‘Are you sure you’re OK to drive?’
Claudia Winters glanced at her sixteen-year-old daughter, the one who was sounding like the parent right now, and tightened her grip on the steering wheel. ‘Sure,’ she confirmed, and fixing her eyes on the road ahead she pressed down on the accelerator to pull away from the kerb. It was a jerky start, but it was a new car – bought with cash from a South London dealer who’d asked no questions – and at least she didn’t stall the engine.
‘Don’t look back,’ she advised Jasmine.
‘Would it make a difference if I did?’
‘Do you want to?’
‘No! Let’s just go.’
The place they were leaving was a smart red-brick town house in the heart of Kensington, where they’d lived for the past five years. Their departure – escape, to give it the correct term – had been carefully planned during the last few months.They’d removed their most precious belongings in bags and suitcases as if they were just off for long weekends, or perhaps to make generous donations to a charity shop. Where they’d actually been taking their cargo was to Claudia’s mother’s house in Somerset, in order to store it in a weatherproof garage. Yesterday, under her mother’s supervision, everything had been transported from the garage to the place Claudia and Jasmine were travelling to now.
Nauseous with nerves, Claudia drove along the leafy street careful to avoid the parked cars either side of her, aware of a hundred or more windows bearing witness to their departure.
Was anyone actually watching? He’d said someone would be, but they’d never spotted anyone, nor had the private investigator they’d hired to check for them.
There were the neighbours, of course, but it surely wouldn’t occur to any of them that the mother and daughter from number forty-six were about to disappear without trace.
Claudia hoped it would be that way, but a lot could happen between now and the day they finally felt safe. The past could reach for them in any number of ways; traps they hadn’t yet been able to imagine might already be set by their own oversights and unwitting mistakes, or even by fate.
Pushing the dread of it all aside, she drove on past the homes that backed on to the school her daughter had attended since they’d moved here. It was private, expensive and should have been where she’d complete sixth form before going to uni. Now she was set to continue her education at a school close to their new home, using the name she’d chosen for herself – Jasmine – and sporting a totally new look.
Once as dark-haired as her beloved father, Jasmine was now blonde, with a cute pixie cut that had been executed by her mother’s inexpert hand only last night. Jasmine loved it, thank goodness. Up to the age of eleven, she’d been a bright girl with a warm personality, and her dad’s sparkling enthusiasm for life. However, these past years in her stepfather’s home, subjected to his erratic moods and overbearing personality, she’d lost the buoyancy of her spirit and had even withdrawn from friendships and activities that should have been normal for a girl her age. So, she was as ready to escape and start again as her mother was – as relieved to be making this journey as she’d ever been about anything in her young life.
At the end of the road Claudia indicated to turn left and headed towards the Hammersmith flyover. As they passed the shop that used to be hers, Dream Interiors (secretly sold as a going concern over a month ago and soon to be renamed All About Home by the new owners) she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the empty window and it made her feel oddly light-headed. Until yesterday her hair had been fair, shoulder-length and wavy – now it was a rich chestnut colour styled in a messy sort of bob that she actually quite liked. It gave her features more definition, she thought, and seemed to warm her pale complexion. She was nothing like the woman who’d started the shop fifteen years ago, although her eyes were still sky blue and the delicate bone structure that Jasmine’s father, Joel, had captured in so many paintings and sketches remained the same. She’d been tall and curvaceous back then; confident, ambitious and quick to make friends. She was still tall, of course, but so slender now, even gaunt, that it was like watching the ghost of herself passing from the windows of her old life on her way to the new.
She was going to miss her business, and her workers and the clients, but when the time was right she’d start creating the same all over again.
As they circled under the flyover and joined the A4 she was still regularly checking the rear-view mirror, not so much for moving traffic as for anyone who might be following. It wasn’t possible to tell, nor was it possible, surely, for Marcus to have set someone on their tail so soon.
She glanced anxiously at Jasmine, and felt a momentary relief when she received an ironic smile in return.
‘Will you please stop stressing?’ Jasmine scolded with teenage exasperation. ‘You have to let it go, Mum. We’re on our way to a new life and that’s all we should think about. We’re actually pulling it off.’
Claudia followed the traffic and contemplated the truth of those words – we’re pulling it off – although they were hardly ten minutes from what used to be their home, so such optimism was perhaps a little premature. However, everything was going to plan so far. The BMW they were in had been delivered on time late last night; they’d picked up their new phones from a ‘dealer’ a week ago – and most crucially of all, the money from the sale of her business had been successfully transferred from an escrow account into the one she’d opened just after her new passport had come through. Dealing with the bank had been the trickiest part of the operation – did she really look like a money launderer? – but it was done now, thank God, and she’d already managed to draw cash using one of her new cards.
