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Authors: Marjorie Eccles

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An Accidental Shroud

BOOK: An Accidental Shroud
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AN ACCIDENTAL
SHROUD

Marjorie Eccles

CHIVERS

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data available

This eBook published by AudioGO Ltd, Bath, 2012.

Published by arrangement with the Author

Epub ISBN 9781471310546

Copyright © 1994 by Marjorie Eccles

The Author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work

All rights reserved

This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental

Jacket illustration © iStockphoto.com

Contents

Prologue

Part 1

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Part 2

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

My thanks are due to Gary Cox, to Ian Harris of N. Bloom & Son (Antiques) Ltd, and to Geoffrey Munn and his staff at Wartski, for their very generous help and advice
PROLOGUE

October

 

He was beginning to wish he'd picked a better night for the murder, but it was too late for that now, though the storm was growing worse. Then he saw how it might work to his advantage, and his mood lifted.

The weathermen had forecast winds of epic proportions, and for once they'd been right. He'd never experienced anything like it; he imagined this was how the Blitz must have been, with the din of bombs and flying debris and the exhilarating smell of danger. The thought of death and destruction excited him. It was the sort of night when chimney-stacks blew down and people were killed by falling trees and flying roof tiles, but it was providing him with perfect cover. Nobody in their right mind would be out who didn't absolutely have to.

Their right mind! He nearly laughed at that.

He knew that anyone making a calculated decision to kill, as he had done, would be thought evil, or mad, but he wasn't mad, and he didn't feel evil: cool and clever was what he felt. Cool and clever and high on his own cleverness and the few drinks he'd had to keep him psyched up.

He'd planned only the broad outlines. He could never be bothered with details or plans and in any case, take it as it comes was what always worked best for him, especially in a dangerous situation. His greatest asset was his ability to think fast, on his feet; he was intuitive and able to rely on what his brain dictated at the time. That way you didn't have to cope with unforeseen snags to any pre-arranged plan. All he'd needed was the basic idea and luck, which so far had been with him. But he took that for granted. You made your own luck.

The tricky part was still to come. The night was black as a bag and the rain wasn't helping any. He needed to concentrate on keeping the vehicle steady against the buffeting it was getting. Although the pick-up had good road-holding capacity, the wind-snatch caused it to swerve every time he drove past a gap in the houses. He made a snap decision to avoid the ring road alongside the park and the arboretum. The one thing he didn't need was some uprooted tree to come crashing down on him, especially before he'd jettisoned the cargo he had in the back.

Unless he wanted to deviate miles out of his way, however, he'd no option but to drive through the town centre. For the first time he felt jittery. Hell, it's safe enough, he told himself; power lines were down and whole sections of the town were unlit, the roads were deserted – so far he'd met not a single other person or vehicle. Even the police were keeping a low profile tonight, and who could blame them?

A mega-size piece of brown packaging paper, whirling across the road, forced him to floor the brake pedal. Slapping itself immovably against the windscreen, it immediately reduced his visibility from limited to nil, fouling the wipers so that he couldn't free it that way. He swore, and swung himself out of the driving seat. The wind knocked the breath from his body and nearly had him flat on his back as he fought to get to the front and tear the sodden paper off the glass. He was soaked within seconds and the vehicle rocked dangerously when he swung himself back inside. Rain streamed down the windscreen.

This was bad. So far his mind had been on auto, performing the necessary actions without conscious thought as the need arose, but now he made himself stop and consider. His destination had been the river, the swift-flowing river that would be in spate tonight. Not only in spate, goddamnit, but flooded, especially at the point he'd previously earmarked. He'd never get the vehicle near enough, and carrying a heavy body for any distance in these conditions wasn't an option.

Was it fate that had blown the paper across his vision at that particular point? He found he'd stopped at the entrance to Nailers' Yard. A dark and malodorous alley, a place to be avoided, unless you were pretty far gone. But to those who were it was a refuge – to the winos and junkies and destitutes, the no-hopers, the dross of the town, who were glad enough of the free warmth that belched from the ventilation shaft of the Rose's kitchens and the conspicuous waste from its dustbins. The Rose, dignified with the name of casino, was the town's one and only nightclub, and even that was closed early tonight, the light over its side door extinguished.

He slid out of the driving seat again and was practically catapulted into the alley. The main street lights were out here and the darkness was total. The wind shrieked into the narrow space, tin cans rattled, a dustbin lid was lifted several yards and banged down again, sundry other bangs and crashes and the sound of breaking glass came from somewhere in the distance. But in the yard, nothing else moved; no one was there to be disturbed, none of the usual shapeless bundles huddled into cardboard boxes. On this wicked night, even the hardened dossers had seemingly preferred to endure a forced bath in return for a bed at the Sally Army.

He reversed the truck into the alley and let down the tailgate. It took him all his time to keep upright as he dragged the body out the best way he could before finally letting it drop on to the wet granite setts. He was surprised by its relative warmth until he reminded himself how little time had passed since the act.

Breathing heavily, he took a last look around to make sure he'd missed nothing, that no huddled human rubbish had after all been watching from the shadows, but nobody was there to observe him. His idea had been to dump the weighted body in the river, where it would have stayed until nothing remained of it to identify, until any evidence to connect him with it would have disappeared. As it was, this would have to do. He gave the corpse a last look, then left it, stripped of cash, valuables and identification, in the stinking alley, near the side door of the nightclub. Just another mugging victim.

