28 October 2019
This week we’re celebrating the launch of our new crime imprint, Viper Books. Every day this week we’ll be sharing the first chapter of a new book on the list. Today we introduce Ren Richards’ The Broken Ones.
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THE BROKEN ONES
When her child was taken what did she really see?
A bestselling true crime writer, Nell Way tells other people’s stories. But there is one story Nell won’t tell. Ten years ago and with a different name, she was a teenage mother with a four-year-old she found desperately hard to love. Then the little girl disappeared, and Nell has never shaken off the shadow of suspicion.
As she begins to interview the subject of her next book – a woman convicted of murdering her twin sister – it becomes clear that someone has uncovered her true identity. And they know that Nell didn’t tell the truth about the day her daughter disappeared…
Who do you turn to when you’re not sure if you love your child? And when they’re taken, will anyone believe you’re innocent?
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Murderers are human too. That’s the part people forget. Look at this photo of the Widow Thompson. She is a middle-aged woman with grey hair and a disoriented sort of smile. Her eyes are distant. She looks ashen and strange, but objectively human. She has teeth, cheekbones, clavicles that peek out from the collar of her olive-coloured dress.
Now you find out this woman is a murderer. Suddenly the eyes are not human. The smile is evil, depraved. The skin is not covering a skull and bones and muscle. Something has changed, and you tell yourself that you had already suspected this. You’ll turn to the person next to you and say, ‘I knew it. I knew something was off.’
There is no bone, no piece of connective tissue or strand of DNA that separates a church mom from a woman who drowns all eight of her children in a bathtub. And that’s what the woman in this photo has done. She started with the oldest, who was eleven. Eleven is bigger than one or three or even nine. An eleven year-old can weigh about a ninety pounds and put up a good fight, rake their nails across their mother’s face, rip the towel rack from the wall trying to climb out of the shallow porcelain grave. Pieces of drywall and fractured tiles turned the water grey.
But the Widow Thompson was stronger. Not by much, but enough to get the job done. The other children were smaller, easier. The thirteen-month-old was last. She took no effort at all. As her mother carried her past the bodies of her siblings – all laid out in a silent row on the bedroom floor – she stared curiously, wondering why none of them looked up to pay her any attention.
Babies are easy to kill. That’s what the Widow Thompson said in her interview with police. She smiled and said that it was peaceful. Her older children hadn’t known that this was the right thing to do, but the baby had. She just slipped underwater and closed her eyes.
You only have a photo of the woman, though. You don’t have the forensics photo of the baby in the tub; you just have to take the woman’s word for it, and you’d be stupid to believe it happened like she said. But don’t kid yourself. The hands she used to do it were shaped just like yours.
CTRL + S, and the story was saved to Nell’s hard drive. The Widow Thompson would be her second true crime novel, the most controversial, and as of yet, the most lucrative.
It was five minutes to midnight. She sat in the dark with the blue glow of the screen lighting up her face. The tea in her mug had gone cold. The cream was curdled and pungent, like metal in the air.
She opened an email to her agent, attached the
file and hit send, meeting her deadline with four minutes to spare. Sebastian slept in the bed beside her, turned away, the muscles of his back creating lines in his shirt.
‘Hey,’ Nell whispered, and leaned over to kiss his ear. The laptop slid and she grasped it before it slid off the bed. Bas groaned and shifted.
‘I finished it,’ she said.
Bas turned to face her, and his eyes opened, heavy-lidded. ‘Just now?’
She closed the laptop with a resolute slam. ‘Just now.’
He coiled his arms around her and pulled her to his chest. ‘What’s it like in your head?’ He tucked her hair behind her shoulder. ‘All those fucked-up stories floating around all the time.’
‘They’re not my stories,’ she said. ‘I’m just reporting the facts.’
He buried his face in the curl of her neck. He smelled so good, like laundry fresh from the dryer. It was the consistency of his presence – his smell, his touch, even the soured breath from hours of sleep – that Nell loved the most. Consistency was a foreign country whose maps eluded her. Two years of sleeping beside this man and she was still waiting for the morning she would wake up and find him gone.
It was a thought that left her fearful of the dark, as though he would disappear in the blackness between the city lights that dotted the windows. But every morning he was exactly where she’d left him, and the longer he stayed, the more their lives braided together. She could almost believe that he was permanent. This frightened her more than anything the Widow Thompson had done. Sebastian’s eyes were closed now. He tightened his hold on her, and her body rose and fell with the waves of his breathing.
‘How does it end?’ he asked.
‘The Widow Thompson’s mug shot,’ Nell said.
‘That’s what made me want to take this story. It was just so – sad.’
‘Yeah. Eight kids drowning in a tub because their mother is one Froot Loop away from a full bowl is pretty sad,’ Bas snorted.
‘I didn’t write a book about the kids,’ Nell said. ‘We already know their story. They were all over the news. Little Stacie in her ballet photos and Caleb getting baptised in his tuxedo with the sleeves that are too big for him.’
Indeed, there had been a dozen two hour specials in the three years since the crime had
occurred. The story had been interred in the endless tomb of the world’s tragedies, only to be ripped open anew by the Widow Thompson’s appeal case.
Society had seen fit to let her rot in the New York state pen on death row, but a women’s rights group successfully won an appeal to have her transferred to a mental healthcare facility two months ago. It sparked outrage, and the news was plastered with the photos of her dead children, forever frozen in time. Blowing out birthday candles and holding up Fourth of July sparklers and – in a tragic bit of irony – splashing each other in the public pool.
But nobody talked about the Widow Thompson. Nobody talked about the husband who died when his tractor-trailer veered off the road after a forty eight-hour shift to provide for the children he’d insisted they conceive in bulk. Nobody talked about the postpartum depression the Widow Thompson had been displaying for a good five years before the crime, ever since the birth of her twins, Spencer and Lillian.