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Dying Wish, страница 1

 

Dying Wish
 

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Dying Wish


  Contents

  Preface

  Chapters

  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64

  Epilogue

  By the same author

  Copyright

  PREFACE

  The New Forest National Park spreads across over 200 square miles of southern England. It was created in 1079 as a hunting ground for King William I. Now, it’s one of the country’s most popular areas for day-trippers, campers, hikers and cyclists.

  The forest is a patchwork of open heath and dense woodland. The ubiquitous New Forest ponies are a major attraction. Hundreds of them roam freely alongside the various breeds of wild deer.

  This is a dramatic landscape steeped in ancient history, where grim legends abound and sinister secrets lie buried.

  Occasionally, those secrets are uncovered, and when that happens it leads to a new, and sometimes dark, chapter in the life of the forest.

  1

  The warning signs were there, but he failed to recognize them as such: the shortness of breath, the ache in his left arm, the slight pressure on his chest. They were subtle sensations that barely registered because too much was happening.

  As the man of the moment, he was pumped up with self-importance and relishing all the attention. So it was easy to ignore a little discomfort, especially as two glasses of red wine had dulled his senses.

  Usually his book signings attracted between fifteen and twenty of the same old faces. But this time, no less than forty people had come along to the store in Southampton for the launch of his latest work: A Hiker’s Guide to the New Forest.

  For a low-ranking author like himself, it was an excellent turnout. Only the big names attracted the big numbers. He would never be in that league, not by writing non-fiction books that appealed only to a small, niche audience.

  But that didn’t bother him. Five books over as many years about his beloved New Forest had provided him with a modest living, and given him the opportunity to indulge his passions for walking, taking photographs and, of course, those things he dared not talk about.

  The name Grant Mason had become synonymous with the New Forest even though he hadn’t been born there. He was a noted expert on the landscape and its legends. He was familiar with the people, the wildlife, the flora and fauna, the rich tapestry of life that made it such a special place.

  His first two books had been walking guides, complete with maps and detailed descriptions of no less than thirty forest treks. The third book had been filled with coloured photographs that captured the majesty of the forest during the four seasons. The fourth book had been a history of the forest from the time of the Norman Conquest to the present day. And this latest work contained a bunch of new hiking trails, along with pages of useful information on the areas they passed through.

  It looked set to be his most successful book so far, thanks largely to an article about him that had appeared in a Sunday supplement magazine. It had attracted a lot of attention in the run-up to the book’s publication two weeks ago. No doubt that was why so many people had turned up to see him, despite the fact that it was a wet and miserable Wednesday evening in February.

  ‘Are you all right, Grant? You look very pale suddenly.’

  Hilary Dyer, his long-serving personal assistant, spoke as she stepped up to him. He’d only just got to his feet to stretch his legs between signing books. ‘What’s the matter?’ she said. ‘Has the wine gone to your head?’

  He looked at her and felt a prickle of unease when he realized that her face was out of focus.

  ‘I’m not sure,’ he said. ‘I was OK a moment ago.’

  He blinked a couple of times until his vision cleared and he could make out her features. The thin lips and flared nostrils, the eyes that were set slightly too far apart, the heavy make-up that camouflaged the damage that fifty years on the planet had done to her skin.

  ‘I think perhaps you should sit down again,’ she told him.

  But a wave of heat suddenly rose up his neck and he felt positively dizzy. He closed his eyes, hoping the sensation would pass.

  ‘I’ll fetch a chair,’ Hilary said, a tremor of urgency in her voice. ‘Lean against the table if you feel faint.’

  His pulse quickened, and the rhythm of his heart seemed to change.

  He turned towards the table, which was piled high with his books, but at the same time he felt a knifing pain deep in his chest. It sent a spike of adrenaline rushing through the rest of his body.

  ‘Oh God,’ he gasped as he fell against the table, knocking the books over.

  He heard Hilary cry out as the world tilted on its axis around him. He wasn’t even aware he was falling until he hit the floor.

  He didn’t pass out, though. Instead, he lay on his back staring up at the high ceiling as figures closed in around him, their voices loud and anxious.

  ‘I think he’s having a heart attack,’ someone shouted and he wasn’t sure if it was Hilary.

  Heart attack! Christ, no. Not now, not here.

  The pain was spreading quickly from his chest along his arms and his mouth filled with bitter-tasting saliva.

  As commotion raged around him, he realized that he was struggling to breathe, and he experienced a rush of despair and terror. There was nothing he could do but lie there and endure the pain. He bit down on his bottom lip, praying that he would not lose consciousness. If he did, he knew that there was only a slim chance that one of the onlookers would know how to administer CPR. And if someone did attempt it they would most likely do more harm than good.

  ‘An ambulance is on its way, Grant,’ Hilary said. ‘Please try to stay awake.’

  Her words offered no comfort. What was happening to him was obviously serious and he feared there was a very good chance he was going to die. He had never felt this bad in his entire life. Dread swelled up inside him like a huge, inflated balloon.

