New from Kia Abdullah, Next of Kin is a gripping, brave and tense courtroom drama. This book will keep you on the edge of your seat until the final, heart-stopping page. Read the first chapter below!
It was a strange thing to be jealous of your sister, yet perfectly natural at the very same time. Perhaps it was inevitable. After all, weren’t women taught to compete with one another; to observe, assess, rank and critique, which made your sister your earliest rival?
Leila Syed pondered this as she watched her husband lean close to her sister. Yasmin lit his cigarette and he took a drag with audible pleasure. Paired at the foot of the garden, the two seemed remarkably intimate. It coiled Leila’s jealousy just a little bit tighter. It was a good jealousy though; a healthy jealousy. It reminded her of Will’s appeal: his easy, raffish manner, his dark, contrarian humour and that magnetic confidence that only occasionally tipped into pride.
She couldn’t blame him, really, for being drawn to her sister. Yasmin had an arresting softness that men could not resist. It was there in the sway of her long, dark hair and the lazy line of her Bambi eyes. Every part of her seemed to curve and curl next to Leila’s hard edges: the strong line of her jaw, the thin purse of her lips. She was well aware of their respective roles: Yasmin the centre of gravity and Leila merely caught in the orbit.
She shifted in her seat, unsticking her thighs from the hard green plastic. The air held a tropical damp that felt heavy on her skin. It was unusually sultry for London; the hottest July on record. It gave the city a heady, anarchic feel – all that flesh and temper simmering in crowded places.
Laughter rose in the air and Leila closed her eyes, basking in the sound. What a surprising delight it was to hear her sister laugh. She wished she could pause this moment and gather all its details: the press of heat on her eyelids, the barely-there hint of wisteria, the bleed of a distant party close enough to bring life to the night but not too close for comfort. She sensed movement next to her and opened her eyes. Her brother-in-law, Andrew, watched the pair at the foot of the garden, huddled together like truant teens. He arched his brows at Leila and she returned a knowing smile. He sat down next to her, the lip of his beer bottle balanced between two fingers. They were quiet for a while.
‘It’s really helped her,’ he said. ‘Being here.’ ‘I’m glad,’ said Leila with a cheerless smile.
‘I appreciate it, you know. Everything you do for her. For us.’
Leila motioned with her hand, wrist still perched on the armrest. ‘It’s nothing.’
Andrew turned his gaze on her, his eyes dark and wistful. ‘It’s not nothing.’
She half-shrugged. ‘She’s my sister.’
‘I know but still.’ He tipped his bottle towards her, raised in a silent toast.
She clinked her glass against it and took a sip of the earthy red wine. She gazed across the expanse of grass, blue-green in the falling dusk. She watched Will brush something off Yasmin’s shoulder: a fly, a spider, some unknown predator. Her bra strap slid off her shoulder and Will’s gaze fixed on it briefly. The two red dots of their cigarettes waxed and waned in tandem until one burned out. Yasmin shifted in the dark and headed back to Leila.
‘Will is hilarious,’ she said with a scandalised shake of her head as if she could not believe his temerity.
‘Yep. That’s why I married him,’ said Leila, her voice climb- ing high midway, signalling sarcasm or irony or some other bitter thing.
Yasmin paused for a fraction of a second before reaching for the wine. She filled her glass, the liquid sloshing gener- ously, a single red droplet escaping the rim to stain the crisp white tablecloth. She didn’t offer Leila a top-up. Rather than irk her, however, the casual act of selfishness reassured Leila. It meant that Yasmin felt secure here; unguarded and relaxed. It meant that Leila had succeeded in her task.
When their mother died two decades ago, just a year after their father, Leila, who was nearly eighteen, did everything to shield her sister, then only ten. She gave up her place at St Andrew’s for a London polytechnic. She worked evenings at Marks & Spencer and weekends at a greasy spoon, stitching together pounds and pennies to eke out a meagre living. Her greatest success, she thought, was that Yasmin had grown into a happy, secure, well-adjusted adult. Until life came knocking of course.
‘It’s so nice here,’ said Yasmin, stretching her arms in a languorous yawn. She gestured at the conservatory. ‘God, I wish we could get one of those.’
‘We could if you want,’ said Andrew, his face pinched in a frown.
