Death at High Tide by Hannah Dennison: New Excerpt
By Crime HQAugust 21, 2020
“I’m sorry, but I don’t understand what you mean.” Anxiety pooled in the pit of my stomach, and I knew it had to be reflected in my face because my sister, Margot, grabbed my hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze.
Nigel Hearst, my newly deceased husband’s accountant, regarded me with sympathy. “I’m sorry to say that over the past five years Robert had encountered some challenges with two of his major streams of revenue—”
“Yes.” I nodded. “I knew he was worried about the safari park after the … accident.”
Margot’s eyes widened. “It was Robert’ssafari park? Was that where a guest tried to take a selfie with a baby rhino and the family sued?”
“It was awful,” I said.
“Robert refused to fight it and settled out of court,” said Nigel. “But I am hoping that you will be able to keep the house and, of course, your car.”
“Keep the house?” I said, feeling a rising sense of panic. “Why wouldn’t I be able to keep the house? We didn’t have a mortgage—did we? I know the settlement was huge, but … Nigel, what’s going on?”
Nigel adjusted his pink tie and straightened the blotter on his immaculately tidy desk. He refused to meet my eye. “Don’t worry,” he said smoothly. “I promised Robert I’d take care of you—”
“I think what Evie is trying to ask you is what the hell happened to all his money?” Margot flashed a megawatt smile with her startling white veneers that seemed to bring out the emerald green in her eyes. I cringed with embarrassment. I could always rely on my big sister to get straight to the point.
Nigel looked uncomfortable. “He had an expensive divorce.”
“That was nine years ago,” Margot said. “Anyway, Evie told me he could afford it.”
I was mortified. It was true I had said that, but out of context my comment sounded callous. “It’s not about the money, Margot,” I said. “I’m just surprised because—”
“It’s always about the money,” Margot went on. “Evie gave up a lucrative career for Robert. He was a quarter of a century her senior—”
“Twenty-two years, actually—”
“Whatever. Anyway, he must have provided for her future.”
“I am perfectly capable of getting a job,” I said, shooting Margot a furious look.
Margot winked at me. I’d also forgotten about her warped sense of humor. In fact, I’d forgotten about a lot of Margot’s qualities, which were now coming back to me at breakneck speed.
“Are we able to look at Robert’s finances?” Margot asked. “No offense, Nick—”
“I mean, this is my sister’s life you are talking about here, and I’m not sure how you expect us to just accept what you’re telling her.”
I saw concern etched on her face, and even though I was embarrassed, I felt so grateful that she had flown five thousand miles, all the way from California, to be with me. I had phoned her at ten in the morning U.K. time—two, West Coast time—and all I had said was, “Robert’s dead.” Eighteen hours later, she arrived on my doorstep with a hug and her Gucci luggage.
“Of course, you are welcome to look through everything,” said Nigel. “Cherie will give you whatever you need.”
At fifty-five, Nigel was still a dashingly attractive man, with a shock of salt-and-pepper hair, dark brown eyes and a charisma that came off him in waves. Today, though, I thought his face looked unusually florid, with small beads of perspiration dotted across his high forehead. He retrieved a bottle of pills from a drawer in his desk and knocked back a couple, dry. “Blood pressure,” he said. Then he reached for the monogrammed silver cigarette case, but Margot snatched it out of his grasp.
“You just told us you had high blood pressure.” She turned to me. “Did you know that smoking is totally illegal in Beverly Hills? Even outside. Don’t look at me like that, Evie. The minute I started running, I gave up just like that.” She snapped her fingers. “I haven’t smoked for years.”
“Is it hot in here?” Nigel got up and opened a window. A blast of freezing cold November air whipped up the papers on his desk.
“Not anymore,” said Margot.
He slammed the window shut.
We fell into an uncomfortable silence as he swiftly reorganized his documents. He really seemed on edge today. Margot’s iPhone pinged an incoming text.
“Sorry, L.A.,” Margot said apologetically. “Won’t be a moment. Talent issues.”
“She’s a film producer in Hollywood,” I said.
“I need to handle this immediately. Excuse me.” Margot stood up and disappeared through the door into the outer office. She was dressed in a tight, plum-colored leather jacket, skinny jeans and Louboutin ankle boots. I noticed she’d become very thin. I also noticed that it made her boobs seem much bigger and for a moment wondered if she had actually had cosmetic surgery—something she swore she would never do.
“What’s the time in Los Angeles?” Nigel mused. “It must be seven in the morning.”
“Margot works all the time,” I said with pride.
“Ah. The American dream.”
“But I must apologize. She can be a bit direct.” I took a deep breath and ventured, “Is it true about possibly losing the house?”
“I’ll do everything in my power, you know that,” said Nigel. “Robert was a law unto himself. He liked to take risks, and you know that once his mind was set on something…” He shrugged. “He would listen to my advice but never take it.”
