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The Face Behind the Mask
By Helen Phifer
HarperCollins PublishersCopyright © 2017 Helen Phifer
All rights reserved.
The sea of black and white parted as if by Moses himself at the arrival of the horse-drawn hearse. Two lines of neatly formed police officers stood with their heads bowed, all wearing their number one smart black dress tunics. Black boots polished highly enough to see their own reflections in. Pressed, crisp white shirts and the creases in their dress trousers immaculate.
Annie Ashworth stood at the back of the crowd of mourners; next to her was her friend and retired police sergeant Kav. She was still on maternity leave and thankful that she was, so she hadn't had to face the indignity of trying to squeeze into her too small uniform. She doubted very much that her tunic would fasten; neither would her trousers.
She hadn't wanted to come to Stuart's funeral and had forced herself to leave the house this morning because she felt partly responsible that he was dead. No, that was wrong. She felt wholly responsible that he was dead. If he hadn't turned up at her house that night, steaming drunk and being aggressive, then none of this would ever have happened. She wouldn't be here now, standing watching her husband, Will, leading the guard of honour and trying to keep it together while looking distraught.
She'd only ever seen him cry twice: once when he thought she was dead at the hands of serial killer Henry Smith, and then at the birth of their son, Alfie. Think about Alfie and how gorgeous he is. Don't look at the ... It was too late. Her eyes landed on the solid oak coffin with the Union Jack flag draped over it. Stu's flat cap and a beautiful display of white roses, lilies and gypsophila adorned the top of it. She felt her legs tremble, but Kav's strong hand gripped her elbow. He bent down and whispered, 'Don't even go there; this wasn't your fault.'
Her eyes filled with tears because, no matter how many times they told her it wasn't, she would always – every single day for the rest of her life – blame herself. As the officers saluted at the passing of their colleague she blinked and turned away. She'd come here for Will, who had worked with Stu and been his friend for the last five years; he'd supported her through so much and now it was her turn. Annie knew that what Will really needed was to get this over with, then go to the pub and get shit-faced with the rest of his team in CID. He could reminisce about the good old times, try to forget the bad and generally get it all out of his system.
She whispered back, 'I should never have come.'
Kav shrugged. Annie was aware that he felt just as awkward as she did because it had been him driving Stu home that night. He'd jumped out of Cathy's car and done a runner into the pitch black along the wintry, desolate coastal road. Kav had set off a panicked search that had ended with Stu throwing himself in front of a fast-moving police car.
Debs, Stu's estranged wife, walked in between Stu's parents holding their hands. Annie admired her strength. She didn't know if she would have been able to do that. It was nice that his parents didn't blame her or Annie; in fact they hadn't blamed anyone and had accepted that their only son had made a reckless, drunken decision that had left him unable to feed himself, talk or open his eyes. As cruel as it was, it was kinder that he'd died. That was no way to live your life. Annie thought that Stu would have agreed with her wholeheartedly.
There were so many mourners that Annie was relieved they couldn't fit inside the small church and happily took her place standing outside. It was a warm summer's day, the kind of day that made you want to pack up a picnic and go sit on a blanket on the beach. It was far too nice a day for a funeral; the sun was certainly shining down on Stuart today. She just hoped he'd finally found some peace.
He hadn't been a bad person. He'd just completely fucked up big time and had paid the ultimate price. It could happen to anyone. Throughout the entire service Annie's attention kept getting drawn to one of the old tombstones in the churchyard. She couldn't see anyone standing around in that area, but she got the distinct impression someone was hiding and watching.
Elbow's 'One Day Like This' began to play and the coffin was carried out of the church. Annie bowed her head, waiting for them all to pass. She wasn't going to the cremation; she and Kav were going back to Jake's house. Jake's husband Alex was babysitting Alfie. Their fifteen-month-old little girl, Alice, was as besotted with her eight-month-old baby, Alfie, as Annie was.
Will passed her by, his eyes puffy and red. He smiled at her and she smiled back. Jake, who was one of the last out, walked straight over to them. Bending down he kissed her on the cheek. He looked at Kav and grinned.
'I may love you, Sarge, but I'm not kissing you in public; although I'm glad to see you bothered to have a shave for the occasion.'
Annie giggled; Jake was so good at being bad without even realising it and he always managed to cheer her up no matter how dark a day she was having.
Kav rolled his eyes at him. 'Thank fuck for that.'
'I'm not going to the crematorium. I'm bursting out of these pants and they itch like mad. My balls feel as if they're on fire. Should we head back now and have a drink?'
Annie and Kav nodded. Cathy wandered over.
'What are you three up to?'
'Nothing. I just asked these two reprobates if they were coming to my house. I bloody hate funerals.'
Annie smiled. 'Tell her the real reason you want to leave, Jake.'
He poked her in the side. 'Come on, who's giving me a lift?'
Kav pointed at Annie. 'She's the chauffeur today.'
