A new spine-tingling thriller from the author of The New Neighbors that takes place over the course of a therapy session, in which neither patient nor therapist are who they claim to be.
Two liars. One room. No way out.
Susanna Fenton has a secret. Fourteen years ago she left her identity behind, reinventing herself as a therapist and starting a new life. It was the only way to keep her daughter safe.
But when a young man, Adam Geraghty, walks into her office, claiming he needs Susanna's help but asking unsettling questions, she begins to fear that her secret has been discovered.
Who is Adam, really? What does he intend to do to Susanna?
And what has he done to her daughter?
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Simon Lelic is a former journalist and the author of the award-winning A Thousand Cuts, the critically acclaimed The Facility and The Child Who, and The New Neighbors, his first psychological thriller, inspired by the love of Alfred Hitchcock and Stephen King. Simon lives with his wife and three children.
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Simon Lelic
3 p.m.–4 p.m.
Right away when she sees the boy she has a feeling she knows him. Or, somehow, that he knows her. The woman she’s hiding, as much as this person she’s become.
He’s dressed as though for a special occasion. Most people probably wouldn’t notice but Susanna is familiar with teenage boys and although this boy is slightly older—nineteen, perhaps? Twenty?—it’s clear he’s selected what he’s wearing with a sense of purpose. His jeans are dark, clean, not ripped. His shirt is untucked but neatly buttoned, and there’s a designer logo above the left breast. His shoes are dress shoes really, not meant to be worn with jeans, but like the rest of the boy’s outfit they’ve been chosen, Susanna suspects, because they’re the best he has. It is the same attire he would pick for a first date. Which is sort of sweet, actually. Touching, that he should have made such an effort just for her.
The sense she knows him fades like déjà vu. What she puts it down to after the initial jolt is the boy’s—the young man’s—unquestionable good looks. His is a face borrowed from a magazine, the kind Susanna can no longer bring herself to read but has fanned on the coffee table in the waiting room outside. Less a waiting room, more a co-opted landing, one she shares with a dentist, Ruth, who practices in the room at the other end of the converted mews house. Between them, in an opened-out bedroom at the top of the stairs, is the desk used mainly by Alina—the Ukrainian woman who doubles as Ruth’s dental assistant and their receptionist—and downstairs, with a separate entrance, is an antiques shop. It’s fully stocked but never open, and neither Susanna nor Ruth has ever met the owner. They joke that the antiques business is just a front. For money launderers, the Devon mafia, ISIS. The truth, Susanna thinks, is that the owner runs his business mainly online and only ever meets clients by appointment. The truth is boring and Susanna prefers it. But Ruth has a predilection for the dramatic. Sometimes Susanna wonders how Ruth would react if she were to discover the truth about her.
The young man, though. His face. He could be a model. He has the bone structure and the blemish-free skin, as well as the eyes—brown and brooding—if not the haircut or the swagger. When he enters the room he does so as though untrusting of the floorboards. His fringe falls across one eye and he gives the impression of peeking out from behind a curtain.
Across his torso is a messenger bag. He unwinds it from his shoulder as he steps a little farther into the room.
“Er . . . hi,” he says, a greeting that sounds as much a question.
“Adam?” Susanna is standing and she offers out a hand. The young man meets it with his own, which Susanna takes as confirmation he’s the person she’s been expecting. Adam Geraghty. The first of two new clients scheduled for that afternoon. Unusual to have two in one day, though given her finances of late, not entirely unwelcome. “I’m Susanna. Come in, please.”
“Or Susie, if you prefer. Anything but Mrs. Fenton, or I’ll constantly be checking behind me for my mother.” It’s a joke and a lie rolled into one, which in Susanna’s mind makes it mostly OK.
Adam smiles. “Susanna,” he repeats.
“Have a seat.” Susanna gestures, and Adam follows the path laid out by her outstretched arm. There are two upholstered chairs—upright but comfortable—angled across from each other in front of the disused fireplace, a small table bearing glasses and a jug of water positioned between them. The chairs are purposefully identical and Adam selects the one farthest from the door. Which makes Susanna wonder whether Adam hasn’t received therapy of some kind before, because in her experience first-timers tend to try to preserve an easy escape route.
