Where Secrets Lie
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Beneath a quiet village, dark crimes lie buried.
When decomposed human remains are discovered in a suitcase behind a locked door in the home of an elderly man, Detective Karen Hart thinks the facts speak for themselves. That is, until she finds the warning: It's time to pay for your crime.
The body belongs to a former teacher, Oliver Fox, who vanished from the village thirty years earlier. Hart's instincts tell her there is something untoward about this rural Lincolnshire community—especially when she uncovers evidence suggesting that, although Fox was a victim, he certainly wasn't innocent. As the extent of Fox's crimes becomes apparent and the web of lies continues to unravel, almost nobody in the village is above suspicion.
When there are whispers of child abuse in connection with the case, it's clear someone is willing to do anything to keep the sinister truth buried. Can Hart find the culprit before more lives are lost?
Release date: January 10, 2019
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
Print pages: 327
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Where Secrets Lie
James Hunter was drunk.
Tonight he’d flown past the happy, confident, slightly tipsy stage, straight into the depressive, miserable phase. He poured another measure of vodka, splashing some on the coffee table.
At one of his first AA meetings, he’d stood up in front of the group and told them he drank to forget, but that was a lie. Alcohol didn’t help him forget. It numbed the pain a little bit, but it also turned him into a melancholy, blubbering mess.
He wiped away the fat tears rolling down his cheeks with the back of his hand.
From the outside, most of his acquaintances saw James as a successful forty-three-year-old man who ran a thriving website-design business. He was happily married. His mortgage was paid off. He was financially secure. On the surface, he was one of life’s winners. Only his drinking hinted at his dark secret.
AA had seemed to be the answer for a while. Of course, it didn’t solve all his problems. The reason he’d turned to drink in the first place hadn’t disappeared, but AA gave him enough support to avoid the seductive lure of alcohol most of the time.
Vodka had always been his drink of choice. Clear and discreet, it could be poured into a water bottle and carried around all day without arousing too much suspicion. It wasn’t completely odourless, but it didn’t smell as strong as other alcohols, and, most important of all, it was effective and got him drunk fast.
‘How long has it been since you fell off the wagon?’ his friend asked, looking concerned.
James felt a wave of unrelenting shame. Why was he so weak?
‘Two years,’ he said quietly, looking at the almost-empty bottle of vodka on the table next to the small glass tumbler. James sat on the sofa, and his friend sat opposite him in an armchair with his fingers interlinked, hands resting lightly on his lap as he looked at James reproachfully.
‘Two years is pretty good going. We all have setbacks sometimes. The trick is to get back on the wagon.’
James nodded. ‘You’re right. I’ll pour the rest down the sink.’
He didn’t want to, though. He wanted to finish the bottle. Once you started, it was so hard to stop. His fingers itched to reach out and grab the bottle. Could he pretend to pour it down the sink and then stash it somewhere, so he could finish it after his guest had left?
‘No need to do that,’ he said. ‘It’s open, so you may as well finish it.’
James blinked in surprise. That wasn’t the response he’d anticipated.
‘I shouldn’t really,’ James said. ‘Not now. I’m feeling better. Just talking about it has helped. I should have come clean years ago. I’m already feeling stronger. The guilt was eating away at me.’
‘I’m not surprised. It must have been a horrible thing to go through, and keeping it to yourself must have been unbearable.’
James sniffed, his gaze fixed on the bottle of vodka.
‘Go ahead,’ his friend said. ‘You can start afresh tomorrow.’
James shook his head and stood up. Unsteady on his feet, he reached out to grasp the arm of the sofa before staggering forward towards the balcony doors. ‘No, I’d better not. I just need to sober up a bit. Fresh air will help. I’m sorry for unloading all this on you.’
He’d not been keen on buying a flat. That had been his wife’s idea. James would have preferred a house with a garden. They couldn’t have animals in the flat either, and he’d always imagined himself having a dog to take for walks and to greet him enthusiastically when he came home.
