Read a sneak peek from Last Witness

1

‘I want to go home.’

Ewan’s voice was plaintive, sorrowful, as he lifted his head off Amanda’s arm and peered up at her through tired eyes.

Home.

The word pressed itself into Amanda’s side like a thorn. Each time she breathed in she felt its barbed tip. What was home? A place? A person? For Amanda, home had been the beautiful new house she’d bought with her husband, Will.

Bending forward, she coughed to conceal the sob which trembled up her throat and burst from her lips. Will was gone. All that was left of him was the little boy at her side.

‘Home.’ Ewan smacked his hands against his seat and blinked back tears.

‘We can’t go home,’ Shane briefly turned to look back at them from the driving seat. Amanda had watched his profile throughout their long journey, noticed the unrelenting tension in his jaw as he drove down seemingly never-ending motorways. Scotland was now in the rear-view mirror. The sun had started to dip in the sky and Amanda wasn’t sure if she’d reach her mother’s house before dark.

‘Why not?’ the little boy demanded of both the adults in the car, dividing his heated gaze between them. Shane was looking ahead once more.

‘Because we can’t,’ Amanda wished she had a more concrete explanation to offer Ewan. She wrapped her arm around his slight shoulders and drew him back towards her. He was too tired to pull away.

‘But why not?’ his eyelids were drooping.

Because your mother and father are dead. Because the man who killed them may well be hunting you too.

‘Because we can’t,’ Amanda repeated softly. A minute passed and Ewan’s breathing deepened as he drifted off to sleep.

*

As Amanda had predicted, night had fallen when Shane’s car pulled into the small driveway outside her mother’s cottage. She could taste the salt in the air sweeping in off the Southern English coast as she stretched out her legs, trying to unknot them after the long drive down from Scotland. Thick, velvety shadows gathered where the vehicle’s headlights couldn’t reach.

‘Are you sure she’s going to be okay with this?’ Shane’s voice was dubious as Amanda yawned widely in the back seat and stretched out her arms.

‘She has to be.’

‘And if she isn’t?’

‘Well,’ Amanda dusted a strand of blonde hair out of her eyes, ‘you don’t have a place of your own right now. I’m sure as hell not going back to my place. And that leaves hers.’

Even at night, the little cottage managed to look welcoming. A single outside light shone beside the front door. It banished away any shadows that lingered too close to the threshold. Amanda smiled a little to herself as she looked at its glow, remembering how that light used to be left on to help guide her back home during her teenage years, when she’d spent hours down on the beach with Shane and John. But who was it on for now? Or did her mother just like to think that she was offering a guiding light to any souls that wandered along the cliffside?

It was cold out. When she opened her car door the slap of the night air against his cheeks roused Ewan from slumber. He made his hands into little balls and furiously rubbed them against his eyes. ‘Where are we?’ he mumbled the question as Shane scooped him up in his strong arms and rested Ewan against his chest. The boy promptly lowered his head and fell back asleep.

‘I envy his ability to just sleep anywhere.’ Shane smiled. It wasn’t a hearty, natural one. More the sort of smile you use in polite company. But Amanda was grateful for it. It was nice to see someone else smile, especially since she doubted she’d ever be able to again.

Pushing back all her nerves and worries, she rang the doorbell.

‘Are you even sure she’ll be up?’

Amanda pulled her phone from her pocket and peered at the screen. It was a quarter to eleven. ‘She’ll be up.’

Sure enough it took less than a minute for the locks to turn on the other side of the door.

‘Who is it?’ Her mother’s voice was tight, suspicious. Amanda could imagine her staring hard at the door, rouge lips pursed in annoyance.

‘Mum, it’s me.’

The door opened. Light flooded the porch, brilliant and bright. Amanda had to stagger back, briefly shielding her eyes.

Corrine was swathed in a floor-length navy silk nightgown which had long sleeves that billowed out at the wrists. She looked like she’d just stepped off the set of a BBC costume drama rather than out of her modest living room where she’d have been sat in front of the television, waiting to fall asleep. Amanda could hear the distant murmur of voices meaning that the TV was still on, playing to an empty room.

‘Amanda!’ Corrine said her daughter’s name with a haughty air. ‘What sort of time do you call this to come banging on your mother’s door?’

