Thursday, 28 November 2019

Hit and Run by B. A. Spicer

"A gripping, skilfully written tale that will keep you guessing to the end."

"You think you've worked it out and then BOOM another twist!!"

Chapter One

The smell of wet grass filled the air as Alice Candy opened the front door and walked quickly to the garage.  A rich, sharp aroma of new sap.  All very well in April or May, but it was early January and the temperature was three degrees below freezing. The patch of grass at the front of the house bristled white with morning frost.  It could only mean one thing: Something was out of kilter with the world. 
     She hoisted the up-and-over door and listened to it rattle alarmingly.  It would probably fall on her head one of these days.  Inside, her VW had escaped the big freeze, unlike some of her neighbours’ cars that had been left out overnight.  Across the road, Ed Sherry emptied a kettle of hot water onto his windscreen while his wife, Maureen, stood in the doorway in her floral housecoat, arms tightly folded, waiting to refill it.  Maureen waved, calling out something that Alice didn’t catch.  She smiled and waved back anyway.
It was eight thirty.  She had half an hour to get to the station.  Plenty of time.  Gone were the days when she’d started out as a police constable and was forever in a rush.  She’d had a bedsit, an overdraft and a Skoda, not to mention a young daughter to look after.   Now, she lived in a detached two-bedroomed house, had a healthy savings account and a pension.  Jude had grown up and married a man who loved her. Life was good. 
However, it was with a feeling of  fragile tranquility that Alice climbed into the driver’s seat and started the engine, selecting hot on the heating control.  She waited for the car to warm up, watching her dragon breath thin and disappear.  The Skoda’s heating system had been better.
Ed Sherry glanced up philosophically as she drove past.  Maureen put on her most long-suffering, woman-to-woman smile.