Yasmin swatted the words away. ‘You know we can’t afford it,’ she said a little sharply.
Andrew bristled, but didn’t respond. Instead, he stood and headed over to Will. The two husbands had never quite gelled, but they made a valiant effort.
Leila glanced sideways at Yasmin. ‘You know, you can always come and work for me. I could use a PA like you.’
Yasmin rolled her eyes. ‘I’ve told you before. I’m not going to come and be your secretary, Leila.’
‘You’ve always been too proud.’
‘It’s not pride, it’s . . .’ Her shoulders rose defensively. ‘I don’t want to be beholden to you.’
‘You wouldn’t be beholden to me. It’s not charity. You’d be paid for the work you do. We have a training scheme too. If you wanted, you could study at the same time and work your way up.’
‘I like my job,’ said Yasmin.
‘I know you do, but it’s like you fell into being a secretary at eighteen and have stayed there ever since. Don’t you want to do more?’
‘No,’ said Yasmin stiffly. ‘I like my boss. I like my col- leagues. I like coming home and spending time with Max. I don’t need status like you do.’
Leila gestured with her glass. ‘You were just saying you wish you could afford more.’
‘That’s your problem, Leila. You take everything literally. I don’t actually want your conservatory. I don’t want your life.’
Leila fell silent. Will and Andrew were laughing, but the sound was forced and formal; the laughter of acquaintances. Yasmin sighed. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said with a hint of petulance.
When Leila didn’t react, she poked her in the arm. When still there was no reaction, she leaned over and threw her arms around her. Then, she began to sing ‘Father and Son’, her voice laden with mock gravity. She chose the deeper register of the father, who lectures his son on life.
Leila tried to pull away, but a traitorous smile played on her lips. Yasmin always sang this song when Leila was overbearing. ‘Okay, I get it.’ She pressed a palm against Yasmin’s lips, but she shrugged away and carried on singing.
‘You’re an arsehole,’ said Leila, but she was laughing now, unable to resist her sister’s cheer.
Yasmin stopped singing. ‘No, I’m not,’ she said matter-of-factly.
Leila’s smile lingered on her lips. She reached over and neat- ened a strand of her sister’s hair. ‘No, you’re not,’ she said tenderly. They settled into companionable silence and Leila made a mental note to get a quote for a conservatory. Last year, she had lent Andrew some money so that he and Yasmin could move to the area. Perhaps she could lend him a little bit more. If Yasmin had more space, perhaps she would do more of the things she used to enjoy: make those silly giant collages with pages ripped from Vogue and Vanity Fair. She had even managed to sell a couple.
Will stubbed out his cigarette and walked back up the length of the garden. Andrew followed and made a show of checking his watch, prompting Yasmin to stand.
‘We better get going,’ she said. ‘I have an early start tomor- row and Max will get cranky. He grizzled for hours last night.’ They drifted back into the house, the air inside still humid despite the garden doors slung open. Leila watched as Yasmin and Andrew moved in a domestic rush: she scooping up a sleep- ing Max, her shoulder hung low with the weight of her bag, while Andrew gathered all the books and toys needed to occupy a three-year-old. More than once in the past, Yasmin had lamented that Max didn’t have a cousin to play with. Leila always laughed politely and said ‘not yet’ as if it were a choice she’d made.
‘Thanks for dinner,’ said Yasmin, scanning the room over Leila’s shoulder to make sure that she’d packed everything. They swapped kisses and the two parents marched out, carry- ing Max to their house around the corner. Leila shut the door and felt the wash of relief that comes with departing guests, even ones you love.
‘I’m shattered,’ said Will, flopping on the sofa, raising a few motes of dust. He reached for her and pulled her onto his lap. ‘You okay?’
He brushed his lips against her slender brown shoulder. ‘Can I stay?’
She tensed. Things were complicated enough between them. ‘Not tonight.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Okay,’ he said reluctantly. ‘Message received.’ He kissed the fine knot of her collarbone and gently tipped her off his lap.
She listened to his footsteps echo down the hall and the front door open, then close. How quickly their group had dwindled. That was the value, she thought, of building your own family. You were never forced to be alone. She felt an old, familiar ache and hung her head wearily. How many times would she have to do this?