He sets his bag down on the floor close beside him and perches on the edge of the chair. He takes a moment to survey his new surroundings. The room is small but relatively bare. There’s Susanna’s desk, haloed by the Georgian windows and as tidy as she can ever seem to get it. There’s the coat stand in the corner by the door, which but for the hat Susanna bought specifically to adorn it would look as spindly and forlorn as a winter tree. There are the bookshelves, loaded and disheveled, and her framed certificates beside a Matisse print on the party wall (Susanna wouldn’t have bothered with the certificates if Ruth hadn’t insisted they would lend her gravitas) but nothing otherwise except the plants and the crisp white paintwork.
“Susanna,” the young man says again. “It sounds wrong.” A pause. “What I mean is, shouldn’t I call you, like, Doctor or something?”
“Sure, if you want to,” Susanna says, “although I’m not one.” She flags the joke this time with a smile. “I’m a counselor,” she clarifies. The joke has fallen flat and she attempts to reestablish a tone of professionalism. “A counselor isn’t the same as a clinical psychologist and it’s a completely different field to psychiatry. Which isn’t to say I’m not qualified.” She shifts. “All I’m really trying to explain is that you don’t need a doctorate to practice in my field. In fact, in some circles it’s actively discouraged.”
She tends to do this: use humor as a defense mechanism, then lurch too far the other way. Whether or not she recognizes the young man, there’s definitely something about him that has set her on edge. Those good looks again, probably. Good God, Susanna. Are you flirting? Shame on you! You must be thirty years older than him at least.
Susanna feels herself glowing and drops her gaze toward her lap. She picks some fluff from the black of her trousers.
“So,” she announces and rehoists her smile. “Why don’t you start by telling me a little bit about why you’re here?”
The boy seems startled. “You mean just launch into it?”
“Let’s start with the basics. Shall we? Your name, age, a bit about your background. That sort of thing. And after that we can move on to what specifically you’re hoping to get out of this conversation.”
Adam adjusts the way he’s sitting. “OK,” he says. “Sure. My name’s Adam. Adam Geraghty. I was born here. In England, I mean. In London, actually, not here here. And I suppose . . .” He stops, shuffles again, winces. “Look, do you mind if I just come out with it? The way you said. Can I just tell you why I’m here and then you can tell me whether you think you can help or not?”
“Well . . .”
“I don’t want to sound rude or anything. It’s just, I don’t want to waste your time and if I’m honest I don’t really have that much money. And actually, I’m also feeling slightly nervous. More than slightly.” He grins bashfully. It’s a schoolboy grin and Susanna feels a tiny fracturing in her heart.
“Sorry,” Adam is saying. “Sorry. That’s not how this is done, is it? Sorry,” he says again, running his hands through his hair. “You’d never guess this was my first time, would you?” He reddens, then adds somewhat hastily, “Talking to someone like you, I mean.”
Susanna warms as well at the unintended innuendo. “It’s fine, Adam. Really. You’re in charge here, not me. We can start however you want to start and we don’t have to talk about anything you don’t want to unless you’re ready to do so.”
Watching Adam’s reaction, Susanna realizes why she thought she knew him. It’s not his looks. It’s his smile. The way the left side of his mouth pulls higher than his right; the little glimpse he allows the world of his milky teeth. It’s a goofy smile. Innocent. Familiar.
“I guess what I’m wondering about is how long this usually takes,” Adam says. “You know. To fix things.”
Susanna blinks and locks her eyes on Adam.
“There’s a common misconception when it comes to counseling,” she explains, “that what we’re working toward is the resolution of a particular problem.” She pauses, watches Adam’s eyebrows arrow slightly in the silence. “That’s not what counseling is really about. I’m here to help you, yes, but what I’m most interested in is helping you to find a way to help yourself. In all circumstances. Holistically.” She believes this, passionately, but she’s worried Adam will be put off by the terminology.
“All I’m trying to say,” she goes on, “is that it’s a process. An open-ended one. Your question was how long this usually takes but I’m afraid I can’t give you an answer. It could be we see progress after six sessions. It might equally turn out that you and I aren’t suited to each other at all. Sorry to sound so wooly but there are just so many variables.”
“Like what’s bothering me.”
“Like what’s bothering me. You said there are lots of variables, and one of them, I guess, is what it is that’s actually bothering me. Right?”
