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First pages

Chapter 1

The specimen resembled a head of coral: symmetrical, brain-like, otherworldly.

The geneticist operated a joystick to pan over the image.

The financier watched on the monitor. “So your technique works?”

“Yes.”

“Our client will be pleased. What more do you need to deliver on the contract?”

“Third-generation sequencers. Five of them. Thirty million US dollars total.”

“You got it. What else?”

The geneticist looked up from his instrument. His piercing blue eyes betrayed no emotion. “More of what we are looking at here. Much more. Only alive.”

Chapter 2

Rachel Phelps arrived at The Willows Care Home and parked next to her husband Paul’s pickup.

She hurried inside and found Paul in earnest conversation with the manager, Guy Lane. An attractive young woman sat on a sofa nearby. Rachel recognised her as the home’s visiting PC tutor.

Guy Lane shook her hand. “Good evening, Mrs Phelps, thank you for coming so quickly. Eve is distraught, I’m afraid. She’s refused all her medication and keeps calling for you. It seems to be something to do with her bank account, so I asked Leelo to come in too, as she was helping your mother yesterday with online banking on her iPad. Shall we go up?”

On Eve’s floor, Primrose, they met Alma, Eve’s favourite carer, petite and blue-aproned. “She asking just for you, Mrs Phelps.”

Guy Lane said, “Paul and I will be in the lounge at the end of the corridor if you need us.”

Rachel knocked and entered.

Her mother sat in her wing armchair, a shrunken figure, a rug over her bony knees. To one side stood an over-bed table with a tray of supper, untouched.

Eve Miller stretched out her arms and called in a wheezy voice, “Rachel darling, I’ve been such a stupid old woman. I don’t want to live another day. I want to go to sleep and wake up in heaven … or the other place, more likely.”

Rachel sat on a footstool and took her mother’s hands in hers. “Mum, whatever is the matter? It can’t be that bad.”

“Yes it is, darling, I’ve been fooled … tricked … whatever was the word dear Leelo used? Spammed—no, scammed. And I thought I was being clever … helpful.”

Rachel felt the colour rise in her cheeks as happened so often these days when she got stressed. The redness would spread down her neck and chest like a rash. “Mum, slow down. Take a deep breath. Just tell me the problem.”

Eve buried her head in her hands and for a moment the only sound in the room was of her quiet sobs, which transitioned into a chesty cough. She looked up through tear-filled eyes and spoke so quietly that Rachel had to lean close to make out her words.

“I have been robbed, Rachel dear. Robbed of all my money. The lot. All the proceeds from the house. The whole two hundred thousand pounds. The money I needed to pay for my care here, and to secure Robbie’s future when I’m gone. And it was all my own stupid fault. Pass me some water, would you, darling? I’ll try to explain so you can get the police straight on to their wicked tails. Do take my lavender bottle and spray around. And turn the thermostat down. I’m always asking dear Alma to lower the temperature, but it seems to creep up again until I can hardly breathe.”

Rachel did as she was asked. She sat, picked up a copy of Saga magazine and fanned her burning face.

Eventually, Eve spoke again. “I received a call yesterday morning, on my private telephone line, from the bank.”

“Nice Mr Plumb?”

“No, not lovely Howard. This man said his name was Fletcher, and he was an investigator from head office, in the City of London. He spoke so nicely … such an educated voice. He warned me in confidence that Howard Plumb was suspected of fiddling the books and stealing money from clients through the online banking. They thought he had me in his sights. They’d been watching him, you see, through the computers. This Fletcher told me the safest thing to do was draw my money out straight away and put it into an account at head office. I’d receive a better rate of interest too.

“Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather! Howard Plumb a crook! Yet I’d been worried about this online banking. Dear Leelo told me lots of things, about not opening attachments, whatever those are, or giving out my secret passcode. Which I never did!”

Rachel’s pulse pounded. This couldn’t be happening. She forced herself to listen to her mother’s story.

“Fletcher telephoned again yesterday just after dear Leelo had left. He gave me the details of the new savings account he had opened for me in the City. Then he told me to get down to my branch and arrange the wire transfer, but without alerting Howard Plumb. Oh, the devil! This was the clever bit. He said, pretend you are taking the money out for the purchase of a property for one of your children!”

