A seemingly perfect marriage is threatened by the deadly secrets husband and wife keep from each other.
Susannah, a young widow and single mother, has remarried well: to Max, a charismatic artist and popular speaker whose career took her and her fifteen-year-old son out of New York City and to a quiet Vermont university town. Strong-willed and attractive, Susannah expects that her life is perfectly in place again. Then one quiet morning she finds a note on her door: I KNOW WHO YOU ARE.
Max dismisses the note as a prank. But days after a neighborhood couple comes to dinner, the husband mysteriously dies in a tragic accident while on a run with Max. Soon thereafter, a second note appears on their door: DID YOU GET AWAY WITH IT?
Both Susannah and Max are keeping secrets from the world and from each othersecrets that could destroy their family and everything they have built. Thomas Christopher Greene's The Perfect Liar is a thrilling novel told through the alternating perspectives of Susannah and Max with a shocking climax that no one will expect, from the bestselling author of The Headmaster’s Wife.
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MUCH LATER WHAT SUSANNAH WILL remember about that morning is the rain, that warm May rain, how it felt on her bare arms when she ran, how it matted her long ginger hair to her head, how it smelled like freshly cut grass, how it sounded falling in sheets off the roof of the empty house.
Outside of the rain, the morning was quite ordinary. A Tuesday, the spring of 2014. Her husband, Max, was in Chicago giving a talk at the Art Institute. Freddy, her son, overslept slightly and then scarfed down three bowls of cereal before running out the door with his backpack on and his skateboard under his arm, barely stopping to say goodbye before stepping out into the rain. Susannah was left with the whole day as big and as empty as a lake in front of her.
She made herself a cappuccino with the Nespresso machine that she and Max had recently bought and that they were in love with. They wondered how they had lived without it. It was like being a barista without any of the fuss or the mess. After, she sat on the screened-in back porch and sipped her coffee and watched the rain. The large green backyard was lined with peonies about to bloom, so beautiful, she thought, and Susannah looked at them and then back into the house, to the wide rooms with the polished wood floors, and she sighed pleasantly, and not for the first time, as if remembering the whirlwind of good fortune that had led the three of them to this grand old house on a hill above Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont, nine months before.
Sometimes life changes in an instant, doesn't it? One minute she's a single mom, and then she meets an amazing man who literally rocks her world, and then his career, surprising both of them, takes off like a red-hot rocket. It felt like yesterday that she was introducing him to her boss at the gallery, and within months Max's handsome mug is on the cover of all the important art magazines. The challenge was that he didn't really make anything — the heart of his work was his ability to talk — so there was no obvious way to monetize it. The irony was that now you could become an art-world star and not sell paintings for millions of dollars. It was less about what you made than who you were.
Max gave a TED Talk that went viral. No one had ever talked about art this way before. He was in demand to give it everywhere. Shortly thereafter, a number of universities called with luxurious job offers. Vermont was the obvious choice. Kansas sounded dreadful (Who wants to live in Kansas? Max wondered) and so did the offer from the university in Atlanta, with all the imagined heat and the lack of seasons. But the clincher was when in the small galley kitchen in their apartment in the Village, Max said, "Here's the best part, Susannah, look at this."
He pulled out his phone and showed her the picture of this house. It was stunning, the kind of house she never imagined she would live in.
"They give us this house," he said.
"Give it to us?"
"Well, give is a strong word. But it's a three-year appointment and it's ours during that time."
Susannah shrieked, a real one, shrieked and hugged him hard, hugged him for his charm and talent, for how much people gravitated to him and wanted to see whatever he wanted to happen to happen, how he could will things into being, but she also hugged him because three years sounded beautifully long, long enough to get Freddy out of the city through high school. The thought of him no longer vanishing into Union Square Park with a skateboard and a hacky sack, and into the vast city where the lines between childhood and adulthood were often blurred, was almost enough to make Susannah giddy.
