From Scottish crime master Christopher Brookmyre, Black Widow tells the potent story of a woman who thought she was too late for love, the man who falls for her ambition, and the secret selves that are poised, at any moment, to end everything.
Diana Jager is clever, strong, and successful, a skilled surgeon and fierce campaigner via her blog about sexism in medicine. Yet it takes only hours for her life to crumble when her personal details are released on the internet as revenge for her writing. Then she meets Peter. He is kind, generous, and knows nothing about her pastthe second chance she's been waiting for. Within six months, they are married. Within six more, Peter is dead in a road accident, a nightmare end to their fairy-tale romance. But Peter's sister Lucy doesn't believe in fairy tales, and tasks rogue reporter Jack Parlabane with discovering the dark truth behind the woman the media is calling the Black Widow.
Still on the mend from a turbulent divorce, Jack's investigation into matters of the heart takes him to hidden places no one should ever have to go.
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There was a low background hiss as the courtroom awaited the playback, the volume on the speakers jacked up so much that Parlabane was bracing himself, expecting the soundfile to be booming and distorted. Instead it was surprisingly clear, particularly at the police end. He could hear the dispatcher's fag-ravaged breathing during pauses, the rattle of a keyboard in the background.
Nobody knows where to look when they're listening to a recording. Parlabane glanced around to see how people were responding. Most were looking at the floor, the walls or any fixed point that didn't have a face on it. Others were more pruriently taking the opportunity to look at the accused.
Diana Jager had her gaze locked, staring into a future only she could see.
The jury mostly had their heads bowed, like they were in church, or as though they were afraid they'd get into trouble with the judge if they were caught paying less than maximum attention. They were filtering out distraction, concentrating only on the words booming out around the court, anxious not to miss a crucial detail.
They couldn't know it yet, but they were listening out for the wrong thing.
'I think I've just seen an accident.'
'Are you injured, madam?'
'No. But I think a car might have gone off the road.'
'Can you tell me your name, madam?'
'Yes, it's Sheena. Sheena Matheson. Missus.'
'And are you in your own vehicle now? Is it off the carriageway?'
'No. Yes. I mean, I'm out of my car. It's parked. I'm trying to see where he went.'
'Where are you, Mrs Matheson?'
'I'm not sure. Maybe a couple of miles west of Ordskirk. I'm on the Kingsburgh Road.'
'And can you describe what happened? Is someone injured?'
'I don't know. This car was coming around the bend towards me as I approached it. It was going way too fast. I think it was a BMW. It swerved on to my side of the road because of the curve, then swerved back again when I thought it was going to hit me. I jumped on the brakes because I got such a fright, and I looked in my rear-view. It swerved again like he was trying to get it back under control, but then it disappeared. I think it went off the road altogether.'
'The Kingsburgh Road, you said?'
'I'm going to see if I can get some officers out there as soon as possible. You've parked your car, that's good. If you can wait beside it but not in it ...'
'No, that's the thing. I can't stay here. I've a ten-year-old at home alone. She woke up with a temperature and we had run out of Calpol. I told her I'd nip out to the garage for some. I said I'd only be away half an hour. My husband's on nights.'
'Okay. Can you give me a wee bit more detail about where you are, then?'
'Sure, but I need to warn you: the battery's almost dead on this thing.'
'Tell us whatever you can. Anything you might have passed that our drivers could look out for.'
'There's a signpost right here. It says Uidh Dubh viewpoint and picnic area half a mile. The car disappeared just past the sign. I'm crossing the road now, in case I can see anything over the other side.'
'Please be careful, Mrs Matheson.'
'There are skid marks on the tarmac. I think I can see tyre tracks on the grass. It slopes away after that, and it's too dark to see down the slope.'
'No. Stay back from the edge. Our officers will look into it.'
'I can't see any lights. I'm worried it might have gone into the river.'CHAPTER 2
HER DAY IN COURT (I)
My trial has barely begun, and no testimony heard, but already I know that in the eyes of this court, I am an abomination.
As I gaze from the dock and take in all the faces gazing back, I think of the opinions they have formed, the hateful things they have written and said. I think of how once it stung, but my skin has grown thicker over time, and I have worse things to endure now than mere words.
They have to be respectful in their conduct within these walls: no shouting and barracking like when the van with its blacked-out windows pulled up outside the prisoners' entrance, a desperate photographer extending a hopeful arm and firing blind with a flash gun as he pressed himself perilously close against the moving steel.
One of these days the vehicle is going to run over one of those reckless idiots' feet: several tons of G4S hardware degloving the flesh from crushed and shattered bones as it rolls across his instep, all in the service of striving for, at best, a blurry low-contrast image of some scared and wretched prisoner cowering inside. It would be a valuable illustration of the risk-benefit equation pour encourager les autres.
