What could have brought such violence on Beth Smallwood, a woman found beaten to death on the steps of a village church? DCI Neil Paget and his partner DS John Tregalles investigate once again, tugging at the loose ends in this complicated case to unravel the intricate web of deceit and deception at work in this seemingly peaceful Shropshire town. Candles for the Dead is the third book in Frank Smith's riveting Neil Paget Police Procedures series.
About the Author
Frank Smith lives with his wife in British Columbia, Canada. He is the author of the Neil Paget Police Procedures series of novels.
Frank Smith is the author of the series of Chief Inspector Neil Paget mystery novels, including Stone Dead and Fatal Flaw, which was nominated for Best Crime Novel of the Year by the Canadian Crime Writers Association in 1996. He lives in British Columbia, Canada.
Read an Excerpt
Candles for the Dead
By Frank Smith
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1999 Frank Smith
All rights reserved.
Monday – 13 May
The woman looked ill. The bus driver had been watching her through the mirror. Her face was pale and she held herself stiffly, arms clasped tightly around herself as if she were cold. Hollow-eyed, staring blankly out of the window. She'd been like that ever since she got on outside the bank.
He slowed for the T-junction ahead, then wheeled the bus into Compton Road without stopping. There was never much traffic out here at this time of day.
He'd been surprised to see her after all this time. Surprised and pleased. He'd missed her these past few months. He thought she must have moved or gone away, but then he saw her coming out of the bank one day as he made his regular stop. But she didn't get on. She was with a man and they'd walked straight past.
This was her stop, opposite the church. He liked this part of the run. It was quiet out here on the edge of the town. Nice bit of country. Not that it would remain so for long with the new housing estates creeping closer every day. His eyes went to the mirror again.
Good-looking woman. He didn't know her name. Well, not her last name. Beth something-or-other. Sometimes, on the last leg the journey, she used to move up front and chat. He'd looked forward to that. Then she'd stopped coming and he'd missed her.
But she hadn't even noticed him tonight when she got on. Just shuffled past along with all the others to take a seat half-way down the bus. He sighed as he pulled into the stop and waited for her to get off. But she didn't move. Just sat there staring off into space as if she were miles away.
'Farrow Lane,' he called loudly, watching her through the mirror. There was no one else on the bus. The woman stirred and glanced around, then scrambled to her feet. Their eyes met in the mirror.
'Sorry. I ... Sorry.' She moved swiftly to the door, stumbled, but recovered quickly as she grasped the rail and stepped down.
'You all right?' he called after her, but she was gone. He watched as she crossed the road and set off down Farrow Lane. He supposed she'd be all right ...
He glanced at the time as he pulled away. Four minutes late. He'd have to put his foot down if he was to get back by half-past.
* * *
Farrow Lane was less than a quarter of a mile long, but tonight it seemed endless to Beth Smallwood. Her head ached, and her legs felt as if they would let her down at any moment. She just hoped she could get inside without meeting anyone, especially Mrs Turvey, her next-door neighbour.
There were no houses between the church and the bottom of Farrow Lane; just fields on either side and the four cottages at the far end. Farm cottages until they were taken over when Broadminster pushed its boundaries southward. Now they were council houses. Small and a bit cramped, but snug enough, and the rent was within Beth's means. Just.
The smell of rain was in the air. She shivered and drew her coat around her. It was cold for May – at least everybody said so. She had barely noticed, what with all the worry.
Beth reached the cottage, unlocked the door and slipped inside, then stood there panting as if she'd run the length of Farrow Lane. Her legs began to shake and she knew that if she didn't force herself to move she would collapse there on the floor.
A bath! A steaming hot bath. The thought had been uppermost in her mind ever since she'd left work. Please God don't let the immersion heater play up again tonight. Not tonight. She would use the crystals she'd had since Christmas, her 'gift' beneath the tree at work last year.
Beth pulled off her coat and hung it up behind the door. Wearily, she climbed the stairs, stripped off her clothes and dropped them in a heap beside the bed. The old grey dressing-gown was warm and prickly against her skin, and yet she shivered as she surveyed the clothing on the floor. The dress wasn't all that old, she thought sadly, but she could never wear it again. Abruptly, she bent and scooped up all the clothes and took them with her as she made her way downstairs to the tiny bathroom off the kitchen.
Steam rose from the water pouring from the old-fashioned spout, and Beth offered up a silent prayer of thanks as she waited impatiently for the old claw-footed tub to fill. It seemed to take forever. She poured in some crystals, but nothing seemed to be happening. Impulsively, she poured in half the box, and suddenly the bath was full of bubbles, and the smell of lavender rose with the steam to fill the tiny room. Beth shut off the tap, put on a shower cap, and climbed over the side.
The hot water stung as she eased herself down, but she didn't care. It felt good. She leaned back, resting her head against the rim, and let the heat soak into her tired limbs. The pain was so exquisite ... A choking sob escaped her lips, and tears rolled down her cheeks.
