The sleepy village of Little Cote was meant to be a quieter pace of life for ex-Met PC Jemima Cotton. But she soon discovers, here a petty rivalry can erupt into full-blown murder . . .
Police Officer Jemima Cotton expected Little Cote to be a quieter pace of life. But, unlike London, everyone knows everyone, and beyond the cake sales and coffee mornings, tea parties and village fetes, the neighbours aren’t all the best of friends . . .
When Jemima is unpacking her mugs and teabags in her new home on Foxglove Close, she’s called to attend her first murder investigation. She’s excited, until she discovers it’s only a few doors down from her. And she hasn’t even met her new neighbours yet! As she steps out of her house in full uniform, Jemima can feel the eyes on the back of her neck, and she can see the curtains and blinds twitching.
But the crucial question is why did the lonely gentleman at the end of the road get murdered, eating dinner alone at his garden table, tucking into a new bottle of Chablis? As she digs deeper into the murder, Jemima discovers that here in Little Cote, underneath the surface, tensions bubble away . . . and the smallest vendetta can erupt into full blown murder.
Perfect for fans of Faith Martin, Helen Cox, Betty Rowlands, and the Midsomer Murders series by Caroline Graham.
For someone dining alone, he had gone to an awful lot of trouble. A pretty sprigged tablecloth and crisp linen napkin. Silver-plated cutlery, passed down from his late mother. An ice bucket, to chill the lively bottle of Chablis he’d selected from the wine rack. And setting it all off beautifully, a vase of pinks that he had picked himself. But then, as anyone who knew him would testify, Daniel Drake was a stickler for detail.
It had been a beautiful summer, the kind of summer that usually exists only in memory: hot and heady and filled with honeybees and soft breezes. The garden was looking spectacular, even if he did say so himself, the luminously green lawn basted to perfection by his top-of-the-range oscillating sprinkler.
Above his head, scalloped rows of white clouds drifted lazily across an expanse of blue sky, and the air was thick with the scent of honeysuckle. As al fresco evenings go, it was hard to beat.
Even at this hour, the sun was still surprisingly strong, and he was grateful for the crab apple tree that threw a pretty mosaic of light and shade over the cast-iron bistro table. The setting was dream-like, the food delicious. But inside, he was in turmoil.
He cleared his clotted throat and took a sip of wine, hoping it would calm his anxiety. There were palpitations in his chest, a violent arrhythmia, a sense that things were about to spiral out of control. And then, with a sickening sense of certainty, he knew he was about to be punished for what he had done.
Jemima Cotton uttered a low growl of exasperation and groped around until her fingers found the spare pillow. She pulled it over her head, pressing it down over her ears. For a few seconds – possibly even a full half-minute – there was blissful silence. But then, just as she was beginning to contemplate the delicious prospect that she might, just might, be able to have an actual lie-in for once, she heard it again. The call of a wood pigeon, so loud and so insistent that she half expected to open her eyes and find the creature sitting on the end of her bed. She knew this wasn’t the case, for in reality her tormentor was lurking in the leafy hornbeam on the other side of the single-glazed window. Exactly where he sat every morning. Taunting her. Deliberately – or so it seemed to Jemima.
Wasn’t country life supposed to be all about peace and quiet? she asked herself. Wasn’t this one of the principal reasons she had moved to Little Cote from London, kissing goodbye to a career on the up and a satisfying social life in the process? Had she misjudged the situation entirely?
Just then, another noise assaulted her eardrums, a hideous squawking, accompanied by a violent thrashing of wings – the precursor, no doubt, to some sort of avian mating ritual. Knowing she’d never be able to get back to sleep now, she opened her eyes. The clock on the bedside table said 8.32. A perfectly civilised time for the average person to rise, but not when, like Jemima, you’d been gunning a 4×4 down a bumpy track in pursuit of a lawnmower thief till two in the morning.
