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Monday 18 May, 7.30am
When John Tregorran’s border collie shot off along the path ahead of him he assumed she’d seen a rabbit. But as soon as he caught up with the dog he realised something was seriously wrong. Two people were lying on the ground in front of an old cottage, as if in some desperate embrace. She was on her back, her head resting on a bloody doorstep and her feet in a patch of mud. He was on top of her, covering her smaller frame with his corpulent body. Were it not for the dog, barking in front of them, they wouldn’t have been noticed from the path, as a partially open gate blocked the view.
“Hello,” John called. “Are you OK?” An idiotic question, as he soon realised.
He pulled out his phone, dialled 999 with trembling fingers, and asked for the police. Obeying instructions to stay put and not to touch the bodies, he put the dog on a lead and paced around until a police car pulled into the parking space behind the cottage. A man and a woman got out, in plain clothes and dressed for the countryside, and produced their warrant cards.
“Mr Tregorran? I’m DS Simon Rose and this is DC Cara Lane. Thank you for calling us.”
Rose noted down John’s details while Lane strung police tape around the scene and stood guard.
“You found the bodies about seven thirty. Is that right?” Rose’s questioning was gentle yet incisive.
“Yes. I always walk Bonnie along here around that time. She ran ahead, barking, and I followed. I’ve never seen anything like this before. Fair gave me a shock, it did.”
“It must have been very distressing for you. Did you see anyone else around?”
“No. I’m usually one of the first out this way in the morning. Sometimes there are cyclists or runners on the path but I saw no one today. I was here around ten last night and they weren’t there then, or Bonnie would have found them.”
“OK. That’s very helpful. Did you know the couple at the cottage?”
“No – it’s a holiday let. People come and go. I might have seen the woman out running once but I can’t be sure.”
“Did you or Bonnie disturb the bodies at all?”
“I don’t think so. I pulled her back as soon as I saw them. I touched the man’s neck but there was no pulse. He was still warm.”
“Good. I’ll need you to show me where you stood and how you approached them. Don’t worry, DC Lane has covered them up with a sheet. I’m sorry to ask you but we need to eliminate your shoeprints from anyone else’s.”
John showed the detective where he had walked.
“That’s it for now. Thank you very much for your help, Mr Tregorran. Someone will call round and take a formal statement from you later today when it’s more convenient.”
“What do you reckon, then, sarge?” asked Lane. “He collapsed on her and knocked her head on the step? She slipped in the mud while going out for a run – she’s in Lycra and her trainers are dirty – and he collapsed when he found her?”
“Could be either. He looks like heart attack material. Definitely not a runner and his clothes look as though they’ve been slept in. We’ll know more after the PM. Here’s the doctor now.”
Rose took photos of the bodies and their surroundings on his phone before the doctor began his examination.
With death pronounced and the bodies removed to the hospital, Rose and Lane examined the stone-built cottage. It was cosy and characterful although a flat-screen TV and a DVD player contrasted with the old-fashioned decoration and furnishings. A laptop lay open on a coffee table with several empty beer cans beside it. A couple of glasses with the dregs of a greenish liquid in the bottom sat on the kitchen worktop and a blender surrounded by a heap of vegetable peelings suggested the preparation of a healthy smoothie. A faint smell of bleach was discernible over the odour of stale beer and slightly decomposing kale.
“Looks like their name is Conway,” said Lane, rummaging through a pile of papers on the kitchen table. “Jessica and Steven. And here’s the letting agreement. They’re from Birmingham and took the cottage for a fortnight, ending next Saturday.”
“OK. Get in touch with the West Midlands force. Ask them to send a uniform to their address and see if the neighbours know of any next of kin. We may find some relatives’ numbers on their phones when the techies take a look at them.”
“Is it me?” mused Rose, as the two detectives locked up the cottage and prepared to leave. “But something doesn’t feel quite right. If Steven fell on Jessica, surely she would try to get out of the way? It looks like she just lay there.”
Before joining the force he had completed a degree in forensic science and was keen to use his knowledge.
“You could be right, sarge, but the super would never sanction calling out a full CSI team just cos something doesn’t feel quite right.”