“Mum, I don’t believe what I’m hearing. You went through with it?”

“Yes, darling. I phoned Terry the Taxi this morning, and he pushed me right into the branch. There I tricked poor Howard! I said the money was for a new house for Robbie. Shame on me!”

“Maybe the transfer hasn’t gone through yet. We must call telephone banking and halt it.”

“No, darling! Too late! When I arrived back here, feeling pleased I’d secured my savings and helped the bank catch a crook, I signed into online banking on my iPad and sure enough, the Bonus Saver account showed zero. I sat here looking at the number for a moment. Then the penny dropped. I spent a fruitless hour trying to call head office and speak to Fletcher, but of course there was no such person. Then I had a sort of breakdown and have been crying ever since. My world had shattered, changed in an instant. Oh, that smooth talking devil! On top of everything my cold is no better. Let’s hope it turns to flu and kills me off!”

Rachel shifted into coping mode. “Here’s what we do, Mum. Whatever mistake you made, and even if your savings are gone, it’s not the end of the world. We’ll get by. Robbie will be fine. I’ll call Simon when I get home.”

“No! Don’t bother dear Simon. He has such a stressful job, and he can’t do anything, being so far away. I implore you, don’t worry him.”

Rachel sighed. “I fail to see why Simon shouldn’t be informed.”

Eve seized Rachel’s hand in a fierce grasp. “Not yet. Promise. Simon has so much on his plate.”

And I don’t? Rachel thought, but she said, “Fine. Tomorrow morning, I’ll start making calls. I’m sure the money isn’t lost. The bank will compensate you. They should never have transferred out such a large sum. Now I will ask Alma to bring you a cup of warm milk and put you to bed.”

Her mother smiled weakly and released her grip on Rachel. “All right, darling. Thank you for coming. I hope you can sort me out, but I fear the worst. Off you go home with dear Paul before you catch my cold.”

Chapter 3

Rachel followed Paul’s pickup, her hands clenched on the steering wheel and her mind in turmoil.

Despite her reassurances to her mother, It would be a crippling blow to the family if they’d lost so much money.

She’d watched a documentary about such a scam, perpetrated on a Newcastle couple in their eighties. The bank had denied any liability, stating they had simply complied with their clients’ request to empty their account.

The traffic lights ahead changed from green to amber and the brake lights of the pickup flashed as Paul slowed for the junction with the bypass. The family firm owned two trucks: this one was a Ford Ranger 4x4 with personalised number plates and Phelps & Son, Builders in wrap-around colour graphics. The other was a rusty drop-side tipper in plain white.

The liveried pickup seemed to reproach her every time she saw it.

Paul was the son in question, and he would have loved a son of his own to carry on the family business.

The lights changed and the pickup turned on to the bypass. It took Rachel half a minute to close the gap between the two vehicles, her Fiat 500 bouncing along like a tiny puppy struggling to catch up with its mother.

She loved her car. Despite its diminutive size, there was plenty of headroom for her six-foot-one-inch frame.

They passed the Shell filling station in convoy, turned off the bypass and wound around the dark country lanes. Soon the two vehicles crunched on the gravel drive leading between the beech trees to their bungalow.

Paul parked next to the rusty white tipper and Rachel drew up in front of the Phelps & Son office, converted long ago from a double garage by Paul’s father.

Their beloved rough collie, Raffles, leapt from the cab which served as his mobile kennel during the working day and rushed to greet her, tail wagging. She stooped to scratch his downy ear. “You’ve got the right idea, boy,” she told him in confidence. “No worries about money or ailing mothers, just live for the moment.” The dog seemed to grin back at her in agreement.

In the kitchen, Rachel dried Raffles’s paws, tossed him a dental stick, found a lasagne ready meal in the fridge, set it in the microwave and finally poured a generous glass of red wine for Paul and a smaller measure for herself.

They sat facing each other over the pine table.

“How bad?” Paul asked.

“She seems to have been tricked out of everything in the saver account. Just over two hundred thousand.”

Paul puffed out his cheeks. “Two hundred grand. Bloody hell.” His blue eyes, the feature she had first noticed about him all those years ago, seemed duller tonight. “You’ll get on to the bank and the police tomorrow? Anything I can help with?”

“I’ll handle it. You don’t need any distractions.”

