Today, I’d like to share the first chapter from The Key to Death’s Door. I hope you enjoy reading it.
If you could discover the murderous truth of a past life and seek justice in this one, would you?
Teenager Lee Hunter doesn’t have a choice when he nearly drowns after spending the night at a derelict boathouse with his best friend, Charlie Finch. After leaving his body and meeting a mysterious light, Lee is sent back to relive the final days of another life. A life that ended tragically.
After recovering from his near death experience, Lee begins to realise that he is part of two lives linked by the despicable actions of one man.
Struggling against impossible odds, Lee and Charlie set out to bring this man to justice.
Will Lee be able to unlock the past and bring justice to the future?
The Key to Death’s Door is a story of sacrifice, friendship, loyalty and murder.
The day before I died started off pretty much like any other. Up at seven. Breakfast. Ready for school. Just one slight difference: me and my best mate Charlie Finch had cooked up a plan to tell our parents we were sleeping at each other’s houses. Clear the way to spend the night fishing at a derelict boathouse along Feelham River.
With the boathouse side of the river largely overgrown, we’d decided to row across in my two-man inflatable dingy. The perfect adventure for a pair of losers trying to spice up their lives after the summer holidays. September should be banned. Whoever had the idea of inflicting double maths and history on kids ought to be thrown in jail for cruelty.
The plan of telling our parents that we were spending the night in a friend’s house should have been simple. The reality proved more difficult. After tea, as my mother was getting ready for her night shift at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, I took a deep breath and moved in for the kill.
‘Is it all right if I stay at Charlie’s tonight?’
She knew full well who Charlie was, but sarcasm at this point didn’t seem a wise idea.
‘I don’t trust that boy, Lee. He spits.’
My brain failed to make a connection. ‘Charlie’s all right.’
‘As for his father… don’t get me started on him.’
For once, I was in agreement. Daryl Finch made my guts wobble, even though he was in a wheelchair. ‘He’s—’
‘Don’t you dare say he’s all right. He’s not. And I’m not keen on you spending time at his house.’
‘It’s only for one night.’ I played my trump card. ‘And there’s no school tomorrow. It’s Saturday.’
‘I’m well aware of what day it is.’
‘Please, Mum. I don’t like staying on my own when you’re working nights.’ This wasn’t a lie. I hated being stuck indoors. It made me feel as if the walls were closing in. Even in winter I left the bedroom window open slightly.
‘Why don’t you watch a DVD?’
‘I don’t like films.’ The truth. I much preferred real-life adventures – if only I could ever manage to escape the house to have one!
‘What time do you plan on coming home in the morning? I’ll be in bed, so I don’t want you disturbing me.’
‘Around teatime. Me and Charlie are going fishing tomorrow.’
‘It’s been raining most of the week.’
‘It’s not now, though, is it?’
‘Don’t smart-mouth me, Lee Hunter. And stay away from the weir.’
‘Does that mean I can go?’
‘I want you to promise me you’ll behave.’
‘Don’t act the fool with that Finch boy. Especially near water. He’s the size of a grown man.’
Not yet fourteen, and built like a nightclub bouncer, Charlie was designed to cause suspicion. He had the brain of a chicken and the heart of a lion. ‘We’re going fishing, Mum. You have to keep quiet, else you’ll scare the fish.’
She puckered her lips in the small mirror in the kitchen windowsill, inspected something on the side of her face, then turned to me. ‘I want you to call me in the morning and let me know you’re all right.’
‘Have you got any credit on your phone?’
She took her handbag off the back of a chair and fished a fiver out of her purse. ‘For lunch tomorrow.’
‘I don’t want—’
‘Behave.’ She thrust the money in my hand, touched my cheek, and disappeared out the back door.
Okay. Good start. Now all we had to do was get past Charlie’s parents, and we were home and dry. Or wet, considering where we were going!
I put the dingy in a backpack and walked to Charlie’s house carrying my rod and keepnet in one hand, and a canvas holdall filled with the rest of my gear in the other. I left it all behind the garage at the end of his drive as planned, and knocked on the back door.
Charlie opened it and deposited a glob of spit on the concrete. He was dressed for the boathouse adventure in jeans, a baggy jumper, and a floppy hat more suited to summer. ‘My old man wants a word with you.’
