Read Liars All Online

Authors: Jo Bannister

Liars All

They were young and in love, and like lovers everywhere they thought it would last for ever.
They thought they would, too.
They drove out to their favourite restaurant on the South Downs, the sleek, low car treading down drifts of fallen leaves in the narrow lanes. Tom had reserved a table as soon as he knew he was going to need it. Jane called him a control freak, but he wouldn't risk their evening for the sake of a phone call. He didn't want the occasion to be less than perfect.
Once he was sure this was the right thing for them he'd imagined proposing here: in a quiet corner of The Cavalier, with its long views over the patchwork fields and little spinneys of Chain Down. They'd come here the first time he wanted to impress her, again for their three month and six month anniversaries, and once in between to celebrate Jane's birthday. Of course he'd planned to take the next step here.
Events overtook them. After he'd done all his thinking, about what he wanted and also what was best for both of them, after he'd reached what he was sure was the right
decision, even after he'd booked the table at The Cavalier, they were in her car – his was in the garage for a service – and somehow he couldn't wait a moment longer. He proposed to her in an elderly VW, with his feet among discarded crisp packets, in a queue of traffic waiting for the lights to change in the middle of damp and faded Dimmock. It may have been the least romantic spot for a proposal ever.
Jane did nothing to make it more memorable. She didn't come over all coy and indecisive. Coy and indecisive were not her style. She gave it less thought than the choice of her next gear, said, ‘Yeah, OK,' and drove off without missing a beat when the lights turned green.
Tom was still trying to figure out what had happened when she spotted a parking space and pulled in. ‘Er…you did say yes?'
She nodded. ‘That's right.'
Puzzlement crinkled his brow. ‘You didn't have to think about it?'
She breathed heavily at him. ‘Tom, I've been thinking of little else for the last three months. All I was waiting for was for you to recognise the blindingly obvious and say something.'
He grinned; then a sudden fear wiped the grin from his face; then it too was gone and he managed a nervous, almost embarrassed little chuckle. ‘So that's it? We're getting married?'
Jane nodded. ‘We're getting married.'
Finally Tom looked around him. ‘That's the jeweller's.'
‘Yes.' It seemed she had a ring picked out.
The following evening they were on their way to The Cavalier, Tom's car humming between the high hedges, the autumn leaves a crisp russet carpet in the wash of the headlamps. The powerful engine was singing after its service, and his heart was too. Jane seemed to be taking engagement in her stride, much as she took everything else – calmly, clear-headed and purposeful. But when he sneaked a quick sidelong glance at her, Tom kept catching a smile of sheer happiness on her face. She masked it when she saw him looking, but if he looked again in a couple of minutes it was always back. He hadn't been fooling himself. She wanted this as much as he did.
It was dark by the time they ate. It hardly mattered. Today the soft views would have been wasted on them. They bathed in one another's gaze, and might as well have been eating rissoles from a lay-by chip van.
Over dessert Tom produced a box from an inside pocket. Jane arched a thin eyebrow, wiggled her finger at him. Diamonds glittered in the light of the candles. ‘Got one,' she said smugly.
‘Yes,' nodded Tom, ‘and no. That's an engagement ring. It's a token of a contract. This is an engagement present. It's because I love you. And because, in a public place, this is the only way I can show you how much without being prosecuted.'
He put it on the table between them. After a moment she picked it up and opened it. Her face went still.
In mounting anxiety Tom looked from his gift to the
girl and back. ‘You don't like it? It's all right, I'll find something else…'
Her hand slid across his wrist on the table. She had artistic hands: delicate, expressive, and strong enough to beat him at arm-wrestling. She pinned his hand to the tablecloth. ‘Over,' she said quietly, ‘my cold dead body.'
It was a necklace. Jane hadn't much experience of good jewellery – she'd always bought cheap, used extravagantly and given it away when she tired of it. This was something else. ‘It's beautiful.'
‘You like it?'
It wasn't a question she felt the need to answer. She peered closer. ‘It's got a star in it!'
Tom laughed softly. ‘My mother loved that star.'
‘This belongs to your mother?'
‘Not anymore.' She looked up at him, waiting for him to explain. ‘She wants you to have it, Jane. My father bought it for her. She loved it for twenty years, but she hasn't worn it since he died. She won't wear it again. It'd give us both a great deal of pleasure to see you enjoy it.'
A jewel that carried that much family history alarmed her. But Tom was right. It
should
be worn. It was too beautiful to be kept for ever in a box. ‘What is it?'
‘A sapphire.'
‘Sapphires are blue.'
‘Not always.'
