Authors: Anna Sweeney
Table of Contents
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First published in Great Britain and the USA 2014 by
SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS LTD of
19 Cedar Road, Sutton, Surrey, England, SM2 5DA.
Originally published in Irish as
by ClÃ³ Iar-Chonnacht in 2010 under the name Anna Heussaff.
eBook edition first published in 2014 by Severn House Digital
an imprint of Severn House Publishers Limited
Copyright Â© 2014 by Anna Heussaff
The right of Anna Sweeney to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
Sweeney, Anna, author.
1. MurderâInvestigationâIrelandâBeara Peninsulaâ
Fiction. 2. Detective and mystery stories.
ISBN-13: 978-0-7278-8369-8 (cased)
ISBN-13: 978-1-84751-513-1 (trade paper)
ISBN-13: 978-1-78010-519-2 (ePub)
Except where actual historical events and characters are being described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.
This ebook produced by
Palimpsest Book Production Limited,
Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland.
To Simon and Conall, for all your love, laughter and support
aureen lay sprawled on a rough track in the countryside. She was in the shadow of an old stone wall where it was difficult to see her. Night was falling and the surrounding hills had become black shapes hunched over the fields.
Slowly and gently, Nessa moved the torchlight onto her face. Maureen's mouth was open, and her lipstick was smeared as if she had been dribbling. Nessa wished she could wipe her clean with a handkerchief. But the ambulance and the local garda sergeant were on their way. Everything had to be left exactly as it was.
âLook, just there, on her head, that's where the wound is â¦'
âIs she still bleeding? Could you see properly when you found her first?'
âSee this large stone beside her, I think that was how â¦'
Three people were talking at once. Nessa's teenage daughter, Sal, was crouched beside her, and their neighbour, Darina, who had found Maureen, was standing behind them. She had been out for an evening stroll when she glimpsed a figure on the ground as she passed nearby. She had recognised Maureen as one of a group staying at Nessa's guesthouse, and phoned her to raise the alarm.
Nessa passed the torch back to Sal and took the injured woman's hand. Her heart pounded. Darina was too upset on the phone to explain things properly and Nessa had not known what to expect. She had had to concentrate on the practicalities first, making emergency calls, gathering supplies, and ensuring that the rest of her guests were fine. She had asked Sal to take a shortcut on foot from their house to meet Darina as soon as possible, while she herself drove the longer way around.
Maureen was alive; that was what mattered. Bending over her, Nessa could feel her breath on the cool air. Her guest was in her early forties, but she was a thin, nervy sort of person, and smoked a lot. She would hardly have survived a night out on a cold, damp hillside.
Nessa released her hand for a moment and pulled an emergency blanket out of her bag, a lightweight aluminium covering that would help to conserve Maureen's body heat. Questions crowded her mind but she pushed them aside. In the torchlight, she could see a shiny streak of blood in Maureen's hair. She had to be kept warm, that was the priority until medical help reached them. It was mid-September and a chill wind blew in from the sea.
âIt took you ages to get here in the car,' Sal complained to her mother. âDarina was in a real state.'
âIt took me a while to contact you, just trying to get a phone connection,' said Darina. âI was afraid I'd have to run all the way to your house. It's such a curse that we don't have a reliable mobile signal everywhere.'
âHer pulse seems OK, so let's hope for the best.' Nessa did her best to keep her voice calm. Darina was clearly shocked, her arms clutched around her chest. She was in her early twenties, and Sal was just eighteen.
âLook at this stone on the ground,' said Darina, pointing with her foot. âI think it must have caused the main wound.'
âYou mean Maureen fell over it, or maybe fainted and hit her head on it?' Nessa gestured to Darina not to touch anything. She was worried that they had already disturbed the ground around Maureen.
âNo, Nessa, what I mean is, that it wasn't an accident. I thought I'd explained that on the phone. Did you not notice her clothes? I covered her with my jacket, because she was really cold to the touch. But I left her skirt just as it was.'
Nessa had just put the blanket over Maureen, but she lifted it and removed the jacket carefully, handing it to Darina. Maureen's skirt was rumpled and torn in a few places. Two buttons on her silky blouse were open and the buckle on her wide belt was loose. When she covered her again, Nessa added a small rug on top of the blanket. She tried to keep a new wave of anxiety at bay.
âYou were right not to touch her clothes, Darina,' she said quietly. âBut we can't be certain what happened.'
