My Uber driver gives me a dejected look in his rear- view mirror. For the past ten minutes we’ve barely moved. He points to the solid red line of congestion displayed on his map, covering the next two miles. The traffic along the river road is gridlocked. At this rate, it will take me over an hour to get from Richmond, through the village of St Marnham and on to my home in the London Borough of Haddley.
I look out at the late October evening where darkness has descended. ‘Probably quicker if I jump out here,’ I say. ‘I can walk the rest of the way along the river.’ My driver raises the palms of his hands and shrugs. ‘Hopefully you can pick up a fare going in the other direction,’ is my half- hearted apology, before I open the passenger- side door and climb out.
‘We will see,’ he calls wearily. I stand on the pathway and watch him turn his car in the road before he accelerates away from the west London traffic.
The evening is cold and my warm breath lingers in the crisp air. I zip up my jacket and push my hands deep inside my pockets. Stepping down onto the embankment path, I feel the crunch of fallen leaves beneath my feet. The towpath leads into St Marnham, before I have to cut across the playing fields on the north side of the village and on towards Haddley Common.
My phone buzzes. Flicking open the screen, its light brings a brightness to the darkened pathway. The message is from Madeline Wilson, my boss at the nation’s number one online news site. I’ve spent the last six hours with her at her home overlooking Richmond Park, finalising the script for a true- crime podcast I’m due to begin recording in a week’s time. Madeline is now messaging me with even more suggestions. That’s Madeline all over – she’s relentless, always ready with a stream of new ideas. Journalism is in her blood; her passion inherited from her father, Sam, an old- school newspaperman. She’d never want to admit it, but I know her unwavering determination to be the first to uncover the best possible story comes from her dad. I guess I got the same from her.
In the weeks approaching the podcast’s recording, Madeline’s support of me has been unflinching. Six months ago, with the help of a local police officer, PC Dani Cash, I unearthed the truth behind my mother’s death and the brutal killing of my brother, Nick. Murdered when he was only fourteen, his death has held a morbid fascination for much of the country for almost a quarter of a century. It’s Nick’s story the podcast will tell.
I was eight when my brother was killed and the loss will stay with me until the day I die. For many years it was simply impossible for me to comprehend. The horrifying nature of his murder meant my name, Ben Harper, became known both nationally and internationally and for much of my life, I lived in shadow of his death and my family’s grief. After my mother died, from an apparent suicide, I knew my only way forward was by not looking back. But then, earlier this year, that changed when new information came to light about my family’s story. Once I finally discovered the truth, I wanted everyone else to know it too. I published the story for our news site and it attracted global attention as well as, much to Madeline’s delight, record reader numbers. I know the release of the podcast will bring further painful attention to my family’s story, but my overriding determination is for the truth to be known. Nick was my hero, and this is the only way I know to deliver justice for the life so brutally stolen from him. I still miss him and my mum every single day.
St Marnham is brightly lit by street lamps, but as soon as I reach the playing fields on the far side of the village, I find myself in darkness again. Picking my way along the path, I feel the chill rise into the soles of my feet. Through the darkness, I see flashing lights appear in the distance and moments later I step aside as two cyclists race past me on their journey home at the end of the office week. I pass a floodlit running track, where a lone sprinter braves the artic breeze, her rapid stride powering her down the long home straight. From outside the newly built brick sports pavilion, I can hear a frighteningly energetic fitness class taking place inside.
To make the shortcut through to my home on Haddley Common, saving me a mile- long walk along the road, I enter the small copse of trees at the far end of the playing fields. From there I scramble down the bank that leads through to the back of St Stephen’s churchyard. At the bottom of the bank, I reach the set of iron railings I’ve clambered over a thousand times in the past thirty years, like so many residents of Haddley Common and St Marnham, taking this unorthodox short cut through to the Lower Haddley Road. I loop my bag across my shoulders and grip the shallow railings. They glisten with frost, and as the cold seeps into my bare hands, I hear my mum’s voice asking me why I don’t invest in a pair of gloves. I pull myself up and over but, as I do, my hand slips. I reach backwards to try and steady myself but, unable to grab the railing’s pointed tip, I fall towards the crumbling graveyard.
I brace myself for the impact, but it doesn’t come. The strap of my bag has hooked itself across the top of the railings. Cursing, I reach behind my head to try and dislodge it but it holds fast. I realise the only way to free myself is to snap the strap. I launch myself forward, the strap breaks and I hit the ground hard, my ankle twisting with a pain that makes me cry out, and I roll down the bank into the darkest corner of St Stephen’s cemetery.
Lying prone, my jacket caked in mud, my ankle throbbing, I’m momentarily dazed. When I get my bearings, I see my laptop has spilt from my bag. Tentatively I push myself up, kneeling on my right leg before testing my weight on my left foot. I suck in cold air and hold my breath. I lean against a moss- covered headstone before reaching for my bag and shoving my laptop back inside. Suddenly, my attention is caught by a bright orange glow, smouldering in the trees on the far side of the churchyard.
I clamber to my feet and hobble forward. I move from one gravestone to the next before making my way down the gravel path that runs across the back of the cemetery. With each step I take, the fire appears to intensify. St Stephen’s sixteenth- century church comes into view, but its only light is the lantern that hangs above its heavy oak door. I hurry around the side of the church, ignoring the pain in my ankle. I see the orange light again, now impossibly bright. The derelict community centre behind St Stephen’s is on fire.
Smoke pours through its grimy red- tiled roof. Flames lick at the ivy- clad walls. I drop my bag and fumble in my muddied pocket in search of my phone. As I do, a window at the front of the community centre shatters, sending sparks crackling across the path. Burning light illuminates the churchyard and the heat is so intense that, even from this distance, I’m forced to take a step back. Finding my phone, I’m about to call for help, when a fleeting movement inside the building catches my eye.
I stare into the smoke and see another movement; a streak of black amid the bright orange flames.
Then, through the smashed front window, I see a figure.
Adrenaline pumps through my veins and without thinking, I run towards the building’s graffiti- covered door. The door is locked. I yell at whoever is trapped inside to find a way out. They hesitate before scrambling backwards, deeper into the flames.I ram my shoulder against the door. It doesn’t move. I step back then launch myself forward, crashing my foot against the door. It flies open and I fall forward into the furnace.
The smoke is so thick that I can only just make out the slim figure, now crouched on the floor. From the frantic way they are fumbling, they appear to be searching for something.
‘What are you doing?’ I scream, trying to cover my mouth as smoke fills my lungs. ‘You need to get out, now!’
But pulling their hood across their face, they clamber further across the floor, ignoring my escape route.
‘Stop, or you’ll get yourself killed!’ I shout.
Suddenly they are on their feet, spinning round to face me. For a moment they are still, as though trapped by indecision. Then they charge forward, leap over me and race away from the building. Fire flashes around me, the heat ferocious. I scramble to my feet and lurch backwards out into the churchyard.
Gasping for air, I collapse onto the path. I peer through the darkness and look towards the Lower Haddley Road. The escaping figure never breaks their stride. A passing car is forced to skid to a stop, its blaring horn filling the still night air. The figure’s hand slams onto the car’s bonnet, and in the glare of the car’s headlights, I catch a momentary glimpse of their angular frame. Still desperately trying to fill my lungs with the cold night air, I lie on the ground and watch the distinctive bright orange trainers of the fleeing figure disappear into the dark woods at the back of Haddley Common.
Eleven Liars is out on the 30th March and is available to pre-order here in hardback, ebook and audiobook.