Husbands secret, p.13
‘Oh, well, we actually lost her, a few years ago.’ He sounded apologetic. ‘A heart attack. She was only fifty. Very fit and healthy, so it was . . . a shock. I’m Benjamin’s guardian.’
‘God, I’m so sorry, Connor.’ Tess’s voice fractured with the unexpectedness of it. The world was a desperately sad place. Hadn’t he been especially close to his sister? What was her name? Lisa. It was Lisa.
‘A coffee would be great,’ she said suddenly, impulsively. ‘You can pick my brain. For what it’s worth.’ She wasn’t the only one suffering. People lost their loved ones. Husbands fell in love with other people. Besides, a coffee with someone entirely unrelated to her current life would be the perfect distraction. Connor Whitby was not creepy. ‘That’d be great,’ Connor smiled. She didn’t remember him having such an attractive smile. He lifted his helmet. ‘I’ll call, or email.’
‘Okay, do you need my –’ The petrol pump clicked to indicate the tank was full, and Tess lifted the nozzle out and placed it back on the bowser.
‘You’re a St Angela’s mum now,’ said Connor. ‘I can track you down.’
‘Oh. Good.’ A St Angela’s mum. She felt strangely exposed. She turned to face him with her car keys and wallet in her hand.
‘Like your PJs by the way.’ Connor looked her up and down and grinned.
‘Thanks,’ said Tess. ‘I like your bike. I don’t remember you riding one.’ Didn’t he drive a boring little sedan of some sort?
‘It’s my midlife crisis.’
‘I think my husband is having one of those,’ said Tess.
‘Hope it’s not costing you too much,’ said Connor.
Tess shrugged. Ha ha. She looked at the bike again and said, ‘When I was seventeen, my mother said she would pay me five hundred dollars if I signed a contract promising never to go on the back of a boy’s motorbike.’
‘Did you sign it?’
‘Never breached the contract?’
‘I’m forty-five,’ said Connor. ‘Not exactly a boy.’
Their eyes met. Was this conversation becoming . . . flirtatious? She remembered waking up next to him, in a plain white room with a window that looked out on a busy highway. Didn’t he have a waterbed? Hadn’t she and Felicity laughed themselves silly over that? He wore a St Christopher medallion that dangled over her face when they made love. All at once she felt nauseous. Miserable. This was a mistake.
Connor seemed to recognise the change in her mood.
‘Anyway, Tess, I’ll give you a call sometime about that coffee.’ He put his helmet back on, revved his bike, lifted a black-gloved hand and roared off.
Tess watched him go, and it occurred to her with a jolt that she’d had her first ever orgasm on that ridiculous waterbed. Actually, now she thought about it, there had been a few other firsts in that bed too. Slosh, slosh, went the bed. Sex, especially for a good Catholic girl like Tess, had been so raw and dirty and new back then.
As she walked into the brightly lit service station to pay for the petrol, she glanced up and caught sight of herself in a security mirror. Her face, she noticed, was very pink.
‘You’ve read it then,’ said John-Paul.
Cecilia looked at him as if she’d never seen him before. A middle-aged man who had once been very handsome and still was, to her at least. John-Paul had one of those honest, trustworthy faces. You’d buy a used car from John-Paul. That famous Fitzpatrick jaw. All the Fitzpatrick boys had strong jaws. He had a good head of hair, grey and thick. He was still vain about his hair. He liked to blow-dry it. His brothers gave him hell about that. He stood at the door of the study, wearing his blue and white striped boxer shorts and a red T-shirt. His face was pale and sweaty, as if he had food poisoning.
She hadn’t heard him come down from the attic, or walk down the hallway. She didn’t know how long he’d been standing there, while she sat, staring unseeingly at her hands, which she saw now were clasped angelically in her lap, like a little girl in church.
‘I’ve read it,’ she said.
She pulled the sheet of paper over to her and read it again, slowly, as if this time, now that John-Paul was standing in front of her, it would surely say something different.
It was written in blue ballpoint pen on a lined piece of paper. It felt ridged, like braille. He must have pressed hard with his pen, as if he was trying to engrave each word into the paper. There were no paragraphs or spaces. The words were crammed together without a break.