Perhaps if she were more honest with Yasmin, some of the pain would ease. Her sister knew about the first miscarriage but not the three thereafter. She wanted to confide in her, but Yasmin carried her own trauma and Leila refused to add to it. When she and Will separated in February, she had downplayed it to her sister. ‘It’s temporary,’ she told her. ‘A chance to assess our priorities and stop taking each other for granted.’ The messiness – Will staying over, their attending events together – made the break look superficial; a passing hiccup in a nine-year marriage. In truth, she wasn’t sure that they would make it and the thought of growing old alone sometimes left her panicked. Yasmin had told her once that parents who lost a child didn’t have a word to describe themselves – like ‘widow’, ‘widower’, or ‘orphan’. That was true but at least they could claim ‘bereavement’. It was something to attach to. What did you call a parent who had never had a child?
You can’t have everything, she told herself for the thousandth time. She had a highly successful business, a hard-won reputa- tion, a comfortable home and lifestyle, a sister she would die for and a husband she still loved. Surely, surely, that was enough.
A breeze gusted through the open window but barely eased the heat. Leila dabbed her upper lip with a tissue, careful not to smudge her makeup. She was freshly showered, but sweat already lined the wiring of her bra, making her feel unclean. The day was set to break another record and London barely coped in the heat. Sure, there were ice creams in Hyde Park and boat rides on the Serpentine, but commuting on the Underground was like tightening a pressure valve. Leila preferred to drive to work: barely three miles from her house in Mile End to her office in Canary Wharf.
She scooped up her shoes, a finger hooked into each high heel, and dropped them into a plastic bag, its skin worn thin from repeated crumpling. She smoothed her white shirt and grey pencil skirt, then headed downstairs to the kitchen. This was her favourite room in her four-storey Georgian home: large and airy with raw brick and exposed beams dating back to 1730. She moved efficiently through her morning routine: a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and a quick glance at her email, followed by a mental vow to finally start Headspace, the mindfulness app that languished on her home screen.
Leila ran an architecture firm and though she prided herself on discipline, time often seemed to swallow itself; a whole day gone in one glance at the clock. Today would be one of those days, she knew. Her partner at the firm, Robert Gardner, was pitching for a major project that would propel them into the big leagues. Leila had worked so hard for so long and this was her reward: financial security and lifelong protection from the shame of poverty. The thought of those early years left a hardness in her stomach. Sometimes, a memory would rise unbidden and wind her for a moment: Leila crouched in a campus bathroom stuffing her underwear with wads of tissue so that she could afford tampons for Yasmin, or keeping her bras meticulously clean so Yasmin would never know they were used. Leila had promised herself that she would never go back there again; had worked night and day to get to where she was. This project with Mercers Bank could be her biggest payoff. She had swallowed her pride and agreed to let Robert pitch, knowing that he – an upper-crust white man – had a better shot by default. She had to wait in the wings and see if all her prep paid off.
She drained her glass and filled it with water just as her phone vibrated on the counter. She saw that it was Andrew and felt a twist of anxiety. Yasmin’s husband rarely, if ever, called her.
‘Leila, are you home?’ Andrew sounded breathless. ‘Yes. What’s wrong?’
‘I’m so, so sorry. The office called and our entire bloody network’s gone down. Is there any chance at all that you could drop Max off at nursery? It’s practically on your way.’
Leila glanced at the clock, but was already saying, ‘Of course.’
‘You can say no,’ he added, but the strain was clear in his voice. His employer, a web hosting company, was already struggling for profit. This latest outage could be catastrophic.
‘I’ll be over in five minutes,’ she told him.
‘I’m sorry,’ he apologised again. ‘I know we’ve been a pain since we got here.’
‘Not at all,’ she assured him, though they both knew it was true. Since moving there last year, he and Yasmin had repeatedly called on Leila, as if her not having a child meant she was always on hand to tend to theirs.
She was thankful that Will hadn’t stayed over last night. Though he adored Max, he would surely launch into a mono- logue about Yasmin taking advantage of Leila – as if they should refuse on principle alone. Leila gathered her heels, keys, phone and bag, and headed out to her car, feeling her body slick with sweat. Inside her modest Mini, she tossed her bag on the passenger seat, then eased out of Tredegar Square, a leafy street that housed east London’s nouveau riche: small-business owners, a couple of footballers, an actress from a comedy show that was successful in the nineties. Leila liked living here. There was none of the snobbery of better postcodes.