The petrol gauge showed a low reading and a red light clicked on as Alice turned in to the police station car park.  There would be enough for a couple more days – the VW ran on fumes. 
Swinging into her space she switched off the engine.  Almost two years in her new placement.  Almost two years since her promotion to Detective Chief Inspector.  And almost two years of pulling into the same slot to see her nameplate attached to the red brick wall at an angle that irritated her on a daily basis.  But Alice had the kind of mind that forgot about such trivia as soon as they were out of sight.  It made her laugh, and sometimes caused unwanted complications.  She could be alive to the subtlest of nuances, the slightest change in her environment, but she’d forget to renew her tax disc or keep a dental appointment.  Jude often came to the rescue.  Jude was more like her father had been. Organised. The name plate caught Alice’s attention once more.  She would definitely mention it when she got in.
It was the second Monday after New Year.  The holiday drunks had already been sent home with a warning.  The station would be quiet. 
But something bubbled away at the back of Alice Candy’s brain, and she knew what that meant only too well.  She took a deep breath and tried to harness the normality she saw around her.  Then, in the rear-view mirror, she saw DS Elsie Granger, young and eager, waiting outside the station.  Alice acknowledged the inevitable truth of the morning’s unease and sighed.  Something had happened.  Something serious. She opened the door and the cold hit her.  She could feel the urgency of her best researcher’s gaze. 
A boy.  The thought came from nowhere. She shrugged on her coat, took her bag, and locked the car.  A teenage boy.  More than instinct.  She was certain.  Her intuition invariably led her in the right direction, but it drained all her energy as surely as a virus.  She would have no rest, little sleep.  Not until she had come to the end of whatever it was that had just begun.  Crossing the car park, the smell of new grass assaulted her senses again. 
Elsie stamped her feet and hugged her arms around her body.  Her smile was tight.
“Bad news?” asked the inspector, as she mounted the three steps.
“There’s been a hit and run.  Happened around seven thirty this morning, in Allarton.” 
It wasn’t exactly what Alice was expecting to hear.  She’d been so sure.  “What do we have?”   
“The victim, an Adam Chandler, is at St. Helen’s in intensive care. We don’t know the extent of his injuries yet, but initial reports suggest it’s not good.  Forensics are in attendance – it happened on a private road leading to the Breton estate, just outside the village.”
Alice nodded.  She knew it well.
Elsie continued. “There’s no sign of the vehicle involved and no witnesses as far as we know.  We received an anonymous tip off at seven forty.”
Alice looked towards the station entrance. “Where’s Will?”
“Get some coffee and join us, will you?”
Once inside the building, the young woman turned left, while Alice said good morning to Constable Gus Winter at Reception and continued straight ahead along the corridor that ultimately led to the holding cells, turning right through double fire doors and taking the stairs two at a time.  Through more doors that slammed shut behind her, she strode into the open plan area on the first floor, taking in the gentle hum of machinery and the aroma of coffee mixed with the more subtle scent of people.  She raised a hand to those officers who looked up from their desks and advanced towards a tall man in his early thirties with pale blond hair cut short and eyes the colour of cornflowers.  He wore an air of expectation.  She nodded for him to go into her office.
“Morning, boss.”
“Morning, Will.  What news?”
Taking off her coat and slinging her bag onto the back of her chair, Alice Candy sat at her desk ready to listen.
Detective Sergeant Will Brady stood before her, strong and already showing the determination and focus that would take him far.  They had worked together for long enough to feel at ease in each other’s company.
He began in a voice accustomed to delivering facts. “The call came in an hour ago. The woman wouldn’t give her name.  Said she’d seen a silver BMW with its boot left open in the hedgerow on the road going past Breton Manor. Very specific about the fact that the car was partly hidden.  Didn’t mention anything about a hit and run.” He shrugged and passed a hand through his hair.  “Anyway, Joe Winston took a car up there.  Found the BMW then heard someone moaning.  Found Chandler about a hundred metres away on the side of the road leading up to the house.” He looked out onto the car park.  “We tried your number but you must have had your phone turned off.”
Alice grabbed her bag and looked inside.  No phone.  She’d left it at home.  It wasn’t the first time.
Lines zagged across Will’s forehead. 
    “Don’t say anything.” 
“I wasn’t going to.”  He took his usual seat next to the window just as Elsie arrived  and handed round coffee. 
Will looked up and smiled briefly before consulting the file on his lap.  “Elsie checked him out – Adam Chandler owns the franchise on the pharmacy in Allarton.  He’s thirty-seven, in the process of divorcing his wife, Malin.  Just your average guy, except that he’s currently shacked up with Malin’s sister, Agneta, and they live on the Winter Gardens estate.”
Winter Gardens was an exclusive address.  Alice raised her eyebrows.  “Any idea where the money comes from? I’m presuming a pharmacist’s salary wouldn’t pay the  mortgage.” 
“Probably his wife.  Apparently Malin Eriksson is a successful artist.  Her latest painting’s supposed to be worth more than a million.  It’s been exhibited all over the place – the UK, Italy, Germany.  Here, take a look.”  He held out a photocopy.  “Oil on canvas.  It’s called Wonderland.”
Alice took the picture. “A million pounds, you say?”
She gazed into the strange, pearlised eyes of a girl with long dark hair who held a finger to her lips.  In the background, just discernible at the entrance to what looked like a maze decorated with various everyday paraphernalia, stood a shadowy figure in a top hat.
     Alice set the picture aside with a small grunt.  “Doesn’t do much for me.”
“I think it’s creepy,” said Elsie.
Alice stared into the middle distance. “What about her sister, Agneta, did you say?”
Will put the photocopy back inside his file. “We don’t have much on her at the moment.  Used to model for one of the lesser fashion houses.  We can follow up if you want more.”
“Maybe. Anything else?” She checked her watch. 
“Just that Adam and Malin have a seventeen-year-old son, Johan and another, Luka, who died over a year ago in a boating accident.”
“Who has custody of Johan?”
“Joint.  The mother has a townhouse in Sturley.”
“Right. We should get over to Breton Manor and see what forensics have.  Can you bring the car round?  Elsie, phone the Eriksson sisters.  We need to interview them both.  Are they aware?”
“Yes Ma’am.  We sent an officer to Adam Chandler’s address.  Agneta said she’d inform her sister personally.”  Elsie rose to go. Alice watched her push her hair behind a child’s sized ear.  She had intelligent eyes and perfect skin.
Alice lifted an eyebrow.
“Do you want to interview Johan?”
A teenage boy.  She hesitated then said, “Not for the moment, thank you Elsie. We’ll give his mother some time to contact him.  I presume he’ll be in school?”
“Yes.  St. David’s.”
“Phone the hospital and check on his father’s condition   Oh, and find out who’s at home at Breton Manor, would you?”
Elsie nodded once and left.
“St. David’s?  That’s a private school, isn’t it?” Alice asked Will.
“Elite, I’d say.  You need money or brains.”
Her expression registered playful surprise. “When did you become so cynical?”
Will shrugged.
Alice picked up her bag and coat and followed him out of the office, down the stairs, and into car park.
“We’ll take your car,” she said. I’m almost out of petrol.”
“Anything you say, boss.”