‘So,’ she said, as they finally approached the M4, ‘shall I call you Jas or Jasmine from now on?’
A tilt of a platinum-blonde head, followed by ‘Mm,’ preceded ‘either’s fine. It’s a cool name, don’t you think?’
They’d had this conversation before, several times, so Claudia dutifully said, ‘I do, and it suits you. I wish I’d thought of it when you were born.’
Jasmine glanced over at her mother, her big blue eyes sparkling with mischief. God, she was like her father. ‘Are you OK with Claud?’ she asked cheekily.
Claudia wrinkled her nose. ‘Mum’s better, coming from you.’
Jasmine laughed and pointed to the red light they were approaching too fast.
As they came to a stop, Claudia’s breath caught on another rush of nerves as the reality of their flight descended over her again. To those travelling in the cars around them they must look so ordinary, so unremarkable in their blue estate with nothing on its roof, or sides or anywhere else to alert anyone to what this two-year-old 3 series was actually involved in.
‘How come you’re so relaxed?’ she asked as Jasmine continued downloading apps to her new phone.
Jasmine frowned as she considered the question. ‘Well, I thought one of us ought to be, and as you’re the responsible adult in the car I decided to leave all the negative stuff to you.’
They both started as someone blasted a horn behind, urging them on, and at the same instant Jasmine’s new phone rang. Only one person had the number and to their relief they saw it was her.
‘Hey Nana,’ Jasmine sang out as she clicked on, ‘we’re on our way. Hang on, I’m going to put you on speaker so Mum can hear.’
‘Have you left London yet?’ Marcy, her grandmother, asked.
‘We’re just about to join the M4. How’s everything your end?’
‘So far, so good. I’m at the flat and it’s even lovelier than the first time we saw it, probably because the sun’s shining and the shutters are open. Actually, we had some mail delivered this morning. A letter from EDF confirming our new account, and another from the local authority about the council tax.’
‘I’m guessing both were in your name?’ Claudia asked.
Her mother didn’t have a new identity as such, she’d simply reverted to her maiden name – Kavanagh – which had been a straightforward enough process to arrange, enabling her to rent the flat with references provided by a non-existent ex-employer. Luckily the new landlord hadn’t checked – why would he, when Marcy presented as the world’s most trustworthy individual – so all had gone through quite smoothly.
‘Is our stuff there yet?’ Jasmine wanted to know.
‘It is, and the new furniture is due in about an hour, so the delivery chaps should have been and gone by the time you arrive. I don’t know how we’re going to put it all together, I’m sure, but I suppose we’ll work it out somehow. Oh, and before you ask, yes, I remembered to bring a tool kit.’
‘Super-nan,’ Jasmine cheered.
Surprised again by her daughter’s high spirits, and relieved, Claudia said to her mother, ‘Shall we pick up some groceries on the way?’
‘Don’t worry, I’ll do it, and if I run out of time we can always get pizza delivered.’
And here was another concern, how matter-of-fact her mother was sounding when there was absolutely nothing matter-of-fact about what they were doing.
Was she the only one who was scared out of her mind?
She needed to do as Jasmine said and stop stressing.
‘Have you checked if you’re being followed?’ her mother asked, setting Claudia’s nerves off again.
‘She’s doing it every thirty seconds,’ Jasmine chimed in, ‘but I scoped the whole neighbourhood before we left and I promise you no one was there, so no one watched us leave.’
‘Good girl,’ her grandmother praised. ‘What have you done with your old phones?’
‘We left them at the house,’ Claudia replied, ‘along with our laptops, tablets, and keys. Obviously we made sure there was nothing left on them to give anything away. Do you think it was the right thing to do? Should we have brought them with us?’
‘We discussed it,’ her mother reminded her, ‘and we decided they needed to stay there.’
This was true, but now Claudia wasn’t so sure it had been such a good idea. Great escape-planners they were, but since they’d never done anything remotely like it before they’d had no experience to draw on, only Internet advice which didn’t seem to have let them down yet.
‘I have the replacement iPads and computers here,’ her mother was saying, ‘so we can set them up later.’
‘Did you abandon your old stuff too?’ Jasmine asked.
‘Of course. Actually, I tossed them in the lake – and very freeing it was too.’