“Too right. I must make those four cottages weatherproof before winter sets in. It’s slow going in all the mud and rain. I wonder if that computer training woman, Lilo or whatever her name is, had something to do with the scam? She could have gained access to your mum’s accounts, seen the savings and passed the details on to her boyfriend. A lot of these care home workers are Romanian. They’re behind all kinds of criminal activity.”

Rachel considered this. It was a plausible scenario. “Assuming the police get involved, I’ll alert them, and I’d better warn Guy Lane of our suspicions.”

“How are we going to pay your mum’s fees if she’s lost the money? Even in the short term?”

“Seven hundred and fifty a week. We’d exhaust our own savings in three months. And we need to keep a reserve in case anything else goes wrong with your cottages. Mum was so happy at The Willows in the summer. Now this. She looked a hundred years old tonight, Paulie, and said she wanted to die. That’s not the Mum I know.” Rachel’s eyes pricked with tears. “In the longer term there’s Robbie to consider. Speaking of which, I must text him something to reassure him. He guessed something was up when I rushed out of the class.”

She took her phone from her bag and keyed, “Mum fine, just a problem with her bank, R xxx.”

Paul sighed. “Babe, we can’t pay her care home fees even for a month. You know that.”

As if to emphasise his words, the elderly microwave pinged like an old-fashioned cash register.

Chapter 4

After a restless, hot and sweaty night with less than five hours’ sleep, Rachel set about her to-do list in the kitchen at the stroke of nine o’clock.

Howard Plumb at the bank confirmed the facts of Eve’s visit and the transfer, and expressed horror as he listened to Rachel’s account of the scam. He promised to report the incident and investigate the beneficiary, while pointing out that this would be unofficial, as Eve had given no power of attorney to her children.

Next, Rachel spoke to the local police. She explained what had happened, emphasising that her mother was eighty-six, frail and vulnerable. The duty officer transferred her to a detective sergeant named Jim Ryan who arranged to visit Rachel and Eve at The Willows that morning.

Rachel called her mother, who picked up at once.

“Any luck with the police?” Her voice was weak.

“Yes, a detective will meet us in your room at ten-thirty.”

“Well done, darling. I couldn’t eat any breakfast, but soon dear Alma will help me get washed and dressed and put on my makeup.”

Rachel took her umbrella from the stand and hurried across the tarmac to the Phelps and Son office. Fallen leaves swirled around her ankles.

She entered and closed the door against the driving rain.

Kizzy, their Jamaican secretary/bookkeeper, turned from her computer. Her wide smile seemed to light up the gloomy morning. “Hiya, Rache. Ready for a coffee?”

“Thanks, Kiz. I could do with something a lot stronger, but coffee will have to suffice.”

“What’s up, sister?”

“Mum’s been scammed.” Rachel launched into a breathless account of the fraud perpetrated against her mother.

Kizzy’s mouth fell open as the words tumbled from Rachel’s lips. “Oh my God,” she said when Rachel drew breath. “Your poor old mum. Poor Robbie. Not to mention poor you.”

“Poor is the word all right. At least the police are showing concern. Now please give me some good news about the cottages. Are we back on track?”

Kizzy waddled to the kitchenette. She took a coffee capsule, slid it into the machine and turned to Rachel. “Didn’t Paul say? We need to underpin not just the end cottage but all four. He’s there now with the surveyor.”

“No, he never mentioned it. Didn’t want to add to my woes last night, I imagine. How much?”

“Another ten grand, maybe fifteen.”

“That’s all the profit from the development gone, then. I knew that four derelict cottages was overstretching ourselves.”

“Yeah. Guess that’s why they went so cheap at the auction.” Kizzy handed the cappuccino to Rachel and slotted a second capsule into the coffee maker.

Rachel’s spirits sagged again. She was riding an emotional see-saw at the best of times these days. Jaggy, excitable highs alternated with soul-sapping lows when life seemed bleak and every move was an effort, every step like wading through treacle, as her hormones ebbed and flowed, unruly as a two-year-old’s.

All the time, Rachel needed to appear confident, happy and in control—for brother Robbie, for Mum, for her dancing pupils. And, more and more, for Paul, if she was honest with herself.

The news about the cottages was another hammer blow.