‘Because he sucks dicks. Just stick to what we said, okay?’
Daryl Finch sat in a wheelchair near the front room window. His thinning grey hair was slicked back with grease. A cigarette dangled from the corner of his mouth. He stroked his beard as if it were a beloved pet. ‘Charlie says he’s staying the night with you. Is that right, boy?’
The room reeked of cigarettes and stale piss. Thank God my mother couldn’t see him. Or smell him. I nodded, scared to speak unless I somehow revealed our guilty secret.
He squinted at me through a cloud of smoke. ‘You telling the truth? Or have you two hatched a plan to stay out all night?’
I suddenly believed he could see right inside my head. ‘No.’
‘I was your age once. I know what it’s like when you get a sniff of the girlies.’
Charlie rescued me. ‘We don’t even like girls.’
Finch turned to his son. ‘What’s that supposed to mean? You queer?’
‘Got my first sniff of pussy when I was twelve. Can still smell it now if I close my eyes.’
I thought that might be difficult with the smoke billowing from the end of his fag.
‘I can smell bullshit,’ Charlie whispered.
Finch squinted at him. ‘You got something to say, boy?’
Charlie shook his head. ‘We’re gonna watch a movie.’
Charlie hesitated. He looked at me. I wished to Christ he’d think of his own answers. ‘Batman,’ I blurted.
‘Porn, more like,’ Finch senior said. He looked back at me. ‘Your old lady all right with this?’
‘You don’t look too sure.’
‘No… she’s fine.’
‘She managed to get off her high horse yet?’
I shuffled uneasily. I knew what he was talking about. Back in the summer, I’d been mooching about in a cupboard in the spare bedroom. It was a spillover wardrobe for my dad’s work clothes before he’d run off with another woman two years back. I’d searched through the jackets and coats looking for clues to his new life. I didn’t find a thing. But I’d stumbled across a fifty-pound note. To a fourteen-year-old loser like me, it seemed like I’d stumbled across a fortune, made all the more sweeter knowing it belonged to the bastard who’d abandoned us.
But it turned out my mother had put it in the jacket to save up for Christmas. I’d confessed straight away. I loved my mum. I wouldn’t do anything to hurt her. It was an honest and stupid mistake. I told her I’d treated three of my mates to a week of meals in the local café and the cinema. Skipped the cigarettes. After her initial anger and disappointment, she’d gone to the parents of the other three boys to demand they pay back their share of the spoils. Which they did. All except Daryl Finch, who’d wanted receipts and cast iron proof of his son’s involvement.
‘You can tell her from me she looks horny when she’s mad.’
Charlie’s mum walked into the room. ‘Who?’
Finch studied his wife for a few moments before saying, ‘Not you, and that’s a fact you can take to court.’
‘So?’ Charlie said. ‘Can I go?’
Susan Finch handed her husband a can of Foster’s[CV1] . Her grey hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail. Lines creased her forehead as if she was permanently frowning. ‘Go where?’
‘Boy wants to go to his mate’s to watch porn.’
Charlie sighed. ‘I just wanna stay over at Lee’s.’
Susan walked out of the room. ‘There’s no school tomorrow. I don’t see why not.’
Daryl Finch looked at me, eyes sly. ‘Your mum can stay over here if she wants to. Call it a swap.’
Susan closed the door to the kitchen. ‘I heard that.’
Finch grinned. ‘She still a nurse?’
I felt a lump in my throat. I wanted to walk across the room and smash his stupid bloated face to a pulp. ‘Yes.’
‘Reckon she wants to take my temperature?’
‘Don’t listen to him,’ Charlie said. ‘He’s just winding you up.’
Finch removed the cigarette from his mouth and dropped it in a cup on a scarred oak coffee table. ‘Had me a nurse once. Pretty as a peach. Had some fucking rare nights with that one. Should’ve married her instead of that lump-of-frump through there.’
Charlie shuffled uneasily. ‘Don’t take no notice of him. He’s pissed.’
Finch belched. ‘I ain’t pissed. Just reminiscing.’
‘Fantasising, more like.’
Finch didn’t seem to hear him. ‘She was called Jessica. Posh or what? A good horse riding name, don’t you think? I used to imagine her in the saddle.’
Charlie gave me a look to suggest he wished his dad would do us all a favour and drop dead.