  He’d always assumed that he had a healthy heart. No one had ever told him otherwise, not even the doctor who had prescribed him statins some years ago to control his high cholesterol. But then weren’t most heart attacks sudden and unexpected? And hadn’t he read somewhere that heart disease was the biggest cause of death on the planet?

  Tears filled his eyes against the throbbing pain in his chest. He could feel his sweat glands open up and it was becoming even more difficult to breathe.

  ‘I can hear the siren, Grant,’ Hilary was saying. ‘The paramedics are on their way. Just stay calm and hold on in there.’

  He would miss Hilary. For five years she’d been his loyal assistant and one of few people he had allowed to get close to him. Not so close that she was privy to his dark secrets, of course, but close enough to qualify as a friend as well as an employee.

  He wondered fleetingly if she would miss him – and not just because his death would deprive her of a cosy part-time job. He’d paid her a generous wage and had always shown her respect. And when her husband died of pancreatic cancer a year ago, he had even met the cost of the funeral. So would she say nice things about him when he was gone?

  ‘The paramedics are here,’ she told him after a few more seconds, or minutes, had elapsed. ‘You’ll be at the hospital in no time.’

  But he wasn’t convinced he’d make it. His throat was tight and he was struggling to get air into his lungs. The pain continued unabated, pulsing like fire through his body.

  He was struck by the sudden thought that very few people would mourn his passing. He had never married nor had any children. His parents were both dead, and there were no siblings. But although his life had been a lonely one he’d been re
latively content. He had his writing, his readers, his small circle of friends and his beautiful house in the forest.

  He also had his reputation, which was suddenly very important to him. He did not want to be remembered as anything other than a decent, upstanding member of the community; a writer of note who had been appreciated over the years by thousands of people.

  But if he died here and now, that reputation would be shattered when the world discovered the truth, as surely it would. Maybe not straightaway, but eventually. If only he had taken precautions, prepared for the worst. Instead, like most people, he had adopted the default position of believing he would live to a ripe old age.

  What a bone-headed fool he’d been.

  A man’s face entered his field of vision suddenly. Square-jawed and black, his breath flavoured strongly with mint.

  ‘Mr Mason. I’m a paramedic. Can you explain to me what’s wrong?’

  He scrunched up his eyes and managed to say through gritted teeth that he had a crushing pain in his chest.

  As he spoke the man reached over to loosen his tie and unbutton his shirt collar. Then he placed an oxygen mask over his nose and mouth to help him breathe.

  ‘I think you’re having a heart attack, Mr Mason,’ the paramedic said. ‘But you’re still conscious and that’s a good sign. I’m going to give you an injection and then we’ll get you to the hospital.’

  He was in such a state of anxiety that he didn’t even feel the needle go in. Seconds later, he was being lifted onto a stretcher. The relentless pain continued to contort his features, and tears began to gather in his eyes.

  He felt himself being carried out of the book store. The ceiling quickly gave way to a dark sky from which a light rain fell on his face. He heard the hum of traffic and the clatter of pedestrians. And the air was thick with the stench of petrol fumes.

  By the time they got him into the back of the ambulance, he was in even more pain and his head was spinning.

  He heard the doors being pulled shut and then Hilary’s voice close to his ear.

  ‘I’m here with you, Grant. Try to stay calm. You’re in good hands now.’

  He realized she was holding his hand and sitting beside him while the paramedic fiddled with the equipment. He moved his head to look at her and saw the terror carved into her features.

  He raised his free hand and gestured for her to move closer. Then with some difficulty, he pulled the oxygen mask down from his face and forced words out through gritted teeth.

  ‘There’s a chance I won’t make it, Hilary,’ he said. ‘If I don’t, th-then there’s something you have to do for me.’

  She leaned forwards so that her nose was only about twelve inches from his own.

  ‘Don’t say that, Grant. You’re not going to die. You’ll be all right.’

  He swallowed hard and focused his entire being on making himself understood.

  ‘You c-can’t be sure,’ he said, his voice strained and barely audible. ‘So promise me you’ll do it.’

  She glanced briefly at the paramedic, who was busy attaching leads to a monitor. When she turned back to Mason, her features were taut and he could see that she was struggling to hold in her emotions.

  ‘Please, Hilary,’ he said, his eyes pleading. ‘Promise me.’

  She heaved an anxious sigh and turned down the corners of her mouth. ‘OK, I promise. What do you want me to do?’

  He gripped her coat collar and pulled her so close there was barely a breath between them. This time, phlegm rattled in his throat as the words spluttered out.

  ‘You have to b-burn down my house, Hilary – along with everything in it.’

  She sat bolt upright and stared at him, mortified. Her face lost several shades of colour in an instant.

  ‘That’s absurd,’ she said, keeping her voice low. ‘Why would you ask me to do such a thing?’

  He swallowed again to clear his throat. ‘You don’t need to know that. But … trust me that it has to be done.’

  She narrowed her eyes at him. ‘You’re confused and in shock, Grant. You don’t know what you’re saying.’

  ‘Just go to the house before anyone else does,’ he said, the words now more breathed than spoken. ‘No … no one has to know it was you.’