Breton Manor, the scene of Adam Chandler’s accident, was ten miles from Allarton.  Streets lined with unremarkable houses soon gave way to quiet country lanes and mature trees rising out of fields of winter crops.  The manor house lay at the end of a long driveway in a natural dip, making it barely possible to see from the road.
“Not the main entrance.  It’s the next turning on the left,” said Alice.  “Jude took me on a picnic here last summer. The owner allows the public to use one of the meadows at the back of the house.” 
“Jude’s lived in Allarton a long time, hasn’t she?”
“Longer than me.”
“It must be nice to have her close by.”
“Yes, it is.  Look out! Here’s the turning.”  Alice snapped a little.  Will had driven her home to pick up her phone without a word.  She was irritated with herself for running late.
There was a small sign on the open gate that read Private Property.  Will pulled onto the estate and parked up next to the police van already on the scene.  Two officers in white protective clothing were talking to a man in his fifties wearing an oilskin jacket, corduroy trousers and wellington boots.  Tape fluttered on wire posts, cordoning off a small area of land to the right.  Another constable jogged over to meet them.
“Morning, Ma’am.  Morning, Sergeant.  Forensics have just about finished here.  Where do you want to start?  Chandler’s BMW is outside the gates down the road and fairly well hidden.”
“We’ll speak to Jenny first.  Thanks Joe.”
As the group approached, chief forensics officer Jenny Hendrick looked up and smiled, coming forward to meet them.  A second forensics officer seemed deep in conversation with the man in the oilskin jacket.
“Good morning, Ma’am.  Sergeant.  We’re done here.  Not much to show for it I’m afraid to say. But everything’s documented and photographed.”
“Good morning, Jenny.  Is that Lord Langford talking to Tony?”
“Yes.  He didn’t see anything, unfortunately, and didn’t know a thing about the accident until we called the house.”
Alice glanced in the direction of the rise that hid most of the house from view. “What about the staff?”
“Not as far as we know,” said Joe.  “There’s a gardener, but he’s out sourcing fencing.  Lord Langford says he won’t be back until lunchtime.  The butler has taken one of the cars in to the local garage for a service.  The gamekeeper and the rest of the staff are up at the house.”
Alice considered the fact that so many potential witnesses had seen precisely nothing.  At seven thirty on a freezing January morning she supposed that people would not have been out and about before they had to.
“What did you find, Jenny?”
     “Well, there are tyre prints indicating a stationary vehicle parked fifty metres towards the house.  There’s evidence of speed and braking.”  She raised an arm. “Just before impact the tracks swerve.”
“So the vehicle came from the direction of the house and left through the gate?”
“Yes.  And we have footprints.  The driver stopped and got out, possibly to check on the victim, before going back to the car and driving away.  The car turned right out of the gate.”
Alice reflected for a moment.  “Where was Chandler found?”
“At the side of the road – he must have dragged himself a short distance.”
“Did you get samples?”
“Spot samples.  It was difficult – the ambulance needed to get him away quickly. We sent an officer along to bag his clothes at the hospital.”
Alice nodded. “Was Chandler conscious when you arrived, Joe?”
“Yes. He was making a lot of noise.  Kind of bellowing.  I was over by the other car at the time – the BMW parked in the bushes.  I initially thought it might be an animal in trouble.  Didn’t sound human.  I found him curled up on the edge of the road with his eyes closed.  He wasn’t making a sound by then.  I didn’t move him, but he didn’t respond when I asked him a couple of questions.  I called the ambulance then the station.  Jenny got here just as the paramedics were loading him onto a stretcher.  He seemed to be totally out of it.”
“He had obvious head trauma and two badly broken legs.”  Jenny frowned.  “I’d say there’s a fair chance he might not make it.”  She paused. “I can’t be sure, but it’s possible that he took a second impact.”
“Wait a minute. You mean the driver might have knocked him down and then gone back to finish the job?” Will asked.  He had his notebook open and was sketching the scene.
“It’s one possible interpretation.  I’ll know more when I’ve checked the track measurements.”
The conversation was interrupted by the approach of Lord Langford and Tony, the second forensics officer, who spoke rather too cheerfully, “Chief Inspector, this is Lord Langford”.
“Thank you, Tony. Lord Langford, I’m Detective Chief Inspector Candy and this is Detective Sergeant Brady.”
“Hello.”  He shook hands with each of them before stamping a clod of earth into the mud.  “Hell of a morning.  Never seen anything like it.”  He frowned at the police tape then said, “Call me Miles.  Can’t stand the title.  Never could.  Terrible accident.  Don’t know what on earth happened.  Will the chap pull through, do you know?”
