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A Gift To Die For

A Gift To Die For

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A Gift To Die For

371 pages
5 hours
Mar 7, 2018


Richard Palmer is devastated when he loses both his spouse and best friend in murderous circumstances. After returning to the murder scene with his friend's daughter, they discover an ancient casket hidden beneath the floorboards. Hieroglyphics inscribed within the casket describe a sphynx pendant that offers mystical powers to its owner. Meanwhile, the pendant's new guardian, Dave Fletcher, has embarked on a killing spree that is not entirely of his own making. Can our hero outwit Fletcher while doing battle with an enemy as old as time itself? Book contains approximately 93,000 words.

Mar 7, 2018

About the author

Dave Cook is a retired IT journalist living near Newcastle in the North East of England. These days, he mostly writes supernatural thrillers. He is married with three daughters and four grandchildren. His youngest daughter, Victoria, is a comedian/presenter with CBBC TV.

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A Gift To Die For - David Cook

Chapter 1

Twenty miles from the fun-loving city of Newcastle, and once part of a thriving coal mining community, Pensham had become a one-horse town. One picnic site and a small nature reserve were the only additions to a century of unremarkable history. The town looked better for the changes. Unlike its inhabitants; the retired, the sick and the unemployed. Discarded, unwanted and redundant. The remnants of a forgotten age.

One large, solitary building stood at the back of the nature reserve. Hidden from the neighbouring lane by a welter of trees and shrubs, the house had been built in the days of the British Empire. A time when there was work aplenty. A time when the gentry did as they pleased and the servants did as they were bid.

And yet houses are like people, they grow old. Years of neglect had taken its toll on this particular abode. At the front of the property, roof slates dislodged in some long-forgotten gale lay scattered on the ground. Flakes of dirty-white paint clung to rotting window frames. Bricks once pillar-box red were now pockmarked and rustic, just like the faces of the townsfolk.

In his battered Luton van, Dave Fletcher followed the winding drive towards the property. As the van struggled up the gradient he dropped into second gear, wincing at the crunch of gears, while on the dash a pair of warning lights came on which no amount of swearing could put out.

Fletcher was dressed in heavy-duty navy cords and a black sweater. The shock of untidy blonde hair and ice-blue eyes, obscured presently behind black sunglasses, gave him a strange albino-like appearance. Fletcher was 33 years old. His countenance was dour, his face lined and unshaven. A large man in both height and build, he was in the prime of his life. Not many people were brave enough to mess with Dave Fletcher. The few that did invariably came off second best.

The vehicle came to a halt opposite the building’s front entrance. Fletcher cut the engine and stepped from the van. Removing his sunglasses, he slipped them into a pocket, then plunged his shovel-like hands into a pair of black leather gloves. He waited patiently while his eyes grew accustomed to the brightness. Then he scanned the area, observing the overgrown lawn and weed-infested flowerbeds. A family of crows cawed raucously from some nearby trees. The sunlight made his nose itch. He sneezed involuntary, twice in quick succession, though only the crows could hear him.

He removed a black sports bag from the back of the van and approached the front door. Like the rest of the property, the door was in need of some tender loving care. Although there was nothing wrong with the wrought-iron knocker when he rapped it against the striker. The crows took fright at the unexpected noise, taking to the air with a fresh round of cawing. Fletcher ignored them. He opened the letter box and peered inside. Other than a couple of shadowy, non-moving shapes the hall was too dark to discern much of anything. He cocked an ear to the open letter box and listened. One minute passed and then two. He couldn’t hear a thing; no squeaky floorboard, not even a mouse broke the silence from within.

It was Horus who had given him the job. Horus wasn’t his real name, of course. But Fletcher couldn’t have cared less about that. According to Horus only one person occupied the house on a permanent basis. That person was Professor Thompson. The Professor was a former archaeologist, but now he was retired and practically bed-ridden. Thompson shared the house with one grown up daughter. Horus claimed that she was rarely at home during the day.

