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Geraldine smiled at her adopted sister. Despite her complaints about disturbed nights, Celia looked happier than Geraldine had seen her in a long time. Her month-old baby snuffled gently in his sleep as she rocked him gently in her arms.
'Would you like to hold him?' Celia asked.
Still smiling, Geraldine shook her head. 'It might wake him up. Anyway, I really should get going.'
'It's still early,' Celia protested. 'Even you can't pretend you've got to get back for work tonight. It's Sunday, for goodness sake. Why don't you stay overnight and go home tomorrow?'
As a detective sergeant working on murder investigations, Geraldine's job was no respecter of the time of day, but she wasn't on a case just then. All the same she shook her head. Even though there was no pressing reason for her to hurry away, she had a long journey ahead of her, and she was back on call in the morning.
'He's lovely,' she repeated for the hundredth time. Privately she thought that her tiny new nephew resembled a pink frog. 'Don't get up. We don't want to disturb him.'
Celia gave a sleepy smile. 'You'll come back soon?'
Geraldine was quick to reassure her sister that she would return as soon as she could. She made good time, and reached home in time for supper. She had been living in York for nearly three months and, after a miserable winter, she was starting to feel settled. She was even thinking of selling her flat in London and buying somewhere in York, putting a stamp of permanence on her move. The transformation in her feelings seemed to have taken place almost overnight. One evening she had gone to bed feeling displaced and lonely. The following morning she had woken up unaccountably at ease in her new home. Driving to work her spirits had lifted further on seeing a bank of daffodils, bright against the deep velvety green slope below the city wall. Already, early groups of oriental visitors were beginning to throng the pavements. She wasn't looking forward to an influx of summer tourists clogging up the bustling streets of a city that unexpectedly felt like home.
A few weeks had passed since then, and she was still undecided what to do. Celia would be disappointed if Geraldine decided to make her move to York permanent, but the idea of settling there seemed increasingly appealing with every passing week. She had to live somewhere, and York was as good a place as any. She liked it there. Besides, her oldest friend and colleague lived there. She wondered how Ian Peterson would react if he knew she was considering him in making a decision about where she wanted to spend the rest of her life.
Mid-morning on Monday, Geraldine was summoned to an interview room where a member of the public was waiting to lodge a complaint. As an experienced officer, Geraldine was used to fielding vexatious accusations. With a sigh she made her way along the corridor to the room where the irate woman was waiting for her. Stocky and square-jawed, with short grey hair, she sat with trousered knees pressed together and fleshy arms folded across her chest.
'What seems to be the problem, Ms Abbott?' Geraldine asked as she sat down.
The grey-haired woman's eyes glittered and her voice was unsteady. 'I want to talk to someone about my brother's murder.'
'Are you saying your brother's been murdered?'
'Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying.'
'And is this a murder case that's under investigation? What's your brother's name?'
The woman shook her head, and her ruddy face turned a deeper shade of red.
'No, no, no. You're not investigating it. No one's investigating anything. Look, my brother was found hanging from a banister nine days ago.' She leaned forward and lowered her voice. 'They said it was suicide, but that's simply not true.'
Geraldine frowned, and tried to look interested. She found it was usually best to let aggrieved members of the public have their say.
'Perhaps you'd better start at the beginning. What makes you suspect your brother's death wasn't suicide?'
'It's more than a suspicion. I know my brother – that is, I knew him. There's no way he would have taken his own life. He wasn't that sort of a person. He was – he was a robust man, Sergeant. He loved life.'
'Circumstances can have a devastating effect on people, even those we think we know well –'
'Please, don't dismiss this as the ramblings of a grieving woman. I knew my brother. He would never have killed himself. He was blessed with a cheerful disposition, and, before you say it, he didn't suffer from depression, and he didn't have money worries, or any problems with drink or drugs. There was nothing in his life that might have prompted him to end it. And hanging's not the kind of death that can happen by accident. No, he was murdered, I'm sure of it. I waited as long as I could before coming forward because I thought no one would believe he killed himself, but now she tells me they're burying him on Wednesday, so we don't have much time. I came here to plead with you to look into what happened, before it's too late.'
Geraldine did her best to pacify the distressed woman, wondering whether Amanda Abbott was simply trying to cause trouble for her brother's widow.
'Do you have any evidence that your brother was murdered? At the moment, all you've given me is supposition.'
Amanda shrugged her square shoulders. 'I wasn't there, but I know – I knew my brother. Why would he have suddenly done away with himself?'
Geraldine was faintly intrigued. Amanda didn't strike her as the kind of woman who might be given to hysterical delusions.
'So if he didn't commit suicide, and it wasn't an accident, what do you think happened?'
