AS SICK AS OUR SECRETS
Sophie has a secret that she believes she will take to the grave, but then everyone has secrets, don’t they?
Working as a counsellor, she knows that keeping secrets isn’t a good idea. She gets a nasty surprise after attending her friend, Cassie’s funeral and soon finds out that nothing is at it seems.
Her relentless attempts to find Cassie’s killer lead her into the dark and murky world of gangsters and villains in the heart of Manchester.
Abduction, a trail of lies, being terrorised by gangsters – it’s all in a day’s work for Sophie. She gets so wrapped up delving into the lives of others she doesn’t notice her own life falling apart, back into the grips of addiction.
A recovering alcoholic, she struggles to stay sober after her dad has a near fatal heart attack that she feels responsible for. Everyone turns against her but she will stop at nothing to find Cassie’s killer, who is still on the loose.
Can romance blossom for Sophie after all the mistakes she has made in the past, or will her only comfort be drink? Things never end up the way she intends.
Romance and mystery are blended together in this tale of intrigue that will leave you wanting to read more.
This is Book 2 in the Sophie Brown series. Available now through Amazon.com
The musical notes of Ave Maria played softly through the speaker system. I glanced up at Cassie’s mum. A tear rolled down her cheek. I noticed as Cassie’s dad put an arm around his wife to comfort her. The sounds of sobs and sniffles intermingled with the music, reminded me of an orchestra tuning up. This was going to be a difficult day.
Cassie’s murder was still so raw for everyone. The grief-stricken family had waited all this time until the body was finally released by the coroner. It didn’t seem fair. As if they weren’t going through enough. Her life had been taken at such a young age. She was a beautiful girl in her twenties, who had the world at her feet. We became good friends after I helped her get over a suicide attempt.
Cassie was the closest person I had lost other than my nan. This funeral felt different to Nan’s. There was more sadness, and the circumstances were far worse. Nan had lived a good long life. Cassie’s life had so cruelly been cut short. Her body had been found in Townley Park in Burnley by a dog walker and she had been strangled.
I took a tissue out of my black suede handbag and blew my nose. My eyes were welling up. I couldn’t believe I wasn’t going to see Cassie again – the funeral director instructed the pallbearers into the tiny building. I watched as tears were held in check by starched white handkerchiefs. There was a distinct lack of eye contact amongst the mourners. People with brief tight-lipped smiles slowly nudged into the chapel. Heads were bowed as latecomers joined the rest of the congregation. Strangers glanced nervously at family members. Charlie’s parents had turned up. I wasn’t sure how wise that decision was.
The vicar’s words were solemn and poignant. He talked about finding forgiveness in our hearts. How could I ever learn to forgive the person who had done this to Cassie? She had spent years being beaten by her boyfriend, Charlie. I had been fortunate enough to help her as her counsellor and find her a place in a women’s hostel and she had just left there to move into her own place. She was looking forward to moving on with her life when tragedy struck.
Everyone knew Charlie had murdered her. His violence had culminated in her life being taken and now thankfully, from what I knew, he was in police custody awaiting trial. Forgiveness, I thought, I hope he rots in hell. The hardest part for me was learning to forgive myself. I should have been there for her, insisting I help her more than I did.
Cassie’s sister Laura got up to read a poem. How she managed to get through the recitation without crying, I didn’t know. It must have taken a lot of bravery on her part. I only knew I couldn’t have done that.
I looked back at the masses of people squeezing into the tiny building, trying to get out of the wet weather. Many were stood up at the back and the doors were open where more people spilt out onto the grass outside. They stood sombrely listening. The rain came down and joined in with the solemn mood.
I took another tissue out of my bag and knelt to pray. I wished for the service to be over. I didn’t like crying in public. My old boss was sat in the row in front of me. I had always thought of her as being a tough Northerner but even she was wiping her eyes with a hanky. I looked up at the coffin and thought about the secrets Cassie had never managed to tell. We all have secrets. Mine still kept me awake at night. There were probably things about Cassie that now lay dead beside her in the shiny mahogany casing. What really happened in Cassie’s final hours? I felt sure the police had come up with their own conclusions as to what happened. I hoped Charlie would go away for a long time. I dabbed my cheek and screwed up the tissue.
Eva Cassidy’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” played as the curtains were drawn. I stared mesmerised at a solitary candle and thought about how quickly life can be snuffed out. My tears flowed. I gritted my teeth and my breathing became sporadic. The sniffling masked the guilt I felt at letting Cassie down. It was so hard to say goodbye to someone I cared about.
Anger took over and nudged the sadness out when I imagined what could have been. I remembered the last time I visited Cassie at the refuge and how happy she seemed. She had come a long way from the timid wreck she was when she started the counselling sessions but it was for nothing now.
I thought about the people sat in the pews. Who were they all? I didn’t know many of them but they were obviously people whose lives Cassie had touched in some way. I had only known her a short time, and I had risked my job for her, getting closer to her than I should. We formed a friendship, and she became more than just a client. There was something about her personality that was so endearing. I had felt obligated to push the boundaries and help her. Seeing her outside working hours had been difficult for my conscience but I so wanted to help her and I didn’t want her going through the same horrors I had.