Now that it was all over his cool left him abruptly. His palms were slippery with sweat and he was suddenly frantic to put as much distance as possible between himself and the alley. He began to drive as though all the devils in hell were after him, but then he forced himself to a more moderate pace. It would be ironic if he had an accident, or was stopped for speeding at this juncture.

In the weeks leading up to this he had repeatedly told himself that if anything went wrong and he was caught – well, that was it, it was the luck of the game – he was willing to pay the penalty. But now it had come to the crunch, he knew there was no way he'd allow himself to be caught. Now that the bastard was dead, why should he sacrifice his own freedom for him?

There was no reason why he should be caught, though. Everything had gone as if pre-ordained ... A stab in the belly and he'd been gone. Getting him into the back of the truck wasn't nearly as tough as he'd imagined it would be. Making absolutely certain there were no traces left behind had been less easy. He'd been worried about being heard, about the possibility of gurgling water pipes when he drew hot water to clean the blood off the floor and elsewhere, but there'd been no sound from upstairs. He'd gone about the rest of his business undisturbed.

Ten minutes later, he dumped the pick-up back on the building site where it had been left. Builders were notoriously careless with their plant and machinery. The keys had been removed, but that didn't matter. The vehicle didn't exist that he couldn't start without keys if he had to. Despite his struggles against the wind, as he went back down the lane to where he had left his own car hidden, his breathing came more easily. He was safe! He'd won! He'd done what he'd determined to do. He felt a flush of heat, as though he stood under a hot shower, and then the same orgasmic release of tension.

The headlights of the oncoming car transfixed him, the beam pinning him like a moth to a board. For a moment he didn't believe what he was seeing, then realization of what it might mean hit him. His bowels felt loose. There was no way the driver could fail to see him.

He pressed himself back into what little protection the hedge offered as the car bucked past on the bumpy lane, the driver looking fixedly ahead through the segment of windscreen cleared by the wipers. As it passed, the watcher caught a glimpse of a set profile.
What the
...? What the hell was
he
doing out here? Instinct told him to run, but he forced himself to wait, listening for the car coming back, tensing himself to act, but though he stayed there for three, four, maybe five minutes, losing count, his heart thumping like a trip-hammer in his chest, nobody came, and in the end he walked away unchallenged.

He was ninety-nine per cent sure, against all the odds, that he hadn't been seen and recognized by the car driver – but if by some chance he had, he knew exactly what to do about it.

He'd already killed once, so he wouldn't be averse to doing it again.

PART 1

September

1

Long before the big storm, when it was still hot, in mid-September, Christine Wilding stretched out on the edge of the swimming pool in the conservatory, sucking the icecube that was all that was left of her lemon drink, gazing moodily into the blue depths as if she might find there the answers she was looking for. All she saw was her own reflection. And while there was nothing much wrong there – springing red-gold hair, slanting turquoise blue eyes and a splendid body – no answers to her problems miraculously appeared.

What problems? What problems did she have, for goodness sake? Married to Jake Wilding for six months and more money to spend than she'd ever had in her life before ... a spacious, architect-designed home ... a glamorous lifestyle, with holidays abroad and no restrictions on what she did in her spare time ... She could think of people who'd welcome problems like that.

Still.

Already the temperature was soaring, although it was barely nine a.m. The sun hadn't yet reached the conservatory so it was just about bearable in there, but the warmth had brought out the overpowering scent of the stephanotis as it climbed to the roof, its waxy, starry white flowers mingling with the old vine planted against the wall. This year, recovering from disturbance by the builders, the vine had borne token fruit again, although the few small bunches were destined never to ripen properly and had begun to wither on the stem. The long, poisonous white trumpets of the datura had all shrivelled and some of them had blown on to the surface of the curved leaf-shaped swimming pool which took up most of the floor space of the conservatory.

Maybe it was just this never-ending heatwave that was getting on her nerves. It seemed ungrateful to complain, but the plain fact was that summer had gone on too long. The endless days of sunshine had begun by being gloriously welcome but by now, into September, had turned to drought and oppressive heat, tediously un-British and very trying to the temper.

Jake alone revelled in the hot weather. He could lie for hours in the sun, soaking it up as if it were the fuel he needed for his amazing energy. He was happy in the summer. Usually, he was.

But he wasn't himself lately. That much was obvious to Christine, if to no one else. For some reason Jake, who normally roared like a lion when things went wrong, expecting ego-smoothing sympathy from everyone else, was keeping quiet. This worried Christine. However much she tried to dismiss it, the idea was beginning to nag at her that he might, for reasons not yet apparent, be having regrets about their marriage.

Her own expectations hadn't been unrealistic and so she hadn't been disappointed. She was thirty-nine and she wasn't a dreamer, having had to fend for herself and Lindsay ever since her divorce from Lindsay's father sixteen years ago. Her immediate acceptance, when Jake had asked her to marry him, had been uncharacteristic but by no means uncertain. They had everything necessary to make a go of it – good sex, an easy companionship. And though she'd never kidded herself that Jake was madly in love with her, he had warmth and generosity enough to make up for that. They'd both known what they wanted. On her part, security for herself and Lindsay; on Jake's, a supportive wife. Marrying again hadn't been on her agenda, and she'd known him such a short time, but she'd had no hesitation in accepting. No, she hadn't been disappointed ... but had he?

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