A Deadly Promise
Estelle Hastings-Jones winced as the end of a low tree branch smacked against the sports car’s bodywork, the sharp slap resonating through the rain that hammered the windscreen.
Beside her, her husband Mark gripped the leather steering wheel, the powerful engine keen to surge forward despite the narrowing lane in front of them.
Just as she thought it couldn’t get any more precarious, the front left wheel lurched into a deep pothole with a spine-juddering thump, and Mark cursed under his breath.
‘The bloody website didn’t say anything about the road to this place being non-existent,’ he muttered. ‘Who was last along here, the fucking Romans?’
‘William the Conqueror, according to…’
‘Don’t be facetious.’ Despite his words, she saw the faint smile that passed his lips in the glow from the dashboard lights. ‘How much further along is it?’
She squinted at her mobile phone, careful to shield the screen from Mark so as not to ruin his night vision. ‘About quarter of a mile. The instructions they emailed to me said to look out for a new set of gates and a green metal post box fixed to one of the pillars. There’s a security panel below the post box for the entry code.’
Lowering her phone, Estelle eyed the deep puddles lining the road, her gaze then travelling to the thick foliage that curved above the car like a tunnel far below the earth, and shivered despite the car’s heater warming her toes.
‘Maybe we should’ve booked into that hotel further along the A20 rather than here,’ she said.
‘They were fully booked, I told you. No room at the inn,’ said Mark, glancing across at her. ‘Besides, I don’t see anywhere to turn around, do you?’
She pursed her lips, and instead tried to relax.
His hand found her thigh. ‘I’m sure the place is worth all this. It’ll give us a chance to recharge and relax before driving home tomorrow, right?’
‘We’ll soon find out – this is it, on the left.’
A pair of thick steel-framed gates reared out from the vegetation under the glare from the car’s headlights, blocking their path. The wooden slats resembled that of a castle keep, giving the impression of an impenetrable fortress that only a select few could pass through safely.
Mark slowed the car to a crawl, easing its nose towards the gates. ‘What’s the code?’
He lowered the window, swore as the wind lashed rain against his face, and reached out for the security panel.
Estelle heard the soft beep of the keypad, and then a faint whirring sound as the gate mechanism eased into action.
As Mark steered the car between the gaping slats, the road changed from decades-old asphalt to freshly laid gravel that crackled under the tyres and spat up into the wheel arches.
He automatically slowed to avoid chipping the paintwork.
The driveway widened, and Estelle saw his hands relax as a stunning Tudor property came into view.
Spotlights sprang to life when he was a few hundred metres away, bathing the parking area and front of the house in a soft hue that welcomed them forward, and she felt some of the tension in her shoulders ebb away.
The curtains had been left open downstairs, so she could see the warm light from lamps in the rooms illuminating the walls, and she wiggled her toes in anticipation.
‘I’m getting in the spa bath before I do anything else tonight,’ she murmured.
‘Sounds good, but first you can help me with the bags.’ Mark grinned, turned off the engine and leaned over to kiss her. ‘It’s not the South of France anymore, but I think it’s going to be a perfect end to the holiday before we head back to Cumbria.’
She smiled, her hand on the door release. ‘Shall I bring some of the champagne in with us?’
‘Good idea. We don’t have to leave until eleven tomorrow, so bring two.’
With that, they dived out into the rain, laughing as it pelted down while they retrieved their suitcases from the back of the car and ran towards the front door, their shoes sending up spray from the soaked gravel.
Mark entered the same code into the security panel beside the door, and then Estelle found herself in a wide hallway, with a crimson and white tiled floor that had been polished to a high sheen.
Her heels clacking across the surface, she dropped her suitcase at the base of an oak staircase and lifted her head to marvel at the chandelier that sparkled above their heads.
‘There’s a note over there,’ said Mark, jerking his chin towards an antique pair of occasional chairs and a matching table.
An envelope was propped against a reading lamp, and when Estelle opened it, she sighed. ‘Oh, this is lovely. It’s from Penelope and Stephen who own the place. It says “Help yourself to the wine and soft drinks in the fridge, as well as the treats and snacks we’ve left out for you on the kitchen table. Our cleaner, Katrina, will have been in a few hours before your arrival so you should find everything in order”, and then she’s left her phone number in case there’re any problems.’
