the field in a chain reaction of bucks and side-swipes. Gil turned and lumbered off down the path.

Freddie picked up his phone and put an arm around Stella. ‘You sure you’re OK?’ he asked.

She nodded, sniffing back the tears.

Freddie ruffled her hair, fighting back his own tears, although for different reasons. ‘He could be the one, you know,’ he whispered, in a spooky-film voice, forcing himself to be brighter for Stella’s sake. ‘The evil murderer who lives in the old tack room.’

‘He’s not evil, you idiot,’ Lana said immediately, but her words were obliterated by a sudden shriek from across the garden.

They all turned. Gil was crouching, spit frothing at the corners of his mouth. The muscles in his forearms stood out as if his limbs were attached to his shoulders by thick cords.

‘I’m not a murderer!’ he shouted. ‘I didn’t do it!’

Lana ran over to him.

Stella clung on to Freddie, shaking.

‘He was my friend but now he is dead. Don’t blame me! Don’t blame me!’

‘No one’s blaming you for anything, Gil,’ Lana said kindly. ‘Let’s get you inside.’

She led him off towards the house, looking back at Freddie briefly, allowing him to see the worry written all over her face.

Freddie didn’t know if he should go after her and help her or stay with Stella. In the end, he remained frozen, watching until they’d disappeared from sight, feeling even more useless than he already was.

3

LORRAINE GAVE A little smile when she heard Stella’s gasp of delight. Her daughter had been looking forward to the play all week.

‘Is that the place?’ she asked as they viewed the wide red-brick building with its glass-topped tower sitting squarely beside the river. ‘Shakespeare’s theatre?’

Stella had stopped in her tracks as they’d rounded the corner from Sheep Street. They’d just finished lunch in a quaint bistro housed in a beamy black-and-white-fronted Tudor building with a wonky roof and cobbled courtyard at the rear. It had prompted her to pour out everything she knew about the 1500s. She’d not visited Stratford-upon-Avon for a few years and, now that she was older and had studied the period at school, she was devouring the quirky old buildings that seeped history.

‘It’s not Shakespeare’s theatre as such,’ Jo replied, ‘but it’s home to the Royal Shakespeare Company.’ She wrapped her arm around her niece’s shoulders. ‘It opened in the nineteen thirties.’

Stella nodded and spouted off another stream of facts about Elizabethan times and the Globe Theatre in London, tumbling over her words until Jo had to stop her. ‘Come on or we’ll be late,’ she said, laughing, leading Stella across the road.

Lorraine was pleased to see her daughter a bit more cheerful now. When Freddie had brought her back from the Manor earlier she’d seemed upset about something. Tearful, even. She hadn’t wanted to talk about it or say why, and Freddie hadn’t provided answers when asked. He’d just sloped off up to his room, saying he wouldn’t be coming to see the play. Jo had looked crestfallen.

The Royal Shakespeare Company theatre dominated Waterside, appearing almost factory-like and urban since its refurbishment. The glass and brick was a fitting contrast, Lorraine thought as they climbed the steps, to the historic performances it housed. She loved seeing Stella so inspired and made a promise to book tickets more often.

‘It’s going to be great,’ Lorraine whispered once they were seated. ‘But you’ll have to concentrate.’ She flipped through the programme. ‘It’s not always easy to follow.’

‘I’ll try,’ Stella replied.

Lorraine felt a pang of satisfaction. She doubted that Grace would have shown much interest in seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, let alone sit still inside for several hours when the weather was so nice. Grace would be having a much better time at her athletics camp.

Moments later, the lights dimmed and three actors appeared on stage, their voices loud and commanding. Other characters entered across bridge-like walkways either side of them, making Stella spin round in wonder, taking it all in. It was instantly magical; they felt as if they were part of the story in the intimate, tiered theatre. Stella’s fingers crept on to Lorraine’s lap, clasping her hands. She looked across and winked at her daughter. It was a perfect way to spend an afternoon.

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‘Mum?’ Stella said when the play was over and they were outside. The sun flashed from behind huge white clouds that were reflected in the surface of the River Avon flowing slowly through the town. Brightly coloured narrow boats were moored against the bank, several of them queuing to enter the lock. It was a colourful spectacle. ‘Was what happened to Pyramus and Thisbe in the play the same as what happened to that boy in Aunty Jo’s village?’

Stella stopped and turned round. The expanse of lawn ahead, cut up with neat block-paved pathways, was crammed with tourists crowding round a street performer. Lorraine noticed the look of wonder on her daughter’s face as she spotted the juggler’s fiery batons flying into the air. But then she looked back up at her mother and Lorraine recognised the telltale furrows of worry and inquisitiveness on her daughter’s brow. She put her arm round her slender shoulders and drew her close.

