Also by Robert Goddard

Past Caring

In Pale Battalions

Painting the Darkness

Into the Blue

Take No Farewell

Hand in Glove

Closed Circle

Borrowed Time

Out of the Sun

Beyond Recall

Caught in the Light

Set in Stone

Sea Change

Dying to Tell

Days without Number

Play to the End

Sight Unseen

Never Go Back

Name to a Face

Found Wanting

Long Time Coming

Blood Count

Fault Line

The Wide World trilogy

The Ways of the World

The Corners of the Globe

The Ends of the Earth

PANIC ROOM

Robert Goddard

TRANSWORLD PUBLISHERS

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www.penguin.co.uk

Transworld is part of the Penguin Random House group of companies whose addresses can be found at global.penguinrandomhouse.com

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First published in Great Britain in 2018 by Bantam Press

an imprint of Transworld Publishers

Copyright © Robert and Vaunda Goddard 2018
Cover photographs: house © Shutterstock; landscape © Alamy.
Design by Stephen Mulcahey/TW.

Robert Goddard has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.

This book is a work of fiction and, except in the case of historical fact, any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Every effort has been made to obtain the necessary permissions with reference to copyright material, both illustrative and quoted. We apologize for any omissions in this respect and will be pleased to make the appropriate acknowledgements in any future edition.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Version 1.0 Epub ISBN 9781473527041

ISBN ISBNs 9780593076361 (cased)
9780593076378 (tpb)

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1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

TEN

I FEEL SAFE here. That’s really what it comes down to. Oh, there’s the sea as well. I like the ocean in all its moods, from stormy to still: white, grey, turquoise, blue. I can watch the surf crashing on the rocks for hours. On windless mornings, I can hear the skylarks circling above me as I walk down to the beach, my legs brushing through the drifts of wild mustard and cow parsley on the narrow path. And then there are the sunsets, pink and scarlet and gold, out beyond Wolf Rock, over the tilt of the world. Nothing here is like where I came from originally. I don’t want to leave, like I did there, all the time. I want to stay. Maybe for ever.

I can’t, of course. I don’t know how long it’ll go on. I try not to wonder. Harkness is in big trouble. He won’t have much chance to think about what’s going on here. He definitely won’t be helicoptering down for a visit any time soon. I’ve got the place to myself. That’s how I like it. Peaceful. Quiet. Alone. I swim. I walk. I run. I clean the place – just in case. I sell my driftwood art. I enjoy feeling safe.

Thanks to Harkness, I’ve got a lot of luxury to wallow in here. But the biggest luxury of all is the space. Glenys the gardener comes three days a week, Andy the pool man as often as he reckons he needs to. Otherwise, I don’t get many visitors. Nor does Harkness, which is a relief. I wondered, when his case hit the news, if the press would come poking around. But they didn’t. Maybe they don’t know about his Cornish bolthole. Here’s hoping they go on not knowing.

It might be best for Harkness as well as me if they did. I have a feeling this place is his biggest secret. And that’s saying something. ‘Notoriously secretive’, they call him. He’s not your obvious saviour material. But he’s been my saviour. I’m not sure what would’ve happened to me when Muriel chucked me out if I hadn’t been able to come here. Harkness doesn’t know that, of course – or anything much about me. I don’t suppose he gives me a single thought. Which is probably just as well.

We’ve got a good thing going, him and me, even if he doesn’t realize it.

It’s just a pity, one way or another, sooner or later, however hard I pretend otherwise, it’s going to end.

ornament image

Don Challenor had never been one for recriminations, particularly where his own behaviour was concerned. He had inherited more of his father’s fecklessness than he would have cared to admit. But the key to living with the consequences was not to acknowledge responsibility for them. Accordingly, he interpreted the circumstances of his departure from Mendez Chinnery as a reflection on their narrow-mindedness rather than his corner-cutting. Estate agency, especially in the overheated central London market, was a dog-eat-dog world. The commission Mendez Chinnery paid him was not exactly over-generous. They should have expected him to take a few liberties and should certainly have been willing to overlook them in view of the amount of business he brought in.

But his boss – young, smug and idle by Don’s reckoning – saw things differently. So Don was out, casting around for another berth with age no longer on his side. Only his natural complacency prevented him worrying about what the future held. An opportunity would surely present itself. He had put the word out. He was keeping his ear to the ground.

It was a surprise, nonetheless, when the first contact he had after leaving Mendez Chinnery was not from one of their competitors but from a solicitor several of their clients used. Fran Revell also happened to be Don’s ex-wife, which might have caused a less self-confident man to doubt she wanted to do him a favour. But they had communicated cordially enough on business matters since their divorce. And Don for his part remembered their parting as more sorrowful than angry.

The fact that Fran had nominated a nearby coffee shop for their meeting, rather than her office, should perhaps have served as some form of warning. But Don chose to interpret that as her preference for a relaxed and informal environment, which was fine by him. He had even been tempted to suggest putting back their appointment by an hour and meeting in a bar. There were several in the vicinity he could recommend. Wisely, however, he had not pushed his luck. Pushing his luck, after all, was what had wrecked their marriage.

Fran was already there when he arrived, busy on her iPhone between sips of cappuccino. She looked, as ever, some years younger than her age, slim and groomed and glowing. As for her expression when she caught sight of him, well, there was no imagining away the tightness of her smile. But the half-affectionate, half-wary shake of her head suggested his goodwill account had not yet reached its overdraft limit.

