At twelve years old, Ben Heywood did not think it fair that he should have to witness the death of his younger sister at such close quarters. Yet at the instant of its happening he also knew that having to witness it was part of the punishment.
They left the house at the usual time, the air crisp and sparkling, the early-morning sun bright on their hastily wiped faces.
"Sunny day," said Frankie from the porch, looking up as brilliant white petals of cherry blossom drifted silently from above. It was the last thing she said to him. Ben said nothing, but glanced at her as she gazed upwards, taking in the zigzag parting down the middle of her pigtailed brown hair, the telltale trace of green felt pen on her chin, the gap formed by the collar of her too large shirt where her incorrectly knotted school tie nestled incongruously off center, way below the base of her throat. Fleetingly it occurred to him that he could reach out and straighten it for her. If he felt like it.
"Come on," he said morosely. "We've got to go."
They walked along the sidewalk in silence. Ben allowed her to remain at his side as far as the gate of Isabelle's house. As usual Frankie's best friend was already waiting, perched on top of the gate, repeatedly tossing a scruffy rag doll high into the air above her, its limbs spread-eagled ridiculously as it spun skywards.
"Hi, Ben," Isabelle called mischievously, as though there was some great mysterious secret going on that only she and Frankie knew about. But he ignored her, walking on without pausing, head down, hands thrust deeply into pockets, schoolbag slung over one shoulder, irritated beyond measure. How he detested having to walk with the girls to school these days. It was so humiliating. He heard them fall into step behind him, chattering and giggling idiotically.
It happened at the corner of Newmarket Road, where Goldhanger Crescent joins, on the bend right outside Mr. Gupta's newsagent's shop. Ben glanced across the road at the shop, then back at the girls, by now thirty yards behind. Unhurriedly they ambled after him, arms linked, heads bent together, deep in conspiracy. If he was quick, he could run across, check if the latest Road Ranger comic was in, pick up a package of peppermints and be back with the girls before they realized it.
The road was wide and busy with early-morning commuter traffic. Timing a gap in the cars, he darted to the middle, waited as a taxi sped by in the other direction, then sprinted the last few yards and into the shop.
He emerged less than a minute later onto the sidewalk. The girls were halfway across, clinging together in frozen terror as startled drivers from both directions swerved violently to avoid them. Frankie's eyes found Ben's, wide with fear and uncertainty, her lips working, mouthing his name. One driver sounded his horn in shock, then another. Ben lost sight of the two small figures for an instant as a lorry thundered by, the driver's voice a receding shout: "For Christ's sake!" A motorcyclist moving swiftly up the center between the two traffic streams saw the girls too late, swerved into the oncoming stream and smashed into the side of a van before careening sideways into the gutter at Ben's feet. Suddenly the air was filled with the sound of car horns, screeching brakes, squealing tires and a succession of splintering crashes as cars piled into the back of one another. Ben scarcely noticed it. Above the noise and confusion he could hear Isabelle. She was screaming, panicked and disoriented, struggling to run back, blindly, across the traffic to the sidewalk. Frankie turned, grabbing her friend, bent almost double as she dragged at Isabelle's arm to stop her. But Isabelle was unstoppable, wild-eyed and thrashing like an injured animal, desperately intent on achieving the far sidewalk as her only chance of salvation. Ben saw Frankie pull one faltering step, then another, in slow motion like a tug-of-war. There was the blood-chilling sound of six heavy locked-up wheels sliding uncontrollably across the tarmac, a frantic drawn-out blast from the bus driver's horn. Then with a sickening, muffled thud, the bus struck the girls.
They were in the air. A confusion of arms and legs, hair, clothes, schoolbags, flying across the clean blue sky, limp and flapping and spread-eagled. Like tossed rag dolls.* * *
Jack Heywood awoke with a start. He lay for a moment, blearily striving to force his mind into focus through a fog of drink and sleeplessness. Something important . . . He checked his watch, then remembered with a curse, and jerked upright. Throwing back the blanket, he gasped, piercing pain shooting through his neck and back. He stiffened, straightening slowly from the couch, wincing as he rubbed his hand against the base of his neck.
It was ten to nine. Ten minutes. They'd be here in ten minutes! Precious seconds elapsed as he stared dumbfounded at his watch; the damn alarm must have failed. Or had he failed to set it? He licked his lips and looked around him. His head hurt, his mouth was dry, throat like sandpaper. Unkempt hair escaped his fingers as he brushed it back, gazing round the room in mounting horror. The executive lounge looked more like a student's apartment after an end-of-term party: overflowing ashtrays, half-empty takeout containers, dirty plates and coffee mugs, empty bottles.
And the smell. Suddenly he was galvanized into action. Moving swiftly around the room, he began clearing the wreckage, carrying all into the little kitchenette, where he threw it into rubbish bags, dumped it into the sink or hid it in cupboards. He poured fresh water and a coffee pack into the machine and switched it on. Sniffing distastefully, he returned to the lounge, pulled up the blinds and threw open the windows, gulping at the crisp spring air. Bright sunlight flooded in, the sound of larksong and the idle burbling of a Lycoming as one of the flying-club Cessnas warmed up. Away to the west, spectral spires were barely visible, the distant Cambridge skyline materializing through the early-morning mist. Glancing down, he took in the company's three polished silver and green executive turboprops neatly parked on the tarmac below. Then he turned once more for the room.
He stripped his bedding from the settee, plumped up the cushions and straightened the aviation magazines on the coffee table. Clearing the conference table and reorganizing the chairs, he glanced up at the wall clock. Any minute! Where the hell was Bill? And Carol, for that matter. What the hell use is an executive air-charter business without a receptionist? He had told them nine. Hadn't he?
