Read Death Comes First Online

Authors: Hilary Bonner

Death Comes First

Death
Comes
First

HILARY
BONNER

PAN BOOKS

For Adam

With thanks for the inspiration
you never knew you gave me

Contents

Prologue

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Eleven

Twelve

Thirteen

Fourteen

Fifteen

Sixteen

Seventeen

Eighteen

Nineteen

Twenty

Twenty-one

Twenty-two

Twenty-three

Twenty-four

Twenty-five

Twenty-six

Twenty-seven

Twenty-eight

Twenty-nine

Thirty

Thirty-one

Epilogue

Acknowledgements

Prologue

The letter lay on the table before her. It had arrived in the morning post: two sheets of A4 paper, covered with her husband’s distinctive spidery handwriting, each word loosely formed in black ink. For the last half hour Joyce had been sitting in her chair staring at it, transfixed, unable to move. Her head felt hot and the back of her neck was clammy.

She’d read it twice yet still couldn’t take it in. Not while her brain was reeling from the shock.

A letter from Charlie. But Charlie had died six months earlier.

Ever since then, Joyce had been trying to come to terms with the loss, with his absence from her life, from the children’s lives. It had been so hard, consoling their three children, struggling to fill the void, but the worst times were when she was alone. Once the two youngest children went off to school the house seemed unbearably bleak and empty; even when the children came home there was so much less noise than there used to be. For their sake, she’d forced herself to carry on, to make plans for a future without her husband.

Little by little the sense of desolation had begun to lift. Until she’d read that letter.

Joyce reached out to touch it, wanting to read it one more time to try to make sense of it, but pulled her hand away as if afraid it might burn her fingers.

Perhaps if she never looked at it again, if she tore it up and threw it into the bin or flushed it down the toilet, perhaps if she did that she could forget all about it and life would continue as normal. Or as near to normal as would ever be possible after Charlie’s death.

Back in her university days she’d had a friend whose father had left her a ‘letter from the grave’. Having been ill for years, he’d come to terms with death and had written to his daughter to console her and help her deal with her grief. There was no consolation in Charlie’s letter. Far from it. His words had left her feeling threatened and bewildered, undermining the very foundations of her world.

Tempting as it was to destroy the letter and try to carry on as if nothing had happened, Joyce knew that would be impossible. She would never be able to put Charlie’s words from her mind. Then again, perhaps she had misunderstood. The only way to find out was to read it again.

She could read the first page simply by inclining her head slightly. She took a deep breath and did so.

My dearest darling
,

If you are reading this then I am no longer alive. More than anything I want to tell you how much I love you. You, and our children, mean the world to me, even though it may not always have seemed that way. I want you to believe that, and to go on believing it, regardless of any bad times in the past, regardless of anything you may hear in the future
.

I will never forget the first time I saw you. I know it’s a
cliché, but I really did spot you across a crowded room. A young student, like so many others – except you were nothing like the others. Not to me. Our eyes met. And that was that. For me, anyway. For ever. Do you remember that moment?

Joyce remembered. She felt near to tears. But she was too shocked and confused to cry.

The next two paragraphs continued in a nostalgic vein, with Charlie recalling special moments they’d shared and assuring her of his abiding love for her. Joyce skimmed over those. It was what came later that had left her stunned and shaken.

I wanted to tell you all this, I needed to tell you, but most of all I needed to warn you so that you can protect yourself and our children from the dangers that face you. I am so sorry that I have failed you. I have been a weak man. You may not have realized this. Or then again, maybe you did. But even if you suspected it to be the case, you can’t have known just how weak I have been. I have followed paths I would never and should never have chosen, but I was too weak to look beyond the easiest option. I am so sorry, my darling
.

My biggest mistake was to allow myself to become immersed in your father’s world. I couldn’t bring myself to destroy your illusions, so I kept things from you, thinking I was sheltering you, but I see now that what I was really doing was living in denial, dodging my responsibility to protect my family. Now that I am gone, I’m afraid that responsibility falls to you
.

It is probably already too late for Mark. But you must protect Fred. Whatever you do, please don’t let your father get his hands on Fred
 . . .

Joyce’s hand reached out to turn the page, but still she couldn’t bring herself to touch it. Instead she sat there, heart pounding as she thought of her eldest boy, now twenty-two but young for his age, thanks to a sheltered upbringing in the closeted environment of Tarrant Park, the exclusive gated development midway between Bristol and Weston-super-Mare which was home to the Tanner and Mildmay clan.

The previous year Mark had joined his father and grandfather at Tanner-Max International, the import–export agency set up by his great-grandfather Edward Tanner with his wartime friend Maxim Schmidt in the late fifties. It was all Mark had ever wanted to do. He would have started work in the family business the moment he left school if it hadn’t been for Joyce insisting that he at least go to university first. Her hope had been that Mark would immerse himself in student social life and be tempted to spread his wings a little, but it soon became clear that he had no desire to fly the nest. He had refused to consider any campus beyond commuting distance, ultimately securing a place at his second choice, Bath, to study business and management. Bristol had been his first choice, of course. In the three years he was there he’d shown no interest whatsoever in pursuing a social life with his fellow students. Instead he’d rushed home to spend his evenings and weekends at the office with his grandfather, learning the ropes in readiness for the day he would take his place in the firm.