‘What boy, love?’

‘I know the story of Pyramus and Thisbe is a play within a play. But when Pyramus kills himself, thinking that a lion killed his girlfriend, and then she kills herself because she is so unhappy, is that like when suicide becomes contagious? Like what happened to that boy in Radcote? Will I catch it?’ Stella tugged the strap of Lorraine’s shoulder bag. ‘Mum?’

Lorraine wanted to take a moment to think about this, to formulate a suitable reply. She didn’t know what to say.

‘Anyway, I need the loo,’ Stella said when Lorraine remained silent. ‘I’ll meet you over there in ten minutes.’ She gestured towards a bench and walked briskly back towards the theatre, leaving Lorraine grateful for the reprieve.

She waited for Jo, who was watching the juggler, to catch up. They walked on slowly together and sat down on the bench. The surrounding lawns were neatly mown and the sun was warm on their backs. A band of midges hovered in the late-afternoon heat. It was a typical summer’s afternoon, perfect for a day of not thinking about work.

‘Stella just asked something a bit odd,’ Lorraine said, squinting at the waterfront, watching the tourists as they ambled alongside the river. She heard all kinds of accents, but mainly American and Japanese. She smiled to herself as a large coach party swapped cameras to get an assortment of shots.

‘What’s she got on her mind now?’ Jo said, smiling.

‘It was a bit grim, actually. She was asking about suicide.’ Lorraine paused. ‘And she mentioned Radcote.’

Jo sighed. ‘Welcome home.’ The irony was palpable. ‘People haven’t forgotten yet.’

‘But that was eighteen months ago, wasn’t it?’

The sudden cluster of teenage suicides had shocked the local community to the core. What had begun as a tragic, isolated death when a seventeen-year-old girl hanged herself in her bedroom quickly turned into front-page news when five more teenagers took their own lives in and around Radcote within the space of two weeks. Boys and girls alike; there was no sense to the terrible loss of life.

‘It still seems like yesterday,’ Jo said. ‘And do you want to know something?’

Lorraine nodded reluctantly.

‘Sonia and Tony Hawkeswell, the couple who own the Manor in Radcote, their son Simon was one of the dead. He was second last.’

Lorraine felt a chill sweep up her legs. ‘Oh my God, that’s awful.’ Goosebumps puckered the skin on her arms. ‘I’m really sorry to hear that. Did he hang himself too?’

The expression on Jo’s face reminded Lorraine that talking about death so frankly was second nature to her, but not necessarily so for everyone.

Jo shook her head. ‘Yes. It was terrible. He left a note.’

Lorraine spotted Stella coming out of the theatre and raised a hand as her daughter peered around looking for them. They stood up and began a slow walk towards the water.

‘Sadly, clusters like these do happen,’ Lorraine told her sister as Stella approached. ‘We have to learn from them, to prevent future incidents.’ She was, of course, talking as a detective, but her words still rang true.

Jo nodded. ‘It just seemed as if everyone local knew one of the dead, or if not, then a relative or friend who was suffering because of it. No one was immune.’

‘Immune. Interesting choice of word. Stella mentioned about suicide being contagious just now.’

‘It was like a disease,’ Jo said. ‘It did seem contagious. Everyone worried for their kids. Freddie was sixteen at the time and I fretted myself sick about him. To be honest, the worry has never gone. You don’t forget something like that.’

‘Hi, Stell. All OK?’ Lorraine said, stepping away from Jo.

Stella hugged her mother round the waist and briefly rested her head on her shoulder. ‘Yes. So now you can answer my question. Is it possible to catch suicide?’

They’d reached the water’s edge before Lorraine answered. First they’d bought some ice creams at Jo’s suggestion, and spoken about the possibility of a rowing boat ride and what they would pick up from the supermarket for supper on the way home. None of this was enough to dissuade Stella from pressing on as they stood licking their vanilla cones.

‘The short and easy answer, my love, is no, you can’t catch suicide,’ Lorraine said, taking her daughter’s hand. ‘It’s not a disease in the contagious sense, although depression needs treating by a doctor.’

‘I’m not a kid, Mum. I know something bad happened near Aunty Jo’s house a few weeks back. A boy drove a motorbike into a tree on purpose. Freddie told me. He said it will probably spread like a disease all over again, that everyone’s talking on Facebook about it.’ Stella licked the edge of her ice cream as part of it slid down the cone and on to her fingers.

‘Well, Freddie’s being silly,’ said Jo. ‘You know how horrid big cousins can be.’ She rummaged in her bag and handed Stella some tissues.