‘Sounds fabulous. We’ll have to use that booking website again.’ Mark skim-read the note over her shoulder, then nuzzled her neck. ‘Let’s go and put that champagne in the fridge, and then we can explore.’
Kicking off her shoes, she followed him in bare feet through a doorway at the back of the hallway, gasping as she walked into a modernised kitchen with a gleaming stainless steel eight-burner gas hob set into a central worktop.
The perimeter of the space had been designed with a mixture of work surfaces and cleverly disguised cupboards. A vase of lilacs gave off a subtle scent from its position on an enormous dining table set for twelve, and fresh fruit had been arranged in a crystal bowl beside packets of different snacks on the central worktop.
When Estelle opened the fridge, her eyes widened in amazement. ‘They’ve even left us fresh steaks and vegetables. And cheeses, and…’
‘Well, we are paying six hundred quid for one night,’ Mark replied. ‘Nice touch though, I have to admit.’
While Mark deposited the champagne in the fridge and retrieved a complimentary bottle of wine originating from the Loire Valley, she searched for a corkscrew, marvelling at the cabinetry workmanship as the drawers swished closed silently.
Finding a pair of crystal glasses, she turned to him and grinned. ‘How about we find that spa bath?’
‘Lead the way.’ His eyes sparkled. ‘We’ll worry about the bags later.’
Estelle insisted on exploring the downstairs rooms before heading upstairs, marvelling at the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the library, and then cooing over the luxurious furnishings in the living room before threading her fingers through Mark’s and taking the stairs up to an expansive landing.
She wrinkled her nose and paused under an oil painting depicting a bucolic landscape. ‘It smells funny up here.’
Sniffing, Mark’s brow furrowed. ‘I thought the note said their cleaner had been in earlier?’
‘It did. Y-you don’t think the place has been burgled do you?’ Estelle’s grip on his hand tightened. ‘I mean, you hear all sorts of things about what burglars do apart from stealing things, don’t you?’
‘I don’t think there’s been a break-in. I didn’t notice any broken windows or anything like that downstairs, did you? And the front door was locked because we had to use the access code.’
She bit her lip. ‘We assumed it was – I didn’t try pushing it open until after you’d entered the code.’
‘But it clicked. The lock clicked, I’m sure it did.’ Mark squeezed her hand, then let go and handed her the wine bottle. ‘I’ll check out the rooms first. Wait here.’
‘No – I’ll go with you.’ Clutching the bottle by the neck, she squared her shoulders. ‘Let’s start at the front of the house.’
Turning right at the top of the stairs, she followed him around the landing overlooking the tiled hallway below, the chandelier lights twinkling at her, taunting.
The smell didn’t linger this side, and when Mark opened the first bedroom door, she heard him breathe a sigh of relief at the sight of an immaculate bedroom complete with matching bunk beds and an action figure mural covering one wall. A laptop had been left on a child-sized desk with its password and the family’s wi-fi code scrawled across a note stuck to its screen along with an invitation to guests to use it if needed.
‘I don’t think they’ve been burgled,’ he said. ‘That’s just the sort of thing that would’ve been taken otherwise.’
‘Then where’s that smell coming from?’ Estelle walked along the landing to the next room and again found a tidy bedroom with two single beds. A plain decor had been applied to the walls, complemented by brightly coloured curtains that she swished closed before shutting the door.
‘No idea. Maybe there’s a leak in the bathroom.’
‘Christ, we’d best check. If we have to get a plumber out at this time of the night…’
She sniffed as they crossed back to the other side of the landing. ‘It’s definitely stronger this side.’
Mark opened another door. ‘This is the main bathroom.’
Switching on the lights, Estelle blinked as the bright LEDs shone off freshly wiped tiles, a faint aroma of citrus emanating from the room-width waterfall shower at one end and the gleaming bath tub.
No water pooled around the base of the bidet or toilet, and when she lifted the lid, a similar lemony scent rose into the air.
‘Okay, so no leaks in here.’
‘Maybe it’s coming from the en suite then.’ Mark was already walking to the far end of the house before she caught up with him. ‘Failing that, it could be one of the sewer pipes under the floorboards.’
Despite her worry, Estelle smiled at his words. ‘Once a builder, always a builder.’
‘I might run the company these days, but I still remember some of the issues we used to have on site.’ He pushed open the door into the master bedroom, then stopped suddenly, emitting a gagging noise. ‘Jesus Christ.’
