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Read the opening JP Delaney’s new psychological thriller ‘Playing Nice’

The international bestselling author of The Girl Before, JP Delaney is back with a sensational new psychological thriller.

With less than a month until publication, we’re thrilled to share this extract of Playing Nice with you.

ONE

Pete

It was just an ordinary day.
If this were a colour piece or a feature, the kind of thing I used to write on a daily basis, the editor would have rejected it just for that opening sentence. Openers need to hook people, Pete, she’d tell me, tossing my pages back at me across my desk. Paint a picture, set a scene. Be dramatic. In travel journalism especially, you need a sense of place. Take your readers on a journey.
So: it was just an ordinary day in Willesden Green, north London.
Because the fact is, before that knock on my door, it was just an ordinary day. An unusually nice one, admittedly. The sun was shining, the air was crisp and blue. There was still some snow on the ground, hiding in corners, but it had that soft sugary look snow gets when it’s all but melted, and none of the kids streaming into the Acol Road Nursery and Preschool could be bothered to get their mittens wet trying to scoop it up for snowballs.
Actually, there was one small thing out of the ordinary. As I took Theo into the nursery, or rather followed him in – we’d given him a scooter for his second birthday, a chunky three-wheeler he was now inseparable from – I noticed three people, a woman and two men, on the other side of the road, watching us. The younger man was roughly my age, thirty or so. The other was in his fifties. Both wore dark suits with dark woollen coats over them, and the woman, a blonde, was wrapped up a kind of fake-fur parka, the sort of thing you might see on a fashionable ski slope. They looked too smart for our part of London. But then I saw that the older man was holding a document case in his gloved hand. An estate agent, I guessed, showing some prospective buyers the local childcare facilities. The Jubilee Line goes all the way from our Tube station to Canary Wharf, and even the bankers have been priced out of West Hampstead these days.
Something about the younger man seemed familiar. But then I was distracted by Jane Tigman, whose son Zack was already starting to thrash and scream in her arms at the prospect of being left. She hadn’t realised that the trick is to make sure they walk into nursery on their own rather than being carried, which simply makes the moment of separation more final. Then there was a note about World Book Day on the nursery door that hadn’t been there yesterday – God, yet another costume I’d have to organise – and after that I had to separate Theo from his helmet, gloves and coat, stuff the gloves deep enough into the coat pockets that they wouldn’t fall out – I still hadn’t got round to putting name tags on them – and help him hang the coat on his peg, deep among all the others, before crouching down to give him a final pep talk.
‘OK, big man. You going to play nicely today?’
He nodded, wide-eyed with sincerity. ‘Yef, Dad.’
‘So no grabbing. And take turns. That’s very important. Remember we said we’d take turns to choose lunch? So today it’s your turn, and tomorrow it’ll be mine. What do you want for lunch?’
‘Booby smoovy,’ he announced after a moment’s thought.
‘Blueberry smoothie,’ I repeated clearly. ‘OK. I’ll make some before I pick you up. Have a good morning.’
I gave him a kiss and off he went, happy as Larry.
‘Mr Riley?’
I turned. It was Susy, the woman who ran the nursery. It looked as if she’d been waiting for Theo to go. ‘Can I have a word?’ she added.
I snapped my fingers. ‘The sippy cup. I forgot. I’ll get another one today—’
‘It isn’t about the sippy cup,’ she interrupted. ‘Shall we talk in my office?’