“Maybe. But we’ll leave the tape in place and I’ll cover the step with a plastic sheet from the car.”
Rose received a call from the pathologist late that afternoon.
“Those bodies you sent me. Both had died less than three hours before I arrived. She was quite straightforward. A skull fracture from an impact with a flat surface leading to a fatal haematoma. Her skull was unusually thin – it wouldn’t have taken a massive amount of force. She was fit and healthy. He was a puzzle. It looks as though he had a heart attack but his arteries were surprisingly clear and there was no sign of chronic cardiac disease. I’m wondering if he was poisoned with something. I’ll recommend to the coroner that a full Home Office post mortem is carried out and I think you would do well to treat his death as suspicious.”
Rose leapt to his feet.
“Looks like we’ll get that forensic team after all. I’ll brief the DI and she’ll get it organised. In the meantime, I’ll arrange for a PC to stand guard. It’s officially a crime scene now.”
When Rose reported the pathologist’s findings to DI Amy Ford, she called the two detectives and a couple of uniformed constables into her office.
“We have to move fast,” she said. “I want checks on any nearby properties. See if anyone saw or heard anything during the night. There’s only a couple of cottages and a small farm. Check the campsite a few hundred yards from the scene as well. I want dog walkers spoken to this evening and I need someone out there at dawn to talk to anyone normally about at that time. We’ll have a formal briefing at three pm tomorrow but let me know of anything significant in the meantime. I’ll notify the DCI, but I’ll probably be the SIO.”
Tuesday 19 May
By ten o’clock the cottage was bustling with Tyvek-suited technicians. Rose and Lane, similarly garbed, collected documents, the laptop and Steven’s mobile. Jessica’s phone had been found on her body and was already in the hands of IT support. Rose walked around the cottage, trying not to get in the way of the CSIs, looking for anything unusual. One or two things caught his attention and he sought out Derek Fellowes, the crime scene manager.
“Derek – can you ask someone to take a look at this patch on the wall? It doesn’t seem quite as dusty as the rest and there’s no obvious reason for that. And could you get someone to look closely at the blood on the step? We’ll need those glasses and contents for examination as well.”
“I have done this job before, you know,” replied Derek, sourly.
“Yeah. Sorry. I’m getting ahead of myself. I was a scene of crimes officer before I joined as a copper.” He smiled, hoping to mollify his colleague.
While Rose and Lane were busy at the cottage, DI Ford notified the DCI, assembled a full team of detectives and support staff, set up an incident room, and started a murder book. She planned to visit the cottage later on but, for the moment, it was more important to set the wheels of the investigation in motion.
At the 3pm briefing Ford summarised what they knew so far.
“Jessica and Steven Conway. Found this morning by a dog walker on the step of the holiday cottage they rented. She died from a head injury consistent with striking, or falling onto, a flat, hard surface. He seems to have had a fatal heart attack without previous heart disease. A second PM will look for signs of poisoning.
“We expect some initial forensic results by midday tomorrow but tox reports won’t come in for some days,” she continued. “Their phones and Steven’s laptop are being examined by IT and we expect something back tomorrow morning. Door-to-door found nothing and we know from walkers and runners staying at the campsite that the bodies probably weren’t there until the early morning, although they may not have seen them through the gate. This ties in with the estimated times of death.”
“What do we know about them, guv?” asked DC Lane.
“She was a retired PE teacher and he was a former office worker. They came up pretty clean on the PNC, apart from a couple of speeding offences, but Steven was cautioned for being drunk outside a sex club in Smethwick a year ago. He denied going in. West Mids are trying to find next of kin and when they do someone will need to interview them. Anyone fancy a trip to Birmingham? You don’t get to visit the sex club, though.” One or two hands were raised, albeit slowly.
“Right. DS Rose will allocate tasks and we’ll reconvene tomorrow at the same time.”
Wednesday 20 May
Rose and Ford visited the cottage the following morning. Without the bodies and the CSIs present, Rose was able to take in the scene at his leisure. He spent several minutes looking at the bloody doorstep, frowning as he studied the cracks and fissures in the slate slab.
“Something bothering you, Simon?” asked Ford.
