Trust Me: New Excerpt
Trust Me by Hank Phillippi Ryan is a chilling standalone novel of psychological suspense and manipulation.
An accused killer insists she’s innocent of a heinous murder.
A grieving journalist surfaces from the wreckage of her shattered life.
Their unlikely alliance leads to a dangerous cat and mouse game that will leave you breathless.
Who can you trust when you can’t trust yourself?
USING ONE forefinger I write on the bathroom mirror, drawing through the steamy condensation left by the shower. This morning’s number is 442.
Four hundred forty-two days since the car accident that destroyed my family. The crash that took Dex and Sophie from me. The numbers disintegrate as I write them. They melt into watery tears, then disappear.
I would give anything, anything. I would do anything. Longing—unbidden, unwanted—hits me hard as I look at my reflection. We make those offers every day, filling in our own personal blanks. If you make this happen, we promise, I’ll give up drinking. Or speeding. Or whatever. If only you’ll give me what I want, I’ll be a better daughter. A more reliable husband. A more devoted wife.
Make my wish come true, and I’ll do … anything.
We bargain. Negotiate. Make deals with the universe. Eventually, certainly, inevitably, we’ll get what we want.
Then the universe laughs. And we are left to bargain with ourselves.
DO YOU KNOW ME? Of course I’d seen those billboards, the posters, the full-color composite drawing plastered on every TV screen and newspaper—so has everyone else in Boston, if not everyone on the planet. “The poor little girl,”everyone said. “Who is she? Someone must miss her.” And those who still had daughters of their own drew them closer, or whispered warnings, or kept one protective hand on the cart as they shopped for groceries.
“Mercer? Can you handle it?” Katherine’s voice on the phone softens with concern. “You need to get back to work.”
I guess I’ve been silent, thinking about “Baby Boston” longer than I realized.
“You okay?” she persists.
“Yeah. I’m fine.” So Kath wants me to write the inside true story of this gruesome crime. I sink into my chair in the study. Can I handle it? To be honest, I’m not sure.
“The book will be an instant bestseller, kiddo. It’ll put you back on the map.” Katherine charges ahead, persuading me. “Toddler killed and dumped in Boston harbor? And now the mother’s on trial for the murder? Sorry, I’m horrible. And I know it’s short notice. But you’re the only writer who can do this justice. Can I tell them yes?”
Good thing she can’t see the look on my face. Having the sensationally tragic murder of a child be the best thing that’s happened to me in a while is probably not socially acceptable. Since people finally left me alone, I’ve gotten out of practice being socially anything. I hadn’t heard from my former editor for months. Not since I stopped returning calls. And now this. A job offer.
All I’d have to do, Katherine Craft explains, is—starting tomorrow—watch the courtroom testimony through the same video feed the TV stations use, then write an “instant book” about the Baby Boston murder trial. “Of course you could watch it on regular TV,” she says. “But what if some moron producer decides it’s boring? Or they cut away for the dog in the well or some phony news? Can’t rely on them deciding what to broadcast. So getting you the full feed is perfect. I tried to get you a seat in court, sweetheart, but it was too late.”
Just as well, I don’t say. Face all those people? Kath then offers me fifteen thousand dollars up front, with another fifteen thousand after the verdict when the book hits the market. Hefty royalties after that. I do need the money.
“Unless she’s not guilty.” Katherine goes on, her voice infinitely dismissive. “Like that’s gonna happen. But when Ashlyn Bryant is convicted? You’ll be Mercer Hennessey, bestselling author. I promise.”
That’d be good. More important, though I’ll never admit it to Kath, the book might give me a reason to get up in the morning.
“It’s never the mother, right?” She keeps up the pressure, and assumes she knows best. “The boyfriend, maybe. Or the father. But the mother? This is pure crazy.”
Right. It’s never the mother. Except when it is.
In this case, it is. And yes, pure crazy. Kath’s in her Back Bay office; I’m in my little suburban study. But I can picture my former editor’s expression. It’s the same baffled one I see on the TV talk shows and when I fidget in line at the coffee shop. People asking each other: what kind of monster mother could kill her own two-year-old?
