(c) by the author
What Mrs Winthrop would later think of as the great change in her life began because Susan Adams’ granddaughter Amy needed a dress from the 1950s as a costume for a school play. Amy had approached her grandmother for help, but the older woman claimed (falsely in Mrs Winthrop’s opinion) to have nothing from that era. Who, after all, threw good clothes away? Mrs Winthrop kept all of hers. If she knew one thing, it was that styles changed and what was old-fashioned one day might be the dernier cri the next. When Susan had discussed Amy’s request with her friends, Mrs Winthrop offered to outfit Amyfrom the stores of old clothes in her attic.
Although Mrs Winthrop said nothing, she doubted her friend’s explanation of why she could not supply appropriate clothes for her granddaughter. Susan’s figure was, to put it charitably, matronly. More than likely, none of her dresses would fit her granddaughter. Mrs Winthrop, on the other hand, had never had to worry about her weight. Even after Geremie and Jane had been born, her pre-pregnancy figure had reappeared within a week or so.
Mrs Winthrop loved good clothes. She liked shopping for them, she liked trying them on, she liked debating the pros and cons of various garments with the shop assistants, she liked touching them, she even liked caring for them. Every time she stood up, she ran her hands over her body to smooth the lines of what she was wearing. She checked her appearance in the mirror many times every day. For a woman of her age, she thought, she still wore clothes well and with panache. She had style, and, as she often remarked, style revealed the sort of person one was. Mrs Winthrop never hesitated to disclose her age—she was seventy-nine. That, more than anything in her opinion, made it imperative to keep up her appearance. Carelessness in dress betrayed a careless mind. Of course, it was important to wear clothes appropriate to her age—one could so easily descend into the ridiculous by wearing clothes intended for the young—but that did not mean she had to be dowdy or careless or relaxed. She might not be able to wear high heels now, but it was never necessary to resort to trainers.
On the day arranged for Amy and her drama teacher to visit, Mrs Winthrop climbed the narrow staircase to the attic at 6:00 o’clock in the morning. The attic would grow hot later in the day, and she wanted to bring a selection of possibilities down to the spare bedroom with the full-length mirror on the first floor. The granddaughter and her teacher were to come by after school, and by then the attic would be uncomfortable. Nor did Mrs Winthrop relish the thought of two strangers pawing through her clothes or seeing the disarray in the dusty attic.
The attic was stuffy and the light from the single bulb dangling from the ceiling was poor. Mrs Winthrop crossed to the window and wrenched it open. The cool early morning air streamed into the attic. She tilted the list she had been given to catch the light: a simple summer dress that an upper middle-class woman might wear during the day at home; an evening gown. Her clothes hung in clear plastic storage bags suspended by their hangers from metal racks. She pushed several aside until she found the section she wanted. That light yellow sleeveless one should do for the day dress. Luckily the slightly darker yellow belt that went with it was still threaded through the belt loops. It was cotton and not linen—so it wouldn’t wrinkle too much. She lifted it out and noted with amusement how full the skirt was. I must tell Amy that when we sat we spread the skirt out, she thought. She tried to remember how tall Susan’s granddaughter was. The skirt should reach to mid-calf. There was enough fabric turned over at the hemline to make it possible to lengthen it by two or three inches. It would do admirably, she thought.
There were several other dresses in the bag.Her tastes had tended towards floral prints in that era—hardly the plain dress the girl wanted. Geoffrey had liked them though. Or at least he had been wise enough to pretend he did. Mrs Winthrop smiled at the remembrance of compliments past. She pulled a dress with red roses on a white background out and ran a hand over the bodice, feeling the fabric slip between her fingers. I wouldn’t dare wear anything with this much colour now, she thought. It would make me look so pale.
The evening gowns and dinner dresses from the 1950s filled two of the storage bags. Mrs Winthrop made a separate trip up and down the stairs to carry each bag to the first floor. She spent far more time than necessary removing the dresses from the bags and laying them on the bed. So many memories. She could remember where and when she had bought each of them. For many of them, she still knew where and when she had worn them. The dress for Geoffrey’s youngest sister’s wedding. The garden party they had given the year they bought the house on Reservoir Drive that she still occupied.
