Authors: Elizabeth Corley
For Mike, with love
For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me
About the Author
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I have a rendezvous with Death.
It was the bitterest of nights, too cold for snow, with an easterly wind that tore at his throat and drew tears from his eyes. Frost outlined branches on which leaf buds had been withered by the unseasonable weather. In the distant sky, stars seemed to shrink and shine fearfully. The track was set in waves of iron-hard mud. Pools from the previous week’s snows had frozen to thick black ice, but not thick enough to bear the weight of a heavy-set man.
The bulky figure stumbling along the starlit path lost his footing and landed heavily on his behind in a large puddle.
‘Sod it!’ His voice punctured the night like a gunshot.
The ice shattered and set him down ingloriously in
water. Even his expensive trenchcoat couldn’t protect him from the muddy liquid as it oozed through to his skin.
‘Bloody stupid place to meet,’ he muttered to himself as he lurched heavily to his feet again with the soft limbs and lack of coordination of a desk-bound middle-aged man who had let himself go.
He set off again at a determined trot, freezing now despite his heavy coat and good shooting suit. The wind shredded the racing clouds, allowing moonlight to guide him as he made his way deeper into Foxtail Wood. It was nearly two in the morning and no living thing stirred in the fury of the night.
Up ahead the man saw the first flicker of torchlight, and he hurried forward, relieved to have found his destination at last. A gentle voice called out to him.
‘Over here, Alan. Mind that stump – oh, ouch. Are you all right?’
Swearing even more furiously, Alan rubbed his shins and finally made it to the small clearing where the torchlight steadily beckoned him.
‘Bang on time as always.’ The voice was calming, but he was in a foul mood and wasn’t about to be pacified so easily.
‘Bloody stupid time, if you ask me.’
‘Yes, but there’s a reason. I told you on the phone, we have to be very careful.’
‘But why? What’s happened? You said everything was fine when we last met.’
‘Calm down. Here, have a drink, it’ll warm you up.’
Alan took the Thermos flask and poured himself a large mug of whatever it contained. Fragrant steam wafted up to his appreciative nose – highly spiced mulled wine. Just what the doctor ordered for a night like this. He took a swig, swallowing half the contents in one mouthful. They’d used damned good claret for this; pity to spoil it, but he wasn’t going to complain. Behind the rich fruitiness he could taste brandy, cloves, cinnamon, lemon, and something else … what was it? As he emptied the cup, a bitterness on the back of his tongue made him shudder.
‘Still cold? Here, have another.’
He took the cup and started to drink without even thinking about it. The wine was certainly warming and he began to relax a little. As soon as he’d finished the second beakerful, he turned on his companion.
‘What’s so important, so urgent that we have to meet at this ungodly hour in this blasted spot? Why all this sk … sk … skulduggery?’ He stumbled over his words. That wine had really gone to his head. He’d have to watch himself.
‘I’ll explain everything. Just come over here.’
Alan followed his companion across the moonlit clearing; all trace of cloud had gone now. It was treacherous underfoot and he slipped in a dark shadow of ice, landing heavily on his hip.
‘Here, let me help you.’ A surprisingly strong hand pulled him up by the elbow and guided him on as he tottered a few more yards. His legs felt very unsteady now and the trees swayed at crazy angles as he tried to stare at them and get his bearings.
Everything seemed to be twisting and turning in the wind. He could barely stand up.
‘I … I don’t feel too good. Need to sit down for a moment.’
‘No, not yet. Wait until we get to the car, then you can.’
‘Car? You said not to bring my car.’
‘I know, but I brought it for you, don’t worry.’
He saw the bleary outline of his silver-grey Rolls up ahead.
‘How …? I don’t understand.’
‘No, you wouldn’t. That’ll be the effect of the pills – they were bound to act fast with all that alcohol.’
Alan felt the first shadow of fear as he looked up at the familiar face next to him. He recalled the bitter taste in the mulled wine.
‘You’ve poisoned me?’