Fletcher tried the door handle. It was locked, just as Horus had said it would be. Proof again that his employer had done his homework.

Turning away from the door, Fletcher made for a narrow path at the side of the house. The path led to the rear of the property, an overgrown plot which looked even more run down than the front. A wooden door hung askew from a crumbling brick outhouse. An adjacent shed looked equally run-down. Fletcher turned his attention to the house. He passed two small windows before stopping in front of a large, sliding glass door.

He pushed his nose against the glass, squinted past his reflection and into the gloomy interior. All appeared still. Stepping back a little, Fletcher dipped a hand into his sports bag and withdrew an 18-inch crowbar. With the chisel-end slipped between the rotting frame and the door, he heaved the crowbar over to one side and the lock gave way with a snap. Fletcher slid the door open, picked up his bag and stepped inside.

The room smelled of air freshener and furniture polish. Even so there remained a whiff of decay about the place. The odours teased his senses. He held a finger beneath his nose to repress another sneeze. A quick glance around the room confirmed what he already knew: there would be no rich pickings today. The seating arrangements consisted of two worn armchairs and a matching sofa. Five shelves of books took up one wall, three paintings adorned another. The paintings were rather nice, he thought, displaying landscapes of faraway places that he failed to recognise. There was the usual bric-a-brac lying around, of course. Several glass and china ornaments, and a pile of magazines and newspapers that had been stacked under a mahogany coffee table. An old box-shaped TV and its stand occupied a corner next to the patio door.

It was better than nothing, he supposed.

Although he was under contract to kill Thompson, Fletcher knew it would be to his benefit if the scene could be made to look like a burglary gone wrong. The extra money he’d gain from selling the stolen goods would also come in handy. His plan was to plunder the place first, leaving Thompson, most likely fast asleep upstairs in his bedroom, until last. Now that he was here, he saw no reason to change that strategy.

He found a black 60s style telephone in the hallway. A quick yank on the cable disabled the device. It was unlikely Thompson had something as modern as a mobile phone, thought Fletcher. It was just too bad if he did.

Next to the phone was a set of keys. After unlocking the front door from the inside, he began the task of loading the van with anything Frankie the Fence might find interesting. He went about his task with a quiet efficiency, having performed this type of work many times before. The fact that he was built like an ox allowed him to carry items that would ordinarily take two men to move. Every now and then he would stop what he was doing, go to the bottom of the stairs and listen for anything untoward. If Professor Thompson was aware of an intruder, he gave no indication. Far from it. Other than the sound of Fletcher’s own exertions the house remained assuredly quiet.

It took him a good half hour to clear the ground floor of anything that looked remotely valuable. Upstairs could be cleared once he’d taken care of the Professor.

At last it was time for some fun. He took the stairs two at a time, his breathing heavy and uneven; not the result of his recent labour, but the anticipation of what was to come.

The first door on the landing led to an empty bathroom. The next door opened on to a bedroom. This too was empty. Fletcher continued along the landing. The third door was open. He stopped in his tracks and peered into the room.

Through the dim light of the drawn curtains, the figure on the bed appeared wizened, almost ghostly, and made no effort to see who was standing at the door. The unmoving figure worried Fletcher. Was Professor Thompson already dead? He moved swiftly across the room. Thompson’s eyes were closed. His chest was still, with no sign of breathing. Fletcher reached over and placed his hand alongside the man’s throat. The pulse was faint, but it was there all right. Fletcher’s anxiety disappeared. All was not lost after all. He afforded himself a rare smile. The real fun was about to begin.

A flash of yellow drew his eyes once to the man’s neck. It was a pendant, linked to a heavy-looking chain, and both almost certainly were made from gold. Fletcher took hold of the pendant and inspected it more thoroughly. It was approximately one eighth of an inch thick and the circumference about the size of a small fob watch. Etched into its bevelled face was a strange, sphinx-like creature. Fletcher thought the image looked rather creepy. But creepy or not, the piece was sure to be valuable. He gave the pendant a yank, pulling both it and the chain free of the Professor’s neck. He slipped them both into his pocket.

