One to Watch
Eva Shepparton cried out once, her voice swallowed by the music and loud voices that emanated from the white marquee at the top half of the garden, and flung out her hands to keep her balance.
She steadied herself, cursed the damp grass from the morning’s rain shower and stood with her hands on her hips, breathing hard while she glared back up the slope towards the party.
In hindsight, she should’ve asked where the toilet was – or water closet, as Sophie’s mother would have insisted – except she couldn’t bring herself to approach the officious woman, or her husband.
Sophie was nowhere to be found – Eva hadn’t seen her since the speeches, so instead, she’d decided that the thicket of rhododendron bushes would have to do instead.
She sighed. If it weren’t for the fact that Sophie was such a good friend, she’d never have agreed to be here in the first place.
The sweet scent of freshly mown grass filled the air around her, whilst smoke from the flaming braziers set around the edges of the garden wafted over her head. She’d seen the gardeners when they had turned up that morning, followed half an hour later by the florist. Between them, they’d pruned and plucked the garden to within an inch of its life.
They’d finished moments before the marquee hire company truck had arrived. Now, the large white tent took up most of the lawn space, its timber flooring echoing the footsteps of a crowd of enthusiastic dancers.
Eva’s ears still rang from the noise of the disco. The roof of the marquee swam with multi-coloured lights from a gantry set up above the DJ’s booth, and she could hear him now, encouraging the older members of the group to get up and dance to a Seventies disco hit.
She held up her hand and squinted at her watch face, tilting it until the faint light from the braziers shone on the dials.
She snorted. No wonder everyone was drunk.
‘For a bunch of devout Christians, you sure do know how to knock back the drink,’ she slurred, then hiccupped.
She covered her mouth and giggled.
Sophie had told her that the pastor of the small private church group she and her parents belonged to had suggested the ceremony be held at the church after hours; however, Sophie’s mother had poured scorn on that idea.
She’d cast her eyes over the other parishioners before murmuring, ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea, Duncan. I think I’d rather keep this private. It’s more in keeping with my family’s position in society, don’t you think?’
The religious man had shuffled in his chair, blushed, and conceded the point.
The next logical step had been for Sophie’s mother to offer the use of her own home.
Eva’s top lip curled.
When Sophie had told her, she’d hidden her immediate reaction from her best friend, but couldn’t contain her disgust when she’d returned home, venting her frustration at her mother instead.
‘It’s like she’s always having to prove herself,’ she’d grumbled. ‘I know she probably means well for Sophie, but since the engagement announcement, she’s got worse. All because she’s some distant cousin thirteen times removed from the Royal family or something.’
Now, Eva gazed up at the house, its imposing outline towering over the marquee below.
Sophie had told her the original house had been built in the Regency era, with subsequent owners adding and extending its footprint over the years.
Eva shook her head, and wondered why on earth a family with one child would want such a huge property, before she giggled again, then hiccupped.
Of course, Sophie’s mother loved the prestige that came with it, and the title.
‘Have the ceremony at the house,’ Eva muttered, mimicking Diane’s voice. ‘Matthew and I can organise a party afterwards. It’ll be fun.’
She sighed. The ceremony had been okay, she supposed, but fun?
Diane had spent most of the time holding a handkerchief to her face, dabbing at her eyes.
Sophie, of course, looked gorgeous. Her mother had arranged for a hairdresser and make-up artist to attend to her daughter’s every need, although Eva strongly suspected it was more to do with Diane wanting to keep up appearances than for Sophie’s benefit.
Eva had made her way down the hallway to the spare room she’d been allocated for the weekend and had spent the time before the party changing into the dress she’d bought especially for the event and doing the best she could with her thick wavy hair, which had taken on a life of its own over the summer.
When she had returned downstairs, the other party guests were starting to arrive, spilling across the hallway, through the substantial living area and out through French doors to the patio beyond.
Caterers had appeared in Eva’s absence, and she’d wandered along the tables of food with Sophie, picking at canapés and clutching a glass of champagne while making small talk with the other guests.
Josh Hamilton had turned up with his parents an hour later.
Eva had to admit, he wasn’t bad looking at the best of times and tonight, he shone.
Josh charmed complete strangers with the ease of someone used to being the centre of attention, shaking hands with the men and making small talk with the women, working the small crowd while his father, Blake, grinned as he draped his arm around his wife’s shoulders, their American accents cutting through the gathering of well-wishers.
Eva bit her lip.
She had no idea what would happen tomorrow, once Sophie’s secret was revealed.
Because it would have to be, wouldn’t it?
Of course, by then it would be too late. Everything Sophie had set in motion would culminate in the events of this evening.
She wished, in hindsight, Sophie had never told her.
