Read on for an excerpt from Debbie Howell’s next novel, The Beauty of the End
, available in hardcover this August.
From the acclaimed author of The Bones of You comes a haunting and heartbreaking new psychological thriller about a man thrust into the middle of a murder investigation, forced to confront the secrets of his ex-lover’s past.
“I was fourteen when I fell in love with a goddess . . .”
So begins the testimony of Noah Calaway, an ex-lawyer with a sideline in armchair criminal psychology. Now living an aimless life in an inherited cottage in the English countryside, Noah is haunted by the memory of the beguiling young woman who left him at the altar sixteen years earlier. Then one day he receives a troubling phone call. April, the woman he once loved, lies in a coma, the victim of an apparent overdose—and the lead suspect in a brutal murder. Deep in his bones, Noah believes that April is innocent. Then again, he also believed they would spend the rest of their lives
While Noah searches for evidence that will clear April’s name, a teenager named Ella begins to sift through the secrets of her own painful family history. The same age
as April was when Noah first met her, Ella harbors a revelation that could be the key to solving the murder. As the two stories converge, there are shocking consequences when at last, the truth emerges.
Or so everyone believes . . .
Set in a borderland where the past casts its shadow on the present, with a time-shifting narrative that will mesmerize and surprise, The Beauty of the End is both a masterpiece of suspense and a powerful rumination on lost love.
You think you know what it is to live. About those moments seized, battles fought, love yearned for. But you don’t. Not really, until it’s slipping away from you. When your body no longer listens to you, but becomes a trap, inside which you can’t move, can’t breathe, can’t reach out. No one can hear you. Not even the one person who
could help you . . .
The memory is bittersweet, splinter-sharp. A transitory flash of long red hair damp from the mist; bone-chilling cold, the starkness of trees in winter. My heart quickening, as it always did. A girl I knew once, when the world was different, who filled my every waking thought, my dreams.
Nor can you know, we’re like stars. At their brightest, most vibrant, before they die; a trail fading until the naked eye can’t see it; the brilliant crescendo of a life that builds to silence.
Just as quickly it fades; a memory I’ve buried since I arrived here, years ago, when my Aunt Delilah died and left me her cottage. I’m questioning what’s triggered it, glancing up from my desk just as the old black phone rings, past and present overlapping for a moment. It continues to ring, and though I’d rather not, I have to answer it.
Sliding my chair back, I get up and walk over to the windowsill. Feel behind the heaviness of the curtain to where it sits untouched. Unaware of the hope that flickers, like the flecks of dust stirred, caught in the dull glow of my reading light.
“Hello? Noah? Is that you?”
I pause, startled, as fifteen years fall away. The clipped, precise tone is instantly recognizable, making my skin prickle, as I’m jolted back to the present, because the phone isn’t part of the memory that’s consumed me.
There’s another brief silence before he speaks again, clearer this time. “It’s Will.”
I watch the moth that’s taken refuge, camouflaged perfectly against the stone of the inglenook, as the fire I lit earlier sparks into life. My cottage has thick, stone walls that hold fast to the chill of winter.
He adds, “Thank Christ. I thought I’d got the wrong number.”
Take the forest that’s three-dimensional in the black depths of a still lake, each branch defined, every subtle shade perfectly mirrored, the sun looking out at you, so that if you stare for long enough, you forget. It’s just a picture; hides the cold darkness that can close over you, that’s silent.
Will and I were friends—once, a long time ago. But
too much has happened, things that belong in the past.
As this, and much more, flashes through my head, common sense kicks in because I owe Will nothing. I’m
about to put the phone down, when he says two words that alter everything.
Even now, my heart skips a beat at the sound of her name.
A moment, a few words, the single thought they provoke, can be devastating. Shatter what you’ve painstakingly constructed. Reveal who you really are.
“What about her?” I keep my voice neutral, my eyes fixing on the fireplace, on the moth’s wings, twitching unevenly.
“There was an accident.” He follows it up with, “She’s in hospital. It’s not looking good.”