‘No, not quite. Only enough to make you cooperate. Now relax, we’re nearly there.’ His gloves were pulled off his frozen fingers before he could prevent it. He could hardly focus now, but he knew the lines of his beloved car so well that even in his drugged state he could tell that there was something wrong. It had grown a snake-like tail that seemed to twist up and out in the wind. As he reached the car, he put his hand out to steady himself and his fingertips brushed the tail. It felt ridged and rubbery beneath his bare fingers.
‘Good boy, now go on, touch it down here as well … and here. Good. Come on.’
He was pulled round to the driver’s side. The door was open, engine running.
‘Gosh, you’re heavy. Here, give me your hand, you’re a dead weight.’
Alan clung on, looking desperately for compassion in the face he knew so well. He was rewarded with a tight smile as he sat down obediently in the front seat. He reminded himself that he was with a friend. All he needed to do was explain how ill he felt and it would be all right.
The hand grabbed his arm and pushed him further in.
‘Oops, not too tight! There mustn’t be any bruises. Easy now, swing your legs up. Good boy.’
Alan sat befuddled, unable to move, his mind desperately trying to make sense of what was happening to him. He felt his
bare hands pressed around a small plastic bottle, which was then thrown on to the seat beside him. Next, what felt like a wine bottle was placed between his thighs, wedged upright. His fingers brushed it loosely.
There was a cloying chemical smell in the car, which he recognised but couldn’t name. The fear was back now, real, smothering fear that made him feel sick and caused his whole body to shake. He was so tired. He wanted to sleep, but more than that, he needed to understand. He struggled to form words.
‘What’s going on? Tell me, please!’
The well-known face turned towards him and stared him straight in the eye.
‘It’s simple. You’re dying, Alan, right here and now. You’re dying because you’re old and useless, a liability that’s outlived its purpose. Sleep tight.’
The door was slammed shut and locked from the outside. Alan struggled with the dead weight of his hand to try and reach the door handle, but it was too far away. His fingers brushed the rich leather padding of the armrest as he inched them higher, but the alcohol and drugs filled his head and limbs with a deadly weight. He relaxed back into the headrest with a sigh as sickly-sweet exhaust fumes thickened in the car.
Out of curiosity, the young policewoman picked up samples of the shotgun cases with a pencil and put them into evidence wallets, which she labelled quickly. They had been sheltered by leaf mould and there might still be prints. It would be interesting to see whether any were his.
The body had been discovered by a local gamekeeper, coming to check on the state of feed bins in the wood. He had recognised the car at once. He rarely visited the clearing, as it was only good for rough shooting, and it was vaguely ironic that the dead man had been one of the more regular guns. If he shot here it would explain how he knew about the concealed track to the clearing.
The young WDC had hesitated about whether to call out a SOCO team and photographer, but after talking to the duty sergeant she had done so. They’d be here soon; she only had to wait for them to arrive and the body to be removed and then she
could leave. This was the worst part of the job, waiting around, sometimes for hours, with the only enemy boredom.
She walked carefully around the car, far enough away to avoid the worst of the smell, but the buzzing of the flies was still audible. A confusion of deep rutted tracks led to the clearing, and it was impossible for her to tell which ones belonged to the Rolls.
Once again she walked up to the car, her hand clamped hard over her nose and mouth, to stare at its single occupant and his buzzing entourage. It was grotesque what decay could do, yet she still found it fascinating. In the ten days that he had been missing, a sudden sunny spell had worked destruction on the body shut up tight in the car. Decomposition was well advanced, and she didn’t begrudge the pathologist his job. Where the corpse’s skin was exposed she could see green staining and some marbling of veins on the back of his hands.
She wondered where the flies came from in winter. For one terrible minute she imagined that everyone carried flies eggs within them, as seeds of their own decomposition, just waiting for the moment of death. She shuddered.
A length of hosepipe had been attached to the exhaust pipe and fed into the top of the window, where brown plastic parcel tape had been used to seal the inch-wide gap. The rest of the tape had been used on the other window cracks, and the empty cardboard spool lay in the left-hand footwell. She noticed all the taping had been done from the inside.
