The Liar’s Room by Simon Lelic is a race-against-time thriller set in one room over four hours. This well-crafted thriller follows one counsellor who must to face her past in order to save her daughter’s life.
Susanna Fenton has a secret. Fourteen years ago she left her identity behind, reinventing herself as a counsellor and starting a new life. It was the only way to keep her daughter safe. But everything changes when Adam Geraghty walks into her office. She’s never met this young man before – so why does she feel like she knows him?
Adam starts to tell her about a girl. A girl he wants to hurt. And that’s when Susanna realizes she was wrong. She doesn’t know him. He knows her. And the girl he plans to hurt is her daughter.
Read on for the first chapter from The Liar’s Room by Simon Lelic!
The Liar’s Room
Who am I?
She wakes to find herself broken, and it is the first question that enters her head. The next: where am I?
She feels drugged, sluggish. Her head is heavy, her senses dulled, as though she were underwater. And there is a fire in her throat. The sensation when she swallows is of trying to ingest crushed glass.
She blinks. Her vision clears but it is the smell of this place she’s in that is revealed. The room stinks of damp, booze, days-old urine. It hits her and makes her gag. The only thing that stops her vomiting is that her stomach is so utterly empty. When did she last eat? How long has it been since she even allowed herself to think about food?
She rolls from her makeshift bed – a too thin blanket, already as soiled as its surroundings – and on to all fours, and her right arm immediately gives way beneath her. She screams out in pain and hits the floor hard, shoulder first, which makes her yell out again. She waits, sobbing, for the pain to clear, then examines her unclothed arm. There’s no wound but there is a bruise like a rotten sunset running from her elbow to her wrist, and she has no idea how it got there… until she remembers.
He hurt her arm. He put her here.
And the cold reality sinks in.
Where she is. Why.
3 p.m. – 4 p.m.
Right away when she sees the boy she has a feeling she knows him. Or, somehow, that he knows her. The woman she’s hiding, as much as this person she’s become.
He’s dressed as though for a special occasion. Most people probably wouldn’t notice but Susanna is familiar with teenage boys and although this boy is slightly older – nineteen, perhaps? Twenty? – it’s clear he’s selected what he’s wearing with a sense of purpose. His jeans are dark, clean, unripped. His shirt is untucked but neatly buttoned and there’s a designer logo above the left breast. The shoes he has on are dress shoes really, not meant to be worn with jeans, but like the rest of the boy’s outfit they’ve been chosen, Susanna suspects, because they’re the best he has. It is the same attire he would pick for a first date. Which is sort of sweet, actually. Touching, that he should have made such an effort just for her.
The sense she knows him fades like déjà vu. What she puts it down to after the initial jolt is the boy’ s – the young man’s – unquestionable good looks. His is a face borrowed from a magazine, the kind Susanna can no longer bring herself to read but has fanned on the coffee table in the waiting room outside. Less a waiting room, more a co‑opted landing, one she shares with a dentist, Ruth, who practises in the room at the other end of the converted mews house. Between them, in an opened-out bedroom at the top of the stairs, is the desk used mainly by Alina – the Ukrainian woman who doubles as Ruth’s dental assistant and their receptionist – and downstairs, with a separate entrance, is an antiques shop. It’s fully stocked but never open and neither Susanna nor Ruth has ever met the owner. They joke that the antiques business is just a front. For money launderers, the Devon mafia, ISIS. The truth, Susanna thinks, is that the owner runs his business mainly online and only ever meets clients by appointment. The truth is boring and Susanna prefers it. But Ruth has a predilection for the dramatic. Sometimes Susanna wonders how Ruth would react if she were to discover the truth about her.
The young man, though. His face. He could be a model. He has the bone structure and the blemish-free skin, as well as the eyes – brown and brooding – if not the haircut or the swagger. When he enters the room he does so as though untrusting of the floorboards. His fringe falls across one eye and he gives the impression of peeking out from behind a curtain.
Across his torso is a messenger bag. He unwinds it from his shoulder as he steps a little further into the room.
‘Er… hi,’ he says, a greeting that sounds as much a question.
‘Adam?’ Susanna is standing and she offers out a hand. The young man meets it with his own, which Susanna takes as confirmation he’s the person she’s been expecting. Adam Geraghty. The first of two new clients scheduled for that afternoon. Unusual to have two in one day, though given her finances of late not entirely unwelcome. ‘I’m Susanna. Come in, please.’
‘Or Susie, if you prefer. Anything but Mrs Fenton or I’ll constantly be checking behind me for my mother.’ It’s a joke and a lie rolled into one, which in Susanna’s mind makes it mostly OK.
Adam smiles. ‘Susanna,’ he repeats.
‘Have a seat.’ Susanna gestures and Adam follows the path laid out by her outstretched arm. There are two upholstered chairs – upright but comfortable – angled across from each other in front of the disused fireplace, a small table bearing glasses and a jug of water positioned between them. The chairs are purposefully identical and Adam selects the one furthest from the door. Which makes Susanna wonder whether Adam hasn’t received therapy of some kind before, because in her experience first-timers tend to try to preserve an easy escape route.
He sets his bag down on the floor close beside him and perches on the edge of the chair. He takes a moment to survey his new surroundings. The room is small but relatively bare. There’s Susanna’s desk, haloed by the Georgian windows and as tidy as she can ever seem to get it. There’s the coat stand in the corner by the door, which but for the hat Susanna bought specifically to adorn it would look as spindly and forlorn as a winter tree. There are the bookshelves, loaded and dishevelled, and her framed certificates beside a Matisse print on the party wall (Susanna wouldn’t have bothered with the certificates if Ruth hadn’t insisted they would lend her gravitas) but nothing otherwise except the plants and the crisp white paintwork.
