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Opera by Julie Anderson | Longlisted for the CWA Steel Dagger Award 2023


Cassandra Fortune tensed as first one foot then the other skidded on the icy slope. Heavy frost lay on the narrow lane shadowed by the high hedges on either side. The slanting rays of the low sun never reached it. It was cold. Lovely, but cold.

Hauling her satchel and handbag higher on her shoulder Cassie began to climb the hill once more. A rising, whining note from the valley behind her meant that a train was pulling away from the station. Further up she could see the tiled roof of Rosewood, Angela’s cottage. It was the first building on the left, its garden surrounded by grassy fields with woodland close by, the skeletons of the trees forming the horizon on Senlac Hill. Beyond the cottage a small, more modern development of bungalows had colonised the upper reaches of the lane, which turned to the right and ran back towards the main road. One of the gardens held a plastic snowman.

Of all the places to retire to, her former boss had chosen the village of Battle. It was so aptly named it made her smile. Angela had always been combative, in the thick of things, a finger in every pie; she had been the head of Government Communications Headquarters, an integral part of the United Kingdom’s intelligence services.

It had been high summer the last time Cassie had been here and the hedges had been bedecked with a froth of cow parsley and Queen Anne’s lace, the air warm, mazy and insect filled. The occasion had been Angela’s retirement party, a celebration tinged with sadness.

Within a year Cassie had been forced out of the agency and shunted sideways into a procurement post in Whitehall. There she had collapsed in on herself and become someone else altogether, until, to her astonishment, she’d been plucked from that backwater to monitor a murder investigation. The Plague Pit Murders, they’d been dubbed, which had involved corruption in parliament, the City and across the upper reaches of society. Its mastermind, financier Lawrence Delahaye, had escaped, but not before being exposed. This success meant that she’d caught the eye of the Prime Minister and Cassie’s career was back on track.

Yet the past still tugged at her, as did the slowly growing realisation that she’d been kicked out of GCHQ for no real reason. She’d called Angela to try to understand what had happened. If anyone could help her, Angela could. Today’s visit was to help her establish the truth of the matter.

Her former boss had been peremptory, summoning Cassie to the cottage for a meeting first thing on Monday morning. Cassie was particularly busy and about to host a visit by the Greek Minister of Finance, a delicate diplomatic task. Yet she did as Angela insisted. Angela Kayser didn’t have whims, she had reasons, even if she didn’t share them. So Cassie came, as instructed.

Higher up the hill the frost had melted and she quickly drew level with the rose bushes which gave the cottage its name. The tall, wrought iron gate stood open. She closed it behind her and walked up the path to the porch. With a slight sense of unease, she saw that the oak front door was slightly ajar.


Cassie pushed at the door and peered into the hall. Angela wouldn’t just leave the door open; it was out of character. On the wall the alarm panel was unlit, the alarm unactivated, Angela hadn’t gone out.

Something’s wrong here.

Stepping as carefully as when climbing the icy hill, Cassie entered the cottage. The high-ceilinged, wood-panelled hall was as she remembered, a porcelain plate for keys sat on the slim side cabinet beside a stand for umbrellas in the corner. Doors to right and left, to the parlour and formal dining room, were closed, but the living room door further along on the left was open wide. The floorboards beneath the patterned carpet runner creaked as she passed the foot of the stairs.

Bloody hell!

Overturned furniture, broken china, books and Christmas cards littered the floor. The cushions of the large sofa had been slashed; feathery motes floated in moving air. Cassie crossed to the French doors and pulled them closed, taking care to use the frame rather than the handles, even though she still wore her gloves.

She turned her back to the garden and slowly swept her gaze around the room, trying to absorb everything before her.

The draws of a bureau lay upturned on the Persian carpet, their contents scattered. Pale oblongs on the walls identified places where pictures had been taken down and cast aside. Someone looking for a wall safe perhaps.

Rosewood’s Grade Two listed, a professional burglar wouldn’t expect a wall safe.

Someone was looking for something.

She took out her phone and began to take photographs, panning around the room, clicking again and again. The flat screen TV and the music unit were still in place it was impossible to tell if any other electronic devices were missing. The display cabinet for Angela’s Chinese porcelain was undisturbed, its contents still on their stands; only a specialist would know just how valuable those pieces were.

Cassie shivered as cold air blew on the back of her neck; the French doors had reopened. A quick glance at the mechanism showed that it was broken. On the outside of the door frame Cassie noticed the marks of a lever or jemmy. Was this the intruder’s way in?

Where the hell’s Angela?

This chaos seemed very recent and had happened within the hour because the temperature in the living room wasn’t cold enough for the French doors to have been open for long. Why weren’t the police here? As former head of GCHQ, Angela Kayser would have been in the sights of the country’s enemies and the local police station would have Rosewood on its radar. Hadn’t Angela reported this? The chill that Cassie felt run down her spine had nothing to do with the air temperature. Where was her former boss?

Above her head a floorboard creaked.


Another creak, then another. Someone was walking across the room above with a tread considerably heavier than Angela’s.

She dragged off her right glove with her teeth and pressed the emergency key on her phone for nine-nine-nine. In hushed tones she gave her name, location and asked for the police. She waited. There was another creaking footstep, this time on the stairs.

They’re coming down!

Cassie muted her phone and pushed it into her pocket. Her eyes swept around the room seeking a weapon, but the only suitable thing she could see was an antique poker sitting in the grate.

That’ll have to do.

She let her bags slide quietly to the floor and grasped the poker in both hands. It was heavy. It would do damage. She stepped lightly between the broken pieces of furniture towards the living room door, flitting across the open space of the doorway. As she flattened herself against the wall she could hear the footsteps descending, one tread at a time.

The floorboard at the foot of the stairs creaked.

She hefted the poker in her hands and shifted her weight from foot to foot, bracing herself for the blow. The French doors blew ajar once more. Maybe the sensible thing to have done was to make a run for the lane and safety. But then she wouldn’t have been able to identify the intruder.

Too late now.

The footsteps approached the living room door. Cassie held her breath. She felt her heart thumping as she raised the poker above her head.

Opera is available for purchase in paperback and ebook

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