Rachel caught sight of herself in the wall mirror. She put down her cup and dipped her head. “I look sixty. Young men will be offering me their seat on the train any day.”

Kizzy stepped across to her. “Come here, you. Hug time.” She reached out and enveloped Rachel in her plump arms. “You look as gorgeous as ever. What’s not to like?”

“All those blotches on my neck and face.”

Kizzy laughed. “I don’t see no blotches, I see a very tall, slim, beautiful blonde who could pass for thirty-five, with a figure I could only dream of having. You concentrate on looking after your mum, Rache. Leave me and Paul to sort out business. We’ve got two diamond lads in Trevor and Billy, hard workers, reliable and honest. Paul’s got you, you’ve got him. Money is just numbers on a spreadsheet. Numbers change all the time, you don’t have to fuss. Now sit in the comfy chair, finish your coffee and let me get on with the bills.”

Rachel complied, happy to be bossed and looked after for a few minutes by young Kizzy. She took her phone from her jeans pocket and scrolled to her calendar. The evening’s class was Latin Technique, for her eight adults studying for the bronze medal exams just before Christmas.

She texted Paul about the police meeting. He replied, “Good luck Babe, Love you xxxxxx.” She smiled. Kizzy was right: she and Paul had each other, and a strong marriage that had survived the disappointment of not having children.

“Thanks for the coffee, Kiz, and the moral support. Just what I needed.” She grabbed her umbrella and headed out into the rainy morning.

Chapter 5

At The Willows an ambulance stood in the loading bay by the front doors, its blue lights pulsating silently.

The ambulance crew, one male and one female, hung around in Reception. They seemed relaxed, chatting about last night’s TV. Rachel puffed out her cheeks in relief. Just a routine pickup, two bored health workers waiting to take a resident to chiropody or the fracture clinic.

She signed in. The receptionist, an Eastern European girl like so many of the staff, buzzed her through.

On Primrose, the door to Eve’s room stood ajar and voices came from inside.

Standing around her mother’s bed were Guy Lane, Dr Jonathan Thorpe, Eve’s GP (and also Rachel’s) and Alma.

Guy Lane turned his head. “Mrs Phelps! They didn’t tell me you were here. We’ve been trying to reach you. Let’s go to the lounge.” Before Rachel could reply, the manager was in the corridor ushering her to the visitors room where Rachel often played Scrabble with Eve.

“Why are we going in here? I want to speak to Mum.”

“Please take a seat.”

“But—” Then Rachel saw the expression on Lane’s face.

“I’m afraid I have bad news. Your mother passed away a very short time ago.”

“Passed away? I spoke to her earlier this morning.”

“I’m so sorry, and that you were allowed to come up to the room.”

The door opened and Dr Thorpe entered. He was a tall man with a long nose, who always wore a three-piece suit and tie and had a pompous attitude besides in Rachel’s opinion.

“Mrs Phelps, my sincere condolences.”

He didn’t sound in the least sorry or sincere. Not for the first time, Rachel pined for Thorpe’s predecessor, kindly Dr Harwood. Everyone had loved him. He’d retired in the summer.

“Mrs Phelps, I appreciate this is a difficult moment, but as I am here and I do need to know: is your mother to be cremated or buried?”

“What does it matter, Doctor?”

“If cremation, I will require another doctor to confirm the cause of death.”

“How can you know the cause? She’s only just died and was well and cheerful enough when I called her earlier.”

“Mrs Phelps, I do know the cause. I regret that sudden death is very typical of bronchial pneumonia in this age group. They often rally shortly before the end, and appear quite lively, but that’s merely the fever making them more talkative.”

Rachel said, “Pneumonia? I had no idea—”

Guy Lane said, “Dr Thorpe, Mrs Phelps has received a tremendous shock. This really isn’t the time. I’ll catch you later or leave a message at the surgery.”

“Very well. Please excuse me then, if there’s nothing else.” Thorpe strode out.

“Not the best bedside manner,” Guy Lane murmured. “Would you like to sit here quietly for a few minutes?”

“No, I want to see Mum now.”

“Of course.” He held the door for Rachel and accompanied her back to Eve’s room.

Her mother lay curled up in the foetus position, eyes closed. At a glance you could think her asleep, yet the sheets covering her remained still and her face was like a waxwork’s.

In death Eve seemed to have shrunk even more.

