Newly-retired, ex-Chief Superintendent Fran Harman and her partner Mark have volunteered to assist West Mercia police in reinvestigating an unsolved crime. Twenty years ago, a car was found abandoned on an isolated road running through the Wyre Forest, its hazard lights still flashing, the passenger door open. In the back, were two child seats. One was empty; in the other lay a desperately ill baby. Neither the baby’s mother nor the elder child were ever seen again.
Where had Natalie Foreman been and where was she heading? As they question those who knew the missing woman, Fran and Mark uncover worrying discrepancies and mistaken assumptions underlying the original police investigation. In their new role as civilians in a police world, they find themselves encountering hostility and resentment from some of those they question – and it’s clear that more than one key witness is not telling them the whole truth.
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Green and Pleasant Land
A Fran Harman Mystery
By Judith Cutler
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2014 Judith Cutler
All rights reserved.
'So this is Hindlip Hall,' Mark Turner said, passing between impressive modern walls announcing the fact – the corporate equivalents of gatehouses, but with no gates directly attached to them. 'It's somewhat grander than where we worked in Kent.'
Fran pointed through the streaming passenger door window. 'Did you see that notice? Telling folk they enter at their own risk?'
'What? Abandon hope all ye who enter here?'
'Almost. Should we chicken out now? Hey, didn't I read that the place was supposed to be haunted?'
'That would be this building's predecessor,' Mark said. 'Priest's holes and Catholic plotters and such in the first, which burned down. You don't get ghosts in elegant nineteenth-century gentlemen's residences. Or gentlewomen's, for that matter.'
Fran sniffed to show she was rightly ignoring the equal opportunities dig. In his time as Kent's assistant chief constable, Mark had done more than most to promote and support women. He'd never made it to chief constable, and would probably have hated such a managerial position even more than he'd hated being ACC. At least in that post he'd managed to make enough time to be reasonably hands-on in dealing with people and crime as opposed to policy and statistics.
'How on earth did something like this become a police headquarters?' she demanded.
He waited for the security barrier to rise. 'More to the point, how on earth, in the current economic climate, have they managed to hang on to it?'
Fran nodded. 'It's great real estate. I'll bet my teeth someone wanted to sell it off when West Mercia Police merged with Warwickshire. It would make a wonderful high-end hotel – extensive grounds, too.'
'I wonder what it'll be like to work in.' He put the car in motion.
'Do you mean that in the literal sense: will they have made proper office space in what's probably a listed building?' Fran asked, as they peered through the driving rain for the signposts to the car park to which they'd been despatched. 'Or the abstract: being parachuted in to solve another force's unsolved crime?' She pointed. 'It's over there, I think.' By now the rain was bouncing so high it was hard to tell.
'We're hardly being parachuted,' Mark objected, parking as neatly as he could, given that it was impossible to see the white lines between bays. 'We're not enemies invading someone's territory. We came because Gerry Barnes invited us.'
'But you were part of the deal; he might have asked me first, but you were his choice as lead investigator. Something to do with your solving a few crimes,' he added with a grin.
'He'd never have chosen me for my administrative skills, that's for sure. Or my tact and diplomacy.' As for Fran herself, the very mention of her own likely promotion to ACC had made her grab at overdue retirement with both hands. Admittedly, at the time she'd been on sick leave, needing crutches for even the most trivial errand round the house, but while her leg hadn't been working her mind certainly had and she'd not regretted her apparently impulsive decision for a second.
The windscreen was awash the moment he cut the ignition. 'Shall we wait a few more minutes and hope the rain eases or grab a brolly apiece and make a run for it?' he asked.
'And arrive with no dignity and hair in rats' tails?'
He squeezed her hand. 'And when did you ever worry about dignity, Ms Harman? No longer Detective Chief Superintendent Harman, of course,' he added, anxiety creeping into his voice. Though why should he worry about her? She had natural authority by the bucket-load. 'I've had long enough to get used to being plain Mr Turner, not to mention the times the media called me Mr Harman ...' With a grin, he squeezed her hand to show he found it amusing, now at least. Back then, however, it had grated. 'But it'll be strange to be civilians in a police world. We'll be neither flesh nor fowl—'
'Nor good red herring,' she concluded for him.
The rain beat more heavily on the car.
'Do you suppose they'll sir and ma'am us? No, let's be Fran and Mark.'
She squeezed his hand. 'I'd better not call you sweetheart.'
'You can call me all the other things in private, though,' he reminded her, with a deep chuckle. 'Look, we could sit here all day waiting for the rain to ease. Let's make a dash for it.' He reached for and passed her an umbrella and her bag before retrieving his own.
'I'll race you!' She was already halfway out of the car.
'In your dreams!'
So no dignity there, and he'd swear she'd cheated. But it was more or less a dead heat, and if anything he was too busy being relieved that her leg had recovered from its injury to make more than a token complaint. Dignity or not, it was time for a quick hug.