A shiver ran up his spine as he withdrew the knife from it sheath. For a split second the comforting feel of the bone handle reminded him of a stormy evening, many years ago. To lost innocence and the love of a man who was to become the most influential person in his life. He begrudgingly cast the memory aside. There was no time for that now. He filed it away, ready to be recalled at a time and place of his choosing.

He leaned forward, his voice shaking with anticipation. ‘Don’t worry, Professor,’ he said. ‘I’m rather good at this. You’ll hardly feel a thing.’

The old man appeared not to hear. He remained trancelike and unmoving. Fletcher slapped him across the face. ‘Come on, Professor. You’re spoiling my enjoyment.’

Still nothing.

Fletcher gave a grunt. He was wasting time. In one slick movement he slid the blade across the Professor’s throat. A tapestry of blood sprayed across the room. Still, the Professor did not move. The tiniest of sighs being the only reaction to his life ebbing away and barely audible over Fletcher’s heavy breathing.

‘Is that the best you can do?’ Fletcher felt cheated and more than a little angry. He leaned closer, drawing whatever comfort he could gain from his victim’s last gasp.

The anti-climax was disappointing. Tiredness washed over him. He noticed his knees were trembling. The rest of his joints ached like a nagging toothache. All of a sudden the bed looked terribly inviting. Ignoring the blood-soaked sheets, he lowered himself down next to the corpse, closed his eyes and promptly fell asleep.

Two hours passed.

The woman must have noticed Fletcher’s van as she parked her car, but if she had called a greeting upon entering the house or climbing the stairs then it had gone unnoticed. The rustle of a plastic shopping bag was the sound that finally awakened Fletcher.

As the woman stepped into the room, she was too preoccupied with peering into the bag to notice the gruesome scene before her.

She was halfway across the room before she thought to raise her head. ‘Professor, I’ve managed to get you the ...’

She came to a sudden halt. Her jaw dropped and the shopping bag fell to the floor. Half a dozen rosy-red apples, a similar shade to the Professor’s blood, spilled from her bag. One apple rolled across the room and disappeared under the bed where Fletcher lay.

By now Fletcher was fully awake. A smirk crossed his face before his eyes took on a look of cold steel. It was going to be his lucky day after all.

She was a real stunner; early thirties, slim with short dark hair. The summer dress she wore hinted at the perfect body beneath. She was the most beautiful woman Fletcher had ever seen. Everything he had dreamed about yet feared he would never have.

The woman turned to flee just as Fletcher leapt from the bed. He covered the distance between them in an instant, grabbing her just before she reached door, her cry cut short by the huge, gloved fist that covered her mouth. He guessed that she was the old man’s daughter. The mistake was understandable considering the circumstances. Not until later did he discover her real identity.

‘Don’t waste your breath,’ he gloated in her ear. ‘The old man’s dead and we’ve the place to ourselves. It’s time for some fun.’

She tried to speak, but behind his gloved hand her voice was muffled. There was nothing wrong with her spirit, though. Perfectly manicured fingernails reached out in search of his eyes. Fletcher moved his head to one side. Clawing at the next best thing, she gouged a trail of skin down his cheek. Her assailant never flinched. He grabbed a clump of her hair, shaking it roughly from left to right and then front to back. Her neck was close to breaking as her arms and body began twitching like a puppet on a string.

She let out a muffled scream, then suddenly it all seemed too much for her. Her legs buckled. He released his grip on her hair and she sank to the floor.

‘That’s more like it,’ Fletcher said. He bent down, grabbed her wrists and dragged her effortlessly across the floor and onto the landing. The next room turned out to be perfect. It was a distinctly feminine room with flowery wallpaper. A white dressing table and fitted wardrobes took up two adjoining walls. A double bed, draped in a delicately patterned soft pink quilt, occupied a third.

Fletcher was only interested in the bed.