‘Freddie’s not horrid,’ Stella said, wiping her mouth. ‘But that nasty man was. He cried and wailed and said he wasn’t a murderer.’

‘What nasty man?’ Jo said. She licked her ice cream. ‘What are you on about, Stell?’

‘Freddie says he’s called Gil, and he lives in a little house up at the Manor. Me and Freddie . . . Freddie and I . . . we were on a walk and we met Lana and then Gil came and fed the horses and then he grabbed me and when he walked off he got all mad and strange and then that’s when he mentioned the man who died, and that he was his friend.’

‘Someone grabbed you?’ Lorraine looked Stella in the eye. ‘Why didn’t you tell me before?’

Stella let out a mini-sigh. ‘I’m fine. But, Mum, listen. Freddie said that the disease had come back. A boy killed himself a few weeks ago and mark his words, more kids would die. I don’t want to catch it. I want to go home.’

Lorraine hugged her. ‘Sweetheart, when people take their own lives, it’s very sad and a terrible waste, but it is not a disease that you can catch. Nothing bad is going to happen to you so I don’t want to hear any more talk about suicide or having to go home. Now, are you sure you’re OK?’ She tipped Stella’s face up towards hers, and Stella nodded. ‘In that case, we’re going to have a lovely week with Aunty Jo. What could be better?’

‘Going on a rowing boat?’ Stella said, crunching down on the side of her cone.

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Later, Jo handed Lorraine a glass of wine. They were at home, sitting either side of the kitchen table, each of them incredulous at how the weather had suddenly changed. Lorraine peered out of the French doors that led on to the terrace where they’d been sitting in the sun that morning. Drizzle wiggled down the glass, making the garden scene appear more autumnal than the end of July. Even the light was fading early, a swoop of thick clouds having cast a purple-grey shroud over the landscape.

On the journey home from Stratford, Stella had blurted out that it was an omen, that the rain coming so suddenly meant something sinister was going to happen. ‘You wait,’ she’d said in a demonic voice.

Lorraine had reassured her, but had made a mental note to discuss it with Adam on the phone later. They needed to be more vigilant about keeping work discussions, however masked in code they thought they were, out of family time. Not that there had been much of that recently. Their professional lives were often entwined – Adam was also a detective inspector with the West Midlands Police – though their caseloads had diverged over the last couple of months. Lorraine was actually grateful for this, given what had happened last time they’d worked as a team. Adam had been the Senior Investigating Officer and Lorraine didn’t mind, but occasionally she’d have liked to be considered before him. Together they had over forty years’ worth of experience so when it was called upon it usually meant a major investigation was underway – murder, more often than not.

‘Freddie’s just a big kid when he hangs out with Stella,’ Lorraine said with a smile, sipping her wine. She could hear the movie Stella had put on in the other room. Finding Nemo was one of her favourites from years ago. ‘He adores her.’

‘I’m afraid he’s not watching it any more,’ Jo replied. ‘He lasted all of two minutes. He’ll be up in his room now on his computer. He can’t go more than an hour without it.’

Lorraine understood. Stella loved nothing more than a session chatting with her mates online. Grace, on the other hand, preferred her life to take place in the real world. If she wasn’t allowed to be the centre of attention with her group of friends, or to play for her sports teams, or to go to lots of parties, she thought she would literally waste away.

‘You sound annoyed about that,’ Lorraine said.

Jo drained her glass of wine. ‘He just seems so . . .’ She hesitated. ‘Look, this isn’t easy to say. It’s awful, in fact, but . . .’ She looked towards the door. There was no one there. ‘I think Freddie has been cutting himself.’ She drew a line across her forearm with her index finger. ‘He just seems so lonely and aloof all the time. That’s why I encouraged him to go and see the horses with Stella earlier. I wanted him to bump into Lana, actually. He seems to really like her.’

‘Wait a minute, back up there. Cutting himself? Freddie? Jesus Christ.’ Lorraine took a deep breath. She couldn’t imagine how she’d feel if she thought either of her daughters was doing that.

‘There was a razor blade in his room. I discovered it when I was changing his sheets. I found blood on one of his school shirts, too.’ Jo drank more wine. ‘I thought I saw some faint scabs on his arm but he wouldn’t show me. He got embarrassed and wore long sleeves for ages. That was a couple of months ago now. I don’t think he’s done it since and I haven’t noticed scars, thank God.’

Lorraine was shaking her head. ‘Jo, you should have called me. This is shocking. Has he spoken to anyone about it? Been to see his GP? It’s not something that should be ignored.’