My Tuesday Thriller this week is the gripping pyschological thriller You Can Trust Me by Emma Rowley.
You can trust me.
But can I trust you?
Olivia is the domestic goddess who has won millions of followers by sharing her picture-perfect life online. And now she’s releasing her tell-all autobiography.
For professional ghostwriter Nicky it’s the biggest job of her career. But as she delves deeper into Olivia’s life, cracks begin to appear in the glamorous façade. From the strained relationship with her handsome husband, to murky details of a tragic family death in her childhood, the truth belies Olivia’s perfect public image.
But why is Olivia so desperate to leave an old tragedy well alone? And how far will she go to keep Nicky from the truth?
Ghostwriter Nicky Wilson has gone to stay with her new client, influencer Olivia Hayes, to help her write a bestselling book. She soon learns, however, that Olivia’s beautiful family home has a past that Olivia doesn’t want to talk about. Here, Nicky has gone into the cellar looking for clues as to what really happened when a fire devastated the house decades ago, when Olivia was just a little girl. But she may find something else entirely…
I take the first step, pulling the door to behind me so that just a thin strip of light from the cellar cuts across the kitchen floor. I can’t quite bring myself to shut it. Then I go down the stairs, gripping the banister to my left. At the bottom, under the bare bulb, I look at the paper in my shaking hand.
It is easy to miss at a glance.
The sheet of paper shows four shapes: the first two – the main floor and the upstairs floor – follow the same sprawling footprint. The attic space is a smaller set of boxes, while another diagram shows the cellar layout: three rooms, off this little hallway.
And that’s it, but for a little detail – a line of dots in a square, that someone has barely bothered to mark on the floor of the biggest cellar room. A place like this is full of nooks and crannies, after all.
But I understand what it means now. That there is another space down here, deep in the heart of the house. I just have to find the way in.
I know there are no stairs or doors or anything like that, from when I looked around before. And as I go into the room, the one with the table tennis table and dart board, I still can’t see how . . .
Then I remember how I noticed before that the carpet doesn’t go right to the walls. And when I bend down to lift its edge, it comes away easily. I roll it back a few metres to expose an old brick floor: small thin bricks in a herringbone pattern, so smooth and shiny with age that I am sure they were not part of any rebuild.
I’m inside the old house, I think, the house that burned down. The door should be about here, but the plans are rough. So I shuffle the table back, to clear the way – I am sweating now, despite the chill in the air – then roll the carpet back further until I see the dark wood blackened by age, or perhaps smoke. Age, I tell myself.
I haul the carpet all the way off it. There is a metal ring set towards one side of the trapdoor, cool to the touch.
I expect resistance as I pull, but it swings open easily, the hinges silent. I stop it from banging against the table, resting the open door against one metal leg.
I can smell earth and damp inside but can’t see anything except steep wooden steps, almost a ladder, and a patch of bare earthen floor. I wish I had brought my phone with me for its torch. I didn’t think this through.
But this is OK. There will be plenty of light from the bulb overhead.
Before I can spook myself further, I turn round and descend the wooden steps as quickly as I can, feeling the grain of each smooth, flat board under my hands. As my bare feet touch the ground, I spin round, braced for another surprise, as my eyes adjust to the dimness – but find nothing but bricks and the dirt floor.
It is cold in here. It’s just a little space, the arched walls the same neat herringbone brick as the floor above: I could almost touch the sides if I stretched my arms out wide.
An old wine cellar? There is nothing in here now but a cardboard box, pulled an inch or two away from the walls so the damp can’t seep in.
A wide strip of brown masking tape holds the top folds down. I unpeel it carefully, but it has long ago lost its stickiness . . .
The light overhead flickers for a second.
I look up, holding my breath.
Everything is still. But I want to hurry, I am going to have to bend the cardboard folds a little, they are slotted around each other . . .
And I can smell something – can I be imagining it? But it is there, so faint. The acrid tang, thin as a ghost, of smoke and fire.
Careless now, I tear open the box.
There is not much in it. Just junk, on the face of it. But my heart starts to thud as I sift through the contents.
A set of wooden skittles. A small badminton racquet. These must have been kept outside. A white mug printed with a Disney princess has come through almost unscathed but for the long cracks in its glazing – it must have been found among the rubble inside the house. And here is a book that I pick up carefully: a children’s Bible, its blackened edges stuck together.
I knew that photo album, pieced together by other people, couldn’t be all Olivia had left of her life before. This is what I couldn’t find when I searched the house above me – these old secrets, hidden below . . .
