Emily Swanson rang the doorbell then sucked in a nervous breath. What was she doing here? She looked up at the house. It was a large but not sprawling affair, with latticed windows and white walls. The drive, which was wide enough to hold several cars, was currently empty, while a towering, evergreen hedgerow smudged out much of the quiet, suburban street.
Seconds passed. Shrugging off her backpack, Emily removed the letter that had arrived a few days ago, and checked the address: 112 Ford Road, Epsom, Surrey. She pressed the doorbell again.
Above her, the Friday morning sun was bold and bright. After an overcast July and a rainy August, September was turning out to be uncharacteristically hot. Closing her eyes, Emily took a moment to enjoy the warmth on her skin. When she opened them again, she saw a woman smiling at her from the doorway.
“Diane Edwards?” she asked.
“You must be Emily.”
She was led through a carpeted hall and into a spacious kitchen at the back of the house.
“Please sit down.” Diane Edwards gestured to the table and chairs in front of the large bay windows. “I’ll make some tea.”
Emily smiled politely and turned to view the rear garden. An expanse of vibrant lawn, which was bordered by colourful flowerbeds, stretched into the distance. A copse of trees stood at the far end, watching over the house. Beneath the table, Emily’s knee began to jig up and down. She wondered if it was too late to make her excuses and leave.
Diane returned with the tea tray. She was somewhat older than Emily’s twenty-seven years, perhaps in her mid-forties, and where Emily’s hair was blonde and fell just above her shoulders, Diane’s was jet black and cut short. As she turned the cups over and reached for the teapot, she offered Emily a slight smile.
“You must forgive my quietness. It’s not often I invite strangers into my home, especially in unusual circumstances.”
Emily untangled her arms and placed her hands on her lap. “I’m a little nervous myself. And a little surprised.”
Diane eyed her as she poured the tea. “At my proposal?”
“Mrs Edwards, I—”
“Please, call me Diane. Sugar?”
Emily shook her head. “I should probably make it clear before we go any further that my being here isn’t an agreement. I admit I’m curious, but I may not be qualified for what you need.”
Diane slid a cup of tea towards Emily. “That’s understandable. Perhaps if I elaborate on the details of my letter it will help you to form a decision.” She flashed a nervous glance across the table. “My husband, Max, worked as a sustainable development manager for a big chemicals company. You may have heard of it—Valence Industries. It was his job to find new ways for the company to be more environmentally friendly, or at least that’s my understanding of it. The chemicals industry doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to the environment, which is why Max took the job in the first place.
“He’d been actively involved in green issues for as long as I can remember. Even back when we first met, he was always off on one protest or another, occasionally getting himself arrested . . .” She smiled sadly. “Part of Max’s remit was to nurture partnerships with various environmental charities. He’d been working for months on a project to bring clean water to parts of the world where there was none. The project was to launch with a fundraising gala.”
Diane gazed through the window at long ago memories. When she spoke again, her voice was quiet and controlled. “The official consensus is that Max attended the gala in London in May of last year, then spent the night in his hotel room. When he didn’t show for breakfast the next morning, his colleagues went to look for him. His room was empty. The bed hadn’t been slept in.” She paused again and clenched her jaw. “He was found by tourists early the next morning, washed up on the bank of the Thames.”
“I’m very sorry for your loss, Mrs Edwards.” Emily’s teacup was frozen in mid-air. She set it down on the saucer with an accidental clatter. “Your husband drowned?”
“My husband was an alcoholic,” Diane said matter-of-factly, as if describing her late husband as a keen golfer or a lover of antiques. “Max’s drinking almost ripped our marriage apart more times than I can count. Each time, I packed his bags and left them on the doorstep. Each time, I brought them back in. That may sound very weak of me, but I understood that, like any addiction, alcoholism is a disease. Besides, despite everything, I loved him.” Her expression hardened. “The coroner’s report revealed that the alcohol levels in Max’s bloodstream were so high that if he hadn’t drowned first there was every chance he would have died from toxic shock. But before that night, my husband had been in recovery for almost ten years. That’s why you’re here, Emily—to find out why, after ten years of sobriety, my husband saw it fit to suddenly drink himself to death.”