“She’s…” I search for a gruesome enough word. The mother is definitely guilty this time. I’d already devoured every newspaper and magazine article and watched every newscast and feature story revealing every heartbreakingly disgusting detail about the missing-then-found little girl, even the online TV stories from the Ohio stations. At first I couldn’t stop weeping for that poor dead child. Then more tears as I shared her mother’s certain anguish. Easier to fill my brain with someone else’s grief, hoping to replace my own. Not completely successful, but better than emptiness.
When Tasha Nicole was finally identified, I actually considered calling Ashlyn, thinking (ridiculously) I could comfort her by sharing some maternal bond, each of us lost in grief and mourning our treasured baby daughters. Now it turns my stomach to think of it. How she duped me. Duped everyone. After the breaking news of her arrest? I could have murdered Ashlyn myself.
And no jury would have convicted me.
“Merce? You there?” Kath’s in full pitch mode, as if we still work together, still talk every day. “Go for it, honey. Say yes. It’s been long enough. You have to get back to work. You have to do something.”
Do something? Do? I almost yell at her. But she means well, and she’d stuck by me through the days the sun went out and the shadows closed in. Kath understands, as much as anyone can. It’s unfair for me to take my grief out on her. Is she right? Is there something I can do?
Maybe—for Sophie? And for Dex. Maybe to make up for what happened to them. To accept that I’m the one who’s left alive. I’m not fooling myself; I can never actually accomplish that. But at this moment, I feel Dex. Urging me to do it. To use my words to right a wrong. To strive for justice, like he always did. What’s more, he whispers, you could at least honor Sophie’s memory.
Yes. Dex is right. Yes. I’ll do it. To avenge Baby Boston. And I’ll secretly dedicate this book to Sophie. To every little girl unfairly wrenched away from the world. The more I think about it, the more I know I can do it. I yearn to do it. Physically, mentally, emotionally do it.
Plus, writing a book beat the options I’d already contemplated.
Maybe I’ll burn down the house. I’d actually said that out loud only a few days before Katherine called. Though there was no one to hear me.
I’d visualized the flames, too. Visualized the nursery furniture, its pink rosebuds and indulgent ruffles, blackened by flames. The sleek suits Dex wore to court, and Sophie’s daisy jammies and her plushy animals, the wedding photos and the toothbrushes and the … there’s so much of our stuff. What would I feel as the Linsdale firefighters battled hellish flames and choking smoke, attempting—yet ultimately failing—to save any evidence the Hennessey family existed? I wouldn’t live to find out.
That was the point.
“Merce?” Katherine prompts.
Putting Kath on speaker, I get up from my desk chair and retie the strings of my sweatpants, yanking them tighter. The sweats, black and soft and now grotesquely too big for me, are XL. Not mine. His. Dex won’t be needing them. No matter how many days go by, I’ll never get used to that.
“Yeah, well, maybe.” I pace to the bookshelves and back to the desk. Trying to gauge whether I’m the crazy one.
“Come on, Merce. The jury’s chosen, all the boring motions out of the way. It’s all on camera now. You just dig up the deets on the nutcase mother.” Katherine’s voice follows me, reprising the fast-talking cajoling-editor tone she’d used on me and her other underlings, when we were all at City magazine. This year she began acquiring for Arbor Inc., the mega-co that owns City and a bunch of other publications, including Arbor’s true-crime imprint.
“I know, you’re like, another body in Boston Harbor?” She goes on. “But you gotta see this one’s different. It’s not a Mob hit on a snitch, not some heroin addict’s poor abused child, not a gang turf war. The killer is the gorgeous young mother next door. Ashlyn, I mean, even her name is perfect. You can’t turn on the TV without seeing that clip of her, all petulant and pouting off to jail. So we’ll need you to convey, you know, the secret torment of the seemingly typical suburban family. Give it the feel of real.”
The feel of real. Got it. I’m a writer. I’m a storyteller. I take the facts and make them fascinating. This story doesn’t need much help in that department.
