Dead Heat

CHAPTER 1

I wondered if I was dying. I wasn’t afraid to die but, such was the pain in my gut, I wished it would happen soon.

I’d had food poisoning before but this time it was particularly unpleasant with agonizing cramps and long bouts of retching. I had already spent most of Friday night kneeling on my bathroom floor with my head in the lavatory and, at one point, I became really concerned that the violence of the spasms in my abdomen might result in me losing my stomach lining altogether.

Twice I resolved to get myself to the telephone to summon help, only to be doubled-up again by a fresh round of dry heaving. Didn’t my stupid muscles realize that my stomach was already empty, and had been so for ages? Why did this torture continue when there was nothing left in me to throw up?

Between the attacks, I sat sweating on the floor, leaning up against the bath, and tried to work out what had brought on this misery.

On Friday evening I had been to a black tie gala dinner in the Eclipse marquee at Newmarket racecourse. I’d eaten a trio of cold smoked fish with a garlic mustard dill sauce for a starter, followed by a sliced black cherry stuffed chicken breast wrapped in pancetta with a wild chanterelle and truffle sauce, served with roasted new potatoes and steamed snow peas as the main course, then a vanilla crème brûlée for dessert.

I knew intimately every ingredient of the meal.

I knew because, rather than being a guest at the function, I had been the chef.

Finally, as my bathroom window changed from black to grey with the coming of the dawn, the tight knot in my stomach began to unwind and the cold clamminess of my skin slowly started to abate.

But the ordeal was not yet over, with what remained in my digestive tract now being forcefully ejected at the other end.

In due course I crawled along the landing of my cottage to bed and lay there utterly exhausted; drained, dehydrated, but alive. The clock on my bedside table showed that it was ten past seven in the morning and I was due to be at work at eight. Just what I needed.

I lay there kidding myself that I would be all right in a little while and another five minutes would not matter. I began to doze but was brought back to full consciousness by the ringing of my telephone which sat on the table next to the clock. Seven twenty.

Who, I thought, is ringing me at seven twenty? Go away. Leave me to sleep.

The phone stopped. That’s better.

It rang again. Damn it. I rolled over and lifted the receiver.

‘Yes,’ I said with all the hurt expression in my voice from a night of agony.

‘Max?’ said a male voice. ‘Is that you?’

‘One and the same,’ I replied in my more usual tone.

‘Have you been ill?’ asked the voice. It was his emphasis on the word you that had me worried.

I sat up quickly. ‘Yes, I have,’ I said. ‘Have you?’

‘Dreadful, isn’t it? Everyone I’ve spoken to has had the same.’ Carl Walsh was technically my assistant. In fact, these days, he was as often in charge of the kitchen as I was. The previous evening, as I had been working the tables and receiving all the plaudits, Carl had been busily plating up the meals and shouting at the staff in the kitchen tent. Now, it appeared, there might be no more plaudits, just blame.

‘Who have you spoken to?’ I asked.

‘Julie, Richard, Ray and Jean,’ he said. ‘They each called me