Ray Douglas leaned forward to better hear the answer. It was Friday night. The village pub was crowded and the big farmer talking had a thick West Country accent that wasn’t easy for him to follow. Ray hailed from London.
‘The wife was murdered, they reckon,’ said the farmer.
‘My partner never mentioned it,’ said Ray.
‘I expect she didn’t want to worry you.’
Ray turned to look across the room at Jane Goodman, his dearly beloved. Not so dearly beloved now that she was getting a bit old but he had settled into a rut and it was easier to stay with her than break out of it, as long as he could sneak in some fun on the side. Jane was born in the village, grew up there, and knew everyone. That was the main reason for buying the house and moving back there from the suburbs of Bristol. Surely she would have told him if it was haunted.
He turned back to the farmer. Tim? Tom? It didn’t matter. ‘Who says the wife was murdered?’
‘Well, hardly anyone out loud but we were all pretty sure. Peter Powers was a wealthy man, inherited a prosperous car dealership, used to getting his own way. She had even more money which is why he didn’t divorce her, but he liked a bit on the side. One day, she disappeared. He said she had gone to stay with her sister for a week and, to be fair, her car wasn’t there. The sister said she never arrived. The police made enquiries, searched the place and had their suspicions but nothing was ever proved.’ The big man paused to take a swig of his cider, smacked his lip noisily and resumed. ‘Apparently, you can’t prosecute someone for murder unless you got a corpse, at least, it ain’t easy.’
‘Why did he sell?’
‘Let’s just say he wasn’t too popular around here.’
‘I see.’ Ray remembered the estate agent’s profuse apologies for the two broken window panes in the kitchen at the back of the house and the urgency for a quick sale. Without that and the knockdown price, they might not have been able to afford it.
‘Jane’s popular around here, isn’t she?’
Tom looked surprised at the question. ‘Oh, yeah. Everybody likes Jane. Salt of the earth. Do anything for anyone.’
‘So we shouldn’t get any broken window panes then, eh?’
Tom laughed. ‘No, I shouldn’t think so.’
Just then, Jane came back to join them. As she slipped into her seat next to him, Ray said: ‘So, where does local rumour say Peter buried the body if the police never found it?’
Jane glared at the big farmer. ‘You told him.’
Tom looked vaguely embarrassed. ‘He was bound to find out sooner or later, Jane. It’s a small community.’
‘The body?’ Ray was persistent.
Tom looked warily at Jane. She nodded. ‘Might as well tell him the whole story now... blabbermouth.’
The farmer coughed. It was amusing to see all six foot eight and twenty two stone of him humbled by a lean woman of eleven stone. ‘Well, nobody’s sure but Peter was planting a hedge at the time. All down the length of the garden where it adjoins the big field next door. My field, actually. The five acres we call it because…’
‘It’s three acres?’ said Ray.
Tom managed a chuckle. ‘It’s five.’
THE REST OF the evening passed with more pleasant conversations but as they were walking back to their new home, Ray raised the subject of the murdered woman.
‘Killing your wife seems extreme. Was she so terrible?’
Jane shook her head. ‘Lynne Powers was nice enough but... old fashioned. Very church orientated and forever on about the Lord. Always praying for someone. And she absolutely hated ‘homebreakers’ as the Americans call them.’
‘Homebreakers?’ Ray had heard the term but couldn’t place it.
‘You know, women who have affairs with married men.’ Jane laughed. ‘She attacked Ruth Davies in the street when she heard about Ruth’s fling with the butcher. Whacked her with an umbrella and called her a harlot. She was lucky Ruth didn’t press charges.’
‘Did Mister Powers have affairs?’
Jane shrugged. ‘There were rumours. No one would dare tell Lynne, of course.’
‘And is the house haunted?’
She thumped him in the shoulder. ‘Of course not. Don’t be silly!’
JANE WAS WEEDING the patio when she saw Ray carrying the aluminium stepladder and the electric hedge trimmer, his mouth set in a determined line.
‘My hero!’ Molly, their black Labrador, sat loyally beside her mistress and wagged her tail at the exclamation.
‘Not before time,’ said Ray. He took his gear to the top corner of the garden and opened the stepladder. The ground was reasonably flat. He didn’t like wobbling around at heights, didn’t like gardening at all, but saw it as part of his manly duty. The hedge trimmer was battery operated so at least he wouldn’t be hampered by a trailing electric lead.
‘Do you want me to hold the steps steady?’
Ray looked up at the hedge. It was seven feet tall, twelve inches more than him, and seemed to loom over him menacingly, leaves rustling.
Why would leaves rustle on a windless day?
He mounted the steps carefully until he was set, one foot on the top platform, the other a few steps down. Hoisting the hedge trimmer, he pressed the button and it whirred into life. He moved it slowly across the surface of the plant.
