The Dead Wife – Sue Fortin

Everyone who visited, worked or lived at Conmere knew the lake to be both beauty and beast all at the same time. A water with two faces – the south shoreline the beauty, bathed in sunlight, the water sparkling and glistening as it gently lapped the pebbles around the edge. It was the jewel in the crown of the Conmere estate. By contrast, the north side was where the waters were dark and shrouded for most of the day in shadow cast by the Con Point Hills, which loomed large and jagged over the water. This was where secrets were drowned and silence prevailed. It all happened in a matter of seconds, but to her, time stretched as her brain registered her body falling towards the water. So many more impressions filled her mind. The blackness of the water, that it was particularly deep at this point of the lake, that there was no gentle slope from shallow to deeper depths, and there was a tangle of weeds. She wondered if the weeds would soften her fall but then remembered she was wearing a heavy Barbour coat – one that Harry had insisted she wear that morning because the weather had taken a turn for the worse overnight. Then, of course, there were her wellington boots – she wished she’d had time to kick them off before they filled with water. Turning her face to the side, she impacted the lake with first her shoulder and then her hip and her feet. For a moment she thought the weeds had acted as a safety net but then her head went under the water and the cold water swamped her face, rushing up her nostrils. She kept her mouth closed, squeezed her eyes tight shut and blew out from her nose. Automatically her arms flew out as she tried to paddle water, but her limbs were heavy and it was difficult to move in the thick coat. The water had already soaked through her clothing and the cold and wet wrapped itself around her arms.

She kicked her feet, but her boots had gulped in the water, making it impossible for her to move. She flung her head up and her face broke through the surface. She gulped in fresh air. A deep, huge lungful before being dragged down again. She had to get the coat off and frantically she grappled with the press studs. She must remain calm. One press stud undone. She must concentrate on what she was doing. Two press studs undone. She mustn’t panic.

Three press studs undone. Her lungs were ready to burst. Four press studs undone. She grabbed at the zipper pull and yanked it down and, releasing the pin, with a Herculean effort managed to shrug the thick, waxy garment from her shoulders. Instead of falling away, it drifted almost motionless in the water. Her arms began to flap, trying to force her body upwards to the surface. The panic was taking hold now. She needed air. Lots of it. Her lungs were stinging – so painful.

She mustn’t take a breath. It was an automatic bodily reaction but she knew she would only take in water if she did. For the second time, she broke through the surface and gasped for air. She managed another lungful before she felt the pull of the water in her boots. She had the fleeting image of a figure standing on the bank. Her brain registered the sound of a dog barking. Down again into the depths of the lake she sank. Her arms and legs were so tired and heavy, now starved of oxygen, she couldn’t move them. Didn’t they say that when a person drowned, their life flashed before them? Her lungs were once again at break point. In one last attempt she tried to move her arms to push herself to the surface but it was futile.

She needed oxygen. She could no longer fight the urge not to breathe in and she felt the rush of water into her body. Her last thought was, why hadn’t anyone tried to save her? Chapter Two Pallant Art Gallery, Brighton, Monday, 6 May, 1.16 p.m. Instagram Story Well, today I have been tasked by my illustrious boss at Vacation Staycation to spend the weekend in the Lake District at Conmere Resort Centre, which has been revamped by the Sinclair family – Pru and her three sons, Dominic, Harry and Owen. And, best of all, I get to meet them and sample the new facilities – can’t wait! #BestJobEver ‘What do you think?’ asked Steph, as her friend read her Instagram post. ‘I must say, you sound far more enthusiastic on Instagram than you do in real life,’ said Ria, putting down her phone. They were sitting in the office at the back of the gallery, Steph having called in to her friend in her lunch break. Steph looked at her across her cappuccino.

‘I’m looking forward to it. I remember Conmere House from when I used to live up there. You know, my dad was a delivery driver for the Sinclair family for quite a few years, up until he died, actually, which was soon after the three sons took it over.’ ‘And the sons have done the refurb?’ ‘As I understand it. They offer all sorts of outdoor activities now but aimed at the high-end market. Pretty expensive, from what I’ve seen of the price list. Anyway, it’s not so much the resort I’m excited about, it’s the scenery. I’m hoping I’ll get a chance to take some photos for my portfolio.’ ‘Oh, yes, do,’ encouraged Ria. ‘Lakes and mountains always sell.