If I had kept in touch more would she still be lying there in that coffin today? I had to stop this train of thought. There was no point punishing myself but pockets of regret kept popping in. I felt like I was in a tiny boat trying to ride the crest of the wave, mindful that the big one might come along anytime and sweep me overboard. The time I had with Cassie had been a particularly difficult period in my life.
The service ended, and the vicar walked down the centre of the chapel. “Rise”, a piece of music by Gabrielle came on and we rose and filed out of the tiny building. I walked towards the exit. The minister’s dark robes heightened his pale complexion.
“Thank you vicar, it was a lovely service,” I said, shaking the minister’s hand. They were icy cold. He was waiting to acknowledge and comfort the congregation one by one as they left. I looked up at the sky. The rain was pelting down. I took out my pink umbrella and put it up. It didn’t match my black suit but if it kept me dry, I wasn’t bothered.
I hadn’t realised death would affect me so much. Grief is indescribable when someone you love and care about dies. I wished people hadn’t turned up in black. It made the occasion even more depressing. I wanted to see brightness, to be reminded of Cassie’s personality.
The moment made me very reflective. Death wasn’t just the endpoint for Cassie. It went much further than that. It was haunting, both for those directly and indirectly associated with her. I had only been in her life for a short period, but that small snapshot of her life had touched me immeasurably.
I scanned the crowd that had gathered outside the chapel. Cassie’s mum and dad split up and went talking to other family members. Friends were dispersing. Three young women were stood by a tree chatting. With their short skirts, hair extensions and false eyelashes they looked more appropriately dressed for a night out clubbing rather than a funeral. I wondered if they were Cassie’s friends from when she worked at the salon. They all had dark hair and wore fake tan. The one with the shortest hair of the three looked over at me and began to walk towards me.
She held out a hand to shake mine.
“Hi, you must be Sophie.” She smiled at me and I wondered how she had worked that out.
“Yes, that’s right.” The girl stood silent for a moment looking at me, still holding onto my hand.
“Oh, I’m sorry. You must forgive me. How rude of me to not introduce myself. I’m Mia.”
“Hi, Mia.” She released my hand.
“Yes, yes, I used to work with Cassie at the Hair Factory. I don’t know if she ever mentioned me.” She looked at my face searching for recognition. I glanced at her then over at the other two girls. I thought prudishly how out of place their attire looked. I turned my attention back to Mia.
“Yes. She did tell me about you.”
“All positive, I hope.” She laughed nervously. I only remember Cassie mentioning Mia’s name once, but I nodded and smiled.
She continued, “I still can’t get my head around what happened. I only saw her a few hours before she died.” I frowned. I hadn’t realised Cassie was still in touch with any of her friends from the salon. I thought Charlie had put a stop to her seeing them.
“Oh, I didn’t know that. So did you go to Cassie’s new place?”
Mia pulled a face. Her mouth drooped, and she cocked her head to one side. “Er no, we met up in Manchester.”
“That must have been awful, being one of the last people to see Cassie alive?”
Mia was moving from foot to foot. She kept looking over at her friends. She looked nervous.
“Er, yes it was.”
“So did you know Charlie?” I was curious about this relationship I knew little about.
“Yes, I met him. He seemed nice.” Heat rose in my cheeks.
“Maybe he did seem nice to the outside world.” Somehow, I didn’t think that was the case.
“Did you ever meet him?” Mia asked.
“No, I never had that misfortune thank goodness.” My tone was clipped.
At that point, the vicar’s voice interrupted our conversation.
“For anyone wanting to come over to the graveside, we are ready now.”
A group of about twenty of us began trouping in a line over the sodden ground until we reached the spot where Cassie was to be buried. It was in the same plot of land as her stillborn sister.
I watched without blinking as the box was lowered into the ground. A few people started to throw handfuls of earth over the coffin and say a prayer. One by one, they lined up. My turn came, and I threw in a single red rose and wiped a tear away.
“Goodbye, my precious Cassie,” I whispered.
We formed a circle at the grave and the vicar started to speak. Sadness engulfed me.
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” he began and I shuddered. Death is so final. A life so special ended at such a young age. In my time of reflection, I vowed to help as many people as I could along the way. I told myself I was going to enjoy myself more and spend more time with friends and family. I was making that commitment to myself now in Cassie’s honour.
I glanced up as the service was brought to a close. Heads were bowed low. Looking into the distance, I notice a solitary dark figure stood by a tree. I wondered who it could be. I came to the conclusion it was probably the police keeping a discreet eye on proceedings.
As the crowd began to disperse, I walked over to Cassie’s mum.
“I’m so sorry Mrs Donoghue.” I took hold of her hand to comfort her.
“Thanks for coming, Sophie.”
“There were a lot of people at the service. She touched the hearts of many of us.” A single tear appeared on Mrs Donoghue’s face. I moved in closer to give her a proper hug. “No one can hurt her anymore. She’s free from fear and pain now,” I said
“Yes, I suppose so.” She dabbed her eyes with a tissue and continued, “I’m sorry about this. The sadness comes over in waves. I can’t stop the tears when they come.”
