Roy is a conman waiting to pull off the final coup of his career. Betty is a wealthy widow finding herself lured into his path. Read an extract from Nicholas Searle’s The Good Liar, a menacing psychological thriller with a clever, twisting ending you wont see coming.
Mistletoe and Wine
Here they come. The innocents abroad, toddling down the street. The sun has got his hat on and all is well with the world. They tumble and rush shrilly over the cobbles, ties askew, satchels flying, shirts out of trousers, hair tousled. School shoes clatter on ancient stone as they find their way down cut-throughs from the school towards the pedestrian shopping zone, flowing like liquid, and young voices clamour and vie in excitement.
The girls come more slowly, and more neatly. Well, girls always are better-behaved, more circumspect. Except for the naughty ones. And they can be very naughty. Oh yes. The Green is bathed in placid sunlight, with its refuges of shade under the venerable trees. This is how it has been for centuries: young people flooding out of the cathedral school with not a thought, brimming with life, eager to resume their dodges and weaves, while old men regard them with ill-disguised envy from their mews cottages and contemplate bitterly their own youth.
With interest but no compassion, he watches them from his chair in the corner of the living room. The girls are particularly fascinating. Boys of secondary school age are mere blustering rhinos, carried on a wave of hormonal surges of which they are the helpless victims and to which they are utterly oblivious. Their female peers have gained an awareness. And with awareness comes uncertainty, expressed in various ways. The plain and studious invest their faith that diligence and intelligence may help them to navigate the hor- rors, away from loneliness and failure. The fresh-faced, pretty girls of the class – pretty vacuous too, most of them – sense inchoately that their attractiveness may be ephemeral and dependent on the vagaries of their coming physical development. And the little tarts, who aren’t especially clever but are smart enough to know that they aren’t bright or in the first ranks of prettiness, use cunning, hitching up their skirts as soon as they leave the house, teasing the males. They know that thing called sex lurks somewhere close by; and they quickly learn their power. Oh yes.
Now the older ones. Pimply youths with lank long hair and doleful expressions dance attendance on unattainable girls. Roy likes the girls’ disdain, though his scorn for the hopeless male specimens exceeds even the girls’. With flashed mascara glances between them – they tend to walk in pairs – and grins that are intended to appear shy but which Roy knows to be smirks, the girls disguise their feelings.
He cannot see himself in the boys. You fools, he thinks; you fools. I was not one of you. I was bold and handsome. I did not falter or trip. He is no longer fifteen. Or fifty, or eighty for that matter. But your instincts never change. Once a charmer, ineffably attractive to the opposite sex, always a charmer. He could not help it even if he wanted to.
There she is. The one he has selected for singular attention. Regulation short black skirt and black tights encasing slender womanly legs. The tights are at odds with the school uniform, yet, he thinks knowingly, perfectly congruent given context. Perhaps fifteen, maybe as young as a well-developed thirteen; they grow so quickly these days. Petite anyway, with that wild blonde-streaked Medusa hair that seems never to go out of fashion. Eyeshadow daubed inexpertly but to good effect from where he is sitting. She thinks she is a rebel, an individual, but she is simply treading a familiar path to eventual conformity. If only he were younger he could teach her a thing or two. She might feign haughtiness and indifference, a languorous pretence of experience. She might be enthusiastic as she ventured on the path of discovery, but eventually she would show fear. Roy can deal with fear. Oh yes.
Stephen, meanwhile, is running late. Story of his life. He has promised to deliver some books to Betty and then he must be back for a meeting with Gerald at six that is sure to be gruelling. He can predict the questions: Everything on track? All the corners covered? All the boxes ticked? Let’s just sit down and make doubly sure, shall we? This project is pretty damned important, after all.To be honest, the questions are pertinent and Stephen requires supervision. This, not Gerald, is what troubles Stephen. Gerald is all right, though he does revel somewhat in his position. The fundamental issue is, though, that Stephen does not know whether everything is on track. He can’t see the track, let alone the corners. He hasn’t yet worked out what the boxes are that need to be ticked. This thing seems to have a life of its own.
Project management is not Stephen’s thing. Management isn’t his thing. Purpose, mental exertion, careful research, the joy of winkling out new facts that change the terrain, a sense of creating something worthwhile, these are the important things, not dry process. Gerald is a necessary evil, he supposes. What would he do without him?
He finds the alleyway between the chemist’s and the estate agent’s that connects the new town with the old and hastens up it from standard issue high street to centuries-old cobblestones and the Green. The clock is chiming the half-hour somewhere behind the screen of oaks whose leaves rustle in the breeze and dapple the sunlight, casting undulating light and shade over the fine verdant carpet.
It is a gorgeous day in England, one of few so far this summer. The sun is high in a blue sky and pristine white powder-puff clouds skim on the breeze. Children swarm busily from their daily endeavours, the adrenalin of release fuelling their exuberance. At a distance their uniforms look neat and tidy but as he approaches he can see that the demands of the day, as well as sundry attempts to declaim individuality, have taken their toll. Blazers are tossed on shoulders, shirts are crumpled and grubby, shoes are scuffed. And there is the smell of schoolchildren, their sweat and urine and dirt intermingled with heavy-duty synthetic fabrics and that odd faint reek that seeps from the institution itself, combining the almost metallic smell of cleaning fluid and polish with the aroma of dusty wooded age exuding from its parquet floors and the august panelling of the main hall. There is a cheeriness about the children that bolsters his optimism. He passes through the melee of boys and behind them are the various phalanxes of girls, more cliquey, quieter, more guarded. Older in fact, and more self-aware.