His wife worked away a lot, and he got lonely. He didn’t like his own company. When he was alone he had time to think. He didn’t like that at all.
He pushed open the balcony doors and felt the cold night air wash over him. The breeze was bracing and felt good. They’d had a mild start to the autumn but the weather had shifted, and James found the evening air cooler than he’d expected. He leaned heavily on the painted railings and looked down.
Their flat didn’t have the best view. Lincoln had lovely old buildings, and some of the other apartments had views of the castle or cathedral. Their apartment had been sold as having a view of the river, but you could only see it if you stuck your head out of the bathroom window. The apartments with appealing views were more expensive, so they’d opted for this one because it meant they could afford an extra bedroom for James to use as an office.
He gripped the railings and swayed a little as he looked across the road at the multistorey car park. Not the most attractive view.
James saw someone moving near the entrance. He squinted, leaning forward. It was the homeless girl; he saw her most days. He sighed. Life could be very unfair. She was only a youngster. His wife often carried a cup of coffee down to the girl before she went to work. James had given her a slice of his birthday cake last month. She was a sweet kid.
He couldn’t see her clearly because it was dark, but he could make out the outline of her sleeping bag and the couple of bags she always seemed to have with her.
She was an addict, of course. He’d seen the marks on her arms, but who was he to judge? He was an addict, too. He might be functioning well enough to hold down a job and keep a roof over his head, but an addict was an addict.
James heard a noise and turned to smile as his friend stepped out on to the balcony beside him.
‘I feel like a weight has been lifted,’ James said. ‘I should have come clean ages ago. They say a problem shared is a problem halved, but I’d never believed that until today.’
His friend said nothing, but stepped closer and glanced over the railings.
James shivered and looked down. ‘It’s quite a drop, isn’t it? I wasn’t sure about being on the eighth floor, but Diana insisted. She liked the views better higher up. I’m not sure being higher makes the car park look any better, but I suppose we get more light up here.’
He turned to his friend, who was still silent, and wondered if he’d shocked him with his confession. ‘I hope you don’t mind me telling you all this tonight. I’ve been carrying it around with me for so long. It was making me ill.’ James looked away. ‘I hope you don’t think too badly of me.’
This time when James turned back to him, his friend had a strange look in his eyes.
He almost looked angry.
James blinked. His alcohol-muddled brain was trying to tell him something, trying to warn him something wasn’t right, but he couldn’t process his thoughts fast enough.
It wasn’t until he felt the man’s hand beneath his armpit and another hand on his belt that he realised something was terribly wrong.
Even then, when his mind finally recognised the danger, when he realised he needed to run, his body wouldn’t obey his commands. Instead of springing into action from the flood of adrenaline, his muscles refused to respond. Trembling, all James could do was let out a little whimper as he was hoisted into the air and over the railings.
At the last minute, his body jerked into action, and he bucked and twisted, desperately trying to free himself and get back to the safety of the balcony. His body rested on the railings, and he felt a dull pain in his hip as he squirmed against them, and then in the next moment he was given another shove that sent him hurtling to the ground.
In the short time it took James to plummet from the eighth floor, one thought ran through his mind: What have I done?
PC Sanderson and PC Montgomery arrived at 92 Old Road, Skellingthorpe, just after nine a.m. The woman who had called the emergency services for help stood at the front of the house, waving at them as they exited their police vehicle.
‘Thank goodness,’ she said, pressing one hand against her chest and flapping the other one at them to try to hurry them along.
‘Are you the neighbour who called the police? Mrs Maud Kennedy?’ PC Sanderson asked.
The woman replied in short, staccato sentences, each word punctuated by a gasping breath. ‘Yes. I knew something was wrong. We hadn’t seen him on his bike this morning, you see. And he always cycles to the shop for his paper. I should have checked on him before now.’
She quickly walked along the garden path towards the front door, and the officers followed her.
