A routine robbery investigation turns into something much more sinister when a corpse is found in the well of a cottage belonging to photographer Peter Foster. Foster fears the body is the ex-husband of his current girlfriend, a model shooting on location in France. Worse, he fears Lisa may have killed him.
But Lisa herself has mysteriously disappeared, and the true identity of the corpse adds a strange twist to the already-convoluted crime. A murder has taken place--but who is the victim, and who is the killer? It seems everyone involved knows something, but not enough to piece together an emerging puzzle of love and hate--until a fatal mistake leads Paget to the shocking solution . . . in Frank Smith's Stone Dead.
About the Author
Frank Smith is the author of 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.
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
By Frank Smith
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1996 Frank Smith
All rights reserved.
Peter Foster swallowed hard against the taste of rising bile, and forced himself to open his eyes.
The horror was still there; naked, white as marble sprawled among the rumpled sheets. And the blood ... He looked away. It was no dream; no nightmarish image that would fade and be forgotten with the coming of the dawn. This was real. What was done was done, and nothing he could do would change that.
He tried to think, but the pounding in his ears made coherent thought impossible. He felt the weight of the gun in his hands; felt it slipping from his finger but was powerless to stop it. The shotgun grazed his shins, yet he felt no pain, nor did he move as it clattered to the floor.
He closed his eyes, but the images remained: the tangled heap of clothing on the floor; the crumpled blanket tossed aside; the jagged gash across the sloping ceiling where it met the wall above the bed; the shredded pillows soaked in blood.
He squeezed his eyes tightly shut as if by doing so he could escape the pictures in his mind. A bead of moisture ran down his nose and fell without a sound. He brushed a shaking hand across his face, and was surprised to find it bathed in sweat.
He became conscious of a sound beyond the throbbing in his head. Faint, at first, but growing louder as a car began to climb the hill.
He almost fell, tripping on the gun as he moved swiftly to the window where he pressed his face against the glass to peer into the night. Headlights flickered through the trees between the cottage and the road. The sound grew louder. He held his breath. If it was going to turn in it would be ... now!
The lights swept past and disappeared. He allowed himself to breathe again. The panes felt cool and soothing to his flesh, and for a moment he blotted out reality. But the mirrored image of the room reflected in the glass refused to go away.
He turned and snatched a blanket from the floor and flung it across the bed to hide the grisly sight, then stood there panting as if he'd run a marathon.
But the action broke the spell, and for the first time since he'd entered the room he began to think. And the one clear thought that came to him was that nothing had happened here. Nothing! He must hold on to that thought above all else and make it true.
He moved swiftly through the cottage; the other bedroom first, then downstairs where he went from room to room, eyes darting everywhere. He needed something ... The rubber-coated apron he used in the dark-room; that would do. And the rubber gloves. And wellingtons. All of them could be scrubbed clean afterwards.
The shrill ringing of the telephone made him jump, and he felt the sweat break out once more across his brow. It rang again, but he couldn't bring himself to pick it up.
The machine clicked on and went through its programmed chatter.
'Lisa? Are you there?' a disembodied voice demanded petulantly. 'Why are you never in when I ring? Or do you just sit there and let me talk to your damned machine before you make up your mind whether to talk to me or not?'
He began to breathe again. Constance. There was no mistaking that rasping whine. Why, of all people, did it have to be her?
'Anyway, ring me back as soon as you can. I'm coming down this weekend, and I'll need someone to meet me at the station. Friday afternoon. I don't know what time, but you can always ring up and find out if you don't know.'
The machine went dead.
He had to think! What was today? Wednesday? Thursday, Fri ... He had to stop her. But how? He pressed his hands to his head and tried to bring some order to his thoughts. Ring her back and tell her they had someone else coming for the weekend. No, that wouldn't do. Knowing Constance, she'd come anyway. He would have to tell her Lisa was away. Gone up to London for a few days to make the rounds. Constance would buy that. She knew how hard it was to get the top jobs these days. You had to keep after them, and it was harder for them to turn you down when you were standing there in front of them.
He'd ring Constance back straightaway and put her off. No doubt she'd whine and moan a bit, but at least he'd have her off his back, and he could get on with other calls.
* * *
It was done. It had been easier than he'd thought. Constance had been miffed, of course, but then, when wasn't she miffed about something or other? He picked up the phone again and punched in a pre-recorded number.
'Annette? Peter here. How are you? Yes, it has been quite a while. How's Leonard? Good. Good. Tell me, is Lisa there?'
He listened to his own voice as he spoke the words. Keep it light. Don't sound worried. 'She's not.' He laughed self-consciously. 'No, nothing like that,' he said. 'It's just that she left a message for me on the machine. Yes. Wanted me to ring her back, but she forgot to say where she was. You know Lisa ...' He laughed again. 'I don't suppose you have any idea where ...? No. Well, never mind. No doubt she'll ring again. Say hello to Leonard. 'Bye.'
