Attending a birthday celebration for two young girls, Bea Abbot tries not to let superstition get the better of her when she realizes they are thirteen at dinner. What she doesn’t anticipate is that the evening will end in sudden, violent death.
Suddenly a dining room curtain goes up in flames. While two members of the host family are rushed to hospital, Bea and a fellow guest search for the birthday girls in a house which has been plunged into darkness. And then the chaos begins …
Could the fire have been started deliberately – and were young Bernice and Alicia the intended targets? As Bea investigates, she finds herself drawn into the girls’ troubling world: a world rich in money but lacking in love.
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A Bea Abbot Agency Mystery
By Veronica Heley
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2016 Veronica Heley
All rights reserved.
Bea Abbot counted the number of guests at the dinner table. Thirteen! Most of whom she didn't know. She told herself that she was not superstitious. However, when the two birthday girls were taken up to bed by their nanny, Bea heaved a sigh of relief ... and then laughed at herself for doing so.
More wine was served. Neither of her dinner companions was particularly good company, but she didn't expect the evening to last much longer. She relaxed.
Crack! A firework? Outside the house. In a neighbour's garden?
The pretty blonde opposite put her hand to her throat. 'Fireworks starting early, aren't they?'
Josh – their host – was in a genial mood. 'My granddaughter and her little friend wanted to let off some fireworks in the garden here but I forbade it. Too risky. They've been given some indoor fireworks. That should satisfy them till they get back to boarding school. They'll be going to some sort of display there, I suppose.'
Woosh ... crackle! There was definitely a fireworks party nearby. Bea liked fireworks, at a distance. Would it be impolite to ask if they might draw back the curtains over the window to watch?
Woosh ... crackle.
Crack! Wasn't that very loud? And close ...?
Bea turned her head to see ...
... a fiery rose blossom at the top of the curtain behind her.
Someone screamed. One of the waitresses?
Mouths gaped, wine spilled.
Chairs were thrust back.
Bea started to her feet. The curtain was on fire? How? Surely not a firework indoors?
Josh clutched at his chest.
At the other end of the table Daphne, his daughter, threw herself backwards, her arm sweeping glassware and cutlery off the table. A glass shattered.
Bea's good friend Leon was sitting next to Daphne. Blood spurted from her arm. He recoiled. She'd cut herself?
One of the guests grabbed a jug of water from the table and sprayed the flames. Too little, too late.
Crack! Crackle ... swoosh! The fireworks continued outside and in.
A thin scream from someone.
Bea projected her voice through the chaos. 'Fire extinguisher! Anyone?'
One of the men nodded and darted out of the room.
The heat from the burning curtain was intense. Bea stepped away from the table.
Daphne was having hysterics, throwing herself around.
Leon tried to calm her. 'Someone, help me!'
Bea would have gone to his aid, but the pretty blonde opposite got there first. Scarlet blotches sprang out on Leon's face and hands.
Daphne had severed an artery?
'Dad?' A cry of alarm from one of Josh's sons. 'Where's your pills?' Josh. Heart-attack city, right?
Woosh! Splat! The firework party nearby had got going in earnest.
The two waitresses had also frozen where they stood, plates and bottles slipping from their hands.
Crack! Not so loud.
Was that outside?
No. An echo? A firecracker. In the hall?
One of the waitresses turned her head to look. Had she, too, heard ... whatever?
Bea gasped. The children, Alicia and Bernice! They'd been sent up to bed some ten minutes ago, maybe a little longer. If a second firework had been set off inside the house, they might be frightened by it.
She took a hesitant step towards the door. Risked a glance back at the curtain, which was being devoured by the flames. If someone had gone for a fire extinguisher ...? Josh was being attended to by one of his sons, so ...
Should she ask Leon to check on the children? One of them – Bernice, his great-niece – was his responsibility, after all.
No, he was struggling to wrap a napkin round Daphne's arm, helped by the blonde girl.
Daphne's free arm caught the blonde a right old thwack!
Echoed outside. Swoosh and splat!
One of the young men – a son of the house? – returned with a fire extinguisher. He directed the nozzle at the burning curtain and pressed the plunger. The flames flickered and died.
Pop, pop, pop! Crackle and woosh! The fireworks continued outside.
A babel of voices round the table. 'How awful!'
'Josh, are you all right?'
Daphne had stopped screaming and was lying limply back in her chair, eyelids fluttering.
Bea tried to distinguish between the various cries of alarm inside and the snap, crackle and pop of the fireworks party outside. Had she or had she not heard a second firework go off inside the house a moment ago?
The waitress had heard something, too. Hadn't she? Somewhere in the hall or ... upstairs? Bea skirted the table to look out into the hall.
No, nothing seemed amiss. Could she have been mistaken? She put her hand to her heart, telling it to calm down. False alarm. The children would be perfectly all right. Their nanny had seemed a sensible soul.
Perhaps she ought to see what she could do to help Leon with Daphne? Except ... she hesitated. Her instinct was to check on the girls.
Another guest, an older man, joined her in the doorway. He was not panicking. Like her, he was frowning. Listening.