‘Are you sure he hasn’t gone away?’ PC Montgomery asked. ‘Perhaps he’s gone to visit relatives.’
The woman turned on him scornfully. ‘I’ve lived opposite him for twenty years, and I have never known him to visit family since his wife died. Or, for that matter, family to visit him. Besides, I thought I heard him groaning.’
PC Sanderson looked at the dilapidated exterior of the house. The old wooden window frames were half rotted away. The front door was also wooden, with thin cracks criss-crossing the weather-damaged blue paint.
‘It’s all right, Mrs Kennedy,’ Sanderson said. ‘We’ll check up on him and make sure he’s all right.’
Mrs Kennedy shook her head. ‘But he’s not all right. I told you, I can hear moaning. If you put your ear against the door, you should be able to hear it.’
Sanderson gave his colleague a nod, and PC Montgomery pressed his ear against the front door before peering through the letterbox. ‘I can hear something. But I can’t see him.’
He continued staring through the letterbox, and after a short pause, he let out a yelp and fell on to his backside.
Sanderson rushed to his side, grabbing his elbow and pulling him to his feet. ‘What was it?’
PC Montgomery shook his head, looking abashed. ‘Nothing. It was just a cat. It gave me a fright.’
Sanderson resisted making a sarcastic comment. He turned to Mrs Kennedy, who was looking at both of them, no doubt wondering at the state of the police these days.
Sanderson tried to exert a little control over the situation. ‘Let’s go round to the back, shall we? We may be able to gain entry a little easier there.’
Mrs Kennedy nodded. ‘The back door is old and has glass panels. You should be able to break one of those.’
They walked around the side of the house and saw Mrs Kennedy was right. An old-fashioned door with glass panels and a brass handle stood before them like a burglar’s dream. Sanderson didn’t bother returning to the car to get any tools or request backup. Instead, he picked up a large decorative stone, one of many that lined the flowerbed, and broke the small pane of glass beside the handle.
In the distance, they heard the wail of a siren.
‘That’ll be the ambulance,’ PC Montgomery said to Mrs Kennedy with a confident smile.
If his aim was to reassure her, it didn’t work. She turned her back on him, clasping the small gold cross that hung from her neck, and watched PC Sanderson slip his hand carefully through the broken pane of glass to grasp the door handle from the inside. When the door didn’t open, he felt down a little lower, locating the bolt, and a moment later he gave a satisfied grin as he slid the bolt across and opened the back door.
As they heard the ambulance pull up outside the house, PC Montgomery turned to Mrs Kennedy and asked her to remain outside.
She looked most put out. ‘He won’t like it,’ she warned. ‘Bert doesn’t like strangers, and he doesn’t like anybody in his house.’
PC Sanderson thought she was exaggerating. ‘If he needs help, we need to go inside. If you could stand back a little, please.’ He pointed to the spot where he wanted Mrs Kennedy to stand, but she just took one tiny step backwards. She was beginning to irritate him. It was one thing to be concerned about her neighbour, but she seemed almost to be revelling in the excitement.
‘What’s his name?’
‘It’s Bert. Albert Johnson. He’s in his eighties and a little bit doddery on his feet these days. I’ve offered him help time and time again, but he’s too proud to accept it.’
PC Sanderson left his colleague outside to greet the paramedics and keep an eye on Mrs Kennedy, and stepped inside the property.
He called out, ‘Police! We’re here to help, Bert. Where are you?’
There was no answer.
The air smelled damp and old. The kitchen was dirty. It wasn’t that there were unwashed pots and pans lying around, but the counters were filthy. A thick layer of dust covered the windowsills. Sanderson looked around at the neglected, rundown kitchen and felt a pang of sympathy for the poor old bloke who lived here. Maybe he didn’t notice the state of the place. Maybe his old eyes couldn’t see the dust and grime properly anymore. Sanderson sighed. Maybe the man’s old body was too tired for cleaning.
