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Something had woken her. Melissa felt sure of that. She sat up wearily, and checked the bedside alarm. The eerie green display said 3.59am.
She listened for a moment, and then sunk back onto the pillows. It would be because Mike was away. She often found in difficult to sleep when he was out of town.
There was a scraping noise from the room below. She sat bolt upright, fists clenching the duvet to her chest.
She cursed herself for forgetting to set the alarm before she’d come up to bed. That was Mike’s job. He’d told her over and over again how important it was that she didn’t forget when he wasn’t there to do it.
There it was again. Someone was moving the furniture. Now there was the sound of a sash window in the lounge being opened. Unthinking, she went to the bedroom window, pushed back the curtain, and pulled on the sash. As the window rose she craned her head and shoulders out.
In the soft orange glow of the sodium street lamp she saw immediately beneath her a bundle of some kind tied with strips of wide black tape. Beside it, half in shadow, someone was leaning back across the window sill, reaching into the room. A man, she felt sure of it. She wanted to shout for help but fear had closed her throat like a vice. He backed out of the shadow of the house and straightened up. In his right hand he clutched the figurine that had always stood on the inside window ledge. The Mother and Child Lladro that her daughter had bought her when she was married. Anger flooded Melissa’s veins like a dam bursting.
‘You bastard!’ she screamed. ‘You fucking bastard! Put that back!’
Startled, the man looked up her, and then bent to pick up the bundle at his feet. Frantic, Melissa grabbed the first thing that she could lay her hand on. A heavy glass bottle on the dressing table. As the burglar straightened up she hurled the bottle with all her might.
The man screamed, stumbled, dropped the bundle and put his hand to his head. Emboldened, Melissa grabbed another bottle, and another, raining them down on him, each accompanied by fierce invective. Leaving the bundle behind, the man staggered down the drive and onto the pavement where he broke into a hesitant jog that quickly became a sprint. To Melissa’s dismay, his right hand still firmly grasped the figurine.
As the adrenalin leached from her body, she sank to her knees, and began to weep.
Her screams had woken her neighbours. The first to appear was Barry from next door. In his dressing gown and slippers, he clutched what looked suspiciously like a truncheon. He was joined by Geoff, from over the road, armed with a carving knife. Then Jack O’Riordan, the Neighbourhood Watch Co-ordinator from Number 17, arrived holding a heavy duty torch.
‘Melissa!’ Barry shouted. ‘It’s all right, it’s me, Barry. Come on down and open the door. Geoff and Jack are here. Let us in.’
‘Where’s Mike?’ asked Geoff.
‘Off on another of those jollies his firm calls training days,’ Barry told him.
‘Who’s the key holder?’ said Jack. ‘She’s obviously too frightened to come down. Anyway, she might be hurt. We can’t just hang around out here till the police arrive.’
‘I am,’ said Barry. ‘Bugger, I didn’t think to bring the key.’
‘Well go and get it,’ said Jack. There’s no telling what state she’s in. And take that bloody truncheon with you, and Geoff’s knife. If the police see you two with those you’re as likely to get arrested as the burglar.’
Melissa was in a terrible state. In shock, she shook from head to toe. While Geoff and Jack searched the house meticulously, she sat in the lounge wrapped in the duvet. Barry stayed with her while his wife brewed a pot of tea.
On the floor in front of them was the rug the thief had used to wrap up the items he had selected, all of which he’d left behind: an Alexa, a Kindle, an iPad, the iPhone that had been on charge in the kitchen, the Christmas presents for each other that Melissa and Mike had placed beneath the tree, and a full bottle of whisky from the drinks cabinet. Melissa would happily have surrendered them all in exchange for the Mother and Daughter figurine he had taken.
By the time the police arrived, a half an hour later, she was beginning to recover.
‘What took them so long?’ Geoff whispered.
‘They’ll have been giving the bastard time to get clear so they wouldn’t run the risk of coming up against a knife or a gun,’ Barry replied, with the assurance of someone who knew about these things.
The constable who had taken her statement closed his pocketbook with a sense of finality that seemed anything but promising, and stood up.
‘Hell of a risk you took there,’ he said to Melissa.
Throwing that bottle at him willy-nilly. If you’d killed him you realise you would have been facing a charge of manslaughter?’
‘That’s a bit harsh,’ Geoff protested. ‘She was only protecting her own home, and her property.’
‘True,’ he said. ‘But not herself. He was leaving; he had his back to her. It was hardly self-defence. No, she’d have been in real trouble and no mistake.’ He saw the gleam in Barry’s eyes. ‘Don’t blame us,’ he said, holding up both hands like the innocent he was. ‘We don’t make up the rules. It’s the CPS you want to complain to. Do us a favour if you did.’
When the police had gone they all agreed – though not in front of Melissa – that there seemed little likelihood that they would catch the thief or retrieve the precious Lladro. A forensic officer would call in the morning but if the burglar had been wearing gloves, and someone else’s trainers, well – Geoff confided – they weren’t going to go to the expense of full DNA analysis for the sake of a bit of china.