To them, I am someone who ought to have been grateful for all that life apparently gifted me, not asked for more. I should have settled for what I was dealt, as it was generous enough in other people's estimation. The actions I took in pursuit of my desires, to better my lot and to extricate myself from an intolerable situation, these were unforgivable, depraved.
Society's judgement is always harsher upon a woman who has done grave deeds to get what she wants: a woman who has challenged their values, violated the accepted order of things. It's a crime against society, a transgression of unwritten rules that are far more precious than those inscribed in law.
With this thought I glance across the room, and to my surprise feel a sorority even with the woman I came to regard as my enemy: the woman who laid me low, brought my deeds to light. In our own ways we both acted for the purest of reasons. Her I respect. Everyone else is merely white noise to me now.
I do not expect anyone's sympathy. I do not seek forgiveness from people who have never been tested like I was. I may be guilty, and I may be sentenced, but I will not be condemned: not by those who cannot understand. Nobody here can judge me until they know the whole truth.
Until then, their opinions are no more than impotent angry words, and my, haven't those been in spate since this business first came to light. Just think how they were exercised by the revelation that this bitch murdered her husband.
The tone was one of boiling anger, and at the heart of it all was one single rhetorical question:
How dare she.
How dare she.
There's a thought: nobody ever asks 'How dare he?' when a man kills his wife. The coverage is coloured by sombre tones, its language muted and respectful. It's like they're reporting on a death from disease or calamitous mishap. 'It's dreadful, but it happens. Poor thing. So tragic,' it seems to say.
And like disease or disaster, the follow-up is about asking whether more could have been done. What signs were missed? What can we learn?
By contrast there's a conspicuous shortage of victim-blaming when it's a husband who lies slain.
'Why didn't he leave her? He must have known what she might be capable of. There must have been indications that she was dangerous. I'm not condoning it, but surely he was aware of her triggers. There's no excusing what she did, but it wouldn't have happened unless he did something to provoke her.'
Said nobody ever.
See, that's what chills them. They can just about handle a crime of passion, a moment of madness. But a clever, calculating woman who can plan something elaborate and deceitful is a far more galling prospect.
I glance at the reporters in the gallery, poised to take their notes. I think about what it looked like from their perspective.
They saw a woman who found love when she was beginning to think it was too late. She had given the best of herself to her career, and had come to sorely doubt whether it was worth the price she paid. But then out of nowhere she met her Mr Right, and suddenly everything seemed possible. Suddenly she got to have it all. A whirlwind romance, two ostensibly mismatched but surprisingly complementary personalities who found each other at just the right time: it was the stuff of rom-coms and chick-lit.
So much good fortune came her way, so much goodwill, and after that, so much sympathy. The rom-com turned out to be a weepy. The singleton surgeon who found love late was left heartbroken after her husband of only six months lost his life when his car shot off the road and plunged into a freezing river.
Let me tell you, once they've doled out tragedy points, you'd really better conform to their expectations, because the widow pedestal is a high one to fall from. She denied them first a happy ever after and then a poignant end to a tale of doomed romance. She desecrated their church, and so she had to face their judgement.
What else would they see? What else could they see?
Only one person looked closer, and he was my undoing. I know I'm not the first person to curse the day I heard the name Jack Parlabane, and I sincerely doubt I'll be the last. In my case I don't simply regret what he did to me. I regret what I did to him too. I know that in the eyes of this court, I am an abomination, but I am not the monster I will be painted.
I regard the police officers standing next to me. There are no cuffs on my wrists but I can still feel the cold steel like I can still feel the sting of humiliation that comes with wearing them. It clings to me every second I remain in the dock. There is a burning coal of moral opprobrium in the black pupil of every eye focused on me.
As the trial proceeds, the court will hear how a driven woman acted out of the oldest and sincerest of motives: to be with the man she was destined for. My crime and my actions will seem cold and heinous to everyone else because they can never know what I felt.
I think of all the anger and hate I have gone through since my arrest. It has taken time, but I have come to realise I must make my peace with what I have done. I need to take ownership of it. I need to forgive myself, because nobody else's forgiveness matters.
In the end, regardless of how my actions are judged, I know that this is about love.CHAPTER 3
A handsome, loving husband and a minimum of two apple-cheeked children of your own: that's what you're supposed to want first and foremost in life, isn't it? That's the paradigm you're offered as a little girl, the playtime template that's intended to shape your aspirations for future happiness.
Sometimes the paradigm doesn't take, however. Sometimes the template is damaged. Such was the case for me, Diana Jager.
I had a doll's house when I was a child. I think it came from a relative, because it was old and wooden and hand-painted; nothing like the mass-produced moulded-plastic ones I saw in the big thick mail-order catalogue with its treasured and much-thumbed toy pages at the back. It had ivy picked out in oil on the outside, climbing the walls to the steeply pitched roof. It didn't look like any house in my neighbourhood but seemed to belong to an older, grander world, one that belonged in my parents' past rather than my own future. The front swung open on hinges, revealing three storeys of also hand-painted rooms. It didn't come with furniture, but my parents bought me a set intended for one of the aforementioned plastic affairs. It always looked wrong.