WDC Nightingale ran out of breath and withdrew from the car to breathe in lungfuls of fresh air. She gave one more glance at the decaying body sitting in the driving seat in its bundle of expensive clothes, and then firmly turned her back on the scene and its power to form lifelong memories.
To reign is worth ambition though in hell:
Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.
It rapidly became common knowledge that Alan Wainwright had committed suicide one icy late-winter night, an action which delighted and appalled his family and acquaintances in equal measure. Apart from a mild heart condition, the sixty-
-old widower had been regarded as a man to envy. His difficult wife had died years before, allowing her energised husband a reprieve in which to enjoy a belated bachelor’s life. And of course he was known to be a multimillionaire.
For over thirty years he had run Wainwright Enterprises, a sprawling conglomerate of local businesses that was one of the most successful in the county, and divided his leisure time between his estates in Scotland and the Caribbean. The family seat, Wainwright Hall, spread over hundreds of acres of the most productive agricultural and forestry land in Sussex. His sudden death was an unexpected blow to his business and created the potential for an extraordinary windfall for his expectant family. It made them less anxious than perhaps they should have been to question what could possibly have caused Alan Wainwright to take his own life without warning or explanation.
Two weeks after the discovery of the body, Alexander Wainwright-Smith, nephew of the deceased, and his new bride Sally were sitting unobtrusively in the solicitor’s office waiting for Uncle Alan’s will to be read. They had selected two upright chairs, tucked into the far corner, leaving those of comfortably upholstered leather for more important family posteriors. In the front row, facing the large walnut desk, sat the late Alan Wainwright’s brother-in-law, Colin, with his wife Julia, Alexander’s mother’s sister. She sat in dignified silence, still
beautiful despite her middle age, and perfectly turned out in the latest fashion.
Behind them their six grown-up daughters sat or lounged in a sprawling row, bored by the wait and impatient to learn what their rich uncle had left them. Of his six cousins, the only one Alexander liked even vaguely was Lucy, the youngest. He had endured a childhood of seemingly neverending humiliation at his uncle’s house, and not one of them had ever befriended him.
The room became stuffy as they waited for the solicitor to join them. Jeremy Kemp had been the Wainwright family’s legal adviser for many years and knew better than to start before the arrival of Alan Wainwright’s only son, Graham. Always late, inevitably bohemian, despite having passed his fortieth birthday, Graham was the family black sheep. He had been spoilt almost to ruin by his overbearing mother, and his father had been so jealous of her attention that he had resented his son’s presence. It was no wonder Graham had left home and the family business behind him as soon as he was old enough.
At a quarter past three, exactly fifteen minutes late, Graham flowed into the office. He was not alone.
‘Good God, Graham, what have you got with you this time?’ Colin flushed brick red.
Graham smiled, obviously delighted that his gesture had not gone unnoticed.
‘It’s not a what, it’s a whom, Uncle. This is Jenny, a friend of mine.’
Jenny was dressed in, well, very little. Despite the cool spring day, she was wearing a short skirt slit to her upper thigh, and a white halter-top. The materials of both made it absolutely clear to anyone who was interested that she had decided against underwear today. Alexander wondered that she wasn’t cold. Colin tried unsuccessfully not to stare.
Jeremy Kemp had followed Graham into the office. He completed a rapid and unobtrusive assessment of the room and its occupants, pausing only briefly as he glanced at Sally, Alexander’s wife, to give her a tight smile, then he ordered fresh tea and greeted each of his visitors by name. He knew them all well, as the Wainwright affairs, both family and business, accounted for most of his firm’s revenues and all of
its profit. Once the tea had arrived, he seated himself quietly behind his desk and brought the babbling group in front of him to order.