As she placed the clothes on the bed, the odour from the cedar shavings and naphtha balls that she used to ward off insects grew stronger. She opened both windows in the bedroom to air the room. By the afternoon most of the smell should be gone. Still Susan’s granddaughter would need to hang her choices in a ventilated spot—that should get rid of the rest of the smell. It was then that she remembered that she had left the window in the attic open. She groaned. Her calves and feet already ached from climbing the stairs, but there was no help for it—the window had to be closed. If rain got in, it would damage the ceilings on the second floor and start mould.
She was out of breath when she reached the attic. She paused by the window and looked down the hill towards the old reservoir behind the property. The reservoir had been formed by taking advantage of a natural depression in the ground. It was surrounded on three sides by hills. A few years before they bought the house, an earthen berm had been built along the side opposite their house to form a dam. The hillside below their back garden had been planted with trees. Over time they had grown tall and lush. For many years, the lake had been almost invisible from their house, especially during the summer.
The lake had been decommissioned as a reservoir several years earlier, and the local council had turned the surrounding area into a park. The old access road around the perimeter was graded and levelled and finished with packed sand and gravel for use as a walking and jogging path. The underbrush was removed and the ground under the trees cleared and planted with grasses. Benches and tables were scattered along the road and throughout the woods. What had once been a quiet, secluded area became a mecca for joggers and picnickers. Unfortunately it also attracted late-night revellers. The area had, in Mrs Winthrop’s opinion, become an eyesore. The bins weren’t emptied often enough, and trash piled up around them. Nor did everyone bother to use the bins, and bits of paper and empty soda cans and beer bottles littered the ground. The noise of the visitors’ conversations and music from their radios disturbed the peace of the neighbourhood. Visitors to the park climbed the hill to the fence along the back of Mrs Winthrop’s property and peered in. A group of rowdy teenagers had even shouted obscenities at her one day while she was working in the back garden.
If it got much worse, Mrs Winthrop had decided, she would move. When she had written the local council about the noise and the litter, an impertinent fool had replied and said that spaces such as the Chestnut Hill Reservoir had to be used to benefit the most people possible. It was, he wrote, the ‘most socially responsible’ use for the space. If a group was being noisy, she should ask them to be quiet. He was sure they would cooperate. Clearly the idiot had never met a modern teenager. Asking them to behave was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. If they knew they were bothering you, they would view it as a victory. Their behaviour would grow even worse if you dared complain.
Below her, on the path, an early jogger in a bright red track suit trudged around the lake. Mrs Winthrop recognised him. It was that odious Sloan man. He had come sniffing around after Geoffrey died offering to help her when she ‘needed a man’. She had sent him packing. She had had a man, she said, and she knew what a man was. He hadn’t come back. Look at the fool now. Easily fifty pounds overweight, dressed in a ridiculous garment that would be silly on someone half his age, wearing matching red trainers and headband. Sweating like a winded horse. The world would be better without him.
Geoffrey’s guns were stored in a chest beside the window. Mrs Winthrop opened it and lifted out a rifle. She sighted the gun through the open window and pulled the trigger. Her aim was perfect. The bullet entered the back of Sloan’s head and exited through his forehead. The force of the blast spun him around. He stood for an instant on the bank of the lake and then slowly toppled in. From the window, Mrs Winthrop watched the red-suited figure bob up and down in the water and then slowly drift away from the shore, its legs and arms spread out.
Mrs Winthrop stood at the window stunned, unable to think and unable to remove the sight of Sloan’s body twisting about and then falling from her mind. She hadn’t thought the gun might be loaded. Geoffrey was usually so careful. Her ears still rang with the noise. She put the gun back in the chest and closed the lid. Then she closed the window and went downstairs to the kitchen. She spooned coffee into the cafetière and lit the fire under the kettle on the burner. When the water boiled, she poured it into the cafetière and waited for several. When the coffee was ready, she poured herself a cup and sat down at the table in her kitchen.