‘Mark? What’s the matter?’
He didn’t reply, and instead staggered a few steps backward. ‘Oh my God.’
Estelle frowned, and brushed past him.
Then she saw the woman sprawled on the bed, the soiled sheets twisted beneath her prone body, and the blood stains splattering the plush cushions that had been arranged along the headboard.
A cavernous wound split the woman’s alabaster throat from side to side, leaving a dark pool of congealed blood that covered her sweatshirt. Her eyes were wide open in terror as her mouth had gasped its last breath.
Detective Inspector Kay Hunter pulled up the hood of her waterproof jacket and emerged from the warmth of the pool car, her eyes scanning the scene before her.
Floodlights had been erected on the driveway, highlighting a demarcated path that led from the cluster of vehicles clogging the waterlogged gravel across to the front steps of the imposing Tudor-style residence.
The traffic division had set up a roadblock farther up the lane, diverting any wayward traffic that missed the warning signs on the Faversham road and sending vehicles on a convoluted route that would ensure an in-depth knowledge of the Kentish countryside by the time they reached the end of it.
Kay shoved her hands in her pockets and tried to ignore the fact that one of her ankle boots had sprung a leak since the last downpour.
Instead, she took in the sight of a murder investigation in its early throes, her gaze resting on two uniformed constables at the fringes of the taped-off boundary.
The broader of the two – Kyle Walker – had returned to work full-time twelve weeks ago following a period of ill health, something which Kay knew too well was a direct result of him being present when a colleague had been shot and Kyle almost lost his own life in the process. He stood with his head lowered to his radio underneath a canopy that had been set up to provide a modicum of shelter, the canvas roof flapping in the breeze.
Beside him, Aaron Stewart towered over his colleague, his imposing frame belying a man who was a devoted father and husband. He was speaking with a couple in their fifties, both of them bundled within warm blankets.
Two vans belonging to the team of lead CSI Harriet Baker were parked directly in front of the front steps of the property, the side doors open and a steady stream of technicians moving equipment and empty sample boxes into the house.
Kay glanced over her shoulder at the sound of footsteps crunching across the gravel to see Detective Sergeant Ian Barnes hurrying over, a set of protective coveralls cocooning his bulky form.
Her older colleague’s face was grim, his eyes betraying the horror he had witnessed inside the house.
‘Guv. Harriet’s ready when you are.’ He slicked a hand over wet hair, flicking the water to the ground. ‘I thought you might want to see what we’ve got before you speak to the couple who found her. Kyle’s managed to book them into a hotel down the road for a night – his sister knows someone there, so they’ll be in staff accommodation but…’
‘Out of this and in the warm.’
‘Exactly, and on hand if we need to speak to them again in the morning before they head home to Cumbria.’
‘Okay, let’s take a look.’ Kay squared her shoulders, then followed him across to the tape separating them from the crime scene. After signing in, she handed back the clipboard to Kyle with a brief nod of thanks. ‘Good to see you, PC Walker.’
‘Good to be back, guv.’ He lowered his voice. ‘Shame about the circumstances, though.’
Barnes handed her a sealed plastic bag containing a clean set of biohazard coveralls, then gestured to a large white tent beside the front steps. ‘Pop them on in here, guv.’
Thankful that one of Harriet’s team had thought to lay a blue tarpaulin on the wet ground inside the tent, Kay pulled on the protective clothing, tugged the matching booties over her shoes and took a pair of gloves from Barnes.
‘What do you know so far?’ she said while she got changed, raising her voice over the thrumming of rain on the thin polyester roof.
‘Mark and Estelle Hastings-Jones – the couple talking to Aaron – booked into this place a couple of months ago as a stopping-off point on their way back from a driving holiday in France. The owners, Penelope and Stephen Brassick, spend a lot of time in New York – Stephen works as an actuary for an international investment company so they rent out this place through one of those exclusive sites. When Mark and Estelle arrived, they noticed a smell while they were exploring upstairs. They found the victim in the master bedroom. On the bed.’
Barnes pulled the protective hood of his overalls back over his head, then held open the tent flap for Kay and made his way up the front steps. He paused in the hallway to let a pair of CSIs come down the stairs with a laden evidence box. ‘It’s not pretty, guv.’
‘Where to start?’ He sighed. ‘She’s got bruising to her face, one eye is completely closed up, and whoever did all that to her then sliced open her throat.’
