All text and photos © Louise Marley unless otherwise stated Site Design: Seaweed Hut
Trust Me I Lie
The girl opened the door, just the tiniest crack, and saw a woman lying on a bed of flowers. She wore a long scarlet gown, like the princess in a fairy tale, and looked so beautiful that at first the girl didn’t notice the man standing on the other side of the bed.
The man who was leaning over the woman and whispering.
The man who was holding a knife.
But the man noticed her.
“Come here my little White Rabbit. Don’t be afraid.”
She stayed exactly where she was.
“Don’t you recognise me, my darling?”
She took a step backwards, bumping into someone standing directly behind her.
“Run,” they said, their warm breath tickling her ear. “Run as fast as you can. Go down the stairs and out of the house and into the woods. And don’t stop for anything.”
Eighteen years later
The rain fell thick and fast and hard. It machine-gunned the roof of Ben’s car and bounced off the road in front of him. Not that he could even see the road. He could barely see further than the end of the car.
It was one o’clock in the morning and he was desperate to get home. He’d had enough – of the vile weather, the never-ending journey, but most of all his ex-wife. He’d driven all the way to London, with only enough of a break for them to fight, before he’d got straight back into the car and driven back. Now here he was, five miles from home, without the sole reason he’d put himself through the visit in the first place – his six-year-old daughter, Sophie.
Lightning illuminated the sky like something out of a horror movie. He slowed to 20mph, forcing his fingers to relax their death grip on the steering wheel. There would be other chances to see Sophie. In another four weeks he’d have the dubious pleasure of doing this all over again. He was making far too much of it. After all, it could be worse.
Really? Just how could it be worse? His ex-wife was threatening to take him back to court and he’d narrowly escaped being arrested for a domestic – which would neatly take care of his career. So, right at this very moment, how could his life possibly get any worse?
Another streak of lightning slashed the sky, revealing the miles of unbroken forest reaching down to the river, the almost horizontal rain that was threatening to turn into sleet – and the woman walking in the centre of the road.
It was one of those split second moments that stretched out forever. He saw her terrified expression as her arms went up to protect herself. He saw her tense, awaiting the impact that would surely kill her. He hit the brakes and then he hit her.
The car had gone into a skid, sliding elegantly around as though on ice. He prayed the car would miss her; that she would intuitively throw herself out of harm’s way, but she seemed to have frozen in shock. Then the wing caught her hip, knocking her off her feet and into the air, before the darkness swallowed her whole. The forest blurred as the car spun through 180 degrees and then smashed back into a tree. The impact slammed him forward; his seatbelt jerked him back again.
Seconds passed. Ben took a deep breath, and then another to reassure himself he was alive. The engine had stalled but the wiper blades slashed back and forth at speed. On the radio, Caro Emerald was singing about love and loss. The rain still ricocheted off the car, the road and the sodden lump of rags now huddled there.
During times like this Ben wished he still smoked. He picked up his phone to call emergency services but it was dead. It was hardly surprising. He’d driven to London and back without bothering to charge it. He’d driven to London and back without stopping at all, and here were the consequences: a dead phone and a dead body.
Ben undid his seat belt, shoved open the car door and practically fell out onto the tarmac as his legs threatened to give way beneath him. The rain soaked through his suit in seconds. He couldn’t have been more drenched if someone had upended a barrel of water over him. His torch was somewhere in his car but the headlights were now doing a good enough job of illuminating the road. He did his best to disregard his shredded nerves and forced a cool, professional detachment as he walked out into the road, bent over the body and gently turned it over.
“F … f … fuck!” it said, and sat up.
He fell back in shock, his heart pounding so hard he thought it might burst right out of him. She was alive!
“You hit me!” she shrieked.
Very much alive.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “It was an accident. You really shouldn’t have been – ”
“Understandably, you’re upset – ”
“Upset? Upset! Of course I’m fucking upset!”
“You were walking in the middle of the road,” he felt obliged to point out. “I could hardly have missed you.” Despite the rain, despite the dark, he could see her cheeks were streaked with mascara and she was shaking violently, either from cold or shock, he wasn’t sure which. “Are you in any pain?” he asked.
“What a stupid, b … bloody question! I’ve been hit by a car! What do you think?” But she still held out her hand to him, as imperious as any duchess. “Help me up, you rat-arsed bastard.”