I should call Daniel Graves, she thought. I will need a lawyer. But would he know how to defend a murderer? Well, not a murderer. It had been an accident. Surely when the police and CPS understood that she hadn’t known the gun was loaded, they wouldn’t charge her with murder. Manslaughter, perhaps. She giggled nervously when she thought of the term. She had, after all, slaughtered a man. It wasn’t the sort of case Graves usually handled—she was sure that he dealt more in conveyances and wills and contracts, that sort of thing. But he would know lawyers suited to her situation. She consulted the clock on the wall. Much too early to call Graves’ office. He wouldn’t be there for at least two hours. She briefly considered calling the police but decided against it. She wanted to consult a lawyer before speaking with the police.
Her own feelings puzzled her. She discovered that she felt curiously little remorse at killing Sloan. It wasn’t that he deserved to be shot, no one deserved that. But he was, she had to admit, a suitable victim for an accident. Her regrets, she found, focussed rather on the trouble she anticipated. Her neighbours would be horrified, of course, and she could hardly meet Sloan’s wife in the future—although the woman, what was her name, might be relieved to be freed of him. Did Sloan have children? She didn’t know, she hadn’t needed or wanted to know. And her own children would be embarrassed by her action. She would need to stress to the lawyer that he had to present her in a favourable light. Well, that’s what lawyers did, didn’t they? She would have to appear remorseful in public, and confused. An older lady finding a dress for a friend’s granddaughter picks up her late husband’s rifle and it discharges a bullet. She knows nothing about guns. It was only sheer chance that the bullet killed a man. She sipped at her coffee and glanced at the clock. Still too early to call Sloan.
The doorbell rang. As Mrs Winthrop walked down the hall to answer it, the person began pounding on the door. ‘Elizabeth, it’s Sybil. Are you all right?’
‘Of course, I’m all right.’ Mrs Winthrop undid the locks and opened the door. ‘I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be?’ Sybil Prescott did overreact. Really, one would think there had been a catastrophe.
Sybil rushed into the hallway. Her hair was uncombed and agitated. ‘Someone’s been killed. On the jogging path. At the lake.’ The words came out in a tangle.
‘Calm yourself, Sybil. I’ve made coffee. Would you like a cup?’ Mrs Winthrop guided her neighbour towards the kitchen.
‘Calm? How can anyone remain calm at a time like this? I haven’t been able to sit since I heard the shot. The police and the ambulance are down by the lake. Haven’t you seen the flashing lights? Didn’t you hear the shot? It came from the hillside below your house.’
‘There’s the milk and sugar. Of course I heard it, but wasn’t it nearer your house? That was my impression.’ Mrs Winthrop didn’t want to tell Sybil Hendricks that she had killed Sloan. If she did, Sybil would grill her for hours and then spread an exaggerated version. ‘I was right there in her house, just minutes after she shot poor Mr Sloan. And Elizabeth just sat there as composed as you please drinking a cup of coffee. It’s true what they say. You never know. You hear all those neighbours on the telly saying they never suspected anything, and you think “How can they be so stupid?” But when it happens next door to you, you realise that you just never know what people are really like. Who would have thought that Elizabeth Winthrop could murder someone? Her poor children—they must be so ashamed of her.’ No, she did not want to share her story with Sybil. Let her find out from the newspapers along with everyone else on Reservoir Drive.
‘You mean the murderer was in my back garden?’ Sybil pulled a handkerchief from the pocket of her trousers and pressed it against her mouth. It was not, Mrs Winthrop noted, a clean handkerchief. ‘And James had already left for his golf game. I was all alone in the house. The murderer could just as well have shot me. Oh, Elizabeth. I could have been murdered in my own kitchen.’
It occurred to Mrs Winthrop that if she had been behind her house, near the rhododendron bushes, she could easily have shot Sybil. She patted her neighbour on the shoulder. ‘There, there, it’s better not to think of such things.’
