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Secrets and Lies: Lost at Sea or Murdered in Cold Blood?

In this psychological thriller, a husband's disappearance begins a dangerous game of deception.

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  • Photo Credit: Ian Espinosa / Unsplash

Perhaps it's true that two can keep a secret if one of them is dead, but what if that secret haunts you from beyond the grave? Such is the predicament of Deceit’s widowed and unreliable narrator, Ellen Richmond, whose high-profile husband is lost at sea. As damning evidence rises to the surface, the tides of the investigation begin to change, sweeping the Richmond family into the eye of the storm: Could Harry's disappearance, in fact, be murder? 

Of course, Harry has left more than just a tangle of questions, salacious infidelities, and nefarious behavior in his wake—he’s also left his wife with a terrifying secret. And when fingers start pointing in Ellen's direction, one starts to wonder what truly happened to Harry.

In the excerpt below, Ellen is enjoying a waterside picnic with Harry’s friend, Richard Moreland, when their conversation turns to the night of the crime. As the murky details are rehashed and dissected, Ellen becomes increasingly shifty—but what exactly is she hiding?

Innocent or guilty? Determine your own verdict by reading an excerpt from Deceit below. Then, download the book.





By Clare Francis

‘Early on it was quite like this, but even windier. Harry thought of cancelling the trip. He phoned the weather people. But they told him the wind was going to drop and by mid-morning it did. In fact by noon, when Harry brought Minerva into the quay, there was hardly any wind at all. He was relieved. He didn’t feel too confident in a blow. Not singlehanded anyway. Then, as we were loading up, the rain started. A steady downpour. Then – yes, I suppose you couldn’t see very far.’ The memory is vivid, a vision of the boat disappearing into an indistinct wall of grey until I could see nothing but the brilliant orange of Harry’s waterproofs, a small blob of colour suspended as if in space. ‘When the rain eased it was misty. But I wouldn’t have said it was foggy. It might have got foggy in the evening, of course – I don’t know. I’d gone out by then. I was the other side of Woodbridge. It certainly wasn’t foggy there.’

Moreland absorbs this slowly. ‘Harry didn’t go straight off?’

I am miles away. ‘What?’ I say, coming back with an effort. ‘Oh no. He went to the mooring to wait for the tide. It wasn’t right for going south, not till later. He’d worked it out – he had all the tide-tables. He was aiming to leave at five or six – something like that. But he couldn’t wait at the quay, you see. Minerva had a deep keel. There wasn’t enough water for her except at high tide. He had to take her out to the mooring as soon as we’d finished loading. He was going to spend the afternoon doing jobs on the boat then potter down to the end of the river and wait the last half hour there.’

‘You don’t know when he left?’

‘No. By the time I got back from dinner it was too dark to go and check. But he was seen going down river by someone at Waldringfield at about five. Then a coaster saw a yacht through the mist or fog or whatever it was, later that evening.’

‘Ah.’ He nods slowly. ‘No one else saw him?’

‘I don’t think so.’

‘And he was aiming for the Hamble River?’

‘Yes. But not in one go. He was going to stop on the way. He wasn’t sure where. He was going to wait until he got tired, and then put in somewhere. Ramsgate. Brighton. He wasn’t sure. Originally he was going with a friend – Jack Crawley – but Jack couldn’t make it.’

Moreland contemplates the ground for a moment. ‘He couldn’t find anyone else?’

‘Oh, he could have, but …’

Moreland waits silently. Eventually he murmurs, ‘He wanted to go singlehanded?”

I spread my palms in bafflement. ‘It was a challenge, I suppose. Something he’d never done before – a long passage, I mean, on his own. I think it frightened him rigid. But then,’ I comment almost to myself, ‘that was part of the attraction. At least I think so.’ How do I explain? How do I explain this person, my husband, who walled off enormous areas of himself, who did not himself know what drove him?

‘He hadn’t sailed much before?’ The softness of Moreland’s voice does not conceal its attentiveness.

How do I explain this person, my husband, who walled off enormous areas of himself, who did not himself know what drove him?

‘Hardly at all, no. He was brought up not far from here – just north of Woodbridge – but he never sailed as a child. It was the quay that got him going – I mean, the fact that it came with the house. He didn’t like to waste it. And then he was offered a good deal on Minerva, and that was that. He had to learn everything from scratch. He bought books, got one of the lads from the local yard to teach him the rudiments, went racing a bit. Then, when Minerva came back from the yard, after she’d been refitted, he used to take friends out with him, people who knew the river – it’s quite dangerous out by the entrance, the sandbanks shift—’

Moreland nods to show that he knows about the hazards of the bar. ‘You never went with him?”

“Me? Oh no. Well – now and then, when he promised to keep in the river. And once or twice further out, when it was very calm. But I didn’t enjoy it, I’m afraid. The water terrifies me.’ I laugh at myself. ‘Pathetic, really.’

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  • Photo Credit: Anna Goncharova / Unsplash

Not at all.’ He says this in a kindly abstract way, although, having been a Royal Marine, he must find my lack of spirit quite alien.

‘He took Josh sometimes,’ I say, ‘but Josh got bored. Minerva went too fast to catch fish.’

Moreland grins briefly. I notice that his eyes are more hazel than brown, and that when he smiles they lose all their pensiveness and glint with vitality.

We fall into an easy silence. Josh is still at the bucket. He has elongated the sleeve of his sweatshirt to cover his hand and form a dish-cloth with which to rub the plates. Drying, I hope vaguely, rather than washing.