‘Good afternoon, everyone. As you know, we are here to read the last will and testament of Alan Winston Wainwright.’ He spread out the manila papers in front of him with slender manicured hands that looked as if they should have been holding a flute or a watercolour brush, not a dead man’s words. The tension in the room was palpable. Alan Wainwright had been a wealthy man, but he had also been a secretive one, and no one knew how much he was really worth. Even the relatives he employed in his businesses were ignorant of the precise size of his entire fortune and had survived grudgingly for years on meagre incomes in anticipation of this moment. Julia was as anxious as the rest. Having six children and unfulfilled social ambitions was proving difficult to manage.
Jeremy Kemp looked at the expectant faces before him. Significant wealth and power was a corrupting mix – look what it had done to Alan Wainwright. He wondered what it would do to his heirs and suppressed a shudder.
‘This is the last will and testament of Alan Winston Wainwright, executed on January the third of this year.’
There was a small gasp from somewhere in the room. He had changed his will less than two months before his death. Why?
I, Alan Winston Wainwright, being of sound mind and judgement
…’ The solicitor’s voice adopted a practised
tone as he read through the preamble. The whole family listened intently, waiting for the first mention of a bequest. ‘…
To Julia Wainwright-McAdam, my sister, an income of thirty thousand pounds per annum in due recognition of her moral support of my businesses over the past thirty years
Julia had ignored the business, living off her mother’s trust fund and devoting her life to fashionable good works until she had met and married Colin. She had lived in anticipation of becoming a serious participant in charity circles and now she looked furious. This was a pittance by her standards and would barely fund the costs of her wardrobe and beauty treatments. No one could meet her eye. They looked either nervous or
expectant, depending on their conscience and natural optimism.
Only Alexander appeared unaffected. He could have no realistic expectations of an inheritance, given the unpopularity of his mother’s elopement with a travelling salesman thirty-two years before. Even though she had once been his uncle’s favourite sister, she had never been forgiven, and now that she was dead, even old memories would count for nothing.
To Colin Wainwright-McAdam, my brother-in-law, an
of ten thousand pounds whilst he lives, together with a lifetime interest in Manor Cottage, in recognition of his fondness for my Sussex estate
Colin turned purple and Julia bone white. Her dreams of local patronage and committee chairmanships finally withered. At the very least they had expected the Sussex estate; enough hints had been dropped over the years. Julia couldn’t even remember what Manor Cottage looked like. Colin could, and recognised it for the insult it was.
All eyes turned to Graham, who was lounging back casually, stroking Jenny’s left thigh as she sat behind him. Jenny grinned at Alexander sitting next to her but otherwise appeared
unaffected by it all.
To my son Graham, I leave half of the remainder of my estate as detailed in Annex I dated the thirty-first of December, and including the lodge in Scotland, half of the valuation of the Wainwright Family Trust and the works of art he chooses from Wainwright Hall to the value of thirty thousand pounds
Graham scowled. He had expected the lot, however much it was, and he waited with barely contained anger to learn the name of whatever charity it was that he assumed would receive the rest of his father’s legacy.
‘How much is the Wainwright Family Trust worth?’ he cut across Kemp. The solicitor merely pulled a computer printout from a file by his side.
‘The valuation of half of the trust at the end of the last quarter was £7,567,308. I have estimated the total value of your portion of the estate to be just over fifteen million.’
The atmosphere in the room became frigid as Alan’s
-law and sister finally realised the enormity of the insult that had been handed down to them. There was silence for a moment,
then a verbal storm erupted from Colin, Julia and their children.
‘How could he do this?’
‘He must have been mad.’
‘The gall of the man!’
‘This is just bloody stupid.’
‘Don’t swear, Colin, please. The least we can do is behave in a civilised manner. Anyway, we will need to consider contesting the will.’ Julia’s cool, carefully structured tones cut through the raised voices and there was a moment’s calm as eight very angry people considered the potential revenge of a court battle.
Kemp spoke into the silence. ‘There are further bequests, for the Wainwright-McAdam children.’
‘You mean he’s given the other half of his estate to them?’ Colin sounded appalled, but his daughters were silent at once. ‘Get on with it then, let’s hear the worst.’