‘How can I not think of such things?’ Sybil wailed. ‘None of us is safe. The police are worse than useless. They only come after the troublemakers have run off. You call them about noise and they tell you they don’t have anyone to send out. It takes a murder to get their attention. Maybe now the council will pay more attention to the residents. I told James when that park was built that we would have trouble. Half the people there are ASBOs and hoodies. I don’t even like to walk the path anymore. I enjoyed it at first, but it’s worse now. We’re not safe even in our own homes.’
It was an area in which they were in agreement, and they traded horror stories for half an hour, topping each other’s tales in a courteously worded competition punctuated with expressions of dismay and head-shakings. The doorbell interrupted their conversation.
Sybil jumped as if she had been shot. ‘Should you answer that?’ she asked. ‘What if it’s the murderer?’
‘He’s unlikely to have waited around this long. If it makes you feel safer, I’ll check before I open the door.’
Sybil dogged Mrs Winthrop down the hall. ‘Who is it? Can you see?’
Mrs Winthrop peeked through the eyehole. ‘It’s the police.’ She opened the door.
Two uniformed constables, a man and a woman, turned from their inspection of her front garden. They held out their warrant cards and smiled reassuringly. ‘Hello,’ said the man. ‘I’m PC Webster and this …’
‘I’m PC Burnes.’ The woman interrupted her colleague before he could finish introducing her. ‘We’d like a word. May we come in?’ Before she even finished speaking, she pushed past Sybil and stepped across the threshold and looked around the hall.
Mrs Winthrop held the door open wider and motioned them in. ‘Please. Why don’t we go into the sitting room?’ She indicated the first room on the right. ‘We’ll be more comfortable there. Could I make you a cup of tea or coffee? We were having coffee, but it’s cold now. I can make another pot. It’s no trouble.’ Her hostess reflexes were automatic.
‘You’re here about the shooting, aren’t you? I heard everything.’ Sybil stepped forward anxiously and sat down heavily on the sofa. She addressed her comments to the PC Webster.
‘No, thank you,’ said PC Burnes to Mrs Winthrop. She sat down next to Sybil and pulled out a notebook. ‘And you are?’ Sybil seemed surprised to find herself talking to Burnes instead of Webster. Her gaze shifted between the two of them. Webster resolved her dilemma by sitting down opposite her and taking out his notebook. He smiled at Sybil and nodded for her to continue.
‘My name is Sybil—s-y-b-i-l—Prescott—p-r-e-s-c-o-t-t. I was in the kitchen doing the washing up from breakfast. My husband has a golf game this morning. He overslept a bit and had to rush. He left the kitchen in a mess, and I was cleaning. You know how men can be.’ She smiled conspiratorially at PC Burnes, but her attempt at female solidarity fell flat. PC Burnes gave the impression that she would injure any man who left her kitchen a mess and had no respect for any woman who would do less.
Sybil faltered for a moment in the face of Burnes’ contempt, but she quickly recovered. ‘Well, uh, as I was saying, I was doing the washing up. The window over the sink overlooks the back garden, and I was thinking about what the gardener needs to do. He comes the day after tomorrow, and then there was this shot. I recognised it immediately as a gunshot. It came from the hillside just beneath my back garden wall.’
The two constables exchanged a look. Both spoke at once.
‘The shooter was behind your garden?’
‘Did you see him?’
‘Can you show us where you were standing?’
‘Is the kitchen through here?’
They stood up, inviting Sybil to lead the way to the kitchen.
‘Oh, I live next door. I was in my own kitchen when the shooting happened. I can show you now.’ Sybil started eagerly towards the door.
‘Sorry,’ said PC Burnes, ‘I didn’t realise this isn’t your house. Let us finish here first. Then we can go to your house. It shouldn’t take us but a minute.’ The constable sat back down again. Sybil took a chair near the door and waited impatiently, consulting her watch from time to time, anxious to assist the police in their enquiries.
‘This is your house, then? Did you hear the shot?’ As PC Burnes spoke to Mrs Winthrop, she looked carefully around the sitting room, her eyes inventorying each object.
‘Yes,’ said Mrs Winthrop. ‘But I was upstairs. A friend’s granddaughter is in a play at her school, and she wants to borrow some of my old clothes. I was sorting through them looking for something appropriate, and I suppose I must have heard the noise. If I did, I didn’t think anything of it at the time. In fact, I didn’t know that a gun had been fired until Sybil told me. Was anyone hurt?’