* * *
Her fingers remained poised above the keyboard as she stared at the screen. £5000. The cursor pulsed insistently, waiting for the next command. She felt hot; her mouth was dry, and yet her fingers felt like lumps of ice. It had been bad enough the first time, but this ... A sheen of sweat glistened on her forehead and the figures blurred before her eyes. She breathed in deeply; forced herself to remain calm.
Oh, God! She'd forgotten about the change she'd meant to make to cover the initial payments. After that ...? She refused to think about what might happen then.
Better make it six thousand – no, seven, she thought recklessly. She could change the form and it would give her more time. That's all she really needed. Time. Once Lenny was on his feet again, she'd pay it back.
Pay it back? How? taunted the small voice that had been mocking her for days. You can't manage now. Where are you going to get £12,000 – plus interest? Lenny spent the last lot on that motorbike, remember?
'But I need it, Mam,' he'd explained. 'How can I get work if I haven't got transport?'
Beth sighed. Lenny was right, of course. Not that he'd found work yet, but he would, she assured herself; he would in time. Once he was completely off the drugs. And he was trying. Still, she wished he'd saved at least something to pay off that awful man who'd got him into drugs in the first place. It was wicked the way he'd taken advantage. And yet, she thought guiltily, perhaps she was the one to blame for not noticing that something was wrong.
'I was feeling sort of down, Mam,' Lenny had explained. 'You know, not being in work, like, and tramping round every day, looking. I just needed something to pick me up a bit, that's all. This bloke I know swore the stuff was harmless and I believed him.' Later, Lenny said, when he realized what was happening to him, the man had shown his true colours and demanded payment for the drugs. When Lenny couldn't pay, the man said he'd have to work off the debt by supplying others.
'But I won't do it, Mam,' he'd told her fervently. 'I won't do what he did to me. It's hard, but I'll kick the habit and I'll pay him off. It's the only way. But I have to have at least five thousand quid. You've got to help me, Mam.'
£5000! He might as well have said five million. 'But can't the police ...?'
'The police?' Lenny scoffed. 'They can't touch him. He's got them in his pocket, and like as not they'd have me fitted up instead. Not that it would ever come to trial if I grassed because I'd be dead.'
Beth felt the chill of a deeper fear as Lenny's words echoed inside her head. She knew she had to help him no matter what the cost.
He'll do it! she said fiercely beneath her breath. He just needs a chance, that's all.
The figure on the screen changed, her fingers moving as if by their own volition. All she had to do now was touch one key. Still she hesitated. It was not too late.
Oh, God! she prayed silently, help me. Please help me. She closed her eyes and held her breath as if waiting for an answer, but all she could hear was a pounding in her ears like waves crashing on the shore.
A hand descended on her shoulder and she screamed. At least it sounded like a scream inside her head. In fact it was little more than a startled squeak that passed unnoticed by those around her. But the thudding of her heart was real. The noise inside her head was real, and the beads of sweat that seemed to burst from every pore were very real indeed. Her finger brushed a key. The figures vanished. Had he noticed?
'Sorry if I startled you, Beth.' The words were spoken softly, but he might as well have shouted. She felt the rush of colour to her face, and sat there frozen like a rabbit in a headlight's glare.
Arthur Gresham remained behind her, both hands now resting lightly on her shoulders. She could smell his after-shave; smell the nicotine on his fingers. Broad fingers that moved gently, stroking her shoulders as he felt her tremble.
'When you have a moment, Beth. I'd like to see you in my office.'
Oh, God! He'd been watching her. So intent had she been on what she was doing that she hadn't heard or seen him approach. But then, she thought bitterly, that's how he was. Silent as a cat and just as predatory. He'd been standing there behind her, waiting for her to commit herself. Had she cleared the screen in time? A cold, hard knot gripped her stomach and she wanted to be sick.
She tried to speak, but no sound came out. She swallowed hard and tried again. 'Yes, Mr Gresham,' she whispered. His hands lingered on her shoulders, and then he was gone.
Beth shivered. Without thinking, she shut the computer down – something she never did until she'd finished for the day. But then, she supposed she was finished for the day: the day, the week, the year, forever. She rose unsteadily to her feet, tugged at her dress with nervous fingers, and pushed her chair beneath the desk.
There, all neat and tidy. She retrieved her handbag from the bottom drawer and opened it. The compact was in her hand before she realized what she was doing. She put it back. After all, what was the point?
Her soft dark eyes swept the office. It seemed as if there should be something more than this to mark the end of a career, she thought sadly, but no one so much as glanced at her as she moved toward the door.
Rachel Fairmont, Gresham's secretary, kept her eyes fixed firmly on her typing as Beth went past her desk. She knew, Beth thought. And yet how could she? How could anybody know?
Arthur Gresham was waiting for her, standing behind his desk with his back toward her when she entered. Feet spread slightly apart, he stood looking out of the window, hands behind his back like a captain on the bridge in full command.
'Close the door and sit down, Beth,' he said briskly.
Beth crossed the floor and sat down in one of the deep, upholstered chairs facing the desk. The chairs, like Arthur Gresham's massive desk, were symbols, not so much of his status in the banking hierarchy, but of the way he saw his own position there. He'd bought and paid for all the furniture himself.