‘You’re looking great, Fran,’ he said after an air-kiss greeting.

‘Thanks.’ She made no comment on his appearance.

‘I’ll grab a coffee. Then you can tell me all about it.’

‘This is just a bit of business, Don.’

‘Sure.’

He pondered her remark as he queued for his Americano, but not for long. There was nothing to be gained by trying to guess what Fran was thinking. There never had been.

He went back to her table with his coffee and sat down. The place was crowded with a predictable weekday haul of assorted professionals, killing time between appointments. Glancing around, Don found himself missing the rumbustious characters he had started out his working life with. Everyone now seemed bland by comparison. But the coffee was better. There was certainly no denying that.

‘How’s the family?’ he ventured, smiling across at Fran after trying to drink some of his coffee before realizing it was far too hot.

The ‘family’ Don referred to comprised the husband and two daughters Fran had acquired since their divorce. ‘They’re fine,’ she said briskly. Perhaps just a little too briskly, Don thought, who secretly hoped to hear one day that his replacement was being ditched in turn.

‘So, what can I do for you?’

‘You could start by explaining the “ethical differences” Ben said had led to you leaving Mendez Chinnery.’

‘I should’ve got out of there yonks ago. How can I be expected to do my best work when I have to answer to a prat like him?’

Fran closed her eyes for a second. ‘Maybe this was a mistake.’

‘Look … Ben and I had a major falling-out. That’s all there is to it.’ Don shrugged. ‘I’d probably have resigned anyway. It was time to move on.’

‘Where to?’

‘Not sure yet.’

‘No.’ Fran sighed. ‘Exactly.’

‘Well, if you know of a juicy opening …’

‘I don’t. But, as it happens, I do have an urgent job that needs doing and, since you’re available at short notice …’

‘Good of you to think of me, Fran.’

‘Yes. I can’t seem to stop myself doing that.’ She frowned away the hint of affection. ‘Occasionally.’

He grinned. ‘So what’s the job?’

‘I’ve been handling a divorce for a woman who wants to sell a property ASAP. It’s in Cornwall and she’s anxious to proceed quickly. I need a valuation, floor plans, photographs, et cetera, to present to suitable agents. We’re talking about a price tag of five million or so – the international market.’

‘I wouldn’t mind having a crack at selling it myself.’ Don was hardly exaggerating. A £5 million property could net him more than a hundred thousand. ‘I could put several buyers her way.’

‘We’ll see. For the moment, I just need you to go down there and put the particulars together.’

‘She doesn’t want this dragged into the divorce settlement. Is that it?’

‘She owns the place outright, Don.’ Fran looked reprovingly at him. ‘And the divorce is done and dusted. She has an unfettered right to sell. I’m simply making the arrangements on her behalf while she spends some time abroad.’

‘Of course, of course. I don’t know what came over me.’

‘Can you do it?’

‘Sure. Subject to … an agreement over terms.’

‘Two thousand. Plus accommodation and travel. On condition I have all the details by the start of next week.’

‘That’s tight.’

‘That’s why it’s also generous. And I’m guessing you won’t find it too difficult to clear your diary.’ Fran smiled. ‘Do we have a deal?’

‘Why not? It’ll be a nice run for the car.’

‘Don’t tell me you still have the MG.’

‘She’s a classic. Like me.’

Fran did not rise to the remark. She drained her cappuccino, plucked a couple of sheets of paper out of her briefcase and laid them on the table in front of him. ‘Sign on the dotted line, please. Both copies. It’s our standard contract for freelancers.’

‘Do we really need a contract?’

‘I’m a lawyer, Don. Remember how much I saved you on our divorce?’ Don managed a crumpled smile at what sounded to him like a considerable misrepresentation and cast his eye over the document. Fran thumbed away at her iPhone until he had signed.

‘I’ve just emailed details of the property’s location. It’s on the Lizard peninsula, near Mullion. Wortalleth West. The client’s name is Jackson. Mona Jackson. There was a live-in housekeeper, but she left a couple of months back. Her part-time assistant’s been looking after the place since then. There’s also a part-time gardener. You might run into them. Otherwise, it’s all yours.’ She plonked a bunch of keys on the table. Tied to the ring was a label bearing the printed initials FR/MH – some kind of filing reference at Fran’s firm. Don pocketed the keys and Fran retrieved her copy of the contract.

‘I should be getting back to the office,’ she said briskly. ‘I think we’re done here, aren’t we?’

‘Yes.’ Don nodded compliantly. ‘And I can always phone you if something crops up.’

Fran frowned. ‘I can’t see why it should.’

‘No, well …’ Don shrugged. ‘Thanks again, Fran.’

‘You’re welcome.’

Don stayed on to finish his coffee after Fran left. He paid no attention to a heavily built, bearded man nursing a minute espresso cup in the corner. The man had a vaguely Slavic appearance, though he was reading, or at any rate turning the pages of, an Italian newspaper. He did not seem to pay Don any attention either. But, when Don rose and left, he suddenly found it necessary to rise and leave as well. In a rustle of newspaper-folding and a scraping of chair legs, he was up and on his way.

Which happened to be the same way, though at a discreet distance, as Don was going, west along Piccadilly, towards Green Park station and a Tube ride home.

