Thrilled to be taking part in Maggie James‘ GUILTY INNOCENCE blog tour alongside my #BBFF, By The Letter Book Reviews. I am not going to blab on as I have a FABULOUS extract for you to enjoy! So grab a cuppa, sit back and….enjoy! 📚😘😘
CHAPTER 1 – THE LETTER
Natalie almost doesn’t read the letter, addressed as it is to someone called Joshua Barker. Initials J.B., not A.J., and clearly male. A letter with seemingly no connection to Mark and her misgivings about him, therefore of no interest to her. When she finds it, she goes to replace it, unread, in the drawer. Then her suspicions flare up along with her curiosity. Of course the letter is connected to Mark; it’s in his flat, isn’t it?
She first discovers it at the bottom of his bedside cabinet, when she’s almost given up on finding anything. From the outside, the envelope holds no clue as to the explosive nature of its contents. She almost misses it; it’s tucked away at the very bottom of the last drawer, under a pile of bank statements. Natalie flips through them quickly; what she seeks isn’t likely to be concealed amongst cash withdrawals and direct debits. She goes to replace the bank statements and close the drawer, when she notices the envelope.
It’s face down, almost as if it’s hiding. In the interests of being thorough, she pulls it out. Then she turns it over in her hands, checking it out. The envelope is plain white, the paper good quality. Expensive stuff, the kind favoured by an older generation. No return address on the back. The writing is neat, regular, its black ballpoint easy to read. A soft slope from left to right, the loops and swirls announcing the addressee as Joshua Barker. Address: Vinney Green Secure Unit, Emersons Green, Bristol.
Vinney Green. A name vaguely familiar to Natalie, although she can’t quite place it at first. Ah, yes. The detention centre for juvenile offenders on the outskirts of Bristol. Whoever Joshua Barker is, he’s been a bad boy, it seems. The stamp appears old fashioned and, peering closer, she can just about discern the postmark: Exeter, November 15, nearly fourteen years ago. Mark would have been eleven back then. The top has been neatly slit open, inviting Natalie to draw out the contents. One sheet only, in matching thick, heavy paper. Her fingers stroke the surface, caressing its coolness. A slight hint of mustiness reaches her nostrils. No date or address at the top. Just the words. She perches on the edge of the bed and starts to read.
My dear Joshua,
I am writing this letter to tell you something that will hurt you, although that is the last thing either your grandfather or I would want. There’s no easy way to put this. Joshua, my love, your mother has decided to move away from Exeter and change her name, and it is her intention to begin a new life, a life without you. You must have wondered why she has not visited you and from what she tells me she has not written or called either. Try to understand, Joshua. She has found life very difficult since your detention. This is her way of dealing with what happened.
Both your grandfather and I have tried to persuade her not to break off contact with you but she is adamant on this point. I realise this must be hard for you, my love, but you know how your mother can be at times. Rest assured we will continue to write and I can only hope that will be of some comfort.
Your loving grandmother,
Natalie Richards’s first reaction is one of curiosity. Who is Joshua Barker, and why does Mark have a letter addressed to him?
Unable to come up with an explanation, her thoughts centre on how harsh, how unforgiving, a woman must be to abandon her child. And for what reason? Whoever Joshua Barker and his mother may be, Natalie thinks, one thing’s for sure; they’ve never had a normal parent and child relationship. Impossible to experience pregnancy and birth, bond with a child and then desert him, surely? This woman, so adamant about starting a new life without her son, has probably always denied him maternal love. Natalie briefly wonders where Joshua’s father is, hoping he’s forged from different metal to the boy’s steely mother. A man more in tune with the seemingly kinder Linda Curtis, with any luck.
Impossible to tell how old Joshua Barker is when he received the letter. She wonders what offence he committed. What had been bad enough to get him sent to Vinney Green? A crime so terrible his own mother rejected him? So awful she didn’t even tell him herself she was moving away, changing her name?
She reads the letter a second time, the name of Joshua Barker nagging at her all the while, its vague familiarity teasing her. As the contents sink into her mind, the realisation of who Joshua Barker is claws its way to the surface in her brain, exploding through her skull in a myriad of disbelief and denial. A possible reason her boyfriend has this letter forces its way into her consciousness, the explanation flashing across her horrified brain in a millisecond.