“Don’t be sorry. I’m the same. Tears are healing and part of the grieving process.”
“You are coming back to the reception aren’t you, Sophie?” I didn’t have the heart to say no.
“Well, I can probably come for a while.”
“That’s good.” She smiled at me then moved on to talk to a couple stood behind us. Damn, I should have said I needed to get back to work. Too late now, I’d committed myself to being there.
I turned to talk to Cassie’s sister Laura. She and Cassie were so different in looks. Whilst they were both attractive, Cassie had been very girly, whereas Laura wore her hair in dreadlocks and had piercings in her nose and eyebrow.
Giving her a big hug, I said, “That was courageous of you getting up to read that poem. I couldn’t have done what you did.”
“Thanks, Sophie. I felt I had to do something for Cassie.”
“You did really well.”
Laura glanced over my head. “Sorry, Sophie. I’ll talk to you later. I need to see my aunt and uncle.”
“Yes, yes, of course, off you go.” Laura left me standing on my own. Why did I get the impression that she didn’t want to talk to me?
I made my way back to where my car was parked. I wasn’t looking forward to the reception. I didn’t like going into social settings at the best of times but I hardly knew anyone there. I’d organised to have the afternoon off work but now I wished my old boss was coming to the reception as well. I waved to her in acknowledgement as she left.
Working as Cassie’s therapist, I didn’t know many of her friends and relatives. She’d mentioned a few of them to me but I’d never met most of them. I briefly met her family when I visited them to pass on my condolences when Cassie died. Now at the reception, I felt nervous, especially being there alone. I wasn’t keen on going into drinking situations full stop, now I didn’t drink myself I wasn’t comfortable with it.
I hadn’t found staying away from alcohol easy but I learnt a lot from my time in rehab and I stayed close to my support network. That consisted of Joyce, Liam and Aaron. Joyce was my ex-boyfriend’s mum. She was an alcoholic who had been sober many years, and she taught me a lot. I always turned to her when I needed advice. Liam and Aaron were both in the same group as me in treatment so we knew each other well. We stayed in touch even though it was coming up to five years ago.
Liam had moved back to Liverpool and had relapsed a couple of times but was doing well now. Aaron was from Newcastle and had relocated to Bury, not far from me. This had helped him because he was able to steer clear of old acquaintances such as his drug dealer and fellow addicts. His recovery was solid, and we remained good friends.
I made a decision to stay and have a bite to eat at the buffet. As things turned out, I enjoyed myself there and stayed longer than I had anticipated. I got into a conversation with Cassie’s aunt and uncle, Lynne and Roy, and we had a couple of interesting debates about Catholic priests and global warming. Roy was an interesting character. He sported a Bobby Charlton haircut with a few strands of long hair brushed over his bald patch.
“Would you like a drink, Sophie?” Roy rose from his seat and took out his wallet.
“A coke will be fine.”
“Are you sure you don’t want something stronger? Maybe a Bacardi in that or a glass of wine?” I gulped. I never knew when temptation would come along.
“No, just coke thanks.” He didn’t press me any further. I was relieved.
When he returned, he resumed his previous conversation. Whilst he was talking, his hair seemed to want to go its natural way, and he had to keep flicking the unruly strands back with his fingers. I found it amusing at first but this behaviour soon began to irritate me. He was knowledgeable on many subjects and had an opinion on everything. He eagerly shared his thoughts with me. If I was being unkind, I would have described him as something of a know-all. Their son, Joe, joined us for a short time but I could see from his expression that he had heard it all before.
I was bemused throughout the afternoon at how slowly they drank. If this had been back in my drinking days, I’d have been well and truly sozzled by now but Lynne and Roy only had a pint of lager and a glass of wine in the last two hours. There would have been a time for me when I’d have loved going to funerals just to get drunk. Today I knew I’d be leaving the building stone cold sober.
“It’s been great meeting you both,” I said as I got up to put my jacket on.
“Goodbye Sophie and safe journey home.” Roy shook my hand
“Lovely to meet you too,” said Lynn as she moved towards me and kissed me on the cheek.
“Bye,” I said as I went to find the Donoghues to thank them.
The reception had been held at the Bolholt Country Park in Walshaw. Leaving the building, I looked up at the sky. The late autumn darkness had set in. The sky was turning a mixture of dark grey and blue. I had to park my car in the overspill car park as the hotel was very busy that day. Walking up the pebbled pathway towards my vehicle, I was glad the rain had stopped.
I put my hand in my pocket to feel for my keys. Taking out my fob, I pressed my thumb on the remote and the car door made the familiar clunking noise. I took my handbag off my shoulder, ready to throw it over to the passenger side as I opened the driver door.
Suddenly, I felt an arm grab hold of my body. I jerked forward. A hand went over my mouth. What was going on? I thrashed out, trying to swivel around, but I was held in a tight grip. Confusion followed by shock as fear enveloped me. What the…? A thud, a pain shot through my head and I began to feel a strange sensation inside. My eyes felt heavy as I struggled to focus. My knees sagged. My body crumpled. I sank into unconsciousness.