She drove round the corner to Andrew’s house, a tidy double-fronted building with a mock Tudor facade. He was waiting outside on the path, pacing back and forth.
She parked behind his Toyota. ‘Are you okay?’ she asked, stepping out of her car.
‘Yes.’ He pressed a toe into his lawn and flattened a patch of grass. ‘I’m sorry to do this to you.’
‘It’s fine,’ she said briskly. She glanced at Max, who was peaceably asleep in his car seat, his brown hair plastered to his sweaty forehead. She picked up the seat, the handle hot and heavy in her palm. Andrew took it from her, the weight shifting easily on his muscular arm. He ducked into the back of her car and clipped in the seat with some difficulty. He leaned in and kissed his son’s hair, then brushed his fingers against a soft cheek. ‘It’s really hot today.’
‘I know,’ said Leila. ‘He’ll be okay.’ Andrew stepped back with a grimace. ‘He’ll be fine, Andrew. Now go to work.’ ‘Leila—’ he started.
‘I know. You’re sorry.’ She tapped him on the arm. ‘Go to work.’
‘Thank you,’ he said.
She nodded bluntly, then got in her car and moved off, sens- ing no urgency in Andrew’s movements as he watched her go. She headed south towards her dockside office in Canary Wharf and switched on the air-con. As she sped down Burdett Road, her in-car phone began to ring. She answered it with a quick flick, careful to watch the road, though she had driven the route a thousand times.
‘Leila?’ It was Suki, her assistant at Syed&Gardner. ‘We have a problem.’
‘What is it?’
‘It’s Robert. He has to leave for the Mercers meeting, but he’s misplaced the blueprints.’
‘What do you mean he’s misplaced them?’ Leila asked sharply. ‘Did he take them home?’
‘No. He swears they were on his desk, but he can’t find them.’ ‘Then they must be in the office somewhere.’
‘We’ve looked everywhere,’ said Suki.
Leila glanced at the clock on her dashboard. It was 8.08a.m. and if Robert didn’t leave immediately, there was a good chance he’d be late.
‘Okay, well, I have proof versions in my office. They’re not perfect but they’ll have to do.’
Suki’s voice held a note of panic. ‘But your office is locked and no one can find the spare key.’
‘Have you asked maintenance?’ Leila asked calmly. ‘We’re waiting for them to send someone, but if they don’t get here soon, we’ll run out of time.’
‘Could you run across the road to the printers?’
‘They open at nine.’
Leila cursed. She rechecked the time and did a mental calculation. ‘Okay, I’ll be there in ten minutes, which gives Robert half an hour to get there. Make sure he has a car waiting and that he’s ready to leave asap.’
‘Okay. Thank you.’ Suki was audibly relieved. ‘I’ll tell him you’re coming.’
Leila hovered on the cusp of the speed limit as she raced towards the office, feeling flushed and stressed in the heat. Ten minutes later, she turned into the private car park. She plucked her heels from their plastic wrapping and slipped them on quickly, then grabbed her keys and hurried upstairs. Robert spotted her and dashed out from his office. ‘Leila—’ he started.
She held up a finger. ‘Not now, Robert. You need to get going.’ She unlocked her office and rifled through a pile of prints, pulling out a set of three. She handed them to Robert along with her iPad. ‘I know they asked for hard copies, but at least show them the latest version. I want them to know that we got rid of the portico.’
‘I could have sworn they were on my desk.’
‘It’s fine,’ she said, ushering him to the door. ‘Go, go.’ She watched him pause by the lift. ‘Oh, and good luck!’
He turned and tossed her the Gardner grin – part Frank Sinatra, part elder statesman.
‘Go!’ she said as the doors pinged open. Back inside her office, she collapsed onto her leather sofa, jittery with adrena- line. It’ll be okay, she told herself. All her efforts and sacrifices, the back-and-forth and meticulous planning would not be for nothing. She pressed her palms into the cool black leather as if that might steady her: a keel on a rolling boat. She rested there for a moment and listened to the ticking of her giant wall clock, calmed by its faithful pace. After a minute, she rose again, pulling on her poise.