Beth sank into the chair's depths and felt trapped by its warm embrace. Blood pounded in her ears with every heartbeat, and she felt as if she were going to faint. She wanted to get up and run from this place, but her legs had turned to water and she couldn't move. Sweat trickled down between her breasts and she was sure there must be dark patches on her dress. She folded her arms, not daring to look down.
Gresham turned and stood behind his chair, hands resting lightly on the padded back as he looked down at her. In his younger days, Arthur Gresham had been considered a handsome man; handsome and – although the term had not yet been coined – upwardly mobile. But years of self-indulgence had blurred his features and made them coarse. Receding hair and a double chin combined to make his face more round, while his fondness for fine food and wine had transformed a once-trim waistline into a not inconsiderable paunch.
By the time he was thirty, it had become apparent to both him and the world of banking that he lacked the drive and initiative to climb the corporate ladder, although Gresham himself never quite gave up hope that things would change. But being a practical man, he set out to woo and win Lilian Cavendish, a rather plain woman whose personal fortune and social connections more than made up for her lack of physical charms. Since Lilian's only passion was breeding and raising Shetland Sheepdogs, and Arthur's main aims in life were self-indulgence and an entrée into Lilian's social circle, they'd rubbed along quite amicably over the years.
But, while Gresham grudgingly acknowledged his limitations in the business world, he still considered himself to be irresistible to women. The fact that his advances were, more often than not, rebuffed bothered him not a whit.
Beth cringed beneath his gaze. Gresham had the irritating habit of pursing his lips in a judicial way before almost every utterance, and he did that now. They were moist lips, pink and soft, and he spoke with just the faintest hint of a lisp. He took off his glasses, flicked out a handkerchief, and began to polish them.
'I've been keeping my eye on you for quite some time, Beth,' he said sternly. He breathed on the lenses and polished them again.
Oh, God. He was going to drag it out. Get every last bit of pleasure out of it. But then, what else could she have expected from Arthur Gresham? She didn't have to take this. She could simply get up and leave ...
Suddenly, the enormity of what she'd done hit her like a landslide. It wasn't just a matter of dismissal, was it? She had committed a crime. It was a matter for the police. Panic seized her. Perhaps they were already there, waiting for his signal to come in. She found herself bathed in sweat once more as she imagined two burly men in uniform marching her through the office in full view of everyone. She felt her senses slipping, and forced herself to breathe deeply. Keep calm. Keep calm, she told herself. Don't give him the satisfaction of seeing you're afraid.
He was speaking again.
'... choice was between you and Harry Beecham, and it hasn't been an easy one. After all, Harry has been with us a long time, but we do have to be realistic in these changing times. Your position will be that of "acting" manager of small business loans for the first six months, of course. That, as you know, is standard bank policy, but I have every confidence in you, Beth, and I'm sure that the board will confirm the position at the end of that time.'
Gresham put the handkerchief away, slipped his glasses back in place, and smiled beningly. 'With my recommendation, of course,' he added almost as an afterthought.
He moved out from behind the desk and began to wander about the room. 'It will mean a rise, of course. I might even say a substantial one, although I should warn you that, due to constraints on our budget this year, we will not be getting a replacement to fill your old job. In other words, Beth, we're combining Harry's old job with yours, so you'll have to learn to delegate more.'
This couldn't be happening. What kind of sadistic game was Gresham playing? Harry Beecham wasn't ... Suddenly it became clear. Harry's strange behaviour this morning. She'd thought at the time that it must have something to do with his wife; that something had happened to Helen and he'd had to rush home. He'd been in such a state when he emerged from Gresham's office. He'd looked positively grey.
She'd tried to ask him what was wrong, but he'd walked right past her; cut her dead. She'd thought it must be because he was so worried about Helen, but now ... Her hands flew to her mouth. Gresham must have told him that she would be taking his job, and he'd thought she knew!
Arthur Gresham came to a halt in front of her. He leaned back against the desk and regarded her quizzically. He seemed amused by her continued silence. 'Surprised, Beth?' he asked softly. 'Cat got your tongue?'
Her mind was racing. She hadn't been discovered. It was like a gift from heaven. She would be in charge. No one would question her now. Not even Gresham. A loan could be extended almost indefinitely at the discretion of the loans manager as long as the interest was paid. It would give her the one thing she needed most, time to find a way to pay back what she'd st – borrowed. Perhaps her prayers had been answered after all. Something had stayed her hand today, and she realized now that it would have been madness to proceed. She could never have paid that much money back. Lenny would just have to ...
But what about Harry? The thought came unbidden, and Beth was filled with shame. Here she was congratulating herself on her good fortune, while poor Harry had lost his job. It must have come like a thunderbolt to him. He hadn't a hope of getting similar work in today's market, not at his age.
'Beth?' Gresham reached out and cupped a hand beneath her chin. She found herself responding to the pressure and rose to her feet.
He was very close. The chair behind her prevented her from moving away. 'I – I don't know what to say,' she stammered. 'I mean, I didn't expect ... I'm not sure I'm ...' She floundered helplessly.
Excerpted from Candles for the Dead by Frank Smith. Copyright © 1999 Frank Smith. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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