It was the murder that shocked the nation. Thirty years ago Kate Rokesmith went walking by the river with her young son. She never came home. For three decades her case file has lain, unsolved, in the corner of an attic—until Stella Darnell, daughter of Detective Chief Superintendent Darnell, starts to clear out her father's house after his death.
About the Author
Lesley Thomson is the author of A Kind of Vanishing, which won the People's Book Prize.
Read an Excerpt
The Detective's Daughter
By Lesley Thomson
Head of Zeus LtdCopyright © 2013 Lesley Thomson
All rights reserved.
Sunday, 9 January 2011
The Toyota took three attempts to fire and the car was out of sight by the time Terry got moving. A skilled driver, he wove through the lunchtime traffic, snatching space, overtaking to slip in two vehicles behind the car at lights on Chalker's Corner. It was indicating right. There was no right turn. Terry felt heat rise as the police officer in him wanted to pull alongside and flash his badge. The car crossed the junction but the indicator had warned him there would soon be a right turn. At Lower Richmond Road the car did indeed go right, then right again to rejoin the A316. Terry slid in behind and when it took the slip road on to the M3 congratulated himself on keeping his petrol tank full.
Terry Darnell knew he was dealing with a meticulous and observant personality, likely to notice a vehicle keeping pace, so he hung back until the M25; then he risked overtaking and keeping the vehicle in his rear-view mirror. He knew better than to underestimate his quarry: people surprise you.
Later he dropped back and tucked into the left lane with the car ahead. Luckily this was a cautious driver who would not speed; just like a woman. Just as well because Terry's ten-year-old 1.4 engine would not be tortoise to this fuel-injected hare. He increased his distance when the other car crossed into his lane.
When it took the exit, Terry didn't need to keep the car within his sights. He knew where they were going.
The hamlet had no through road and, although close to a town with a station, felt to Terry as remote as the depths of Dartmoor. It was remote in time too; iron lamp-posts had yet to shed light on a Victorian pillar box and the one street sign. Spreading oaks and forbidding acers and flint walls partially concealed substantial detached houses.
Terry watched the car go off left and continued on the bypass before he took a road to the sea and doubled back.
He let the Yaris bump along a lane treacherous with potholes and, steering it on to a secluded verge, killed the engine. If anyone came he would ask for directions to the church; that always went down well.
Terry registered his full bladder. He had not touched the flask of coffee he had made for staking out the premises; these days he wanted to piss all the time. He relieved himself behind the boot of the car. He tested his camera with shots of the tyres; feeling the tightening in his chest, he dismissed it.
The air was freezing; snow was forecast. He buttoned up his jacket. Snow would obliterate clues and hamper the simplest action. He did not find it as joyful as when Stella was little.
A weather-beaten sign pointed him towards the church and, picking his way along a rutted footpath crunchy with fallen leaves, he reached a lych gate. The intense quiet was broken by bells chiming three o'clock. Already the sky was darkening. He patted his pocket; his torch was there.
As he unlatched the gate and walked under the tiled canopy, another bout of dizziness overwhelmed him; despite what the doctor said, Terry knew it was blood sugar dropping. He had not eaten since his cornflakes that morning and these days he could not get away with it. There was no quaint village shop and he was reluctant to go into the town. It was when the perpetrator was cornered that less experienced detectives grew careless. Later he would eat the Kit Kat in the glove box with his coffee.
Terry lowered himself on to a bench within the lych gate and, resting his head back, read the laminated notices pinned opposite: flower rotas, times of services; a Wednesday coffee morning. His attention was aroused by a sign on red paper: 'If you have lost a child, or know of a child that has died, however long ago, please come and join us in remembering them.'
He wondered if anyone could come or if it was for locals only. Did it matter if your child was alive and lost only to you?