His captive appeared to read his mind. She aimed a kick at him and missed. She swung her leg again and had the satisfaction of feeling her shoe connect with his shin. Fletcher barely noticed the pain. There was only one thing on his mind. He threw her onto the mattress. The straps of her summer dress slipped down from her shoulders. Her breasts were heaving, her nipples pert and conspicuous beneath the thin cotton dress. Fletcher licked his lips, eager to begin.

‘Don’t you dare lay a finger on me,’ she snarled at him. ‘Others know I’m here. You won’t get away with it.’

She looked more angry than afraid, which Fletcher found an even greater turn-on. He towered above her, placing a knee to either side of her narrow waist. He tossed his gloves to one side and grabbed her wrists in one hand while tearing at the top of her dress with the other. The thin material ripped straight down the middle.

The woman stopped trying to free her hands. Her brown eyes glinting fiercely as she stared up at him. She did not seem in the least embarrassed at her nakedness.

‘You bastard!’ she spat. ‘I hope you rot in hell.’

Fletcher chuckled. A thread of saliva drooled from his open mouth and landed on her breast. The sight spurred him on, and although she fought to the very end, her resistance merely heightened his pleasure. The devil himself could not have been more brutal. As his hunger cooled, Fletcher was barely aware that his hands were now tightly clamped around her neck.  

Within seconds the exquisite body lay limp and lifeless beneath him. A smile spread slowly across his lips. The day had been a good one after all.

Two Years Later...

‘Speech! Speech! We want a speech!’

For one dreadful moment Richard Palmer thought everyone was chanting at him rather than his brother-in-law. If nothing else, it startled him into paying attention. He glanced sideways to observe the true recipient of the crowd’s excited calls.

Bob Turner was a slim man, with narrow eyes and a pencil-thin moustache. Richard thought he looked more like a conman than a police officer. The jury was still out on whether that was a help or a hindrance to his career. Not for the first time, Richard wondered what his sister saw in the man.

‘You want a speech, eh?’ Bob queried the growing chorus. He rose non-too-steadily to his feet and extracted what appeared to be a thick wad of toilet paper from his trouser pocket. He waved it in the air. ‘I’ll give you a speech, my friends. And it’ll be a long one at that.’

A voice in the crowd said, ‘Look, at that. Bob’s only gone and written the bugger on some bog roll.’

A plump man with a good-natured disposition chimed in. ‘That explains his non-stop verbal diarrhoea!’

The crowd laughed as Bob screwed the toilet paper into a ball and threw it at the joker. Danny Scott, fellow CID officer and all-round good guy, was ready for him; easily dodging the missile so that it hit the person behind him.

Richard took the opportunity to refill his glass from the drinks trolley. The one he’d thoughtfully parked himself next to earlier. The last thing he wanted was to be driving on empty while Bob made his speech.

He was starting to regret suggesting that his home be used for Bob’s party. But then promotion to sergeant had not come easy to Bob - or to Helen for that matter - and the least he could do was provide his own home for the celebration. He owed them that much. Hadn’t his sister been a tower of strength these past couple of years, caring for himself and his daughter, Sarah, in their time of need? Helen had nurtured them like a brooding hen while they went about rebuilding their lives.

Richard’s house was hardly a mansion, but it was considerably larger than Bob and Helen’s semi-detached property. The living area and the dining room had been knocked into one, which made it ideal for this type of occasion. Plenty of room for tonight’s thirty or so guests, which were made up mostly of policemen and policewomen, their wives, husbands, girlfriends or boyfriends. The party was being held in Richard’s home rather than a bar, which seemed to have gone down well with the guests, and the offer of free alcohol certainly seemed to have enhanced the good-natured banter.

Richard’s attention drifted back to Bob.

‘Don’t worry folks,’ Bob was saying. ‘I’m only teasing about the long speech. I plan to keep this one short. Never let it be said that I’m not sensitive to the feelings of my work colleagues.’ He glanced at Danny who promptly gave him the finger.

‘Get a move on!’ called a voice from the back. ‘We’re wasting valuable drinking time.’