“Like In Cold Blood,” Katherine continues, as if I’ve said yes. “Narrative nonfiction. Reportage. Truman Capote simply imagined half that stuff. Made up dialogue. How else could he write it? But you can do it, Merce, I know you can.”
“Well … okay,” I say. “Deal.” She thinks she’s convinced me. I’ll let her believe that.
“Terrific. I’ll email the paperwork. There’s no one better for this job. You’ll kill it.” Katherine says. “Oh. Sorry, honey. But you know what I mean. You okay?”
“Sure.” She doesn’t know the half of it. “Talk soon.”
I hang up the phone, looking out my study window, down our—my—flagstone front walk and our—my—quiet neighborhood, still serenely green on a September morning, as if nothing has changed. As if my Sophie were still alive, and Dex, too. Funny what strength there is in purpose.
“Rot in hell, Ashlyn Bryant,” I say. And then, “This is for you, darling ones.”
But of course they’re not here to thank me.
“You Mercer Hennessey?” A guy in a blue windbreaker consulted a clipboard as I opened my front door. “We got your courtroom feed stuff, ma’am. Where do you want it?”
Katherine must have been pretty confident I’d say yes. By 7:15 Monday morning, I’d signed for eight cardboard boxes of video equipment, and clutching my coffee, tried to stay out of the way as a phalanx of flannel-shirted guys hauled everything to the study. They unpacked a silver monitor, a silver mouse, two aluminum speakers, and two black routers; then uncoiled orange cables and white cords and plugged it all in, connecting the raw broadcast from the courtroom the same way the TV and radio stations receive it. Now my study is a snake pit of multicolored wires and power strips. I’m hooked up for a front-row seat at the Baby Boston trial.
“Is there a way to record the trial on all this? Not just watch it?” I’d asked one of the techs.
“Yeah, there is a way,” he said, texting someone at the same time. “But you don’t have it.”
Fine, I’ll record it on my iPad. Crude, but the tablet’s adequate for quote-checking or review. The trial starts in ninety minutes.
After the guys leave, I swoop up all the bubble wrap and Styrofoam packing they’d strewn around, and drag it through the dining room and down to the basement. They’d told me to keep the packaging for when the trial’s over.
“Why can’t they take it themselves?” I mutter into cardboard, as I lug the stuff down the dusty back stairs. Snap on the light. “Can’t believe I have to go down here.”
The basement is the burial ground for my other life. Whenever I can’t bear to look at something, but can’t bear to throw it away, that’s where I stash it. Sophie’s first crib, the same white wicker one Dex used. His mother presented it to us, tears in her eyes. Sophie in arms, we’d accepted it, all enthusiastic. When she left, Dex lugged the deathtrap fire hazard into the basement, trumpeting how it was a father’s job to protect his family. Gramma’s gold-rimmed wedding china was my mom’s contribution. Mom’s will’s, at least. Most of Dex’s mom’s tea set is here, too. There’s the album of our wedding, which Aunt Someone told me—incorrectly—would be the best day of my life, a windswept October in Nantucket, where we’d all shivered in blankets, rushed out to ’Sconset beach, then, gasping in the cold, thrown them off to get one gorgeous moonlit photo of me barefoot in white tulle, laughing in Dex’s arms. It wasn’t the best day, because every day was better and better, until Sophie, another best.
Then it all stopped. There were no more good days.
I dump the boxes at the bottom of the steps. Click the string that turns off the basement light. Turn off that part of my life, too. I tramp up the darkened stairs, through the dining room and into the kitchen.
I don’t need a Psych 101 textbook to explain transference. But now Ashlyn Bryant is no longer an emotionally problematic and potentially unhealthy distraction. She’s my job.
I slam some bread in the toaster, make coffee, then wait, because the toaster is cranky, then tote it all to my desk. I am onit. I am going to be me again.
Back in the study, sitting in my desk chair. I jiggle the silver mouse and crank up the volume. The monitor screen stays opaque. Silent. Blank.
Like my life? No. I have a purpose again. The little girl whose body washed up on the beach at Castle Island.