She stood and moved off the porch and into the wide-open living room and then into the kitchen, where she left her coffee mug in the sink next to the cereal bowl still full of milk that Freddy had deposited there hours ago.
It was time for her run. She always had this brief moment before she went when she had to will herself and imagine doing it, her legs churning as she propelled herself down the hill. Susannah didn't believe those who said they loved to run, though she believed it when they said that they loved how running made them feel after it was over.
As always, she had to remind herself that the run was not a choice for her. Years ago during an episode, a therapist had said, "I have lots of tricks to help you, Susannah, but nothing will help you as much as vigorous exercise. You need to do it every day."
Once outside, she loved the rain. She stood for a minute just looking at the quiet neighborhood, the neighborhood in repose, like a beautiful woman sleeping, everyone at work, rows and rows of stately Victorians on a flat stretch of hill, the lake blurry with mist below. She let the rain just fall on her, warm and soft, sweet-smelling rain, and when her hair was soaked and her bare arms were wet, she went.
In New York, Susannah would run along the crowded walkway next to the Hudson, and she always kept her focus on the river, the rise of the chop and the tugboats and barges moving along it. This was her strategy for ignoring the eyes on her, the men who shamelessly stared at the rise and fall of her tits and the curve of her ass under her black tights.
She wore earphones so no one would try to speak to her. Even in Vermont she wore the earphones, phone hooked to her waist, but here they didn't stare so blatantly.
Her route took her out of the neighborhood and then down the main street to the lakefront, and along that great expanse of water, the row of bluish mountains on the other side.
Then back the way she came, the last leg the hardest, straight uphill, her muscles straining, and she could taste that cigarette she would reward herself with on her return. She only smoked a couple every day, but she looked forward to them with the reverence of a religious ritual. It was a small indulgence, Susannah liked to tell herself, and given the air up here, no different from being a nonsmoker in the city. Or so someone had once told her and she had latched on to it like gospel.
Coming back up her street, she slowed. She was breathing hard. Two houses before hers, as she always did, she started to walk, her hands on her hips, shaking her legs out in front of her.
The rain picked up even more and it felt great. Finally stopping in front of her house, Susannah lifted her face to it, letting the rain hit her forehead, her cheeks, her mouth, practically drinking all that rain.
In that moment she noticed the note. It was taped to the front door. At first Susannah didn't think that it was anything at all — this was a neighborhood where people left notes, so unlike New York. Usually someone announcing a yard sale or a block party, or just that everyone — meaning all the couples of the same age group who lived in the "hood," as they called it — was getting together on this or that porch for drinks after the kids fell asleep.
Susannah stretched. She reached above her head, then bent down and touched her toes, liking the feel of her hamstrings as they strained. Standing back erect, she moved to the house, up the porch, and, almost as an afterthought, grabbed the note off the door.
Inside the house, Susannah opened it, and there, written in blocky black letters on thick cardstock paper, she read:
I KNOW WHO YOU ARE
She stopped and read it again. Her heart, elevated already from the run, began to race. A feeling of dread swept over her, a feeling that she recognized from long ago. Suddenly she was afraid that her motor, as she called it, would start to run and the panic would rise faster than a tide within her, and this would be the time she wouldn't be able to beat it back.
Susannah looked back to the door, then to the windows on either side of it. She went to the door and locked it. Then she turned around and started to shout into her own house, like someone walking through the woods might do so as to not startle a bear.
"Hello," Susannah yelled. "The police are on their way."
But the house greeted her with silence. A silence she didn't trust.
Susannah ran around and locked all the doors — the door to the back porch, the sliding ones that lead out to the back patio, and even the latch to the basement. It was so different here from in New York. In Vermont, after the first week, they had stopped locking their doors, except at night and out of habit. Their small garden apartment in Manhattan had no less than six locks; it was like opening a vault. Metal grates were on the windows. Anyone off the street could try to break in, but good luck.