Despite his sombre mood, Richard allowed himself a smile. The police might have a thankless task these days, but they certainly knew how to enjoy themselves when they were off duty. The alcohol had been flowing fast and furious. Everyone seemed to be having a good time. Best of all, though, because Bob and Helen were the evening’s hosts, it meant Richard could relax and get pleasantly pissed.

Bob was still talking five minutes later. Apparently, he had forgotten his promise to keep it short. Richard glanced round the room, amazed that the eyes of most of the guests had not yet glazed over. Confident that he wouldn’t be missed anytime soon, he poured himself another Jack Daniels and headed for the sliding glass door that led to the back garden. The door was already open, and he was able to make his escape with the minimum of fuss.

He crossed the patio, enjoying the cool night air as he made his way to the wooden seat where he and his beloved Janet had come to terms with their more sedate lifestyle. A half circle of shrubs and conifers ensured this part of the garden could not be seen from the house and during the day it made a terrific suntrap. Janet used to call it their island of stability. The two of them would often sit here chatting. Ordinary conversations concerning everyday life. The garden seat was secret to their jokes and aspirations. Even if sometimes all they did was discuss what they were having for dinner.

Three years ago, the best Orthopaedic doctor in the country had told Richard that his cricketing career was over. A shattered right knee meant he was forced to retire at the ripe old age of thirty-two. Richard had been devastated. The only upside was that a substantial insurance pay-out and well-supported testimonial had gone a long way towards ensuring their finances would stand the test of time. Money, or rather the lack of it, would never be a problem. Whether he took up work again or not.

Richard’s enforced retirement was tempered with the knowledge that he would at least be able to spend more time with Janet and their lovely teenage daughter, Sarah. Spending time with the family was a prize highly regarded by most professional cricketers, who spent much of their careers living out of a suitcase. The first thing the Palmers did was move back to their roots; purchasing the house of their dreams on the outskirts of Morpeth, an old market town divided by one of Northumberland’s most scenic rivers, the Wansbeck.

Richard took a sip of his drink and wondered, not for the first time, whether Janet would still be alive today if they hadn’t moved back to the area.

The fingers of his right hand searched for the inscription he had notched into the wooden seat. After returning from an evening out, he and Janet had made love on this very bench. Then slightly the worse for drink, and giggling like a couple of children, Richard had used his penknife to carve out their undying love for each other.

Happy days. They seemed so long ago. Richard would give anything to have his wife back and he knew Sarah still missed her, too. Janet’s death had been a terrible shock to them both. At least the dark days were over. Days, weeks even, when they had been unable to mention her name. Now they talked about her at every opportunity. Recalling fondly her funny little ways, laughing at the things she had said and done.

‘Penny for them?’

Startled, he turned to find his sister, Helen, standing behind him. She joined him on the bench. Even in the dark he could see that something was troubling her.

‘I spotted you creeping out,’ she explained. ‘I hope Bob and his cronies haven’t upset you. They have this habit of taking over a place.’

Three years his senior, Helen’s wrinkle-free complexion and thick curly brown hair made her a young-looking thirty-eight. The fact that she and Bob were childless may also have been a factor. Children can bring a lot of joy to a marriage, but it’s a pleasure moderated sometimes by worry.

‘Everything is fine,’ he assured her. ‘It was stuffy in there. I just needed some fresh air.’

‘Fresh is the word,’ she said. She folded her arms, trying to keep warm. ‘I’d have grabbed a coat if I’d known it was this cold.’

‘We can go back if you like,’ he volunteered, starting to get up.

She placed a hand on his arm. ‘Let’s have a little chat first. We’re overdue one. Besides, I have a favour to ask.’

He glanced at her, suspiciously. ‘Go on.’

‘Can I take Sarah camping? Kielder forest. Three weeks from now.’

Richard had been half-expecting the question. He’d overheard Helen and Sarah discussing the trip just the other day. Only he hated the thought of being parted from Sarah and he suspected the feeling was mutual.