And the murder trial of her mother. That woman’s been held in a cell for the past year, and deservedly so. With many more years to come, if all goes as it should. She’d killed her daughter, and then for at least a month, lied to everyone about it. Actually pretended Tasha was somewhere else. According to the police, there’s no one but Ashlyn with motive, means, and opportunity. Lucky for writer-me, Ashlyn Bryant’s defense attorney is an old colleague of Dex. Lucky. Right. Dex gets killed. I get a source.
But, luck without irony, the unfolding case is now even more blanketed, wall-to-wall-to wall, by newspapers and radio and TV and internet. Strangers in elevators, I bet, find instant kinship in hatred of Ashlyn Bryant. When that monster goes to prison for life, it’ll give this suburban tragedy its inevitable ending.
“Guilty!” I say, punctuating the word with one finger. Though, yeah. There’s no one to hear me.
BABY BOSTON TRIAL—DAY ONE, I type the header on my laptop.
The real headlines don’t call the victim “Baby Boston” anymore, not since the same cops who named her that proved her real name was Tasha Nicole Bryant.
Two months later they arrested Tasha’s mother. Kath’s right, I watched that almost-medieval thirty-second clip on the news over and over. The once supposedly gorgeous Ashlyn Bryant in handcuffs, crying, her tight black T-shirt rumpled and twisted. Humiliated. Scrutinized. Shunned. Led away to penance for murdering her own child. How many times did I wonder, sitting alone, how she felt?
Ashlyn Bryant. The most reviled woman in Massachusetts. In the entire country, possibly.
Anticipating the swarm of single-minded reporters and photographers descending on Boston, Judge Franklin Weems Green demanded that the four courtroom cameras—including one dubbed “Ashlyn-cam” focused only on the defendant’s face—be locked down. Each allowed to show only a severely restricted shot of Suffolk Superior Courtroom 306. No jurors’ faces. And no shots of the spectators.
They’ll all be asking the same question I am.
Why would she do it?
Sophie used to say that one word. Why? Endlessly. Well, not endlessly, as it turned out. It only seemed so at the time. Why?
We thought she was so dear, so funny, and so brilliant, even as a shy almost-three-year-old. Her tawny curls and deep brown eyes. Those eyelashes. Dex and I would whisper “why?” to each other before we fell asleep—a ritual, a married thing. Laughing at our joy and our luck and our future. Four years ago, hoping for a Sophie, we’d found this quirky gray one-level ranch in Linsdale, and I’d happily gone suburban. Happily turned my back on my magazine career. Quit my plum job as a writer for City magazine to become a full-time wife, a full-time mom. To have a full-time family.
I had no idea that “full time” would be so brief.
I stare at the still-dark screen. Everything ends. It’s the when and the how that surprises us.
“One minute. And counting.” The disembodied voice coming from the tinny speaker near my computer yanks my brain back to reality.
“Ready,” I answer, as if the voice can hear me. I’ve cleared my desk of Sophie’s framed scribbles and all the photos of Dex, even the one his mother took at law school graduation. Gone, too, is the tiny nubbin of peat Dex carried home from Scotland, and the grapefruit-scented candle he brought me from Harrods. I kept only one remembrance, a dappled fist-size rock he’d found, its bulky heft smoothed by the Aegean.
I blink away tears. There’ll never be another gift from him.
“Thirty seconds,” the voice announces. I envision an assistant director in a plaid shirt, maybe tortoiseshell glasses and unruly hair, seated at a flickering console inside the mobile broadcast studio, an unmarked white van parked in the lot behind the courthouse.
Is there truly a white van? Is there truly a flickering bank of controls? Here at my desk, I conjure the aging stone and granite courthouse, the constant battle for parking in a crumbling asphalt lot, pungent and sticky in Boston’s ridiculously unbearable September. The reporters, lugging tote bags and cell phones and spiral notebooks. I’ve seen these things so many times, why should it be any different now?
But maybe the van is blue. Maybe everything is different. It is for me.
“Attention stations,” the voice says. “You may roll tape. We’re about to hear the opening statement from District Attorney Royal Spofford.”
Copyright © 2018 Hank Phillippi Ryan.