Read Can You Keep a Secret? Online
Authors: Caroline Overington
|Can You Keep a Secret?|
‘Why do some people decide to get married when everyone around them would seem to agree that marriage, at least for the two people in question, is a terrifically bad idea?’
The year is 1999, and Lachlan Colbert — Colby — has the world at his feet. He’s got a big job on Wall Street and a sleek bachelor pad in the heart of Manhattan.
With money no object, he and his friends take a trip to Australia to see in the new millennium. And it’s there, on a hired yacht sailing the Whitsundays, that he meets Caitlin.
Caitlin Hourigan has got wild hair and torn shorts — and has barely ever left the small patch of Queensland where she grew up. But Colby is smitten and for Caitlin, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, a blissful future awaits — marriage, a big house, a beautiful little boy.
But nothing is ever as perfect as it seems. And for Lachlan and Caitlin the nightmare is only just beginning …
With her customary page-turning style and potent themes, this is Caroline Overington at her thought-provoking best.
‘Overington has a real gift’
Sydney Morning Herald
‘Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead’
The people are pleasant and the houses are pretty, so it goes without saying that Larchmont is the kind of place where strange and frightening things happen.
Isn’t that always the way?
Something terrible will get reported in the news and the first thing the neighbours will say is: ‘What, here? In this little village? This is the last place on earth you’d expect such and such to happen …’
Larchmont isn’t the last place on earth – it’s barely thirty kilometres from Midtown Manhattan – but nor is it the kind of place where big, beautiful homes catch fire in terrible circumstances and burn to the ground. That, however, is exactly what happened early one Saturday morning in 2008.
One of the first to notice was one of Larchmont’s oldest residents, 81-year-old Bert Handler. ‘I was out on my lawn, using the leaf-blower,’ he told the
in an interview published a week or so after the
blaze. ‘I had the earmuffs on. I couldn’t hear much, but I thought I smelt smoke. I turned around, and there it was. That lovely house on the hill – the one they worked on for years, the one we all joked about – was going up in flames.’
In normal circumstances, Bert would have called out to his wife to call the fire brigade, but Beryl had already left their home to go bowling, so Bert ran out onto the road outside his house and began to wave his arms around.
Maybe it was Bert’s advanced age; maybe it was his panicked expression; maybe the fact that he still had earmuffs clamped to his head, but the first vehicle that came by – a Volvo – stopped in its tracks.
‘There’s a fire!’ Bert shouted, pointing up towards the hill. ‘Can you call the fire department? Tell them it’s the big house – the Nougat House – at the top of Larchmont Hill.’
The woman behind the wheel fished around in her handbag for her phone and dialled 911, but even before she had finished speaking, the sound of sirens filled the air. ‘Hop in,’ she said, pushing her handbag off the passenger seat onto the floor, ‘maybe we can help.’
They got no closer than the stone fence surrounding the property before the police gently pushed them back, but what they saw, even from that distance, was frightening. There was a woman outside the house dressed in a sheer cotton nightdress that billowed around her skeletal frame. Her hair was blonde and wild; her feet bare; her hands black with soot. She was holding a stick as if it were a
baseball bat, and she was banging one of the windows with it, shouting, ‘Benjamin!’
Detective Inspector Bruce Cramer from the Larchmont Police Department came roaring up behind her. ‘No, stop!’ he shouted, but it was too late. The glass gave way and flames rushed out. The woman’s eyelashes and blonde eyebrows seemed to melt, and the searing heat forced her back onto the bones of her behind.
‘I felt so bad for her,’ Bert told the newspaper. ‘The house was going up. From where we were standing, in that early morning light, we could see everything. The paint was blistering. Beams were cracking. Ash was spinning through the sky. And the heat! It was like when you step out of the car in Death Valley. I could barely stand to be near the fence. And yet she was shouting out that somebody – her little boy – was in there.’
Detective Inspector Cramer took the woman by her pale arms, and tried to wrestle her to the ground. She didn’t make it easy for him. She fought back, twisting her body like a sheet on a clothesline.
‘You must calm down. You can’t go in there,’ Cramer urged, but she would not be calmed. Freeing herself from his grip, she began crawling towards the house, not on her knees, but with her legs straight out and the palms of her hands flat on the ground.
‘Please stop,’ Cramer said, grabbing her from behind. ‘We can handle this! Just tell us, who are we looking for? How many people inside?’
‘It’s my son!’ she said. She was hysterical.
‘Your son, he’s inside? How old is he?’
‘He’s five! Oh, Benjamin!’
A crowd had begun to gather around. ‘She has a son? In the house?’ That came from Bert, who didn’t really know the family despite living nearby. By now he was truly alarmed.
‘Oh yes, Caitlin has a son.’ That came from another of the spectators, a woman who was nodding her head dramatically as others in the group expressed their shock. ‘They have a son, a little boy, but he’s not really theirs. They adopted him from an orphanage – I think from Russia – and from what I hear, it hasn’t been going that well.’
How do couples meet? What makes them fall in love?
Why do some people decide to get married when everyone around them would seem to agree that marriage, at least for the two people in question, is a terrifically bad idea?
As difficult as it is to believe, there are some women who get married simply because they’ve been asked, usually at a time when getting married would solve a lot of problems. That was certainly the case for Caitlin.
Caitlin met the man who would become her husband in Townsville in far north Queensland in December 1999. The date is important: it was the end of the year, but also of the century, and it was the start of a brand new millennium.
Everyone’s mood was elevated.