Something shot out of the hedge towards his face.
‘What the devil?’ He shifted his weight in alarm. The steps wobbled alarmingly. He grabbed at the side rails and almost dropped the trimmer which—thank god for safety features!—stopped cutting as soon as his finger came off the button.
‘Are you all right?’ Jane.
Ray grunted in annoyance. ‘Fine. I think I scared a bird. It scared me back.’
He resumed his stable position, ready to begin again. The top of the hedge needed trimming, but in order to reach that, he would need to take the protruding parts of the front so he could get close enough.
He pressed the trimmer again and made another long swipe. Leaves and twigs fell to the lawn. He bought the trimmer back towards himself in another sweep and more excess foliage dropped.
‘Now we’re getting somewhere,’ Ray cried out exultantly. ‘Stupid hedge. Fall! Fall before the power of man!’
‘You tell it, darling!’
Confident now, he leaned in closer. The branches got too thick for his gadget farther back but it could cope with anything thinner than a pencil. The more he cut back now, the easier it would be in future. The machine made a deeper sound as the cutter worked harder. A minute later and he had almost done as much as he could reach. Time to move the steps.
Ray stopped cutting. He took a step down and felt something bite into his ankle. ‘Ouch!’
He paused to check. A thick bramble had somehow looped itself around his right ankle. The thorns dug in when he moved.
Ray held the hedge trimmer in one hand. He tried to twist himself to use the other to pull loose the bramble but it was awkward, and he had no gloves. The damned thorn stuck itself at the gap between his thick jeans and his boots, the most vulnerable spot. Jane had moved around to the back of the house and was out of sight. He could yell for her but he didn’t want to look like a wimp. Surely there was enough slack in the bramble to let him go down a bit.
He moved his left foot down so it was lower. The right one and the bramble were now higher. By bending, he could just about lower the hedge trimmer enough to drop it a few inches to the soft grass. With both hands free, he reached for the bramble, trying to put his gripping fingers on the gaps between thorns. He was still awkwardly balanced on the steps.
Something moved. Immediate, sharp, stinging pain in his ankle and red blood welling. Ray shouted and fell heavily, winding himself. He lay on his back, gasping for air, and looked up at the blue sky overhead. The hedge was in his peripheral vision. Its leaves rustled in what might have been a chuckle of satisfaction.
Jane rushed over. She knelt beside him.
‘Your ankle’s bleeding.’
Ray took a deep breath. ‘Damned hedge attacked me.’
‘Yes, dear.’ She helped him to his feet. ‘Come in the house and I’ll put a bandage on it.’ She walked away.
Wincing with the pain, Ray followed her. He looked back at the hedge, wondering. Did the bramble cut him as he fell, or did he fall because it yanked at his ankle? To him, it felt like the latter.
But that was just silly, wasn’t it?
‘WHY DON’T YOU just divorce her?’ demanded Amanda for the hundredth time. Or was it the thousandth?
‘It’s not that simple, my love. Divorce is expensive.’
They lay comfortably in his bed, or rather, in Jane’s bed, technically, since she bought it. Jane still worked part time as a carer for various old ladies and was currently on an overnight stay at a farm a few miles away. A wealthy retired couple paid her to be there when they were away, in case his old mother needed anything. There was no real work involved and Jane only charged them £25 cash, but she liked to go there early to get settled in by 8 pm. Meanwhile, Ray cuddled up with Amanda.
‘I don’t like all this sneaking around. My boots are muddy.’
Amanda had to park some way off and make her way across the fields by torchlight so the neighbours wouldn’t see that he had a visitor.
‘The neighbours are all friends of Jane,’ he explained yet again. ‘She was born in the village. She looks after their old parents and they all like her. If they saw my ‘fancy woman’ visiting, they would tell her, pronto.’
‘And then you would be divorced and we could live together in my flat,’ said Amanda triumphantly.
Ray made a non-committal noise. He didn’t want to live in a city again. Truth was, he had grown accustomed to peace and quiet, and nice neighbours. No traffic noise, protestors, graffiti, and all the other nuisances of modern so called civilisation. Ray grew up on a council estate, got a good job in public service, read The Guardian and supported all the right liberal causes, but found that well-heeled Tory voters made for nicer neighbours than the oppressed masses. He definitely didn’t want to live in Amanda’s flat and her nagging was becoming tiresome. Perhaps it was time to dump her.
‘I have to go.’ She jumped from the bed and began to dress. Roy admired her lean, healthy body and wondered for a second if he could manage more fun with it. He decided not, put on a dressing gown and went to let the dog out. Molly was getting old and creaky now but thankfully retained bladder control.