‘They think he must have been run down in the night,’ I say, feeling compelled to complete the story, as much for myself as for Moreland. ‘A ship that never saw him, never realised what had happened.’

Moreland looks towards some distant horizon then back at me, his face creased with renewed seriousness. ‘It happens,’ he murmurs.

In the silence that follows I picture the scene as Moreland must be seeing it, the small yacht, the ship bearing down on it in the dark, the lone figure failing to keep a proper watch, asleep perhaps, slouched over in the cockpit; then, with no warning, the cataclysmic impact.

‘One thing …’ Moreland asks almost casually. ‘Why did Harry decide to take the dory, do you know?’

I am surprised at how well informed he is. ‘The dory …?’

“It just seemed … Well, it’s not really the sort of boat one would normally take on a long passage,’ he explains with care. ‘Impossible to stow on deck – impossible even to lift out of the water – and large and heavy to tow behind. It would have slowed him down a lot, and in any sort of sea, well … it could have filled up, broken loose – all sorts of things. He didn’t have an inflatable? Something he could stow on deck?’

Leonard must have told him, I realise. Or – yes, of course – the lads at the boatyard in Waldringfield, the regulars in the pub. All the details of Minerva’s disappearance would have been thoroughly chewed over, country style.

I take my time. ‘We had an inflatable, yes. A Zodiac. But he left it behind. It’s in the garage, I think.’

‘I see.’ He still looks puzzled. He is on the point of asking something else when I point towards Josh, jogging towards us with the clanking bucket dancing lightly from one hand. Arriving, he pulls the cutlery from the bucket, gives it a last-minute polish on the much abused sleeve-end and holds it up for Moreland’s inspection.

I hadn’t realised how late it was. Kneeling, I sit back on my heels. ‘Well …’ I say with finality. ‘It’s been very nice.’

Moreland takes his cue. ‘Thank you for lending me Josh for the morning.’ He offers a hand and pulls me to my feet.

I look to where Josh is packing the lurid plastic plates into a rucksack. ‘He seems to have enjoyed himself.’

“Well, perhaps I could take him again, while I still have the use of a boat. If that’s all right?’

Instinctively I pause to weigh the idea, as I weigh every decision and response nowadays. ‘Yes, of course.’

Moreland closes his rucksack and picks up my basket. With Josh in the lead, we start across the clearing.

‘Harry was planning to cruise the South Coast, was he?’ Moreland asks quietly, as if our conversation hadn’t been interrupted.

I walk on for a moment. ‘He was going to base the boat in the Hamble for the summer,’ I say. ‘Use it as a hopping off point for gastronomic weekends in France.’ I remember Harry telling me this. He had paused in the doorway of the kitchen on his way to the study. I remember his obvious irritation at being forced into this lie. He knew that I was aware of his real reason for taking the boat to a place far from home yet convenient for London. We both knew he was going to use it for his sessions with Caroline Palmer. I chose not to say anything. I had decided long before never to say anything.

Now I faithfully recount Harry’s version. I recount his lie. Like most lies I have to tell nowadays, I manage it with conviction.

Later, when Moreland has been gone for some time and Josh is playing with his Game Boy and there is no one else about, I wander into the garden, making a slow circle that takes me round the perimeter of the lawn, through the wind-buffeted rose garden, past the glass-houses and lines of vegetables, and out into the drive by the door set into the high wall. Coming to the outbuildings, I pass the double garage that houses Harry’s Mercedes and my far from shiny estate car and stop at the small single garage that we use for storage. Going in by the side door, I flick on the light and look straight into the far corner. Next to the surplus furniture and sundry yacht gear and the four-horse outboard motor, I see the Zodiac inflatable, exactly where Maurice, our gardener, left it.

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  • Photo Credit: Anna Goncharova / Unsplash

The Zodiac has been incompletely deflated and inexpertly folded. Maurice offered to pack it away for me, and in my weariness that day I was quick to accept. From the look of it he didn’t find the job easy. The folds are too bulky for the tall green bag and the boat bulges out from the top like a sluggish sea creature emerging from a pod. The grey rubberised fabric still has a smear of what at a distance looks like a pale wash of paint but which on closer examination is in fact encrusted mud that has dried into a craze of fine cracks.

The mud dried the same way on my skin, I remember. There were patches of it all over my upper arms and shins when I woke, confused and stiff, from that first exhausted sleep. The mud had smeared the sheets as well, and was stuck to my clothes in thick grey scabs. I scrubbed myself under the shower, I pulled the sheets off the bed, I put on some clean clothes before I went in search of Maurice to ask for help in bringing the Zodiac up from the quay.

I can see how strange the choice of the dory must look to Moreland. The dory is a wide, flat-bottomed dinghy with a powerful outboard. I can understand how it must bother him that Harry didn’t choose to take the inflatable. But then Moreland is well versed in these things and Harry wasn’t.

Like most lies I have to tell nowadays, I manage it with conviction.

I should have mentioned that, I should have made it clear that Harry often made mistakes. Like misreading charts and going aground. Like getting ropes around the propeller.

I should have mentioned it. If the opportunity arises, I will.

I close the door behind me, wishing that I wasn’t beset by so many well-meaning people. Moreland probably thinks he is being helpful in some way, just as Charles and Anne and Leonard are driven by the firm conviction that they are acting in my best interests. That is the irony. And there is little I can do to stop them.

Want to keep reading? Download Deceit now. 

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Featured photo: Ian Espinosa / Unsplash; Additional photos: Anna Goncharova / Unsplash; Trevor Gerzen / Unsplash