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No one in The Starlings, least of all Katrin Gold, could ever have imagined things would end this way: that their safely gated sea-view community would be the scene of such a shocking crime.
Since the start of the year, everyone had been looking forward to the private estate’s first anniversary party, and after months of neighbourly plotting and planning the day had arrived, along with a lively five-piece jazz band and a vintage ice-cream van. Even the sun had turned up, unseasonably hot for the end of May, and the laughter flowed as easily as the champagne as the generations bonded over a barbecue on the lawns, and young parents did their best to ignore their sugar-fuelled offspring, who tore about the gardens, unchecked. Bordering the circular green, the red-brick horseshoe of the Victorian mansion block loomed large, its central clocktower gazing proudly across the lawns towards the majestic modern home of Bill and Katrin Gold, whose vision had transformed the abandoned site into this idyll they now called The Starlings. All around, giant daisies and alliums bloomed, their heads nodding brightly in the light sea breeze, and many were heard complimenting the work of old Thomas who had, until recently, tended those flowerbeds with such devotion. When the local press arrived to photograph the event at midday, there must have been a hundred happy neighbours arranged beside the ornamental koi pond as the band played on. Under the eye of the imposing clocktower, handsome young families stood shoulder-to-shoulder with respected elders, while cross-legged teenagers sat in the front row, straight teeth dazzling as they thrust their peace signs towards the endless blue sky. Frida, of course, was one of them. The photograph should make that week’s edition of the Highcap Press, the young journalist informed Katrin as he hurried off to his next assignment, not knowing then that another, far more prominent story about The Starlings would instead take its place.
As afternoon slid into evening and a kaftan-clad Ginny wafted around the fairy-lit courtyard, topping up the drinks of the dozen or so tipsy adults remaining, everyone agreed: the day had been an unparalleled success, a day of nothing but good feeling and happy memories made. Most of those still up were the couples with children old enough to put themselves to bed, and, now that the band had packed up and the sun was going down, they’d all moved to the courtyard at the rear of the residential block, where their laughter and chat wouldn’t disturb those who’d already turned in. Belinda Parsons was there with her daughter Poppy, as were Graham and Dylan from No.21, Michael and Joy Bassett and of course the Gold family, with the exception of Frida, who was now minding the little ones back at Starling House. Anne Ashbourne had retired a little while earlier, with her mother who was visiting from the care home for the weekend – but otherwise, all the founding residents were there to reflect on their first year at The Starlings. Aren’t we lucky, Hugo remarked as he set down his tumbler and pulled his willowy wife to his lap, to live in a place like this? His heavy-eyed older brother tilted his glass in agreement and knocked back his tipple in a single gulp. Amélie, already rake-thin only weeks after giving birth to her little boy, rested her head against Hugo’s like a sleepy cat. C’est vrai, she replied. We ARE lucky, mon cher. Not even the recent gossip surrounding the family had been able to mar the occasion, and certainly, to anyone looking on, the day itself, honeysuckle-scented on a warm sea breeze, could only be described as perfect.
Perfect, that was, until now.
Now, it is just a few minutes after nine, and everything has changed.
In the distance, emergency sirens peal into the night air, their cries growing closer, as a darkening starling cloud swirls and blooms in the crimson sky above the clocktower at the heart of the community. Years from now, residents will talk of that red sky, of the unseasonal spectacle of starlings dancing in May and the ominous feeling that crept over each of them, the remaining friends and neighbours enjoying Ginny’s nightcap, when they first noticed that one of their number was missing. Of course, it will be impossible to know later whether that feeling of dread truly existed before the incident, or was falsely inserted into those recollections in the grim moments that followed Frida Pascal’s night-splitting scream.
I knew something was wrong, an ashen-faced husband will tell the investigating officer, standing on a path ablaze with spinning yellow lights, while squad car doors slam, and uniformed officers secure the area. She’d been gone for almost an hour; I should have looked for her sooner. A week or two from now, neighbours he once considered friends will question his depth of feeling, his potential culpability – his possible motive – and he will wonder, in his sleepless nights, what the correct response should have been. But, right now, those same neighbours look on, shock-faced around the green, edging as close to the nightmare as the hastily erected police tape will allow. Others who had already retired to put young ones or themselves to bed are gazing from their overlooking windows or emerging from cosily backlit doorways to investigate, and for a short while no one has a clue what the drama is really all about.
Because things like this just don’t happen at The Starlings.
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