“Well, yes. Although . . .” Keep it simple, Susanna. “Yes, that’s one of the variables, absolutely.”
“So about that . . .” Adam says. “I mean, is it OK if we talk about that now?”
Susanna can see he’s desperate to get it off his chest. This thing. The perceived problem that brought him to Susanna’s office in the first place, which Susanna can pretty much guarantee isn’t what’s really bothering him at all. That’s the way it usually works. A client comes in focused on one thing—some experience they’re convinced is at the center of their unhappiness—and it turns out to be something else completely.
“Of course,” she says. “If you think it would help, by all means let’s address it.”
Adam doesn’t shuffle the way she’s expecting him to. From the way he’s so far referred to his “problem,” his obvious embarrassment about whatever it is that’s troubling him, she expects him to shift, to clear his throat, to take a moment to summon up the courage and at the last to mumble it toward the floor.
But he doesn’t do that. He sits perfectly still and when he speaks he looks Susanna squarely in the eye.
“There’s something I want to do,” he says.
“Something you want to do?”
“Something . . . bad. And the thing is . . .” He hasn’t moved. Hasn’t once dropped his gaze from hers, but there’s a tiny smile now playing on his lips. And it’s not a goofy smile this time. It’s not a goofy smile at all. “The thing is, Susanna,” Adam goes on, all innocence now drained from his expression, “I don’t know if I can stop myself.”
“You haven’t responded,” Adam says. He runs his hands through his hair again. He is tearing at it almost, the way her ex-husband used to do whenever he and Susanna argued—which, by the end, had been virtually every time they were together.
“I shouldn’t have said anything,” Adam goes on. “You don’t even know me and I . . . I mean, I haven’t even asked you about confidentiality. About whether, you know. You would have to say anything. If I . . . were I to . . .”
“Adam.” She uses his name to focus him. To focus herself. “Adam, listen. It’s fine. I promise. You should feel free to say anything you want to. Anything you need to. That’s what these discussions between us are all about. Openness. Honesty.”
Adam is looking at her dubiously, the way a school kid might look at a teacher who’s caught him doing something he shouldn’t but has assured him it’s OK to go on. Like it’s a trap, in other words. Like she’s trying to trick him.
“As for confidentiality,” Susanna says, “what transpires in this room is entirely privileged. That means you can trust me as much as you would trust your doctor, say, or your solicitor. The only exception is if I were to deem you to be a threat. To yourself, I mean. Or to others.”
It is so subtle that Susanna almost doesn’t notice it: Adam shows a shadow of a flinch.
“Adam? I promise you I would never breach our bond unless we’d absolutely come to a dead end. I’m here to help you. That’s my priority. And I know I can’t possibly hope to do that unless you feel able to trust me. To confide in me.”
“So that’s a rule,” Adam answers. “Like a law? You’re not allowed to say anything unless I agree you can? To . . . I don’t know. To the authorities, I guess. Like”—Adam’s eyes peek out at her from beneath his fringe—“to the police.”
Susanna does her best not to react.
“That’s right,” she responds. “I can’t tell anyone anything about you, not unless I believe you’re about to hurt someone—yourself included—and there’s nothing more I feel I can do to keep you safe.”
Adam is considering. Deciding, Susanna assumes.
Finally he puffs out a breath. “Can I start at the beginning?”
“Please do,” Susanna says.
“So there’s this girl . . .”
If Susanna had been put on the spot, she probably would have guessed Adam’s story would begin like this. Girl/boy—one or the other. Adam doesn’t come across as being homosexual but Susanna has been surprised before by her clients’ sexual proclivities. Not that she’s judgmental. For all her faults, that’s one thing she’s never been. Not like Neil, her ex-husband, who’d once confessed to her that his biggest fear was that their son, Jacob, Jake to his parents and his mates, would turn out “queer.” This shocked Susanna at the time but now she finds it almost laughable—Neil’s prejudice, yes, but also that there was a time when her husband’s biggest fear centered on the manner in which their only son would fall in love.
“She’s younger than me. This girl. Not a lot. Just, like, three years younger.”
Susanna realizes she still doesn’t know Adam’s exact age. If he is indeed nineteen or twenty, that would make this girlfriend of his sixteen or seventeen. Two or three years older than Emily, then, Susanna’s daughter, her only child other than Jake.