I freeze, lifting my head. Did I hear something, feel something in the air – a breeze? All the hairs on my arms are standing up.
But nothing changes.
I turn back to the box. I suppose the focus after the fire would have been to retrieve any valuables that survived, jewellery or silverware. So I wonder who collected all this, things with only sentimental value, if that. It’s like no one has looked at them since . . .
Gingerly, I lift up a skittle: underneath is an old football, still holding air. But there is something else under that, chunky under my fingertips.
I pull it out: it’s a small silver frame. The glass protecting the photo is smeared with dirt, but I can see the family inside. Why isn’t this in the album upstairs?
I fiddle with the metal fastenings at the back, stiff with age, and open it up. It is a lovely family shot, as they all were before the fire. Elsa and Alex, him smiling, golden, her all big dark eyes, and between them a young Olivia, maybe ten or so, a black velvet bow in her hair, and––
It must be a movement in the corner of my eye that makes me look up, because I didn’t hear a sound. The trapdoor swings towards me, shutting out the light.
I shoot my hands up to catch the underside of the trapdoor before it slams shut completely, stretching to hold it open. For a second, I expect to feel pressure against it. Then, driven by instinct, I clamber up the steps as quickly as I can, one hand keeping the door open, to see . . .
No one is there.
I shouldn’t have left it propped open like that, leaning against the table leg. Lucky I caught it – I don’t know how easy it would be to open from the inside.
I shiver, wanting to get out of here now. But I make myself arrange the door so it can’t swing shut again, then go back down to replace things as they were.
I dropped the frame when I caught the trapdoor and the glass has cracked – so I thrust it to the bottom of the box face down, then fold the soft cardboard back into place, arranging the tape on top as if it came loose. It’s the best I can do.
Then I scramble up the steps again, shut the trapdoor, unroll the carpet and push the table back. I am standing back, checking how it all looks, when I hear it: the faint moan that I register as the hinge of the cellar door at the top of the stairs as it swings slowly back towards its frame.
But that’s OK too. There wasn’t a Yale lock or anything that would click shut . . .
And then, with the softest of plinks, all the lights go out.
The darkness is total. I can’t see anything, not even the hand I bring to my face. The switch was on the wall outside the cellar, to control all the lights, but did I see any down here too? There must be one in each room, surely . . .
I start to walk round the edge of the room, one hand on the cold wall to orient myself. I just need to find the doorway, and then I will be in the hall, the stairs over to my left.
Who turned off the lights?
Don’t think about that. Maybe they were on a timer.
But my breathing sounds too loud in the pitch black, and it takes longer than I expect to find the doorway out of the room: wasn’t there just this one wall here, not this corner too? I don’t feel a switch anywhere.
If only I had left a light on above in the kitchen, to signal where the edge of the cellar door might be. But it’s OK, I’ve found the doorway of this room now, so it’s just a few steps more to the cellar stairs.
I slide my feet forward carefully, remembering the stuff stacked in the little hall, but still I knock into something, the jangle of gears and chains telling me it’s a bicycle. They surely can’t hear me, upstairs in their bedroom, but I am fast-forwarding to my embarrassment, my cheeks flushing, as Olivia and Josh listen with polite bemusement to my excuses . . .
Better that than getting stuck in here.
Shut up, shut up.
I stop for a second to try to work out where I am. But I hate this darkness, so thick it’s almost a living, pulsing thing against me.
I put my hands out a little in front of me, and shuffle to the left. I can’t bring myself to stretch them out properly, afraid to touch something I don’t expect . . .
Then – oh thank you God – one foot hits something hard: the bottom step. I put out my right hand and fumble for the banister, and there it is, relief is flooding through me, I’m nearly out of here, and I relax enough to let out a shuddering sigh, almost a gasp. I didn’t want to admit how scared I was, lost in the bowels of the old house––
And that’s when I hear it: soft, but crystal clear.
Someone sighs back at me.
Emma Rowley is a writer, ghostwriter and editor with a background in newspaper journalism. She has spent considerable time in the courts and covering major crime stories, which informed her first novel, Where The Missing Go, a 2020 Edgar nominee for The Simon & Schuster Mary Higgins Clark Award. Her second thriller, You Can Trust Me, is inspired by her experiences as a celebrity ghostwriter. Visit emmarowley.co.uk for updates.
Twitter: @emma_rowley Insta: @emmacharlotterowley FB: EmmaRowleyAuthor
Thanks for dropping by to tell us about your novel, Emma.
Published by Bookouture on 23rd November. Now on preorder: Amazon: https://geni.us/B08GKRRPWHCover