Swoosh, pop, pop, pop! That was outside, yes?
The man looked a question at her. What was his name? Leon had been held up in a meeting that afternoon, meaning that he and Bea had arrived late and introductions had been hurried. This man was something double-barrelled?
She said, 'I'm worried about the children.'
He nodded. He stepped into the hall, the better to hear what was going on.
The dining room was on the ground floor. Across the hall was the fine, pillared reception room in which they'd met to celebrate the girls' joint birthdays with champagne and the unwrapping of a small mountain of presents.
Bea hadn't been to this house before. It reeked of wealth and privilege. High ceilings, tall windows in huge rooms, brocaded curtains, polished furniture, parquet flooring. Money no object.
Bea said, 'I thought I heard ... I must have imagined it. What do you think? The nanny should be looking after the children.'
'Not a nanny. Part-time housekeeper, looking after them for the half-term holiday. What did you think you heard?'
'A firework similar to the one that went off in the dining room, but out in the hall here or ... somewhere inside the house?'
He grunted and led the way to the stairs. Bea didn't know her way round this splendid mansion but the man seemed to do so.
She hitched up her long skirt to climb the stairs behind him.
Here's a how-de-do! Two guests taking off to search their host's house in the middle of the night ... surely there's no cause for alarm ...!
Pop, pop, pop! No, that was outside.
Broad, shallow stairs led up to a spacious landing. A full-length window faced them, with another brocaded curtain drawn across it. Corridors led off right and left.
This would be the main bedroom floor. Master bedrooms, family bedrooms, guest bedrooms. Every room en suite. Gold-plated taps and walk-in dressing rooms, no doubt.
Outside, Bea could hear another set of fireworks being let off. Further away. In the next road?
The man took two right-angled turns and led the way up the next flight of stairs. A narrower staircase. Ah, of course. The top floor would contain staff quarters and nurseries for children. This mansion had been built when children were meant to be seen and not heard.
Was that a cry for help? Bea's silk skirt slipped from her hands and she trod on the material, tearing it loose from the waistband. She stopped for a moment to tie a knot in the material. It didn't matter how she looked. It was more important to find out if there really had been a cry for help.
It was hard to hear anything but the hubbub below ... screams and shouts ... a mad jumble of voices ... and the snap and swoosh of fireworks outside. Surely only outside!
Bea sniffed. Something acrid?
Another couple of turns in the stairs. They were coming up to another landing. In front of them was another floor-to-ceiling window, covered by another brocaded curtain. Déjà vu. Flames were running up and down this one, too.
Had a second fire been started here by another firework? Was it this they'd heard from the dining room?
Gunpowder, treason and plot? But why?
No time to reason why, ours but to do or die.
A middle-aged woman lay sprawled on the landing, mewing, trying to crawl away from the flaming curtain. The nanny-cum-housekeeper. She heard them and lifted her head.
'The curtain! I tripped and fell. Broke my leg! Get the girls?' She pointed down the right-hand corridor.
Bea heard someone screaming. The girls? The birthday girls!
The man bent over the housekeeper, hauling her to her feet. 'Can you manage to hop down the stairs if I lift you ...?' He set her on the top of the flight leading downwards. She clutched the banister, saying, 'I can manage! Get the girls!' She started to hop down the stairs, trailing one leg, leaning heavily on the banister.
Bea hesitated. The curtain was furiously aflame, reaching out across the landing for something else to devour. Blocking the way to the corridor and the girls' room.
Bea had always been afraid of fire.
Screams! From below or from the corridor? The girls?
The man took a running jump to pull down the curtain pole and with it the blazing curtain. He tore the fabric off its hooks, and stamped on it. The flames sizzled and died, flickered and turned black.
Bea felt acid hit the back of her throat, and coughed.
'Hurry!' The man heaved a cough, too. 'No time to ...!'
They couldn't spare precious minutes in order to extinguish the flames completely. The carpet might catch and burst into fire again, but in the meantime ...
Thin screams. Children for the use of.
Bea began to pray, Dear Lord keep them safe, Leon's great-niece, Bernice, and ... what was the other child's name? Alicia, that's it.
The man plunged down the corridor, disappearing into tendrils of smoke which curled about his figure and obscured him from Bea's view. She stumbled after him, straining her eyes to see through the mist, which thickened and darkened as they advanced.
Faintly came the sound of a child coughing.
The man doubled over. Coughing. Choking. Stopped to lean against the wall. Bea tried to see through the smoke. There were a number of doors along the corridor. Which was the children's room? Perhaps more important, which was the bathroom?
The man would know.
She gasped, 'Bathroom? Water! Which ...?'
Smoke. Thicker. Choking.
No more screams. The girls ...?
He gestured to the second door along, stumbled to it, leaned against it, opened it and shot through. Bathroom. Thank God. Clearer air here.
The lights went out.
Her phone would give them a light!
She felt for her purse. Not there.
She must have dropped it when she left the dining room. So, no phone, no light.
Coughing, the man produced his own mobile, pressed buttons. A weird blue light.