Natalie hurls the letter from her grasp as though the paper has burned her.
Which, in a way, it has. It lands near the door, the momentum causing it to slide partly underneath, as if to crawl away from her. A low moan escapes her; she sinks to the floor, her stomach clenching in rebuttal of what’s she discovered. Would to God she’d never decided to search through Mark’s things. She’d expected to find shit, but not something that stank this bad. Nobody could have anticipated the contents of the letter that taunts her from the other side of the room. You screwed up again, Natalie. Drawn to bad boys, aren’t you? Well, they don’t come much worse than this one.
Natalie’s come here today because she suspects her boyfriend may have another woman. Given her track record with men, it’s the obvious conclusion when Mark seems distant, evasive, oblivious to her hints about taking their relationship further. Getting their own place. Perhaps a baby in due course. So far Natalie has only given the vaguest of suggestions on the baby issue; Mark’s abrupt withdrawal whenever she does so always silences her immediately.
Finding a man who wants what she does – commitment, togetherness, stability – doesn’t come easily to Natalie. She knows men like that exist, despite her mother’s poor choice of husband. Before the divorce, her father seemed determined to bed every available woman in Bristol, eventually walking out on his wife and eleven-year-old daughter and not coming back. His contact with Natalie was reduced to sporadic Christmas and birthday cards that eventually petered out. Callie Richards, angry and embittered, was left to raise her daughter alone.
No wonder Natalie has a track record of always going for the bad boys. A psychologist might say she’s on a mission to find and reform her errant father. The finding’s not been a problem; it’s the reforming that’s proved a fruitless quest so far with the men she dates.
Mark, though – well, he’s always seemed different. At first, anyway. Even now, at times she gets the impression he likes her more than he lets on. Gradually, though, his evasiveness, coupled with the apparent lack of any desire to move things between them off casual status, has eroded Natalie’s hopes. Another woman, is the obvious conclusion she’s reached. Someone prettier, funnier, more interesting. Someone carrying twenty kilos less in weight.
She’s off work this week, thankfully, on holiday from the demands of her job as a television production assistant. Mark will be at the builder’s yard, ordering concrete, checking purchase orders, doing whatever he does there. His absence means she’s had the opportunity to search his flat, seeing as the spare key nestles so temptingly under the potted plant in the hallway outside. A key that invited her to take it, turn it in the lock and go inside to search through her boyfriend’s possessions, like an addict in search of a fix. Will she find any evidence of a woman with the initials A.J.?
Oh, yes. It’s not just Natalie’s genetically programmed homing device for bad boys that’s brought her here today. She has firmer foundations on which to base her suspicions. A few days ago, angry and hurt after Mark ignored her hints about their relationship once again, she grabbed his mobile while he was taking a piss. Her fingers flicked through the contents. Mark’s calendar was what gave her cause for concern. Marked down every few weeks was the entry ‘A.J. Here, 6pm.’
When he returned, she confronted him before she had time to consider whether that was wise.
‘Who’s A.J.?’ she demanded, her self-righteousness sweeping away the need for preamble. Alarm crept into his eyes, before he told her she shouldn’t have snooped through his phone. Well, duh, she knew that already, didn’t she? All Mark would say was that no, he wasn’t seeing anyone else, and yes, he wanted to be with her, of course he did. How A.J. was an old school friend, and male, not female. Except that the alarm she’d already clocked in his face, together with her radar for detecting lies, a skill born out of having a philandering father, warned her he wasn’t telling the truth.
Now, slumped on his bedroom floor after reading the letter, she remembers the old saying about eavesdroppers hearing no good about themselves. Does the same hold true for snoopers, she wonders. Because what she’s found is utter shit; right now all she wants to do is press the eject button in her head and thrust the name of Joshua Barker into the far reaches of outer space. The envelope still taunts her from its vantage point on the floor, the portion that’s visible under the doorjamb mocking her.