‘But they are always valuable.' She made an effort to sit up straight, away from the grey-black gem with its golden
many-rayed star. ‘I can't take this. Tom, thank Imogen for me, but it's too precious.'
He'd anticipated this. ‘It's a gift,' he said simply. ‘The value doesn't come into it. Tell you what,' he reached for the box, ‘put it on while you're thinking about it.'
She knew what he was doing. He thought that, once she'd worn it, she wouldn't want to give it back. But she lacked the resolve to stop him lacing the gold chain about her throat. ‘Well…maybe for tonight,' she murmured.
It was late before they left The Cavalier. They were the last to go; less scrupulous waiters would have been clearing their throats and tapping their watches. But eventually they realised what the time was, made their apologies and headed across the road to the car park.
People talk about a car coming out of nowhere, but they never do. They're always there, they're just not always very noticeable. Particularly if it's late at night, and you're talking and laughing and you have other things on your mind. And the car in question has no lights on, and the engine is idling barely audibly, and you step out into what you think is a clear road.
The engine roared. By then the car was so close the sound seemed to be all around. The startled couple spun, Tom one way, Jane the other, looking for it; they bumped into one another and clung together like frightened children. The one thing they didn't do was the one thing that might have saved them – pick a direction, any direction, and hurl themselves as far as they could
from the centre of the road. So the car hit them. It hit them both, threw them into the air and hit them again as they came down.
Disasters – real disasters – have a strange effect on the human mind. Time slows right down. There seems to be plenty of it, for making and filing observations, for rational thought. Jane, lying in the dark road with Tom's arm across her throat and one of her own legs twisted under her body, thought:
He must have been drinking. He must have left The Cavalier just ahead of us, and because he'd been drinking he forgot to put his headlights on. The police will throw the book at him.
And only after that did she think:
I hope we're all right.
After the second impact the car stopped. Jane's sideways view of the lit windows of The Cavalier was momentarily occulted by a pair of legs. The man stooped over her.
She said quite clearly, ‘Get help. At the restaurant. Call an ambulance.'
She thought he was shocked too, that he couldn't take in what she was saying. She tried again. ‘Call an ambulance. Don't touch us. Get help.'
Her handbag was still over her shoulder. She felt the strap tug and pull free. She saw the stooped figure take the watch from Tom's outflung arm and then rifle his pockets for his wallet. Then he turned back to her.
‘And that.'
They were the only words he ever spoke to her. But he lifted her head by the hair and fumbled for the catch at the nape of her neck. Not shocked at all – he knew
better than to break the necklace with a snatch. He freed it carefully, and used her hair to wipe her blood off it, and then he let go of her. The sick crack as her head hit the tarmac yet again was the last thing she knew.
Brodie Farrell was the perfect person to meet off a plane. There was no missing her. She was tall and striking, with a plume of dark, curly hair tossing about her shoulders. And usually she was the centre of a knot of people. Sometimes she had to ask for assistance. But usually it was volunteered, as even busy people made their days harder in order to make hers easier. It was absurd. She was a woman in her mid-thirties, as strong and capable of looking after herself as she would ever be, yet people she'd never met danced attendance on her, as if she was something special. A natural-born VIP. It was laughable. But as it was also convenient she did nothing to break the spell.
Today, though, the magic had failed. There was no little press of people wanting to serve her. Which was a pity, because today she could have used some help. She had a tired, fractious baby and a month's worth of luggage, and she was exhausted by the long flight and the hard weeks that had preceded it. This, of course, was why she was left to fend for herself. Exhausted, she looked pretty much like everyone else.
Except to Daniel Hood. However tired and grey she was,
for Daniel she would always stand out in any crowd. He saw her the moment she came through the door. If he'd had his back turned – if he'd been blindfolded – he'd have sensed her presence. She lived on his nerves. Though he worried about her a lot, he was never worried that something might have happened to her. If something bad happened to her, even on the far side of the world, he would know.
He hurried to help with her burdens. She didn't see him until he reached to take Jonathan. She was dead on her feet. He hadn't seen her for almost a month. She looked years older.
He knew what her first words would be. And she didn't disappoint; or only in a way.
‘Where's Jack?'
‘He couldn't make it. He's in court.'
She fixed him with a predatory eye. She was taller than him, so it felt a bit like a rabbit's-eye view of a stooping hawk. ‘Couldn't
make
it?' she echoed imperiously. ‘He's in
court?'
‘Brodie, he had no choice,' said Daniel patiently. ‘It's a murder trial, he was called this morning. He sent me.'
Her look said,
Oh great.
‘Where's the car?'
