Authors: Matt Whyman
Table of Contents
This book is dedicated to my children,
who put up with my cooking on a daily basis
At the table, Titus Savage spotted his son picking his teeth with one finger.
âManners,' he reminded the boy quietly. âWe're not animals.'
As he spoke, the rest of the family continued with their dessert. Everyone seemed subdued and even exhausted, which was in complete contrast to when they sat down to eat. It was the boy, Ivan, who had been first to finish. Like any twelve-year-old with nothing left on his plate, he began to fidget and sigh to himself.
âCan I get down now?' he asked hopefully. âMy computer's waiting for me to make the next move at chess. I
beat it this time.'
His father responded by inviting him to look around.
âWhen everyone is ready,' he said. âThis is a special occasion, after all.'
At the opposite end of the table from Titus sat an angel. At least that's how Titus viewed his wife, Angelica. Without her, family life would fall apart. She kept the house immaculate, and her cooking today had been simply divine. Titus caught her eye as she spooned the last of the dessert into her mouth. It was a trifle she had prepared, using a home-made recipe for the jelly. Like every course of the meal they had enjoyed, the taste was unusual but compelling. For a moment, Angelica looked embarrassed. It was as if she felt she should not have been caught losing herself to the taste quite so openly. Still, Titus seemed to relish her expression. He sat back, clasped his hands across a surprisingly lean stomach given the amount of food he'd just consumed, and considered his children. While Ivan had already finished, his sister continued to take small, almost reluctant mouthfuls. Titus recognised that the family had put away a feast. Even so, he was surprised to see her looking quite so indifferent to clearing her plate.
âSomething on your mind, Sasha?' Titus reached for his water glass to freshen his palate. âThis is your favourite, no?'
âI'm good,' she said, without looking up.
Both kids had inherited his crow-black hair. Sasha kept her locks pinned neatly with a series of clips, while Ivan's high hair line suggested it would one day whiten, thin and recede just as Titus had experienced as a younger man. Nowadays, he shaved his dome on a daily basis. Titus found it commanded respect, especially in the workplace. Right now, however, his attention was locked on his eldest child. Sasha ran her spoon around the inside of the bowl but was clearly just toying with it. He glanced at his wife, seeking some explanation for their daughter's behaviour. Angelica just shrugged as if to suggest that she was none the wiser.
âAre you feeling poorly, honey?' Angelica had spent much of the day preparing this meal. As ever, it had all been planned meticulously, from sourcing the ingredients to the cooking and the ceremonial serving. For Titus to see their firstborn show such a lack of enthusiasm was frankly a little insulting. âThere's nothing wrong with it, is there?'
Sasha set her spoon down in the bowl.
âI'm fine. The food is great. I'm just not that hungry right now.'
For a moment, Titus and Angelica shared the same puzzled and concerned expression. It was an awkward moment that was also felt by Ivan.
âHey, I have a joke,' he announced, and waited until everyone was looking at him. âOK, why didn't the chicken make it across the road?'
Titus turned to his son.
âGo on. Why not?'
âBecause it was crushed under the wheels of a bus!'
The silence that greeted the punchline seemed to come as a surprise to the boy.
âThat's really terrible,' said Sasha, shaking her head. âQuite sick, actually.'
âSo, now you're an expert in comedy?' Ivan glared at his sister, stung by the criticism. âThere's not one funny bone in your body.'
âNobody is laughing,' she said, and gestured at the others.
âBut it's a great joke!'
âMore like a cry for help.'
âThat's enough.' Titus showed them both his palms. âThis is no place for an argument. Ivan, perhaps you should keep your jokes to yourself. Sasha, it's unlike you to be so harsh. What's the matter?'
âDad, really. Just leave it.'
Ivan narrowed his gaze at his sister. A thin smile crossed his lips.
âSasha's got a boyfriend,' he said, and sat back to watch her squirm. âShe's in love. It's killed her appetite.'
âHe's not really a boyfriend as such,' Sasha said quickly, before scowling at her brother. âJack and I are just good friends.'
âFriends who hold hands at break time! And he's in the year above, which is basically cradle-snatching.'
âIvan, maybe you shouldn't keep your computer waiting.'