He hung up, then ran his finger down the list of numbers and picked up the phone once more.
'Ah, George. Peter here. No, just been busy — you know how it is. Tell me, George, is Lisa there?'
Thursday 14th March
Mattress, pillows, emulsion, brushes, wallpaper, and carpet cleaner. Sheets and pillow cases — he'd have to wash them when he got home so they wouldn't look too new — and blanket. Bought from five different shops; three in Worcester; two in Hereford. Paid cash. No name, no pack-drill, as his dad had been so fond of saying.
The rain that had fallen steadily since early morning had given way to a watery March sunshine. A good omen, perhaps? He went over everything in his mind again as he took the road for Leominster. He'd stop there and pick up more glass and frames from old Fred. Just in case anyone should ask where he'd been. Not that they would, he told himself. He'd been very careful.
He took out the list and glanced at it. Oh, yes. Gloves. He'd need another pair of work gloves. No problem. He could pick those up in Leominster.
Peter Foster crumpled the piece of paper and tossed it out of the window of the van. The wind took it, and he watched in the rear-view mirror as it skittered across the road and disappeared.
Sunday 31st March
'Lisa still away, then, is she?'
Wilf Archer walked around the billiard table, sizing up his next shot. It was a cold night, wet and miserable, and there were only a handful of people in the pub. A local farmer and his son stood chatting with Stan Trowbridge at the bar; a grey-haired couple sat quietly at a table in the corner, while their dog, a very old red setter, lay dozing beneath their seat; and two scruffy youths — a couple of right yobbos by the look of them — slouched in their seats, waiting for the game to end so they could play.
'Still away,' said Peter Foster. 'She could be away for some time. They want her to do more work for them while she's there.'
'France, wasn't it?' Archer bent low and squinted along the length of his cue.
'Must be nice.' Archer moved the cue back and forth across his fingers, then played the shot. The cue ball rolled about six inches and stopped. 'Shit! Topped it,' he muttered as he stood back. 'And left you an easy pot.'
Foster chalked his cue, bent and took the shot in one easy movement. 'Thanks, Wilf,' he said, grinning as he moved around the table to take his next shot.
'What's it been? Three weeks since she left?'
A frown creased Foster's brow as he bent over the table again. Why this sudden interest in Lisa? he wondered. It wasn't as if he and Archer were close friends. He only saw the man once a week, and it was only recently that it had become a bit of a ritual to have a game of snooker on Sunday nights. Lisa had fallen into the habit of coming with him because she liked chatting with Ellen Trowbridge, Stan's daughter. Ellen still hadn't found a job since leaving university, and was working for her father behind the bar.
Steady, there, he told himself. Archer was only making idle conversation. He didn't mean anything by it. But Foster wished he'd drop the subject.
'Must be all of that,' he said, and potted the black.
'How's the new house coming along?' he asked as he stood back and surveyed the table.
Archer snorted as he fished the black out of the pocket and set it on its mark. 'It'll be an old house by the time the bloody planners have done with it,' he said. 'Still waiting for them to decide whether they'll allow the extension on the side. Want me to lop four feet off it, they do. They say it comes too close to the orchard. If I'd known that, I'd have ripped the damned trees out before I went for approval. Bastards!'
Foster shook his head in sympathy. 'I know what you mean,' he sighed. 'I went through all that when I did the cottage up.' He lined up a red beside the centre pocket.
Archer watched as the red went down. 'Looks like your hands have healed,' he said glumly. 'You wouldn't have made that shot last week, not with all those blisters. Finished tearing down that old sheep pen, then, have you?'
Damn the man. Couldn't he think of anything else to talk about? 'All I'm going to do for the moment,' he said. 'Got too much work to do.' He glanced at his watch. 'In fact, I shall have to be going soon. I have to be up and away by six tomorrow morning. Got a job in Kidderminster, and I have to be there by eight. So we'll just finish this game out, shall we?'
One of the youths nudged the other, and sly grins spread across their faces. The older of the two winked knowingly as he picked up his glass and drank. The younger boy sniggered and quickly followed suit.
But Peter Foster saw none of this as he bent to take his shot. The black was blocked and the pink was up against the cushion. He lined up on the blue. An easy shot.
Perhaps it was the shade of blue, but whatever the reason, something made him think of Lisa. Lisa as she had looked ...
He breathed in deeply; held his breath; took his shot.
'Hard luck,' Archer chuckled as he chalked his cue.CHAPTER 2
Monday 1st April
He was going to be late.
Wilf Archer glanced at the time and put his foot down. Twelve minutes to eight, and it would take him fifteen at least to reach the station. He'd miss the train for sure. Unless it was late. It was most mornings, but just when he wanted it to be late it would probably be on time. Bloody British Rail. You couldn't depend on anything these days.