Darina pulled on her jacket forcefully. âWell, it's disgusting that anyone would attack a woman out in an isolated spot like this. I mean, it could've happened hours ago, in the middle of the day, and poor Maureen was left lying here ever since.'
âI'm sure Sergeant Fitzmaurice will have his own ideas when he gets here. But we're very lucky that you saw Maureen at all, considering this track is a dead end.'
âDarina was walking along the little road at the top of the track, up where you parked,' said Sal, who didn't like to be left out of a conversation. âBut you told me it wasn't dark at that stage, Darina, and that's how you managed to spot her?'
âYes, that's it. I suppose it was a bit dusky, but I think â¦ I stopped at the corner and just happened to glance down this direction. I'd stopped to pick a few blackberries, as a matter of fact, and I was wondering if I'd get more of them down here.' Darina hesitated as she tried to describe the sequence of events. âI think it was her shiny blouse that caught my eye, but I'd no idea I'd find someone unconscious.'
âAnyway, we took a few photos of Maureen while the light was fading,' said Sal, clicking through the menu on her phone. âThat was actually my idea, because I reckoned they'd make, like, handy evidence if there was a police investigation. But they're not great pics, I'm afraid. The camera on my phone isn't the best.'
Sal sounded more excited than shocked. Her mother could well imagine the sort of
television images playing in her head, now that she had a lead role in the action. Life's cares didn't weigh heavily on her as they did on Darina.
Nessa looked at her watch. The ambulance had to come from Castletownbere, over ten miles away on narrow country roads, and she hoped she had given them clear directions. There was a network of byroads or boreens, as they were known locally, winding and criss-crossing each other between the coast and the mountains. It would be all too easy to take a wrong turn.
She willed herself to be patient. Help was on the way. If Maureen had not been found in time, it might have been impossible to send out search parties before daybreak. Nessa's guests were taking part in a week of guided walks and other activities on the Beara peninsula on Ireland's rugged southwest coast. On Thursdays, however, they were free to do as they liked, and Maureen had been out since mid-morning. When she had not returned for dinner at seven o'clock as agreed, Nessa made a few calls to check whether she was in the nearest pub or hotel. But if Darina's call had not alerted her soon afterwards, she might have waited a few hours longer before becoming seriously concerned.
âSo what about Dominic? I presume you got onto him when Maureen didn't turn up for dinner? And I hope you phoned him back with the news?'
âOf course I did,' said Nessa. She pretended not to notice her daughter's needling tone. âHe was out fishing all day but he left me a message a short while ago.'
âAnd is he rushing to the scene, or what?'
âWho's Dominic? I don't remember his name.' Darina had crouched by the drystone wall, and was turning a small stone over and over in her hand.
âHe's Maureen's husband,' said Nessa. âHe'd said this morning that he wouldn't join us for dinner, and I think his phone must have been switched off when I tried to get hold of him.'
âI don't remember meeting him when Maureen and the others came to the Barn on Tuesday?' Darina was working to establish herself as an artist, and Nessa had brought her guests to visit her studio and those of other local artists. âBut he must be worried sick by now.'
âI don't know about that,' said Sal. âThe story is that he and Maureen broke up for a while earlier this year. And from what we've seen all week, they won't be nominated for a Happy Couple of the Year award any time soon.'
âI'm sure Dominic is very worried about her,' said Nessa.
âWorried about money, more like,' said Sal. She turned to Darina and grinned. âThing is, Maureen scooped a big Lotto win a few years ago. She bought a pub with the proceeds, or so she told us the other evening. Then she was, like, “I should've invested in a toyboy for myself while I had my chance”. She was totally serious about it too. And there's Dominic beside her, pretending not to notice while she blabs awayâ'
âPlease, Sal, that's enough.' Nessa stroked Maureen's cold hand. Her skin was clammy, like fish just out of the fridge. It had become painfully clear during the week that she was vulnerable, with little sense of when to keep her mouth shut.
She studied her face. Maureen cultivated a young woman's looks quite successfully, but the signs of age showed under the harsh torchlight. The corners of her mouth were puckered, and her jet black hair was thinning. The bright cheerful mask she liked to show the world had slipped.
âWhy is the ambulance taking so long?' Darina stood up and looked out into the darkness. âOnce they turn off the main road and then up from the village, they should be here in no time.'
âWhat I was wondering,' said Sal, âis why Maureen made her way to this secluded spot in the first place? It wasn't really her thing, was it, rambling around the countryside on solo outings? And anyway, why was she walking along a dead end?'