Exclusive extract from Copycat by Alex Lake

Category: Extract

Ten Years Earlier

The first time someone said that Karen was gone for good was during the week after she disappeared. People – mothers – didn’t just leave their kids without warning for days on end, unless there was something wrong. Very wrong. Depressed, maybe, after the birth of her second child. Or unhappy in her relationship. Her boyfriend was not a local, and he was a few years older than her. Who knew what went on behind the closed doors of their house?

Not Sarah Havenant, or any of her friends, although they were the last to see her. It was the day Sarah moved back to Barrow, Maine, after four years of college and then four more of medical school, ready to start her residency at the local hospital, and she and her friends had gotten together in a bar. Reconnect. Catch up on old times. Talk about what was to come.

Sarah, Jean, Franny, Luke. The old gang, at least the ones who were still around.

And Karen. Karen, mom of two boys, a three-year-old and a one-year-old. Karen, who was now missing.

Sarah didn’t remember Karen leaving the bar. It was some- time before 2 a.m., which was the time she had staggered into a cab with Franny and Luke. Alec – a guy they had bumped into – had offered to drive but, drunk as she was, Sarah had been sensible enough to turn his kind offer down.

Franny and Luke didn’t remember seeing her leave either, and neither did Jean, who had left early; she worked on an organic farm in the summers and had to get ready for the farmers’ market the following day.

But sometime in between Jean’s early departure and 2 a.m., Karen had left too.

Although, as it turned out, vanished was a better word.

The next day, Sarah had run into Karen’s boyfriend, and father of her two sons. She didn’t know him – they’d met briefly once or twice when she was back in town – and he’d asked if she knew where Karen was.

Sarah shook her head. Is Karen OK? she said.

She didn’t come home last night, he replied. I woke up around four with this guy – he was with his sons and he kissed the one-year-old on the top of the head – and she wasn’t there. I called her cell but there was no answer.

He’d called around. Tried the local hospital. But there was no trace of her.

At some point in the night, impossible though it seemed, she had disappeared.

And, with nearly a week gone, it looked like she wasn’t planning on coming back anytime soon.

1

Sarah Havenant glanced at her phone as she walked to Examining Room Three. She was expecting a message from Ben, her husband, telling her whether he could pick up their son, Miles – a mere seven years old but, all of a sudden, every bit the rebellious teenager, which was a surprising and unwelcome transformation – from the farm camp where he was spending a week of his summer vacation. If not it meant she would have to leave the Barrow Medical Center as soon as she finished work and head over there to get him, which would mean no stop at the gym on the way home and no workout.

And today, more than most days, she needed a workout, because she had just come from a patient who Sarah had told, sitting there in the examining room, that the results of the tests she had been for were not good; in fact, they were awful, and, given the particular form of cancer she had, it was probable her life expectancy would be measured in months and not years.

The patient – Amy, she was called – had left almost without a word. Her husband was with her; he had started asking questions, but Amy had stood up and shook her head and told him they could get more details later, but right now all she wanted to do was leave.

I want to go and see Isla, she’d said.

Isla, her nine-month-old daughter. A daughter who would, barring a miracle, shortly be motherless.

So she needed the gym. And then she would go home to Ben and Miles and five-year-old Faye and two-year-old Kim and a meal and then stories and bathtime and bed. And she would make sure to say a prayer of thanks – even though she was not religious in any way – for her family.

But there was no message from Ben. There was, however, a Facebook friend request, from a name she hadn’t thought of for a long time. A decade, at least.

Rachel Little.

Who was not really a friend. She’d been at Barrow High School with Sarah, but she’d not been part of Sarah’s circle. She’d not been part of anyone’s circle, really. She didn’t fit; high school was carefully stratified into tribes – jocks, cheer squad, chess club – and Rachel was into tarot readings and the occult and weird food fads. It probably wasn’t true, but Sarah remembered her eating and drinking nothing but home- made vegetable juices, which she enthused about to anybody who would listen.

Rachel had been tall and long-limbed, but not in a graceful way. In a not-quite-in-control of her hands and feet way, and her hands and feet were prominent, because she always wore pants and long-sleeved shirts – never dresses or skirts or tank tops or T-shirts – and they were always too short for those long, gangly limbs.

But still, she was nice enough, and it would be interesting to see what she was up to. That was one of the great things about Facebook. You could keep in touch with lots and lots of people in a non-committal way. Ben thought it was a waste of time – he’d deleted his account a few months back – but Sarah liked it. She liked people, and she was interested in their lives.

She paused at the door to Examining Room Three – inside was her last patient of the day, a hypochondriac man in his early forties who enjoyed splendid good health but was convinced he was dying – and opened the friend request.

Hi Sarah! It’s me, Rachel! Recently got on Facebook (a bit late but you know me – not exactly with it!) and thought I’d look you up. Hope you’re well. I’m in the process of moving back to Barrow so maybe we’ll catch up. One question– is this the right account for you or is it the other one (with your name and photo on)?