She raced through the house, running up the wide wooden staircase with its big landing before it curved right and up to the hallway and the bedrooms. She shouted as she went, having no idea what to expect but wanting to know the place was empty. For a minute, Susannah wanted to feel safe.
In the bedroom she shared with Max, she opened the closet, looked into the bathroom, nervously peeled away the shower curtain, half expecting someone to jump out at her while she movie-screamed in the person's face.
She went into Freddy's room, cluttered and full of graphic novels in stacks like magazines and the crazy disarray that said in bright orange neon that a fifteen-year-old lived here: his clothes and crap in piles everywhere. She peered into his closet, too.
Susannah accepted that she was alone. Downstairs in the kitchen, she found her pack of American Spirit cigarettes and the lighter in their hiding spot in the high cabinet above the fridge.
She looked outside to the blue rain falling steadily, and instead of going out under the eaves — her usual spot — she told herself, Fuck it, and turned the crank on the two windows above the sink to open them, and with her hands shaking, she lit a cigarette, hoping the smell would be gone by the time Freddy returned home.
Susannah smoked furtively, the way mental patients do. Pulling hard and fast with the cigarette between pursed lips. The smoke swirled up above her face in thin plumes and she waved at it, a futile attempt to brush it away, to make it disappear.
Inside, though, she was starting to roil, and she had to remind herself that the anxiety was what she thought of as a white bear, and it was okay to have white bears. It was okay to think of the white bear, even when you were not supposed to. The white bear can only bite if you try to ignore its existence. Men fear death, she told herself, while women fear something far worse: losing their minds.
And fear, when you got right down to it, was the most natural thing in the world.
THREE YEARS BEFORE SUSANNAH FOUND the first note on the door in Vermont, Max crashed the party. Max had gone there with a single purpose, explicitly to seduce her, though he didn't know who her was, or if there would be a her, and he certainly hadn't counted on falling in love with Susannah, for Max wasn't sure he was capable of that kind of love. Nothing in his life to that point suggested it was possible.
This happened in the winter, a few days before Valentine's Day. Seemingly every storefront in Manhattan was displaying giant red bows. It snowed. A fluffy white New York snow that looked pretty but, when it fell, made the sidewalks and the street corners a slushy mess.
That morning Max had been working, taking down a show at a gallery in Chelsea, when the owner, Robert Williams, a semifamous figure who, when he walked through, barely looked at Max as if Max were the janitor sweeping the floor, got into a conversation with Davis, the manager who had hired Max a few weeks before. They were only a few feet from Max and it was easy for him to eavesdrop.
Lydia Garabedian, the most famous art dealer in the world, was having a party that night at her Upper West Side apartment. Pretty much anyone who was anyone in the art world was expected to attend. Robert Williams, who was in his early seventies, had been invited, but Davis had not. Davis asked Williams if he was going.
"Past my bedtime, I'm afraid," Robert Williams said. Within a year he would be dead at the hand of his beloved cigarettes, and as he said this, he laughed his distinctive throaty laugh.
So that night Max dressed in his art-world finest, black jeans and black T-shirt, white sneakers, and over this he wore a peacoat and a black watch cap on his bald head. Looking in the mirror before heading out into the snow, though, he realized he looked like a stevedore in some old Brando movie, so he stopped and threw a red scarf around his neck for a bit of color. He then rode the subway to Seventy-second Street and walked east to Central Park West.
This part of New York, with its wide avenues and its stately prewar buildings, the giant island of a park across the way, the trees that lined it painted white with new sticky snow, might as well have been a different country from Alphabet City, where Max lived. It felt big and rich and old as he walked north toward the San Remo, the iconic building where Lydia lived.