“Shall I leave you alone, Mrs Phelps?”

“Thank you, Mr Lane. Do get on with your day. Please ask Alma to come back in.”

“Once again my condolences and I’m sorry I didn’t reach you before you arrived. Take your time. We’ll all miss her.”

He left.

Alma entered and joined Rachel at the bedside. “Very sad, very sad. I love her so much. My favourite.”

“What happened, Alma?”

“I wake Eve at eight same as every day and bring her a cup of tea. She say she not hungry for any breakfast. I put her in her chair, in her dressing gown. Later I look in and Eve say, ‘Rachel and a man are coming to meet me at half past ten, Alma. Help me with my makeup, won’t you, dear?’ I say ‘Yes, when I finish clearing breakfast I come straight back and dress you.’”

“And when you returned you found her?”

“No, Miss Leelo find her.”

Rachel, bending over her mother’s frail body, jerked her head around. “Leelo? The computer woman? What was she doing in here?”

“I see Leelo knock on the door as I come from the kitchen. Leelo goes in. Then she runs out shouting, ‘Alma, quick!’ I go into the room, then to the nurses station and duty nurse call the ambulance. They come but can do nothing. Then Doctor arrive for his rounds and take over.”

Rachel said, “Let me get this straight. You left Mum alive and well. How long before Leelo arrived?”

“A short while, Mrs Phelps. It hard for me to tell time when everything busy busy. Maybe five minutes.”

“And Leelo immediately came back out and raised the alarm?”

“Yes, at once, or almost. I reach the lounge door, I believe.” The tiny carer looked troubled. “I do something wrong?”

“No, Alma, I’m just trying to understand the sequence of events. This is such a shock. And that wretched doctor! He was so rude!”

“Doctor Thorpe busy busy, in out, in out, hurry hurry.”

They stood in silence for a while. A thought occurred to Rachel. “Who put Mum back in bed?”

“Me and duty nurse. But no time to make her pretty or comb her hair.”

A knock sounded on the door. Guy Lane entered. “Mrs Phelps, sorry to disturb you, but a police detective is waiting downstairs. Says he has an appointment with you and Eve. I gave him the sad news. Shall I tell him to contact you later—or tomorrow?”

“No, I’m coming. Give me five minutes.”

“I’ll sit him down with a coffee.” Guy Lane closed the door behind him again.

“Police?” Alma said, her eyes big and round. “Eve was in trouble? Or danger?”

Despite herself, Rachel smiled. “No, silly, of course not.”

“Eve very upset after she visiting the bank with Terry the Taxi. She tell me she had been a stupid woman and she loved you all.”

“Alma, whatever Mum told you, please don’t talk about it to the other girls, love. Or to anyone else. It’s private family business.”

“I understand, Mrs Phelps. No more talking.” The little carer exited the room, leaving Rachel alone with her mother and her thoughts.

She pulled a chair over to the bedside and sat. She reached out and touched Eve’s cheek. Still warm. Her mother’s mouth was open a fraction, as if she were about to speak.

What would you like to say, Mum?

It was the shock of the fraud that had killed her, after the stress of the visit to the bank, of that Rachel was certain. It was also obvious Thorpe had failed to diagnose Eve’s pneumonia until too late. Rachel should have telephoned him days ago, insisting on antibiotics. That man was casual at best, incompetent at worst.

Not that it made any difference now.

She wondered if Robbie would want to see his mother lying dead. And Paul? He’d been fond of Mum and the two of them had rubbed along well together. While Eve lived alone in the family home Paul had popped in all the time—to replace a light bulb or fuse, to glue down a curling piece of vinyl floor. He’d been a model son-in-law.

And what of elder brother Simon in Australia? Despite being Eve’s favourite, he had not been back to the UK for three years. He managed a copper mine near Perth and (according to Eve) entertained a steady stream of gorgeous girlfriends. Rachel thought he was gay. Whatever. He’d left all the duties of caring for Robbie and Mum to Rachel.

Time up. She glanced around the room. Her mother’s valuables lived in a safe in the wardrobe. They could stay there for the moment. Just her handbag, really. She bent over and kissed her mother on the forehead. “Goodbye, Mum. Sleep tight. I’ll take care of everything for you.”