'That's good. I get to be driven home in style by Miss Daisy. Bring it on.'
The four of them wandered towards the small lane where Annie had parked. A car went past with Will in the passenger seat. He blew her a kiss. No matter how many times she saw him her heart always did a little flip. She lifted her hand to wave. They got into her Mercedes: Kav and Cathy in the back, Jake in the front. She waited for the long line of cars to pull out and follow the funeral procession before setting off. Jake turned to look at Kav.
'Don't you two be getting up to any funny stuff in that back seat. You're both way too old for that sort of thing.'
Annie laughed as Kav's huge hand slapped Jake around the side of the head.
'You never learn do you, Jake? Always respect your elders, especially when they can still kick your arse.'
'Ouch, violence is never the answer.'
She edged the car out after the last of the mourners and began the short drive to Jake's house. She couldn't wait to give Alfie the biggest cuddle ever. She hated funerals. They were a painful reminder that no one lived for ever, despite wanting to. Especially because she'd come close to dying herself a fair few times the last couple of years. It gave her the shivers just thinking about it.
She parked outside Jake's house and couldn't get out of the car fast enough when Alex opened the front door with her baby in his arms. Alfie was growing so much he wasn't going to be a baby for much longer. The last eight months had flown by so fast. She'd not had to think about much except looking after Alfie and she loved it. Although she was getting a little bored not having much adult conversation, she saw Jake a couple of times a week and Cathy kept in touch, as did Kav.
Jo – her new-found friend – even popped in whenever she wasn't busy. After surviving her husband Heath's almost fatal attack at their cottage, Jo had recovered well and got herself a job in the village café where they served huge cakes. Annie especially liked Jo's visits because she normally brought cake with her.
Annie needed to seriously consider if she was going back to her job as a community police officer soon. Before she knew it her twelve months' maternity leave would be up. Alfie reached his chubby hands towards her and his little face lit up when she smiled at him. She took him from Alex.
'Has he been good?'
'He's been a little angel, no bother at all.'
Jake sniggered. 'Thank God he doesn't take after his mother.'
'You're on fine form today, Jake.'
Jake patted Annie's back. 'Sorry, I promise I'll behave from now on. I think it must be funeral nerves. They make me want to laugh and joke to remember that I'm still alive.'
They all followed Alex into the kitchen where Alice was scooting around in her baby walker and stuffing cheesy puffs into her mouth. Kav shook his head. 'Bugger me, there are kids everywhere. How did that happen?'
Cathy laughed. 'Surely at your age you know exactly how that happens.'
Alice took one look at him and forced her little legs to manoeuvre the walker in his direction where she slammed straight into his shins. He bent down and tugged her from the walker.
'It's a good job I like you, kid; I wouldn't let your dad get away with that kind of behaviour.'
He winked at her and she began to giggle. Jake kissed both Alfie's and his daughter's cheeks then ran upstairs to get changed. Annie looked at Alex.
'Apparently his balls are on fire.'
Alex's laughter filled the room. 'Well, that makes a change.' He took some bottles of lager out of the fridge and offered them around. Annie shook her head. Both Kav and Cathy took one, opening them and drinking them in a couple of gulps. Putting Alfie down into the bouncer, she set about making herself a coffee.
'Was it bad?'
'Really bad – I hate funerals. Why do people have to die?'
Kav took hold of her hand. 'What did I tell you? That it's not your fault Stu decided to play silly buggers and made some terrible choices.'
Alex took hold of her other hand. 'How's Will?' 'I don't know. He's gone to the crematorium and then he's going to the wake for a bit. I said I'd meet him here, so I can drive him home. It will do him good to get it out of his system.'
Jake came back downstairs wearing a pair of cut-off denim shorts and a white vest top.
Kav started laughing. 'Bloody hell, it's George Michael in the flesh.'
Jake stuck two fingers up at Kav and took a bottle of lager from Alex and lifted it up. 'To Stuart: let's hope you're much happier up there than you were down here.'
They all lifted their bottles; Annie lifted her mug and everyone said in unison, 'To Stuart.'CHAPTER 2
A loud knock on the door made Jake jump up off his chair. He managed to spill lager all down his front and stain his perfect white vest. He looked out of the living room window and laughed.
'Watch out, the rozzers are here. It's a raid.'
Annie peered out of the window and gasped to see Will being helped out of the back of the locked cage of a police van, which was normally reserved for criminals.
The two young policemen who were standing at the back of the cage both had their arms out ready to catch Will. It was a good job they did because he stumbled, missed the step and landed in their arms. He tried his best to straighten up then saluted them both. Jake, who was standing at the front door, watched the scene before him with a huge grin on his face. The two policemen took an arm each and walked Will up Jake's path. They were both red-faced. Jake shook his head.
'Now then, William; we give you a couple of hours' freedom from your everyday life and look what happens! You're completely shit-faced.'