It would have been easier that way.
The music paused for a brief moment, and the sound of the stream at the bottom of the hill reached her ears. The urge to pee dragged Eva from her thoughts, and she tottered towards the rhododendron bushes at the bottom of the slope.
Her foot slid out from under her again, and she swore under her breath. Checking over her shoulder, she could still see the tops of some of the guests’ heads, the ones who had ventured away from the marquee to smoke cigarettes, and there was no way she was peeing within sight of someone.
The ground began to level out, and Eva spotted a large rhododendron to her right.
She hiccupped, then groaned as she stepped into a large puddle left by the morning’s rainfall.
‘I’m having one more glass of champagne, then I’m calling it a night,’ she muttered as she squatted behind the shrub.
She sighed with relief, and then straightened and tried to wipe as much of the muddy water off her sandals as she could, swearing as she recalled she hadn’t even paid her credit card bill yet, and here she was with damaged shoes that she’d only purchased a week ago.
Eva sighed, and resolving to leave as soon as possible, she turned to make her way back up the slope, and stopped.
At first, she couldn’t work out what she was seeing.
A form lay stretched out behind one of the other rhododendron bushes several paces away from her position. Only the legs were visible, white and unmoving.
She swallowed, and moved closer, squinting in the poor light.
It looked like a person, and as she wobbled her way towards it, she recognised the skirt of the dress.
‘Sophie? That you? You pass out or something?’
Concerned, she quickened her pace.
She’d done a first aid course at school, and knew that if someone had passed out, you were meant to check their airway and then put them in the recovery position. If Sophie had passed out drunk, then she needed help.
As she rounded the corner of the shrub, she gasped.
Her best friend lay motionless, a dark splattered pattern now strewn across her new dress, her body twisted at an impossible angle where she’d fallen, one leg tangled behind the other and her face turned away from where Eva stood.
She moved around her friend, fighting down the urge to panic. If her friend needed first aid, she had to keep calm.
As she stepped over Sophie’s feet to crouch down next to her, she stopped.
Sophie’s eyes were wide open in terror, a thick trickle of the same dark splatter covering her cheek, a gaping recess where her nose had splintered into her face.
Detective Sergeant Kay Hunter swung her car through the gated entrance and kept a steady distance behind Detective Inspector Devon Sharp’s vehicle.
She wasn’t on call that evening, but within minutes of her mobile phone ringing and taking down the address from Sharp, she’d hastily dressed and hurried out to her car.
‘I’m going to need your help with this one,’ he’d said. ‘Uniform have three cars on site, but there are a lot of people to deal with.’
She’d driven north out of town for at least fifteen minutes before turning into a narrow lane. Sharp’s vehicle had been parked over to the left in a lay-by and she’d slowed as she approached to let him pull out and take the lead. Five minutes later, they’d arrived at the property.
She knew the area – a golf course swept beyond the trees that lined the opposite side of the lane, and most of the houses were centuries old, passed down through families that suffered the expense of the upkeep rather than experience the humiliation of their family homes being sold to developers by a common property agent.
As the narrow driveway curved and widened out, she realised what Sharp had meant by the number of people.
Cars littered the gravel apron in front of the large house, while groups of men and women in formal wear milled about the space.
Kay braked next to Sharp’s vehicle and grabbed her bag, then joined him next to his car and ran her eyes over the gathered partygoers.
Most wore expressions of disbelief. A distraught woman sobbed while the man accompanying her guided her to a wooden garden seat before kneeling beside her and talking to her in low tones.
Kay rubbed at her right eye, unable to conceal the sigh that escaped her lips. ‘They’re all drunk, aren’t they?’
‘Most of them, I would expect,’ said Sharp. ‘If they weren’t to start off with, then they will be now, given the circumstances.’
Kay groaned. Trying to collate witness statements within the first few hours of a murder investigation was imperative, before people’s memories became hazy or influenced by talking to others and comparing what they’d seen. Add alcohol to the mix, and it made an already difficult job near impossible.
‘Who’s in charge of the guest list?’
‘Gavin Piper’s working with uniform – he’s here, somewhere,’ Sharp added, casting his eyes over the people gathered around. ‘Get your bearings – I’ll meet you out the back on the terrace in ten minutes, and then we’ll speak to the victim’s parents.’
Kay wandered through the house, her eyes sweeping over the uniformed officers that had spread out amongst the rooms interviewing one guest at a time, their faces patient as they tried to coax coherent information from the intoxicated partygoers.
The statements would be analysed in the morning by the assembled team, and then the hard work of filling in the gaps would begin.
She passed by the living area, and found a side door that had been left open that led out to a paved terrace, abutted by a large white marquee.