‘Jesus. Is Lucas here?’
‘Been and gone – he got a call-out to another scene at Rochester five minutes before you got here, but he said he’ll phone with a time for the post mortem when he’s back in the office tomorrow.’
‘Thanks.’ Kay took a deep breath, then pulled up her mask as the two technicians passed her. ‘Lead the way.’
She took in the ostentatious decor as they went up the stairs, the bright chandelier bulbs almost blinding her as they climbed. She wondered if the owners would ever return after this, her mind then turning to the tasks she would set for her team, and potential witnesses that would have to be tracked down and interviewed as quickly as possible.
‘What about neighbours?’ she asked when they reached the landing. ‘Who’s speaking to them?’
Barnes shook his head, the movement crinkling the hood that covered his hair. ‘There’s not enough manpower, guv. Aaron’s waiting for another patrol to get here from Sevenoaks, and then they’ll divvy up the interviews between them. There’re only three other properties along here, so it won’t take long.’
‘Still, it’s a delay we could do without…’ Kay bit back the frustration, and looked around her.
The artwork on the walls wasn’t to her taste, but it looked as expensive as the rest of her surroundings, and her covered boots sank into the thick plush carpet that lined the floor in every direction.
Despite the mask, she could smell the unmistakable stench of death.
They fell silent as Barnes led her towards a door at the far end of the landing, and she felt her plastic booties slide when her feet found the raised protective pathway that Harriet’s technicians had set up so no one trod on the carpet this close to the murder victim.
Every fibre below the pathway would be analysed before their work here was done, and nothing was being left to chance by way of cross-contamination.
The stench of urine and shit penetrated Kay’s mask when she entered the room, and she began to take shallower breaths, attempting to offset the assault. Even then, she had to prevent a gasp escaping her lips when Barnes stood to one side, and she saw the woman’s body sprawled across the super king-sized bed.
A mop of dark brown hair mottled with grey roots obscured most of the victim’s face but even from the doorway Kay could see the ugly welts that covered her eye sockets and cheekbones.
Her jeans had been tugged down to her knees, and a criss-cross of scratches covered her thighs and abdomen, some deeper than others.
A shudder wracked her shoulders when she took in the deep slash wound that had obliterated the woman’s throat, her pale-coloured sweatshirt barely visible through the congealed blood that had pooled from her broken body.
Her head jerked up at the familiar voice to see one of the suit-clad technicians watching her from beside the bed.
The CSI lead was the only person who Kay would defer to during her time here, and she held the expert in high regard.
‘If you walk between the yellow flags, you can join me here. We’re nearly done processing her, and then we’ll get her moved so we can do swabs of the bedclothes.’
Barnes gestured for Kay to go ahead. ‘I’ve already seen enough, guv. I’ll wait here.’
Resisting the urge to take a deep breath, Kay trod carefully between the plastic flags Harriet had indicated, nodding her thanks to a technician who moved his equipment box out of the way, then turned her attention to the CSI lead.
‘You’ve been busy.’
‘We were having a quiet night until this,’ said Harriet. ‘Just as well, because I think we’re going to be here for a while yet.’
‘I won’t keep you too long then. What can you tell me so far?’
‘Well, once we pulled the sheet from her, we discovered all these scratches to her legs and abdomen too.’ Harriet paused and traced the patterns with her gloved fingers.
‘We’ve swabbed everything, but I believe these were done with a knife, the blade going deeper as the attack went on. Lucas will confirm at the post mortem if this was done with the same knife that ended her life.’
Kay swallowed. ‘She was tortured, and then had her throat slit, you mean?’
‘I think so but of course Lucas will have the final view on that. I can only report it as I see the wounds here. Look at the way her fingernails dig into the sheet underneath her as well.’
‘Are those ligature marks around her wrists?’
‘Caused by thin rope, a cord – we’re still looking for that, don’t worry,’ Harriet added, then placed her hand on Kay’s arm. ‘Look at her feet.’
They shuffled to the end of the bed, and Kay’s eyes widened.
‘What the hell…?’
‘Someone used the hair straighteners over there to burn the soles of her feet and her toes.’
‘Interestingly, she wasn’t gagged or silenced in any way. Lucas and I took a look before he left here, and there’s no indication of material being forced into her mouth. She’s bitten through her tongue at some point.’
Harriet sighed. ‘This is a bad one, Kay. God knows what else Lucas will find during the post mortem.’