“I’ll need to check with the CSIs, guv, but it looks as though the blood is just on the surface. It doesn’t seem to have seeped into the cracks in the stone, which is what I would have expected if the wound had happened here. Also, the blood is mainly on the front edge of the step.”
“The doc said the fracture was from an impact with a flat surface, not an edge. I don’t think it happened here.”
“Well, what do you reckon? An intruder killed her and moved the body then Steven had a heart attack when he found her? Or Steven killed her himself, moved her body and then died?”
“Could be either, though we found no sign of forced entry. She could have been out for a run and fell on a rock or someone hit her with something flat, I suppose. She wouldn’t necessarily have died immediately – the doc said she may have been able to move around a bit before she died. She was wearing a fitness tracker so we can check that out. It’s with IT support.”
Thursday 21 May
There was little to report at Thursday’s briefing, apart from an email from West Midlands police. The couple had no children but both Jessica and Steven had brothers who agreed to come down to Cornwall to identify the bodies. Ford asked DC Lane to meet them from the train and arrange overnight accommodation.
Friday 22 May, 11am
The investigation had stalled for a few days as the team waited for results from the second post mortem, toxicology and IT. When these came through DI Ford called them together and summarised.
“I showed IT’s report on Jessica’s fitness tracker to the pathologist. She had been for an early morning run, taking about half an hour. The record of her heart rate is interesting. Shortly before the run it hit a sudden peak – she must have exerted herself or something alarmed her. Then she went for the run and it remained somewhat elevated once she was back. It increased again to a sharp peak than fell back to a low level and finally petered out. That was when she died.”
“Anything else from IT?”
“Yes. There was some very nasty porn on Steven’s laptop. Extreme BDSM and torture. There was no internet at the cottage but he’d brought downloaded files with him.”
“Nice bloke,” muttered Rose.
“I’ve saved the best bit till last. The tox results and the pathologist’s report are back. We’ve got a cause of death for Steven. He was poisoned.”
An excited murmur ran through the team.
“He was killed by digitalis, from foxgloves. I’ll spare you the chemistry but samples from the second PM contained traces of it. His stomach contents included particles of foxglove leaves and so did one of the smoothie glasses and the blender. So much for a detox diet. Foxgloves can stop your heart and there are plenty of them growing along the path where Jessica ran. One other thing: CSIs found a plastic bag with Jessica’s blood in it, and a towel with traces of blood and bleach, caught in reeds at the edge of a lake beside the path. There were also traces of blood on one of the walls in the kitchen – it had been cleaned with bleach but not well enough.”
“So what do we think happened?” asked DC Lane.
“I’ve an idea,” said DS Rose. “But I’d like to go back to the cottage to check.”
Ford, Rose and Lane returned to the cottage that afternoon. After half an hour wandering round the building and the outside, Rose was ready to offer an explanation.
Five days earlier. Monday 18 May, 6am
Jessica came down for her pre-breakfast run to find beer cans scattered over the coffee table and Steven’s laptop plugged in and switched on. Its owner was slumped in the chair, snoring. Out of curiosity, she refreshed the computer. When images of women being tied up and tortured came into view she nearly threw up. It was clear that Steven, in his drunken state, had forgotten to hide the files and shut down the laptop. She felt as though she’d been hit in the face and her breathing almost stopped for a minute. This holiday was supposed to be a last chance to save their marriage. They would eat healthily, take exercise and try to enjoy themselves together. But Steven was still drinking and was clearly more interested in the filth on his laptop than in her.
Shutting the lid of the machine, she left the cottage and pounded along the footpath, hoping that the exercise would alleviate her despair. But it didn’t and she realised it was never going to work between them. How it had got this bad she couldn’t explain. Steven had been attractive, considerate and healthy when they first married. Now he was a drunken slob with vile habits and looked as if he was heading for a heart attack any moment.
At the very second she thought of a heart attack, she passed a clump of foxgloves beside the path. Barely noticing them she continued with her run but by the time she reached them on her return an idea had insinuated itself into her mind. Suppose Steven did have a heart attack. Her life would be her own again and the world would be better off without him. The idea was preposterous. She wasn’t the murdering kind. How would she get away with it? But she knew that foxgloves could stop the heart and Steven’s weight and lifestyle would divert suspicion.
