Under the Harrow: New Excerpt

Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry is a riveting psychological thriller and a haunting exploration of the fierce love between two sisters, the distortions of grief, and the terrifying power of the past (Available June 14, 2016).

When Nora takes the train from London to visit her sister in the countryside, she expects to find her waiting at the station, or at home cooking dinner. But when she walks into Rachel’s familiar house, what she finds is entirely different: her sister has been the victim of a brutal murder.

Stunned and adrift, Nora finds she can’t return to her former life. An unsolved assault in the past has shaken her faith in the police, and she can’t trust them to find her sister’s killer. Haunted by the murder and the secrets that surround it, Nora is under the harrow: distressed and in danger. As Nora’s fear turns to obsession, she becomes as unrecognizable as the sister her investigation uncovers.

Two

The man kneeling next to me says hello. He is holding his tie against his stomach. Behind him, the wind flattens the grass on the hill.

“Hello, Nora,” he says, and I wonder if we have met before. I don’t remember telling anyone my name. He must know Rachel. He has a large, square face and hooded eyes, and I try to place him at an event in town, bonfire night or the fire brigade fundraiser. “DI Moretti. I’m from the station in Abingdon.”

It is a blow. He has never met her, her town doesn’t have murder detectives. To file any serious complaint you probably have to go to Oxford or Abingdon. As we walk down the drive, two women in white forensic suits pass us on their way to the house.

As we drive away I can’t breathe. I look out the window at the line of plane trees flashing past. I would have thought it would feel like a dream but it doesn’t. The man driving next to me is real, the landscape outside the window is real, and the wet sticking my shirt to my stomach, and the thoughts coiling through my head.

I want the shock to buy me a little more time, but the grief is already here, it came down like a guillotine when the woman put her finger to Rachel’s neck. I keep thinking how I am never going to see my sister again, how I was about to see her. As we drive through Marlow, I realise that I am talking to myself in my head. No one else is there. Usually when I have the uncanny sensation of watching myself think, I shape my thoughts into things to tell Rachel.

I shrink against the seat. Cars rush past us on the motorway. I wonder if the detective is always such a slow driver, or only when he has someone else in the car. I realise I haven’t been watching the road signs to check where he is taking me. Part of me hopes he will take me to a dark, wet field, far from the lights of the town. It would be symmetrical. One sister murdered and then the other, in the space of a few hours.

He did it. Then circled around the house and came up the drive, and convinced me to leave with him while everyone else was distracted. It isn’t hard to persuade myself. The fear is already here, pressing under the surface. I take a pen from my bag and grip it under my thigh.

I wait for him to ease onto one of the turnings, for an abandoned factory, or an empty orchard. Dead space surrounds the motorway, he has a lot of options. I ready myself to stab the pen into his eye, and then run back to her house. Rachel will be sitting in her living room. She will look up, frowning. “Did it work?”

But the sign for Abingdon appears, and the detective turns off the motorway, slowing to a stop at the end of the slip road. His face is slack, his eyes trained up through the windscreen at the signal.

“Who did it?” I ask.

He doesn’t look at me. The indicator ticks in the quiet car. “We don’t know yet.”

The signal changes and he pulls the car into gear. The light box sign of the Thames Valley Constabulary revolves on a post at the entrance to the building. In an open-plan room upstairs, a fair man with a dark suit hanging from his shoulders stands in front of a whiteboard. When he hears us enter, he shifts away from the board, where he has just taped up a picture of Rachel.

I groan. It is the picture from the hospital website, her oval face framed by dark hair. Her face is so familiar it is like looking at myself. She is paler, and has stronger bones in her face. I can disappear in a room, she can’t. Both of us have high cheekbones, but hers turn out like knobs. She smiles in the photograph with her mouth closed, her lips pressed a little to the side.

In the interview room, Moretti sits down across from me, unhooking the button of his suit jacket with one hand.

“Are you tired?” he asks.

“Yes.”

“It’s the shock.”

I nod. It’s strange to be so tired, and also so scared, as if my body is asleep but receiving electric jolts.

“Can I get you anything?” he asks. I don’t know what he means, and when I don’t answer he brings me a tea that I don’t drink. He hands me a navy sweatshirt and tracksuit bottoms. “If you’d like to change.”

“No thank you.”

He talks for a few minutes about nothing. He has a cabin at Whitstable. It is beautiful, he says, at low tide. He makes me nervous, even while talking about the sea.