There was, though Don did not know it yet, something else he had Fran to thank for. He had just become a marked man.

ornament image

I went down to the cove early this morning to look for driftwood. There wasn’t much. The weather hasn’t been right. You need storms really. But I’m not complaining. The sea was a millpond, the air pure, the light clear. The tide was on the turn. I took off my shoes and let the water rush in around my feet. The sun was already warm on my back. And there was a fizzing sensation between my toes as the bubbles in the surf started to burst. I looked out at the ocean and saw what I always see, reflected in its shimmering vastness: peace – and freedom.

I was close to the rocks, where the Bonython stream comes out. The only sound was the sea. There weren’t even any gulls screeching. I don’t know what made me look up to the top of the cliff. But I knew I’d see something – or someone – if I did.

It was Wynsum Fry, squat and swaddled in a shapeless coat, the sunlight turning her grey mop of hair into a smudge of white. She’s got no car, so how did she get there? The first bus out of Helston goes straight to Lizard village. She couldn’t have walked all the way from the main road. But there she was. Watching me watching her.

Then she wasn’t. I suppose she simply stepped back out of sight. But it was more like she just … blinked out. The old bitch has her tricks. If that’s all they are. I wish she’d stay away. But she won’t.

I hurried back up the beach and walked round the shore road to the lane that heads up towards the top of the cliff. There was no sign of her, of course. I knew there wouldn’t be. She moves like a tortoise most of the time. And then, at other times …

Maybe it wasn’t me she was looking at, but the rock pools she could see from where she was standing. Which one was it her brother drowned in? Could she be sure, all these years later? Maybe the rocks move slowly over time anyway, shifted by storms and tides, and the pools with them, so the actual one isn’t there any more. Nothing’s really fixed. Nothing’s really absolute.

When I got back here, I found a king of spades playing card fixed to the pillar of the entrance gate with a rusty pin. It’s her mark. She calls Harkness the King of Spades. But why the card? Why now?

I pulled the pin out and the card fluttered to the ground. I didn’t pick it up. I left it lying there, face down. The pattern on the back was some kind of geometrical labyrinth. Did she choose it specially, I wonder?

I’ve just been back down to the gate. The card’s gone. I hope she’s gone too.

ornament image

Whatever anyone said – and what they usually said was that his insistence on driving a gas-guzzling relic from another age was both environmentally irresponsible and a transparent as well as ultimately futile attempt to recapture his lost youth – Don had no intention of trading in his 1973 MGB GT V8 for a younger or more economical model. The smell of the leather and the rumble of the engine were as familiar to him now as when he had first travelled in the car as a child, with his father at the wheel. The drive west out of London that morning in early June had, like all his drives, nothing to do with cost or comfort or convenience. It was about cleaving to what he knew and loved.

The M3, A303 and A30 formed his long route to the far south-west. The trees were heavy with summer foliage, the fields richly green in the misty light. From Salisbury Plain onwards, the sky was blue, the day open and dazzling. Through his sunglasses the world appeared golden and inviting. On the open road, reality lost its bite.

At Exeter Services, he stopped for a Coke and a sandwich. He was making good time. He was grateful to Fran, not just for the money he would earn from the trip but for the break from London she had prompted him to take. Leaving the city was like having a weight lifted from his shoulders. He really should have left Mendez Chinnery sooner. Perhaps he could turn himself into a tweed-suited purveyor of farmhouses and cottages in a provincial setting. It was not too late to change. It was never too late.

‘But don’t worry, old girl,’ he said, patting the tailgate of the car, which he had raised to create a draught while he was parked. ‘I’ll never trade you in for one of those.’ By ‘one of those’ Don meant the black, dusty, mirror-windowed off-roader that had pulled in a few bays away. He hated all four-by-fours on principle.

Don pressed on, through the emptiness of mid-Devon, across Bodmin Moor and down the spine of Cornwall towards his destination. He was confident of arriving in time to spend most of the afternoon at the house. He had booked a room at a hotel in Helston. It looked like one night would be enough. The task itself was simple. He had done it a thousand times.

From the outskirts of Helston, he headed true south for the first time, past the long perimeter of RNAS Culdrose and down the road towards Lizard Point. The countryside varied between farmland and moor. The soft and prosperous Home Counties were far behind him.

He turned off the road at the sign for Mullion and drove into the village, following the narrow one-way route round the tightclustered centre. He found a car park near the church and walked back to the shops to buy a large-scale OS map of the area and the local weekly newspaper. He and the MG naturally had no time for satnavs and he was confident the house would be identifiable on the map. The paper meanwhile would add to what he had already discovered on assorted websites about property prices in the locality, although he anticipated Wortalleth West might be in a price bracket all of its own.

As he exited the shop, another of the four-wheel-drive behemoths he loathed cruised slowly by. It was black, with reflective windows, like the one he had seen at Exeter Services. ‘Unsightly bloody monsters,’ he muttered to himself as he turned in the direction of the car park.

The map, studied in conjunction with Fran’s emailed directions, put Wortalleth West away to the north of the village, above Poldhu Cove, accessed by a lane off the minor road that led to the cove before curving inland. As for the newspaper, there were a couple of choice properties on the Helford estuary with price tags of two or three million, but nothing approaching the five Fran had spoken of. Wortalleth West would have to be quite something to justify that.

And it was, of course, as soon became apparent. The sea was a mirror of blue beyond the wavering line of hedge and field. Don spotted the turning late and was driving too fast anyway, but he managed it with no more than a touch of fishtail. The entrance to Wortalleth West came up quickly: a white, ranch-style wooden gate, standing open.