Returning to the cottage with a large handful of foxglove leaves in her pocket she prepared two separate smoothies based on carrot, kale and wheatgerm. In Steven’s she put the foxglove leaves, adding sugar to disguise the bitter taste. When he finally woke up, she pressed the concoction on him.
“Here. Drink this. It’ll shift your hangover.”
“But I want bacon and eggs. You know I can’t stand this vegan nonsense.”
“You promised you would eat healthily on this holiday. This is much better for you. You won’t want bacon after you’ve had this.”
“OK. But I’m going to the pub for a pasty at lunchtime.” He gulped down the smoothie with obvious distaste.
In your dreams, she thought.
Once Steven had swallowed the mixture, she could contain herself no more.
“You’re at it again, aren’t you?”
“What?” He looked guilty, but with a hint of defiance.
“The porn. I found it. You were too drunk to switch off your laptop. You said you’d stop after they threw you out of that sex club. You’ve blown it. It’s over.”
Rage erupted through the fog of Steven’s hangover and he stumbled to his feet.
“You nosy cow. I’ll watch what I want. And I’ll do it to you if I feel like it. I’ll tell you when it’s over. You don’t get to decide.”
Jessica stepped back as Steven lurched towards her, his hands outstretched. The heel of her trainer caught on an uneven flagstone and she toppled backwards, her head hitting the stone wall with a sickening crack. Her eyes went blank as she slid down the wall, leaving a trail of blood on the stone. She lost consciousness immediately, unaware that life would drain out of her in the next few minutes.
Steven stood rooted to the spot for what seemed like an age, his mind in turmoil. Eventually it dawned on him that he could make it look as though Jessica had fallen when going out for her run. He put a plastic bag around her head to contain the blood and half carried, half dragged her body into the garden, arranging it with her head lying on the doorstep and smearing the slate with her, now coagulating, blood. He rubbed some mud on her trainers to make it look like she had skidded.
His heart beginning to race, he rushed back into the cottage and used a towel soaked in bleach to clean the blood off the wall. Satisfied that there were no visible traces, he went back into the garden and crossed the path to the lake. By now he was beginning to feel ill. His heart seemed to be bursting and everything had taken on a yellowish tinge. He managed to throw the towel and the plastic bag into the lake but as he staggered back towards the cottage door his heart stopped and he collapsed on top of Jessica.
Friday 22 May, 2pm
After his final look around the cottage, Rose shared his thoughts. “It looks like a double murder or at least murder and manslaughter.”
“How do you work that out?” asked a puzzled Lane. DI Ford smiled indulgently, realising that Rose was on to something.
“OK. I think Jessica must have found the muck on Steven’s laptop – that’s why her heart rate shot up first thing. I think she then went out for her run and, at some point, thought of poisoning him with foxgloves. She picked them from beside the path and I bet we’ll find traces on her clothing. She put the leaves in his smoothie and persuaded him to drink it. Then she confronted him – her heart rate went up again – and he killed her. Either he deliberately smashed her head on the wall or she tripped on a raised flagstone as she retreated from him – there’s one close to where she fell. Her left-hand trainer had a small amount of damage, consistent with this scenario.
“Steven realised Jessica was dead and covered her head with the plastic bag to carry her outside, then removed the bag and arranged her on the doorstep. By now her blood was too thick to soak into the cracks in the stone but he smeared it along the edge, not realising that the wound wouldn’t look like the result of impact with the sharp surface. He tried to clean the blood off the wall with bleach and a towel. At this point he would have been feeling ill, as his gut began to absorb the poison. He threw the bag and towel into the lake and collapsed on top of Jessica as he staggered back to the cottage. Bonnie found them soon after. No one else seems to have been involved.”
“A proper little Poirot, aren’t you?” said Ford approvingly. “It certainly makes sense. It’s a pity we can’t prove it. It’s a good enough explanation to put in the report to the coroner, though. Case closed, I think.”
Read more about author Brian Price here.
Joining the CRA is FREE. There are no lengthy forms to fill out and we need nothing but your email. You will receive a regular newsletter but no spam.