Emily cleared her throat. “No offence, Mrs Edwards, but how can you be certain Max hadn’t been drinking without your knowledge?”
“When you’ve been married to an alcoholic for twenty-three years you get to learn all the tricks and the lies. You find all the hiding places in your home, the garden shed, the car. Oh, I’m sure if Max had been tempted to drink, he could have tried to hide it from me. But I say try, Emily. My husband wasn’t the kind of alcoholic who could drink a bottle of vodka then do a day’s work. He was the kind of alcoholic you stepped over in the street.”
Emily felt a surge of pity for the woman. Alcoholism didn’t just destroy the person doing the drinking.
“If he was back to his old ways prior to that night, he wouldn’t have been able to hide his guilt from me,” Diane continued. “He tore our marriage apart. I should have left him. But I stayed. And he knew that. He knew that. Which is why he found the strength inside him to stop drinking. He did it himself, you know. Oh, he tried AA, but all that higher power business didn’t agree with him. Max was not a follower of organised religion or spirituality. He believed in nature.”
Emily leaned back on the chair and let out a steady breath. “Mrs Edwards—”
“Sorry—Diane . . . wouldn’t you be better off pursuing a more professional route with someone more qualified? The police perhaps, or a licensed private investigator.”
Emily tried to look away but found her gaze inexplicably drawn back to Diane. It was as if all the woman’s anguish and desperation had created a magnetic pull.
“The police saw my husband’s death as an open and shut case. An alcoholic gets drunk, falls into the River Thames and drowns. The ruling: death by misadventure.” Diane hesitated, terrible memories drawing shadows across her face. “I read about you in the newspapers, about what happened at that retreat. And then again last month, with the Doctor Chelmsford trial.”
Emily’s shoulders stiffened. In an instant, she was back at the courthouse, standing in the witness box as she answered question after question while desperately trying to avoid Doctor Chelmsford’s snakelike gaze. He would now spend what remained of his twilight years behind bars. Good, Emily thought. It was a fitting end for a monster who had preyed upon the sick and the vulnerable.
Unhappy about where the conversation was headed, she stared into the cooling contents of her cup.
“I read about what happened to you in the past,” said Diane. “Losing your mother, then what happened with that boy. What was his name?”
“Yes, Phillip. And I thought, here is a woman who knows the pain of not only losing a loved one but also the humiliation of having her reputation destroyed. And yet, here is a woman who has risen above it all, who is good and kind, intelligent and resourceful, who is determined. I wrote to you because your story spoke to me. And I believe you can help me, Emily. I believe you can help me understand what happened to my husband.”
Quiet draped itself over the table. Emily was momentarily elsewhere, her mind replaying the events of the last two years like scenes from a film.
“I don’t think I can help you,” she said at last. “I wouldn’t know where to start.”
Diane stared at her with pleading eyes. “I can help with that. And of course, as I mentioned in my letter, you’ll be paid for your time.”
“I’m just an ordinary person who happened to get caught up in an extraordinary situation. Or two. I don’t have the skills or the resources that would be needed.”
“Please, Emily.” Diane was leaning forward now, her hands clamped together in a silent prayer. Most of her calm demeanour remained, but quiet desperation was oozing through the cracks.
“You know what it’s like to wake up each morning and wonder why life can be so cruel. You know what it’s like to have all the happiness, all the joy snatched away from you. Something happened that night to take my husband away from me. I know our marriage was tumultuous at best, but I loved him. I need to know what happened. I need to understand why he did what he did.”
Emily drew in a breath. Her shoulder muscles tightened as she felt the woman’s anguish flooding the room.
This house is like a mausoleum, she thought. Diane Edwards was trapped inside; a living ghost doomed to repeat each day in a never-ending cycle of grief. Emily wanted to help her. She did. And the money would certainly help now her savings were almost gone. It was just that she didn’t know if she could help. She was not a private investigator. She was Emily Swanson, the shamed ex-teacher fated to spend the rest of her life atoning for her sins.
“Last Friday would have been Max’s fiftieth birthday,” Diane said. “I was going to throw him a party.”
She locked eyes with Emily, transferring her grief. In that instant, Emily knew she could not refuse.