He mulled over how many parents in this backwater could have suffered such a particular bereavement. It could not amount to a large congregation. A child had gone missing in the sixties near here; the girl had never been found but, as was becoming frequent, Terry could not conjure up detail. Some poor sod was tortured by that case; worrying over minor specifics, rifling through files he knew off by heart. Terry wiped his face – his memory really was on the blink – the poor sod was called Hall and was dead. He had read that the girl's parents had also died; they would not be attending the service.
Kate Rokesmith's murderer would be brought to justice. His own torture was at an end.
Terry took the path to the church. The tower was square and tapered; each point where it slimmed was marked by a line of jutting bricks giving the impression the structure could be telescoped upon itself. On its spire a golden cockerel weathervane facing towards the sea glinted in sunshine escaping from a break in the clouds. He remembered it from the funeral; it had put him in mind of his little girl. By then fifteen and doubtless into make-up and boys, she had no time for him. It was like one of Stella's drawings which he had mounted in a scrapbook. Stella's primary school pictures were bright with colour; if only life was how she had drawn it. When he asked if he could keep the ones she did on her visits, modest about her talent, she would shrug OK. The scrapbook still gave him happiness.
He had attended the service with a colleague, a woman whom he had quite fancied. Afterwards they dropped off for a drink at a pub on the A3 where she had called her boyfriend from a phone booth by the toilets; no mobile phones in those days. So that was that. Terry told himself it was not wise to mix business with pleasure. Instead, he had not mixed it with anything. Neither of them had seen anyone suspicious at the funeral. The case was as cold as ice and Kate had only been dead six weeks.
The murderer had been there, coiffured and respectable, in the left of the photograph by a headstone, watching the coffin carried out from the church. Three decades on, Terry, knowing whom to look for, had quickly spotted the killer in the crowd.
Any hope the Rokesmith family had of privacy had been dashed by the photographers, journalists, television crews and the obligatory straggle of onlookers who packed the churchyard. They had made Terry's job harder but now he was grateful; he had the picture. It only proved the culprit's presence at the funeral, but it was a start.
It would have been easy to chat with mourners without them batting an eyelid. There was no talk of a stranger acting oddly from the would-be detectives on the ground that day. Truth be told, Terry had been more interested in his sergeant – Janet, that was her name; after all, they believed they had solved the case, so in reality were only crossing Ts.
Hugh Rokesmith, Terry had observed to Janet over a pint of Fuller's London Pride, had given a sterling performance, with the boy in his arms the perfect prop for the grieving widower. Terry had gone into the telephone booth after Janet and, with Stella's weathervane drawing on his mind, called the Barons Court flat to see if she fancied meeting when he got into London. Stella informed him she was busy.
The dizziness ebbed. Trying to recall the whereabouts of the grave, Terry stumbled over uneven ground, going anti-clockwise around the building. The word 'widdershins' popped up: he had an idea his mum had warned it was bad luck to go widdershins around a church.
For the first time since Stella was born, Terry felt that luck was on his side. He threaded between the grassy mounds, the grass was damp with winter dew, and soon the bottoms of his trousers were sodden. He was long-sighted and could see the words engraved on headstones yards away. He ignored a row of nineteenth-century vaults for the moneyed dead, the mausoleums creating gaps like the canyon-like avenues in Manhattan. Or so he imagined, he had never been there.
In this section, headstones were older: Terry made out 1814, but most inscriptions were illegible beneath greenish-yellow lichen that crept over the eroding stone. Some were broken, their pieces lost in foliage or laid on top of the grave. Those who had tended the plots were themselves long dead.
An impenetrable hedgerow of beech bounded one side of the graveyard, woven through with tendrils of ivy and clumps of holly.
Terry came upon a gate and peered through the curling metal; another hedge within meant he had to crane sideways to see a house on a lawn. It was from one of the stories he had read to Stella: a witch's house in a forest clearing, with lattice windows on the upper floor beneath gables carved with cut-out birds in flight, their shapes echoed by silhouettes of actual birds circling the stout chimneys.
