Authors: Helen Phifer
Tags: #Mystery Suspense
Annie locked the door to the cottage and stared at her car, which she hadn’t driven for almost three weeks. Then she decided that by the time she’d driven the short distance into the village of Hawkshead and found a parking place she could walk and still be in time for her doctor’s appointment. It was a warm day but there was a gentle breeze which made it bearable. She walked to the gate and heard the two different voices giggling softly. Looking up at the bedroom window that she’d left ajar she saw the outline of twin boys standing there; she waved, unsure whether they could see her, but they both smiled and waved back. Annie, who had been able to see and communicate with some ghosts after the horrific head injury Mike inflicted on her two years ago, didn’t mind her ghostly occupants. They were much friendlier than the woman who’d murdered them back in 1732. Thankfully Betsy Baker was no longer haunting the house, not since she and Jake had dug up her grave in the front garden and, after an awful fight, had managed to bury her in consecrated ground. The boys she could cope with, but that woman had been evil through and through. Before long she reached the main road which led into the picturesque village. She walked past one of the coffee shops, which had the biggest cake Annie had ever seen in the window, and her stomach let out a loud groan. She rubbed her hand over her bump.
Oh no, you love the look of that cake as much as I do, kid. At last a partner in crime. If I haven’t put on three stone in the last couple of weeks when the midwife weighs me I’ll treat us both to some.
She walked into the surgery and was surprised to see it so busy. There wasn’t a chair free but she didn’t mind; she was used to standing up for hours on end whilst at work guarding crime scenes. She booked in at the receptionist’s desk and turned around to see a woman, who was around the same age as her, stand up.
‘Please, you can take my seat.’
The woman didn’t make eye contact and kept her head bowed; she did, however, smile.
‘Thank you but I’m fine, I can stand for hours – I’m used to it.’
‘Oh no, I wouldn’t dream of it. Please take it.’
Annie didn’t want to offend the small, quiet woman so sat down in the chair.
She looked at Annie and nodded.
‘You’re very welcome.’
The receptionist shouted Jo Tyson and, still keeping her head down, the friendly woman scurried along the corridor towards the doctor’s room. Annie picked up the magazine from the table next to her; she had noticed the blue bruising under the woman’s left eye and the way she avoided eye contact and kept her head down. It reminded Annie of the woman she used to be three years ago. She shivered; the thought of her dead husband, Mike, and his violent outbursts made her feel ill. She had no idea how her life had changed so dramatically into the one she was living now but she knew it was all thanks to Will. He had stumbled across her when she was at her lowest point and like some scene from her favourite film,
, had come to her rescue, falling in love with her when she was battered, bruised and technically homeless. And now look at her; she had never been so happy. She so wanted to tell that woman that her life could get better if she found the courage to make the break away from her violent partner but it wasn’t her place because she didn’t know her. Hopefully the woman would realise it herself before her partner hit her too hard and killed her… the midwife shook Annie’s shoulder, waking her up from her world of painful memories.
‘Sorry, Annie, I called you a couple of times but you were miles away.’
‘I was. Sorry about that.’ She stood up and followed the midwife along to the room which she shared with the practice nurse.
The doctor felt Jo’s head, shone a light in her eyes and asked her how many fingers he was holding up.
‘Good. I think you might have a slight concussion but everything seems okay. Have you vomited or passed out since?’
She shook her head.
‘No, but I’ve seen things… strange things. This is going to sound really crazy but I’m not, I swear I’m not. The pans started to shake on the rack in the kitchen when there was no breeze and I saw a woman I didn’t recognise looking back at me through the mirror – she was bleeding from her head. And then the television wouldn’t turn off.’
The doctor sat down and began typing on the computer. Jo knew she sounded exactly like she was crazy but she had to tell someone.
‘How long was this after you fell and hit your head?’
‘Pretty much as soon as I came around.’