Claudia didn’t know whether to be shocked or impressed. The image of her respectable mother, owner of a contacts book to rival a royal’s, driving up to the lake near her home – or rather, old home since she’d left it yesterday – and ending her previous life with a random fling of Apple devices into a wildlife reservoir was hard to get her head around.
Suddenly it was making her laugh. It was hysteria, of course, for there was nothing funny about it, but now she’d started she was finding it difficult to stop.
‘OK, she’s losing it,’ Jasmine declared. ‘I’ll calm her down and we’ll call when we’re about an hour away.’
As the connection ended so did Claudia’s mirth, although the outburst did seem to have soothed her slightly.
‘Are you all right?’ Jasmine asked.
‘Are you sure?’
‘No one behind?’
Claudia’s heart clenched.
‘Sorry, bad joke. No, don’t check.’
‘I’m driving, I have to.’
Accepting that, Jasmine opened her phone again, and as she began setting up her new social media accounts, Claudia said, ‘No photos.’
‘I know that, but I can look at other people’s, right?’
‘You mean your old friends?’
Jasmine shrugged. ‘I didn’t have so many, and I’m not much interested in what they’re doing. I’m trying to find some students who’re at my new school.’
Since the information about that had been on her old laptop before they’d deleted it, Claudia wondered how much she minded searching for it all over again. Their Internet escape-planner had warned against forwarding anything: if they did it wouldn’t take long to trace it to their replacement devices, and in no time at all their new lives would be over.
They should have done the same as her mother and thrown everything into a lake, but it was too late now.
Had her mother remembered to turn off the tracking feature?
She was bound to have done so. They’d discussed it enough times, and Marcy was anything but stupid. In fact, she was the joint mastermind of this operation, had even come up with the original plan, having no idea at that time how complicated it would be to pull off. But step by step they were getting through it and now, here they were, five months on with some of the most difficult challenges already behind them.
At Reading services Jasmine ran in for coffee while Claudia locked herself in the car and checked her own new phone to make sure there were no messages. Fortunately, there were none – and why would there be when she hadn’t set up any accounts yet? No one apart from Vodafone, Jasmine and her mother had the number. Using Bluetooth, she connected to the car’s hands-free system so that she and Jasmine could listen to one of the audio books or podcasts they’d downloaded in preparation for this journey. Chances were they’d be unable to focus, but the option was there if they wanted it, and setting it up was giving her something to do as she waited.
She didn’t look around to check if she was being watched, she simply told herself that she had no chilling sense of it, which could mean either that she was in denial or that her instincts were working.
No one knocked on the window or parked too close.
At last Jasmine returned with two skinny lattes and a fapjack to share. As soon as the passenger door was closed Claudia hit the locks again and after taking a sip of her coffee she started back to the motorway.
It was shortly before eleven o’clock, when they were passing the turn-off for Cirencester and Chippenham, that Jasmine said, ‘Should we try the radio now?’
Experiencing yet another sickening jolt of nerves, Claudia simply nodded.
As they listened to the headlines she was aware of how tightly she was gripping the wheel. Not that she was expecting to hear anything about their disappearance – it was still far too early for that – or about her failure to appear in court this morning – that might not have been noticed either. It was his name she was listening out for, and when it came with the information that a verdict was expected at any minute, she felt the blood pounding too fast in her heart.
Jasmine turned the radio off and said, ‘We’ll try again at midday.’
They were both subdued now – simply hearing his name was enough to do that to them. Jasmine seemed to revert back to the withdrawn and anxious teenager she’d been before her mother and grandmother had plotted the escape. Claudia was internalizing her fears, doing all sorts of bargains with God and the universe if they would just make sure the jury did the right thing.
Maybe she shouldn’t have brought the attaché case.
‘And so we reach the end of the line,’ Jasmine murmured, coming awake as Claudia finally brought the car to a stop outside the freshly whitewashed Victorian villa that was to be their home for the next few months – possibly longer.
It was at the end of a seafront terrace on the busy Promenade, and the apartment they’d leased comprised the entire first floor with three good-sized bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a spacious sitting-cum-dining area with an open-plan kitchen. Its tall sash windows at the front overlooked the windy bay of Kesterly-on-Sea, where a mile-long stretch of sandy beach was hugged by two grassy headlands, and the restless waves provided a playground for surfers, sailors and skiers.