Terry shrank back. Although the windows were dark, someone might be watching. On a weekday winter afternoon, a visitor to the church was rare; he would not blend in.
He stuck to a flagged path, grateful for firm ground and hastened between bushes clipped to form columns into an overgrown area with a wall, beyond which stretched away fields, brown and grey in the fading light. He crossed the grass in the gathering twilight and there it was; shaded by a larch and hidden from most sightseers: 'Katherine Rokesmith. 27th July 1981'.
Terry doubted that these days the name would mean much to anyone.
A bunch of flowers leant against the headstone. Terry's heart beat faster as he bent to examine them. Five yellow roses, their heads browning, the wrapping wrinkled from rain; he estimated they were about a week old. There was no shop label or price. He tore off a flower and dropped it in his pocket to show Stella. The grave was in good order, the grass clipped with no weeds; someone was tending it. Terry circled the plot snapping pictures: of the stone, a close-up of the roses and of the epitaph. He used flash: the merciless light highlighting the deteriorating writing. It could have been centuries old, yet some letters had no moss or lichen on them, as if whoever had begun restoration had given up or planned to return.
Suddenly the stillness was broken. The sound was slight, but Terry identified it instantly: the scrape of a shoe on gravel.
Someone was coming.CHAPTER 2
Monday, 10 January 2011
A woman sat in offices on Shepherd's Bush Green integrating new clients into a cleaning schedule. It was an early morning task she enjoyed; it involved creating a list of staff, lining up availability to match time slots and applying a colour code to cells on a spreadsheet. Blue for mornings, yellow for afternoons, green for evenings and light green for late nights. She was methodical, switching between grids, extracting data from two files to populate a third. She chewed spearmint gum with her mouth shut, her jaw quietly working.
The starched white cotton shirt, sharp haircut and tailored suit trousers hinted at an authority confirmed when, having identified cleaners to cover the shifts, she tossed her gum into a waste bin and dialled the numbers on the list. She was pleasant but firm, overcoming objections or obstacles from the seventeen freelancers who worked exclusively for her. By five to nine the rota was complete and she had been at her desk three hours.
She strode through to the main office to fetch client details from signed contracts in her PA's pending tray and was startled by knocking. A policeman was gesticulating through the wire-reinforced glass door panel.
'I'm looking for Stella Darnell.'
'You've found her.'
At six foot and in her mid-forties Stella was taller and older than the officer.
While he talked she grabbed a cleaning equipment catalogue from a shelf and, resting it on a filing cabinet, scribbled busily, squeezing words into the margins and around pictures of a soft banister brush with a wooden handle and a galvanized flat-top socket for a broom. 'Superintendent Darnell ... coming out ... Co-op ... Seaford ... collapsed. Ambulance in 10 mins, paramedics worked ... failed revive ... dead on arrival.'
Stella circled 'dead on arrival' and laid down her pen. She contemplated the banister brush. It was not necessary, but would impress fussier clients; she would ask Jackie to order one and see how it went.
A mug of tea materialized by the catalogue and, as if she hovered far above, Stella gazed down uncomprehending: she had not heard Jackie arrive. The policeman's voice, droning on like a radio announcer, was drowned out by the telephone. She counted the rings: it was answered on the seventh. Not good enough. She stipulated it should be picked up at three max.
'Clean Slate for a fresh start. Good morning, Jackie speaking, how can we help?'
The tea was scalding and sweet. Stella's own voice was reminding Jackie that she didn't take sugar and Jackie was replying slowly and patiently, explaining in words of one syllable that it was for shock.
Your father is dead.
It was not until the late afternoon, in the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton, that Stella entertained the notion that she should be upset. All day she had dealt with the police, medical staff, administrators and Jackie, who treated her with practical sympathy. Everyone's response was out of proportion to Stella's so she was grateful at last to be alone.