He stepped out onto the patio and let the old black Labrador roam the garden while he waited for Amanda. The hedge was shifting gently in the moonlight. The leaves rustled and made a low susurration that was almost spooky. Odd. There wasn’t that much of a breeze. Molly stepped into the dark area where the hedge blocked the moonlight and seemed to vanish.
‘Carried away by a moonlight shadow.’ Ray smiled.
Amanda came up behind him. He turned to kiss her goodnight. ‘Just Molly. She disappeared in the shadow of the hedge. Come on.’
He led her to the front wooden gate of the house and they made a right turn to a larger metal gate, the entrance to the adjacent field. She pulled out her torch.
‘Go careful,’ he whispered.
She frowned at her muddy boots then looked him straight in the eye.
‘You do love me, don’t you, Ray?’ Her gaze was pleading; needy.
‘Of course I do, darling. We’ll work it out. Don’t worry.’
She blinked, expressionless, then turned abruptly and stepped towards the gate. There was a small gap at one side where a person could squeeze by without opening it. She walked a short distance into the field then turned right. Ray watched as Amanda disappeared behind the hedge.
A high pitched yelp sounded off to the right.
‘Molly?’ He walked quickly back into the garden. Molly dashed towards him, whining. He bent down and rubbed her ears.
‘Oh, poor baby. Did you step on a thorn? Come in and I’ll give you a gravy bone.’ He led the dog to the back door, went in. Closing it, he thought he heard a high pitched screech from out in the field.
‘An owl?’ Mysterious noises from the fields were common. Vixens made strange sounds and there were even bats sometimes. Owl hoots and screeches were fairly common.
Even so, he opened the door and cocked his head to listen, just in case something was amiss with Amanda. Silence. Apart from the soft susurration of the hedge, there was no sound. Ray grunted and shut the door.
Molly barked impatiently.
‘All right, all right. I’ll get your treat.’
He fetched a small gravy bone from the pot by the sink. As he bent to feed her, he noticed something green on her back leg. He tugged at one end and unravelled a six inch length of bramble. She whimpered.
‘Oh, poor Molly got tangled in the hedge.’ He rubbed her ears again and looked at the clock. Almost time to ring Jane at Mile Farm, to say goodnight and bill and coo about how much he missed her. He picked up the phone.
She responded promptly as usual. After the usual pleasantries, she said: ‘How did you spend your lonely evening without me?’
‘I watched “Pet Sematary”, he lied. ‘It was on the Horror Channel last week and I recorded it.’
‘Not a patch on the book, but okay.’ A crime fan, like many ladies, Jill had no interest at all in science fiction, fantasy or horror, so it was easy to pretend he had been watching such films while she was away. Sometimes he actually did.
‘Do you miss me?’
‘Of course I miss you, darling.’
Eventually she said goodnight and he went to bed, to sleep this time.
FORTUNATELY, JANE WAS out when the police came to ask him about Amanda a week later.
When he nodded, the tall man in the grey suit flipped open a wallet to show his ID. ‘Detective Sergeant Hughes, sir. We’re here making enquiries about Miss Amanda Taylor. You know her, yes?’ It wasn’t really a question. ‘May we come in? This is Detective Constable Gosling.’ He waved a thumb to indicate the petite blonde behind him who wore a short jacket and a midi length skirt, both navy blue.
‘Yes, come in.’ They declined tea and took chairs at the kitchen table.
‘What’s happened to Amanda?’ Ray didn’t have to fake the worried frown. His concern was genuine. ‘I’ve not been in touch with her for a while,’ he lied. ‘She used to be my secretary when I was a manager in the NHS.’
The petite Detective Constable answered. ‘Her car was abandoned down the road from here. After a few days, someone reported it. The DVLA found her details from the number plate and we made enquiries. She’s not been seen since last Saturday and not reported for work this week. Obviously, we’re worried about her disappearance.’
‘You say you’ve not seen her for a while…’ The tall detective sergeant let the sentence hang and gave Ray a measuring look. His shrewd, dark eyes indicated a man not easily fooled.
Like anyone being quizzed by the police, Ray felt vaguely guilty. ‘No. I can’t remember exactly…’
‘Not true. We checked her phone and email records. There have been several calls, texts and emails between you over the past few months. Was she coming to see you? If so, why not park here? There’s plenty of space.’
Ray glared at the policeman. ‘She was being discreet.’
‘You were having an affair,’ said DC Gosling, matter-of-factly. It was obvious that the detectives had worked this out before they came knocking at the door.
Ray shrugged. ‘I’m not married. Is that an affair? In any case, I would prefer that my partner didn’t know.’