In Reception, a young man in leather jacket and jeans rose to his feet. “Mrs Phelps? Detective Sergeant Jim Ryan. I’m sorry about your sudden loss. I’m sure you have a hundred things to do, but if you can spare me a few minutes, I’ll set the investigation in motion. Time is crucial in cases like this, before the trail of the money goes cold. Let’s sit in the bay window.”

They shook hands. Rachel eyed the policeman up and down. He was fresh faced; still in his twenties, she guessed. She took a seat on a leather sofa and resisted the urge to lean back and close her eyes. The morning’s events, following the previous evening’s drama and a restless night, were taking their toll.

None of this seemed real yet.

Ryan perched on the edge of an armchair at right angles to her. “May I record our conversation?” He set his smartphone on the coffee table. “Please start at the beginning.”

“My husband Paul received a telephone call yesterday evening from my mother’s carer here at The Willows. Alma. I don’t know her surname. Alma said my mother was in distress and asking for me. I left my class—I’m a self-employed dance instructor—and arrived here around 7.30pm. My mother Eve Miller who is—was—eighty-six told me she had been to her bank with the tame driver, they use him because he has a wheelchair taxi and is kind and patient. Terry the Taxi. She’d taken calls on her private landline the previous day from a man calling himself Fletcher who claimed to be from the bank’s fraud prevention team.”

“I’ll need that number, and your mother’s mobile number, assuming she had one.”

“Yes, she had a mobile, but only for backup. The signal isn’t great here, so she mostly used the landline with her cordless phone. Hold on, the mobile may be right here.” Rachel opened her mother’s bag. “No, it’s not.”

“Just the numbers will do for now.”

Rachel passed her own phone to the detective, who read out the two numbers for his recording. “Do carry on, Mrs Phelps.”

“This Fletcher stated that Mum’s account was in danger of being robbed by the branch manager, Howard Plumb. It was ludicrous, but he gained Mum’s confidence, persuaded her to go straight into the bank and transfer all her savings into an account which Fletcher had given her. Mum pretended the money was to buy a house for my younger brother Robbie. He’s forty-one and has Down’s Syndrome. When she arrived back here, Mum realised she had been tricked.”

“The amount taken was …?”

“Just over two hundred thousand pounds. We put Mum’s house up for sale when she moved into care. She didn’t qualify for any help with the fees, owning her own place. The house sold a month ago and the cash was in a savings account while we decided what to do with it.”

“Did anyone else have knowledge of your mother’s affairs and assets?”

“Yes, I suspect that the volunteer who helps the residents with their phones and tablets, she’s called Leelo, may have known about the large amount in the saver account. Mum trusted this woman, who could have peeked over her shoulder while showing her how to use online banking, or sneaked in when Mum was in the dining room. I’m even more suspicious since I learned that Leelo was in Mum’s room this morning, in fact she was the one who discovered her dead. What was she doing in there?”

“Good question. I’ll get this Leelo’s details from the manager and interview her. Do you know if either Leelo or Alma are married, or have boyfriends? They can be the problem. They use their women as spies, to case out prospects, sometimes without the women even realising.”

Paul had made the same point. Rachel thought before answering, “I’m pretty sure Alma doesn’t have a man. Mum was always talking about ‘poor little Alma, an only child, an orphan, no one to care for her and yet she cares for me.’ No idea about Leelo.”

“Anyone else with access to Mum’s accounts?”

“No, she didn’t give me power of attorney. Too independent. Also she said it would have to be shared with my brother Simon who lives in Australia, which would be impractical.”

“Mrs Phelps, I have enough to begin enquiries. I’ll report back to my superior and phone you with developments. I’ll type your statement up but you’ll need to come in and sign it.”

Rachel took a deep breath. “Sergeant Ryan, my mum was old and frail, and not in good health. Even so it seems extraordinary she could call me, lucid and positive, earlier this morning, and by the time I arrived less than two hours later she was dead. I think my mother’s death should be treated as suspicious.”

Chapter 6

Back home, Rachel resisted the urge to rush into the office, tell Kizzy the news, flop into the comfy visitors chair and burst into tears while Kizzy fixed her another cappuccino.

Instead, she made herself a mint infusion, took the magnetic pad from the fridge and wrote:

Paul

Robbie

Simon

Kizzy

That was the proper order of things.

Paul answered straight away.

