A Silent Truth
Julie Tillcott cursed under her breath, her ankle rolling in the strapped high heels while she tried to balance across the gravel path leading away from the gastro pub.
The door slammed shut behind her, then swung open a split second later.
Heavy footsteps hurried to catch up with her, a man’s frustrated curse carrying on the light breeze before his rough fingertips grazed her shoulder.
She shrugged off his touch, hitched up the strap of her handbag across her shoulder and stormed over to the silver V8 sports car that stood alone on the fringes of the car park.
It was far enough away to stand out and be noticed, and far enough away from the likes of the beat-up hatchback she’d seen another couple arrive in, the overweight man wearing a baggy pair of trousers and a crumpled pink polo shirt while his wife slouched along beside him in a pair of knee-high boots and a gaudy dress that resembled a pair of discarded curtains.
Behind her, voices filtered out through the open door of the pub mingled with laughter and the clink of glasses – the sounds mixing with the crunch of the small stones under her feet.
She winced as one bounced into her shoe and she hopped on one foot while shaking the other from side to side to dislodge it.
‘Jules, let me explain.’
He was catching up with her, his tone exasperated.
‘You had your chance to do that before we got here. Before…’
Before you made me look like a bloody idiot, she thought. Again.
The stone pinged out from under her heel and she breathed a sigh of relief.
Then she heard the jangle of keys behind her.
Turning, she crossed her arms over her chest and glared at her husband while he dangled the fob from his thumb and grinned.
The steel house key twinkled under electric lanterns hanging from a wire dangling across the car park, taunting her.
‘I’ll drive,’ he said. ‘You’re drunk.’
‘I had two glasses.’ Julie pouted. ‘Besides, it’s my car. Unlock it.’
‘And I’ve had nothing except mineral water.’ He aimed the fob at the car as he walked around to the driver’s door, then peered over the roof as another couple emerged arm in arm from the pub. ‘Get in, before you make a fool of yourself.’
‘Everything all right over there?’ a man’s voice called.
She turned to see the couple standing beside a dark green four-by-four, concern etched into the woman’s eyes.
‘We’re fine,’ she snapped. ‘Enjoy the rest of your evening.’
Simon was barely hiding a smug smile when she climbed in and fastened her seatbelt, and she kept her gaze firmly on the dashboard until they were out of sight of the pub.
‘Why do you have to do that?’ she asked eventually.
‘You always do this. Ask me to one of your so-called investment meetings and then make me look stupid in front of everyone.’
‘I don’t make you look stupid,’ he said, his tone conciliatory. ‘You hate anything to do with numbers.’
She crossed her arms over her chest, sinking into the seat a little more. ‘That makes me feel so much better.’
‘I’m just saying. You’re good at other things.’
‘Then why ask me?’
‘Because it makes the people there less wary. A woman’s touch and all that.’
‘Oh, thanks. So now I’m just your piece of arm candy, is that it?’
‘That’s not what I meant…’
‘Do they even know I’m a joint partner in the business?’ she said, twisting in her seat.
His jaw clenched, and then he down-shifted, powering around a tight corner.
‘It didn’t come up in the conversation, did it?’ He shot her a quick look before turning his attention back to the twisting road. ‘But you didn’t tell them either.’
‘God, I’m sorry. Perhaps that was because you and he were completely ignoring me while I was left to talk to that wife of his about what bloody colour she wants the living room walls painted. As if I care…’
‘It distracted her, so that’s good,’ said Simon. He pressed the accelerator. ‘All the time she was wondering about decor and who the neighbours are, she wasn’t listening properly to the proposal. She’d been asking too many questions.’
‘They were good questions.’ Julie bit back the next words, her throat aching and frustrated tears stinging the corners of her eyes. ‘I’m tired of playing the sidekick. I’m tired of… of this.’
He laughed. ‘Are you kidding me? You love it. How else do you think we can afford a car like this?’
‘It’s my car, not ours.’
