I came to Alton Coombe under cover of fog, as befitted the clandestine nature of my mission. The trees were blanched and skeletal after a tougher than usual winter, their branches glazed with ice like brittle glass. I got off the train at Kemble around mid-morning and found the station deserted and banked with snow. This was something I had not expected. It looked as if it had not been in use for months. I stood in the empty forecourt, figuring out what I should do. Luckily I had little luggage with me for I always make a habit of travelling light. A taxi service’s toll-free number was conveniently posted on the door of the booking hall, but I, not wishing to herald my arrival, preferred the hour-long wait for the local bus. I came in stealth, in the footsteps of my prey. For I had serious business on my mind. Murder.
The village, when I eventually got there, was all that the guidebooks had led me to expect. Steep, winding streets, studded with antiques shops. Yellow Cotswold stone and dry crumbling walls. Rows of handsome, protected houses dating back several centuries, and, in the centre, the original covered meeting place, once the focus of local commerce but now the Saturday flea market. A pale disc, like a phantom moon, hung low in the sky as the sun burned its way through the vapour, and groups of locals emerged from behind stout doors to get on with the business of the day. There was a pervasive smell of woodsmoke in the air and the distant promise of spring. An enchanting place which I fell for at once. In any other circumstances, I think I would have wanted to stay on.
At this time of year, before the tourist invasion, finding suitable lodgings presented no problem. I took a couple of decent-sized rooms in a winding lane close to the church, explaining to the landlady (as if she would care) that I had some urgent business to attend to. And would not be staying very long, though I couldn’t yet give her a definite departure date. For I had plotted and lain in wait and tediously followed up false trails all these years until my brain was practically numb. Had I known what I was taking on, I might never have got started, but now there could be no turning back. The amount of research I had put in already might have earned me a doctorate in sniffing out the truth. I was proud of how much I had achieved so far, and now was all set for the next stage. God knows, it had taken me long enough. Three years to complete my list. It was time for the fun and games to start. And number one was a certain Miss Jane Fairchild.
I saw her first in the parish church that Sunday when, with my landlady, I attended morning service. All unknowingly, she obligingly pointed her out without my having to ask, which was just as well. In a village this small, a cesspool of gossip, Jane Fairchild was a prominent fixture and, to my mind at least, fair game. She stood self-importantly in front of the altar, making minor adjustments to the flowers, while the organist practised his opening chords and the choirboys giggled in the vestry as they robed. We had come deliberately early. I had explained that I wanted to look at the graveyard because of my interest in tombstones but we also had a good wander around the church. The windows were fairly impressive, though the stained glass nothing very special. Not one of the finer examples of its kind, but then, you could say I’ve been spoiled. I made some suitably enthusiastic noises and my landlady beamed her approval.
Jane Fairchild, however, was no disappointment and I studied her with total fascination. There’s a bossy type of woman, quintessentially British, who manages always to set my teeth on edge. Exuding an innate aura of virtue that smacks every time of crass hypocrisy. As though she possessed her own hotline to heaven and was confident that God was on her side. Well, not any more He wasn’t, as she’d shortly be discovering. My heart started quickening at the prospect and I wondered if I’d have the guts to see it through.
I watched her, spellbound, throughout the service, keen to pick up every little detail. She was tall and spare, in a velvet hat and serviceable brown suit, and boomed her responses loudly from the front pew. Local aristocracy, as I’m sure she would like to pretend, though I knew enough of her former life to know that wasn’t actually the case. A retired headmistress, she’d been raised in Luton with an elder brother, acclaimed as an academic. Throughout her life, no doubt to her chagrin, she had had to live in the shadow of his brilliance. Until here, in Alton Coombe, she had settled on her retirement and finally achieved the lifestyle she’d always desired. Her cottage, close to the duck pond, was quaint and pretty and well kept. She had obviously put a lot of effort into its maintenance. The paintwork was fresh, the thatch in excellent trim. The garden, even in winter, freshly turned over. It was plain Miss Fairchild was something of a perfectionist, which fitted exactly the profile I had drawn.
She took her parochial duties extremely seriously and ran a regular charity stall in the flea market. Proceeds to the Haemophilia Society, which she’d been helping to fund since she’d first put down roots in the village. I checked it all out the following Saturday and boldly loitered in front of her, fingering the bric-à-brac. Lace doilies, Victorian knife-rests, the usual sort of clutter - stuff accumulated over the years that no one could conceivably actually want. Brooches and pill-boxes and garish glass bowls. It was amazing quite how much of it there was. I paused to examine a slightly chipped Toby jug, while listening unashamedly as she gabbled away to the woman on the adjoining stall. Her shoes were sturdy brogues, her stockings thorn-proof lisle. No doubt, tossed into the back of her car would be the requisite Barbour and green wellies. At her feet, half hidden by the tablecloth, shivered her silly little dog. White curly hair freshly laundered, and decked with a blue satin bow. Jane Fairchild had recreated herself as a bit of a country cliché. Village Lady Bountiful and doer of good works, still with that attitude that was holier-than-thou. Fake upper crust and quite insufferable with it. I itched to wipe the smugness from her face.
‘My brother this’ and ‘my brother that’ snobbishly punctuated the ceaseless flow. It was clear the other woman was well used to her and took the condescension in her stride.