When he reached the front of it, Max stood for a moment and looked up at its great granite façade, the two towers that rose up near the top and loomed over the park. He had heard a story that in the 1960s Warren Beatty lived in one of the towers with whatever girlfriend he had at that time, and some famous actress lived in the other tower, and at night Mr. Beatty would move from tower to tower, from lover to lover. Max didn't know if that was true, but it was all he knew about the building before he walked into it that night. Other than that, he didn't belong there.
When Max approached the door, he pretended to be on his phone. The doorman looked at him slightly quizzically, and Max mouthed, "Lydia Garabedian," and the doorman opened the door and pointed him to a table in the lobby where two security guards sat behind a desk.
On his pretend phone call, Max was talking to a cab company, describing the fictional cab that had just dropped him off and in which he had left his wallet in the backseat. He said this all rather loudly and with much exasperation as he walked to the desk where the two men, both of them black and middle-aged and heavyset, sat staring at him blankly.
"Okay, okay," Max said to his fake phone call. "There is a reward for its safe return."
He hung up the fake call and looked at the two men. "Sorry about that, left my wallet in the cab. What a nightmare."
"Can we help you?" one of them said.
"I'm here for Lydia Garabedian."
The one who hadn't spoken looked at a clipboard in front of him. He ran a pencil down a list of names and found that one. "We just need some photo ID."
"Well, that's the thing. I don't know if you heard me on the phone, but I left my wallet in the cab. Sorry. But if you want, Lydia is an old friend, I'm sure she would come down —"
They looked at each other. Max knew this was not a palatable choice. One of them handed him a small card and said, "This is for the elevator. Hold it up to the black mirror outside the elevators. Go through these two rooms behind me and the elevator is there."
Max nodded and took the card and walked past them and into an ornate ballroom, dimly lit and entirely empty, with a ceiling that rose up in ribbons like being underneath a tent, and painted a deep red, like something you might see in a Turkish palace. The floors were marble and his sneakers squeaked as he walked across them and into the other room, virtually identical, though smaller, and what had been red was now the pale blue of a robin's egg.
Max was thinking how oddly empty the whole place seemed when a couple moved toward him from the room where the elevator must be, and as they passed, a pretty blonde and an older man, Max recognized the man as Alec Baldwin, the actor, looking harried as if he was late for a plane, and Max thought, Indeed, you are in a different New York.
The elevator room was long and narrow and high ceilinged. A bank of elevators stood all in a row, no buttons, but there, in the middle of them, was a black mirror, and he took the card he had been given and held it up to it, and just like that the elevator to his right shot open. He stepped in, and inside, the back wall was mirrored and the rest of it was fine dark wood, and again there were no buttons. The elevator door closed and the elevator began to rise smoothly and quickly up.
He had no way of knowing what floor it took him to. But when the door opened, to his surprise it opened directly into Lydia's living room. He wasn't fully prepared for this, having imagined gathering his thoughts in the hallway before knocking on a door. He had wanted a chance to collect himself, smile widely, since he was about to pull off a piece of performance art.
Instead, Max was thrust into it. People were everywhere, lounging on couches, standing in small packs, in a line at the bar. Long windows looked out to the snowy park, and straight ahead he got a sense of vertigo as he saw the street far below.
Max stepped forward, and a small Asian man confronted him, motioning for his coat and his hat and his scarf, all of which Max took off and handed to him.
Max eyed the bar, against the far wall, and his plan was to get over there, grab a drink, and then blend in. But suddenly in front of him was a woman, petite and curvy in a bright, fitted red dress, red hair expertly cut to her shoulders, a Roman nose and slightly olive skin, looking up at him with big butterscotch eyes.
"Hello." She held out her hand. "I'm Susannah."
"Max." He took her hand in both of his, a newly practiced gesture, looking her in the eye.
"Just W? Is that short for something?"
"It used to be."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Perfect Liar"
Copyright © 2019 Thomas Christopher Greene.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The First Note,
The Second Note,
The Third Note,
Two Months Later,
One Year Later,
Also by Thomas Christopher Greene,
About the Author,