The NHS bag containing Terry's belongings banged against a door as she emerged on to a goods road between the Cardiac Unit in a high-rise block and the shambling nineteenth-century building which housed the reception she had arrived at five hours earlier. Once a paean to Victorian endeavour, it was dwarfed by a maze of new-builds clad in steel and glass, its grandeur undermined by stuccoed pre-fabs and flaking render. She dodged a van and pushed through plastic flaps into a passage with a suspended ceiling and a flooring of epoxy quartz screed that emphasized a list to one side and gave her the impression of being on a ship.
Terence Christopher Darnell was pronounced dead at half past eight a.m. in the street where he had collapsed twenty minutes earlier. A female doctor told Stella that the probable cause was cardiac arrest but they could not be definite until they had performed a post-mortem. It was most unlikely, she had assured Stella, that 'Terence' had experienced pain.
His name is Terry.
She rarely called him Dad.
Stella frowned. She had not considered that he might have been in pain. She had also been informed, perhaps by the policeman, who was clearly both relieved and appalled by her lack of tears, that a lady coming out of the Co-op behind Detective Superintendent Darnell had said he'd toppled over like a toy soldier making no effort to save himself.
He was a toy policeman, Stella had nearly said.
She shouldered through another set of doors and found herself in a chapel; warm and dark, the quiet extreme after the bustle of the hospital.
Stella was about to leave, but arranged around an altar was a semi-circle of chairs and she slumped on to the nearest one, and dropped the NHS bag beside her.
Terence Christopher Darnell's sudden death would mean extra work at a busy time, she mused. Stella's parents had divorced when she was seven and her mother had not seen her ex-husband since Stella was old enough to visit him without being delivered or collected. Suzanne Darnell would lament that her marriage had been a wrong turning; she lived alone in West London, having made no further navigational errors. She would not help her daughter dispose of Terry and his belongings.
In Stella's business, death was a prompt for a house clearance and thorough clean in readiness for sale; Terry's death need be no different to any other, she told herself.
Although she was Terry's only child, it had surprised Stella that he had a slip of paper in his wallet naming her as his next of kin because she saw him no more than three times a year. Sitting on the hard chair, surrounded by wall plaques commemorating patrons and patients of the hospital now at peace and in a higher place, Stella dwelt on the earthly fact of the death of a man she hardly knew. His body had not looked at peace.
Two electric candles dripping with fake wax were plugged into a socket on the altar. Stella recognized the scent as one of the flower fairy ranges of Asquith & Somerset and doubted it could be on the NHS preferred supplies list. A bunch of fresh freesias drooped out of a cream plastic vase beneath a stained-glass panel of the Madonna and Child. She made a mental note to order lavender spray for Mrs Ramsay in St Peter's Square. On her last visit, there had been a stale odour; she suspected the old lady of smoking, although she claimed to have given up.
This led her to think about her other clients and, getting out her phone, she scrolled through her messages. Jackie had signed up someone responding to the advert in the local paper and had trialled a new cleaner in the office after Stella had left for Sussex. The woman had not passed, but Jackie wanted to know if she should hire her anyway. Stella tutted at this, the noise distinct in the silence; rapidly her fingers busied on the keypad as she instructed Jackie not to take on someone who had failed the cleaning test. As Stella dreaded, her business could not carry on without her being there.
Excerpted from The Detective's Daughter by Lesley Thomson. Copyright © 2013 Lesley Thomson. Excerpted by permission of Head of Zeus Ltd.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Loved this book. Richly drawn characters that peek out at you through writing that doesn't aim for obvious or facile. This is beautifully nuanced writing and it can take a while to get to plot places that other writers might have dispatched much earlier on. Thompson's writing is all gourmet meal. Not a fast food wrapper in sight.
Never finished the book. Hard to get past even the first chapter.
This was a wonderful story and book. It kept me in suspense all the way through. I would recommend this book to those who like to read mysterious crime books. I love the way the author kept me on my toes as to what was going to happen next. Great book.
terrible book.....had to finally skip to the last few pages to finish. Would not read anything else by this author.