Need something to help while away the dark winter nights. Here’s a short excerpt from my latest novel, Ring of Lies.
It was dark when Grace left the solicitor’s office. Numbness had finally set in. She moved without thinking, without emotion as if she were one of the stick figures at a theme park—flagging down a taxi and giving the driver her address.
Flicking on the hall light in her home, the home she and Daniel had shared and loved, the pain returned in a torrent. She dropped her purse on the table, and went straight to the study. Daniel’s study, the one room in the house she never entered, not even to dust.
Grace rested her hand on the door knob, and half expected to hear his deep-timbered voice reminding her not to enter. She’d ignored his warning only once, the ensuing argument had left her reeling. Ever since then she’d respected his wishes. All of them.
But Daniel was no longer here to wish for anything.
She pushed open the door and stepped inside. The air smelt stale. She told herself that the lingering aroma of pipe tobacco was permanently embedded in the furniture, but her feelings told her otherwise—that he was here, alive somehow, yet invisible to her. She fumbled with the catch on the window and threw it open, impervious to the frigid air that flooded the room. An old leather chair, which had once belonged to Daniel’s father, stood next to the soot-stained limestone fireplace where ashes of a half-burned log lay in the grate. A large oak desk, its surface covered with a faint film of dust, filled the bay window. The date on the desk calendar showed the seventeenth of November, the day Daniel had left for the conference. She tore off the pages without bothering to read the proverb printed underneath, and threw them into the wastepaper basket.
Daniel’s face, and that of her own, smiled back at her from a small silver framed photograph on the corner of the desk. She picked it up and wiped the dust from the surface with her fingertips.
“What other secrets have you kept from me?”
Daniel’s brown, unfathomable eyes seemed to stare everywhere but at her. With a heavy heart she replaced the photograph on the desk. She collapsed into the chair and rested her aching head in her hands. Their marriage hadn’t been perfect; they’d had their fair share of ups and downs like every other couple, but she’d never thought of Daniel as being secretive. Yet the last few hours had proved that he was just that.
She leaned back and rubbed her temples. Nothing the solicitor had told her made any sense. They weren’t rich. Their joint checking account, which last time she’d looked, held less than two thousand pounds. When they’d purchased Applegate Cottage four years ago, they’d put down the minimum ten percent deposit and borrowed the rest from the bank. So where had the money come from to purchase a house in America? And more importantly, why hadn’t Daniel told her about it?
The desk held seven drawers; three in each pedestal and one in the centre. Her fingers hovered over the small brass handle of the centre drawer. Feeling like an intruder, she pulled it open. It was empty. One by one she opened the remaining drawers. Apart from an assortment of envelopes, a few credit card receipts, a letter opener shaped like a dagger, and some spare batteries for the hand-held dictating machine Daniel occasionally used, she found nothing connected to the beach house.
Daniel’s briefcase, which the police had found in his car, and the personal items from his office, sat in a box next to the door. She slipped out of the chair, picked it up, and placed it on the desk. Item by item she removed the contents: a desk diary, a box of post-it-notes, a calculator, and a framed photograph of her and Catherine. The desk diary she put to one side, replaced everything else, and then put the box on the floor.
She’d given Daniel the Raffaello briefcase for his thirtieth birthday. It had cost two weeks housekeeping money, but it had been worth it to see the smile on his face when he opened the box. She ran her fingers over the now scuffed and torn calfskin.
Grace pressed the locks to open the case, but nothing happened. She dug the fingertips of her right hand into the frame and tugged at the handle. The catch on one side gave, and she realized that the force of the impact had warped the frame. With great care she eased the blade of the letter opener into the lock on the opposite side and twisted sharply. There was a loud click and the case popped open. Inside lay Daniel’s MacBook and a number of manila folders. One by one, she went through the internal compartments, but found nothing else of interest.
Part of the silk lining had come away from the frame. When Grace ran her fingers along the edge she felt something underneath. She pulled back the fabric and found an envelope taped to the bottom of the case. She tore it free and turned it over in her hand.
Why go to so much trouble to hide something as innocuous as an envelope? She slipped her fingernail under the flap and opened it. A passport and a tiny piece of paper fluttered on to the blotter. A series of numbers, written in Daniel’s unmistakeable scrawl, covered the surface. Perplexed, she counted the digits. Twenty-four. Daniel was fascinated by numbers and frequently designed puzzles as a way of relaxing. Were these something he was working on, or the combination to the safe at the office?
The latter seemed the most likely explanation, yet Daniel had an eidetic memory. There was never a need for him to write anything down.
Grace opened the passport at the photograph on the back page. Daniel’s face stared up at her. Only the name in the passport wasn’t his, but that of Lionel Lattide.
A flicker of apprehension coursed through her. She tried to catch her breath, but couldn’t get air. The more she struggled to control her breathing, the more terrified she became. Beads of perspiration dotted her forehead. She willed herself to relax, just as the doctor had told her to, but it was impossible.
She staggered into the kitchen. Her medication lay on the shelf next to the fridge. Standing on tiptoe, she reached for the bottle, but her hands shook so much it slipped from her grasp, the contents spilling out along the shelf and onto the floor.
She could get through this, she told herself. It was only a panic attack—she wasn’t about to die. It wasn’t real. Crying with frustration, her fingers trailed along the floor until she finally pinched a wayward pill between her thumb and forefinger. She popped it in her mouth, and washed it down with a glass of water from the tap.
Leaning against the sink for support, she forced herself to breathe deeply—in, out, in, out. The pill started to do its work, and the room began to steady itself. As her heartbeat slowly returned to normal, she tried to ignore the questioning voice in her mind, but couldn’t. She pressed her hands over her eyes in an attempt to blot out her fears.
What have you been up to, Daniel, that you needed a second passport?
She took another sip of water. The passport lay on the drainer next to her hand. With trembling fingers, she opened it and turned to the visa section.
It was stamped.
She froze. Her mind and body benumbed.
She peered at the faint impression and could just make out the words ‘Department of Homeland Security’. America! She turned to another page, and found that too, had been stamped. During the last six months alone, Daniel or whoever he was, had travelled to the United States on five occasions.
She wrenched the calendar off the wall, and compared it to the passport. Every entry visa coincided with a date when Daniel had been away on business.
Waves of panic and nausea overwhelmed her, and she sank to her knees and sobbed. The man to whom she had trusted her heart had lied to her. Not once, not twice, but least four times.
Pain yielded to anger.
Who was her husband?
It seemed that the only way to find out was to fly to Miami and meet with the attorney, Zachary Parous. It sounded so easy when she said it quickly. But the thought of such a journey aroused old fears and anxieties. She wasn’t a traveller—and certainly not alone. What if she had a panic attack mid-Atlantic? Who would help her? And then there was the small problem of getting from Miami to some place called Gasparilla Island and locating the mysterious beach house. How hard would it be to find? Would she be safe?
She’d heard such things about Florida, stories of gangs, drug lords, and even worse. She snatched up the phone before she could change her mind and booked a seat on the nine-thirty flight to Miami the following morning.
Then there was only one call left to make.