Soon you’ll be rich enough to leave your job at the travel agency.’ ‘Yeah, in my dreams. Don’t get me wrong, I do like my job, but this is about as exciting as it gets. I’d like to get my teeth into something juicier.’ ‘Like what?’ ‘Oh, I don’t know. Something that’s a bit more serious and high profile. Current affairs or investigative journalism.’ ‘I thought you were going to say you’d prefer to do photography.’ ‘I would, but it doesn’t earn me a regular steady income. It’s hard-going being single.

I thought after being divorced for over a year, I’d be more financially stable now.’ ‘I think you were too easy on Zac; you should have pushed for more.’ ‘Just because he had an affair? No, I was actually relieved when I found out. At least it prompted me to do something about it – to start afresh. We both knew our marriage was over long before that.’ Ria didn’t look convinced, but Steph had long since given up trying to justify her actions to her friend, as, no matter how well-intentioned Ria was, she hadn’t been in that marriage. Ultimately it had been down to Steph and Zac to sort things out, which they had done amicably. Privately, Steph had admitted to herself, if Zac hadn’t been the one to have an affair, it could so easily have been her. They had both been looking for love and affection, which sadly neither could provide the other with. Steph cleared her throat in a bid to clear her mind.

Zac and their marriage and divorce certainly didn’t need revisiting. ‘Anyway, back to my new assignment. I’m sure I can get some great photos up there in the Lake District and any extra money will be most welcome, especially at the moment. I just had to spend out to get my car through its MOT.’ Steph’s gaze dipped as she concentrated placing her cup onto her saucer. ‘Hey, don’t be so glum. You know you’re a great photographer but it’s a hard market, you know that,’ said Ria, not saying anything they hadn’t already said over the past few years. Ria gave Steph a sympathetic smile and then struck a cheerier note. ‘And there’s the bonus that you’ll be back on your old stomping ground.’ ‘I’m not sure I’d describe that as a bonus.

’ ‘You might be able to spend a bit of time with your mum, now that she’s retired.’ Steph appreciated the delicacy with which her friend spoke the words. The relationship between Steph and her mum was difficult at the best of times, so she wasn’t entirely sure spending time together was on the agenda. ‘How is your mum enjoying her retirement?’ Steph could hear the genuine concern in Ria’s voice. ‘Hard to say, if I’m honest. She says in the end she hated working for the police, especially CID when she was promoted to DCI. There was so much paperwork and red tape that went along with the job, it just wasn’t her thing.’ ‘It’s a shame she feels like that. It should be something she looks back on with pride and affection.’ ‘You’d think so, wouldn’t you? She was more married to the job than she was to my dad.

’ ‘Did she ever encourage you to join?’ Ria picked up the cups and took them over to the sink. ‘God, no. Besides, I didn’t want to be overshadowed by the wonderful DCI Wendy Lynch. The one who was awarded a bravery medal, the one who cracked a child-trafficking ring, the one who went deep under cover and nearly paid for it with her life.’ Steph shook her head. ‘No, thank you.’ ‘Instead you opted for a career with no security, one that’s full of uncertainty.’ Steph opened the Twitter app on her phone. ‘If I can create a bit of a buzz about my new assignment, get the word out about the photography too, I might get some more work. I’m going to tweet it as well as putting it on Instagram and Facebook.

’ ‘Good idea. I’ll retweet it and share it, of course.’ Steph read the tweet aloud as she typed. ‘Long weekend in Lake District to review Conmere Resort Centre. Can’t wait! #Conmere #Sinclairfamily #freelance.’ ‘You need to word it so there is some sort of interaction,’ pointed out Ria. ‘Ask people to recommend places, then maybe you can approach those places for some promo work.’ ‘Excellent idea,’ said Steph as she reworded her tweet before posting it. ‘Look, I need to get back to work. I’ve got an American coming in looking for something special for his apartment,’ said Ria, rinsing the cups and drying her hands.

‘Don’t forget it’s Gareth’s birthday meal a week on Friday. Eight o’clock. My house.’ ‘How could I forget? But no matchmaking. I don’t want to be stuck with your husband’s latest single male colleague he’s rustled up from the depths of the corporate world’s basement.’ ‘Don’t be such a spoilsport,’ said Ria. ‘I mean it!’ Steph gave her friend a hug before going on her way. Brighton, Monday, 6 May, 7.23 p.m.

