Darkness turned to light as the full moon lost its potency. The cold light of dawn crept over the horizon of the sleepy little fishing village, as the three-second flash from the lighthouse dimmed. The valley was still and quiet in the frosty morning air.
Sheep and cows grazed contentedly on the rough, salty grass of the sloping fields. Slowly, signs of life began to appear in the houses scattered throughout the remote village in County Wexford.
There were only two days remaining until the New Year, and a sense of excitement and anticipation pervaded. Any excuse for a sing-song and a get-together was always warmly welcomed. Christmas was over, but the party season never officially ended until New Year’s Day. Final preparations were fully underway; jelly was setting for the sherry trifle, beds aired for returning family members, and soon the shops would be open.
It was just after half past nine when Anna Roche closed her front door behind her and jumped into her car, intending to drive the ten kilometres into town. She eased her car carefully past the neighbouring house, wary of the black ice on the ground, around the sharp bend, and down the steep, bumpy laneway that led into the valley and out onto the main road. Her head was full of lists and all the preparations she still had left to do before New Year’s Eve.
Something caught her eye as she neared the bottom of the lane. A piece of red material fluttered in the wind, stuck on the low barbed wired fence at the edge of the field. Then she saw the body, huddled at the base of the fence. She slammed her foot on the brake.
Her heart was pounding as she opened the driver’s door and got out. There was blood, a lot of blood, pooled around the body. She screamed and ran as fast as she could for help.
The bloody, lifeless body was that of Alexandra Kingston, a thirty-seven year old artist of international acclaim. Alexandra was a regular visitor to Hook Head. She loved the wild remoteness of the place, which appealed to her artistic temperament.
It had been three years since she bought the run-down farmhouse and lovingly renovated it into her personal sanctuary. It was where she came to escape her hectic lifestyle, and spend some much-coveted time alone.
She had phoned her fiancé the previous night to tell him that she would be leaving Hook Head the following day, December 31, just in time to welcome in the New Year with him in London, but she would never make it home.
Alexandra Kingston spent the evening of December 26 at the luxury Four Seasons Hotel in London, attending a charity masquerade ball with her fiancé, David Hennessy, a respected and well-known “celebrity” solicitor. The ball was a runaway success with more than one hundred thousand pounds sterling raised for cancer research.
They were well-known faces on the party circuit in London. David received many party invitations from his clients, and Alexandra usually accompanied him. The masquerade ball was a glittering, star-studded event, with some of the most famous faces in show business in attendance.
Alexandra knew many of the people at the party. She circulated among the guests, always returning to her fiancé’s table, which seated a number of well-known actors. Those who spoke to her that night described her as being radiant, vivacious, and in good spirits. However, she seemed tired, having recently returned from a trip to New York where her art had been exhibited.
She socialised and chatted to the luminaries of the entertainment world, but her mind was on a location far removed from the glamorous nightlife of London. She had decided to spend a few days at her remote holiday home in County Wexford, and it was only the thought of escaping there that got her through the night.
She usually visited the house several times a year, with family or friends, but this time, for the first time, she was making the journey alone. Everyone she had invited to join her had declined. Christmas had only just passed and they all had other pressing commitments. It was understandable, but in the light of subsequent events, it was a decision her family and friends came to bitterly regret, and remained one of those “if only” thoughts that haunted them forever.
The morning after the party, Alexandra left her apartment at London’s exclusive Park Lane, and headed for Heathrow Airport, where she boarded the eleven o’ clock Aer Lingus flight to Dublin. The flight touched down at Dublin airport shortly before one o’ clock.
Half an hour later, a security camera recorded her as she wheeled her luggage into the arrivals hall. The footage showed an elegant woman with long, auburn hair pulled back into a loose ponytail. She was wearing a hip-length navy wool jacket and an emerald-green scarf over a cashmere jumper and blue jeans. Black leather ankle boots completed her ensemble. She was pale and exhausted as she made her way to the car rental desk and collected the keys to her rented car.
By two o’ clock, she was driving out of the airport and turning onto the motorway heading towards Wexford. It was a familiar route and she made steady progress through the hectic holiday traffic.
A few hours later and she reached New Ross, where she pulled in at a filling station to buy diesel and some household supplies. She set off again, passing through Arthurstown, and then on to the last ten kilometres towards Duncannon and the village of Hook Head, where her beloved holiday home was located.
By the time she reached Duncannon, darkness had fallen. She turned onto the winding road that led into the valley, twisting and turning for several kilometres, before she reached the gateway to her house.
It was about five o’ clock when she pulled up in front of the metal gate that guarded the entrance to the laneway she shared with two other houses. She got out of the car and stopped for a moment to look up at the house, feeling her heart lift as it always did when she returned to her chosen home.
She drew back the bolt that anchored the gate to an old, whitewashed pillar, and stepped aside as the gate swung outwards. Returning to her car, she drove up the laneway, then went back and closed the gate securely behind her. Sheep grazed the fields surrounding the house, and it was an unwritten rule that the gate remained closed.
She drove up the steep, gravelled lane, her headlights showing where the weeds grew in the centre of the drive. There was very little traffic on the laneway. Anna Roche and her husband were the only year-round residents. The other house, to the right of hers, was empty and only occupied in the summer. She swung the car left at the top where the laneway curved inwards, and parked in her usual spot, facing the blank, gable-end wall of her house.