At the outer edges of the terrace, braziers smouldered while a small team of uniformed officers guarded each one, their stance enough to put off anyone thinking of approaching the iron frames.
At first, Kay wondered what they were doing, the question quickly dying on her lips as she realised the fires had been smothered by the quick-thinking first responders, in order to preserve the remains of any murder weapon that might have been thrust into the flames.
She hoped for the sake of the uniformed guards that the tablecloths from the marquee had been used rather than water, otherwise they’d never hear the end of it from the crime scene investigators.
She lifted her gaze to the disco lights that pulsed against the plain backdrop, the speakers silent.
Kay moved across to the marquee and peered through the drawn-back flaps into the abandoned space.
Here and there, a chair had been upturned, the occupants no doubt leaving their tables in a hurry once the alarm had been raised.
She turned towards the DJ’s booth as a man straightened from a crouching position, a fistful of cables protruding from his fingers.
He visibly jumped, then recovered.
‘Sorry, didn’t see you there,’ he said.
Kay held up her warrant card. ‘Detective Sergeant Kay Hunter.’
He offered his free hand. ‘Tom Williams. I’ve already given my statement to one of your colleagues.’
‘Good, thanks.’ Kay’s gaze travelled over the equipment laid out as he unplugged a cable from the back of one of the speakers, the PA system dying with a soft pop. ‘How long were you here for, before the party started?’
‘Got here about four o’clock,’ said Williams. ‘Lady Griffith wanted my van out of sight well before any of the guests started to arrive.’
‘So where did you go until the disco started?’
‘Same as I always do at gigs like this. Sat in the van, listened to the radio. Read the paper.’ He shrugged. ‘It’s not very glamorous, is it?’ He sniffed. ‘As it is, it’s going to take me all day tomorrow to try and get the smell of smoke out of the equipment from those bloody braziers out there.’
He picked up another cable and began to coil it around his hands before dropping it into a black box next to Kay’s feet.
‘Notice anyone hanging around or acting suspicious today?’
Williams shook his head. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Like I told the policeman that took my statement, I didn’t spot anything weird while I was setting up. I fell asleep in the van for a couple of hours before my phone alarm went off. Sorry.’
Kay handed him one of her cards, and deciding she wasn’t going to learn any more, left the DJ to his packing up and walked back out to the terrace.
She noticed Sharp at the far end, talking to an older couple and a young man, their voices wafting on the breeze towards her.
She recognised the twang of an American accent and, intrigued, made her way across the terrace to them.
The elder man stood a couple of inches shorter than Sharp, but with his legs planted squarely in front of the detective inspector, his eyes earnest as he spoke in hushed tones. His hands remained clasped in front of him, as if he wouldn’t waste his time with pointless gestures.
A younger version of him stood at his side, eyes downcast, a picture of misery.
Kay’s eyes travelled over the wife with interest – it appeared the woman had been under the knife at least once, and her features bore little natural expression. Immaculate in appearance, she kept a protective arm around her son, and lifted her chin as she noticed Kay.
Sharp glanced over as she approached. ‘Ah, Hunter – good timing,’ he said. He gestured to the couple. ‘This is Blake and Courtney Hamilton, and this is their son, Josh.’ Sharp’s tone softened. ‘Josh was to be engaged to our young victim, Sophie.’
Kay shook hands with the parents, offering her condolences before she turned her attention to Josh.
‘Hello, Josh. I’m DS Hunter.’
Red-rimmed eyes met her gaze, pure anguish emanating from the man before he spoke.
‘You need to find who did this,’ he said, his voice breaking.
Sharp stepped forward. ‘We’ll do everything in our power,’ he said before turning back to the parents. ‘We have your statements, so please – take Josh home, and we’ll be in touch again tomorrow.’
‘Thank you,’ said Blake. He rested his hand on his son’s arm. ‘Come on, Josh.’
Kay watched as the small family moved away, their figures retreating to the shadows as they followed the garden path around the house and out to the assembled vehicles in the driveway.
‘Poor kid must be heartbroken,’ said Kay. She glanced over her shoulder at the desolate marquee. ‘Some engagement party. They must be doing all right for themselves.’
Sharp cleared his throat. ‘It wasn’t simply an engagement party. Apparently the Hamiltons and the Whittakers – Lady Griffith and her husband – belong to a small religious group that encourage the teenage girls to take “purity pledges” until they marry. They held the ceremony here earlier today, and then had the engagement party afterwards.’
‘They what?’ Kay realised her jaw had dropped open, and clamped it shut. ‘What’s a “purity pledge”?’
Sharp’s lips thinned. ‘I hadn’t heard of it, either. Seems to be an American trend that found its way over here a few years ago.’