Fran and Mark had had a wonderful spring and summer. She'd forced herself to toil through endless physiotherapy sessions and exercise plans so that she could walk up the aisle at their wedding – heavens, she'd even broken into a very swift canter as Mark turned to greet her at the altar. Thereafter they'd had a magic honeymoon in springtime Crete; could you have a honeymoon after living together for so long? You bet your life you could. Then there'd been a summer filled with tennis and gardening and the delights of Mark's grandchildren (hers too now, and she couldn't have loved them more dearly had they had a blood relationship). With the children back in school, autumn had brought more travel.
But she'd sensed in Mark, once the garden was tidied up in readiness for the winter, a restlessness that even building a wonderful 00 railway layout in the loft hadn't been able to assuage. Once she'd detected it in him, she had to admit to herself that perhaps she too lacked an intellectual challenge; certainly she'd missed the team she'd worked with for so many years. She still saw many of them as friends, of course, when they had the time, but somehow team fun wasn't the same as team work.
Which now awaited her and Mark.
New year, new challenge.
Having wet hair and soaking clothes was one thing, but she suspected it was quite another to leave wet and muddy footprints on the carpet of the grand entrance hall. Mark dumped their brollies in a bucket already occupied by several others. Then, as one, they headed for the big reception desk, where they were greeted by a laughing woman with a strong Midlands accent. Iris Day, her badge said. 'I've got your IDs here.' She burrowed in a drawer, her face puckering in defeat. 'I've got one for Mr Turner and one for Mrs Turner, but nothing for a Mrs Harman.'
'No problem, Iris: I'd best be Mrs Turner for a bit, hadn't I? But since legally my name's still Harman, maybe you could arrange another one for me? Sorry to put you to extra trouble.'
'It's no trouble at all.' She made a note. Looking up, she added archly, 'So are you really Mrs Turner or are you living in sin?'
Fran responded to the twinkle in the woman's eye rather than the abrupt and old-fashioned question. 'We're living in Kent! I'm sort of Mrs Turner in that we're married. But I've been Harman so long I clean forgot I should sign a different name. So now I'll be Fran Harman for the rest of my life.'
'Not a bad name,' Mark added.
The woman put her head on one side. 'So you'll be a Ms on the ID, not a Mrs, won't you? No problems. Now, if you don't mind my saying, you've still got rain dripping off your hair and on to your nose and your mascara's running riot. There's a ladies' loo just down there – and a gents', Mr Turner. Quite nice but not as Downton Abbey as the rest of this place. Then I'll get someone to take you along to see Mr Webster.'
'Mr Webster?' Mark prompted. 'We were expecting to see Mr Barnes.'
Iris leaned confidentially towards them. 'Not here today. Redundancy, I reckon. With this merger, there'll be a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, you'll see. Anyway, it's Mr Webster, the new Assistant Chief Constable (Crime), who's expecting you. The chief constable's busy.' Even she grimaced at an official faux pas, if not a snub.
Mark nodded: no problem. At least he hoped there wasn't one. Gerry Barnes had brimmed with enthusiasm for the project, promising both a skilled team of serving officers and unlimited back-room support. Would a replacement deliver the same commitment? Without such back-up, their job would be very difficult – and extremely time-consuming. But if anyone was used to police politics, he was, so he must negotiate the best deal he could. He smiled at Iris. 'Just checking: with all these changes, is the chief constable still Andrew Barwell?'
'Of course. No, not of course. He has been for the last six months, but with things the way they are ... Do you know him?'
'We might have nodded at each other at a few conferences, but that's all. Fran?'
'Wouldn't know him from Adam,' she declared, as she nipped off to the loo, 'though I suppose he might be better dressed.'
She returned to find Mark still waiting for their escort. There was nothing for it but to look around, as if they'd strayed into a National Trust property.
Surely a room like this – what a fireplace! – ought to have been filled with classical statues, not display cases full of truncheons and other constabulary memorabilia. And look at that grand staircase! For the moment, however, they were not to ascend it. They were to follow a pin-thin young woman whose badge identified her as a senior security officer, along the wide corridor that led – inevitably – to the offices of the higher echelons. She knocked at a mahogany door and silently left them to it.
The door opened to reveal a beautiful airy room that was roughly the size of their living room, with Victorian proportions which to Fran's mind were slightly less elegant than those of their newly restored Georgian rectory. She fell into step beside Mark as they approached the desk of the assistant chief constable. Bowed with an age that was probably nearer fifty than forty, and maybe even a couple of years more, he was so nondescript Fran saw him for a moment as Mole, for some reason ensconced in Toad Hall rather than Mole End. The rather vulgar overweight cherubs in some of the heavy gilt frames would certainly have been more at home in Toad's establishment.
'Colin Webster.' He shook their hands with a surprisingly small, very cold hand, before gesturing to comfortable seats facing a big OT screen. Registering with what appeared to be disapproval how damp they were, he switched on a small but welcome heater, the red elements of which made them all glow orange. His hospitality didn't extend to switching on his coffee machine or offering biscuits from a tin beside it.
'Change of plan,' Webster began, as if begrudging the effort of speaking in complete sentences. 'Teething problems after the merger. I gather Gerry Barnes brought you here.'