The tarmac drive curved between gorse and wind-sculpted Monterey pines, then divided, leading in one direction to a garage big enough to be a house in its own right, with balconied rooms above. There was a lot of white wood and granite beneath deeply eaved slate. Don glimpsed a tennis court in the distance as he took the lower route around a broad shoulder of land on which the main house stood.

More white wood, granite and slate conferred a style that was part Long Island, part Cornish. The building was the shape of a half-hexagon, one side facing the sea directly, the other two sides angled back to form wings enclosing a shrubbery-screened rear garden in which Don saw a flash of water-reflected light that suggested a swimming pool.

He pulled up in front of the house, turned off the car’s engine and climbed out, inhaling a lungful of champagne-like air as he took his measure of the place. It stood before him in the brilliance of mid-afternoon, its proportions graceful, its dimensions generous, with a deep, paved verandah, triple gables, wide windows and a low roofline sporting dormers shaped like the backs of dolphins. No expense had been spared. That was immediately obvious. Mrs Jackson – or her ex-husband – had thrown a lot of money at this seaside whim.

Beyond the sloping lawn in front of the house, sea and sky were a realm of blue. In such perfect weather, Wortalleth West presided over something close to splendour.

Silence was part of the splendour. When Don slammed the car door, the sound shifted two fat pigeons from the branches of the nearest pine with heavy wingbeats. He climbed the shallow steps to the verandah, pulling the keys out of his pocket as he went. The entrance was a wide glazed door, with the letters WW painted on the central panel in flowing blue serifs. There were two locks, one Yale, one mortise. But the mortise, as Don soon discovered, was not across, and the alarm Fran had supplied the code for had not been activated either. No electronic beeping greeted him as he let himself in.

The hall was an airy double-height space, with a galleried landing above, reached by twin curving marble staircases. Double doors stood open to right and left. Right led to a dining room, where blinds had been drawn and the light fell softly on a pale wood table and chairs and a dresser loaded with creamy white plates and bowls. Left led to a drawing room furnished with low-slung sofas and armchairs gathered round a stylized fireplace. There were rugs and pottery in abundance, with framed contemporary seascapes on the walls. Space and light were the dominant themes. The proportions of the rooms and the height of the windows, with transoms above the external doors, ensured plenty of both.

The double doors on the far side of the hall led to a broad passage running along the rear of the house. Another set of doors gave access to a flagstoned terrace, with a swimming pool at its centre and loungers set up beside it. Beyond lay a neatly shrubbed garden, filled with shimmering blossom.

As Don crossed the passage, he saw movement in the pool and realized, with something of a shock, that he was not alone. Someone was swimming there. He opened the door cautiously and stepped out on to the terrace.

The swimmer had just completed a turn and was moving away. Don replaced his sunglasses as he approached the pool. He looked down. And his eyes widened. The swimmer was a woman, young, lithely built – and naked.

Don watched the refracted shimmer of her body as she sliced through the blue water. When she reached the other end, she paused for breath, then pulled herself up and out of the pool. She tossed her head and swept back her long, dark hair with her hands, casting a scatter of droplets behind her. Then she half turned and moved towards the diving board a few feet away.

And then, from the corner of her eye, she saw him. She stopped and slowly turned to face him. There was no crouching run for a towel, no squeal of outraged modesty. She put her hands on her hips and stared straight at him.

‘Who the fuck are you?’ she demanded.

ornament image

I swam a few lengths of the pool because I was angry. Wynsum Fry and her calling card were still bugging me and I wanted to wash away the thoughts of her I’d stupidly let into my head.

I always swim naked when I can. It feels natural. It feels right. I like the water to enfold me completely. It wasn’t one of Glenys’s days and Andy always rings in advance. I had the place to myself. Should have had the place to myself.

I sensed something as soon as I climbed out of the pool. But I didn’t quite trust the sense. I thought I might still be a bit on edge, because of Fry, though I felt calm. The water had worked its magic. I decided to dive in again. Then as I turned towards the board—

‘Who the fuck are you?’

I don’t try to hide from him. I stand where I am and let him see I’m not afraid.

He’s about fifty, a rumpled, slightly paunchy bloke in a dark suit way too warm for the weather. He’s wearing an open-neck blue and white striped shirt. His cufflinks are glistening in the reflected light thrown up from the slopping water in the pool. He has a mop of grey-flecked hair above a square-jawed face. Rugged is what you’d call him, if you wanted to be flattering. Travel-worn, if you didn’t. I can’t see his eyes. He’s wearing aviator-style shades. Is he ogling me? You bet he is.

What is he? Not local, that’s for sure. Some underling of Harkness’s, maybe. But I don’t know. He doesn’t look smooth enough for that. Or young enough. Harkness wouldn’t send a man like him down here. But someone’s sent him. And he’s come through the house, so he must have a key.

I’m about to repeat my question when he says, ‘I could ask the same of you. But … do you want to put something on?’ Policeman? Salesman? I don’t know. But there’s a touch of big city swagger about him. Down from London is my guess. But why? On whose say-so?

‘Does nudity disturb you?’ I throw back.

‘“Disturb” isn’t the word I’d use.’ He smiles diffidently. He’s trying to be friendly without coming over lecherous. I’ve put him in a tricky position. I take pity. I walk round to the lounger where I left my towel, pick it up and wrap it round me. Then I look at him again. ‘So, who are you? And how’d you get in?’

‘I’m an estate agent. Don Challenor. From London.’