My darling Cecilia,
If you’re reading this, then I’ve died, which sounds so melodramatic to write down, but I guess everyone dies. You’re in the hospital right now, with our baby girl, Isabel. She was born early this morning. She’s so beautiful and tiny and helpless. I’ve never felt anything like what I felt when I held her for the first time. I’m already terrified that something will happen to her. And that’s why I have to write this down. Just in case something does happen to me, at least I have done this. At least I could have tried to make it right. I’ve had a few beers. I might not be making sense. I probably will tear this letter up. Cecilia, I have to tell you that when I was seventeen I killed Janie Crowley. If her parents are still alive, will you please tell them that I’m sorry and that it was an accident. It wasn’t planned. I lost my temper. I was seventeen and so fucking stupid. I can’t believe it was me. It feels like a nightmare. It feels like I must have been on drugs, or drunk, but I wasn’t. I was perfectly sober. I just snapped. I had a brain snap, like those idiot rugby players say. It sounds like I’m trying to justify it, but I’m not trying to make excuses. I did this unimaginable thing and I can’t explain it. I know what you’re thinking, Cecilia, because everything is black and white for you. You’re thinking, why didn’t he confess? But you know why I couldn’t go to jail, Cecilia. You know I couldn’t be locked up. I know I’m a coward. That’s why I tried to kill myself when I was eighteen but I didn’t have the balls to go through with it. Please tell Ed and Rachel Crowley that I never went a day without thinking of their daughter. Tell them it happened so fast. Janie was laughing just seconds before. She was happy right up until the end. Maybe that just sounds awful. It does sound awful. Don’t tell them that. It was an accident, Cecilia. Janie told me she was in love with some other kid and then she laughed at me. That’s all she did. I lost my mind. Please tell the Crowleys that I’m so sorry, I couldn’t be sorrier. Please tell Ed Crowley that now I’m a dad I understand exactly what I’ve done. The guilt has been like a tumour eating away at me, and now it’s worse than ever. I’m so sorry to leave you with this, Cecilia, but I know you’re strong enough to handle it. I love you and our baby so much, and you’ve given me more happiness than I ever deserved. I deserved nothing and I got everything.
I’m so sorry.
With all my love,
Cecilia thought she’d experienced anger before, plenty of times, but now she knew that she’d had no idea how real anger felt. The white-hot burning purity of it. It was a frantic, crazy, wonderful feeling. She felt like she could fly. She could fly across the room, like a demon, and claw bloody scratch marks down John-Paul’s face.
‘Is it true?’ she said. She was disappointed by the sound of her voice. It was weak. It didn’t sound like it came from someone who was wild with anger.
‘Is it true?’ she said again, stronger.
She knew it was true, but her desire for it not to be true was so overpowering, she had to ask. She wanted to beg for it to be made untrue.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. His eyes were bloodshot and rolling about like a terrified horse.
‘But you’d never,’ said Cecilia. ‘You wouldn’t. You couldn’t.’
‘I can’t explain it.’
‘You didn’t even know Janie Crowley.’ She corrected herself. ‘I didn’t even know you knew her. You never even mentioned her.’
At the mention of Janie’s name, John
‘If you’d died,’ she said. ‘If you’d died and I’d found this letter –’
She stopped. She couldn’t breathe for the fury.
‘How could you just leave that for me? Leave me to do that for you? Expect me to turn up on Rachel Crowley’s doorstep and tell her . . . this . . . thing?’ She stood up, covered her face with her hands and turned around in circles. She was naked, she noted without particular interest. Her T-shirt had ended up at the bottom of the bed after they’d had sex and she hadn’t bothered to find it. ‘I drove Rachel home tonight! I drove her home! I talked to her about Janie! I thought I was so great for telling her this memory I had of Janie, and all the time this letter was sitting here.’ She removed her hands and looked at him. ‘What if one of the girls had found it, John-Paul?’ That had only just occurred to her. It was so momentous, so dreadful, she had to say it again. ‘What if one of the girls had found it?’
‘I know,’ he whispered. He came into the room and stood with his back up against the wall and looked at her as if he was facing a firing squad. ‘I’m sorry.’
She watched as his legs gave way and he slid to the carpet to a sitting position.
‘Why would you write it?’ She picked up the corner of the letter and dropped it again. ‘How could you put something like that in writing?’
‘I’d had too much to drink, and then the next day I tried to find it so I could tear it up.’ He looked up at her tearfully. ‘And I’d lost it. I nearly lost my mind looking for it. I must have been working on my tax return and then it got caught up in some of the papers. I thought I’d looked –’
‘Stop it!’ she shouted. She couldn’t bear to hear him talking with his usual hopeless wonder about the way things got lost and then turned up again, as if this letter was something perfectly ordinary, like an unpaid car insurance bill.
John-Paul put a finger to his lips. ‘You’ll wake the girls,’ he said tremulously.
His nervousness made her feel sick. Be a man, she wanted to scream. Make this go away. Take this thing off me! It was a disgusting, ugly, horrible creature he needed to destroy. It was an impossibly heavy box he needed to lift from her arms. And he wasn’t doing anything.