Tossing off the lightweight duvet, she swung her legs out of bed, yawning as she replayed the previous night’s events in her mind. For several months now, the local villages had been plagued by an unusual and upsetting string of shed burglaries, with power tools and garden machinery the prime target. She may have been the newest member of Sussex Constabulary’s neighbourhood policing team (NPT for short), but Jemima was convinced the offences were the work of one person, and she had a strong suspicion she knew exactly who the antisocial weasel was. But before she could do anything about it, she needed hard evidence – or better still, to catch him in the act.
Yesterday’s late shift had started uneventfully. After dispersing a group of youths drinking in a children’s play park, Jemima had visited a local farmer to inspect CCTV footage of diesel thieves at work on his land. Afterwards, she’d spent the best part of an hour hunting in vain for a deer thought to be grievously wounded at the side of the road. But then, sometime after midnight, an urgent call had come over the radio alerting officers to a shed burglary in progress. Grabbing the keys to the station’s ancient Land Rover Defender, Jemima and fellow PC Harry Mudge had sped to the scene – just in time to see the suspect fleeing on a quad bike.
Back in London, Jemima had been used to dealing with much greater challenges – shootings, hate crimes, horrifying incidents of modern-day slavery. But every crime, no matter how small, deserved to be treated seriously in her book. As she set off in pursuit of the offender, her spine tingled and her mouth filled with the familiar tang of adrenaline.
She was hot on the quad bike’s tail as it took an abrupt left turn, cutting across the village green and heading for the footpath that ran down the side of the church. She licked her lips in anticipation, realising the suspect planned to make his getaway along the South Downs Way – the long-distance trail that connected most of the villages on her beat.
Ignoring Harry’s protests that the Defender’s fifteen-year-old suspension would never be able to cope, Jemima jerked the steering wheel violently to the left, almost taking out a fingerpost in the process, as she followed the quad onto the deeply rutted bridleway.
Her prey practically within touching distance, she was already envisioning celebratory drinks in the pub with her fellow officers. But then, quite unexpectedly, the quad veered off the trail, heading instead for a metal barrier that guarded the entrance to a swathe of arable. Jemima watched in horror as the rider ducked his head, allowing his vehicle to pass smoothly under the barrier, clearing it by a matter of inches. She pulled on the handbrake and leapt from the Defender, thinking she might be able to continue the pursuit on foot. But it was too late – the only thing left of the quad by the time she arrived at the barrier was a cloud of dust.
Having informed the control room of their failure, all the officers could do was return to the station to write up the incident before they went off shift. ‘Never mind,’ said Harry, as he offered Jemima a consolatory humbug from the stash he kept in the pocket of his stab vest. ‘We’ll get him next time.’
She forced a smile, knowing that there probably wouldn’t be a next time. This thief had proved he was smart; he was unlikely to get caught out twice.
It was several months since Jemima had transferred to Sussex, and only now was she beginning to feel like part of the team. When she’d first arrived, her fellow officers had been deeply suspicious. Why, they wanted to know, would someone with many years of inner-city policing under their belt, especially someone who was a hair’s breadth from making sergeant, throw it all away for a job in the back end of beyond?
Jemima told them the same thing she told everyone. That she was tired of being a hamster on a wheel at the Met, endlessly chasing her tail and drowning in the never-ending paperwork. She yearned for a slower pace of life and the chance to focus on the aspects of policing she enjoyed the most – getting out in the community, meeting people, making a difference.
It was, to all intents and purposes, the truth. But what she had neglected to mention (because quite frankly it was nobody else’s business but hers) was the messy relationship break-up that had hastened her decision. She tried not to think about it too much – the hurt, the betrayal, the humiliation – but the pain was always there, sharp needles jabbing uncomfortably at her skin.
Shaking her head free of intrusive thoughts, she rose from the bed and pushed her feet into her slippers. She had a busy day ahead, and now that she had been rudely awoken, she might as well get on with it.