Joshua Barker. Another name bursts forth from Natalie’s memories to join it. Adam Campbell. Pictures connect with the names in her head. Two photos, first seen fourteen years ago on television and whenever they’ve merited news time since then. Both boys have dark hair, although one wears it longer and more unkempt. That particular boy is unsmiling and sullen, clearly reluctant to pose for the camera. The other looks nervous, a rabbit before a wolf, his expression uncertain. Natalie can’t be sure which is Joshua Barker and which is Adam Campbell, although she thinks Unkempt and Sullen might be Adam. Which means Rabbit Boy is Joshua Barker. The boy so summarily rejected by his mother. Did Adam Campbell’s mother react the same way, Natalie wonders. Rejected because, together, at the age of eleven, still children themselves, they committed a crime so shocking it hardly seemed possible. Not for two eleven-year-olds, anyway, children brought up in stable home environments, with no known abuse.
Kids of eleven don’t lure a two-year-old child, blonde and pretty Abby Morgan, from her home and first batter then stab her to death.
Except, fourteen years ago, in the case of Adam Campbell and Joshua Barker, that’s exactly what they did.
Nausea wrenches at Natalie’s stomach again.
Her memories zoom back to Rabbit Boy, all wide-eyed and worried, and then shoot forward to Mark Slater. She pictures his hair, his eyes, so similar to Rabbit Boy’s, and desperately hopes she’s mistaken. That the two aren’t the same, and that a perfectly innocent explanation exists as to why Mark has Joshua Barker’s letter in his possession. Other than the obvious, hideous, too painful to be contemplated reason.
That Mark Slater is Joshua Barker, fourteen years older. And that she’s been dating a child killer, who’s protected by a new identity.
Natalie hauls herself to her feet. She can’t bear to be in the same room as the letter a minute longer. Her nausea forgotten, she resorts to food, the way she always does when upset. She walks into the kitchenette, pulling the fridge open, seeking rich soothing carbohydrates, all concerns about her excess kilos shelved. She takes out whatever comes to hand, slapping butter thickly onto bread before pressing several slices of ham on top. She yanks a stool out from the breakfast bar, ploughing into the sandwich, her jaws chewing furiously, the taste of the food unimportant. A packet of chocolate biscuits catches her eye and she grabs them. She’ll need every ounce of comfort the sandwich and biscuits can offer if she’s to confront Mark. Will she, though? Natalie squashes down an inner voice, the one that reminds her someone who can batter and stab a two-year-old to death may not take kindly to having the lid ripped off his new identity. Especially by a girlfriend who has snooped through his possessions.
Natalie reflects how little she knows about the man she’s been dating. Mark’s never been one to talk much about his past. From what he’s told her, his mother and father are dead and he has no other family. How, as a child, he had an ordinary upbringing here in Bristol. If he’s really Joshua Barker, then that’s a lie. Natalie remembers both of Abby Morgan’s killers came from Exeter. Same as the letter. As for his parents being dead, well, his mother certainly intended to be exactly that where her son’s concerned. Natalie’s not sure any longer whether she blames the woman for deserting him.
You’ve got to admit it, Natalie, the voice within her berates. You’ve picked some turkeys in the past when it comes to men, but this one beats them all. A child killer? Really?
Some small part of her protests, however. She remembers moments of tenderness, rare and therefore precious, from Mark. Sometimes he seems like he holds his emotions on a leash before temporarily setting them free, his smile soft and warm when he bends to kiss her. Moments like these have kept her going whenever he’s shied away from her hints about seeing each other more often, perhaps getting a place together. They now insist she allow Mark a chance to explain. Either give her some credible explanation as to why he has Linda Curtis’s letter to her grandson in his bedside cabinet, if he’s not Joshua Barker. Or, if he is, explain Abby Morgan’s death to her. How he was just a child at the time, how he never intended anything so dreadful to happen.
Natalie looks at her watch. Four o’clock. Mark won’t be home until six. She’ll wait, and confront him when he walks through the door.
She’ll have to skip any more comfort food, though. She recalls again how she’s hoped this man will father a baby with her, and with that, the image of a bloodied and battered Abby Morgan forces its way into her brain. Her stomach clenches and heaves and she only just makes it to the bathroom in time. A vile mess of bread, ham and biscuits surges up from Natalie’s guts, forcing her to retch over the toilet bowl, one thought dominant in her brain. Dear God, let it be a mistake. Don’t let him be Joshua Barker.