Henry Tanner had been delighted, rewarding his grandson’s loyalty by buying him a brand-new top-of-the-range Mini Cooper for the commute to Bath. And when Mark announced
that he needed his own space and wanted to move out of his parents’ home, it wasn’t because he’d succumbed to the lure of independence. He merely migrated up the road into a newly converted self-contained apartment above the garage at his grandfather’s place.

Mark had always been close to his grandfather, perhaps excessively so. All the same, Joyce could not understand Charlie’s warning. Henry Tanner was famously controlling and a fearsome chief executive, but when it came to his family he’d always been a benign patriarch and a doting grandparent to Mark and his siblings: fifteen-year-old Molly and eleven-year-old Fred. Without the support of her parents, Joyce couldn’t imagine how she’d have survived the last six months. How could her father be a threat to her children’s well-being? It made no sense.

Releasing the tissue she’d been twisting to shreds in her lap, Joyce moved the top sheet of A4 to one side. She took a deep breath and steeled herself for what was to come.

The second page began with more reminiscing and protestations of enduring love and devotion.

Do you remember the dreams we once had? I cannot tell you how much I regret abandoning the plans we made when we were young. I should have listened to you, my gorgeous, free-spirited girl, my fellow dreamer, my soul mate. It breaks my heart to remember how you pleaded with me to run away with you, how desperate you were to escape the gilded cage your father had made for you. You thought I was the man to help you, and I believed that too, my darling, I truly did. And for a time I tried to be. But then it all changed, and even now I cannot tell you why that happened. Why did I allow myself to be sucked
into that world? Some days I barely recognize myself as the man I used to be. And the thing I hate most about myself is that I connived in dragging you along with me, and our children
.

Forgive me, my sweetheart. And try to believe that I did what I did because I thought it was in your best interests. I took what I believed to be the only option. My love for you has been the one constant in my life, to the end, even though I know only too well that I have frequently given you reason to doubt
.

Joyce reached for the mug of coffee standing on the kitchen table alongside the letter. She took a sip, then spat the bitter dark liquid back into the mug. It was stone cold. Of course it was. She had made the coffee before the postman had called, and put it down on the table when she heard the rattle of the letter box. Strange how life might now never be the same again following such an insignificant, routine occurrence. The daily mail delivery.

Joyce forced herself to read on, though her mind was in utter turmoil. Charlie hadn’t been an easy man to live with the last few years, and she couldn’t remember the last time he’d confided in her. So she couldn’t begin to understand what might have happened to make him write to her in such a manner, in a letter she was only to read after his death – a death which had come as a shock to everyone that knew him. He’d been a fit and healthy man, only forty-three years old when he died as the result of an accident while sailing off the North Devon coast in his boat, the
Molly May
.

I want you to take the children and go somewhere Henry will never find you. Remember the Shangri-La we dreamed
of? Still dreamed of, even after we settled in Tarrant Park, even after it faded to nothing more than a pipe dream. I want you to realize that dream with our children. Find our Shangri-La, Joyce. It will be possible. Get our children away from Henry for ever. He won’t be interested in Molly, but she’ll be so much better off without him in her life
.

Joyce paused and wiped the back of one hand across her mouth. Her lips were dry. Her head was starting to ache. There was a relentless dull thud somewhere in the middle of her temples. She had been shocked the first time she read the letter. Shocked to the core. It seemed even worse the second time. But she made herself read on.

Empty all the bank accounts you have access to. There should be enough for you to start again. Leave everything else behind. Just walk away
.

Above all, don’t confide in anyone, not even Stephen. You know how manipulative Henry is – you must not tell a living soul
 . . .

Ordinarily, Stephen Hardcastle would have been the first person Joyce would have consulted for advice. Not only was he the family solicitor, he was one of her closest friends. They’d known each other since university, and he’d been best man at Joyce and Charlie’s wedding. But that was before he became company secretary of Tanner-Max International.

The letter, with Joyce’s name written on the front, again in Charlie’s handwriting, had arrived inside another envelope bearing a typewritten address. Inside was a note from Stephen’s PA, apologizing for the delay in forwarding the
letter and explaining – rather lamely, Joyce thought – that this had come about due to a clerical error.

Joyce picked up the inner envelope, lying alongside the letter, and examined it to see whether it might have been opened before reaching her. She didn’t think so, but as soon as she had recognized Charlie’s writing on the front she’d been in such a hurry to get to the content that she’d ripped the envelope apart. She studied what was left of the seal beneath the flap. It didn’t look as if it had been tampered with before her own careless attentions, but she couldn’t be sure.

Realizing she was shivering, Joyce pulled her thin cardigan tightly around her, though the underfloor heating was on and the kitchen was perfectly warm. She couldn’t remember ever feeling so alone and so unnerved. How could she contemplate uprooting Fred and Molly, robbing them of stability at a time when they needed it most? And what of Mark? He might be twenty-two, but he was still her son. Was she supposed to walk away from him without a word? How could she leave him to face this unnamed threat alone?

And the worst of it was, she had no idea what she was supposed to be fleeing from. All she had to go on was Charlie’s evidently genuine conviction that they were in danger and their only hope was to run away – from her own father. If that were the case, she would have to act on it, even if it meant severing all ties with her parents. But how could she leave Mark?

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