To him, she seemed perfect. But what is Alison hiding?
THE BRIDGE, Stuart Prebble’s “brilliantly executed” (Dayton Daily News) new thriller, goes on sale today. It’s a gripping novel (with a stunning cover, if we do say so ourselves!) that asks the terrifying question: what if the woman of your dreams is not what she seems? Get started into the mystery with this exclusive excerpt.
IT WAS A sunny Saturday afternoon, and sightseers and tourists from all parts of the world crowded onto the South Bank, streaming in both directions across Waterloo Bridge. Some were walking to or from Covent Garden or the theaters; others stopped to admire the spectacular London skyline. At first glance the Madman seemed harmless enough, just a little the worse for wear from alcohol perhaps, or maybe celebrating a victory by his football team. Dressed in blue jeans and a gray hoodie, he muttered to himself and danced light-footed as he progressed, lifting his legs high like a week-old pony. Once or twice he paused and bent his knees to speak at eye level to a child, but later no one could identify the accent or decipher the words. Parents kept a watchful eye, but there seemed to be no reason for alarm. Then, with no warning, in a single sweeping movement and before anyone could intervene, the Madman scooped up the first tiny child, a four-year-old boy apparently selected at random, and swept him over the barrier.
There was a momentary snapshot of paralysis. The boy had made no sound. Was it some trick? Had the man switched the real boy for a dummy in some bizarre and ill-judged entertainment? Before anyone could take a breath the Madman had run half a dozen steps farther towards the next child, a three-year old girl in a pink dress with birthday ribbons in her hair. Once again he gripped the child under the arms and swept her up and over the barrier, her legs suddenly pedaling through nothingness. Even now, shock and disbelief immobilized bystanders. He darted forward again and grabbed another, and yet another. Each child was seemingly as light as a wafer, flicked up to shoulder height and thrust out into emptiness. Four small people, infants and toddlers, lifted up in the space of twelve or fifteen seconds and thrown over the wall before the Madman took to his heels and vanished like a phantom into the holiday crowds.
A mother fell to her knees, cracking bones against pavement, and shuffled towards the wall as if drawn towards it like a magnet. It took more moments for the screams from the bridge to catch the attention of people below on the South Bank, and fuller realization of what had occurred spread through the crowds like waves of poison gas across a battlefield. Scores of people held their heads and covered their ears as if to prevent the news from penetrating. Eyes were turned upwards towards the sound of the cries and then followed the pointing arms into the water below. Desperate and still confused, one father jumped from the bridge and hit the surface with the slap of raw meat against concrete, but even as he submerged, already the bobbing heads which were still visible had traveled a hundred yards in the churning foam. Another brave man jumped into the water from the riverbank and struck out with an urgent stroke in the direction of the fast-moving shapes. Both were overwhelmed within moments by the strength of the swell.
The first police officers arrived on the bridge within two minutes and began trying to calm the hysteria sufficiently to understand what had happened, but it seemed that no two accounts from among the many were sufficiently similar to produce a consensus. He was variously described as eighteen years old at one extreme to about thirty-five at the other. He had brown hair or black hair or auburn hair. He was tall, medium, and short, and had an athletic build or was running to fat. The only clear agreement was about the jeans and the gray hoodie, which made him a match for about two hundred other young men in the vicinity that afternoon. CCTV recordings examined later lost track of him minutes before the incident and lost him again as a pinprick in the crowd within seconds after it.
The prime minister interrupted his holidays to visit the scene and consult on camera with the chief constable. On TV he pronounced himself to be “shocked and horrified by this appalling and inexplicable act” before commiserating with the bereaved families and promising that the culprit would be found and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
Police appeals for drivers who had passed through the area to come forward produced immediate responses. Like a storm or an earthquake, it was the kind of incident which compelled complete strangers to seek solace in sharing the horror. Men swore out loud that they would have reacted more quickly after the mayhem had started. Women sucked on their teeth and silently thanked God it was not them or their families. Parents of small children kept them under more vigilant surveillance or held them just a little bit tighter.
“Good God, that’s only a couple of miles from here,” said Alison. “Didn’t we pass near there ourselves earlier?”
“I guess we must have been a few hundred yards away.” Michael’s immediate instinct was to put whatever distance he could between the incident and themselves. “We drove by Waterloo Station, but that would put us among literally tens of thousands of people.”