‘Whatever. Your cut of the profits every year pays for it.’
‘But it’s dirty money, isn’t it?’
The car swerved a little as he gaped at her then quickly corrected his course before a motorbike shot past in the opposite direction. He indicated left, turning into a narrow lane that cut through the Vale towards home.
The back road was one they often used in the evening to get to Charney Bassett.
Less likely to be caught if they’d had a bit too much to drink.
Julie shrugged away the thought.
They weren’t the only ones.
‘They don’t really want a retirement property in Majorca, Si. She loves living in Wantage. She told me.’ Julie flicked her hair over her shoulder and kicked off her shoes, warming to her subject. ‘They have a two-year-old granddaughter, did you know that? She has special needs, so if they move to Spain they won’t see her unless they travel back here a few times a year. They can’t afford to do that, not really.’
His eyes narrowed. ‘Did you tell her it was a bad idea?’
She fiddled with the seam of her dress.
‘Jules? What did you say before you walked out?’
‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’
‘I meant us, not just the business.’ She heard it then, the tiredness in her voice. ‘I hate what we do.’
A stunned silence filled the car, the only sounds coming from the whoosh of the tyres over the asphalt as Simon kept white-knuckled hands on the steering wheel.
It was why she loved the sports car. She could listen to the road while she drove, drowning out all other thoughts.
‘What’s brought all this on?’ he said finally. ‘Is it your time of the month?’
Her jaw dropped. ‘You what?’
‘Well, it’s all a bit out of the blue.’
‘No it bloody isn’t.’ She took a deep breath. ‘Can’t you see what’s happening? What’s been happening? All we talk about is work, or who’s a likely candidate for one of your property deals, or how you can screw such-and-such for another twenty grand, or…’
The car had slowed, and he was frowning, his attention fully on the road in front of him.
‘See, you’re doing it again. You’re not listening to me.’
She jerked forward as Simon stomped on the brakes, the seatbelt digging into her collarbone while she reached out blindly for something to hold on to.
Hearing him ratchet the handbrake, Julie raised her gaze and prised her fingernails from the upholstery.
Beyond the front of the car, beyond the pitted surface of the lane and the reach of the headlights, she could see a––
‘Is that a deer?’ said Simon.
‘It looks like someone hit it and it landed in the ditch.’
‘There’s blood on it.’
‘Like I said, it’s been hit by a car.’
He said nothing, but flicked the lights to full beam.
‘I’m not sure. That doesn’t look like a deer, does it?’
Unclipping his seatbelt, he opened the car door.
‘Wait – where are you going?’ Julie reached across to him, wrapping her fingers around his shirt sleeve.
‘To take a closer look.’
‘I don’t like this.’
‘Then stay here.’
The door slammed, and he walked around to the front of the car, his hands by his sides.
Julie watched while he took a tentative step closer, then shoved her feet back into her shoes and climbed out.
‘Si, we should keep going.’
‘I just want to check it out, all right? I’m not happy about driving on until I know what it is.’
‘If it’s a deer that’s been hit by a car, there’s nothing we’re going to be able to do for it, is there? What’re you going to do? Call a vet?’
‘I don’t know.’
He shuffled forward, then turned to her. ‘Won’t be a minute.’
‘Wait – I’ll come with you.’
Despite their argument, she reached out her hand and slipped her fingers through his.
His grip was cold, clammy.
Swallowing, she realised he was as nervous as she was, and took a shaking breath.
They walked to the far reaches of the headlight beam, then stopped.
‘We should’ve moved the car closer first,’ she said, turning to him.
‘Jules, get back.’
He wasn’t looking at her but staring into the gloom beyond the light, his face pale.
Wrenching his fingers from hers, he gave her a shove that sent her stumbling a few steps to the right.
Confused, Julie squinted into the darkness, then staggered, a choked scream escaping her lips.
‘Jesus Christ,’ she managed. ‘Those are someone’s legs.’