The road was narrow and winding, running between high hedges for most of the way, but he was used to it. There was never anything about at this time of day.
He swung the wheel hard over and just scraped by the nose of the lorry stuck half-way into the road. Bloody idiot! What the hell did he think he was ...?
Wait a minute. That was Foster's place. Hadn't he said he had to be in Kidderminster by eight this morning? And weren't those the two tearaways he'd seen in the pub the night before? Archer slowed as he went around the next bend. And that live-in girlfriend of Foster's was away. Gorgeous bit of stuff, she was. Lisa. Lisa Remington, that was it. Very nice. He'd seen her picture in magazines.
Those bastards were stripping Foster's house! Archer had only caught a glimpse as he flashed by, but the two of them had been struggling with a dresser or something like it, trying to get it up a makeshift ramp on to the lorry.
He made up his mind. He'd never have made the train anyway, he told himself. There was a farm just down the road. They'd have a phone.
* * *
'That's right, two of them. They're there now. No, I don't know the bloody registration, and you won't know it either if you don't get your finger out.
'All right, all right, I know you have to have information, but at least get someone on their way. What's that? I don't ...' Archer turned to the farmer's wife. 'What's it called?' he asked. 'The cottage. Bracken? Right, thank you. Bracken Cottage,' he repeated into the phone. 'It's about half a mile ... You know it, do you? Thank God for small mercies. Now, if you'll just get ...'
He groaned. 'Oh, God, here we go again,' he said to the woman hovering at his elbow. 'Archer. As in Robin Hood. A as in apple, R as in rip-off, C as in copper ...'
* * *
Wilf Archer stood in the middle of the road and waved the police car down. 'They're still there,' he told the constable. 'I went up to the corner and had a look. Better hurry; they were pulling tarps over the load as if they were getting ready to leave.' He made as if to open the rear door and get in, but the driver stopped him.
'You remain here,' he said sternly. 'We'll take care of it.' Then, to his observer, 'Check with George and see if he's in position on the other side.'
A burst from the radio confirmed that George was in place. With a dismissive nod to Archer, the driver put the car in gear and moved off in the direction of Bracken Cottage.
The two cars came in swiftly, arriving at the same time, blocking the escape route of the lorry. The two youths were nowhere to be seen as the four policemen jumped out of their cars. One man stopped long enough to look inside the cab, saw the keys in the ignition, and took them out, then followed the others up the short driveway toward the cottage.
As the first man reached the door, the two youths came out. They had their heads down, laughing as they examined a long, slim box one held in his hands.
'Police. Stop right where you are,' commanded the constable first in line.
Astonishment barely had time to register on the faces of the youths before their survival instincts told them to run. One, the younger of the two, bolted back inside, but the older one made a break for the garden and the open fields beyond. While two men went after him, the other two split up. One went inside the cottage, while the other dashed round the back.
PC Arundel found himself in a narrow passageway with doors on either side. He stood to one side and flung open the first door on the right. The loo. No way out and nowhere to hide. Swiftly, he went through the other downstairs rooms, and met his colleague in the kitchen.
'Nothing?' he said, frowning.
The man shook his head and looked upward.
'Can't have,' Arundel said. 'We'd have heard him go up the stairs. Besides, I saw him come down the passage. He's got to be here.'
They searched the rooms again without success. Then, while his colleague remained at the bottom of the stairs, Arundel went up and searched the bedrooms. He came down scratching his head. 'He's got to be here,' he said again. 'You sure he didn't get out the back?'
'If he did, I didn't see him,' the man said. 'It's all open out there. Unless ...'
He turned and dashed through the house to the back door and out into the open yard. Arundel followed him out. No sign of the boy there. But there was an outbuilding; a shed of some sort by the look of it. Like the house, it was built of stone, but the original roof was gone, and in its place was a covering of corrugated iron.
PC Arundel circled the shed. No back way out. He motioned for his colleague to open the door, and they both peered inside.
Nothing. Not a sign of the boy.
Arundel stepped inside. The only light came from the open door, and it took a moment for his eyes to adjust. Nothing there but garden tools and a lot of old rubbish as far as he could see. Except ...
'Come here and give me a hand,' he said softly to his colleague. A circular wooden cover, about four feet across, was set in the centre of the floor. 'It's an old well, I reckon,' Arundel said. 'Let's take a look, shall we?'
Together, the two men lifted the lid. The boy, clinging to hand and footholds with fierce determination, kept his head lowered as if by not looking up he might not be seen.
'Well, well, well. What do we have here?' Arundel said heavily, chuckling at his own play on words. 'Come on, lad. Let's be having you.'
'I — I can't m-move,' the boy said through chattering teeth. 'I'll fall.'
'Serves you bloody right,' Arundel told him. 'A good dunking down there might do you a lot of good. Come on, now. Give us your hand.'
Excerpted from Stone Dead by Frank Smith. Copyright © 1996 Frank Smith. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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