Alice thought him the picture of a landowner from a former time and probably a bit of a bombast. “I’m afraid we don’t know yet.  Would you mind if Sergeant Brady stayed behind to ask you and your staff a few questions?”
“Not at all.  However, as you can see, the house is a good distance away and I can assure you that this part of the drive is only visible from the top floor.  No one up there these days.  No need of the space, sadly.”  He held out his hands to show there was nothing he could do about it even if he’d wanted to.
“Nevertheless, we must be thorough, as I’m sure you’ll understand.”
“Yes.  Yes, of course.  Come with me, Sergeant.  We’ll get some hot coffee and rally the troops.”
Alice gave Will a nod and left him to it. 
“Show me to the BMW, will you, Jenny,” said Alice.  “You can leave the rest to us, thank you Joe.  Good work.  And tell Elsie to phone me, will you?”
“Yes, Ma’am.”
Joe drove past the two women as they turned left out of the gate.  No other vehicle had passed by the estate since Alice had arrived.  Silence, apart from the occasional cry of a bird, made the occurrence of such an incident seem almost surreal.  Just as odd, was the sight of a brand new silver BMW well hidden in a natural arbour fifty metres from the gate.  Entering the shadows, Alice sensed the pressure change as the oppressive undergrowth swallowed her.  She turned to see Jenny standing at the rear of the car. 
“The boot was open when we arrived,” she said.
“Any trace of anything?”
Nothing obvious. I’ve got samples for the lab.  Dusted for fingerprints.”
“So, Chandler parked up, left the keys in the ignition, and walked onto the estate for some reason.  Whatever he had in the boot could have been unloaded either before or after the accident.”
Jenny indicated the ground where it was softer.
“The same footprints as the ones found on the estate?”
“No.  These are definitely men’s shoes – I’d say the other ones could belong to a woman.”
“How sure can you be?”
“They had heels.”
Alice walked around to the open car door and laid a gloved hand on it.  She heard the sound of someone running into the forest, the crushing of leaves and the snapping of branches, and felt the hairs rise on the back of her neck.
After a moment she returned her attention to the area around the BMW.  “It looks as though the ground is well trodden here.”
“Yes.  Some of the tracks go round to the road.  Look, just here.” The area was taped off. “They’re overlaid several times.  Wellington boots and everyday shoes.”
“But the second car was parked off the road?”
“Yes.  Over here.”  Jenny indicated an area close by inside the arbour, fenced off again, with clear tyre tracks in the soft ground.
“Yes.  It looks as though a second car reversed in so as to make the exchange easier.  Nicely planned, I’d say.”
 “Any idea of the make?”
“The tyres are wide.  The impressions deep.  Could be a four by four.  What’s interesting is this.”  Jenny led Alice to where they believed the bonnet of the second car would have been facing.  There were signs of wheel spin where the ground was churned.  And there were tyre marks on the road where it exited the shelter.  “Someone was in a hurry to get away. I’d say the underside of the vehicle would be pretty messy.”
“So, how many sets of tracks do we have?”
“Two off road and one on road.  And the footprints indicate that at least one person moved between the BMW and, let’s say the four by four.  But there are at least two and perhaps three sets moving from the BMW towards the road and a probable third vehicle.”
Alice preferred to deal in certainties.  It must have shown on her face.
“I’ll call you as soon as I’ve got more precise information.”  Jenny grinned.
The phone in Alice’s pocket rang. It was Elsie.
“I’ve found the Eriksson sisters, if you’re finished there.”
“Where are they?”
“Agneta’s at the hospital and Malin’s at home. I told them you would need to speak to them today.”
“How’s Chandler?”
“Still unconscious.  He has an intracranial bleed. It could go either way.  Both legs are crushed and he’s lost a lot of blood.”
“Is there an officer posted?”
“Yes.  We’ll know as soon as Chandler comes round.  If he does.”
Alice remembered Will back at the house with Lord Langford. “Send a car to the estate to pick up Will – you’d better warn him to round things off for the moment.  We’ll see Malin as soon as he gets back.”
“Right.  Understood.”  Elsie hung up and Alice walked back to where Will had left his car, climbed into the driver’s seat and accelerated towards the gate, which hung lopsidedly, its near post stuck in the mud.  Someone had ignored the sign, driven in early that same morning, run Adam Chandler down and left him for dead.
     The scene played out in her head, but it was too soon for a clear picture to emerge.  A new case always threw up a myriad of questions and today’s was no exception.  What was Chandler doing in the middle of nowhere at that time of the morning?  What did he have in the boot of his car?  And who had taken it?  Who would want to run him down?  And what would the attacker do when he or she found out that he was still alive?  If Chandler had been knocked down and then run over, surely the assailant had meant to silence him for good...

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