PC Burnes ignored the question. ‘Was your husband present at the time of the incident?’
‘I’m a widow. My husband died six years ago.’
‘You mean you live here alone?’ Burnes let all of them see what she thought of that. ‘Must be nice to have all this space.’
Mrs Winthrop nodded. She didn’t see that it was anyone’s business, let alone a police constable’s, where she lived. She felt no need to explain or justify her occupation of the house in which she had lived for the past fifty years.
‘And you heard nothing or saw nothing? Have you seen any strangers in the neighbourhood lately?’
Sybil spoke up. ‘There was a young man yesterday. He was in a white van. I was in the front garden and I saw him drive past several times. I thought he was going to park and get out, but when he saw me, he drove off—fast. You don’t think it was him? Oh, I could have been killed.’ She covered her mouth in alarm.
‘Did you see this man?’ PC Burnes had to ask the question twice before Mrs Winthrop realised that Burnes was speaking to her.
She shook her head no. ‘No, no one. But I don’t see or hear as well as I used to.’ She let her shoulders slump a bit.
PC Burnes stood up abruptly. ‘Well, that will be all for now. Someone else may be by later to ask more questions.’ She turned to Sybil, whom she obviously found the more valuable informant, ‘If you could show us your kitchen, Mrs Prescott, and then let us into your back garden, we would much appreciate it.’ She pulled her mobile out of a pocket.
As Sybil and the constables left, Mrs Winthrop heard Burnes speaking on her phone. ‘We have a witness who heard the shooting, Sir. Her address is … ,’ she paused to query Sybil and then repeated the street address into the phone.
Mrs Winthrop closed the door behind them. After a second she locked it. She sat down in a chair beside the door. PC Burnes was the type of young woman she detested. So pushing. She hadn’t let her colleague speak for fear that she or Sybil might think that the man was in charge. Burnes, she noted, was trying to hide a tendency to swallow her consonants and convert them into glottal stops. She spoke too carefully. She had gnawed her fingernails to the quick. Of course, she couldn’t do anything about her face, but she really should do something about that atrocious haircut. There were styles that would be more flattering. It made her look like a man. Perhaps she felt that to be successful in the police she had to be mannish. If so, she should have chosen a different career. Mrs Winthrop felt sorry for Webster. It must be difficult to be paired with such a rude person.
And she obviously sees me, thought Mrs Winthrop, as a doddering old woman, of no use to anyone and taking up more than my fair share. Geoffrey and she had worked hard to afford this house. It was their one luxury. Constable Burnes had no right to imply that they didn’t deserve it. Of course, it was too large for one person, but she was keeping it for her children. Geremie was due to return from the States next year, and he and his wife and children would need a place to live. It might not be fair to Jane to give the house to Geremie, but Mrs Winthrop had discussed it with her. Jane and her husband didn’t want the house, and they were more than happy to accept Mrs Winthrop’s offer of a payment equal to half the value of the property. She would either live with Geremie or move into a smaller place; a flat nearer the shops would be nice, she had decided. No, she hadn’t owed the constable an explanation, let alone an apology for her style of living.
If that was what the police were like, then they could solve the matter without her help. Of course, now that she had misled the police about her role in the shooting, she could hardly claim it was an accident, which it was, of course. She had no culpability in the matter, none at all. Really, it would save everyone a lot of trouble if she simply allowed the incident to remain a mystery. If she stepped forward, it would just waste everyone’s time. No, it was much better to let this sleeping dog lie undisturbed. Mrs Winthrop stood up. Susan hadn’t said, but she wondered if her granddaughter would need a purse or shoes or a hat or jewellery to match the dresses she choose. It would be too much of a coincidence if they had the same shoe size and a purse might not be necessary to the play, but she could bring out a selection of hats. Hat styles had changed so much over the years, and she could at least show them the style of shoes that had been worn with evening gowns in the 1950s. She spent several hours happily considering suitable accessories.