Jasmine was right about it being the end of the line, for the train could go no further than the station at the far end of the Promenade – and access from the motorway was as arduous in parts as it was spectacular in others, as it passed through ever-changing countryside. They’d chosen to come here quite randomly, for their internet search had thrown up many remote towns and hidden villages that could have provided equally good cover, if not better. However, when Marcy had mentioned that she’d come here on holiday a few times as a child, Claudia had allowed that to be the decider. It was the only link they had to the place, which was no link at all really, but Claudia had seen right away how pleased her mother was to agree.
Since their first visit just over six weeks ago, when the three of them had come to check it out, they’d found that it really did have everything they were looking for. They’d wasted no time in contacting an estate agent and by the following day they’d not only managed to secure this flat, they’d also registered with the local authority, and even enrolled Jasmine in the local school to sit her GCSE exams. No references from her previous school had been asked for yet, but Claudia already had a plan for how to handle that when it came up. (Honesty was usually the best policy – and the story she’d concocted was a fair version of it.)
It was as they’d driven back to her mother’s house in the Chew Valley, south of Bristol, that they’d received a call informing them that a completion date for the sale of Claudia’s childhood home had now been set. As requested. it would happen during the week of their planned departure.
Claudia felt more guilt over the loss of that house than she did over anything else, for it was the first and only home her parents had lived in until her father had died.
‘If he were here,’ her mother had argued when Claudia had protested at the suggestion the house should be sold, ‘he’d be doing the exact same thing as I am. You were what mattered to him, and your daughter, and if he knew that selling this place would make you safe he’d have it on the market quicker than you could choose an estate agent.’
Now most of Marcy’s eclectic assortment of furniture, along with much else that had been collected over the years, had been sold with the house, and like Claudia and Jasmine she’d brought only her most precious possessions to Kesterley. However, she had almost three million pounds in her new bank account after cashing in all her other investments, so she could consider herself a wealthy woman by anyone’s standards. And if her small fortune was combined with the profits from the sale of Claudia’s business and the cash in the attaché case in the back of the car – presuming it wasn’t counterfeit – it was fair to say that right now money was the least of their problems.
As Claudia climbed out of the BMW and stretched her too-thin limbs after the long drive, her eyes closed as she found herself assailed by the warm, pungent scent of salty sea air mixing with the sweetness of candyfloss and the metallic taste of traffic fumes. She could hear the hum of the tide surging along with the sound of engines, a musical merry-go-round somewhere close by and the laughter of holidaymakers enjoying the beach. It reminded her of how calming and welcoming she’d found this place the last time they were here – and it was working its magic again.
It was her mother’s voice that broke the spell and, turning to see her coming down the front steps of the villa, Claudia’s heart swelled with love and relief. When had she ever needed her mother more? And when had her mother ever let her down?
‘Nana,’ Jasmine cried and ran straight into her grand-mother’s outstretched arms. Marcy was a picture of sixty-four-year-old elegance with short fair hair, warm brown eyes and a smile that was so like Claudia’s there could never be any doubting their relationship. And dressed as she was now in blue-striped Capri pants and baggy white t-shirt, she looked almost as young and sprightly as her teenage self must have been.
‘Are you OK?’ she asked, coming to embrace Claudia. ‘You look tired.’
‘A bit,’ Claudia admitted, hugging her hard.
‘It’s stressful,’ Jasmine put in, ‘when you’re afraid you’ve got someone after you.’
Through a smile Marcy reminded her to keep her voice down, and following Claudia to the boot of the car she reached for the brown leather attaché case. ‘I presume this is it?’ she said quietly.
Claudia nodded. She should have left it behind.
‘OK, I’ll take it in,’ Marcy said, and winced as she discovered how heavy it was. ‘You two bring the rest of your things.’
‘Did my new music stand arrive yet?’ Jasmine asked, shouldering a holdall and picking up another.
‘DHL tried to deliver while I was at the supermarket, but we can pick it up tomorrow.’ Marcy’s eyes sparkled again as she said, ‘Come and see the furniture. Some of it’s already assembled thanks to Rog, the very handy man the delivery chaps put me in touch with. He’s coming back to finish off in the morning.’
As she started to turn away Claudia asked, because she had to, ‘How did you feel leaving the house yesterday?’
‘It was OK,’ her mother assured her, although the light in her eyes dimmed, ‘but we can talk about it later.’
Claudia’s mouth was dry. If that wasn’t bad enough, she knew what else she needed to ask, so forcing herself, she said, ‘Have you seen the news?’