‘Well, I wouldn’t worry too much. I think you must have knocked your head too hard and it messed around with your vision. Concussion can be a strange thing. Now I want you to take it easy for a couple of days, take paracetamol if you have a headache and get plenty of rest. I’m sure you’ll be back to normal in a couple of days. If you start to vomit or black out then you need to go to the nearest accident and emergency department as soon as possible.’
Jo nodded. She wasn’t about to disagree with a doctor who had spent years at medical school. At least he hadn’t told her to wait there while he called for a van and the men in white suits to come and take her away in a straitjacket to the nearest mental hospital.
‘Thank you so much, doctor. I’m sorry to have bothered you.’
He smiled at her.
‘Just one more thing, Jo. I couldn’t help but notice the bruising under your eye. Is everything okay at home. Do you need to talk about anything else?’
She shook her head, standing up.
‘Everything is fine, thank you, and no, I don’t have anything else to discuss.’
She turned to walk out of the room but he gently took hold of her arm, tugging her back inside and shut the door.
‘I know you don’t want to hear this but it needs to be said. I’ve kept quiet about it for far too long. I’ve watched you come in here the last few years and you hardly speak. What happened to the Jo I used to know, the fun, loving girl who would go down to the pub for quiz night and lose miserably every single week and still have a great big smile on her face? I can’t stand to see you like this – it’s as if all the stuffing has been knocked out of you and been replaced with cotton wool. When was the last time you went out with your friends to the pub quiz? Do you even have any friends now, Jo, or are you just a dutiful little housewife to Heath? We used to have such a good time all those years ago, and I miss the old Jo. My girlfriend Jo, even though it was only for six months, who once kissed me so hard under the mistletoe on New Year’s Eve that I couldn’t catch my breath. I still think about that kiss every single New Year.’
Jo looked at him. Her cheeks had flushed red and she felt as if she couldn’t breathe. She had fancied him so much when he’d first moved here, fresh out of medical school. In fact, half of the women in the village had fancied him, but he’d turned them all down and had chosen to go out with her for six glorious months – until Heath had come along and blown her away with his charm. What a complete fool she’d been, giving up Paul for Heath. Christ, she still fancied him – but he was the one who had said it would be far too unprofessional of him to have a serious relationship with his patient. He’d let Heath steal her away from under his nose… and now look where she was. What would she give to turn back time and start all over again? Her soul probably; where was the devil when you wanted to make a deal? Shrugging her arm away from him she walked away without looking back, not wanting him to see her cheeks, which were burning, and her eyes, which were full of tears desperate to be shed. She didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for her; it was her sorry mess and one day she would sort it out – but today wasn’t that day.
She walked out of the doctor’s room with her head down, not looking where she was going. Annie, who was also leaving, was talking on her phone to Will, telling him about her appointment and wasn’t paying attention either. They both reached the main doors at the same time, bumping straight into each other. Jo, who was tiny, lifted off her feet and landed on the floor. Mortified, Annie bent down, reaching out her hand to help her up. Jo began to laugh.
‘I’m so sorry. Are you okay?’
‘I’m sorry, it was my fault. I wasn’t looking where I was going. Are you okay?’
‘I’m fine. I keep forgetting about the size of my stomach. This bump is made of strong stuff and so am I. It’s a gorgeous day, isn’t it? Do you mind me asking – are you a local or a visitor?’
Jo took hold of Annie’s hand and she pulled her to her feet.
As they walked outside into the warm summer sun, Jo nodded.
‘I’m local. I live in a cottage on the edge of the woods. Have done for the last twenty years, since I got married. How about you?’
‘Ah, you almost qualify as being a true local. I’ve only lived here just under a year. We live at Apple Tree Cottage which borders the woods, but it must be on the opposite side to you. I’ve never really got to know anyone in the village because I was always working – well, until I found out I was pregnant that was. Now I’m on doctor’s orders not to get stressed, so I’m not at work at the moment.’
She held out her hand and Jo grasped it; her touch was so light it tickled. Annie smiled at her.
‘You know I’ve been fantasising about a slice of that monstrous cake in the coffee shop window. Do you have time for a coffee and cake? My treat. It’s the least I can do to make up for almost flattening you into the floor. It’s been so long since I sat in a café, I’ve almost forgotten what it’s like.’