A tiny voice floated down the hallway. ‘Daddy!’
It was Polly, their lightest sleeper. She always called for her father. Cecilia would not do. Only her father could make the monsters go away. Only her father. Her father who had killed a seventeen-year-old girl. Her father who was a monster himself. Her father who had kept this evil, unspeakable secret for all these years. It was like she hadn’t fully comprehended any of it until this moment.
The shock winded her. She collapsed into the black leather chair.
‘Coming, Polly!’ John-Paul got slowly to his feet, using the wall to support himself. He gave Cecilia a desperate look, and headed down the hallway towards Polly’s room.
Cecilia focused on her breathing. In through the nostrils. She saw Janie Crowley’s twelve-year-old face. ‘It’s only stupid marching.’ Out through the mouth. She saw the grainy black and white picture of Janie that had appeared on the front cover of the newspapers, a long blonde ponytail falling down one shoulder. All murder victims looked exactly like murder victims: beautiful, innocent and doomed, as if it was preordained. In through the nostrils. She saw Rachel Crowley gently banging her forehead against the car window. Out through the mouth. What to do, Cecilia? What to do? How could she fix it? How could she make it right? She fixed things. She made things right. She put things in order. All you had to do was pick up the phone, get on the internet, fill in the right forms, talk to the right people, arrange the refund, the replacement, the better model.
Except that nothing would ever bring Janie back. Her mind kept returning to that one cold, immovable, awful fact, like an enormous wall that couldn’t be crossed.
She began ripping the letter into tiny pieces.
Confess. John-Paul would have to confess. That was obvious. He would have to come clean. Make it all clean and shiny. Scrub it away. Follow the rules. The law. He’d have to go to prison. He’d have to be sentenced. A sentence. Put behind bars. But he couldn’t be locked up. He’d lose his mind. So, then, medication, therapy. She’d talk to people. Do the research. He wouldn’t be the first prisoner with claustrophobia. Weren’t those cells actually quite spacious? They had exercise yards, didn’t they?
Claustrophobia didn’t actually kill you. It just made you feel like you couldn’t breathe.
Whereas two hands placed around the neck could kill you.
He’d strangled Janie Crowley. He’d actually put his hands around her thin girlish neck and squeezed. Didn’t that make him evil? Yes. The answer had to be yes. John-Paul was evil.
She kept tearing at the letter, shredding the pieces into tinier and tinier fragments until she could roll them between her fingertips.
Her husband was evil. So, therefore he must go to jail. Cecilia would be the wife of a prisoner. She wondered if there was a social club for the wives. She’d set one up if there wasn’t. She giggled hysterically, like a crazy woman. Of course she would! She was Cecilia. She’d be president of the Prisoners Wives Association and organise fundraising for airconditioning units to be put in their poor husbands’ cells. Did prisons have airconditioning? Or was it just primary schools that missed out? She imagined chatting with the other wives while they waited to go through the metal detectors. ‘What’s your husband in for? Oh, bank robbery? Really? Mine’s in for murder. Yep, strangled a girl. Off to the gym after this, are you?’
‘She’s gone back off,’ said John-Paul. He’d returned to the study, standing in front of her, massaging little circles under his cheekbones, the way he did when he was exhausted.
He didn’t look evil. He looked just like her husband. Unshaven. Messy hair. Shadows under his eyes. Her husband. The father of her children.
If he’d killed someone once, what was to stop him doing it again? She’d just let him go into Polly’s room. She’d just let a murderer go into her daughter’s room.
But it was John-Paul! Their father. He was Daddy.
How could they tell the girls what John-Paul had done?
Daddy is going to jail.
For a moment her mind stopped completely.
They could never tell the girls.
‘I’m so sorry,’ said John-Paul. He held out his arms uselessly, as if he wanted to hold her but they were separated by something too vast to be crossed. ‘Darling, I’m just so sorry.’
Cecilia wrapped her arms around her naked body. She trembled violently. Her teeth chattered. I’m having a nervous breakdown, she thought with relief. I’m about to lose my mind, and that’s just as well because this cannot possibly be fixed. It is simply not fixable.
Rachel hit the pause button so that Connor Whitby’s angry face was frozen on the screen. It was the face of a monster. His eyes were evil black holes. His lips were pulled back in a rabid sneer. Rachel had watched the footage four times now, and each time she became more convinced. It was, she thought, quite stunningly conclusive. Show this to any jury and they’d convict.
She turned to look at former Sergeant Rodney Bellach sitting on her couch, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, and caught him flattening his hand across his mouth to stifle a yawn.