‘I didn’t bang, I—’

‘You should have called me! I’m a state.’

The latter part wasn’t true. Even ready for bed Corrine was a picture of elegance and grace. Her hair was pinned into numerous curlers and held beneath a pale blue hairnet. Even without her make-up she looked strikingly beautiful. The lines that deepened with each facial expression only spoke of her rich life; they didn’t remove the shine from the spectacle that was Amanda’s mother.

‘I wasn’t sure what time we’d get here and—’

‘Shane,’ Corrine marched her bejewelled slippers out into the night, arms extended like she was welcoming home her prodigal son. ‘Oh, how are you?’ She stopped short when she spotted the little boy held against his chest, her own arms dropping against her sides in a ripple of delicate fabric. ‘And who is this?’

‘Mum,’ Amanda placed a hand upon her mother’s shoulder, ‘this is Ewan. He’s…’ Closing her eyes, she stole a swift breath to steady herself, ‘He’s Will’s son.’

‘What?’ The glamour was gone. When Corrine spun around to face her daughter there was fire in her eyes. ‘Tell me this is one of your strange jokes, Amanda.’

‘Mum.’ She saw the judgement in her mother’s eyes. The anger. It felt like facing a firing squad. ‘Please, it’s not what you think.’ And then she crumpled into the confused woman’s arms. Corrine held her, staring wordlessly at Shane who continued to hover near the front door while Amanda wept.

‘Get the boy inside,’ Corrine finally whispered. ‘Put him up in Amanda’s room. And sweetheart,’ she took a firm hold of her daughter’s shoulders and forced Amanda to stand straight so that she could deliver her order more directly, ‘you need to get a hold of yourself. Whatever has happened, whatever has gone wrong, I’m sure you can fix it.’

He’s gone. Will’s dead. There’s no bringing him back.

The words pounded in Amanda’s mind like a drumbeat. Her husband was gone. Forever. ‘It’s…’ she found her voice, but then closed her mouth. How safe was it to tell her mother everything that had happened up in Scotland? The men who had killed Will were gone but their puppet master was still at large. He could be pulling strings that very moment, sending eyes out into the world to find Amanda. To find Ewan. And truly finish what he started.

*

An hour later and the house was still. Ewan was sleeping up in Amanda’s old room and Shane had stretched out on the sofa in the front room beneath a blanket Corrine had given him. Both he and Ewan seemed eager to rest, eager to conclude what must have been one of, if not the worst day of their lives.

‘So are you going to talk?’ Corrine was sat across from Amanda at the kitchen table. They were both nursing freshly made cups of coffee. The oaky aroma still lingered in the air, seeming out of place at such a late hour.

‘Mum,’ Amanda sighed and gazed into her cup.

‘Okay then, I’ll talk,’ Corrine declared after a second of silence had drawn out. ‘I want to know what on earth is going on here. You show up at my house at God knows what hour, with a boy who you claim to be your husband’s son. And Shane can’t seem to stand to be more than a few yards away from you, remaining in this house like some sort of lost puppy. You owe me an explanation, Amanda.’

‘Will’s dead.’

Corrine absorbed the information like a knife to the chest. She clamped a hand over where her heart resided and let her mouth fall open. ‘Wh-what?’

‘I can’t,’ Amanda’s voice was uneven as it started to break. ‘It’s too dangerous to tell you more than that. But Ewan, his son, he’s in danger. That’s why I brought him here, to keep him safe.’

‘Will’s… gone?’ Dead seemed too awful a word for her mother to repeat.

Amanda nodded woefully. Her heart felt so heavy and each time she formed a thought it hurt, like her brain had been replaced with sandpaper.

‘Well, what… what on earth happened?’ Corrine’s words were pitched and slightly fearful. She tightened her hands around her cup of coffee.

‘I’ve already said too much.’ Amanda was aware that her shoulders were shaking, as was the rest of her body. ‘Just… just help me keep Ewan safe.’

In a blur of navy and silk her mother swept around the table and pulled Amanda against her bosom. She held her daughter tightly until the sun started to lighten the sky and the shaking ceased.

*

‘So I’m staying here?’ Ewan cocked his head up at her as he stood barefoot on the beach.