While the others were still there Melissa rang her husband. She’d been expecting him to shout at her for forgetting the alarm, and for not pressing the panic button at the side of the bed, but he must have sensed her distress. He told her not to worry, and that he would leave straight away. Barry stayed with her until Mike returned, which he did an hour later.
It was 8 o’clock in the morning when the doorbell went. Neither of them had been to bed.
‘That’ll be forensics,’ said Mike getting up from the kitchen table.
A man and a woman both dressed in plainclothes stood on the doorstep. He was stocky, the build of a rugby league forward. In his left hand he held a brown carrier bag. She was shorter, pretty, with auburn hair cut in a bob, and dark brown eyes that watched him intently. The man held up his identity card.
‘Detective Inspector Holmes,’ he said. ‘This is DS Stuart. Can we come in?’
Mike ushered them.
‘Are you Forensics?’
‘No,’ Holmes replied curtly. ‘Major Incidents. Is Mrs Wilsher in?’
‘Through here,’ he told them.
Melissa rose as they entered the room.
‘This is Detective Inspector Holmes and Detective Sergeant Stuart,’ said Mike. They would like a word with you.’ He turned to the man. ‘My wife has been up all night, and she’s still a bit fragile. You’ll go easy, won’t you?’
Holmes nodded curtly, reached into the bag and drew out a bloodstained hoodie top with Fat Face emblazoned across the front.
‘Do you recognise this scent?’ he asked.
Melissa didn’t need to inspect it. It reeked of perfume.
‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘That’s one of mine. It’s called Python.
The two officers exchanged a meaningful glance.
‘Does this mean you’ve caught him?’ She asked.
Holmes placed the hoodie back in the bag. ‘In a manner of speaking,’ he said. ‘The owner of this top, the one who you claim to have struck with a bottle, was taken to hospital in the early hours of this morning. He was dead on arrival.’
Melissa’s hand went to her mouth; she gasped and crumpled in a faint to the floor.
‘Nice one, Gordon,’ muttered DS Stuart.
When Melissa came round Mike was kneeling anxiously beside her. There was a cushion beneath her head. The detectives hovered nearby.
‘It’s all right, love,’ Mike told her. ‘It wasn’t you that killed him.’
It was ten to five in the morning, on Christmas Eve, when Wally Hubbard let himself into the cold dark house. He set the figurine down on the telephone table and tiptoed down the hallway to the kitchen. He opened the door and switched on the light.
‘Bloody hell!’ he exclaimed. ‘You gave me a fright. What do you think you’re doing, woman?’
She studied him for a moment, standing there reeking of guilt, and some tart’s cheap perfume. She’d suspected for months, hoping against hope, swallowing his lies. The lies that had begun shortly after their daughter had died in the hit-and-run. Him disappearing every evening leaving her to grieve alone. She leapt to her feet.
‘What have you been doing more like?’ she screamed, launching herself at him, beating his chest with her fists.
He grasped her wrists and held them tightly.
‘Sorting your Christmas present, you silly cow.’
‘Liar! Liar! Liar!’
She struggled in vain to free herself and began to kick out at his shins. He shifted his grip and pushed her away. She fell heavily against the faux marble work surface and cried out in pain. He advanced, arms outstretched to comfort her. She mistook his intention, reached out behind her, grabbed the first thing that she could find, and swung it violently towards him.
Wally stared uncomprehendingly at the handle of the six-inch blade protruding from his chest. He staggered back. The corner of the kitchen table halted his progress. He slumped sideways and ended up sitting on the chair his wife had just vacated. A crimson stain spread slowly across the front of his hoodie. Blood bubbled from his mouth as tried to explain.
She was beyond listening, paralysed by the enormity of her actions, full of loathing for this man who had pushed her to it, amazed that she had put up with it for so long. She sat down opposite her husband, and watched as his life slipped away.
When it was over, she stood, went over to the sink, and splashed her face and the back of her neck with cold water. It was time to ring the police.
His head had slumped forward, and as she passed him she noticed a bloody clump of matted hair high up behind his ear. She had no idea how that had happened. Whatever, it hardly mattered now.
She sat on the bottom stair and began to dial.
‘999: Hello. Which service do you require?’
She was about to answer when she caught sight of the figurine on the telephone table. A mother cradling her daughter’s head as she stared up at her. There was only one way it could have got there. Only one reason he would have brought it home on Christmas Eve. The phone slipped from her fingers.
She began to scream.
DI Holmes closed his pocketbook.
‘That’s what she told us,’ he said. ‘We’ve no reason to doubt her.’
There was an uncomfortable silence while Melissa tried to make sense of her emotions. Should she be feeling relief, sympathy, or guilt?
‘My Lladro…this means you have it?’ she said at last.
‘We’ll need it as evidence, but you’ll get it back eventually,’ DS Stuart reassured her
‘It looks like your perfume lived up to its reputation,’ said Holmes.
Melissa stared at him. ‘I’m sorry?’
‘Python,’ he said. ‘To die for!’