All text and photos © Louise Marley unless otherwise stated Site Design: Seaweed Hut
She took off her clothes, discarding each item carelessly on the grass until she was completely naked, curling her toes into the mud to stop herself shivering.
“It’s freezing!” she said.
“It’s September,” came the reply. “What do you expect?”
“Just get on with it.”
She picked her way across the lawn towards a large ornamental pool, the middle one of three, and sat on the edge. The decorative brickwork scraped against her skin. She dangled her legs in the dark water and the mirror-like surface was instantly broken.
“In you get.”
For a moment she did not move, her fingers still gripping the curved edge of the pool. Then, as she heard a movement behind her, she hurriedly slid in, gasping as the cold water splashed over her stomach. Her feet hit the bottom and sank into the silt. It took a moment for her to recover her balance.
“Quicker ... ”
She waded into the centre of the pool. It was not easy. She had to push aside the clusters of water lilies and avoid stumbling over their roots, which were packed tightly into little plastic baskets beneath the surface. She glanced over her shoulder to ensure she really had to go through with it; an indifferent thumbs-down gave her the answer.
Slowly she immersed herself in the icy water, bringing her legs up so she could float on her back. She tried not to wince as the sharp edged leaves of the water lilies scratched her skin. There were trails of slimy pondweed caught on her thighs and stomach, and her left foot was stinging. She must have trodden on something sharp, buried beneath the silt.
The garden was now so quiet she could hear the occasional car from the nearby road. She could have been utterly alone, but she knew she was being watched.
She took a few deep breaths, yet her voice was still not steady as she asked, “Is this all right?”
“Perfect,” said the voice from the dark.
Fifteen years previously
Natalie Grove leaned out of her bedroom window and watched a cascade of fireworks light up the night sky. On the windowsill beside her was a half-drunk mug of Baileys, filched from her father’s drinks cabinet. Next to that, a battered Walkman was playing Robbie Williams. Apparently he wanted to entertain her. If only, thought Natalie.
She took another swig from her mug. An ice cube clunked against her teeth so she picked it out, chucked it into the flower bed below and then licked her sticky fingers. By leaning right out of the window she could see the lights from the funfair through the trees. She would have heard the relentless beat of the music too, if she could have been bothered to flip out her earphones.
She knew the entire village had gathered on the quayside to watch the finale of the annual Sailing Regatta. A procession of boats, all beautifully illuminated with thousands of fairy lights, would sail down the river from Norchester to Port Rell. It was supposed to commemorate some great battle. Natalie didn’t know which one and didn’t much care either. A party was going on and she was furious at missing it.
So she waited by her open window, hoping to absorb some of the atmosphere and maybe glimpse a boat or two. When everyone was talking about it at school tomorrow, she wanted to be able to drop in enough detail to make them think she’d been there.
She didn’t want them thinking she was weirder than they did already.
As she hummed along with Robbie, Natalie didn’t realise someone had opened the door beneath her window until she caught a flash of movement. Instinctively she withdrew into the shadows of her room, sending her Walkman crashing onto the floor, which in turn wrenched the headphones from her ears.
She leaned back against her bedroom wall, waiting for the cursing and yelling to start, but instead there was silence, broken only by the sound of her own breath. So she slid her finger along the edge of the curtain and slowly pulled it back.
Although it was well past ten in the evening, there was enough light from the moon to be able to see the garden below and catch a glimpse of the slight figure running along the path.
Where was she going?
As though Natalie had spoken the name aloud, her sister paused with one hand on the garden gate and looked back at the Lodge. Natalie, confident she could not be seen, remained motionless, curious to learn what would happen next. She didn’t have long to wait. A man stepped out of the shadows and Sarah ran towards him, flinging her arms around his neck. He lifted her into his arms, whirling her round before setting her back on her feet.
Natalie frowned. Who the hell was he?
But before Natalie could call out to her sister, Sarah had taken hold of his hand and followed him into the darkness.
When Natalie woke the following morning she was lying on top of her bed and still wearing her clothes from the night before. She’d failed to set her alarm, which meant she was now late for school, but she didn’t care. She took Robbie out of her Walkman, stuck him into her CD player and cranked up the volume. No one yelled at her, to either turn the music down or to hurry up, so she took her own sweet time changing into her school uniform and tying her blonde hair back with the regulation black scrunchy. So far, so normal - until she walked out of her bedroom into the dark narrow passage beyond, and almost tripped over her mother sat hunched up on the floor.
Magda Grove hugged her knees tightly to her chest. Her head was bowed, her beautiful face hidden by the sweep of platinum blonde hair that both her daughters had inherited. As usual she was expensively dressed in a silk dressing gown, with matching pyjamas beneath - but wore only one fluffy white mule.