She located a washbasin, ran water.
Seized a couple of hand towels, dropped them into the basin. He dipped towels in water, too.
How many towels would they need? One each for them, one each for the children.
If they were not too late.
They should have phoned for the fire brigade before they left the dining room.
They ought to have gone straight for the girls before they fiddled around with towels and water. She turned off the taps. No need to add flood to fire.
'Ready?' His voice was a croak. Almost her nerve failed her. She'd always dreaded fire. She imagined a fireball shooting out at them as they opened the door of the children's room. She imagined herself running back down those stairs now, safely, to safety.
They wrapped wet towels around their mouths and noses, took a second one each. She wanted to scream that they shouldn't go any further, leave it to the professionals.
Back to the corridor, now thick with smoke. No lights.
He held up his phone and it hardly made any difference to the gloom.
She dropped the towel from her mouth for a moment and the smoke hit the back of her throat. It reminded her of the killer smogs of her childhood. She pulled the towel back up again.
Smoke inhalation kills quicker than flames.
Don't think like that! They're not dead! Dear Lord, keep them safe!
Smoke. Dense. Menacing. Surely the family must have called the fire brigade by now?
The girls were only ten years old, for heaven's sake!
Happy Birthday to you, squashed tomatoes and stew ... a mound of presents from people who could afford expensive toys ... including a box of indoor fireworks.
The man rattled a doorknob along the corridor. Was that the girls' room? The door didn't budge. The door was locked?
He stood back and charged. He rammed the door with his shoulder. He was well built, but ... Ouch! That must have hurt.
The door shifted but didn't open more than an inch.
He gave a hoarse cry. Bent down, pushing ...
One of the girls was lying in a huddle behind the door?
He shoved hard, got the door halfway open, dragged a doll-like figure up and thrust it into Bea's arms. The towel fell from his face. He flapped his arms to tell her to get going.
She didn't want to leave him.
Correction. She did.
She wanted to run, as fast as she could, but she couldn't leave him and the other child to burn. The room behind him was filled with a dense, black smog. He hitched the towel up around his face again. The smoke reached out to smother everything in its path.
Bea had one of the girls. Which one? She couldn't tell in the dark.
Was the child breathing? Yes, her chest was heaving. She was whimpering.
Bea screamed at herself. Why hadn't she learned first aid? What do you do for smoke inhalation?
She wrapped the wet towel around the girl's head loosely, and was thrilled when the child tried to fight her off. 'Go ...!'
The man held something out to her. A glimmer of light.
A child's mobile phone. Pink and sparkling.
Ah, that would help.
Holding up the pink phone, half carrying and half dragging the child, with the towel slipping from her face, Bea set off to the landing ... how many doors along? They'd flown along here in a couple of seconds, but it seemed like an hour before they reached a wide, open space. The window, which had been covered by the burning curtain, now let in moonlight of sorts. London is never totally dark. The curtain was a blackened shroud at their feet.
Was that a hint of flame reviving?
No, probably not. Hopefully not.
In which direction did the stairs lie? She was disorientated in the dark. She held the child's phone up high, and still couldn't see which way to go.
The child in her arms coughed and cried out in a choked voice.
'It's all right,' said Bea, trying to keep the towel over her mouth and nose, hold up the phone and keep an arm around the child. Which way lay the stairs?
She risked a look back. A humped-back figure was following her, swaying. He must have the other child over his shoulder. Presumably he'd lost his own phone? No light.
Bea had the only light. But she was so tired!
If she stopped to rest ...
The smoke would get her if she did.
The man pushed past her, led the way to what turned out to be the top of the stairs. How come he knew the layout of the house? He wasn't one of the family, was he? Or was he? She couldn't remember.
She hitched her bunched-up skirt higher, took a firmer hold of the child who was slipping out of her arms ... don't do that, dear, or you'll end up in the morgue ... keep going, keep on, keeping on, one foot after the other ... the air will be clearer as we go down ... won't it?
It was so dark! The light she held was hardly helping at all. Low on battery?
She bumped into the banister. Good. She put her elbow on it, and it helped her to feel for the next step ... and the next ...
A pause to take a breath and hoist the child up again. Yes, it was slightly easier to breathe here. She let the towel drop around her neck.
The child – it was Alicia – moaned and coughed and wept.
'Not much farther,' gasped Bea, not believing it, but thinking it the right thing to say. How we lie to children! For their own good, of course. And to bolster up our courage.
The man had stopped moving. He reached back to take the silly little pink phone off her. 'I'll lead the way. We turn here.'
Still no lights, except for the glow-worm in his hand.
Down, down. Feel for the next step. The child coughed and cried, a dead weight in her arms.
'Turn again ... careful!'
Who was he to tell her to be careful? Teach your grandmother ...
Her tied-up skirt was coming undone. She could feel it flop around her feet. She tried to hitch it up again, nearly lost her balance and fell awkwardly against the wall. Ouch. That hurt. No time to rub it, even.
Excerpted from False Fire by Veronica Heley. Copyright © 2016 Veronica Heley. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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