They could read the crib-sheet on his desk, outlining their qualifications and experience. They'd packed in a lot of both, between them. He didn't seem pleased; perhaps he felt intimidated. 'How do you propose to divide the work?'
'It depends how it needs to be divided, Colin,' Mark parried. 'After all, we've both been on the Review Officers' National Course, though at different times; we're both fully accredited.' Clearly he wasn't about to be patronized by an equal. Ex-equal.
'Of course. Your room is on the floor above this one, though you don't get quite as nice a view.'
Fran couldn't stop herself looking towards the floor to ceiling windows, currently steamed up and revealing nothing more than a cascade from an overflowing gutter.
'When you've got up to speed on the case, I'll allocate resources. Within reason. We're under pressure at the moment—'
'When is a modern force ever not?' Mark asked.
'Worse: we've got a murder in Warwick and an unrelated one in Tamworth.' Webster's face suggested that they were mere administrative inconveniences. 'Your fee—'
'We agreed with Gerry that we'll donate it to the Police Benevolent Fund,' Fran put in. 'All we're claiming is expenses.'
'Expenses?' Panic filled Webster's eyes. Yes, another senior officer driven by budgets. 'I gather you're renting somewhere; you should have been told that there is accommodation available here.'
Gerry had mentioned that. Single accommodation, food supplied by the canteen which closed at five. 'We like our own roof,' Mark said firmly. 'We found a cottage with the fag-end of a rental period left so we got it dirt cheap. Near Ombersley, so it's very convenient.'
Webster ticked a box. Literally. 'You will of course notify HR of any change of address. And car, of course.'
As for the cottage, they'd not actually seen it yet. Having left home soon after four, they'd meant to check in before they started work. However, the traffic was so bad on the rain-drenched M25 that what was usually a three hour journey had become six and they'd had to come straight to Hindlip.
Webster checked his script again. 'What I want is a simple review of a misper enquiry. Some twenty years ago a young woman and her child went missing in the northern part of the Wyre Forest.'
'That's the district or the ancient woodland?' asked Mark.
'Woodland. You know the area?' Webster looked surprised.
'I took my grandchildren on the Severn Valley Railway in the summer.'
'Oh. Anyway, Natalie Foreman and her son Hadrian went missing here.' He touched his keypad and a map appeared on the screen. 'No sighting dead or alive since.'
Mark snapped his fingers. 'Wasn't there something about a baby too?'
Fran joined in: 'Left in a car? About the time we had that major manhunt in Sandwich and were all working eighteen hour days,' she added aside to Mark.
'That's another thing. No overtime unless it's absolutely vital, vital to the point of desperate, and I sign it off myself. Personally. Any questions?'
'One thing we'd certainly like to know,' Mark began reasonably, 'is why this case has taken on a sudden urgency. Is there someone in CID we should be talking to?'
The hunted expression returned. 'It's not their bag – drat!' His phone warbled to announce a text. He checked. 'It's the chief's secretary. I'm late for a meeting.' The clear implication was that it was their fault. As he stood he fished a bubble-pack of tablets from his pocket and popped two. He and a strong smell of Gaviscon ushered them from the room. 'Up the stairs. Turn left. The door should be ajar. This is your key code.' He grabbed a scrap of paper and scribbled barely legible numbers.
'Takes you back, doesn't it, all that stress?' Fran remarked, pushing open the door of their new domain. To judge from its position and dimensions it had probably once been a bedroom for a less important guest. She headed for the window and threw it up. 'A nice view of some kennels – enough to house an entire force's dogs.' With a face full of rain she closed it again. She turned back towards twin desks pushed together so that the occupants would face each other.
'Feng shui,' Mark mused. 'Which would you prefer – back to the door or back to the view?'
'Just to be contrary, I'd turn them round through ninety degrees, so we can both see who's coming through the door.'
He laughed. 'All the time I was in the force, I never met a cop who liked sitting with their back to a door. Or who didn't try to grab a seat at a restaurant table with their back to a wall. Is it part of the DNA? Let's just move these boxes on to the floor.' He peered inside first one, then another. 'There's not a lot in any of them.' He passed them to her; she stacked them in date order along a wall.
As they heaved the desks into position, there was a knock on the door; they turned simultaneously. 'Come in,' they sang in unison.
It was Iris, carrying another cardboard box, which she put, after some hesitation, on a desk. 'Talk about being caught red-handed. Black-handed rather. Look at the pair of you! But what on earth were they doing, giving you furniture this old? They must have dug it out of some store room. And the cleaners haven't exactly exerted themselves, have they?' Iris produced a couple of tissues from her pocket and wiped both chairs, then, less thoroughly, the desk tops. She held up the tissues, grey with dust, triumphantly. 'That's better. Now, I'm on my coffee break so I haven't got more than a minute, but I bet no one's had time to give you a conducted tour. I haven't myself, to be honest. But there is a canteen – just follow the signs.'
Excerpted from Green and Pleasant Land by Judith Cutler. Copyright © 2014 Judith Cutler. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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