My stomach lurches. Estate agent? That sounds bad.

‘I have a set of keys. Supplied by Mrs Jackson’s solicitor.’

‘Who?’

‘Mrs Jackson. The owner of the property.’

He’s raving. He has to be. Who’s Mrs Jackson? ‘I don’t know who you’re talking about. The owner’s name is Harkness.’

‘Not according to my information.’

‘Well, your information’s wrong.’

He frowns at me. ‘I don’t see how it can be. And you are?’

‘The housekeeper.’

‘I was told she’d moved out.’

‘The previous one did. I took her place. I’m Blake.’

‘Well, Miss Blake—’

‘Just Blake.’

‘OK. Blake.’ He nods and walks slowly round the corner of the pool towards me. I’m confused. I don’t know if he knows just how confused.

He shows me the keys, as if to prove he’s legit. Then he takes a card out of his pocket and offers it to me. I look at it for all of two seconds. Don Challenor. Residential Associate. Mendez Chinnery. Email. Mobile. Landline. Posh address in London W1. ‘I’m sorry I, er, surprised you,’ he says, almost sounding genuine.

‘I don’t understand. Why are you here?’

‘To value the property. With a view to selling.’

‘Selling? This place?’

‘That’s right. As soon as possible, according to my instructions.’

His instructions. From a woman I’ve never heard of. But somehow I believe him. The bolt was always going to come from the blue. Harkness is in trouble. And this is just one symptom of it. I’m going to be expelled from my sanctuary. I know I am. Unless—

‘Sorry if this comes as a shock.’

‘You’re serious? About this place being sold?’

‘’Fraid so.’

I decide to play for his sympathy. Actually, it’s the only play I have. And I get the feeling he might just be a sucker for it. It’s certainly worth a try.

I burst into tears.

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Don’s expectations of what he would find at Wortalleth West had been confounded at every turn. Now, Blake, the self-proclaimed stand-in housekeeper, entirely unabashed by parading naked in front of him, had descended into tears. She sat on the lounger, dabbing at her eyes with one end of the towel she was wrapped in. All Don could do was fish a tissue out of his pocket and give it to her.

‘Don’t upset yourself. Please.’

‘I can’t help it,’ she sobbed. ‘You don’t understand.’

‘You’re right there. But look … Blake … it’s not as if this is your home in any real sense, is it?’

‘It’s the only one I’ve got.’

‘Well, there’s not much I can do about that. The house doesn’t belong to you, now does it?’

‘It doesn’t belong to … Mrs Whoever … either.’

‘I’m afraid it does. I’ll call the solicitor. Try to sort this out.’

Don took out his phone and selected Fran’s office number. Then he noticed what the phone was trying to tell him through the glare. No signal.

‘Bloody hell. Are we in some kind of dead zone?’

‘You have to—’ Blake blew her nose in the tissue. ‘You have to go to the bottom of the drive to get a signal. There’s nothing here.’

‘Really?’

‘Really. But there’s a landline in the kitchen. You could use that.’

‘OK. I will. You’re … all right?’

Blake smiled weakly. ‘Sure.’

Don went back into the house and took a left along the wide corridor, guessing the kitchen would be beyond the dining room. It was predictably vast, with multiple sinks, ovens and work surfaces, trailing away past a long breakfast bar to a TV and lounging area. The work surfaces were all gleaming marble, the shelves and cabinets pale wood, the furniture sleek, simple and expensive.

The telephone needed some finding amid all the brushed steel and digital displays. One of the receptionists at Fran’s practice took Don’s call. In his experience, they all spoke with the same brisk haughtiness. ‘Is Mrs Revell expecting your call?’ she asked, in a tone that suggested unexpected calls were serious breaches of protocol.

‘Tell her it’s Don Challenor. And it’s urgent. I’m at Wortalleth West.’

‘Hold on, please. I’ll see if she’s available.’

Don bit his tongue and waited. Half a minute or so passed. Then Fran came on the line.

‘Don?’

‘Yes, Fran. It’s me.’

‘You’re at the house?’

‘I am. But I’m not alone.’

‘No?’

‘You said the housekeeper had left.’

‘The live-in one, yes.’

‘Well, her successor’s also decided to live in. And she’s never heard of Mrs Jackson. She claims the owner’s name is Harkness.’

The name sounded vaguely familiar to Don as he spoke it, though he could not say why. He turned away from the wall-mounted phone while he listened to Fran’s response and stepped towards the breakfast bar. ‘She’s confused. Mona Jackson’s husband is called Harkness, but she’s reverted to her maiden name, although we’re still waiting for the decree absolute. More to the point, she is the sole owner of the property.’

‘They’re not actually divorced yet, then?’

‘No. But that’s a technicality. And, as I say …’

There was a copy of the Financial Times lying on the bar, near the corner closest to Don. It struck him as an odd choice of reading for Blake. It was folded open at an inner page. A headline caught his eye at once. Harkness’s freedom of movement further restricted as extradition ruling approaches.

‘… Now, as to this so-called housekeeper you’ve encountered, she has no right to reside there. She’s nothing more than a part-time cleaner. You’ll need to ensure she moves out immediately …’

Don stretched out his hand and grabbed the paper. He scanned the first paragraph of the report.

In the latest twist in pharmaceuticals entrepreneur Jack Harkness’s battle to escape extradition to the United States, Judge Geoffrey Anders QC yesterday ruled that he could remain free on bail until a full hearing of the case, but only on condition he agreed to be fitted with an electronic ankle tag to monitor his movements. US prosecutors are seeking to try Mr Harkness on multiple counts of fraud, bribery and embezzlement, arising from—

‘Don?’