Natalie averted her gaze. What should she do? Family tradition demanded she carry on as normal, pretending everything was fine.
But this was her mother.
So she dropped to her knees and gently placed her hand on Magda’s shoulder. “Mum? Are you all right?”
Magda’s hand shook as she pushed her hair from her face. “Sarah’s gone,” she said, her large blue eyes strangely blank.
“Gone?” Inside her head, Natalie saw a replay of Sarah running down the garden path, pausing only to look back at the Lodge. “Are you sure?”
“Her bed hasn’t been slept in but her clothes are still there.”
“What about the rest of her things?”
“Which means she’s coming back, right?”
Magda shook her head and began weeping softly.
“She’s coming back,” Natalie repeated firmly, as much for her own benefit as her mother’s. “There’s nowhere else for her to go.”
The door to Sarah’s bedroom was partly open. Natalie tentatively pushed at it with one finger, until the gap was wide enough for her to slip through. She half-expected her mother to call her back, but the door swung closed behind her and she was left in silence.
Sarah’s bedroom was almost identical to her own. A low beamed ceiling; polished bare floorboards that slanted towards the centre of the room; plain, whitewashed walls and a casement window that overlooked the private road to the castle. The bedroom was neat, if slightly spartan, with none of the usual teenage posters on the walls. They lived in a 17th century lodge, which came with their father’s job as head gardener at Hurst Castle, and the sisters had been forbidden to customise. Not that it was the kind of house to ever feel like a home.
Natalie looked around. Sarah’s bed had not been slept in, that much was evident. The duvet was smooth, the sheets were neatly tucked in and there was no indentation in the pillow. In direct contrast was the wardrobe; both doors had swung open and the clothes were either falling out or hanging lopsidedly on their hangers.
Had Sarah done this? Natalie thought it more likely to be Magda - in such a panic over her daughter’s disappearance she hadn’t cared what kind of mess she made.
Without really thinking about why she was doing it, Natalie set about re-hanging the fallen clothes. She’d run enough forays into this wardrobe to know that no clothes were missing, apart from those her sister had worn last night. At the bottom were shoe boxes, with photos stuck on the side to show what each one contained. Sarah truly was Miss Neat Freak. High-heeled boots, strappy sandals in varying shades, sensible work shoes and even a pair of walking boots.
Walking boots? Sarah never walked anywhere!
Natalie tugged the box out of the wardrobe and flipped off the lid.
Obviously there were no boots inside. Instead she found a thick sheaf of paper with a notebook on top. She tucked the notebook into the waistband of her skirt and flicked through the loose paper. Sarah’s ambition was to be a writer, so it was hardly surprising that the wodge of paper turned out to be a story she was working on, immaculately typed in double-lined spacing.
After flipping through the pages, Natalie was about to replace them when she spotted something else, almost hidden beneath a sheet of black card that had been cut the same size as the box. She inserted her thumbnail beneath one corner of the card and carefully peeled it back. The remainder of the box was filled with cash.
“Fuck me!” said Natalie.
The floorboard behind her creaked. She glanced nervously over her shoulder, fearing her father had followed her, but she was still alone.
She looked back at the box. It contained neat little bundles of ten pound notes, each with a paper cuff around it. Were they fake? She took one out and turned it over. Beneath was another identical bundle, and then another. There must be over a thousand pounds here! Where had Sarah got hold of this kind of money? Had she stolen it?
Hearing another warning creak, this time from the passageway outside, Natalie shoved the lid back onto the box and stuffed it into the wardrobe. There was barely enough time for her to close the door and move to the window, as she heard the muffled sound of her father’s voice talking with her mother.
Natalie’s heart was thudding so hard she found it difficult to breathe. In an attempt to appear natural she leaned on the window sill, peering through the diamond-shaped panes to the woodland opposite. The glass was old and flawed, with tiny bubbles and folds, which added to the sinister appearance of the overhanging trees. It was easy to imagine a man standing beneath them, waiting and watching.
Goosebumps began prickling her arms and she shivered. Where the hell was Sarah?
The footsteps on the floorboards behind brought her back to the present but she did not turn round. She knew who was there.
“What are you doing?” asked her father.
Her eyes re-focused and she saw John Grove reflected in each diamond window pane, as though trapped inside the glass. Then the window moved, the spell broke and his reflection disappeared.
“Well?” he said.
She turned to face him, searching for a convenient lie. “Mum said - ”
“Look me in the eye when you speak to me.”
She flinched but did as he asked. Her father did not like to repeat himself. Her gaze travelled up from the floor, taking in her father’s scruffy work clothes, his unshaven jaw, the hawk-like features and finally the silver-grey eyes that were the mirror of her own.