Marcy’s expression turned to dismay. ‘You didn’t listen to the radio?’
Claudia hadn’t heard the latest bulletin because Jasmine had been sleeping – and because she was hiding behind a wall of dread.
‘We can get it on my laptop,’ Marcy told her, and led the way inside.
Once past the large blue front door with its sculpted box trees either side and bold brass numbers, they had only one flight of stairs to climb to their flat where the hall was an obstacle course of unopened boxes, and the sitting room, equally chaotic, was flooded with sunlight. A gentle sea breeze was wafting about the place adding its scent to the earthiness of cardboard and newness of three mint-green sofas that were half in and half out of their protective covers. A wooden dining table with six upholstered chairs were already assembled and positioned in front of the kitchen where a kettle looked, for the moment, to be the only appliance on duty.
Marcy carried the attaché case through to the far ensuite bedroom that they’d already agreed would be hers, and after sliding it inside a closet she returned to the sitting room to turn on her laptop. When she’d found the news item she was looking for, she hit pause and rested the computer on the boxes stacked against one wall before hitting play.
As she listened and watched Claudia was aware of bile rising in her throat and Jasmine’s hand searching for hers. She linked their fingers and held on tightly.
She wanted to sob with relief, leap for joy, bury herself away so he could never find her again.
‘He hasn’t been sentenced yet,’ her mother told her, ‘but they’re keeping him in custody; he’s still deemed a flight risk.’
Oh yes, he was certainly that. With all those contacts, all that missing money, give him half a chance and he’d never be seen again.
The screen changed and a reporter began talking to camera.
‘So, as widely predicted, financier, Marcus Huxley-Browne, son of the former trade minister Sir Robert Huxley-Browne, has been found guilty on multiple counts of fraud and insider trading. Sir Robert, who’s believed to be suffering with dementia, was not in court to hear the verdict, but we’re expecting a statement from the family lawyer in the next few minutes.’
As the reporter continued to speak, a still shot of Marcus filled the screen, and Claudia felt so sickened and afraid that it was almost as if he was right there in the room with them. He was a strikingly handsome man, she’d never deny that, with his unruly fair hair, flirtatious smile and chiselled features, but even in this shot where he was supposed to appear nothing but friendly she could see the arrogance, the underlying cruelty that governed him.
‘. . . although other arrests have been expected since Huxley-Browne was first taken from his home in West London,’ the reporter was saying, as they cut back to him, ‘none have so far materialized. However, a spokesperson for the Serious Fraud Office has made it clear that their investigation does not end here. As we know, all sorts of rumours have dogged Huxley-Browne and many of his colleagues in the City for several years, but perhaps the most sinister are those concerning gangland connections. If – I stress if – any of these are true, it’s not likely Huxley-Browne will be helping police with their inquiries any time soon.’
‘They’re true,’ Claudia muttered.
‘Was his wife in court today?’ a voice from the studio asked.
Claudia’s heart turned over and she’d have stopped the video there if she hadn’t felt masochistically compelled to know what was said.
‘No, she wasn’t,’ the reporter replied. ‘She hasn’t been seen since the start of the trial, and all attempts to reach her today have so far failed.’
Up came a shot of the Kensington house surrounded by media, and Claudia could only feel thankful that she and Jasmine had managed to get out when they had. Please don’t let them mention anything else about me, she prayed inwardly. Please, please.
To her relief they didn’t, so for this report at least there were no shots of her.
A rangy, stooped man with sharp features and thinning grey hair was now ready to give a statement: the family lawyer.
‘Today has shown us what a travesty of justice looks like,’ he declared, raising his lawyerly voice to be heard. It was hard to tell how many cameras and microphones were trained on him, but his piercing eyes found Sky News as though he somehow knew it was the channel she’d be watching. ‘We will not rest,’ he said, looking straight at her, ‘until this verdict is overturned and my client is once again free to resume his family life.’
The threat was thinly veiled and sent a shiver through Claudia that felt as sharp and cold as ice. She’d never met this man, but she knew instinctively that he was as untrust-worthy and dangerous as Marcus. He had probably even benefited from the crimes his client had committed. However, he surely wouldn’t have known when making his statement that the house in West London had already been abandoned, or that the shop on Kensington High Street had been sold. But he’d find out soon enough, perhaps as early as today, and then there was every chance that the hunt for his client’s wife and stepdaughter would begin.
Forgive Me, the gripping new novel by Sunday Times bestseller Susan Lewis, is available to pre-order now. Out 12th November 2020.