Lachlan J. Colbert – or Colby as his friends called him – wasn’t Australian. He had been in Australia on holiday, though the trip hadn’t appealed to him at first. In point of fact, he’d been dead against going anywhere in December 1999.
‘I’m going to stay home and make more money,’ Colby told his friend and colleague Robert Brancato, when he’d asked him about his plans for that particularly important New Year’s Eve.
They had been drinking beers at the Blue Water Inn at Times Square, a place famous in the 1990s for having a blue glass floor, and for having more than 1000 tiny white mermaids, pinned through their middles, up and down the walls.
‘Well then, you’re going to be disappointed,’ Robert had said. ‘I spoke to the guys in our risk department. They’re shutting everything down. It’s a precaution, for Y2K. They don’t want to take any chances.’
Colby and Robert worked together at Carnegie Asset Management, a boutique investment bank with offices in lower Manhattan. Their jobs were slightly different – Colby worked on foreign markets, and Robert on domestic trades – but both were raking it in.
In terms of appearance, they couldn’t have been more different: Colby was tall, lean and athletic, with a full head of sandy hair; Robert was a good ten centimetres shorter, with a tubby belly, a heap of black body hair, olive skin and a balding scalp. Only their attire was the same: sharp suits, pristine white shirts; hand-tooled shoes; cufflinks. Both were conscious of Y2K, a computer bug that might, or might not, bring down computer systems worldwide as the date clicked over to the year 2000, but both were risk-takers, and thought the whole scenario unlikely.
‘Jesus,’ Colby said, lifting his beer, ‘we’re shutting down? But I can still use the BlackBerry, right?’
‘Wrong. There will be no trades on New Year’s Eve, and that includes the BlackBerry. Forget it. Not happening. You’re being forced to take a holiday. But don’t panic, I’ve made plans for you. We’re going to Australia.’
It was all Colby could do not to spray beer across the table.
‘I’m not going to Australia,’ he said. ‘It takes half a day to get there.’
‘Not half a day,’ said Robert, shaking his head. ‘A whole day. To be specific, Christmas Day.’
‘Then forget it,’ said Colby. ‘We have to leave town, fair enough. But why go so far? Pick somewhere else.’
‘There isn’t anywhere else. Being where they are – Down Under – they get to go first with the whole new millennium thing. And I know how you love to go first.’
Colby laughed, and then, life being the way it is – full of random coincidences that end up influencing the road ahead – right at that moment, a waitress on roller skates glided over the glass floor to their table.
‘Can I get you guys another?’ she asked. The accent was unmistakably Australian.
‘Hey, where are you from?’ Robert asked.
‘Melbourne,’ she said.
‘Melbourne?! Well, that’s a coincidence. I’ve just been trying to convince my friend here to come to Australia with me for the new millennium.’
‘I wish I was going,’ the girl said. ‘They’re having the biggest fireworks show in the world on Sydney Harbour.’
‘There you go!’ said Robert, picking up and slapping down a coaster. ‘Right from the horse’s mouth, Colby. They’re having the biggest fireworks show in the world!’
‘Please ignore my friend,’ Colby said to the waitress, ‘and bring us two more beers.’
The girl from Melbourne punched out their order and glided away, and as she did so Robert dipped his head as low as the table, trying to get a glimpse under her skirt.
‘Australian girls on roller skates,’ he said. ‘There must be a god.’
‘How much does a ticket to Australia cost?’ Colby asked. He’d loosened his tie and was sitting with legs wide apart, in the manner of a man used to taking as much space as he needed.
‘Like you care.’
‘I’m just asking.’
‘About eight K.’
‘Less than I thought,’ said Colby. His head was tilted, like he was considering things.
‘Sure. But that gets us only as far as Sydney. From there we have to tack on another flight – no business class this time, just a little plane – to a place called Townsville, where we can pick up the yacht. Ever heard of the Whitsundays?’
Colby furrowed his brow. ‘The yacht?’
‘The yacht. There’s a bunch of islands, like in Jamaica, that they call the Whitsundays. Okay, it’s not exactly like Jamaica. More beautiful than Jamaica. But totally isolated. You pick up a yacht, they take you out, you don’t see anyone.
You scuba dive or you go on the jet skis. And at night you drop anchor and they bring you ashore and you go to the bars and pick up women.’
‘And how much is that?’ asked Colby.
‘The girls? They’re free. These are pubs, like bars. Not strip joints.’
The whole trip, packaged up. How much am I up for?’
‘The whole trip?’ said Robert grinning. ‘I’m thinking twenty K. And when you think we paid fifty K for that place in the Hamptons last summer … Not that I’m saying that wasn’t worth it. Remember Lucy Stiles?’
Colby remembered Lucy Stiles. He hadn’t so much picked her up as failed to dodge her when she hurled herself across the pool in his direction, wearing only a white bikini. Shaking her loose had not been easy.
‘Lucy Stiles is responsible for me having to get a new cell phone,’ Colby said. ‘Every time it rang, she’d be on the other end. I nearly missed that Japan deal.’
‘Quality problem to have,’ said Robert.
‘That’s your opinion, not mine. Now, who’s coming on this trip?’
‘Who knows? We can go, or we can open it up to some of the guys. Marcel from HSBC, maybe, or Grant Baker from Goldman Sachs.’
‘Alright. If you’re sure there’s nowhere closer, and you’re absolutely sure we’re not going to be able to work, I suppose I’ve got no choice. You organise it and I’m in.’
‘That’s the spirit,’ said Robert, finishing his beer. ‘You just leave the details to me, and I’ll plan a holiday you’ll never forget.’