Sarah frowned and typed a response.

Rachel! Would love to catch up. At work or I’d write more. And I only have one account – this one!

She sent the reply, walked into Examining Room Three, and forgot all about it.

Ben, it turned out, was able to pick up Miles. His message – OK re: Miles – was typical of him. He treated email and text messages as vehicles to pass on the maximum of information with the minimum of words. He claimed it was because he was British and didn’t believe in idle chat, but Sarah thought it was really because he harbored some vague idea that the more words you wrote, the more the message could cost. Either way, Miles was taken care of, so she stopped at the gym on her way home and joined, a few minutes late, a spinning class. Afterwards, she walked outside with Abby, a marketing graduate in her mid-twenties who had played lacrosse in college and who took, it seemed to Sarah, a too obvious pleasure in out-spinning the late-thirties moms and retirees who made up much of the gym-going population of Barrow.

‘Ugh,’ Abby said. ‘So hard. My thighs were burning. She’s the best instructor.’

She was Tanya, a woman who was a few years older than Sarah but who had a body that, as a doctor, Sarah considered to be a marvel of medical science. She did the class with her charges but, when they were dissolving into puddles of their own sweat, she was untroubled. And, as she spun, she would shout out what to do next. The fact she was capable of rational thought was impressive; that she could speak was amazing; that she could shout was beyond belief. Although it was ridiculous – she was a thirty-eight-year-old mother of three with a husband with whom she still had an active (and not unadventurous) sex life – Sarah had, she realized, a bit of a crush on Tanya. Not – she didn’t think – in a sexual way, but in a I-want-to-be-this-person way. She was awestruck by Tanya, and found herself wanting to impress her with her spinning skills, a mission which was likely to result only in Tanya wondering why Sarah was so easily reduced to a red-faced and panting wreck.

‘She is phenomenal,’ Sarah said. ‘I don’t know how she does it.’

‘Lots of hard work,’ Abby said, with the literal-mindedness of the young. ‘There’s no secret sauce that gets you in shape.’

‘I guess so,’ Sarah replied, wishing there was a secret sauce that got you in shape. She took her phone and car keys from her bag. ‘See you next time, hopefully.’

‘I’ll be here for Thursday’s class,’ Abby said. ‘See you then.’ Sarah nodded and opened her car door. She put the keys in and started the engine. As she waited for the air-conditioning to kick in she looked at her phone.

There was a new message from Rachel.

Great! I’ll let you know when I’m back in Barrow. And here’s the other account in your name! It’s definitely you!

There was a link. Sarah tapped it with her forefinger and it brought up a Facebook account.

She frowned. It was her name. Sarah Havenant.

She scanned the page. Married to Ben. Mother of three kids.

And the profile photo was of her. She was smiling and looking straight at the camera, standing by an ice rink they had skated at a lot last winter. She remembered that particular day: she was wearing the coat she’d bought at one of the outlet stores in Freeport. It was made from some new material – super lightweight but super warm – and she’d been struck by how much she wished they’d had things like this when they grew up; most of her childhood winters had been spent wrapped in so many layers it made movement practically impossible.

But it was all irrelevant. The question was, why the hell was there a Facebook account purporting to be her? And, more to the point, who had set it up?

She scrolled down.

And froze.

The most recent post was from that morning. It was a photo of Miles, Faye and Kim sitting on a beach towel eating peanut butter sandwiches, and it had a caption:

Turns out Kim likes sand sandwiches. Thanks to her older siblings for putting the sand in her sandwich and helping her discover this!

Sarah stared at the screen. This was not some random photo of her at an ice rink six months ago. This had happened yesterday.

They had been at the beach, and, at lunchtime Miles and Faye – it was more Faye, in truth – had told their youngest sibling the reason they were called sandwiches was because they had sand in them, and, desperate for attention, Kim had nodded agreement. Smiling, they had spread mayonnaise on bread, sprinkled it with a liberal dose of fresh, warm sand and handed it to her.

Mmm, Kim said, as they encouraged her to eat it. I love sandwiches.

But no one else knew about it. They had come home late in the afternoon, and, once the kids were in bed, Sarah had spent the rest of the evening getting ready for work.

Slowly, she began to scroll through the rest of the post.

2

She could not believe what she saw.

The next post was a photo of her and Ben on a date a few weeks earlier at a Japanese restaurant. They were sharing a sushi boat and a bottle of white wine; the photo had been taken from behind Ben and she was listening to him, her right hand resting on her glass. The caption read:

Date night with my wonderful husband. We need to do this more often!

It was, she realized, exactly the sort of banal post she would have written.

Except she hadn’t. Someone else had. And they had done more, many more.