He asks me to tell him what I saw when I first entered the house. I can hear my tongue lift from the bottom of my mouth with a click before every answer. He rubs at the back of his neck, the weight of his hand pushing his head down.

“Do you live with her?”

“No, I live in London.”

“Is it common for you to be there on a Friday afternoon?”

“Yes. I often come up to visit.”

“When was the last time you spoke to your sister?”

“Last night, around ten.”

The sky has darkened, so I can see the pale citrine squares of office lights across the road.

“And how did she sound?”

“Like herself.”

Above his shoulder, one of the yellow tiles clicks off. I wonder if he thinks I did it. It doesn’t seem likely though, and my fear of it is distant, another depth charge but one that barely reaches me. For a moment, I wish I were being framed. Then, what I felt now would be something else—worry, outrage, righteousness—other than this. Which is nothing, like waking in a field with no memory of how you got there.

“How long will this last?” I ask.

“What?”

“The shock.”

“It depends. Maybe a few days.”

In an office across the street, a cleaning woman lifts the cord of a hoover and shifts chairs out of her path.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I know you must want to go home. Have you noticed anything weighing on Rachel recently?”

“No. Her work, a little.”

“Is there anyone you can think of who might want to harm Rachel?”

“No.”

“If she felt threatened, would she tell you?”

“Yes.”

None of this is like her. I can just as easily see the other outcome. I can see Rachel, drenched in blood, sitting in this chair and patiently explaining to the inspector how she killed the man who attacked her.

“Did it take a long time?” I ask. “Did she suffer?”

“I don’t know,” he says, and I bow my head against the ringing. The woman who came up the driveway with him opens the door. She has a soft, pouchy face and curling hair pulled back into a knot. “Alec,” she says. “A word.”

When he returns, Moretti says, “Did Rachel have a boyfriend?”

“No.”

He asks me to write down the names of the men she dated in the last year or so. I print each letter neatly, starting with the most recent and going back sixteen years, to her first boyfriend in Snaith, where we grew up. When I finish the list, I sit with my hands curled on the table in front of me, and Moretti stands near the door with his heavy square head bent to the paper. I watch to see if he recognises any of the names from other cases, but his expression doesn’t change.

“The first name,” I say. “Stephen Bailey. They almost got married two years ago. She still saw him sometimes. He lives in West Bay, Dorset.”

“Was he ever violent towards her?”

“No.”

Moretti nods. Stephen will still be the first person to eliminate. The detective leaves the room, and when he returns his hands are empty. I think of the pub this afternoon, and the missing woman in Yorkshire.

“There’s something else,” I say. “Rachel was attacked when she was seventeen.”

“Attacked?”

“Yes. The charge would have been grievous bodily harm.”

“Did she know the assailant?”

“No.”

“Was anyone arrested?”

“No. The police didn’t believe her.” They would allow that she had been assaulted, but not in the way she described. They suspected that she had tried to rob or solicit someone and been violently rebuffed. They were the last of the old wave of policemen, preoccupied with the amount she’d had to drink, and that she didn’t cry. “It was in Snaith, Yorkshire. I don’t know if they would have a record of it. It was fifteen years ago.”

Moretti thanks me. “We need you to stay in the area. Do you have anywhere to sleep tonight?” he asks.

“Rachel’s house.”

“You can’t stay there. Is there someone who can come pick you up?”

I am so tired. I don’t want to try to explain this to anybody, or to wait in the station for one of my friends to arrive from London. When the interview ends, a constable drives me to the only inn in Marlow.

I hope we crash. A lorry holding metal poles drives in front of us on the Abingdon Road, and I imagine the nylon ribbon snapping, the metal poles falling out, dancing on the road, one of them pinioning me to the seat.

The Marlow high street is curved like a sickle, with the common at one end and the train station at the other. The Hunters is at the bottom of the sickle, next to the train station. It is a square, cream stone building with black shutters. When the constable drops me at the inn, there are a few people waiting on the train platform, and they all turn to look at the police car.

At the Hunters, I lock the door and put on the chain. I run my hand along the papered wall, then press my ear to it and hold my breath. I want to hear a woman’s voice. A mother talking to her daughter, maybe, as they get ready for bed. No sounds come through the wall. Everyone’s probably sleeping, I tell myself.

I turn off the lights and crawl under the blanket. I know what’s happening is real, but I do keep expecting her to call. For a long time I am crying, and then I sleep.

 

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Flynn Berry is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers and has been awarded a Yaddo residency. Under the Harrow is her first novel.

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