Throughout the afternoon, Steph’s phone pinged intermittently with replies to her social media posts. Ria had been right about asking for people’s recommendations; it had provided a wealth of answers. It would be even more exciting if one of those transformed into a new commission, thought Steph as she ran herself a bath. She really didn’t fancy bar work but, judging by the balance of her bank account that afternoon, she wasn’t going to have any choice in the matter. She had enough in her savings account to pay two months’ rent and then that was it. The books weren’t balancing; her income-to-outgoing ratio was tipping the wrong way. She’d have to come up with something soon because she sure as hell wasn’t going to go begging to her mother for a sub. For a start, that would be admitting defeat – it would prove her mother right that travel journalism wasn’t any better than the local reporting she’d done when she first left uni. All her mother’s doom and gloom predictions could be soon fulfilled if Steph didn’t get something sorted. Having spent a good hour in the bath, dressed in her pjs, her hair wrapped in a towel and with a tub of ice cream in one hand, a spoon in the other, Steph opened her laptop to catch up on some box-set viewing.

While she was waiting for the series to load, she checked her phone. The social media notifications had calmed down now, but when she opened the Twitter app she saw she had a direct message. Hello, Steph. I saw your tweet about Conmere Resort Centre and the Sinclair family. My daughter was married to one of the Sinclair brothers. Check out my timeline and Google Elizabeth Sinclair. My daughter’s death was NOT an accident. I’m looking for someone to prove this. I can pay well. Message me if you think you’re up to the job.

From Sonia Lomas. Chapter Three Brighton, Monday, 6 May, 8.25 p.m. Steph read the message for a second and third time. It was probably the most bizarre message she’d ever received, and yet the most intriguing one too. It must be some crank, surely? Who in their right mind would DM someone on Twitter about looking into the death of their daughter? She went to close the app but her stomach gave a little somersault of excitement. What if this was true? What if there really had been a miscarriage of justice? Steph allowed herself the luxury of taking the thought further. This could be her chance to change the trajectory of her career. If she discovered the death of this woman’s daughter had been covered up, then what a scoop that would be.

Not to mention the money she could earn from it. Perhaps she could even sell it to one of the nationals. She looked at the TV screen as a box-set uploaded and, picking up the remote control, she pressed the pause button. She placed the ice-cream tub and spoon on the coffee table, her appetite for such delights now disappearing. She had to find out more about this Sonia Lomas and her daughter. She logged on to Twitter via her laptop, the bigger screen being easier on her eyes at this time of the evening, and then scrolled through Sonia Lomas’s timeline. The screen was filled with picture after picture of a young woman, about Steph’s age, smiling at the camera, her blonde, relaxed curls sitting on her shoulders, her make-up light and natural and her teeth white and straight. All with the hashtag of Elizabeth Sinclair. Every so often there was a different photograph of her: in one she was sitting on a wall in a pair of denim shorts, her tanned legs crossed at the ankles; in another she was leaning against the side of a yacht in a rather clichéd blue and white striped jumper, cropped chinos and bare feet. The images alone made it look like a photoshoot for a high-end outdoor-clothing chain.

The words accompanying each tweet, however, painted a different picture. HELP! @CumbriaPolice did not investigate the death of my daughter fully. Please sign the petition to have her case reopened. #JusticeForElizabeth Elizabeth Sinclair, wife of Harry Sinclair of the Sinclair family, died in suspicious circumstances. @CumbriaPolice won’t listen to me. I need your help to reopen her case. Please sign the petition. #JusticeForElizabeth And so the tweets went on, each accusing Cumbria Police of not doing their job and each asking for the petition to be signed. Steph clicked on the link which took her to the petition, where she found more detailed information. Two years ago, my daughter Elizabeth Sinclair was found unconscious in Conmere Lake on the estate of the Conmere Resort owned by the Sinclair family in Cumbria.

She was taken to hospital but never regained consciousness and her life-support machine was turned off two days later. The coroner recorded a verdict of misadventure. Cumbria Police investigated my daughter’s death but failed to consider other lines of enquiry which would suggest my daughter was, in fact, murdered. I have had an independent review of my daughter’s death which recommends a further and fuller investigation. Despite countless requests to Cumbria Police to reopen my daughter’s case, and letters from my solicitor, Cumbria Police have refused to do so, citing not enough new evidence to warrant the case being reopened. As a mother, I cannot let this matter rest until it has been fully investigated again and I would urge you to sign this petition to help me gain the publicity I need to apply enough pressure on the police to reopen the case. Thank you. Sonia Lomas Steph’s stomach gave another roll of anticipation. This Sonia Lomas was serious; she wasn’t a crank at all. She was a mother fighting for her daughter’s memory.