‘Met her when I lost my fucking finger.’ He held up his right hand to reveal the stump where his index finger used to point.
‘How did you lose your finger?’ I asked. I don’t know why I decided to offer something to the conversation.
‘Personal business, boy. Nothing that concerns you. Almost fucking died, I’ll tell you that much.’
‘Can I go now?’ Charlie said.
Finch nodded. ‘I ain’t gonna tell you to stay outta trouble, cos that’s like telling a dog not to bark. But be careful. Cops are always looking to nick lads for nothing. Trust me.’
I followed Charlie out the room and waited in the hall while he grabbed his bag and his fishing gear from the garage. He didn’t speak again until we were halfway to the river. ‘I hate that bastard.’
‘He’s all right,’ I lied.
‘He’s not. He’s the biggest cunt who ever lived.’
I thought my dad qualified for that title. I asked him if he knew how his dad had lost his finger.
‘Picking his fucking nose for all I care. He’s so full of shit. There was no nurse. Only in his head. No one with any sense would look twice at him.’
‘Your mum must have—’
‘She’s a doormat. Lets him walk all over her. I swear to God I’m gonna smack him in the gob when I’m older. Tip him out of that fucking wheelchair right into the path of a lorry.’
‘You don’t mean that.’
Charlie stopped. ‘I do. More than anything else in the world.’
‘Why’s he in a wheelchair?’
‘Because the lazy bastard reckons he’s disabled. But he ain’t. It’s only so he doesn’t have to work. Says his back’s fucked. But he’s soon up and out of it when he sets about Mum. Or when his drinking buddies come around to play poker. There’s nothing wrong with him. I sometimes feel like ringing up the job centre and dropping him in the shit.’
We walked the rest of the way to the river in silence. At least Charlie still had a dad. By the time we reached the spot opposite the old boathouse where we planned to cross, I was having second thoughts. The boathouse looked spooky under the darkening sky. The wooden gates beneath the building looked as if they might lead straight to hell. We hadn’t thought this through. We hadn’t even brought sleeping bags, for Christ’s sake. It would be freezing cold at night. And our plan to light a fire seemed suddenly daft and dangerous. What if it got out of control? Caught the place on fire?
I took my backpack off and dropped it on the ground. I put my rod, keepnet and holdall next to it. ‘You sure this is a good idea, Charlie?’
I pointed at the boathouse. ‘Staying over there all night. What if we can’t find anything to make a fire?’
‘There’ll be plenty of shit lying about.’
‘Can’t make a fire out of shit; it’ll stink too much.’
‘Ha, ha, Hunter. Ain’t you the comedian of the century.’
‘What if someone sees the fire and calls the cops?’
‘Don’t be a gusset all your life. This is Oxfordshire, not London. They don’t have patrols here.’
‘How do you know?’
‘Cos it’s hardly the drugs capital of the world, is it?’
‘Why don’t we just stay here and do some fishing?’
Charlie launched a gob full of spit at the river. ‘Because we agreed to go to the boathouse. Anyway, I’m not sitting on the riverbank all night freezing my nuts off. What the hell’s wrong with you?’
‘Good. So unpack the dingy. You sound like my mum on one of her bad head days.’
Reluctantly, I took the Orange Explorer Pro 200 out of the backpack and attached the foot pump. The dingy had been a birthday present two summers back when my dad had still been at home playing happy families. To be honest, as much as I loathed him, it was my best present ever. It even had wooden oars and welded on oar locks.
It took about fifteen minutes to inflate. Charlie helped the effort no end by unzipping his fly and pissing into the river. I launched the dingy into the water and held it in place whilst Charlie loaded the gear. He climbed in and more or less filled the bloody thing on his own.
‘And how am I meant to fit?’
‘You can sit on my lap if you want?’
‘I’m not kidding, Charlie. There’s not enough room.’
He looked up at me, brown eyes almost obliterated by his long thick fringe. ‘I thought this was meant to be a laugh.’
‘If we don’t hurry up and get a fire lit, it’ll be dark. Then you’ll be moaning you’re cold and can’t see.’
Against my better judgement, I squeezed in and rowed across for all I was worth. It was a good job the river was calm. At least there wasn’t much of an undercurrent to pull us off course. I didn’t want to consider what might happen if the weather changed – if we got trapped in the boathouse, or dragged towards the weir trying to get back across.