“She’s pretty, I guess. Not just pretty. She’s beautiful actually. She’s slim, kind of short, I suppose, and she’s got this amazing hair, like, I don’t know. Like polished wood. It’s sort of brown but also red in places, gold even, and it shines like she’s advertising shampoo. And she’s got this laugh. I don’t really know how to describe it. It’s kind of a dirty laugh, you could say, but at the same time it’s exactly the opposite. It’s just pure. With no malice in it. It’s like she laughs and you want to laugh too. You know?”
Susanna nods, and Adam, instead of continuing, all at once clamps his lips tight, as though he’s embarrassed. And perhaps he’s worried that he’s coming across as soppy, daft even, which maybe in his terms he is but to Susanna’s ear all he sounds like is a young man who is very much in love.
“She’s obviously a very attractive young woman.”
Adam appears worried at first that Susanna is mocking him but then he allows her a glimpse of that schoolboy grin.
“She is,” he says. “Absolutely, she is. And that’s why I’m so worried, I suppose. About . . .” The grin freezes, fades.
“About what, Adam? What is it you’re worried about?”
“I’m worried about . . .”
“I’m worried about hurting her,” Adam states, and there’s a silence as understanding blooms between them that he’s not talking about hurting her feelings.
Susanna is careful to remain quite still.
“What is it that makes you think you might hurt her?”
And the way Adam looks at her now . . . It’s like before, when he first alluded directly to his “problem” (There’s something I want to do) and all innocence drained from his expression. It occurred to Susanna then that Adam was more troubled than she’d initially assumed and that maybe she was right to be wary of him.
But the instinct is fleeting and quickly the notion reestablishes itself that, whatever it is about Adam that has been niggling at her, it’s linked to Susanna’s past, not his. It’s her problem, in other words her baggage.
“Adam? What is it that makes you think you might hurt her?” Susanna repeats.
“It’s just . . .” Adam takes a breath and expels the air slowly. “It just feels right somehow,” he says at last. “That’s the only way I can think to describe it. Like . . .” He is on the brink of speaking again, then shakes his head.
“Keep going, Adam,” Susanna says. “Remember, I’m not here to judge you. If the words don’t sound right the first time, no one’s going to stop you taking them back. We have all the time we need to get this right.”
“Adam? Why is it you think you might—”
“Because she deserves it,” Adam suddenly gushes. And this time there is genuine anger in his expression. He is leaning forward, elbows on knees, and there is a passion—a fervor—in his eyes. “Except, maybe I don’t even mean her,” Adam continues. “Maybe who I really mean is . . .”
Susanna watches him, still startled by the intensity of Adam’s outburst. Is . . . who? Ordinarily Susanna’s instinct would be to say Adam was alluding to himself, that he is the person he feels should suffer, perhaps because subconsciously he doesn’t believe he deserves to be in the relationship in the first place. But it’s odd. For some reason she can’t escape the feeling that he has in mind someone else entirely.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Adam announces, reclining and folding his arms.
Susanna allows an extended pause.
“Let’s go back a bit,” she says at last. “Shall we?”
Adam looks at her questioningly.
“Can you tell me a little bit about your parents?” Susanna says. “About what things were like when you were young?”
There is another flash in Adam’s eyes that Susanna doesn’t fully understand. Irritation, perhaps? Anger again? Triumph, even? It could be any of those things. All of them. None.
“You said you grew up in London, for example,” Susanna persists. “Is that right?”
“Yes. No. I mean, I was born in London,” Adam tells her, “but I didn’t grow up there. I grew up sort of all over the place really.”
“Your parents traveled?”
“My old man did. Although I’m not sure traveling is quite the right word. Running, more like.”
“Meaning he was a waste of space.” A flash of anger again, barely contained. And beneath it, Susanna judges, something more, something she can’t quite put her finger on.
For the moment, she decides to let it slide. “What about your mother, Adam?” she asks instead.
Adam’s lips crease at one corner. He ignores the question Susanna asked him. “I know what you’re thinking,” he states.
And Susanna is convinced for an instant that he does.
“You’re thinking about my background,” Adam goes on. “You’re wondering whether that’s part of this. Part of the way I’ve been feeling.”