Well, it was the middle of the night. Sergeant Bellach – ‘You can just call me plain old Rodney now,’ he kept telling her – had obviously been deeply asleep when she’d called. His wife had answered the phone and Rachel had overheard her trying to wake him up. ‘Rodney. Rodney. It’s for you!’ When he finally got on the phone, his voice had been thick and slurred with sleep. ‘I’ll be right there, Mrs Crowley,’ he’d finally said, when she’d made him understand, and as he put down t
His wife sounded like a right old nag.
It probably could have waited until the morning, reflected Rachel now as she saw Rodney valiantly struggling to repress another massive yawn and rubbing his knuckles into his bleary eyes. At least he would have been more alert then. He really didn’t look well at all. Apparently he’d recently been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. He’d made some dramatic changes to his diet. He’d mentioned all this as they’d sat down to watch the video. ‘Completely cut out all sugar,’ he’d said sadly. ‘No more ice cream for dessert.’
‘Mrs Crowley,’ he said finally. ‘I can certainly see why you would think that this proves Connor had a motive of some sort, but I have to be honest with you, I just don’t think it’s enough to convince the boys to take a second look.’
‘He was in love with her!’ said Rachel. ‘He was in love with her and she was rejecting him.’
‘Your daughter was a very pretty girl,’ said Sergeant Bellach. ‘Probably a lot of boys were in love with her.’
Rachel was gobsmacked. How had she never noticed that Rodney was so stupid? So obtuse? Had the diabetes affected his IQ? Had the lack of ice cream shrunk his brain?
‘But Connor wasn’t just any boy. He was the last one to see her before she died,’ she said slowly and carefully to make sure he understood.
‘He had an alibi.’
‘His mother was his alibi!’ said Rachel. ‘She lied, obviously!’
‘And his mother’s boyfriend backed it up too,’ said Rodney. ‘But more importantly, there was a neighbour who saw Connor put out the rubbish bin at five pm. The neighbour was a very reliable witness. A solicitor and a father of three. I remember every detail of Janie’s case, Mrs Crowley. I can assure you, if I thought we had anything –’
‘Lies in his eyes!’ interrupted Rachel. ‘You said Connor Whitby had lies in his eyes. Well, you were right! You were exactly right!’
Rodney said, ‘But, see, all this proves is that they had a little tiff.’
‘A little tiff!’ cried Rachel. ‘Look at that boy’s face! He killed her! I know he killed her. I know it in my heart, in my . . .’ She was going to say ‘body’, but she didn’t want to sound like a loony. It was true, though. Her body was telling her what Connor had done. It was burning all over, as if she had a fever. Even her fingertips felt hot.
‘Well, you know what, I’ll see what I can do, Mrs Crowley,’ said Rodney. ‘I’m not making any promises about whether it will go anywhere, but I can promise you this video will get into the right hands.’
‘Thank you. That’s all I can ask.’ It was a lie. She could ask for a lot more. She wanted a police car with a shrieking whirling siren to race to Connor Whitby’s house right this second. She wanted Connor handcuffed, while a grim-faced burly police officer read him his rights. Oh, and she did not want that police officer to tenderly protect Connor’s head when they put him in the back of the police car. She wanted Connor’s head smashed over and over, until it was nothing but a bloody pulp.
‘How’s that little grandson of yours? Growing up?’ Rodney picked up a framed photo of Jacob from the mantelpiece while Rachel ejected the video cassette.
‘He’s going to New York.’ Rachel handed him the cassette.
‘No kidding?’ Rodney took the cassette and carefully replaced Jacob’s photo. ‘My oldest granddaughter is off to New York too. She’s eighteen now. Little Emily. Got herself a scholarship to some top university. The Big Apple they call it, don’t they? Wonder why they call it that?’
Rachel gave him a sickly smile and led him to the front door. ‘I have absolutely no idea, Rodney. No idea at all.’
6 April 1984
On the morning of the last day of her life, Janie Crowley sat next to Connor Whitby on the bus.
She felt strangely breathless, and she tried to calm herself by breathing in slowly with slow, deep breaths from the diaphragm. It didn’t seem to help.
Calm down, she told herself.
‘I’ve got something to say,’ she said.
He didn’t say anything. He never did say much, thought Janie. She watched him studying his hands resting on his knees, and she studied them herself. He had very big hands, she saw with a shiver, of fear or anticipation or both. Her own hands were icy cold. They were always cold. She slid them under her jumper to warm them.
She said, ‘I’ve made a decision.’
He turned his head suddenly to look at her. The bus lurched as it went around a corner and their bodies slid closer, so that their eyes were only inches apart.
She was breathing so fast she wondered if there was something wrong with her.
‘Tell me,’ he said.
Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5.2 out of 5 / Based on83 votes