  She shook her head. ‘Stop it, Grant. You’re not making any sense. And you shouldn’t be talking of dying.’

  ‘But …’

  ‘No buts, Grant. Just try to relax and concentrate on your breathing.’

  He held her stricken gaze for several long seconds and saw the blood retreat completely from her face. He didn’t have the strength to argue with her and in any case, it was clear that if he died she wasn’t going to do what he’d asked.

  It made him all the more determined to fight to stay alive.

  He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to ignore the pain and the rising panic inside him. With any luck he’d remain conscious until he was in the care of the trauma team. Hopefully they’d be able to pull him back from the brink.

  Hilary slipped the oxygen mask back over his face and uttered something that he didn’t catch. Then she took his hand again and held onto it all the way to the hospital.

  2

  Jeff Temple felt his eyes moisten as he stared down at the granite headstone. Reading the inscription never failed to charge him with emotion.

  In memory of Erin Temple

  Loving wife and devoted mother

  She was taken from us far too soon

  It was almost six years since she’d lost her fight against cancer and he still felt the pain, even though he had at last moved on with his life. Not a day passed when he didn’t think about her and she still came to him frequently in his dreams.

  He no longer visited the cemetery as often as he did during those first two years. Now it was only on special occasions such as Christmases, anniversaries and birthdays.

  Today she would have been forty-six and no doubt they would have gone out to celebrate. Erin had always made a big thing of birthdays during their fifteen years together. When their only daughter Tanya became a teenager, Erin organized a surprise party at a local restaurant. And when he himself hit thirty she booked a weekend away in Paris. The memories were still vivid in his mind, especially when he came here and stood beside her grave.

  He could barely believe that so much time had passed and so many things had happened. Their daughter was now in her twenties and living in London, and he’d been promoted to Detective Chief Inspector with Hampshire’s Major Investigations Team.

  There was also a new woman in his life, a woman who had helped him rediscover a degree of contentment. Her name was Angelica Metcalfe – Angel for short – and she was twelve years his junior. A month ago, eight months after their relationship began, she finally vacated her rented flat and moved in with him.

  He’d come to the cemetery on that day too because he’d been plagued by guilt and had felt the need to explain himself. Talking to his dead wife had failed to assuage the guilt altogether, but it had to some extent been cathartic. He wanted so much to believe that Erin would be happy for him and that she wouldn’t want him to wallow in grief and self-pity for the rest of his life.

  He blinked back tears and shifted his gaze away from the headstone and the flowers he’d placed in front of it.

  The cemetery was quiet at this time in the morning but the drone of rush hour traffic broke the sombre silence. The day was overcast with clouds that were fluffy and benign. It had been a wet start to the New Year, and the forecasters were predicting more rain and maybe even some snow.

  He couldn’t remember the last time it had snowed in Southampton. Last winter had been a cold one, but this winter the temperatures had rarely dropped below freezing.

  He glanced at his watch and saw that it was ten past nine. He’d been here for three quarters of an hour already and yet it didn’t feel like it.

  ‘I have to go, sweetheart,’ he said, as he reached out to touch the top of the headstone. ‘Wherever you a
re I hope you have a great birthday.’

  He pulled up the collar of his overcoat and shoved his hands into the pockets. A cold weight settled in his stomach as he headed back to his car. He walked past the little chapel where Erin’s service had been held and then, through the cemetery’s arched entrance, he could see across the road to the city’s general hospital where she’d died. It was always an ordeal to come here and be reminded of that painful period in his life.

  His eyes felt like they were burning at the edges as he approached his car, a battered 8-year-old Mazda. As soon as he was inside, he drew a tremulous breath and blinked rapidly as tears streamed down his cheeks.

  As always, he was unable to contain his anguish. So he just sat behind the wheel until the wave of emotion had swept through him. Then he dabbed at his eyes with a tissue and checked himself in the mirror.

  His fleshy, nondescript face was grey and pallid and he looked all of his forty-eight years. Red veins laced the whites of his eyes and perspiration had gathered around his receding hairline.

  He took a few more deep breaths to compose himself and then switched on the ignition. But just as he was about to pull away from the kerb his mobile buzzed. He fished it from his pocket and noted the caller ID before thumbing the green key. It was Detective Constable Marsh, the youngest member of his team.

  ‘Hello, Fiona,’ he said. ‘I’m on my way in. Ten minutes at the most.’

  ‘That’s not why I’m calling, guv,’ she said. ‘We got your message about being late so we’ve put off the morning briefing until ten.’

  ‘What is it then?’

  ‘It’s about that missing couple, guv. There’s been a development.’

  ‘What kind of development?’

  ‘Their car has been found in Paget Street, down near the football stadium. Dave’s already there with a forensic team.’

  ‘Do we know who spotted it?’

  ‘A guy who lives in the street apparently. He saw the appeal we put out on television yesterday, and realized the description of the car matched that of a car parked in front of his block of flats.’

  ‘OK, I’d better swing by there and take a look. Delay the briefing until I get in. This will probably have to go to the top of the agenda.’

 
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