She said, “I just got home from The Willows, love. Mum died earlier this morning. Pneumonia.”

“Babe, I am so sorry. I expect the business with the bank brought it on.”

“Yes. Poor Mum, to spend her last day on earth being scammed of her life savings to die a pauper.” Rachel’s hand shook as she sipped her mint tea. She choked back a sob. “Oh Paulie, I never said goodbye to her! What’s worse, that Leelo woman was the one who found her!”

Paul didn’t reply. Had the connection dropped? No—she could still hear the mini-digger in the background. “Paulie, did you hear me?”

“Yes. That’s bad news, because we agreed last night that Leelo might be connected with the scam. I don’t suppose you saw the police after all this?”

“Yes, the detective turned up while I was there.”

“Does Robbie know yet?”

“I’m on my way to him next.”

“I’ll be there to help when you get back from the kennels.”

“No, love. Stay and press on with the cottages. Don’t waste time and diesel coming home now. I’m fine, and I’ve got lots to do.”

“That’s my girl. Will you cancel classes tonight?”

“No. Life carries on, cha-cha-cha.”

“I’ll bring a takeaway, so at least you’ll get your tea before you go out for once. You must keep your strength up.”

Rachel unlocked the drawer in the sideboard and took out the folder of her mother’s paperwork. She found the copy of the will, dated four years ago. Its provisions were simple: apart from the jewellery, promised to Rachel, Mum had left everything to Robbie, with Rachel and Simon as trustees. In the event that Robbie predeceased his mother, the assets were to be divided equally between the two surviving children.

Rachel phoned The Willows and spoke to the receptionist, making her repeat the instructions to be sure she had understood. “Please tell Mr Lane I have now checked the will, and my mother wished to be cremated.”

She couldn’t give Robbie her news over the phone. He had a mental age of around ten: provided he kept to his routine, he coped well and enjoyed life. But he could descend into a black depression—or erupt in sudden anger—when things went awry; even behave unpredictably and be a potential danger to himself or others.

Her kid brother needed kid-gloves treatment at times of crisis.

As she drove to the Korner Kennels Rachel kept coming back to the computer trainer Leelo. Why had she really been at The Willows the previous night? Why had she returned the next morning, before normal visiting hours, and let herself into Mum’s room?

Rachel didn’t like it at all, but was she overreacting? Were her suspicions rational?

She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel and hoped that Detective Ryan proved as efficient as he seemed.

At the kennels she found Julia the owner and explained the situation. Julia showed Rachel into the staff rest room, which was furnished with metal chairs and tables and decorated with posters of prize pedigree dogs and cats. She returned moments later with Robbie.

Her brother’s broad, flat face wore a troubled frown. “Hi Sis. What’s up?”

Rachel reached across the table and took his chubby hands in hers. “Sorry, Robbie, but Mum died this morning. Pneumonia.”

“I had a bad feeling after Paul called you away from the hall last night.” Besides working at the kennels, Robbie acted as DJ for Rachel’s dance classes, cueing up the waltzes, foxtrots and quicksteps.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

I live near the sea in North Norfolk, England. I began writing as a student, but a career in marketing intervened, and it was many years before I accomplished my lifelong ambition of writing a full-length novel. I write pacy, twisty, intricately-plotted thrillers packed with action in exotic locations. Several of my novels are based on my experiences living and working in the Caribbean, including ‘The Abigail Affair’ which became a UK Kindle top ten bestseller.

Q. Where did the idea for this book come from?
A.
At a race meeting in Australia, in the parade ring, I saw a groom with Down’s Syndrome proudly leading his owner’s horse around while bantering with the punters. I realised that an adult with Down’s could make a great character for a scientific thriller, and the story grew from that germ of an idea.
Q. What did you learn while writing this book?
A.
I learned about Down’s Syndrome, DNA sequencing, genetic manipulation, Estonia and its capital Tallinn, cell phone tracking technology, police procedures for missing persons, hypertension in pregnancy, the menopause, funerals and inquests, builders and dance instructors. Thanks to my expert readers!
Q. Which actor/actress would you like to see playing the lead character from this book?
A.
I would love to see my forty-something dance teacher Rachel Phelps played by the talented, versatile, tall and beautiful Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl, Jack Reacher, Die Another Day, An Education).

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