‘Oh.’ Kay blinked, and gestured at the lavish surroundings. ‘So, all of this was for a vow of chastity, huh?’
Sharp shoved his hands in his pockets and nodded towards the rear of the marquee where a team of crime scene investigators led by Harriet Baker was setting up a swathe of floodlights.
‘The ambulance crew confirmed the death when they arrived here with uniform,’ he said. ‘The victim, Sophie Whittaker, was found at the bottom of a slope just beyond those rhododendron bushes. Harriet reports the girl’s been hit with a blunt object with enough force to crack her skull wide open.’
‘So, we’re looking for blood spatter on guests?’
Sharp nodded. ‘As well as the caterers, the wait staff, the bartenders—’ He broke off and ran a hand over his head.
‘Where are the parents?’
‘In one of the guest bedrooms with an officer in attendance – Debbie West. Two of Harriet’s team are processing their own bedroom before they can be granted access.’ Sharp checked his watch. ‘In fact, let’s go talk to them now, and then you and I can come back down here and discuss strategy.’
‘Sounds like a plan.’
Kay followed him through the house and along a wide corridor with four windows that gave the residents a sweeping view over their driveway, then up a flight of carpeted stairs.
A woman met them at the top of the stairs, her grey hair tied back into a severe bun and her hands clasped in front of her.
‘Can I help you?’
‘Detective Inspector Devon Sharp. I’m here to speak with Mr and Mrs Whittaker. You are?’
‘Grace Jamieson. I’m Lady Griffith’s housekeeper.’
Kay peered around Sharp’s shoulder as a door was wrenched open, and Debbie West stepped out of a room, looking harassed.
‘Sir, great timing,’ she breathed. ‘Mr and Mrs Whittaker are getting a bit—’
‘Thanks, Debbie.’ Sharp brushed past Mrs Jamieson and led the way into the guest bedroom.
The housekeeper began to follow, before the young police officer held up her hand. ‘You’ll need to wait here with me, Mrs Jamieson.’
Kay followed Sharp, gave Debbie a quick nod, and steeled herself.
Dealing with the family of a murder victim was never easy, let alone when that victim was only sixteen years old.
The mother, Diane Whittaker, Sharp had informed her on the way from the terrace, was known as “Lady Diane Griffith”, and was somehow, through a myriad of cousins, reportedly related to the Royal family.
She sat, bolt upright, on a pale green velvet ottoman, her dark hair held back from her face with what Kay realised were real tortoiseshell hair ornaments. She wore a navy-coloured dress that bared her shoulders, although she adjusted a wrap over her collarbone before raising pale blue eyes to Sharp as he stood before her and her husband.
‘Mr Whittaker, Lady Griffith, I’d like to introduce you to DS Kay Hunter, who will be co-managing this investigation with me.’
Kay took the woman’s hand, fought down a sudden panicked thought as to whether she should curtsey, discarded it almost immediately and returned the firm handshake.
She turned to Matthew Whittaker.
As he was taller than her by at least four inches, she had to lift her chin to make eye contact.
Dark brown irises peered out from under bushy eyebrows and the faint whiff of alcohol reached her as he introduced himself.
‘Inspector, I hope you’re not going to keep us from our own bedroom much longer,’ he said. ‘My wife is obviously upset, and it’s quite outrageous that we have to be kept in here.’
‘I’m sorry, Mr Whittaker,’ said Sharp. ‘We’re working as fast as we can.’
Kay noticed that he made no mention of the Whittakers’ bedroom being methodically searched by two of Harriet’s team at the present time.
‘Well instead of standing around here, you should at least go and speak to that despicable boy that was always hanging around here,’ said Diane, her voice full of venom.
Kay spun round to face her, surprised. ‘Josh Hamilton? I thought Sophie was going to get engaged to him?’
Diane rolled her eyes. ‘Not Josh, for goodness’ sake. The other boy that was always turning up and making a nuisance of himself.’ She clicked her fingers while her eyes roamed the ceiling. ‘Peter… Peter—’
‘Peter Evans,’ said Matthew. He turned his attention to Sharp. ‘She’s right. You should talk to Peter Evans. He hated the idea of Sophie marrying Josh one day.’ His face darkened. ‘Last time he turned up here, I had to threaten him with calling the police. The lad’s a bloody nuisance. Like a lovesick puppy.’
Kay pulled out her notebook. ‘What’s his address? Do you know?’
Matthew rattled off the flat number and street name with the anger and precision of a machine gun.
Kay glanced at Sharp.
‘Go,’ he said. ‘And get uniform to go with you in one of their cars. Hurry.’
Kay spun on her heel and raced from the room.
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