‘Susanna,’ the young man says again. ‘It sounds wrong.’ A pause. ‘What I mean is, shouldn’t I call you, like, Doctor or something?’
‘Sure, if you want to,’ Susanna says, ‘although I’m not one.’ She flags the joke this time with a smile. ‘I’m a counsellor,’ she clarifies. The joke has fallen flat and she attempts to re‑establish a tone of professionalism. ‘A counsellor isn’t the same as a clinical psychologist and it’s a completely different field to psychiatry. Which isn’t to say I’m not qualified.’ She shifts. ‘All I’m really trying to explain is that you don’t need a doctorate to practise in my field. In fact in some circles it’s actively discouraged.’
She tends to do this: use humour as a defence mechanism, then lurch too far the other way. Whether she recognizes the young man or not, there’s definitely something about him that has set her on edge. Those good looks again, probably. Good God, Susanna. Are you flirting? Shame on you! You must be thirty years older than him at least.
Susanna feels herself glowing and drops her gaze towards her lap. She picks some fluff from the black of her trousers.
‘So,’ she announces and re‑hoists her smile. ‘Why don’t you start by telling me a little bit about why you’re here?’
The boy seems startled. ‘You mean just launch into it?’
‘Let’s start with the basics. Shall we? Your name, age, a bit about your background. That sort of thing. And after that we can move on to what specifically you’re hoping to get out of this conversation.’
Adam adjusts the way he’s sitting. ‘OK,’ he says. ‘Sure. My name’s Adam. Adam Geraghty. I was born here. In England, I mean. In London, actually, not here here. And I suppose…’ He stops, shuffles again, winces. ‘Look, do you mind if I just come out with it? The way you said. Can I just tell you why I’m here and then you can tell me whether you think you can help or not?’
‘I don’t want to sound rude or anything. It’s just, I don’t want to waste your time and if I’m honest I don’t really have that much money. And actually, I’m also feeling slightly nervous. More than slightly.’ He grins bashfully. It’s a schoolboy grin and Susanna feels a tiny fracturing in her heart.
‘Sorry,’ Adam is saying. ‘Sorry. That’s not how this is done, is it? Sorry,’ he says again, running his hands through his hair. ‘You’d never guess this was my first time, would you?’ He reddens, then adds somewhat hastily, ‘Talking to someone like you, I mean.’
Susanna warms as well at the unintended innuendo. ‘It’s fine, Adam. Really. You’re in charge here, not me. We can start however you want to start and we don’t have to talk about anything you don’t want to unless you’re ready to do so.’
Watching Adam’s reaction, Susanna realizes why she thought she knew him. It’s not his looks. It’s his smile. The way the left side of his mouth pulls higher than the right; the little glimpse he allows the world of his milky teeth. It’s a goofy smile. Innocent. Familiar.
‘I guess what I’m wondering about is how long this usually takes,’ Adam says. ‘You know. To fix things.’
Susanna blinks and locks her eyes on Adam.
‘There’s a common misconception when it comes to counselling,’ she explains, ‘that what we’re working towards is the resolution of a particular problem.’ She pauses, watches Adam’s eyebrows arrow slightly in the silence. ‘That’s not what counselling is really about. I’m here to help you, yes, but what I’m most interested in is helping you to find a way to help yourself. In all circumstances. Holistically.’ She believes this, passionately, but she’s worried Adam will be put off by the terminology.
‘All I’m trying to say,’ she goes on, ‘is that it’s a process. An open-ended one. Your question was how long this usually takes but I’m afraid I can’t give you an answer. It could be we see progress after six sessions. It might equally turn out that you and I aren’t suited to each other at all. Sorry to sound so woolly but there are just so many variables.’
‘Like what’s bothering me.’
‘Like what’s bothering me. You said there are lots of variables, and one of them, I guess, is what it is that’s actually bothering me. Right?’
‘Well, yes. Although…’ Keep it simple, Susanna. ‘Yes, that’s one of the variables, absolutely.’
‘So about that…’ Adam says. ‘I mean, is it OK if we talk about that now?’
Susanna can see he’s desperate to get it off his chest. This thing. The perceived problem that brought him to Susanna’s office in the first place, which Susanna can pretty much guarantee isn’t what’s really bothering him at all. That’s the way it usually works. A client comes in focused on one thing – some experience they’re convinced is at the centre of their unhappiness – and it turns out to be something else completely.
‘Of course,’ she says. ‘If you think it would help, by all means let’s address it.’
Adam doesn’t shuffle the way she’s expecting him to. From the way he’s so far referred to his ‘problem’, his obvious embarrassment about whatever it is that’s troubling him, she expects him to shift, to clear his throat, to take a moment to summon up the courage and at the last to mumble it towards the floor.
But he doesn’t do that. He sits perfectly still and when he speaks he looks Susanna squarely in the eye.
‘There’s something I want to do,’ he says.
‘Something you want to do?’
‘Something… bad. And the thing is…’ He hasn’t moved. Hasn’t once dropped his gaze from hers, but there’s a tiny smile now playing on his lips. And it’s not a goofy smile this time. It’s not a goofy smile at all. ‘The thing is, Susanna,’ Adam goes on, all innocence now drained from his expression, ‘I don’t know if I can stop myself.’
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