That wasn't the real problem, though. There was a scale mismatch. None of my dolls would fit inside it: they were all too big. Not that a better size compatibility would have made it ideal for playing happy families, because here's the thing: who was going to be the husband? All the dolls I owned were girls or babies, and all the dolls I ever saw in my friends' bedrooms, notably the ones that matched those modern plastic houses, were girls or babies.
This reflected the reality of my home. It was Mummy and the babies who were round the house most of the time. Daddy was out having a career, and what little girl needs a doll to represent that?
My doll's house was never a home. Why would I want a toy version of a home? I already had a full-size one. I didn't get the mini-figure set that went with the plastic furniture: didn't ask for it. Instead I asked for a hospital playset, so that's what my doll's house became, most of the time. Sometimes it was a school, sometimes it was a museum, but mainly it was a hospital. My playset comprised ten figurines: two of them were doctors, six of them were nurses and two of them were patients.
Both of the doctors were men. All of the nurses were women.
I tried making a little green tabard out of crepe paper to drape over one of the nurses so that she could be a doctor too: a surgeon like my father. It looked rubbish and it kept tearing and crumpling, so eventually I gave up and made the female patient the surgeon, and put both of the male doctors in beds.
I remember one day asking my mother why women couldn't be doctors too. I must have been about six. That was when she told me that she was a doctor.
Let me warn you now that this was not the inspirational epiphany you might be anticipating.
My parents met at university, where they were both studying medicine. Early in their final year, they decided to get married, arranging to have the ceremony a couple of weeks before graduation. Sounds quite romantic, you might think: tying the knot before striking out together on this path they had both aspired towards, the shared ambitions they had studied so hard to realise. But here's the thing: somewhere along the path of that final year, they decided that my father would pursue his medical career, and my mother would be a housewife.
She wasn't up the duff, by the way. I could at least have got my head around that. I didn't come along for a couple of years yet.
My mother strove to get the A-levels she needed in order to get accepted for medicine, studied a further five pitiless years, passed her exams, graduated, then never practised one day as a doctor.
Not one single day.
It never made any sense to me. She didn't seem cumulatively frustrated by this as the years went on. I mean, I could have related to it all better had she been hitting the gin by mid-afternoon in her late thirties as her kids needed her less and she wondered where her life had drained away to. Not that she seemed particularly contented either. She was just there. Smiling but not cheery, caring but not warm, dependable but not inspiring.
I didn't see it for a long time because I grew up with it and because it was a hard thing to accept, but at some time around my late teens I realised that my mother had almost no personality. As I matured into adulthood, what increasingly bothered me about this – and about the choice she had made in final year – was the question of whether my father had subjugated her, turning a bright young woman into a compliant drone; or whether he had in fact recognised that compliance, that lack of personality, and identified it as precisely what he was looking for in a life partner. For my mother's part, I wondered was she happy to surrender her autonomy, to be annexed like some colonial dependency? Or had her natural timidity made her vulnerable to the manipulations of someone who turned out to be more domineering than she had initially apprehended?
I didn't even know which explanation I would prefer to be true.
There certainly weren't any clues on display in what I witnessed of their relationship. As a child I thought they were everything a married couple should be. My father would come home to find my mother in the kitchen calmly preparing dinner, and would peck her on the cheek and call her 'Dearest Darling', which was sometimes abbreviated to 'Dee Dee'. There never seemed to be any strife, no raised voices, no unspoken words, no simmering tension. (No passion, no hunger, no chemistry, no spark.)
'Dinner was beautiful, Dearest Darling. Thank you.'
'My pleasure, always.'
Even as a child, something about their exchanges chimed wrong, though I was too young to identify what and why. It was only as I got older that I came to understand what my instincts were telling me was off about this. It was like a phoned-in performance, a cargo-cult imitation of intimacy by two people who had seen this behaviour elsewhere and sought to replicate it as a form of civil convention.
Even once I had grasped this much, I still simply assumed that all married couples were like this with each other: that every husband and every wife behaved in a polite, friendly way they didn't really mean, as we do in so many other areas of our lives.
I was the Apple of his Eye. You should note the capitals: this noun was proper. It was not how he saw me, but what he called me.
'How's the Apple of my Eye this evening?'
Or when he was feeling solicitous, merely Apple.
'What's wrong, Apple? Aren't you feeling hungry this evening?'
My younger brothers were proudly addressed as Number One Son and Number Two Son, except when they were in trouble. I always knew that there was mischief afoot and a spike in the domestic temperature if I heard my father address them directly as Julian or Piers.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Black Widow"
Copyright © 2016 Christopher Brookmyre.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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