‘I’m not sure,’ he said at last. ‘The nights in October can be damn cold. Your Guides may be resilient, but I’m not sure they’re as tough as the SAS.’

She laughed. ‘You make it sound as though we’re off to Siberia in mid-winter, not two nights camping in Northumberland.’

‘But what if something goes wrong?’ Richard persisted. ‘Kielder is so remote. You’ll be a long way from help.’

‘I’m hardly likely to let anything happen to my favourite niece,’ she assured him. ‘Besides, there’ll be two other adults in the party. That makes it one adult and three children per tent. Sarah will be fine.’

Richard knew that he was being overprotective. But having already lost one of the two most precious things in his life, he didn’t want to risk losing the other. On the other hand, if he had to entrust Sarah’s safety to anyone other than himself then his sister would be that person.

‘Are you sure, without a shadow of a doubt that Sarah wants to go camping?’

Helen looked skywards. ‘Haven’t you noticed? Sarah’s desperate to come with us. Only she doesn’t want to leave you on your own. The silly girl thinks that would be disloyal of her.’

Richard felt a lump in his throat. Sarah was a good daughter, the best he could have wished for. He sighed, deeply. His conscience had got the better of him. ‘Doesn’t look as though I’m left with much choice, does it?’

Helen was smiling. ‘Not really.’

‘Only if she takes her phone.’

‘You’ve got a deal,’ laughed Helen. ‘Even if it was a pointless condition.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Think about it. What self-respecting girl of Sarah’s age would leave home without her mobile?’ She seemed about to add something before changing her mind.

‘Spit it out,’ said Richard.

She placed a hand on his arm. ‘Only if you promise not to get mad.’

‘I’ll be the judge of that. Let’s hear it.’

She paused a moment, collecting her thoughts. ‘Considering what happened to Janet, I fully appreciate why you’d want to wrap Sarah up in cotton wool. After all, you’re still coming to terms with her death. You both are.’

‘But ...?’

She looked him in the eye. ‘I’m worried about you, Richard. I know Janet meant the world to you, but it’s been two years since she died. In another couple of years, it will be a new millennium. Time to move on with your life.’

‘There’s really no need to worry, Helen. I’m doing fine, honestly.’

‘You don’t seem fine,’ Helen stated. ‘You’re drinking too much, for a start.’

He shrugged. ‘Put it down to boredom.’

‘And no wonder,’ she said. ‘You live like a hermit, Richard. All week, every damn week. You hardly ever go out.’

‘I have Sarah to look after.’

‘At least Sarah goes to school most days. Why not take up a hobby or something? Make some new friends for heaven’s sake!’

Although Richard loved his sister dearly, he often found her opinions irritating. Yet he had to admit that she could occasionally be right. He finished his drink. ‘Healing takes time, Helen. What can I say, except - we’re getting there?’

She nodded, sympathetically. ‘I know that. Even Bob has noticed a difference these past few months. But there’s still room for improvement. Wouldn’t you agree?’

‘Maybe.’ He didn’t sound convinced.

‘You and I both know,’ she said, firmly. ‘There’s no maybe about it.’

‘Oh, very well,’ he said, admitting defeat. ‘I promise to stop mollycoddling her. Does that make you feel happier?’

‘And you? Tell me that you won’t spend so much time at home.’

‘I’ll get out more,’ he agreed.

‘Good, but I’ll be watching you.’

He tapped his knees, impatient to move on. ‘Is that the lecture over with?’

‘For now,’ she said, relieved that her nagging hadn’t caused a scene. It was time to lighten the mood a little. ‘Anyway, how’s that book of yours going? I can’t wait to see it in print.’

‘It’s coming along nicely,’ he said. It was a fib, but he wasn’t in the mood to tell her the truth.

‘Great,’ said Helen. ‘Who’d have thought that oddball hobby of yours would come in useful one day.’

Cryptozoology, the study of legendry animals or creatures now believed to be extinct, had long been a fascination to him. Some of his

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