'My sister-in-law did it,' Amanda answered promptly. 'It's obvious. They never got on. And now she gets her hands on everything he worked for.'
'How long were they married?'
'Over thirty years.'
'That's a long time for a couple who don't get on to stay together,' Geraldine said quietly.
'And she finally had enough of him and killed him, only she made it look like suicide so she could get away with it. I'm convinced that's what happened. Nothing else makes sense.'
Geraldine almost dismissed what she was hearing as a family disagreement, but Amanda was so insistent that she agreed to look into Mark Abbott's death.
'Please, you have to find out what happened,' Amanda said. 'He was my brother and I'm not going to sit back and see her get away with it, not if I can help it. Will you keep me posted,' she enquired as she stood up, 'or can I come back to see how you're getting on?'
Geraldine promised she would do her best to find out whether there might have been anything unlawful about the death. Having seen Amanda off the premises, she went to speak to her detective chief inspector, Eileen. A large woman, about ten years older than Geraldine, she had dark hair greying at the temples, sharp features, and an air of solidity that was both reassuring and overbearing at the same time.
'It sounds like family politics,' Eileen said, when she had listened to Geraldine's account. 'The sister of the deceased is going out of her way to make trouble for his widow. Perhaps she was expecting to be mentioned in his will and is disappointed to have been left out of it?' 'That's what I thought. But there's one more thing. The deceased took out a fairly hefty life insurance policy with a two-year suicide exclusion clause.'
Eileen nodded. 'And you're telling me the two years ran out –'
'A week before his death. Of course, that doesn't mean he didn't kill himself. He might have waited so his wife would benefit from the policy,' she added, speaking more to herself than to her senior officer. 'But there's something about it that doesn't feel right.'
'If you want to make a few discreet enquiries, that's up to you. I can't see we've really got anything to investigate, but you can take a look if you like, as long as it doesn't distract you from your work here.' Eileen paused. 'If every widow was accused of murdering her husband when she inherited his estate, we'd have more suspects than police officers.'CHAPTER 2
Sometimes Charlotte forgot about her new circumstances. After more than thirty years of marriage, she still woke up expecting to hear her husband snoring beside her. She was used to lying awake at night, listening with growing irritation as each sonorous inhalation was followed by a brief hiatus before the sigh of air released from his lungs. Now it was the silence that disturbed her sleep. Somewhere overhead a pipe rattled and wheezed, a faint echo of the noise she had endured every night for decades, ever since they had moved into their spacious property. She flung one arm out sideways, savouring the empty expanse of bed beside her, the sheets cool and unwrinkled. Tentatively she stretched her leg out as well, until she was occupying half of her husband's share of the mattress. It didn't matter. There was no one to kick her back on to her own side of the bed. There were no longer any sides. The whole bed was hers.
The funeral had been set in motion. In two days' time mourners would gather to mumble hymns, someone would recite a eulogy, and everyone would talk about what a devoted husband and father Mark had been to her and Eddy. The thought of it irritated her, but there was no point in exposing his occasional lapses now he had gone. No one would want to hear about her dead husband's philandering, least of all his son. She drew her arm and leg quickly back on to her own side of the bed and wrapped her arms around her body, wondering who would attend the ceremony. Her stepson, Eddy, would be there, of course, accompanied by his wife. Her own sister was unable to travel all the way over from New Zealand with her family, but they had all sent their condolences.
A few of Mark's work colleagues would show up out of a sense of duty, as would the handful of friends she and Mark had kept in touch with over the years. She wasn't close to any of them, but they had all known one another for a long time and that counted for something. It was partly pride that had prompted her to contact them. She didn't want people thinking she had no friends now that Mark was gone, although the truth was that she had no real friends of her own. She never had. But the main reason she had invited as many people as she could, was that it would be easier to avoid her sister-in-law in a room full of people. Much as she hated the prospect of seeing her, she could hardly have kept the news about Mark's death from his only sister.
'I suppose Aunt Amanda will have to be there,' Eddy had said, voicing his mother's feelings.
'Don't worry,' Charlotte had told him. 'I'll deal with her.'
She had felt nowhere near as confident about speaking to her sister-in-law as she had pretended. An overbearing woman, Amanda had understandably been shocked on hearing the news of her brother's death.
'But I don't understand,' she had barked, as though it was impossible to believe that an overweight man in his sixties could possibly have died. And that was before she had learned about the circumstances surrounding his death.
Charlotte could almost feel her sister-in-law glowering at her down the phone line. She hesitated, but there was no easy way to answer the question. Her one-word reply had prompted a cry of outrage.
'Suicide?' Amanda had repeated, her voice rising in a horrified shriek. 'What do you mean, it was suicide? How could it be? Mark would never have killed himself. I don't believe it.'