‘Your brother-in-law left specific instructions as to the order in which the will was to be read.’ Kemp cleared his throat and continued. ‘
For my nieces, the children of my sister Julia Wainwright-McAdam, thirty thousand pounds each and their choice of jewellery or furniture to the value of two thousand five hundred pounds each from Wainwright Hall
‘Then where’s the other fifteen million gone?’ Julia asked indignantly. ‘Oh God, he hasn’t gone and given it all to charity, has he? If he has, I tell you, he was not of sound mind! He never gave to charity in his life.’
Jeremy Kemp continued as if she hadn’t spoken. ‘
And finally, I leave the remainder of my estate, goods and chattels as set out in Annex II attached, but explicitly including Wainwright Hall, its contents save those that have been bequeathed elsewhere, my estate in the Caribbean as set out in the deeds attached hereto, and the residual half of the value in the Wainwright Family Trust, to my nephew, Alexander Wainwright-Smith, and his wife Sally, as joint beneficiaries
There was an awful silence. Alexander looked stunned. Sally had been sitting rigid throughout and now she just stared ahead, eyes glazed. No one in the room spoke. One by one his relatives turned and stared at Alexander, loathing, disgust, anger or simple jealousy in their expressions. It was impossible for them to believe what they had just heard. Alexander, of all people!
‘How have you done that, you little weasel? You bastard, with your weekend visits and your phone calls and your bloody boring jobs working in the business. All the time you were plotting this. Who’d have thought you had the brains? Or perhaps you didn’t.’ Graham’s apoplectic face turned to consider Sally. ‘It was you, wasn’t it? You cunning little—’
‘Enough!’ Kemp cut across him. ‘There is absolutely no call for this personal invective; it will do no good. Some emotion is understandable at a time like this but there is no excuse for bad behaviour, and anger is a very unsound basis on which to reach decisions. I suggest that, unless there are any practical matters to be disposed of, I draw this meeting to a close, and that those of you who would like to discuss the matter with me further arrange individual appointments for tomorrow or Friday.’
But Graham hadn’t finished.
‘What about Dad’s interest in the family firm? Wainwright Enterprises must be worth fifty million at least – it employs half the county, for Christ’s sake.’
‘Your father’s main interests in Wainwright Enterprises were disposed of years ago. His small residual holding is part of the family trust you have been left.’
This was shock upon shock. They had all assumed that Alan Wainwright owned the whole of the business they had variously avoided or slaved in throughout their adult lives.
Colin’s purple face glared at Kemp with something
‘You knew he’d changed his will, didn’t you, and yet you said nothing. I bet you’re going to get a nice fat juicy fee from this – and the more difficult it becomes, the more money you’ll make.’
Kemp stared back calmly, meeting his eye with no difficulty. He was used to the man’s rages.
‘Colin, there is no point being angry with Mr Kemp when you know it’s Alan who has done this.’ Julia turned to the solicitor. ‘I think your suggestion is a very sound one, Jeremy. We’ll leave now, but please realise we
be back tomorrow.’
One by one the family left, until only Graham, Jenny, Alexander and Sally were sitting in the office. Sally still hadn’t spoken. She looked from Alexander to Graham and then to
Kemp, her hands clenched into a tight ball in her lap. Her smart but inexpensive skirt was starting to crease badly in the warmth of the office. Kemp decided to move matters along. He turned to Alexander.
‘You obviously need to know that this firm is the sole executor of your uncle’s will.’
‘So old Colin was right then, you are going to benefit nicely from all of this.’ Graham stood up as he spoke, trying to make himself more imposing by squaring rounded shoulders and thrusting out his bony chest. ‘Well, there’s one piece of business you won’t be able to rely on in future, and that’s mine. Come on, Jenny.’
Alexander struggled to find words for his cousin, but before he had them ready, Graham was gone, leaving him alone with his wife in the solicitor’s office. Whilst he stared ahead, still in a daze, Sally spoke quietly with Kemp, then she took her husband’s arm firmly and guided him outside.
‘I think a nice cup of tea is called for,’ she said, and Kemp smiled gently at her retreating back.