Steph couldn’t help comparing her own mother to Sonia Lomas and instantly wished she hadn’t. It struck a painful chord – Wendy was so out of tune with motherhood. Steph pushed the comparison away and typed ‘Elizabeth Sinclair’ in the search bar. The story of Elizabeth’s death was towards the end of the page and it gave a few more details. Steph picked up her pen and notebook from the coffee table and made some notes. Elizabeth Sinclair 30 Married to Harry Sinclair No children Born in London. Mother – Sonia Lomas, Care Assistant, Hackney No siblings Father? Not mentioned 2 years ago – found unconscious – died later in hospital She then searched the name Harry Sinclair. Steph knew the Sinclair family had a large estate in the north-west of England which was a holiday resort centre, and was aware of the backstory, how their great-great-grandfather had won another man’s estate during a game of poker back in the early 1900s. The family had managed to hold on to their position, wealth and prosperity through two world wars and several recessions. The younger generation of the Sinclair family consisted of three brothers who had managed to turn what had become a failing business into a highly successful company.

Max Sinclair had inherited the home, which had been in disrepair after years of financial pressure. He had turned the fortunes of the Sinclairs around by developing the 150-acre site into a commercial high-end woodland-activity-type business. Max’s vision had been much more upmarket, and the log cabins inspired by his time working on a ranch in Texas where he’d met his wife-to-be, Prudence Cutchins. When his sons had come on board their vision had broadened the estate further and encompassed not only all things outdoors but water sports, rock climbing, mountain-bike trails, hiking and a health spa. This was as much as Steph knew from her time living in the Kendalton area and from her briefing with her boss, Tim, about her assignment. Now she needed to dig deeper with her research. The next person to check out was the husband himself, Harry Sinclair. This proved harder than she expected. There was next to nothing on the internet about Harry Sinclair. There were a few photographs of him and his brothers, sometimes with his mother in shot, standing outside a stately-looking home which would be worthy of Downton Abbey status.

The three brothers looked very striking, all sharing their mother’s dark hair; the older two had theirs cut short, while Owen, the youngest brother, wore his a little longer, which reminded Steph of some sort of artstudent type. Dominic and Owen were smiling, whereas Harry’s expression was sombre. Steph checked the date of the photograph. It was six months ago, so that also made it a little over eighteen months since his wife had died, in which case he was excused for looking pretty miserable. Although, as she looked at the photograph again, she wasn’t sure if miserable was the right word. He looked more … serious … moody even. Steph read some of the articles about the resort the family had opened, but there was very little personal information. Eventually, she came across an online local newspaper which had reported the death of Elizabeth Sinclair. It wasn’t much, but it did give a little more information. It would seem Elizabeth had taken the family dog for a walk which was later found wet and covered in mud.

It was assumed that the dog had gone into the water and Elizabeth had taken it upon herself to rescue the much-loved pooch but had become entangled in the weeds just below the surface. After another half an hour of searching, Steph surveyed her notes. Harry Sinclair Middle brother – 35 Widower Stays out of the limelight No comments found concerning the death of his wife Dominic Sinclair – named after GGG Older brother – 37 Director Driving force of the company Attends lots of business and social functions Divorced – 1 child – 15, boy – with former wife Another child – 7 – with current partner – Lisa – together 10 years Property in South of France Lives in private lodge in the grounds of resort Comment re death of SIL – Very much missed by us all. We are all in shock. Owen Sinclair Youngest of three brothers – 32 Director Married – Natalie (27) 3 children – twin boys aged 3 and daughter aged 5 Pru Sinclair Mother Director – 68 years old Widow. Husband died 2014 Formidable. Public speaking Involved with lots of charities and local businesses Comment re death of DIL – Deeply saddened. Elizabeth the daughter I never had. It didn’t scream murder to Steph but she knew she wouldn’t be able to leave this alone now. Something was urging her on – journalistic gut instinct? She wasn’t sure, but she wasn’t going to ignore it.

She was about to close the article when the bottom paragraph caught her attention. The air was knocked from her lungs and her heart thudded against her chest wall. ‘Bloody hell.’ She peered closer to the screen as if to make certain she was reading it correctly. She read each word with precision. There had been speculation that Elizabeth Sinclair had been having an affair but police dismissed this notion. DCI Wendy Lynch of Cumbria Police issued a statement that there was no suggestion whatsoever that these rumours were in fact anything other than local tittle-tattle, which was completely insensitive to the family’s current circumstances and in particular to Mr Harry Sinclair himself. Lynch went on to request that the family’s privacy was respected at this difficult time. Steph picked up the phone and called her mother – DCI Wendy Lynch.



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