Politely he took hold of her hand and hauled her up, as she qualified that with, “So I can punch you.”
This meant, of course, that he instinctively dropped her.
She was back on her feet in a second, aiming a furious punch in the direction of his stomach. It was easy enough to step back and avoid her, and to block the next blow she sent his way too.
Stoically, he caught hold of her flailing fist. “Have you been drinking?” Surely there couldn’t be any other reason for walking in the middle of the road?
“What do you care?” she snapped back. “You’re not the police.”
“Ah … ”
She stared at him. “Seriously?”
“Seriously,” he agreed.
“Perfect,” she muttered.
Any other time he might have found this exchange entertaining, but the rain was dripping off his eyelashes and the end of his nose. He was tired, miserable and thoroughly pissed off.
Despite all this, he did feel sorry for her. “Are you hurt in any way?” he asked again. “Would you like me to take you to the hospital?”
Even though it was a good twenty minute drive in the opposite direction and, according to the radio, the road was now blocked by a fallen tree.
She appeared to consider this, looking him up and down, presumably trying to judge whether or not he was trustworthy. As she no longer appeared about to inflict grievous bodily harm on him, he released her.
“It’s up to you,” he said. “I’m really not that bothered.”
She rubbed at her wrist, presumably to make him feel guilty. He hadn’t held her that tightly.
“You could offer me a lift to the next village,” she said.
She shrugged. “Whatever.”
She was soaking wet and filthy. She’d ruin the interior of his car. The road back to Norchester was blocked by that tree and the road up ahead was likely to have been flooded out by one of the many tributaries that flowed into the River Hurst. They were never going to get anywhere near Calahurst tonight. Effectively that would mean either being trapped in the car with her for the next few hours, or he’d have to take her back to his own home – he could hardly leave her out in a storm like this. He wouldn’t even leave his ex-wife out in a storm like this.
OK, possibly he might.
“Give me a minute,” he said. “I need to get something to protect the inside of my car.” He’d bought plants for his garden the weekend before and had lined the interior of the boot with plastic to keep it clean. He could put that on the front passenger seat to protect it.
He had enough time to see her mouth the words “Protect the car?” before he walked around to the rear, which was firmly wedged up against a tree.
He swore again. He hadn’t realised the damage was so bad. The bumper was split; one set of lights had smashed, and the boot was squashed in. The exhaust, fortunately, was on the opposite side and undamaged.
It hardly seemed worth worrying about a bit of mud, but when he went back to tell her the good news she’d vanished.
He looked up and down the road. Now where had she gone? She might have been a complete pain in the proverbial, but he felt responsible for her and –
Distracted by a knocking sound, barely discernible above the howling wind, he turned his head towards the car – and saw her sitting in the passenger seat.
She mouthed the words: “What are you doing?”
Good question. What was he doing?
So he got into the car, slamming the door against the storm, leaving them in a warm cocoon of silence.
“What took you so long?” she said. “Did you think you weren’t wet enough?”
Unable to trust himself to speak, he turned the key in the ignition. The car started without any trouble, although the exhaust rattled a bit. The radio sprang into life; now it was playing an old jazz classic, one of his favourites. He felt some of his tension ebb away.
“Well this is crap,” she said, promptly flicking through all the radio stations until his car vibrated to the thud, thud, thud of mindless dance music.
Finally, Ben thought, grinding the gears as he put the car into a three point turn and continued his journey towards Calahurst. Finally he had met someone he wanted to kill more than his ex-wife.
* * *
She managed less than two minutes of silence before asking, “Where are you taking me?”
“You got into a car with a strange man and didn’t think to check?”
“I don’t really care,” she said, “provided it’s warm and dry.”
Good luck with that, he thought. “Where were you going?”
“I was in Calahurst for the music festival but someone stole my bag and left me stranded. No money, no train ticket, no phone, so I thought I’d walk back to Norchester. I’ve got friends who live there.”
“Are you insane? A twenty mile walk, in the dark, in a thunderstorm – ”
“Obviously I didn’t know it was a twenty mile walk! I didn’t think it through. I was angry and then – ”
He really didn’t want her life story. “Where’s home?”
“Wherever I want it to be,” was her sullen reply.