The way their father said this, so calmly and measured, left Sasha thinking she might be in for an interrogation. Her parents weren't overly strict, but they were very, very protective.
âCould you look in on Grandpa on the way?' Angelica placed a hand on Ivan's wrist as he rose to leave. âI put his main course through the blender, so he shouldn't have had a problem with it. Just go quietly. The baby is sleeping.'
Ivan sighed to himself, nodded once and then shot a victorious look at his sister. Sasha chose not to clash with him again. Their mother might have just tried to diffuse the situation by changing the subject, but it was clear that wasn't going to work with her dad. Even a mention of the youngest family member had failed to draw his attention. Titus adored his little daughter, Kat, who at fifteen months wasn't exactly a baby any more, but that was just how they liked to treat her. Kat looked totally different to her siblings, with blonde ringlets and an expression of pure innocence. If Sasha was about to disappoint her father, as she feared might be the case, no doubt Kat would live up to his expectations in due course.
âJack is really nice,' she said eventually. âIt's nothing serious.'
âWell, that's good to hear,' said Angelica. âIsn't it, Titus?'
The prompt served to soften his frown. To hear that Sasha had a boyfriend was a new experience for Titus. It only seemed like yesterday that she was dressing up as a fairy princess just as so many little girls liked to do. This was a whole new challenge to him as a parent, but then it wouldn't defeat him. Family came first, no matter what.
âMaybe you'd like to invite â¦' Titus trailed off and looked to his wife for a prompt.
âJack,' Angelica reminded him. âShe said his name was Jack.'
Titus nodded, clearly struggling with it all.
âIt would be great if Jack could join us for supper one day.'
âDad!' Sasha looked aghast. âToo soon?'
âShe's right,' said Angelica. âI'm sure we'll meet him in good time.'
âMaybe,' Sasha mumbled, staring at the napkin in her lap.
Angelica glanced at Titus, and then switched her gaze right back to their daughter.
âBut, you know, when you're ready,' she told her, âJack would be welcome to come for a bite to eat.'
Sasha began to wring her napkin through her fingers.
âIs that too much as well?' her father enquired. âHelp us out here, honey?'
A moment passed before Sasha replied. When she did, knowing what kind of response would follow, it clearly took her a great deal of courage.
âYou might as well know now. Jack is â¦ well, not like us.'
âIn what way?' asked Titus.
Sasha faced each parent in turn.
For a second, it looked as if both Titus and Angelica Savage had frozen in time. Sasha reminded herself to breathe, and then decided it might be best for everyone if she too left the table.
When bad things come to light about someone, it's easy to overlook what was good about them.
For Sasha Savage, only her close friends can remember what she was really like. They could tell you everything from the name of her first crush (some carefully constructed, badly vetted boy band bassist currently serving jail time for sex with a minor), to what she told them was her guiltiest secret (the fact that she still dreamed her first time would be with him). She could laugh at herself, looked out for others, and was even ranked as âtrustworthy' in the last online quiz they ever took together, entitled
Fake or Mate
Before the story broke, Sasha was all set to turn sixteen with only her exams standing in the way of the best summer of her life. Then the truth emerged. Overnight, as if a spell had been cast from above, she and her family became monsters.
The investigation closed some time ago. The media feeding frenzy has moved on, while the controversial movie was just too soon, uncomfortably sensational and went straight to DVD. Despite everything, it is perhaps a measure of Sasha's character that her friends still claim they would like to carry on where they left off. Should she ever resurface, which is considered close to unthinkable, they wouldn't shut the door on her. Nor would they contact the Detective Inspector on the number he told them to call if there was ever a development. Not straight away, at least. They might keep their distance from her, of course, which is understandable under the circumstances. More strikingly, nobody would push her for any kind of explanation. Sasha never breathed a word to them in all those years they'd known her, so why would she offer one now? Instead, they'd try to see through the portrait that'd been painted to find the girl who had shared so much of their lives. Besides, with every last scrap of evidence out in the open, from phone records to witness statements and even the grisly report from the drainage experts, it only takes a little imagination to get under the skin of the Savage family, and come close to the truth about what really happened.
Take her mother, Angelica. She took herself into the garden the morning after Sasha overshadowed the family meal with news that she was dating. At times of stress, she always reached for her secateurs in a bid to keep a sense of control.