A photo of her in a Greek wine bar in Portland with Toni and Anne, her two best college friends, on a night out in early spring. Caption: Girls night! Yay! A photo of her and Jean, a teaching assistant in the local kindergarten who Sarah had known all her life, after a 10k race they’d run in April. It had rained nonstop throughout, an old-fashioned down- pour, and they were dripping wet, and grinning. Caption: Bit rainy but no problem. My delightful British husband said before we set off ‘Nothing to worry about. This is just drizzle back home.’ He then proceeded to pull out his golf umbrella, hand warmers and flask of hot tea.

Ben had said those very words, then waited at the finish line under his umbrella, sipping his drink.

Holy shit. What was this? What was this and who had done it?

It got worse.

A photo of Faye’s pre-school production of The Giant Turnip, Faye at the left of the stage dressed as a carrot.

A photo of the kids building a snowman on the town square.

A photo of Sarah sipping hot chocolate in the Little Cat Café, a sheaf of papers on the table in front of her. She’d been researching an article and had gone to the café to arrange her thoughts.

A photo, from February, of her new kitchen, installed over the winter months.

Caption: Finished! I love this!

A photo which had been taken inside her house.

 

The air-conditioning in the car was now fully up and running, cold air flowing from the vents and washing over her, but she barely noticed it. She had goose pimples up and down her arms and legs, but it was not the cold air raising them. It was not the cold air chilling her.

It was the photos. Of her, of Ben, of her house.

Of her kids.

Who was doing this? It had to be someone who was at all these places, someone who was at the beach yesterday and out on date nights with her and there when she was with her girlfriends and at Faye’s pre-school performances.

There was no one. Not even Ben.

And why? Was it some kind of a joke? Maybe all her friends were in on it – which would explain how they had so many photos – but why? What did they get from it? And why do it for six months without telling her? Why do it at all?

It made no sense.

Worse, she thought, a cruel trick by my friends is the best explanation I can hope for. I have no idea what the alterna- tives are, but I bet none of them are good.

She looked back down at her phone and scrolled through the photos. This was not her friends. A joke at her expense – perhaps a fake Facebook account in her name in which she made off-color jokes or revealing admissions about her sex life – was just about possible. Toni had been a bit of a prankster in college – calling for pizzas for other people’s houses, that kind of thing – and, although she had mostly grown out of it, she still retained part of her juvenile nature. She always would. It was in her blood. Her father and two elder brothers never stopped playing tricks on each other, Toni and her long-suffering mom. The first time Sarah had stayed at their house on Cape Cod, in the summer of their freshman year in college, Marty, Toni’s dad, had made boiled eggs for breakfast, serving them in dainty porcelain egg cups with neatly sliced toast glistening with butter besides them.

Eat, he said. It’s my specialty.

Boiled eggs aren’t much of a specialty, Dad, Toni replied, still sleepy.

These I call Marty’s Boiled Eggs Surprise, he said. Dig in. Sarah tapped the shell with her spoon. It cracked and she pulled it away. For a second she didn’t understand, then she looked up at Marty – he insisted she call him Marty and not Mr Gorchoff, which made her feel grown up and a bit uncomfortable at the same time – and told him the egg was empty. It was a hollow shell.

That’s the surprise! he said. Your egg’s not there.

He passed her a mug of coffee. She took a sip, and then another – it was a wonderful, heady brew – then glimpsed a sudden blaze of color among the brown, muddy coffee, which disappeared when she held the coffee mug upright.

She tilted it again, and there it was. An egg yolk.

Mr Gor— Marty, she said. There’s an egg in there!

That’s the other part of the surprise, he said. But don’t worry! They’re organic!

She had spent the rest of the weekend in terror of the next little ‘surprise’, but mercifully she had been left alone. Toni, however, had grown up being constantly subjected to pranks which were a touch cruel and more than a touch irresponsible – so it was not impossible she would have set up a fake Facebook account in her friend’s name.

But not one with Sarah’s kids on it.

Like most of her mom friends, Sarah was a little tentative about putting photos of her children up on the Internet, whatever Facebook said about privacy, so she restricted access to her account to only her friends, and then she was careful about what she put up there.

But this account was public. These photos were there for all the world to see. And even Toni would not have gone this far in the service of some prank.

Which left who? Ben? He’d have access to the photos – he could get them from her phone – but she couldn’t imagine him doing it. He’d have to have set it up on his work computer and then made sure she never saw any of the notifications and emails that would come in. She often used his phone, and – she wasn’t proud of this, but it was true nonetheless – gave his emails and text messages a quick scan. They were reassuringly boring. Stuff from his colleagues about operating committee presentations and legal reviews and seeking board approval and texts from his friends about where to watch the game and whether they had a pass from the wife to go out.

No, if it was Ben, he would have had to employ a level of deception she did not think he had in him, not least because his utter cluelessness about how computers worked would have to be a long-standing deception requiring a level of acting talent she was pretty sure was beyond him.

Pretty sure. But you never really knew. You heard of stranger things in marriages.

She shook her head and dismissed the thought. There was no way this was Ben.

But then who? Who the fuck was doing this?

 

Don’t miss Copycat, the latest thriller from bestselling author Alex Lake, out 7th September.

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