‘For a little bit, yeah.’

‘What about school?’

‘We’ll figure that out come September.’ Amanda guided him closer to the water’s edge. The sun was shining, making the beach behind the cottage look especially beautiful. Light glinted off each of the waves that lazily rolled towards the shore.

‘And I can’t go home?’ Ewan was still looking at her, ignoring the water which was now just a few feet from his little feet.

‘I’m afraid not.’

‘Ever?’ There was hope in the question and Amanda hated to kill it. But she knew that Ewan needed to settle into his new life, needed to accept that there was no going back. She didn’t want the changes that were about to be forced upon him to age him beyond his six years.

‘No. Not ever. I’m really sorry, Ewan.’

She expected tears. Maybe even a tantrum. Ewan’s face crumpled, his cheeks reddened with the pressure building behind them, but then, just as he was about to erupt like a mini geyser, a soft wave tickled the ends of his toes. Like flipping a coin, the boy’s mood changed. He was still young enough to effortlessly bounce between elation and despair. He released a giddy bubble of laughter as he allowed himself to be swept up in the moment. He jumped up and down in the salty water, revelled in how his feet sank down in the damp sand. And all the while, Amanda held his hand, kept him close, but she did not smile.

*

The day had been long. There had been a visit to a toy store at the nearest retail park where Amanda’s credit card had taken a battering. But she didn’t know how else to keep Ewan happy. Distracted. She bought him new bedding for her old room, new curtains, a black bike with red stripes, a bucket and spade set and a trolley full of toys.

‘So your plan is just to spoil him?’ Shane had wondered as he helped her bag up all her purchases in the store.

‘Do you have a better one?’

‘Not really, no,’ he gave her a crooked smile. ‘Kids aren’t really my forte.’

‘Nor mine.’ Amanda hauled the last gift-laden bag into the awaiting trolley. ‘Yet, here we are.’

‘Can I ride my bike out when we get back?’ Ewan was bouncing from foot to foot as they walked across the car park, unable to contain all his excitement.

‘Of course.’

‘Without the little wheels?’

Amanda frowned.

‘The stabilisers,’ Shane explained helpfully. ‘Sorry, bud, but you need to keep those on for now.’

‘Okay,’ Ewan shrugged off any disappointment he might have had. ‘But I want to be riding without the little wheels before my dad gets back.’

They’d reached Shane’s car.

‘Ewan,’ Amanda locked eyes with Shane across the roof of the vehicle, ‘you know that your dad isn’t coming back, right?’ She reminded herself that she was being cruel to be kind.

‘Yeah, I know,’ another dismissive shrug. ‘But I figured that it’s fun to pretend he is.’

Shane had climbed into the driver’s seat and had turned around to help Ewan fasten his seat belt, but Amanda lingered outside, her eyes scanning every inch of the large car park as she breathed around the lump that had formed in her chest. Each time someone mentioned Will she felt like an iron vice was clamping around her lungs, trying to squeeze out her very last breath. There were vehicles everywhere, innocently parked up in surrounding bays. Amanda felt the sizzle of electricity in the air; it was all around her like an unstable mist that continued to spark. In any car there could be someone sat, watching them. Either one of McAllister’s men or Turtle82. McAllister had been the man behind Will’s death. A man Amanda had never met, but she felt his claustrophobic presence in every breath she took. And she had once trusted Turtle82, had let them guide her through online jobs when she was at university but they’d only ever been a name on a screen. Will’s death had taught Amanda to take nothing at face value, even when it came to people she hoped she could trust.

There had been no new messages from her old darknet contact but still she kept logging in whenever she could steal a moment alone. But such moments were difficult to snatch in her mother’s house with its poor internet connection and the continual presence of either Shane or her mother shadowing her every move, watching her like she was some china doll who could shatter against even the slightest gust of wind.

‘You getting in?’ Somehow Shane found the strength to sound positive, to keep a genial smile upon his face. Amanda wondered if his time working as a homicide detective had helped him become accustomed to death, to the ugly things people would do to one another. Maybe he had some secret way of coping with grief. If that was the case she wished that he’d share it with her. Amanda didn’t feel like she was holding up well in the wake of Will’s death. She felt like her favourite Linkin Park T-shirt which had once been jet-black but thanks to going through the washing machine one too many times had dulled to a sad shade of grey, the fabric becoming thin, almost transparent. She stopped feeling special when she wore the T-shirt. It started to make her sad, it just reminded her of how it had lost its former glory and of all the other things she’d lost. Like her dad.