The house was in darkness, so, leaving the car lights on to provide illumination, she walked across to the porch, watching her step on the uneven local stone that paved the area around the front of the house. She unlocked the porch door, then the main door, and reached in to flick the light switch that controlled both the inside lights and the outer light on the corner of the gable wall. Then she returned to the car for her luggage and shopping.
A week before leaving London, Alexandra had telephone Mrs. Noeleen Byrne, the local woman who acted as caretaker of the house in her absence, to let her know of her forthcoming visit. Earlier that day, Noeleen went to the house, turned on the heating, and lit the two open fires so that it would be warm and cosy when Alexandra arrived. Noeleen left the house shortly after two o’ clock. She didn’t switch on the lights as it was still daylight at that time.
Alexandra met with a very welcoming sight when she stepped into the living room; as well as the glowing fires, there was another surprise for her. The window sills and mantelpieces were festooned with freshly picked holly. The serrated, glossy leaves and masses of bright red berries made the room festive and cheerful.
Mrs. Byrne had decorated the house in the traditional Wexford manner as a festive surprise for her. It was a thoughtful, homely gesture and one typical of Noeleen Byrne. She was touched.
Alexandra closed the door softly behind her and let out a deep sigh of relief. The pressure and tension of the last months was slowly dissipating. She went upstairs and into her bedroom which was simply furnished. Her mattress perched on top of an elevated wooden frame which she had had specially constructed so that she could see the pulsing flashes from the Hook Head lighthouse through the bare window.
The blinking light was comforting to her. Indeed, the presence of the lighthouse was one of the reasons she had been attracted to the house in the first place. Standing in her bedroom, although she couldn’t actually hear the crash of the waves as the Celtic Sea rolled into the bay, it was easy to imagine the scene. She dropped her baggage on the bed and wandered back downstairs.
The telephone rang at six o’ clock. It was Noeleen Byrne, checking to make sure that Alexandra had arrived safely. “Is everything okay?” she asked. “Is there anything that you need?”
“Everything is perfect,” Alexandra smiled down the phone. “Thank you for the holly. It looks wonderfully festive in here.”
“I’m glad you like it. I wasn’t sure how many people would be staying so I made up the beds in the guest rooms too.”
“Actually, I’m here on my own. Everyone was busy with holiday plans, but I had to get away, I really needed some time alone to recharge. It’s been an exceptionally busy year.”
“How long will you be staying?”
“I’m not quite sure yet. I might return to London on December thirtieth or the thirty-first, I’d like to be back home in time to welcome in the New Year with David.”
“Well, you’re more than welcome to join my family for New Year’s Eve dinner. The more the merrier.”
“Thank you, I’d like that very much,” Alexandra replied. They exchanged a few more pleasantries before hanging up the phone.
Noeleen’s invitation was not the only invitation that she received during her stay. This was typical of the spirit of the area; the door was always open and never more so than at Christmas time.
After enjoying a light dinner, Alexandra relaxed and read at the wooden table in the small kitchen just off the main living room. Later, she rang Noeleen to confirm her arrangements, but she wasn’t home so she left a message with her daughter, Katy, saying that she would phone her the following day.
She didn’t mind being on her own. Ideally, she would have liked some company, but she really appreciated her time alone too. The peace and quiet of the old farmhouse was welcome. Life had been hectic recently. She had been working all hours to finish her painting and organise her exhibition in New York, and the subsequent rounds of parties and promoting had left her exhausted.
Promoting or “schmoozing”, as her agent liked to say, was part of the business, but she didn’t really enjoy the hype and superficiality that went along with it. The “schmoozing” had continued when she’d returned to London. December was one long party month, and her fiancé had a different engagement almost every night. David didn’t want to snub any of his clients so he ended up accepting most of the invitations. He loved the lifestyle and thrived in the company of others. The busier he was the happier he felt. Of course, he expected her to accompany him, so she’d plastered on her best smile and “schmoozed” with the best of them.
It often amazed her how different they were. They were complete opposites in many ways; she was introverted, artistic, and quiet. He was loud, extroverted, and the life and soul of the party. “Opposites attract,” he often said. “Imagine if there were two loud and obnoxious people in this relationship. There’d never be a moment’s peace.”
Some common ground wouldn’t hurt either. Sometimes it seemed that she was the only one compromising. A few days away from everyone, with maybe a chance to do some painting, was just what she needed.
At eleven o’ clock her best friend, Natasha Lawrence, phoned from London, and they chatted for about half an hour. Shortly afterwards, exhausted from her journey and feeling the effects of the previous night’s party, she switched off the downstairs lights and headed up the wooden stairs to bed.
The next morning she rose early and drove into Duncannon, the nearest big town, parked her car, and walked up the main street, stopping at the supermarket, where she bought some food and household items. It was shortly after two o’ clock. The supermarket, like the other shops in the town, was bright with decorations. The village was buzzing with activity as people stocked up on supplies to last them over the holiday period.
The main street in Duncannon could be walked in five minutes, from the harbour on the west side to the post office at the top of the hill. The town was often crowded with visitors during the summer, and the harbour was a base for sailing and yachting, but in winter, it was a different story; the place was very quiet, except for the local trade. The arrival of a stranger would be noticed immediately. Locals smiled and nodded at her, recognising her from her frequent visits over the past few years.
One man noticed her presence with more interest than anyone else did. He had seen her before, even exchanged a few words with her, but he doubted she remembered him. Was she alone? He decided to watch her and find out…