‘Sorry?’ Don dragged his attention back to the voice in his ear. ‘What?’

‘Did you hear what I just said?’

‘You want me to persuade the cleaner to move out.’

‘Not exactly. I said you must insist she moves out. And make sure she goes. As soon as possible.’

‘How do I do that? She has nowhere to go to.’

‘I doubt that very much. She’s taken advantage of the situation. And now she’s trying to take advantage of you. You’re not to go soft on her.’

Don was losing patience. He had heard of the Harkness case without ever giving it much attention: some high roller caught fiddling the books who was trying to dodge the long sentence that seemed to be the norm in American courts. If he was the owner of Wortalleth West, or even the soon-to-be-ex-husband of the owner, Fran had some explaining to do. ‘Mr Harkness, Fran. Would that be Jack Harkness?’

A brief silence. Then: ‘Did she tell you that?’

‘No. But more to the point, you didn’t tell me.’

‘Because it’s irrelevant.’

‘He’s all over the newspapers, Fran. Fraud is the word. Stolen money. Now—’

Allegedly stolen.’

‘This house could be a recoverable asset. You’re the lawyer. Shouldn’t it be frozen until everything’s been sorted?’

‘It’s not his asset. It’s my client’s. And she’s entirely within her rights to sell it. I wouldn’t have anything to do with it otherwise. What do you take me for?’

‘You should’ve told me.’

‘Why? So we could have had this entirely pointless conversation yesterday? You’re being paid well to get a job done, Don. I suggest you get on with it. I don’t really know what your problem is anyway. As I recall, Mendez Chinnery didn’t dispense with your services because they found your ethics too high-minded for their taste.’

‘I don’t like being taken for a ride.’

‘You’re not being. Get rid of the cleaner. Measure up the house. Value it. And get the information to me by Monday. That’s all I’m asking you to do in return for your generous fee.’

‘Hold on. I—’

‘Which I’ll up to two thousand five hundred if you solve the cleaner problem.’

‘Blake.’

‘Sorry?’

‘Her name’s Blake.’

‘Well, thank you. I’ll make a note of it. So, do you think you can see Miss Blake on her way?’

‘Not sure.’ Don was not even sure how hard he would try. He was an estate agent, after all, not a bailiff. ‘I’ll see what I can do.’

‘Good,’ said Fran tightly. ‘I’ll await your report.’

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I listened to Don’s conversation with the lawyer on the extension in Harkness’s study. She sounded like a real bitch to me. There’s something between those two beyond business, I reckon, history of some kind. And Don’s already misrepresented himself to me. He doesn’t work for Mendez Chinnery any more. They fired him. So now he’s freelancing for the lawyer. Which means he needs his fee, I guess.

After he puts the phone down in the kitchen, I put the phone down in the study and try to make my brain work. Bitch or not, the lawyer must be telling the truth. Harkness doesn’t own this place. His wife does, which is odd, considering I’ve never seen her down here. Probably some tax dodge. Who knows? Anyway, she wants to sell now he’s in trouble and she has her future to worry about. So, a quick sale of Wortalleth West. And for a quick sale you need vacant possession. ‘Solve the cleaner problem.’ That’s what the lawyer said.

And that’s when Don told her my name. As if it matters to him. As if he wanted it to matter to her. ‘Her name’s Blake.’ He’s already gone a bit of the way to caring what happens to me. Maybe I can take him a bit further.

I could go quietly, I suppose. I could just pack up and clear out. I don’t know where I’d go. I can’t imagine I’ll find anywhere as safe as this.

Or I could try to stay. There’ll be some lawyer in Helston willing to argue I have squatter’s rights. But that would mean answering a lot of questions about me I don’t want anyone even asking. I can’t risk that.

So, what to do? Delay’s the only hope as far as I can see. Delay until I can think of a plan. And that’s where Don comes in.

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After Fran had rung off, Don propped himself against the breakfast bar and started reading the rest of the newspaper article.

US prosecutors are seeking to try Mr Harkness on multiple counts of fraud, bribery and embezzlement arising from allegations made against him by Quintagler Industries, Harkness Pharmaceuticals’ partner in numerous takeovers and buyouts in the pharmaceuticals field.

Mr Harkness has dismissed the allegations as an attempt by Quintagler to steal his company from under him. The US Department of Justice has stated, however, that they have seen clear prima facie evidence of wrongdoing and are proceeding without regard to Quintagler’s commercial interests.

The charges against Mr Harkness have led to big slides in Harkness Pharmaceuticals’ share price, which analysts say would probably have been bigger still but for the continuing and growing popularity of the company’s Elixtris range of anti-ageing products. A spokesperson for Harkness Pharmaceuticals said—

‘Did you speak to her?’

Don turned to find Blake regarding him gravely from the other side of the bar. She had put on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. She looked calm now. ‘Er, yes,’ he said lamely. ‘I spoke to her.’

‘So?’

‘Do you really buy this paper?’ He held up the FT.

‘No. It gets delivered every day by the newsagent in the village. Some special arrangement Harkness has made. Likes to stay in touch when he’s down here, I s’pose. Not that he ever is.’

‘If you’ve read this, you’ll know why he never is.’

‘Yeah. Ankle tag. Not cool. I feel sorry for him.’