She watched as the woman looked down at her watch, biting her lip. Then she looked at her properly, for the first time making eye contact.
‘Me either. You know what, I would love to – but I can’t stop for too long. I have to get back.’
Annie didn’t ask who, or why the rush. She got the sense that the woman was taking a huge risk by making a decision of her own. They walked the short distance to the café and Annie pointed to a table outside.
‘Would you mind if we went inside, out of the way?’
‘No, of course not. I’d get too hot anyway.’
They went inside where it was cool and much darker. Annie let Jo pick the table, wondering if she would pick the one at the back in a dark corner, and she did. Annie didn’t feel like gloating; she really felt for her. They were like kindred spirits, as if there was some unseen connection between them. Annie smiled. Where was this bullshit coming from? She’d turned into a right soppy wreck since she’d got pregnant. They sat down, chatting about the weather, the village fete that was being held in two weeks’ time, and the baby.
‘I always wanted children, really wanted children, but my first husband never did and to be honest I’m glad we didn’t now. It wasn’t a very good relationship. This one was a bit of a surprise but my second husband was delighted when he found out. Do you have any?’
The woman laughed but it was a short laugh.
‘No, Annie, we don’t and I suppose it’s a blessing in disguise. I wouldn’t want to bring a baby into my life.’
She stopped talking and bowed her head, furious with herself for almost letting slip about what a shitty life she led.
Annie changed the subject, feeling embarrassed for her – yet at the same time wanting to hug her and tell her it was okay, her secret was safe with her. But they barely knew each other and Annie hadn’t even told her best friend, Jake, about the abusive relationship she was in at the time, so there was no way that Jo was about to confide in her when they’d only just met. They finished their cake and sipped their coffee; Jo looked at her watch.
‘Oh gosh, is that the time? I really need to get going, but thank you, Annie. It’s been great talking to a neighbour even if we do live a couple of miles in the opposite direction from each other.’
Jo began to dig around in her pocket and Annie pulled out a ten pound note.
‘I told you, this is my treat. I’m so relieved to have some adult, female conversation it’s the least I can do. You can buy them next time.’
She winked at her and Jo laughed, turning to leave. Annie let her go. She was tired now she’d sat down and that huge slice of cake was weighing her down. Now all she had to do was walk home, or should that be drag herself home. She couldn’t stop thinking about Jo and wondered if her husband was a big man like Mike had been – they weren’t always. She’d arrested men before who were short and weedy but had fists like bars of steel. Annie knew she should keep out of it, that this was nothing to do with her. But she liked Jo and wanted to help in any way that she could.
Jo hurried home; she’d been far too long and he would be furious with her, but it had been worth it. Annie seemed lovely; it was so nice to speak to another woman. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been out for coffee, it felt so civilised and made her realise exactly how crap her life was when going out for a coffee felt like a huge adventure. As she opened her front door she kept her fingers crossed that he wasn’t waiting for her. She was in such a great mood for the first time in months. It would be just like him to be waiting behind the front door to spoil it all. It was almost too good to be true – he was nowhere to be seen and she felt her shoulders relax as she let out a long sigh of relief. Closing the door as quietly as possible she kicked off her shoes and walked into the kitchen to put the kettle on. As she leant over the sink to fill the kettle she saw flashes of bright yellow moving around in the woods behind the cottage. The cold tap began to squirt water all down her top as the kettle overflowed. She jumped back away from the window, grabbing a tea towel to dry herself. Her heart was racing. What were the police doing in the woods? She had no idea why she felt so nervous but she did. In all the years she’d lived in the village she could count the number of times she’d seen a police officer on one hand – and now there were at least six of them at the back of her house. Her first thoughts were that he’d done something really bad, but then she scolded herself. He only did the bad stuff to her, didn’t he? He was a perfect gentleman to everyone else, especially his clients. He wouldn’t do anything to jeopardise what he thought was his perfect life – why would he? But still she felt uneasy.