In other words, she had no intention of telling him. Fair enough.
“The road to Norchester has been blocked by a fallen tree,” he told her. “It was on the radio. They say it won’t be cleared until morning. We’re heading back towards Calahurst but I suspect the road will be blocked in this direction too. There’s a small bridge directly ahead, crossing a tributary of the River Hurst. Did you walk across it earlier? Unfortunately we’ve now had so much rain I think it’s certain to have flooded.”
“Whatever,” she said, settling back in her seat and closing her eyes. “Wake me up when we get there.”
Ben’s fingers did the death grip thing around the steering wheel again.
He’d been stupid enough to rescue a damsel in distress and now it appeared he was stuck with her. What was that saying? Oh yes: no good deed goes unpunished. It wasn’t even as though he knew anything about her. She could be anyone, from lottery millionaire to axe murderer.
He took his eyes from the road long enough to give her a quick once over, in much the same way as she had done to him earlier. She had long black hair, currently hanging in rats’ tails down her back, and golden-brown skin. She was wearing the clothes that were practically a uniform amongst festival goers – boots, shorts, a plain white T-shirt and denim jacket. Her only jewellery appeared to be a silver charm bracelet, glinting on her wrist, and she carried no bag, although she had explained what had happened to that –
“Stop it,” she said, opening one eye to glare at him.
He feigned innocence. “Stop what?”
“Playing Sherlock. If you want to know who I am, ask me. Bloody police,” she muttered beneath her breath.
“You might lie.”
She grinned at that. “I lie all the time.”
He hoped she was joking. “I’m Ben,” he said, making an effort to be conciliatory.
“No, Ben Taylor.” It was a good name to have – strong, sensible, anonymous – not like his real one, thank God. And there was the added bonus of knowing there were plenty of other men with the exact same one. One should never underestimate the merit of anonymity.
She rolled her eyes, “I’m Milla. It’s short for Camilla – Camilla Graham.”
She must have made that up on the spot, although she had no reason to lie. Unless … Oh yes, big mouth here had told her he worked for the police.
She gave an ear-piercing shriek, jolting him back to the present. The steering wheel was yanked through his fingers and violently spun to the left. He slammed his foot on the brake but it was far too late. The car bumped over the grass verge and went straight into the ditch.
He switched the engine off, aware his hands were shaking, and rested his forehead on the steering wheel.
“If you are serious about killing yourself,” he said, with what he thought was commendable calm, “please stop trying to involve me.”
“Excuse me? I saved your life! The road is out. Didn’t you see? It’s like Lake Windermere out there.”
He raised his head and looked out through the windscreen. As much as it pained him to admit it, Milla was right. Even though the rain was easing, the road ahead was completely flooded with churning brown river water.
Ben got out of the car but this time he didn’t even bother to check for damage. The car was obviously a write-off. Instead, he carried on walking down the road towards the nearest house. It was a pretty little cottage, complete with thatched roof, and was surrounded by its own garden.
“Where are you going?” she asked, running to catch up with him. And then, when she spotted the house, “Do you know the people who live here?”
“Yes,” he said. “It’s me.”
“It looks like a little gingerbread house!”
It was how his daughter always described it. As his fingers closed over the top of the gate he felt a moment of pure despair. Then, resolutely, he shoved open the gate and walked up the path, not bothering to check if she was still following.
Unfortunately, it appeared she was.
“Your house is really close to the river,” she said, chattering away as though near-death experiences were an everyday occurrence for her. “What if it floods too?”
“Then we move upstairs,” he said, and tried not to dwell on the thought that, at this rate, he was going to be severely tempted to wring her neck long before the water ever reached the front door.
When Milla Graham arrives in the picture-perfect village of Buckley she tells everyone she’s investigating the murder of her mother, who died eighteen years ago. But there’s already one Milla Graham buried in the churchyard and another about to be found dead in the derelict family mansion.
Obviously she’s lying.
Detective Inspector Ben Taylor has no life outside the police force. Even his own colleagues think he’s a boring stick-in-the-mud. But now he’s met Milla and his safe, comfortable life has been turned upside down. She’s crashed his car, emptied his wallet and is about to get him fired.
He knows she’s a liar because she cheerfully told him so.
Unless she’s lying about that too …