Nigel was right. Robert’s harebrained moneymaking schemes had always been unpredictable, but somehow he always came up trumps—until now. Nigel was the only friend from Robert’s old life that he’d brought with him to his new life with me. Nigel had been our rock in a year that Robert called his “annus horribilis.” It wasn’t just the tragedy at the safari park. There was also the catamaran company that was lost to a fire and turned out not to be insured and most recently a property development deal that was doomed when the investors discovered the land was on a Superfund site. And yet Robert had never seemed disconcerted. He always bounced back, saying, “You win some, you lose some.” He had been the eternal optimist. As I sat there in Nigel’s office, I just couldn’t believe that I would never see Robert again. I felt as if this were all a bad dream.
The door opened, but it was Cherie, Nigel’s assistant, who poked her head inside.
“Mrs. Chandler wanted privacy,” she said in a croaky voice, pulling the red-and-gold woolen scarf tighter around her neck. Married with a ten-year-old son, Cherie was in her early forties and had worked for Nigel for years. Nigel often said that she was the worst assistant he had ever had but that she made him laugh. Robert once told me that she and Nigel had had an affair. I found that hard to believe. With long straight hair draped around her face and large round glasses, Cherie was nothing like the numerous socialites Nigel often brought over to dinner. She was a bit of an enigma.
“How’s your cold?” Nigel asked.
“Getting better,” she said, and added a dainty cough to prove it. “The hot toddy you made me at lunchtime really helped.”
“Is that a Harry Potter scarf?” I asked.
“Cherie knows everything about Harry Potter,” Nigel teased.
“Me too,” I said. “I’m a huge fan.”
As we waited for Margot to finish her phone call, Nigel and Cherie made small talk, but I could see by the way she looked at him that perhaps Robert had been right. She adored him.
I took in Nigel’s plush city office, with his magnificent art collection adorning the three walls. The fourth was all glass and afforded a spectacular view of the Gherkin. I’d never been here before, although I’d met Nigel many times. He was a constant visitor at Forster’s Oast, our beloved converted oasthouse just outside Tunbridge Wells in Kent.
Robert and Nigel’s friendship went back years, but it was only over the last decade that Nigel had started managing Robert’s businesses. Framed photographs of their exploits lined one wall in Nigel’s office—catamaran racing, bobsledding, alpine skiing. Anything with speed. But these escapades came to an abrupt halt with Robert’s rotator cuff surgery shortly after he and I married nine years ago.
I knew very little about Robert’s life before we met and was happy not to ask about it. Margot called me an ostrich, with my head in the sand, and couldn’t understand why I showed so little interest in his first wife. But I had my reasons—ones I would never share with her.
The door opened and Margot came back. She pushed her blond hair off her face. Last time I’d seen her, it had been a rich chestnut brown—her natural color. I patted my own hair self-consciously. Margot was right. It could do with a good cut. But when she sat down, I noticed that her hands were shaking.
“Is everything okay?” I asked.
“Didn’t Robert have any life insurance policies?” she said, pointedly ignoring my question.
“Margot—,” I protested.
“Why don’t I make everyone some tea?” Cherie ventured.
“Or something stronger?” Nigel said hopefully.
“Definitely not,” said Margot.
This was a first. When Margot had lived in England, boozy lunches were the norm. We were always meeting in the pub when we both worked in London—Margot in publicity for a PR firm and I as an archivist at the Red Fox art gallery in Soho. That was before she met Brian and was whisked off to Hollywood.
“I don’t drink at lunchtime anymore,” said Margot by way of explanation. “It’s not cool in L.A. You’d immediately be checked into rehab. I’ll have green tea.”
Cherie paused and seemed confused. “Green? You mean peppermint?”
“She’ll drink whatever you bring in, thanks, Cherie,” I said.
“There may be a small policy of about seventy-five thousand pounds that I’m afraid won’t go very far. Robert’s estate is a little complicated and it will take time to sort everything out. I want to assure you that I am always here for you, Evie.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Have you heard from Michael yet?”
“Who is Michael?” Margot demanded.
“He lives in Australia,” I said. “He’s Robert’s son from his first marriage. Obviously he needs to be here for the funeral—”
“I can handle all the funeral arrangements,” said Nigel. “The sooner the better, I feel.”
“Thank you,” I said again. “I’m still waiting to hear from Dr. Barnaby. There was some question about having an autopsy.”
“Yes, I heard that too,” said Nigel.
“I wonder why,” Margot said. “I mean a heart attack is a heart attack.”
Nigel seemed taken aback. “Well, it was a little more complicated than that.”
“We know,” I said quickly, and glared at Margot for being so insensitive not just to Nigel—who had found Robert’s body—but to me as well. For as long as I lived, I would always wonder if I could have saved him. If only I hadn’t left that morning. If only I hadn’t said those awful words. Suddenly the room seemed stifling.
“I need some water,” I said.
“I’ll ask Cherie—”
“No. It’s fine.” I jumped up and hurried out of Nigel’s office into Cherie’s work space, where she was setting out a tray of bone china tea mugs on a utility counter by the far wall.
Suddenly, I heard Margot’s voice boom, “Evie won’t ask, so that’s why I’m here.” We were on speakerphone.
Cherie gave a guilty start. She’d been eavesdropping next door! It was then that I saw her iPhone propped against the telephone console and Apple’s built-in audio recorder running.