Kay ran her gaze over all the injuries once more. ‘And no one heard this?’
‘Apparently not – the nearest neighbours are back along the lane, about quarter of a mile, and control received no calls about a disturbance prior to Mark Hastings-Jones phoning it in,’ said Barnes from his position on the demarcated pathway. ‘The owners of this place told Aaron they wanted somewhere private, off the beaten track.’
‘He managed to get hold of them?’
‘They left a contact phone number for the guests to call in case there were any problems.’ His eyes clouded. ‘Although I’m not sure they expected something like this.’
‘We’ll still need to formally interview them. Do they know the victim?’
‘She’s their cleaner, Katrina Hovat.’
‘We found her coat and handbag downstairs in a scullery off the kitchen,’ said Harriet, seeing Kay’s surprise. ‘Driving licence, house keys, the lot.’
‘Got it written down,’ said Barnes, and patted his breast pocket under the coveralls. ‘I’ve radioed through to control to get a patrol over there as soon as possible.’
‘How did she get here?’
‘Her car’s parked round the back, probably because it’s easier to access the scullery from there – that’s where all the cleaning stuff’s kept, like the vacuum cleaner.’
‘I’ve got a pair of technicians analysing her car at the moment,’ Harriet said. ‘I’ll let you know if we find anything of use.’
‘Thanks. Did she have her own set of keys to this place as well?’
‘No need,’ said Barnes. ‘The back door uses the same security code as the front door and the owners confirmed that’s what she would’ve used.’
‘And whoever did this to her? How did they get in?’ Kay’s eyes rested on the broken form on the bed. ‘Any signs of a break-in?’
‘None,’ said Harriet.
‘Guv, I’m wondering if she knew her attacker, and so let them in through the driveway gates, then answered the front door to them,’ said Barnes.
‘We’ve taken fingerprints off the keypad system, so I’ll let you have the results from those in due course,’ Harriet added.
‘There is one thing,’ Barnes said. ‘We haven’t located a mobile phone for her anywhere yet.’
‘Not in her bag?’
‘No, and nowhere in the rooms we’ve searched so far,’ said Harriet. ‘We’ll do a more thorough search in here once her body’s been moved, so I’ll let you know if that changes anything.’
‘Okay.’ Kay felt condensation forming on her mask and forced down the urge to pull it from her face. ‘Can you show me the scullery, Ian? I’d like to see where her things were found, and her car.’
‘I’ll give you a call with an update about my findings sometime tomorrow,’ Harriet said. ‘And I’ll arrange for two of my people to go to her flat first thing in the morning.’
While she followed Barnes back downstairs, Kay’s thoughts returned to the number of phone calls she would need to make before the night was over.
So much of her role as Senior Investigating Officer was given to organising a large team of people, many of whom held specialist roles and were therefore not based at the Maidstone police station. Even more were now private contractors, the police force giving up in-house expertise to that of outsourced help to save costs.
And then there were the political manoeuvrings that would take place out of necessity – obtaining more officers to join her investigation, even though most of them were already thinly spread throughout West Division and overworked.
Reaching the kitchen, she paused for a moment beside the central worktop, unable to tear her gaze away from the expensive cabinetry and sleek design.
‘Ignore the footprints,’ said Barnes, tearing her away from her thoughts. ‘We’ve already established those belong to Mark and Estelle.’
‘What about Katrina and her attacker? Any footprints belonging to them?’
He shook his head. ‘Penelope Brassick told Kyle when he phoned her that Katrina was due to start here at seven this evening. It didn’t start raining until eight.’
Kay took in the otherwise spotless worktops and polished tiles. ‘And she would’ve cleaned up after herself if she made a mess.’
‘When I interview the Brassicks in the morning, I’ll get a better idea of Katrina’s usual routine if they know it. I’ve already sent them a quick email to request a note of times to set up a video conference call.’
Taking one last look through the back door at the CSIs working their way around the victim’s car, Kay shook her head sadly, then turned to her colleague.
‘Harriet’s right, Ian. Whoever did this to her is evil.’
‘And dangerous, guv.’ His eyes hardened. ‘If this is what they’re capable of and we haven’t seen it before, then they could’ve been doing this a long time.’
‘That’s what I’m afraid of.’
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"This book had action right from the start, gunshots in a pub, people injured and no one knows who or why they happened."