‘It’s nothing to worry about,’ she said as we sat down, which of course instantly made me aware that it was definitely something to worry about. ‘It’s just that there was another incident yesterday. Theo hit one of the other children again.’
‘Ah,’ I said defensively. That was the third time this month. ‘OK. It’s something we have been working on at home. According to the internet, it sometimes happens at this age if physical skills get ahead of verbal skills.’ I smiled ruefully, to show that I wasn’t stupid enough to believe every parenting theory I read on the internet, but neither was I one of those entitled middle-class dads who thought that, just because my son was now at nursery, I wasn’t required to put any effort into being his parent anymore – or, even worse, was blind to the possibility of my little darling having any faults in the first place. ‘And, of course, his speech is a little delayed. But I’d welcome any suggestions.’
Susy visibly relaxed. ‘Well, as you say, it is typical two-year-old stuff. I’m sure you know this, but it can help if you model the correct behaviour. If he sees you getting cross or aggressive, he’ll come to believe that aggression is a legitimate response to stress. What about the TV programmes he watches? I’m afraid even Tom and Jerry may not be appropriate at this age, at least not until the hitting stage is over. And if you play any violent video games yourself—’
‘I don’t play video games,’ I said firmly. ‘Quite apart from anything else, I don’t have the time.’
‘I’m sure. It’s just that we don’t always think about the consequences of things like that.’ She smiled, but I could almost see the thought process behind her eyes. Stay-at-home dad equals aggressive kid. She wouldn’t have asked Jane Tigman if she played Call of Duty.
‘And we’re working on sharing, too,’ I added. ‘Taking turns who chooses what to have for lunch, that kind of thing.’
‘Well, it certainly sounds as if you’re on top of it.’ Susy got to her feet to show the discussion was over. ‘We’ll keep a close watch here, and let’s hope he grows out of it.’
Understandably, then, I wasn’t thinking about the wealthy looking couple and their estate agent as I left the nursery. I was worrying about Theo, and why he was taking so long to learn to play nicely with the other kids. But I’m pretty sure, looking back, that by the time I reached the street, the three of them were nowhere to be seen.

 

TWO

Case no. 12675/PU78B65: AFFIDAVIT UNDER OATH, by D. Maguire.
I, Donald Joseph Maguire, make oath and swear as follows:

  1. I am the proprietor and chief investigator of Maguire Missing Persons, a London-based investigate agency which traces over two hundred individuals a year on behalf of our clients. We do not advertise. All our work comes by personal referral.
  2. Prior to starting the business, I was a senior detective with the Metropolitan Police, a position I help for thirteen years, leaving with the rank of detective inspector.
  3. Last August, I was approached by Mr Miles Lambert and Mrs Lucy Lambert, of 17 Haydon Garden, Highgate, N19 3JZ. They wished me to act for them in the matter of tracing their son.

 

THREE

Pete
At home, I turned on the coffee machine and opened my laptop. The coffee machine is a Jura, the laptop a top-of-the-line MacBook. They were the only two bits of kit I insisted on when Maddie and I started having the difficult conversations about which of us was going to stay home to look after Theo once her maternity leave was over. The idea was that I’d work from home part-time, at least when Theo got a place at nursery. Having a really good computer and a bean-to-cup coffee maker made being a stay-at home dad feel like a step up, a new opportunity, rather than a step down in my career.
Though actually I hate the phrase ‘stay-at-home dad’. It’s a negative, passive construction, the absence of something. No one calls women in my position ‘stay-at-home mums’, do they? They’re ‘full-time mums’, which immediately sounds more positive. Total mums. Mums without compromise. ‘Stay-at-home dad’ sounds like you’re too lazy or too agoraphobic to leave the house and get a proper job. Which is what many people secretly do think, actually. Or, in the case of Maddie’s parents, not so secretly. Her father’s an Australian businessman with political views slightly
to the right of Genghis Khan, and he’s made it clear he thinks I’m sponging off her. Though he’d probably phrase it, The boy’s a bloody bludger.
There was breakfast to clear up, the recycling to sort and toys to tidy away, but while the Jura whirred and spluttered – grinding beans, frothing milk – I threw on a load of washing and logged on to DadStuff.

Just seen a poster for World Book Day at ms DS’s nursery. 7 March. Aargh! Ideas? Really don’t want to buy a ready-made costume at Sainos or the motherhood will judge me even more.

Within moments I had a reply. There’s a hard core of about a hundred of us who stay online pretty much throughout the day, coming back to the forum in between our parenting duties. Once you got used to the cliquey jargon – DS or DD means darling son or darling daughter, OP means original poster, while OH is other half and AIBU is am I being unreasonable? – it was reassuring to be able to throw questions out there and see what others thought.

The mouse from The Gruffalo, mate. Brown shirt, white vest, some ears on an Alice band. Sorted. 

That was Honker6. I typed back:

Er, Alice band? Your DDs might go for it, but we don’t even own one of those.

Greg87 wrote:

What about Peter Rabbit? Little blue jacket, paper ears on baseball hat, face-painted whiskers?