Stephen is careful to be careful about the way he regards the girls, for he knows of the suspicion of every male that must reside in each female heart these days. Was it ever so? He does not know but cannot risk his look being mistaken for a leer. He is interested in the phenomenon of youth, though not quite sure why. It could be simple curiosity about the human condition, piqued by these young things in that phase of growing, as they observe, mimic, experiment, revise, adapt and finally begin to achieve identity. Perhaps it is because he himself has not yet completed that final phase, despite pushing thirty.
Across the Green he sees a young girl, maybe fourteen, walking on her own, gawky, uncertain, meaninglessly defiant. Her skirt is short, her eyes blackened, her chin juts with attitude, yet she is just a child and in her eyes he sees fear. Her affectation provokes a series of emotions: a flood of something he can only think of as love, an acknowledgement of her vulnerability and a desire, despite his powerlessness to do so and the absurdity of the proposition, to protect. He examines his motives, searching for the shadow of lust contorted into more palatable expressions. He can honestly say that it does not lurk, but it is interesting that he needs to check.
And then he sees him, in Betty’s chair by the window. Roy, who has been living at Betty’s for two months now. Those lizard eyes are fixed on this girl, acquisitive, hungry. She continues to walk, oblivious as she composes a text. As she passes Stephen, Roy sees him and their eyes lock. Inside a second Roy’s expression changes from incredulity to hostility and finally to the sad old man harmlessly passing his days looking out on the world. Roy smiles experimentally and Stephen returns the smile, waving diffidently. He thinks: I know you. However much I dislike you.
‘I’d be very careful if I were you,’ says Roy when Stephen enters the room.
‘Sorry?’ says Stephen.
‘I said you want to be careful,’ repeats Roy, jerking his head theatrically towards the window.
Stephen frowns in puzzlement, opens his mouth to say something, but thinks better of it. Roy’s eyes are on his face.
He says, ‘Cup of tea?’
‘Don’t mind if I do,’ replies Roy, leaning back in his chair again.
When Stephen has brought the mugs of tea – terracotta-strong with three sugars for Roy, milky-white with none for himself – Roy resumes.
He says, ‘Can’t be too careful.’
The words hang in the air for a moment. ‘Er, yes,’ says Stephen finally. ‘Pardon?’
Away with the fairies, thinks Roy. Mind off somewhere else.
Hopeless. All over the place. Typical academic. ‘Misunderstandings,’ he says.
‘Oh, yes,’ says Stephen, inattentive, smiling weakly. ‘Yes.’ ‘Don’t patronize me, son.’
Stephen stares at him blankly and says nothing. ‘Betty not around?’ he comes up with finally.
Roy backs off. Like being cruel to a puppy. Not, necessarily, that that would stop him. But Stephen bores him. Unlikely to be any sport there. ‘No,’ he says. ‘Out meeting a friend for tea.’
‘Oh, right. Any idea when she’ll be back?’
‘Oh no. She’s a law to herself, that one.’ Roy chuckles. ‘I’m not her keeper.’
‘No. Of course not.’
‘You in a hurry? You seem distracted.’
‘A lot on at the moment. I just dropped by with these books I promised Betty.’ He holds out the orange carrier bag as evidence. ‘She said she’d like to borrow them.’
‘Oh yes,’ says Roy, looking at him steadily.
Stephen places himself on the edge of the sofa, leaning forward, elbows on thighs, jacket still on despite the heat, ready to leave.
After a pause Roy asks, ‘Your work going OK?’
‘Fine,’ replies Stephen. ‘It’s going well. I’m on my way to a meet- ing with my supervisor, actually.’
‘Hard taskmaster, is he?’
‘He’s all right, Gerald. Keeps me on the straight and narrow. I need that.’
‘I can see that,’ says Roy, and they fall silent. ‘What is it exactly you’re studying?’
‘The Jacobite Rebellion,’ says Stephen eagerly. ‘Specifically John Graham, his role in the instigation of the movement and his influence on the Fifteen and the Forty-Five.’
‘It’s a pivotal period in our history, with the Hanoverian succession and the struggle between Scottish Catholicism and Presbyterianism.’
‘Very interesting I’m sure. I never was one for history. Not the academic type. What’s the point of looking back? I ask myself. What’s done is done in my humble opinion. You’ll never undo it.’
‘But you may begin to understand it.’
‘Oh yes. I suppose so. I don’t mean to knock it,’ says Roy. ‘I bow to your greater knowledge. Just not for me, that’s all. All that living in the past.’
The clock ticks, measuring the distance between them. ‘Oh well,’ says Roy, ‘each to his own.’
‘I’d better be getting on,’ says Stephen. ‘I said I’d be at Gerald’s by six.’ ‘Righty-ho,’ says Roy, and turns to the window again. In his head Stephen has already left.