That evening, as she set in front of her mirror combing her hair before she went to bed, Mrs Winthrop reviewed the events of the days—not without satisfaction. The meeting with Amy and the teacher who led the drama club at her school had been very interesting. Both of them had agreed that the yellow dress was perfect in terms of the era and the character, but the teacher had pointed out that stage lighting would wash the colour out and make the dress appear white. Something bolder was needed, and they eventually settled on one of the bright print dresses. When Mrs Winthrop had suggested that the flowers in the print might be overly large, the teacher had said that was perfect for the stage. The print would be visible at the back of the hall in a way that a smaller, more demure pattern would not. And its boldness and flair fit the character perfectly. It hadn’t occurred to Mrs Winthrop to consider such factors, and the details that went into planning a play fascinated her. They were not unlike the factors she considered when planning her dress on special occasions. And both Amy and the teacher had in turn been fascinated by her demonstration of how women in the 1950s wore such clothes, how they walked and moved in them.
When it came to choosing the evening gown, Susan’s granddaughter, Mrs Winthrop had been heartened to note, exhibited a sense of style. She chose a dark blue watered silk that Mrs Winthrop had bought at Liberty and a hat that set both herself and the dress off. It was a perfect ensemble. Mrs Winthrop had enjoyed the time she had spent with them. It was pleasurable to share the excitement of good clothes with others who appreciated them. The blue dress fit Amy perfectly.
By the time they finished it was late in the day, and Mrs Winthrop had been too tired to repack the clothes in the garment bags and carry them back to the attic. She would do that tomorrow morning. She supposed she should clean the rifle as well. Geoffrey’s gun cleaning supplies must be in the chest with the gun.
The shooting had merited only a brief mention on the evening news. The police were looking for a young man driving a white van who had been ‘seen scouting’ the area. The shooting was described as apparently without motive, a random killing of a chance victim. Poor Sloan. Even in death he had been robbed of significance. She had, she congratulated herself, reached the right decision. If she said anything now, it would only embarrass Sybil and it would be shame to rob her of her moment of glory.
Sybil seemed to have provided the police with what they wanted—a reasonable suspect. Young, male, acting out of unknown and probably unknowable reasons. Aimless, alienated, angry. The ‘facts’ Sybil had given the police could fit so many people that there was no danger that they would fit a particular person. There was no need to worry that an innocent man would be charged with the crime. And she had no worries that the murder would be traced to herself. No one would suspect an elderly, frail, silly woman of shooting a man. She didn’t fit the profile. She had literally gotten away with murder.
Could she do it again? On the whole, she could, she thought. It had provided a bit of excitement in her life. Since Geoffrey’s death, she hadn’t done much. Visits to family and friends. The weekly shopping. Her favourite programmes on the telly and radio. Her daily routines had become a rut. Everyone told her that she needed to get out more and find something to occupy herself. A murder spree might be just what the doctor ordered. She giggled at the thought. Of course, she wouldn’t really kill anyone. But it was amusing to entertain the thought of taking matters a step further.
She would have to find another location. Someplace without CCTVs. Would it be better to choose an isolated spot in the country and kill someone working on a farm or perhaps a passer-by? Or would people in the country be more likely to remember a stranger? In an urban area, she risked too many witnesses—unless she acted late at night. Some drunken lout stumbling home. A worker waiting at a bus stop for the last bus. As long as she kept to the shadows no one would see her. Or she could simply walk across the back garden and let herself in the Prescotts’ house using the spare key that Sybil had given her. She could shoot Sybil and then run back home and call 999 to report hearing a shot. It would make sense for Sloan’s murderer to kill the witness, wouldn’t it? The possibilities were endless. A string of apparently random slayings. She would have to find worthy victims, however. That would be the responsible way to be a serial murderer. And I must, she thought, remember to check for more ammunition in the chest with the rifle. She had no idea where to buy bullets, and in any case the person who sold them to her might remember her and be able to identify her to the police. Of course, she could always add armed robbery to her list of new hobbies and kill him. She wouldn’t fit the profile for that either.