The boathouse looked far worse up close. The wooden gates beneath the building were rotten. So were the posts securing them. It all looked about as stable as Daryl Finch. There was a stone wall either side of the gates with rubber tyres fixed in place to act as buffers for larger boats. I rowed alongside and kept the dingy steady while Charlie tied the boat to a tyre.
He then hauled himself up the wall using the tyres as a makeshift ladder. He stood on the grassy bank, his hands resting on his hips. ‘Piece of piss.’
I handed the bags and fishing gear up to him. As if sensing my apprehension, distant thunder rolled across the brooding sky.
‘Is that your guts?’
I clambered up the wall and joined him. ‘I fucking hope not.’
A spiral fire escape ran up the side of the building. It had a metal roof shaped like a Chinese hat. Most of the green paint had peeled off, leaving the metal to rust and flake.
‘How are we going to get in if it’s locked up?’ I asked.
‘Smash a window.’
‘It’ll be cold enough without breaking a—’
‘Not if we stick something over the hole. Come on. We need to make ourselves at home before it gets dark. And get some fire wood. What did you bring to eat?’
My heart jolted. ‘Nothing. I brought the maggots.’
Charlie spat in the river. ‘I ain’t eating maggots.’
‘Seriously, dick-brain, I thought you were gonna bring the food.’
Charlie laughed. ‘Cos my old man would skin me alive if I took food from the house.’
‘I’ve got a fiver.’
‘Brilliant. We’ll toast it and have it with the maggots.’
I felt like Robinson Crusoe. ‘Maybe we could eat a fish. Cook it over the fire.’
‘You ever tasted river fish?’
‘Tastes like shit. Someone brought my old man a pike once and he got my mum to cook it. I’d rather eat cat puke.’
‘You’ve eaten cat puke?’
‘All the time, Bozo. Delicious.’
A light drizzle started to fall. Great. Now we would end up wet, as well as hungry.
‘I’ve got some fags,’ Charlie said. ‘Nicked ’em off me mum.’
‘Won’t she notice?’
‘Yeah. But she’ll think it’s the old man. And she wouldn’t dare say nothing to him. I took her lighter, too, but they’re always losing lighters. I reckon there’s a gremlin in the house keeps nicking them when they’re asleep.’
‘Perhaps that’s who pinched your brain.’
He punched my arm. Hard enough to send shock waves along my shoulder. ‘Maybe that’s who nicked your bollocks.’
The rain came down harder, hitting the dirty brown river like silver pellets.
Charlie grabbed his bag, his fishing rod and the keepnet and walked up the fire escape. ‘Tell you what. You go back into town and get some grub, and I’ll build the love nest.’
‘What the fuck am I supposed to do with the boat when I get to the other side?’
‘Tie it up.’
‘What if someone pinches it?’
‘I’ll keep an eye on it.’
I grabbed the rest of the gear and joined him on the small veranda outside the wooden building. ‘How can you if you’re getting stuff for the fire?’
‘No one will nick the boat. No one even comes along this part of the river.’
‘We’re here, aren’t we?’
He didn’t answer that. He tried the door. Locked. ‘Don’t think much of the service around here. Could have given us a room key.’
‘Maybe we ought to just go home.’
‘Remind me to never go on holiday with you.’
‘Don’t worry. I won’t invite you.’
Charlie turned sideways and put his elbow through the single pane. Glass stuck to his jumper, glinting like jewels in the fading light. He lifted the catch and opened the window. The rain fell harder, bouncing of the small wooden veranda, drumming on the slate roof.
‘In you go, Gus, before we both get drenched.’
Built like a two-legged whippet, I climbed through feet first. Glass crunched beneath my shoes as I moved aside to let Charlie in. He wiped rain out of his eyes and passed our gear through to me. ‘Sweep the glass out of the way. I’ll come through headfirst.’
And so he did. Landing with a thud and hoisting himself up with a grace that belied his size. One of his hands was bleeding. Now what were we supposed to do? We had no food. No warmth. No bedding.
I should have taken that as a warning of what was to come.
If you’ve enjoyed reading the first chapter you can pre-order the book here on Amazon to be delivered to your kindle on publication day – 16th April.
You can also add it to your TBR list on Goodreads.
As always, thanks for your support.