The decor hadn’t been updated since the seventies, he noticed as he left the kitchen and headed along the hallway.
He called out again. ‘Bert? We’re the police, we’ve come to help you. Where are you?’
But PC Sanderson didn’t have to wait for an answer. As soon as he turned the corner he saw a pair of legs at the bottom of the stairs. One of them was folded at an awkward angle.
‘Bert, my name is PC Sanderson of the Lincolnshire Police. We have an ambulance outside, and we’re going to get you to the hospital and fixed up. Okay?’
He approached the elderly man and knelt down beside him, reaching out to take his hand. That wasn’t protocol, but it felt like the right thing to do. He wanted to offer the old man some comfort.
The man turned to him, but as Sanderson looked down into his rheumy eyes, he didn’t see gratitude or relief, he saw fear.
That was understandable, he supposed. The poor man must be terrified. Goodness knows how long he’d been crumpled at the bottom of the stairs, injured and unable to move. The dark patch on the front of his trousers made Sanderson suspect it had been quite some time.
‘You’re going to be all right, Bert. Everything’s going to be just fine.’
The staircase was steep and each step was narrow. It wasn’t surprising the old man had taken a tumble.
Bert’s fingers tightened around his hand just as PC Montgomery entered the house with the paramedics.
Before Sanderson could say anything to the paramedics and explain the circumstances, the old man’s face twisted in anger as he rasped, ‘I never let you in.’
Sanderson hadn’t chosen this job for the compliments. He’d come across plenty of people who didn’t appreciate his help or assistance, but the man’s reaction surprised him. From the state of him, he guessed Bert had been flat on his back for hours, in agony and unable to get up. Now that the emergency services had turned up to help, Sanderson had expected a little more gratitude. Maybe the poor old boy was delirious.
As the female paramedic knelt down beside Bert and leaned over to examine his injuries, he batted her hands away. ‘Go away. I don’t need your help.’
She exchanged a look with Sanderson. ‘He’s overwrought. Not surprising.’
Bert tightened his hold on Sanderson’s hand, causing the officer to wince. The old man still had a surprisingly strong grip.
Bert’s watery blue eyes locked with Sanderson’s. ‘You are not to go upstairs.
Do you hear me? It’s private. Do not go upstairs!’ He paled dramatically and began gasping for breath.
Both paramedics sprang into action, and Sanderson pulled his hand away. He got to his feet and took a step back, giving them room to work. It wasn’t long before they had an oxygen mask over the old man’s face, and a few moments later, they wheeled him out of the house on a trolley.
PC Montgomery widened his eyes and blew out a breath, puffing out his cheeks. ‘Well, he wasn’t exactly pleased to see us.’
Sanderson shrugged. ‘He was probably delirious from lying here for so long.’
He was trying to convince himself, but he had to admit there was something about the old man’s reaction that set off alarm bells.
Montgomery grinned at him. ‘So what do we do now?’
Distracted, Sanderson frowned. ‘What do you mean? We secure the premises and then talk to Mrs Kennedy before writing up our report.’
‘Yes, of course, but before we do that we’re going to look upstairs, right?’
Sanderson’s gaze was drawn to the steep staircase. There was no reason for them to go up there. It was a domestic accident. They needed to secure the broken window, write their report and head back to the station.
‘Come on,’ PC Montgomery said. ‘It won’t take long. It’s worth a look. That old bloke really didn’t want us to go upstairs.’
He started to climb the stairs, his big heavy boots crushing the paisley carpet beneath his feet.
Sanderson objected. ‘This is someone’s home. You can’t just trample all over it without good reason.’
‘You stay there, then,’ Montgomery called over his shoulder. ‘I’m going upstairs to find what he didn’t want us to see.’
Sanderson hesitated at the foot of the stairs for a moment or two before huffing under his breath and following. The steps creaked beneath his feet as he walked past the peeling wallpaper, and he noticed that the handrail was a little loose.
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