He speaks fast, impatient, his voice level, unemotional. I wonder if calling me is an inconvenience. And I’m sorry, of course I am. April and I were close, but it was a long time ago. Accidents happen every day. It’s sad, but I’ve no idea why he’s calling me.
There’s only so long you can do this. Fake the pre- tense, dance to the piper’s discordant tune. Hide an agonizing, unbearable truth that’s been silent too long, that’s hammering on the door, screaming, to be heard, for someone to listen.
“I’m not sure what happened, exactly. Look . . .” He hesitates. “I only called you because it’ll be all over the
papers. A guy was murdered—in Musgrove, of all places. Knifed to death in his car, parked behind the pub. The North Star—can you believe that?” He pauses again. “The thing is . . . Well, it looks as though she may have killed him.”
I’m struggling to take in what he’s saying, because the North Star was once our local hangout. There’s a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Then I dismiss the possibility outright, because some knowledge is instinctive and I know this, with a certainty that’s blinding, absolute. Will’s wrong. I watch the moth launch itself into flight, its wings beating a slow undulating trail that circles the room twice, before battering itself at the closed window.
“That’s impossible. She couldn’t have.”
Only no one comes, because no one knows, that you’re bound and gagged, invisibly chained to a monster. There is no escape. There never can be, because wherever you go, he finds you. Won’t let go of you.
“The police think there’s evidence.”
But as I know, it isn’t always that simple. “The police could have missed something.”
And what about hope? That eternal optimism of the human mind, as vital as blood and lungs and your beating heart, which carries you through suffering and heart- break? Because when hope goes, you have nothing.
My jaw tightens. “When did it happen?”
“Last night. Late, after the pub .
“Exactly,” I flash back. “It’s far too soon. They need to carry out forensic tests. They can’t possibly know.” I pause. “How did you find out?”
“They were seen together in the pub. The police found
a woman’s glove in his car, along with the murder weapon—and her phone. They traced it to her address, but by
the time they got there, she’d taken an overdose.” His voice is low. “They called an ambulance—then they called me. They must have found my number on her phone. Anyway, she’s in the Princess Royal, near Tonbridge.”
“Why’s she there?” I ask stupidly.
“It’s where she lives. Of course—I’m forgetting. You wouldn’t know.”
Suddenly your whole life is like a car crash, no brakes, gaining momentum, piling up behind you. Your mistakes, missed opportunities, all the time you’ve wasted, a twisted, rusting heap of scrap metal that can’t be salvaged. Over- whelming you. Crushing you.
Even now, even though once, he loved her too, I hate that Will knows all this, how dispassionately he speaks, the condescension he barely conceals. That all these years later, he’s still in touch with her when I’m not.
“She’s hardly going to want to see me.”
He hesitates. “She’s not exactly up to seeing anyone. She hasn’t come round, mate. She’s on life support. God only knows what she took.”
The mate is automatic, a throwback to our friend- ship—and out of place. But as I listen, I’m shocked, trying to absorb what he’s saying, unable to picture April as someone who isn’t vital and beautiful and brilliantly alive.
“The police are looking for witnesses. People who were in the pub, security cameras . . . If she’s guilty, it won’t be hard to prove,” he says.
“If she is,” I say pointedly.
“It’s almost a foregone conclusion.”
I used to think he was confident, not arrogant, but he really is so fucking arrogant. “Will. You know as well as I do. She wouldn’t hurt anyone. She couldn’t.”
You can play the part for so long. Wear the mask, say what people expect you to say. Fight for as long as there is air in your lungs. Fly if you have wings.
But you can never be free from someone who won’t let you go.
He makes a sound, a staccato laugh shot with cynicism. “When you haven’t seen her for all these years, how can you possibly say that?”
He’s a bastard, Will. Uses his surgeon’s precision to dig the knife in, but he’s forgetting, I knew her soul. I stay calm.
“The same way you know who you can trust.”
He knows exactly what I’m saying. An uneasy silence falls between us.
“Fair enough.” Will sounds dismissive. “I thought you should know, that’s all.”
“Fine. Hey, before you go, who was the guy?”
Will hesitates again. As he tells me, I watch the moth spiral into the flames.