- Published: 16 February 2021
- ISBN: 9781787464117
- Imprint: Arrow
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 448
- RRP: $19.99
Three Perfect Liars
from the author of Richard & Judy bestseller Now You See Her
The Night of the Fire
Monday 13 May
It had taken seven minutes for the first of the fire engines to screech to a halt outside the offices of Morris & Wood, but even by then anyone could have seen it was too late. The fire had coursed through the building at an alarming rate. Red and orange flames were already obscured by a billowing cloud of dark-grey smoke. The sound of breaking glass shattered the air.
She was on the quay across the river from the office, with a perfect view that she no longer wanted, yet couldn’t bring herself to turn away from.
To her right a few people had spilled out of The Star pub and the couple of restaurants nearby. It was a warm evening in mid-May, warm enough to be out enjoying the longer evening even though it was a Monday night.
Most of the onlookers had probably protested against the development of the Morris & Wood offices when plans for the building were first proposed to the council. The development had caused outrage five years ago. Ad hoc meetings set up in cafés and school halls had been attended by angry residents from Lymington and beyond, who refused to allow such an eyesore to be built.
No one, they had said, wants to look across the Lymington River from the beautiful quay and see a monstrosity of a glass office staring back at them. Bloody Londoners, they had murmured among themselves. They are the problem, coming to the south coast from the city, taking over our town.
Only a few months later Harry Wood had had them all eating out of his palm. Well, maybe not all of them, but the ones who counted.
And so the plans had been approved, the building work started. Anyone who knew the first thing about architecture should have been able to see the offices would be a thing of beauty – too much so for an advertising agency perhaps?
By then the same residents had begun to forgive Harry Wood for anything. He had recruited locally, was supporting charities close to their hearts. The Lymington Care Home had never had so many minibuses and outings to the New Forest.
Yet once upon a time some of the people now gawping at the fire, as it continued to ravage the building, might have joked to their friends that they’d have liked to have burned it to the ground themselves. Because even after it was built, when its tall glass front reflected the light from the water, dappled against the setting sun, it still left a bitter taste in the mouths of a few. The ones who saw through people like Harry Wood.
Possibly, she considered, over the course of the next few days the police might wonder if there was any link between those early protestors and the fire.
Her heart beat rapidly at this thought, her eyes scanning the small crowd.
Might they think that? Was it possible the police would focus their attention on something so altogether different from the truth?
She pulled back against the wall, hoping to keep out of sight. Her pulse reverberated through her ears, deafening her to the sounds of the commotion unfurling in front of her eyes.
Three fire engines were now parked haphazardly, at least two police cars that she could see, and now an ambulance was pulling to a halt. The scene played out like a silent movie. She could imagine it unfurling in slow motion, even though the reality was frenzied.
There was a taste of salt on her lips and she licked it away, realising tears had escaped without her knowledge. Clenching her arms across her chest, she wrapped them around herself as tightly as she could, almost folding inwards. Her fingers tingled. If she brought them to her nostrils she would smell the fuel on them. She didn’t think she would ever forget that stench, its potency making her want to retch.
Is this what you wanted? she asked herself. She pulled a hand away from her chest and held it over her mouth, her mind racing. She tried to imagine what would happen in the morning. How many employees would turn up to find nothing more than a pile of rubble where their precious offices once stood, or if they’d already have been told they no longer had jobs to go to.
Every one of them would no doubt have to speak to the police, tell them what little they knew. She was certain the detectives would be merely scratching the surface when it came to most of the staff, led on a merry dance that took them far away from what had really happened.
There would likely be the odd comment from one or two members of the team who thought they had something of interest to say, but she doubted they’d point the detectives in the right direction.
She focused her gaze on the small gathering of uniforms grouped beside one of the fire engines. A fireman was gesturing, pointing fiercely towards the building, while another one yelled behind him, calling others over. She hadn’t imagined the fire would spread so quickly.
Suddenly it was apparent that something was happening. Something urgent, for even from here she could sense the apprehension in the air. It had darkened somehow, become thicker with foreboding.
Automatically she inched forward until she was trapped in the beam of a street light. Her heart pounded even more heavily against the wall of her chest as she strained to get a better view, edging closer still, along the narrow pathway that ran in front of the waterside houses.
Everything told her she should leave. She should be at home with her family. At some point there would be a call about what had happened and, when it came, that was where she needed to be.
And yet at the same time she couldn’t tear herself away from the scene.
One of the firemen had now stood aside, allowing her a perfect vision of the stretcher on the pavement. A body was being carried out of the burning building, laid upon the stretcher, and then a circle of people closed around it and she could see no more.
Her body felt like liquid, as if at any moment she would melt away and sink into the ground.
What had she done? It had seemed such a perfect solution. But now she could see that it was by no means an end. It was only the beginning. Now she could see that her actions would strip her of everything that was truly important.
She clutched her stomach and bent double, retching on the path beside her. Her hands shook violently.
Revenge and anger had blinded her, and now she might very well lose the two most important people in her life. And it was too late to do anything about it.
‘My name is Charlotte Reynolds.’ I lean forward as I speak into the tape recorder, though I’m not sure why.
The boy gasped for breath, hair in his mouth, before the next wave slammed him back against the bottom. He tumbled, the fizz of bubbles around him.
He opened the new bag of coffee beans and inhaled, relishing the toasted aroma that his favourite brand of arabica gave off.
Discarded medical equipment litters the floor: surgical tools blistered with rust, broken bottles, jars, the scratched spine of an old invalid chair.
The two suspects sat on mismatched furniture in the white and almost featureless lounge, waiting for something to happen.
Cindy Thomas was tuned in to her police scanner as she drove through the Friday-morning rush to her job at the San Francisco Chronicle.
She sleeps. A pale girl in a white room. Machines surround her. Mechanical guardians, they tether the sleeping girl to the land of the living, stopping her from drifting away on an eternal, dark tide.