Downstairs, the house lay quiet and still; Nat must have left for work already. Jemima’s Aunt Natalie – Nat to everyone who knew her – had lived in Little Cote forever. For the past three months, Jemima had been occupying the spare room in her aunt’s neat mid-terrace while she looked for a place of her own. Today she was finally moving out, but right now her immediate priority was breakfast.
After setting the kettle to boil, she headed for the front door. The idea of a daily milk delivery was something she found quite novel. Nobody she knew in London had a milkman. What was the point when there was a convenience store on every corner? But here in Little Cote it was different; here people still did things the old-fashioned way.
It was the warmest July on record. Outside, the sun was already shimmering overhead, warm and bright with the promise of another beautiful day. Clad only in the oversized T-shirt that did as a nightdress, Jemima made her way to the end of the pocket-sized front garden. After bending down to pick up the two pints of semi-skimmed that the milkman had placed in the cool of the log store, she took a moment to admire the blowsy begonias that filled her aunt’s flower beds. Then she raised a hand to her forehead, shading her eyes as she gazed out at the soft peaks of the South Downs in the distance. As she did, she felt something tight and clenched unfurling within her, like a fern releasing its fronds and stretching out into the light. Seconds later, this was replaced by another sensation – a tautening of the muscles and a tingling in the scalp that told her she was being watched. Frowning, she turned her back to the Downs and returned to the house.
Back in the kitchen, she doused a bowl of granola in milk, made coffee and carried it all to the table. She was still eating when her mobile phone cheeped, signalling the arrival of a text. Thinking it might be the removal men advising her of their ETA, she stood up to retrieve her phone from the worktop. But it wasn’t the removal company; it was a WhatsApp message from the street’s Neighbourhood Watch group.
Jemima had joined the group soon after moving to Little Cote. She considered it professional research, a way of gaining a valuable insight into the needs and concerns of the villagers. She had provided a fake name, concerned that the presence of a police officer might have an inhibiting effect on the discussions. Or worse than that, trigger a slew of spurious requests and unreasonable demands from members that she would doubtless be expected to deal with in her downtime.
She stared at the words on the screen.
Just spotted no.22’s lodger out and about in the front garden. You should have seen what she was wearing – or rather NOT wearing. I had to cover my husband’s eyes when she bent down to pick up the milk!
Her nostrils flared in outrage. Wearing a mid-thigh-length garment in the privacy of one’s own garden did not constitute indecent exposure. And it was hardly her fault the informant’s husband had been ogling her. Didn’t these people have anything better to do with their time? Apparently not, because just then a response pinged through.
Not very becoming behaviour for a member of HM Constabulary … talk about lowering the tone!
As a four-letter word threatened to erupt from Jemima’s mouth, another member joined the chat.
Yeah, I saw her too, and I’m pretty sure she wasn’t wearing a bra. Somebody ought to report her to the chief inspector. LOL!!
She pushed her bowl of cereal away, her appetite suddenly gone. This wasn’t the first time she’d been the subject of village gossip; the truth was she’d been under surveillance since the day she arrived. Previous WhatsApp exchanges had debated her unsocial working hours, the number of wine bottles she’d placed out for recycling, the male visitor she had ‘entertained’ for several hours one afternoon (a plumber, no more, come to fix a faulty radiator valve).
She knew the neighbours bore her no malice, and they would certainly be horrified to know she was scrutinising every word they wrote. All the same, she wished they didn’t feel the need to air their opinions quite so freely. Her life in London hadn’t been perfect by any means, but at least in the city one could live in relative anonymity. There was precious little chance of that here, where people enjoyed sticking their noses in and rumours were disseminated at lightning speed. It was something Jemima doubted she would ever get used to. But what choice did she have now? She’d just bought a house in the village, and she was stuck in Little Cote for the foreseeable, whether she liked it or not.
Publishing in ebook and audiobook on 17th June 2021.