“Nigel likes me to record all of his meetings,” she said quickly.
I was surprised. “Even for his friends?”
“Especially for his friends,” said Cherie. “Just in case he forgets something.”
“And what about his awful first wife?” I heard Margot go on. “Why should my sister—”
I hit the intercom button. “None of your business.”
Cherie stuck out her chin. “I’m just doing my job.” She handed me a bottle of Perrier water. “If you want flat, you’ll have to drink tap.”
“Perrier is fine, thank you,” I said.
“Oh, hold on a minute—I’ve been doing some filing … I have something for you.”
I waited patiently while Cherie hunted through a mound of documents on her desk. “It’s here somewhere … ah!” She pulled out a cream vellum envelope. “I forgot to give this to Nigel, although actually it’s addressed to you.”
I took the sealed envelope and my stomach turned over as I recognized Robert’s spidery handwriting with his trademark Mont Blanc pen—“For My Darling Wife: In the Event of My Death.”
I returned to Nigel’s office with the Perrier and the envelope, anxious to know what it contained but at the same time not sure if I could read its contents without crying.
“What have you got there?” Margot demanded.
“Cherie just gave this to me,” I said. “It’s from Robert.”
“Let me see that,” Nigel said sharply.
I showed him the envelope. His eyes widened in surprise. He immediately hit the intercom button. “Cherie! That envelope—where did you find it?”
“In my to-file box under my desk,” we all heard her say. “Sorry. It must have been sent over with Robert’s documents ages ago. I was looking for something else and there it was! I don’t know how it ended up in—”
“Never mind,” Nigel said curtly, and shut off the intercom, silencing whatever Cherie was about to say next. “Filing has never been Cherie’s forte. Well … shall we see what the letter says?”
“I’d like to read this in private if you don’t mind,” I said. “Margot, you can stay.”
“Oh.” Nigel seemed taken aback. “Yes. Of course.” He got up and left the room.
“Go on. Open it,” Margot said. “It’s probably some bizarre burial request or something.”
“I am going to open it,” I said. “But from now on, please let me handle Nigel. You’ve been rude to him. He’s a good friend.”
“Someone has to ask the difficult questions.” She regarded me with incredulity. “I still find it hard to believe you didn’t notice that Robert was running out of money. I know I would have. Brian and I share everything.”
“Robert handled the money,” I said. “And I was happy for him to do so. He was always very generous to me.”
“Generous!” Margot exclaimed. “I should hope so! It’s not the 1950s!” She took my hand again. “What happened to my independent little sister who wouldn’t allow a man to even open her car door?”
“You’re thirty-six!” Margot exclaimed. “Granted that’s old for California, but here?”
“Alright, I grew up.”
I smiled at our childish made-up swear word.
“You were always the rebel,” Margot went on. “You were always the one getting into trouble at school. You even lost your virginity before me! And then the minute you met Robert you changed. You became the demure little stay-at-home wife. I mean … what about your photography? You just let it all go!”
I didn’t answer. Margot had struck a nerve. It was true. I had put my photography dreams on hold while we focused on having a family. A family! I felt sick as I remembered Michael’s damning comments the night before his father died.
“Well … if you’re not going to open it, I will.” Margot snatched the envelope out of my grasp and picked up the silver letter opener on Nigel’s desk.
“Go ahead,” I said. “I don’t think I can handle any more emotion right now. You read it.”
So Margot did, her eyes swiftly darting across the paper. She went very quiet, then broke into a huge grin. “Well, this is excellent news!”
“No jokes, please,” I said.
“I’m not joking. ‘If you are reading this letter,’” she read, “‘it means you are the proud owner of Tregarrick Rock.’”
“A painting? Who is the artist?”
“Not a painting! You’ll never believe what it is—” She handed me the letter. “It’s actually a hotel.”
Copyright © 2020 by Hannah Dennison.
About Death at High Tide by Hannah Dennison:
When Evie Mead’s husband, Robert, suddenly drops dead of a heart attack, a mysterious note is found among his possessions. It indicates that Evie may own the rights to an old hotel on Tregarrick Rock, one of the Isles of Scilly.
Still grieving, Evie is inclined to leave the matter to the accountant to sort out. Her sister Margot, however, flown in from her glamorous career in LA, has other plans. Envisioning a luxurious weekend getaway, she goes right ahead and buys two tickets―one way―to Tregarrick.
Once at the hotel―used in its heyday to house detective novelists, and more fixer-upper than spa resort, after all―Evie and Margot attempt to get to the bottom of things. But the foul-tempered hotel owner claims he’s never met the late Robert, even after Evie finds framed photos of them―alongside Robert’s first wife―in his office. The rest of the island inhabitants, ranging from an ex-con receptionist to a vicar who communicates with cats, aren’t any easier to read.
But when a murder occurs at the hotel, and then another soon follows, frustration turns to desperation. There’s no getting off the island at high tide. And Evie and Margot, the only current visitors to Tregarrick, are suspects one and two. It falls to them to unravel secrets spanning generations―and several of their own―if they want to make it back alive.