Like Will.

This fresh pain had opened old wounds. Being in her mother’s house made it harder to banish away memories of her kind father. Amanda knew that he’d have loved Ewan, would have unquestioningly taken him in and treated the orphaned boy like he was family.

‘Amanda?’ Shane’s voice was thick with concern. ‘You all right?’

She scrambled into the car. ‘Yeah, I’m good.’ It felt like the biggest lie she’d ever told.

*

Ewan tired himself out with his plethora of new toys. It wasn’t even half seven when he yawned loudly and asked if he could go to bed. Amanda had to applaud his good manners. Evangeline, Will’s first wife, had clearly done a good job of raising her son alone. And Corrine seemed equally impressed.

‘He’s so well-spoken,’ she’d gushed to Amanda earlier. ‘He always says please and thank you. He’s a joy to have around, truly.’

That was something. It would have been more difficult if Ewan was a little tyrant making demands about the place. But he was genuinely the sweetest little boy Amanda had ever met. And he was Will’s.

*

Amanda couldn’t sleep. Corrine had kindly agreed to share her bed as Shane spent another night downstairs on the sofa. But after half an hour of tossing and turning, Amanda felt compelled to give into her restless feelings. She tiptoed out of the room and drifted down the staircase, out through the kitchen and into the small rose garden. She could hear the distant pounding of the ocean’s waves against the shore. Dropping onto the small wooden bench that looked across the garden, out towards the sea, she sighed and breathed in deeply, filling her lungs with the rose-scented air.

‘At some point you need to sleep.’

Amanda turned her head sharply back towards the house, where her mother was just stepping out through the back door, once again bundled up in her sumptuous navy silk robe. The fabric was so dark, so rich, that she almost blended in with the backdrop of the starry night sky.

‘Sorry, did I wake you?’

‘Yes.’ Corrine sat down beside her daughter on the bench. Her Estée Lauder perfume began to overpower the natural scent of her beloved flowers. ‘But it’s fine. Wake me up all you want. I just want to make sure you’re okay.’

‘I’m okay.’

‘You’re not,’ Corrine countered sharply.

Amanda looked out towards the moon which cast a rippled reflection upon the surface of the ocean. The little rose garden was always such a tranquil place, a place where Amanda could sit and relieve herself of whatever burden was resting upon her shoulders simply by absorbing the serene atmosphere that gathered amongst the rose vines. But not this night. She could feel her mother watching her, seeing through her words.

‘Fine, I’m not okay,’ Amanda conceded before her mother could say anything else. ‘I’ve lost my husband and I feel like I’ve lost myself too.’ She let her words drift away from them, out towards the open water. A pair of salty tears danced down her cheeks. ‘I’m desperately trying to hold myself together for Ewan but…’ Leaning forward, she dropped her head into her hands and then felt the calming pressure of her mother’s hand against her back. ‘How did you do it?’ she coughed as she released one hand to glance back at Corrine. ‘When Dad died, how did you carry on like you did? You always seemed so strong, especially back then.’

‘I had you,’ Corrine’s eyes crinkled as she smiled, but they glistened in the moonlight with fresh tears. ‘You were my reason to get up each morning. To tidy the house. To keep going.’

‘And if you hadn’t had me?’

Because Ewan wasn’t truly hers, was he? The Scottish authorities could still track him down and demand Amanda hand him into their custody.

‘Then I’d have done it for him. For his memory.’ The tears that had fallen upon Corrine’s cheeks sparkled like stars. ‘He wouldn’t have wanted me to wallow in my sorrow. And Will wouldn’t want you to.’

‘It’s just not fair,’ Amanda sniffed and sat up, furiously wiping at her eyes. ‘I mean I’ve lost Will, and so has Ewan.’

‘Life is never fair,’ Corrine whispered pragmatically. ‘But then you were forced to figure that out long ago.’

 

LAST WITNESS publishes on 1st May 2017.

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