Greg being practical, as usual. Nice one, I replied, trying to remember if Peter Rabbit had ever been involved in any age-inappropriate violence that Susy the nursery manager might disapprove of. You had to be careful with those Beatrix Potter books.
Then the doorbell rang, so I put my cappuccino down and went to answer it.

On the step was the group I’d seen outside the nursery. My first thought was that they must have made a mistake, because our house wasn’t for sale. My second was that it wasn’t the group from the nursery, not quite; the woman was no longer with them. So maybe they weren’t house buyers, after all – they could be political canvassers, or even journalists. And my third thought, the one that immediately crowded all the others out of my head, was that, now I saw him up close, I realised that the younger of the two men, the one roughly my age, was the spitting image of Theo.
He had dark hair that spilled over his forehead in an unruly comma, a prominent jaw and deep-set blue eyes – the kind of dark, boyish looks that in Theo look heart-stoppingly cute, but which in adults always make me think of the word saturnine, without really knowing why. He was almost six foot, chunky and broad-shouldered. An athlete’s physique. There’s a picture of the writer Ted Hughes as a young man, glowering at the camera with the same lock of hair falling over his right eye. This guy reminded me of that. A chiselled, granite face, but not unfriendly.

‘Hello’ he said, without ado. ‘Can we come in? We need to speak to you.’
‘Why?’ I asked stupidly.
‘I really think this would be better done inside,’ he said patiently. ‘It’s about your son.’
‘All right.’ And his manner was so brisk and purposeful that I found myself stepping away from the door, even though I was now thinking, Was it his child Theo hit? Am I about to get shouted at?
‘Er – coffee?’ I said, leading the way into the lounge – which is to say, taking a few steps back. Like most people in our street, we’ve ripped out the walls downstairs to create one decent-sized room. The older man shook his head, but I saw the younger man glance at my cappuccino. ‘I make them fresh,’ I added, thinking a pause for coffee might defuse the coming row a bit.
‘Go on, then.’
There was an awkward wait while I frothed more milk.
‘I’m Miles Lambert, by the way,’ he added, when I was done. ‘And this gentleman is Don Maguire.’ He took the cup I offered him. ‘Thanks. Shall we sit down?’
I sat in the only armchair and Miles Lambert took the couch, carefully moving some toys out of the way as he did so. Don Maguire sat in my swivel desk chair. I saw him cast an admiring glance at my MacBook.
‘There’s no easy way to do this,’ Miles said, when we were all seated. He leaned forward, lacing his fingers together like a rugby player about to take a penalty. ‘Look, if it was me, I’d want to be told straight, with no bullshit, so that’s what I’m going to do. But prepare yourself for a shock.’ He took a deep breath. ‘I’m sorry to
have to tell you that Theo isn’t your son. He’s mine.’
I gaped at him. Thoughts crowded in on me. That can’t be right, followed by, So that’s why this man looks like Theo. Disbelief, shell shock, horror – all paralysed me. I’m not fast in a crisis, unfortunately; Maddie’s the one who thinks on her feet.
Maddie. Oh my God. Was this man telling me they had an affair? Is that what this is? That I’m a—
The word cuckold, with all its medieval ugliness, crashed into my brain like a rock. Maddie and I have had our problems, we’re like any couple in that regard, and there have been times over the last year or so when I’ve sensed her drawing away from me. But I’ve always put that down to the trauma of Theo’s birth—
Theo’s birth. Think straight, Pete. Theo was born just over two years ago. So it would have been almost three years ago when this supposed affair happened. Which was nigh on impossible. Maddie and I only came back from Australia, where we met, three years back.
I realised both Miles Lambert and Don Maguire were looking at me, waiting for me to react, and I still hadn’t said anything.
‘What are you trying to tell me?’ I said numbly.
Miles Lambert simply repeated, ‘Theo isn’t your son. He’s mine.’ His blue eyes held mine, concerned. ‘I’m sorry. I know it’s a shock. Please, take your time.’
It was Don Maguire who coughed and added, ‘You both have sons who were born prematurely, I understand, who were both separated from their mothers briefly when they were transferred to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at St Alexander’s. It’s conceivable that, at some point during that process, the wrong tags were put on the wrong babies. That’s our working theory, anyway.’
Double negative, the editor shouted at me. The wrong tags got put on the right babies, you cretin. Which only goes to show that, at moments of crisis, you think the most bizarre things.