Daniel gave her back the baby, took the luggage. ‘In Haywards Heath. It'll be easier to take the train from here. I've got the tickets…'
‘What you mean is,' she said nastily, ‘you still don't like driving in heavy traffic.'
He didn't deny it. But it was also true that the railway platform was closer than the car park, and if she hadn't been so tired Brodie would have thought it was a good
idea too. Instead she said sourly, ‘Go on then – let's join the wage slaves.'
When they were settled, with Jonathan asleep on his lap, Daniel said quietly, ‘Do you want to talk about it? Or shall we wait till we get home?'
In fact, all he didn't already know were details. He knew where she'd travelled in the States, the hospitals she'd visited, the neurosurgeons she'd talked to. He knew what they'd told her. The reputable ones told her the odds were too long.
A month earlier she'd left, full of hope and enthusiasm, sure she'd find someone able and willing to perform the surgery that would save her child's life. Money would be an issue but not an obstacle. She and Jonathan's father were both prepared to sell their homes to finance anything with a realistic chance of success. In fact, Daniel was too. A brain tumour might kill Jonathan Farrell but lack of funds wouldn't. It was the one bit of good fortune he'd had in his short life.
Now they were back, failure written in every line of Brodie's face. She'd had setbacks before. She'd been told, by people she respected, that they'd run out of viable options. But she'd always clung on to some hope. With all the baggage that she'd lugged back from America, it seemed she'd left that hope behind.
‘There's nothing to talk about,' she said wearily. ‘The tumour is inoperable. Everyone who knew a scalpel from a screwdriver told me the same thing.'
She didn't say it as if it was her baby's death sentence. But Daniel wasn't shocked. Firstly, because he'd known her
too well for too long to be surprised by much that she did. And secondly, because he knew she'd have done all her raging, all her grieving, in private.
Halfway through her trip the outcome was already clear – that the best advice a continent had to offer was the last advice she wanted to hear. She'd had time for it to sink in. Not to come to terms with it – no one ever comes to terms with such a thing – but to build walls in her mind to section off the horror so it wouldn't rampage through every corner of her life. It was immense, unbearable and inescapable. The walls were to protect her. They weren't bombproof. Some days they seemed to have been fashioned from paper, so that a cautious finger put out to test their strength would have gone straight through. But whatever protection they could offer, she needed.
‘I'm sorry,' said Daniel softly. His pale-grey eyes, sheltered by thick glasses, brimmed with compassion.
Someone else might have argued. Might have thought she needed cheering up, that even false hope was better than none at all. But there was no room between them for lies. If Brodie had found the courage to face the truth it would be an insult to tell her anything different. If the best paediatric neurosurgeons on two continents could do nothing to help it was certain that Daniel Hood, sometime maths teacher, couldn't do any better. Except that he could be there for her. That was the story of his life: not doing but being. Finally, the one thing he could offer might be the thing she needed most.
As the train picked up speed Brodie seemed to nod off, and Daniel turned his attention to the baby he was
cradling. Slumbering, his tired restlessness was stilled, his thin cries silenced. Now the funny white eyes were gone there was nothing about him – no hideous growths or disfigurements – to mark him as different, as doomed. But Daniel had seen him grow less substantial with every week that passed. He was pale and listless, his cheerful complacency giving way to a sad dullness, as if now he lacked the energy to complain. Sixteen months old, he seemed like a tiny pensioner, beginning to find life more trouble than it was worth.
Daniel had been wrong. Brodie wasn't asleep, she was watching them. She said quietly, ‘Do you see much change in him?'
‘A little,' admitted Daniel. ‘Brodie—'
She anticipated his question. ‘They said to bring him home and make him comfortable. They said I wasn't going to have him much longer, and to make the most of it.'
Her honesty rocked him. He tried not to let it show. ‘What did you tell them?'
This was the human being who knew her better than any on Earth – better than her ex-husband, better than Jonathan's father. He hadn't been with her when the world's experts on retinoblastoma demolished her hopes with a few carefully chosen sentences, but he might as well have been.
‘I made a bit of a scene,' she remembered. ‘It really wasn't what I was expecting. Not the first time, not even the second. The whole world of medical science, it's like a cavalry charge – full speed ahead, unstoppable. You read constantly of the things they can do this week that they
couldn't do last week, of the things they'll be able to do by the end of the month, and you think that nothing is impossible. They've mapped the human genome. They can produce cells in a Petri dish that can be turned into heart cells, or liver cells, or brain cells, and set about curing life-threatening diseases from the inside. They can perform surgery with beams of light instead of knives.