Susanna smiles, as much for her sake as for Adam’s.
“I am, as it happens.”
“You’re probably right,” Adam says. “In fact, I’m sure you are.”
Susanna feels her eyes go narrow. “What makes you say that?”
“That’s the way it is for everyone. Where we come from, our secret pasts—we can’t escape them. They define us. Control us. Trap us even, sometimes.” Adam looks at her intently. “Don’t you think?”
Susanna, paralyzed, stares back. And a grip of ice closes around each of her shoulders.
She stands. Conscious that Adam is watching her, she moves across the floor until she is hovering at the visitor’s side of her desk.
“Is everything OK?” There is the sound of Adam leaning forward in his chair. “Did I say something wrong?”
Susanna forces a smile. She tries to show it to Adam without fully turning round. She needs a moment. Just a moment.
“No, of course not, I . . . I was looking for a pen, that’s all. And my notepad.” She makes a show of searching her desktop.
“You’re going to take notes? I thought you weren’t supposed to take notes? The last therapist I saw, he said something about it interfering in the process.”
And there it is: the first time Susanna understands categorically that Adam hasn’t been entirely honest with her. He claimed that he’d never had counseling before, and yet with one simple observation, he’s given himself away.
“Like, I say something,” Adam is explaining, “you write it down, then I change what I say next based on what you’ve chosen to record. Right?”
Because she deserves it.
So he lied. It’s no big deal. Clients cover up all the time. And truth, Susanna knows, is subjective. Isn’t that what her training taught her? What feels true to the client is what counts, not what’s fact and what’s fiction.
Our secret pasts . . .
There is a pen beneath Susanna’s hovering fingers and she forces herself to pick it up. “Right,” she says. “That’s exactly right. The pen, the notepad—they’re for after.”
She reestablishes her smile. She turns . . .
. . . and is rocked by what she sees in Adam’s eyes: sheer, unadulterated hate.
It is as though he has been unmasked. He looks . . . older? Younger? Crueler, certainly, and with that, somehow also more familiar: the way he seemed to Susanna when he first walked in. As for that innocence she detected earlier in his demeanor, it’s like a sheen that has cracked and peeled away.
Trust herself. How many times has she been over this? She knew something was off, so why didn’t she trust herself?
“Are you OK, Susanna?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You look afraid, all of a sudden. I’m not scaring you, am I?”
He sounds pleased.
“Scaring me?” Susanna laughs. “No, of course not, why should you . . .”
But he is. Absolutely he is. There’s no denying it anymore: something about him frightened her from the beginning. She can rationalize all she wants but now she’s acknowledged it, it’s as obvious as the fear itself.
“You’ve been lying to me,” she finds herself saying. “Haven’t you?” This is something in ordinary circumstances Susanna would never do. Force a client to confront their inconsistencies. Accuse them, basically. But she has no doubt that Adam is pushing her—testing her?—and instinctively she feels an urge to push back.
There is a moment when Adam remains perfectly still.
Then, “You’ve got me,” he says. And it is not only Adam’s appearance now that seems altered. It is his posture, his voice, everything. He unbuttons the collar of his shirt, slumps slightly in his chair. Susanna thinks of actors, slackening as they slip off stage. Of news anchors, ridiculously—of how their personas must alter the instant the camera light blinks off.
“It was the notepad, wasn’t it?” Adam is saying. “Me saying you weren’t supposed to take notes?” He shakes his head, laughs at himself. “I was trying to impress you, I guess. I’ve done a lot of research, you see. I know my stuff.”
Research? Susanna is about to echo, when Adam hits his forehead with the heel of his palm. Hard.
And then he laughs again.
“But that was all,” he says. “I’ve seen other counselors, I admit it. But my problem. My dilemma, I suppose you could call it. That was genuine.”
Susanna’s throat is clogged with questions. With shock, with confusion, with fear.
“Here,” Adam says. “Maybe this will help you understand.” He leans sideways, and slips his hand into his rear jeans pocket. From it he produces a piece of paper.
At first Susanna doesn’t move.
“Here,” Adam repeats and this time when he waves the piece of paper Susanna finds herself reaching for it. She takes it, turns it over.
And sees her daughter looking back at her in a photograph.