DS Hughes reached into a pocket and extracted a notebook. He flipped it open. ‘So. An affair, then.’ The look he gave Ray didn’t even attempt to hide his contempt. The detective sergeant was clearly a man with old fashioned morals. Ray glanced at his partner and noticed her cheeks were a little pink and she was looking at the floor. He almost grinned. A pretty blonde was almost certain to be a temptation for married men and perhaps she had sinned herself. It seemed likely.
‘Your partner,’ Hughes resumed. ‘That would be Jane Goodman, yes. This is her house. Where was she while you were... keeping company with Amanda Taylor?’
Ray flushed. ‘I don’t like your attitude.’
‘Just answer the question.’
He yielded with a sigh. ‘Jane stays away some nights to watch over an old lady in the next village. She doesn’t know about Amanda.’
‘Do you have any idea where Miss Taylor might have gone?’ asked DC Gosling. ‘I assume she was here on Saturday night.’
Ray nodded. ‘She left at ten.’
‘And walked down the road to her car?’
‘No. She... cut across the field.’
‘So the neighbours wouldn’t see her, I assume,’ interjected Hughes.
Ray shrugged. ‘Yes. That’s the last I saw of her. I presumed she would go home, as usual.’
‘So, you were the last person to see her?’ said DC Gosling.
‘Maybe. If nobody else…’ Ray suddenly realised the implications of that. ‘Wait a minute! She was perfectly fine when she left here,’ he added hastily. ‘We... God! I hope nothing has happened. Am I a suspect?’
‘Inevitably.’ Hughes’s tone was as dry as moondust. He stood. ‘You say she left here and cut across the fields?’
‘Yes.’ Ray stood too and headed for the door. ‘I can show you where. Maybe… maybe she fell or something.’ His eyes widened. ‘We’ll go and look. God, I hope she’s okay. Come on!’
DS Hughes carried Wellington boots in the back of his car but there were none for DC Gosling. But the ground was dry so she came along. Ray didn’t bother to change his shoes. It was a bright autumn afternoon with only a slight breeze. He led the detectives out the gate and turned right up the short stretch of road, just ten yards, to the gate that led into the adjacent field.
‘She would have gone this way, walking around the edge of the field and into the next one, through the gateway down there.’ He pointed to an opening in the hedge that ran along the bottom of the field. ‘Let’s go see.’
The trio walked ahead a few yards to where the hedge turned right and ran down along the field border. Ray heard a squeal.
Both men looked back. DC Gosling was cursing in unladylike language and trying to disentangle herself from a long bramble. Hughes went to her assistance. It took a minute, but he managed to pull the thorny growth from her arm, getting a bloody scratch himself for his pains.
‘All right, girl. Be more careful.’
‘I swear the damn thing reached out for me!’ she said.
‘Okay. Keep well clear of it.’
She took his advice and stepped away from the hedge, even though that meant getting off the grass verge and onto the ploughed field.
‘Come on.’ Ray was impatient, convinced now that Amanda must have fallen over somewhere and might be in need of help. How long had it been? Six days? If she was hurt, in a ditch or something for that long, could she survive? The nights were cold but it wasn’t yet winter. He strode down the green verge next to the hedge, staring across to the gateway into the next field and trying to spot any sign of a person.
‘Wait a minute! What’s this?’
Ray turned back. What now? The tall detective was staring at the base of the hedge. His eyes opened wide.
‘Oh, my God!’
Ray hurried back to him. ‘What? What is it?’
Detective Sergeant Hughes knelt in the dirt and reached a groping hand into the greenery. Ray stared. No brambles impeded his task. No knotted branches got in his way. It was almost as if the substance of the hedge opened up for him.
‘There’s something here.’
He pulled his arm back suddenly. In his clenched fingers was a head.
The neck was torn and coated with dried blood, muscles and tendons dangling loosely. The eyes were open and staring in horror. The face was dirty and slightly decomposed but still recognisable.
‘Are you all right, sir?’ DC Gosling came up behind her superior. She saw what he held and her hand flew to her mouth to muffle a gasp.
Hughes stood upright and held up the head, showing it to Ray. ‘Amanda Taylor, I presume.’ He turned back to his colleague. ‘Call crime scene support, Gosling. We have a body.
Ray dropped to his knees. He stared at the hedge. The hedge planted by an adulterer who had buried his bitter wife in the roots. The hedge that reached out its thorny grasp, it seemed, for anyone guilty of infidelity. There was no breeze but the leaves rustled anyway, mocking.
He backed away from it, pointing frantically.
‘It was the hedge! The hedge killed her! It’s old Mrs Powers! She’s buried in there somewhere. She’s evil. It’s the hedge.’
‘Ray Douglas, I am arresting you on suspicion of the murder of Amanda Taylor. You do not have to say anything, but anything you do say…’