Five minutes later he emerged from the tiny bathroom clean-shaven, hair brushed, and wearing a fresh white shirt under his slightly rumpled navy-blue suit jacket. He checked the straightness of his tie nervously and looked around the now restored executive lounge with something approaching a flicker of pride. Its leather-upholstered furniture, its glass and chrome tables and chairs, its metal-framed photographs of Heywood-Knight aircraft gliding grace-fully across azure skyscapes. Carefully chosen to suggest respectability, reliability, professionalism. But the leather was beginning to wear thin, the chrome to tarnish, the brightly colored photos fading like dreams.
There was a buzz at the door. They were here. He took a deep breath, subconsciously lifting his chin and straightening his shoulders. As he skirted Carol's desk the phone rang.* * *
Outside the newsagent's, a quiet had descended. All traffic had stopped in both directions, dazed drivers were getting out of cars, passersby were gathering on the sidewalk. Mr. Gupta emerged from his shop. "What happened?" he asked. "Is anyone hurt?" Beside him a dark-haired schoolboy stood rigid and motionless, an unopened package of peppermints clutched in one fist.
"Call an ambulance quick!" somebody shouted. Mr. Gupta hurried back into his shop. Nearby a leather-clad motorcyclist groaned, struggling feebly to free himself from the tangled wreckage of his machine. A dazed van driver bent slowly to help him. "Easy now, mate. Easy does it." Across the road, a knot of onlookers was gathering around two small, unmoving forms lying on the pavement. A woman's voice rose from the growing crowd, like a lamentation, a wail of protest. "Mary Mother of Jesus, they're just little girls! Little girls--Mary Mother of Jesus."
"Doctor. Is there a doctor? Anywhere?" An elderly man with a small dog straightened up and looked around. "Is there a doctor here?"
Suddenly there was the sound of heavy boots running hard along the sidewalk towards the crowd. Moments later a policeman arrived. "How many hurt?" he asked breathlessly.
"These two," said the man with the dog. "And a motorcyclist across the road."
"Right," said the policeman, elbowing his way into the throng. He dropped to a crouch beside the body of a young girl dressed in school uniform. She was facedown, her pigtailed hair awry and sticky with blood. "Right," he murmured again to himself, through gritted teeth. Cocking his head to the VHF radio on his shoulder, he reached out to feel the girl's neck.
"I believe she's dead," said the man with the dog.* * *
"How are the children taking it?"
Alison sighed, picking up an uneaten corner of toast from the breakfast table. "Okay. I think," she said doubtfully, tucking the telephone receiver under her chin as she munched. The circular table had been laid for three by one of the children. Ben, she suspected. But instead of spreading the three places evenly around the circle, he had deliberately left a fourth place bare. Jack's place. Ben had even put a chair there, testament enough to his views on the matter. "Well, actually I don't know. Frankie seems fine, doesn't really talk about it--you know Frankie. But Ben, well, I can tell he's not happy. He's very--well, quiet. Withdrawn."
"Oh, darling, are you quite sure you're doing the right thing? Ben adores Jack, they both do."
"Mum, he went to bed with his damn secretary!"
"Yes, but apart from that. I mean, have you asked yourself why?"
"Apart fr--Mother, I'd have thought that it was enough that he did it, don't you?"
There was silence on the line. "Well, I suppose you know best," her mother said eventually, although Alison knew from her tone that she clearly thought nothing of the sort. "Where is he staying, living?"
"I don't know. Bill's, the damn secretary's--park bench for all I care. It's not my problem." It was
her problem. She looked up from the table. There was a meeting. Jack had told her about it--today, was it? Shit or bust, he'd said. She tried to remember, staring through the kitchen window at the cherry tree outside, the blossoms falling silently like snow. Recently all Jack's meetings had been shit or bust. "I think he's been sleeping at the office," she said quietly.
"What will you do?"
"Move, I suppose. Sell this place, get out of Cambridge, back to London, get the children into schools somewhere and put this whole sorry mess behind us as fast as possible." It sounded simple enough when she said it like that. But every time she considered the prospect, her head filled with worries and anxieties, so many unknowns, so many questions, so many doubts. God damn you, Jack Heywood.
"What if he hadn't done it? You know, slept with the secretary."
"Mum, that's like saying 'Apart from that, Mrs. Kennedy, how did you enjoy your drive around Dallas?' It happened. He did it. Now he must deal with the consequences."
"Yes, but what if he hadn't?" her mother persisted.
Alison sighed again. "It probably wouldn't make any difference." She picked up a green felt-tip pen from the table, snapping the cap back on with her thumb. "It's been going wrong for ages, years really, ever since we moved to Cambridge. The business, it's all to do with the bloody business."
"Couldn't you talk to him about it? You know, explain your feelings?"
"He's never here. I'd have to make an appointment," Alison snorted ruefully. "Probably with the damn secretary."
"What about counseling? Couldn't you see someone, make some inquiries?"
"Mum, for God's sake what about him? I'm the wronged party, he should be making the effort, but he doesn't do anything, not a--" The doorbell rang. Once, then immediately again. "Hang on, Mum, somebody's at the door."
There were two of them. A male and a female. Both uniformed. She remembered thinking how short the female was beside the man. And how young and petite the face, the roundness of the eyes beneath that ludicrous little hat. The black-and-white-checked neck scarf tied in a neat bow on the starched white shirt. The frumpy black uniform skirt, the heavy black tights, the solid flat-heeled shoes.
"Mrs. Heywood? Mrs. Alison Heywood?"From the Paperback edition.
Excerpted from The Lazarus Child by Robert Mawson. . Excerpted by permission of Random House Audio, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.