‘Anything I can help you with?’ At last I had her attention.
‘Thank you but no,’ I said with an amiable grin, replacing the jug and casually strolling away. Her spectacle frames were tortoiseshell, a few sparse whiskers sprouted from her chin. Around her withered throat she wore a fine gold chain with some sort of number engraved upon a disc. Whether she’d know me again I couldn’t be sure, but even if she did, it would be too late. I experienced an adrenalin surge so powerful I went across the road for an early drink. I had laboured so long and hard to reach this point. Nothing in the world could stop me now.
My most immediate need was a job to tide me over, something to keep body and soul together while I perfected my careful plans. Bar work was usually the simplest thing and, by chance, The Snooty Fox had posted a vacancy. Casual labour, cash in hand. Few questions asked, my luck was certainly in. I started that evening, pulling pints in the public bar, my ears wide open for any fresh snippets of gossip. Not that the lady in question was likely to venture in here. A gin and orange would be her wildest tipple, and even then she would drink it discreetly in the privacy of her home. I knew the type.
They were a friendly bunch in Alton Coombe and I found it very easy to fit in. By constantly smiling and keeping my mouth shut, I was able to draw no attention to myself. I saw very little of my landlady, too, other than at breakfast when she liked to discuss the weather. The place was ideal and suited all my requirements – a hearty breakfast to set me up for the day, plain but comfortable rooms that were clean and warm. And time on my hands just to wander and observe and recall past memories, now long gone. Right on the edge of the Cotswolds, too. The scenery was sensational. A vast improvement on Milton Keynes but that, of course, went without saying. I would have liked to go riding but hadn’t the proper clobber; in any case, I wouldn’t be there long enough to make it worthwhile. Besides, this was no time for splashing out, not with my list still to work through. I had only my meagre earnings to keep me going, in addition to the joint savings we had carefully put aside to provide for a glorious future that never came. So instead I trawled the antiques shops and wandered around the village, enjoying the rawness of country life and patiently biding my time.
I stalked my prey discreetly and soon had a fair idea of her fussy routines. You could practically set your watch by her, her movements were so predictable. It was easy to imagine what she must have been like at school. Thursdays at ten to the hairdresser, to have the greying curls spruced up, with a manicure thrown in once a fortnight. Tuesdays a.m. to help with the Red Cross, in which, I soon discovered, she was a general. Saturdays, the flea market followed by lunch at the vicarage. She was very pally with both the vicar and his wife, who must have been veritable saints. Just the sound of that trumpeting, affected voice jarred me to the core. Plus I never could forgive her for the terrible thing she had done. Part of my reason for being here in the first place.
She regularly walked the dog in the early mornings and again last thing at night before turning in. A woman much set in her ways was our Miss Fairchild, which made her the perfect target for a hit, particularly for a beginner. After all those solitary years of dreary research, the time for action was finally here. All I needed now was to pick the right spot, after which I would be able to move on. I narrowed it at last to the church, where she did the flowers on every third Friday, according to the rota. From ten until twelve, as part of a regular team. Convenient that they left details like that in the porch. But in these country villages folk are still trusting.
The weather was fast improving and the flowers she had brought were impressive. Hothouse blooms, not fresh from the garden, but all the more showy for that. They were heaped around her as she worked on the altarpiece while her dog was tethered whimpering outside. An elderly verger pottered nearby, stacking hassocks and sorting piles of hymnals. While he was still there, there was little I could do, so I simply lurked tourist-like in the shadows of the lady chapel. Eventually, however, he finished and shuffled away. The time had suddenly come for swift action before I lost my nerve. I nodded to him cordially as I passed him in the nave, then stopped beside her to admire her work, at which she was amply proficient.
‘Beautiful flowers,’ I said with unfeigned sincerity.
‘Aren’t they just,’ she replied with her customary satisfied smirk. She scarcely bothered to glance at me as she secured each sturdy stem with green picture wire. She had a mass of mixed foliage arranged in a marble urn into which she was skilfully weaving each separate stalk. Bronze and gold chrysanthemums, spiked with a deep russet red. A veritable cornucopia of winter glory.
‘Are you from around these parts?’ she asked idly as she snipped, hacking away at the stems with lethal-looking secateurs. I told her I was but I doubt she took it in; she certainly showed no sign of remembering my face. The coil of wire lay tantalisingly close. One swift, sharp movement and I would be able to reach it.
Just then the church clock struck noon and I realised, with a sudden chill, how little time there was left. Five minutes, at most, before the lunchtime influx or else I would have to put it on further hold. Which, having finally plucked up my nerve, I wasn’t prepared to do. And she might well know who I was another time. So I took a chance and grabbed for the wire, then looped it over her head and wrenched it tight. She was a big, strong woman but I had the advantage of surprise. As well as being less than half her age. She struggled and tried to scream, and knocked over the flowers, but I garrotted her until I felt her choke. Then took the secateurs which she’d dropped on the floor and swiftly completed the job. I needed the world to know that this was no accident. Simply the visible start of my bloody campaign.
I left the church as discreetly as I’d entered, pausing only to deal with the dog on the way out. Well, Miss Fairchild, it was interesting to make your acquaintance. One down, only seven left to go.
© Carol Smith 2003