‘Why? He probably had it coming.’

‘Maybe. But he’s a free spirit. I feel sorry for him like I feel sorry for a caged tiger in the zoo.’

‘How well do you know him?’

‘Not very. So, what did the lawyer say?’

‘I’m afraid she only confirmed what I told you. Mrs Jackson is the owner. She has every right to sell. And you, unfortunately—’

‘What’s Mrs Jackson to Harkness?’

‘Ex-wife. Well, all but.’

‘Right.’ Blake nodded and looked serious. ‘Got it.’

‘Sorry.’

‘Me too.’ She gazed past Don. ‘Looks like I’m out.’

‘I’m sure you’ll find somewhere else. Move in with your boyfriend maybe.’

‘There’s no boyfriend.’ She shook back her drying hair and summoned a smile. ‘Well, d’you want me to show you round?’

‘I need to take photographs and room-by-room measurements. But …’ Don smiled too. ‘A guided tour to start with would be great.’

The utility room led through to a mud room and cloakroom. From there a rear door gave access to a wisteria-draped colonnade curving away and slightly uphill to the garage block. Back in the utility room, stairs led down into a basement extending about half the width of the house. Here there was a boiler room, climate-controlled wine cellar, home cinema and gleamingly well-equipped gym, with adjoining wet room.

Back upstairs, beyond the kitchen, dining room and hall, the ground floor comprised the expansive drawing room, complete with bar, and a library/study, where Harkness had an enormous desk and all the facilities of a modern office – an office that appeared to have had little actual use, despite the battery of computer ports and swivel-stemmed lights.

The high windows, pale colours and overall spaciousness of the rooms ensured they were filled with light. The sea felt closer than it actually was thanks to maritime-blue fabrics and the scent of the ocean that wafted around the house. Every item of furniture, every detail of decoration, every turn and angle, served the overall design. Wortalleth West was a place of meticulously crafted casualness.

From the hall Don followed Blake up one of the curving staircases to the bedrooms. All had their own bathrooms and were predictably enormous. The most enormous of the lot, the master bedroom, featured an emperor-sized bed on a dais, a lounge area, a dressing room with walk-in closet and a bathroom with two free-standing tubs complete with sea view.

‘It’s a lot for one person to use as a home from home, isn’t it, Don?’ Blake asked as they walked into yet another luxuriously appointed but evidently seldom used en suite bathroom.

‘He’s obviously a wealthy man,’ Don replied with a shrug.

‘You need a word beyond wealthy to do justice to Jack Harkness. You got any idea just how successful Elixtris is?’

‘The anti-ageing wonder treatment? Not really. I’ve seen it advertised quite a bit.’

‘It’s, like, everywhere. He must be worth billions.’

‘But he still wants more, if you believe the allegations against him.’

‘Yeah. If you believe them.’

‘Do you?’

‘I don’t know him well enough to say.’

‘But you’ve been reading about the case?’

‘Oh yeah. Thanks to his FTs. It’s an education, that paper. Deals. Dodges. Boardroom battles. I’d no idea so many rich people skate on such thin ice. I don’t really understand it all. It’s way over my head.’

Don was far from sure he believed that. But he decided to play along. ‘Mine too.’

‘Anyway, Harkness is prowling round London with an electronic tag rubbing his ankle, while I’m down here, enjoying his seaside retreat. Look at this.’

Blake walked back into the adjoining bedroom and pressed a button set in the wall between the windows. The blinds filtering the sunlight to a golden haze rose automatically. Outside, the grounds fell away through clumps of gorse and heather and rhododendron towards the sea that lapped in on the creamy sand of the cove. Before them lay the shimmering ocean and the shadow-etched cliffs. The sky held only a few white smoke-puffs of cloud. The rest was intensely blue.

‘I don’t care about all the stuff that goes on in Harkness’s world. This is what matters.’

‘It is beautiful.’

‘But I have to leave it, right? I bet that lawyer wants you to get me out, like, yesterday. You may as well tell me. How long have I got?’

‘It’s not up to me, Blake.’

‘Maybe I should start packing.’

‘D’you really have nowhere to go?’

‘Nowhere I want to go.’

‘If there’s anything I can do to help …’

She turned and smiled at him. And it was not a smile Don could easily resist. ‘That’s kind. Thanks. I’ll let you know if there is. Are you staying here tonight?’

‘No, no. I’ve booked a hotel in Helston.’

‘You could cancel. As you can see, there’s plenty of room. It’s a shame not to make use of it. And you won’t disturb me. I live over the garage.’

‘Tempting, but … the lawyer might not approve.’

‘Plus you’ll get a full English breakfast on expenses, right?’

Don grinned. ‘I’d better get on with measuring up. Thanks for the tour.’

‘No problem,’ Blake said briskly.

Don fetched his camera, Dictaphone and measurer from the car. There was no sign of Blake when he returned to the house. There was an eeriness about it now, in its emptiness and its silence.

Fran had a lot to answer for, in his view. Trying to get him to do her dirty work was shabby to say the least. He was unsure how or if he could persuade Blake to leave, but he was quite sure he did not want to.

Meanwhile, there was work to be done. Dimensions, doorways, fenestrations, baths, showers, sinks, stairs: everything had to be noted. And some tasteful, alluring photographs would have to be taken.

He settled to the task.

It was nearly an hour later, in the dressing room off the master bedroom, that he found it.