Charlotte had drawn in a deep shuddering breath and tried to sound sympathetic. Of course it was terrible for Amanda to lose her brother in that way, and Charlotte was devastated to have to pass on such terrible news. But she couldn't help feeling the tragedy was far harder for her to cope with. Not only had she lost her husband of over three decades, but she had been the one to find him, suspended from the banister. For the rest of her life she would be haunted by the memory of his swollen face, his dead eyes glaring at her in wordless accusation.
She had gritted her teeth as Amanda proceeded with her enquiries. Doing her best to avoid focusing on the horrible memory, Charlotte had tried to describe what had happened in a detached way, as though she was talking about a scene in a film. Amanda had a right to know and besides, until she was satisfied she would never stop bombarding Charlotte with questions. Amanda had never been sensitive to other people's feelings. As accurately as she could, Charlotte described how she had found Mark hanging in the hall and had rushed outside, screaming for help, and how the startled gardener had dropped his rake, narrowly missing injuring himself. To his credit he hadn't hesitated to run all the way up the length of the garden to go inside with her. Although clearly shocked, he had taken control of the situation, yelling at her to call an ambulance while he righted the upturned chair, clambered on to it, and flung his arms around Mark's legs to support him. All the time he had continued shouting at her to summon help.
'Why didn't you call an ambulance straight away?'
For an instant the question had hung between them unanswered, then Charlotte began babbling about shock and the urgent need at the time to free Mark from the noose. She hadn't added that for a moment she had been unable to move. Instead of calling for help she had stood, rooted to the spot, staring at the two men entangled in their macabre one-sided embrace. After that, she could remember nothing more until the pounding at the front door had shattered the silence. Even then the gardener had been forced to shout at her to open the front door, or the police would have smashed their way in.
'But I don't understand,' her sister-in-law had repeated whenCharlotte finished speaking. 'It doesn't even make sense. How could he have reached the upstairs banister? Not Mark. I can't believe it of him.' She had sounded close to tears.
The last thing Charlotte wanted to do was talk about what had happened, but she supposed she might as well get it over with or Amanda would never let it rest.
'We think he went upstairs and tied the rope around the banister up there and then threw the end of the rope over, so he could reach it from the hall. Then he must have gone downstairs, climbed up on a chair, and ...'
Her voice had tailed off. Surely Amanda wouldn't want her to continue.
'I see,' Amanda had replied curtly, too upset to continue.
'So I'm sorry,' Charlotte had resumed after an awkward pause, 'but –'
'I don't understand,' Amanda interrupted her. 'What could have driven him to do it? Mark wasn't the sort of man to take his own life. Something must have happened to make him do it, if it really was suicide, which I doubt.'
Charlotte hadn't replied to what sounded like a veiled accusation. Whatever vile conclusion Amanda chose to draw was of no consequence. She hadn't been there, and Charlotte had. The police were convinced that Mark had taken his own life, and nothing Amanda could say was going to change their minds. It was over, and Mark was gone.CHAPTER 3
Geraldine hadn't worn her long black jacket since her birth mother's cremation. It was hard to believe nearly a year had passed since then. Giving the jacket a shake, she pulled it on over black trousers and a grey shirt, an appropriate outfit to wear to a stranger's funeral. Fulford Cemetery was not far from where she worked, and easy enough to find, but all the same she was nearly late. The car park was three-quarters empty as she parked her car and hurried into the prayer hall. Although the front rows were only half full, she slipped into a seat near the back of the hall. She had barely sat down when the funeral cortège arrived and everyone shuffled to their feet. As the coffin was brought in, Amanda caught sight of Geraldine and her expression tautened with recognition. Other than that, no one seemed to notice the stranger in the back row.
It was a dreary service, even for a funeral, with a dull and generic eulogy. Geraldine was reminded of her birth mother's funeral, where no one had spoken apart from the celebrant who had never met the dead woman or her family, and had taken no trouble to find out anything about her. The ceremony seemed to drag on interminably, but at last it drew to a close and the congregation filed outside to gather in clusters in the chilly spring sunshine. Observing the mourners, Geraldine could see nothing to arouse suspicion. The widow's grief was evident but restrained. At her side a man, presumably her son, stood stiff and dignified. A young woman was holding his arm, a solemn expression on her face. Her hair was as black as Geraldine's but hung down to her shoulders, while Geraldine's was short. A few people hovered near them, looking slightly awkward. It wasn't clear whether they belonged to their group or not.
The dead man's sister stood a few feet away from the widow and her party. After a brief hesitation, Geraldine joined her.
'That's his family,' Amanda said, nodding her head in the direction of the group. 'That's his widow, Charlotte, with my nephew, Eddy, and his wife, Luciana.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Death Rope"
Copyright © 2018 Leigh Russell.
Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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