‘And you think the answer you need has to be out there somewhere. It's only a little cancer. The whole baby isn't very big. How can all these experts be beaten? But they were.' There was a kind of wonder in her voice.
Instinctively Daniel held the sick child closer, as if he could protect the tiny body with his own. But he couldn't. Not from this.
‘I haven't given up, you know,' Brodie said sharply.
‘Of course not.'
‘I mean it. So surgery isn't the answer. There are other things. One day chemotherapy will replace surgery entirely. Everyone says so. The precise combination of drugs that will save Jonathan's life may be sitting on someone's lab bench right now. I'll find them.'
Daniel felt his heart sink. ‘Maybe you will.' She'd spent the last six months alternately trawling the internet and touring the world, taking the weakening child to appointments in San Francisco and Geneva and Johannesburg, only to receive one gentle rebuff after another. He'd hoped she would give up now, make the most of whatever time was left to them.
Brodie heard the note of censure he'd tried to keep out of his voice and her pointed chin came up in a kind of
tired belligerence. ‘This is what I do, Daniel, remember? I find things. Things that other people think are gone for good. But I find them. If they're out there at all, I can find them. I can do this. For Jonathan? Damn right I can.'
‘I'm not doubting you,' said Daniel softly. ‘But I don't want you blaming yourself if you can't find something that actually isn't there yet – that might exist in another year or five years, but doesn't exist yet.'
‘It
does
exist,' she insisted with the stubborn sophistry of the very desperate. ‘Somewhere. It has to.'
He said no more. He hoped that when the jet lag subsided she'd be more open to reason.
He'd felt the same way when she got back from Geneva, and from Johannesburg.
In the end the defendant changed his plea. Detective Superintendent Jack Deacon supposed it was the sight of the girl in the wheelchair waiting to give her evidence that did it. Perhaps the defence team had thought she'd bottle out, or be too frail to take the stand. But Deacon had got to know her over the last nine months, knew she'd be up there telling what happened if she had to drag herself into the witness box on her hands and knees.
Robert Carson's counsel must have come to the same conclusion, and realised how it would look; that this was a man sufficiently depraved not only to mow down a young couple in his car, not only to rob them while they lay broken-bodied in the gutter, but to make a crippled girl relive the worst moments of her life rather than admit to doing what the dogs in the street knew he'd done. They'd
had a serious word with him after opening submissions. As soon as the court reconvened they asked for the charges to be put again, and this time Carson pleaded guilty.
The first thing Deacon did was look at his watch. But it was too late to head for Gatwick. They'd be on their way home by now. If Daniel hadn't got lost.
Deacon returned to his office in Battle Alley, meaning to immerse himself in work. In fact, though he had plenty to do, all he did was stare at the papers spread across his desk until the print blurred and ran. It might have been cuneiform, reporting crimes in ancient Ur.
Finally a hand closed the file he was peering at. Deacon blinked and checked where his own had got to; but they were still where he'd left them, one each side of the anachronistic blotter, half circling the reading matter in a protective embrace like harbour walls. So someone else had recognised the pointlessness of what he was doing and rescued him from it.
Detective Sergeant Voss said quietly, ‘Why don't you go to her house and put the kettle on? They'll be back soon, and she'll be desperate for a cup of tea.'
Deacon gave a bear-like shrug. He growled, ‘There are things that need doing.'
‘Yes, there are,' agreed Voss with a solemn nod of his ginger head. ‘And I'd be able to get on with them if you'd stop cluttering the place up. Go and meet Brodie. See if there's any news.'
‘There isn't,' said Deacon. He made no effort to move. ‘I talked to her last night. Nobody's holding out much hope at all.'
‘All the more reason you should be there when she gets home.' Charlie Voss was more than twenty years younger than his boss. All they had in common was the job. In spite of which, a relationship had developed between them that was as close to friendship as Deacon was probably capable of. Voss talked to his superintendent in ways that would have prompted Deacon to throw anyone else out of his office, then follow him along the landing in order to kick him downstairs.
This was less to do with Deacon having a soft spot for his sergeant – general consensus at Battle Alley was that The Grizzly didn't
have
any soft spots: not for his officers, his partner or even his sick baby – than with Voss's management skills. Like the best butlers he knew when to listen, when to speak and when to speak frankly; and even Deacon had eventually realised that it was no coincidence that his professional life had suddenly got both easier and more productive. A good sergeant is indispensable to a superintendent. It wasn't just that Voss's legs were younger than his own. Sometimes his brain was quicker. And he was better with people. Deacon thought of people as a necessary evil. Voss understood that they were what made the job worth doing.

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