Will nodded his head in agreement. 'I can't argue with that.'
Jake took hold of his arm so the other two could let go. As they did, Will stumbled forwards, almost taking Jake down with him. Annie, who was standing behind Jake holding Alfie, moved out of the way.
'I better get him home. Help me to get him in the car, please, Jake.'
'Wouldn't you be better letting him come in and have some water? You could stop here tonight.'
Will chuckled. 'Bloody water – are you having a laugh? I want whisky on the rocks, you pack of pussies.'
Annie was mortified at the state he was in. She wanted to throw a bucket of cold water over him to sober him up. She hadn't seen him this drunk for a very long time and she didn't like it. One of the coppers coughed.
'Erm, are you all right now, Sarge? Do you need anything else or is it okay if we get on?'
'Course it is, thanks for the lift.' Will saluted again, making them both smile. They nodded at Jake who waved his hand at them.
Annie passed Alfie to Alex. 'I want to get him home. I haven't got enough stuff for Alfie to stop here and I want to sleep in my own bed. Thank you for the offer, though, Jake.'
'Well, leave him here. Me and Kav can stick him in the spare bed and you can pick him up in the morning or I can drop him off on my way to work at twelve.'
The look of horror that passed across her face must have made Jake wonder if there was something wrong.
'I can't. I don't like being left on my own now there's Alfie. Please, just help him into the front seat. I'll be okay getting him home. I can manage.'
'Your choice. What if he pukes all over those nice leather seats?'
'Then he'll clean it up when he's sober. Shit. How have you got in this state, Will?'
'No breakfast; felt sick. Lots and lots of whisky.'
'You don't even like whisky.'
She shook her head. She wasn't angry with him for getting in such a state because she understood completely; she just didn't like it. He'd wanted to blot it all out and who could blame him? Jake and Kav led him to her car. She ran inside to get her keys, which Alice had been playing with. Clicking the car open she watched from the window as Jake and Kav manhandled Will into the front seat and strapped him in. Jake turned away, waving his hand in front of his nose. He came back into the house.
'Keep the windows down because you're likely to get drunk off the fumes radiating from him. He stinks like a brewery.'
She grabbed Alfie's changing bag and carried him to the car. Kav, who had been watching Will to make sure he didn't vomit and choke on his own sick, stepped back. He took the changing bag from her and opened the door so she could put Alfie into his car seat. When she'd strapped him in he shut the door.
'Would you like me to follow you and help you get him to bed?'
'No, thanks; anyway, you've had a drink. If I can't get him out of the car I'll chuck a duvet over him until he's slept it off.'
'If you're sure?'
She nodded and he bent down to kiss her cheek.
'Don't be too hard on him. Sometimes a man's got to blow off a bit of steam and he's been guilt-tripping over Stu since the night it happened. Maybe now he'll be able to put it to one side and stop beating himself up over it.'
'I'm not mad with him; I know he blames himself. Christ, I blame myself. I'm just shocked to see him dressed in his Sunday best and drunk as a skunk in such a short space of time. Thanks, Kav.'
He walked away and went back inside Jake's house. Jake and Cathy waved her off, Jake mouthing 'You know where I am if you need me'.
She nodded and lifted her hand to wave goodbye.
She looked at her husband. 'Will, if you're going to be sick, make sure you let me know so I can pull over.'
Fifteen minutes later, as she got out of Ulverston, she heard him begin to retch.
'Hold on, don' t you dare.'
Managing to pull into a lay-by, she got out of the car and ran around to his side, throwing his door open just as a stream of projectile vomit came her way. She couldn't get him out of the car. They were parked on a busy road and if members of the public saw him in full police uniform puking everywhere there'd be a complaint in before they got home.
She waited until he wiped his sleeve across his mouth and stuck his thumb up at her, then she slammed his door shut. Getting him through the winding lanes and back to their home in Hawkshead was going to be fun. Thankfully, by the time she'd got back to her side of the car, Will was snoring. She looked back across her shoulder at Alfie who was also fast asleep, his thumb in his mouth and his blanket pulled up around his chin. She felt her heart surge. There was no better love than a mother for her child. Every time she saw him her heart filled with joy.
She looked at Will – her handsome knight in shining armour – and was thankful she had such an amazing family, even if she was annoyed with her husband. She drove the rest of the way home listening to Will's gentle snores. When she pulled up outside their secluded cottage he opened his eyes and looked at her.
'Don't be daft. I love you.'
Alfie was still fast asleep so she opened the front door of the house then went back to help Will out of the car. He was slightly better than when Jake had put him in. Wrapping her arm around his waist she helped him inside, leading him to the huge corner sofa in the lounge. He stumbled towards it, but she kept hold of him.
'We need to get you undressed, Will. You'll ruin your tunic if you fall asleep in it.'
Excerpted from The Face Behind the Mask by Helen Phifer. Copyright © 2017 Helen Phifer. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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