The couple was part of a group of families and friends waiting for visiting to start at the Greenacres care home in Battersea. This was not the first time that Michael Beaumont had introduced one of his girlfriends to his grandmother, but it was the first such occasion in the three months since she had moved from the apartment he shared with her and into the home. It was just eight weeks since he had met Alison, and he was still getting to know her, but Michael already knew enough to be sure that he wanted her to meet his grandmother. Not that he needed Rose’s approval, but there was no doubt that she was the only person whose good opinion he cared about. Rose had brought him up as her own child, and he had her to thank for everything he was or had ever achieved. Michael knew that it was all a bit soon, but there was also a part of him—one that he did not want to acknowledge—which was anxious not to delay.
Alison had joined the other visitors gathered around the TV news and was absorbed by the continuing live coverage of the scene at Waterloo Bridge. By now the first photographs of some of the murdered children were available. Small hopeful faces looked out from beneath peaked school caps or smiled from sunlit beaches. Three of the dead children had been identified, while one remained unnamed until all next of kin had been informed.
What seemed to be an unending series of witnesses was queuing to give their accounts, and already the police were expressing concern at the apparent disparity in what had been seen; all they had in common was their expressions of disbelief and horror. Many wept as they described their perspectives, and Michael saw Alison wipe away a tear from the corner of her eye. He went towards her, taking her hand, and she half turned to acknowledge him, attempting a smile.
“Those children,” she said. “Those poor families.”
The clickety-click of heels on the hard floor alerted them to the approach of the nurse who would unlock the doors which kept the residents secure. Michael felt the need to shift attention back to the main purpose of their visit and wanted to reassure Alison one last time. “I always hope for the best, but mentally I prepare for the worst.”
She smiled more freely and squeezed his hand in return. “It’ll be fine, don’t worry.” Her accent was her souvenir from the eight years she had spent working as a tour guide on the other side of the world, and from where she had returned only a few months ago. “I promise not to bite her if she doesn’t bite me.”
The couple tagged along at the back of the group which proceeded through the main corridor, one or more of them peeling off in turn as they passed the open doors of the residents’ private rooms. Michael glanced into them, and in almost every case saw that TV screens were tuned to the terrible news from central London.
“Does she always know who you are?” They had arrived outside of the door of Rose’s room—number 23—and paused for a moment before entering.
“Not always, not recently, and it feels really weird when she doesn’t. It’s like someone you know well has had their own personality transplanted and had it replaced by a complete stranger’s. Honestly, it can be a bit freaky.”
Before they turned to enter her room, Michael could see through the open door that the TV on the wall was also tuned to the news, which was now recapping for what must be the hundredth time the events of earlier in the day. The interviewer was speaking to witnesses who had seen what happened from below, on the South Bank, and only then did he realize that he and Alison had also eaten lunch not far away from the bridge and could so easily have been caught up in the incident. The thought made him shudder, and he inhaled deeply, trying to refocus on the needs of the moment. He mouthed a silent mantra of hope for what was to come, tightened his grip on Alison’s hand, and stepped inside.
His grandma Rose had never been what people would describe as a beauty, but she had about her a poise and elegance which had not deserted her in older age. One of the nurses at Greenacres said when she first arrived that Rose reminded her of Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy. Michael had not seen the film but was happy that the comparison had pleased his grandmother. Now, though, she was sitting in an upright armchair next to her bed, seeming neither surprised nor pleased and betraying no hint of whether or not she recognized him. He noticed that her once-striking pale blue eyes seemed to be a shade paler, and perhaps her stare was a touch more vacant in the few days since he had last visited. He stood between his grandmother and the TV and then was not sure whether her gaze had moved at all from the direction of the screen.
“Hello, Grandma.” Michael spoke in the most upbeat tone he could summon, and the sound of his voice drew her eyes a few millimeters towards him. Still he could not be sure whether she had registered, but in a few seconds a small light seemed to be dawning and a flicker of recognition dug a deeper crease into the crevices which fanned out at the edges of her lips. Hoping to build on a kick-start of reaction, Michael continued, “I’ve brought someone to see you.” Alison had entered the room after Michael and was partially obscured behind him. She stepped forward and spoke.
“Hello, Mrs. Beaumont.” Her tone was cheerful, and her accent sounded carefree. “I’m very pleased to meet you. I’m Alison.” It was not the sound of her voice which drew Rose’s eyes but her further movement forward with hand outstretched. Rose’s gaze followed her visitor from the open hand, up her arm, and finally to register her face. When she got there, Grandma Rose looked at Alison for a few seconds, seeming to struggle to adjust her focus, and then, rather than looking up and into the outside world, it was as though she was looking in reverse into her own head, into a labyrinth of long-buried memories.
And then she started to scream.
Order THE BRIDGE by Stuart Prebble here.