“What have you got in your hand?” he demanded.
Natalie glanced down at her empty palm. “Nothing … ”
Wordlessly, she plucked at the lining of her skirt pockets and turned them inside out. Apart from a tiny ball of silver paper from a KitKat bar, and a few bits of fluff, they were also empty. Yet every time she moved, the sharp edge of her sister’s notebook dug into the soft flesh around her waist. Could he see it? He was certainly watching her closely.
“You’re up to something,” he said.
“I was checking to see if Sarah’s clothes had gone.”
He seemed to relax, or was that only wishful thinking on her part?
“Have they?” he asked.
To lie or not to lie? What would Sarah want her to say?
“I don’t think so. I can’t see anything missing, only the clothes she was wearing last night.”
John Grove turned his attention to the old-fashioned wardrobe. He appeared to be studying it. She had the idea that she ought to leave while she still had the option, and tried to sidle past him, careful to make no sudden movement that might draw his attention. But his fist slamming into the wardrobe door gave her such a fright her legs froze and refused to take her any further.
“It doesn’t make sense!”
She felt the last vestige of courage leaving her. Now would be a good time to run. Run like her sister - and when she reached the garden gate, she wouldn’t stop and look back.
Except she’d left it too late. John’s attention was already settling on her.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he repeated. “Does it make sense to you?”
He was asking her opinion? She shook her head. Did he even expect an answer?
“Where the hell is she? Does she have a boyfriend? Has she run off with him?”
“Sarah has lots of friends,” she said carefully. “Some of them are boys.”
And some were definitely men.
“That wasn’t what I asked!”
She closed her eyes, tensing for the blow that would undoubtedly follow, but it never came.
“Why are you still here?” he wanted to know.
She was unsure what her answer should be. Did he expect her to carry on as though it was a normal day?
Her eyes flicked open. He was no longer looming over her but crouched before the wardrobe, pulling roughly at the boxes of shoes, systematically opening and discarding them. She watched the box containing the cash slide towards the back, unnoticed. How long before he found it? What would he say when he discovered the money? Or did he already know it was there?
What was she missing?
“Get off to school,” he muttered, as the pile of shoe boxes grew on the bare wooden boards behind him. “I’m tired of seeing your sulky face.”
Moving quickly before he changed his mind, she left Sarah’s bedroom and would have walked right past her mother and down the stairs, if Magda had not caught her hand.
“Tell me,” she demanded, her nails digging into Natalie’s palm. “What’s missing?”
Natalie glanced over her shoulder to check they would not be overheard. “I’m not sure. Sarah doesn’t seem to have taken any clothes and - ” she hesitated, wondering whether to tell the truth. “I also found some money … ”
“Money?” Magda appeared to turn paler, if that were possible. She withdrew her hand and clutched at her hair again. “A lot of money?”
“Hundreds, possibly even thousands.”
“Oh my God, she did it!”
Natalie bent so that her face was inches from her mother’s. “What’s happened? Where’s my sister?”
“I don’t know.”
“You know something!”
“No … ” her mother was shaking her head. It was almost as though Magda hoped to convince herself, as much as Natalie. “No … She wouldn’t do that to me. I’m her mother. She wouldn’t betray me like that. Not with him.”
Natalie saw something gleam silver against the dark wood of the floor. Thick strands of white-blonde hair, knotted into a clump. And as she watched, in horrified fascination, her mother clutched again at her beautiful hair, tugging and twisting at it, until more strands came out at the roots.
Natalie backed away, her hand sliding along the banister until it hit the carving at the top of the stairs. She had to leave. She couldn’t deal with this any longer. As she hurried down the stairs and into the gloom of the hall, she thought she would hear her mother’s voice, calling her back. She almost hoped her mother would call her back and reassure her - tell her everything was going to be all right. Even an outright lie would have done. But, as usual, Magda didn’t even notice she’d gone.
She headed for the kitchen. Her rucksack, spilling pens and text books across the stone floor, was where she’d left it the previous night. She ignored it. She had no intention of going to school.
Natalie reached up and slid back the heavy bolts on the kitchen door. Then, turning the old-fashioned key in the lock, she pulled open the door and slipped out into the garden.
Fifteen years ago Natalie found her sister lying dead in a lily pond. Now she’s written a book based on the murder. In every interview she gives she talks about the diary her sister kept, which lists her lovers under code names.
Natalie’s intention is to lure the murderer into the open but, as she’s about to find out, you can’t pick and choose which secrets are revealed - and which ones stay hidden.
Because when the first of her sister’s ex-lovers is killed, it doesn’t take Natalie long to realise she’s not the only one out for revenge.
So who will catch the murderer first? And who will end up being caught?