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I knew Don would have to measure the rooms in the garage block as well as the main house. That’s when I planned to tell him there’d been some strange incidents lately – signs of attempted intrusion. I meant to persuade him I was worried and needed his protection. He looked like the kind of guy who’d be happy to discover his inner knight gallant.

I was in the workshop behind the garage, working on my latest driftwood creation, when he showed up. He didn’t look quite as I’d expected. Something was troubling him. More, I sensed, than the problem of moving me on.

He’s got a bag over his shoulder. He eases it off on to the edge of the bench and looks around. It’s cool in the workshop. I like the subdued light and the woody scents in the air. I’m wearing my boiler suit and I’ve tied my hair back. I think Don has trouble recognizing me for a moment.

Then he looks at what I’m working on and says, ‘What is that?’

‘It’s going to be a three-legged table. I’ll probably paint the legs different colours – and leave the top natural. Blue, pink, green. What d’you think?’

‘Are you making it to sell?’

‘Yeah. There aren’t many National Trust shops in Cornwall without a Blake original.’

‘They’re popular?’

‘Well, they sell. Eventually. Listen, Don, I—’

‘There’s something strange at the house. In the master bedroom. D’you know about it?’

I don’t. I wonder what he can possibly be talking about. ‘How d’you mean – “strange”?’

‘You’ve never seen it?’

‘Never seen what, Don?’

‘You really don’t know?’

‘No. Maybe you should show me.’

‘Yeah.’ Don nods. ‘Maybe I should.’

I step out of the boiler suit, but leave my hair tied back. We walk down the colonnade to the house and along the passage to the hall. We finish up in the study.

‘What’s that?’ Don asks, pointing to the narrower end of the L-shaped room.

‘What’s what?’ I respond, seeing nothing but bookcases.

‘Why isn’t this room a regular shape? What’s in the rectangle that’s been taken out of it?’

I shrug. ‘Dunno.’

‘Nor me. Ducting? Pipework? In a house like this, there’s a lot of concealed services, for heating, lighting, plumbing.’

‘OK. So that’ll be it, then?’

‘It was my first thought. But no. That’s not it. We’re beyond the extent of the basement here. Above us is the bathroom off the master bedroom. Let’s go upstairs.’

Upstairs we go, into the master bedroom, then the dressing room between it and the bathroom.

‘According to my measurements and the layout diagram I’ve sketched,’ Don explains, ‘the closet is above the space missing from the study. Except that it isn’t big enough. It doesn’t go back far enough to be directly over it. There’s another missing space up here. Some sort of … void.’

‘There is?’

Don pulls the double doors of the closet wide open. The clothes, most of them protected under plastic covers, extend back on their racks as far as the rear wall. There’s a walkway in the middle, with a floor-to-ceiling mirror fixed to the wall at the end. I see Don and me reflected in it, standing next to each other.

For some reason, this reminds me of standing next to Dad in the hallway of Gran’s house in Sutton Coldfield. She had a tall mirror at the far end. It seems to have stuck as my clearest memory of him. I was a lot shorter than him, of course, whereas I’m about the same height as Don. I was only eight years old then. I think I was happy that day. Anyway, I feel happy remembering it.

‘What’s behind the mirror, Blake?’ Don asks.

I turn and look at him. ‘The wall?’

He shakes his head. ‘No.’

He walks into the closet, approaches the mirror and pushes his hand against the frame at about waist height.

There’s a click. He steps back and the mirror shows itself to be a mirror-fronted door. It swings smoothly open.

Behind it is solid steel.

‘I had no idea that was there,’ I say, which is true. ‘What is it?’

Don taps the steel with his knuckles. ‘Thick is what it is. Very thick. Impenetrable, probably. But concealing something. Definitely concealing something.’

‘What?’

‘Well, I’ve seen similar arrangements in houses I’ve sold in London. But on one floor only. If it connects with the void below … that’d be unusual.’

‘So, what is the arrangement?’

‘A panic room would be my guess. You know? Somewhere the householder can retreat to if there’s an intruder, with independent lighting and communications. Somewhere they’re completely safe. But if I’m right …’

‘Yeah?’ I look at him expectantly.

‘Then this is the entrance. A sliding steel door, lockable only from the inside. It should be open, you see. But it isn’t, is it? It’s shut. Locked shut. From the inside.’

I don’t know what to say. I’d decided to invent a threat. Then Don delivers one, right into my hands. But this is real. This isn’t invented. This is a locked room, and suddenly I don’t have a clue what’s going on. Suddenly … I don’t feel safe any more.

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‘You mean …’ Blake stumbled, ‘you mean … there’s someone inside?’

‘No, no.’ Don gave her what he hoped was a reassuring smile. ‘That wouldn’t make any sense. Besides, who’s been here who could be inside?’

‘No one … as far as I know.’

‘The likeliest explanation is some kind of fault. Either that or someone standing out here leant in and triggered the door to close, then pulled their arm clear before it shut.’ Don frowned. ‘That wouldn’t make any sense either, of course. It’d just ensure the room couldn’t be used.’

‘This is spooky, Don. I don’t like it.’

‘It could’ve happened years ago.’

‘Or last week. Or yesterday …’

‘At the moment it’s just a steel door, Blake. Maybe it isn’t a panic room at all. Maybe there’s just pipework in there.’

‘But you don’t think so.’

‘Only because it looks so similar to installations I’ve seen in high-end properties in London. Russian oligarchs needing somewhere to hide from Moscow heavies. That sort of thing.’