There was a knock on the door. ‘Coffee?’ Suki raised a por- celain mug with the words ‘Syed&Gardner’ printed on the side. ‘You’re a star.’ She accepted it gratefully and placed it on her desk. She switched her fan to full blast to stave off the smothering heat, then settled in for a busy day.
Leila pinched the skin between her brows, hoping to ease her headache. It had throbbed for hours, tense and turgid behind her eyelids. She checked her watch – 11.25 a.m. – knowing she wouldn’t have time for lunch. She gathered up the files on the conference room table, her gaze catching on the opposite building: a hulking brutalist concoction that Leila secretly loved. Sometimes, she would get lost in a build- ing on purpose. She would wander its corridors, staring up at an intricate pediment or grand Diocletian window. Last year, a security guard had barked at her for straying into a room in Zimbabwe House to get a better look at its windows. Leila, usually so staid and serious, had channelled her younger sister. She had batted her lashes and pitched her voice a semitone higher, pleading dippy ignorance. The change in the guard had been instant and he’d led her gently to the exit. Leila couldn’t believe it had actually worked. The memory made her smile despite herself as she picked up the last of her files.
She headed back to her office and found a sandwich, cereal bar and fruit smoothie neatly arranged by her keyboard.
‘I don’t deserve you,’ she called to Suki through the open door.
Suki beamed and raised her hand in a self-conscious wave. Leila unwrapped the sandwich, slowly, so not to stray from the perforations. Just as she bit into the soft white bread, her mobile began to ring. She swallowed quickly and answered.
Andrew’s voice was worried. ‘Leila. I got a message from the nursery. They said Max wasn’t dropped off this morning.’ It took her a moment to compute the words – then they hit with a shrill and dreadful clarity. There was a clamping in her skull; an alarming pressure that made her blood pound. ‘Leila?’ Andrew’s voice cracked as if he could foresee her lethal deed. ‘Where’s Max?’
Leila didn’t answer. Instead, she left her office in a trance- like state, Andrew’s tinny voice now clutched in her palm, growing increasingly panicked. She walked to the lift, but did not cry out or scream – quieted by a pulsing shock and the stunning effect of panic. She pressed the button for level zero, the blood in her ears now roaring. She walked across the foyer, heels clicking on the polished floor. It was only when she saw her car roasting in the silent square that she finally made a sound: a low whine of terror, for she could see the corner of a pale blue blanket reaching up the backseat as if it were asking for alms.
She instinctively backed away, commanded by an unknown impulse – self-preservation, denial, survival – before logic clicked back in. She forced herself closer and unlocked the car, her voice an unfamiliar whimper. Then, on seeing Max’s limp body, finally she screamed. It was a wild, banshee wail – as loud a sound as she could make for it wasn’t just a howl of horror but also a howl for help because she could not do this alone. She could not deal with the horror of what lay before her.
A security guard rushed to her aid and on seeing Max in the backseat, pulled her out of the way. He instructed a colleague to call an ambulance and began to check Max for vital signs. Leila watched through a haze – as if the scene were filtered through gauze – and yet the details were startlingly clear. The lock of hair glued to Max’s forehead, darkened by a pool of sweat; the deep texture of the paramedic’s voice; the obscene glint of her hubcap as if there were something to celebrate.
She was mute with shock, so when the paramedics asked if she was related to Max, all she could do was nod. They bundled her into the ambulance and she sat there in a tense huddle, her feet raised on tiptoe to keep her thighs off the cold steel bench, a harsh contrast to the heat outside. She watched Max’s tiny body as the paramedic infused him with cold liquid. He swayed to the rhythm of the vehicle, reacting to every rut and pothole. She reached forward to still him, but the paramedic waved her off.
At the hospital, he was rushed away, the staff ignoring her only question – is he breathing? – for they surely knew he was not.
She turned to find Andrew at the end of the corridor. He strode to her and she dissolved into his arms, sagging so that he held her up. She grabbed his shirt, clammy in the palm of her hand. She wanted to scream at him, to blame him, to make it all his fault. If he hadn’t asked this of her, she wouldn’t have had Max in her car. She wouldn’t have slipped straight into her turnoff with Max silent behind her. She wouldn’t have left him to roast for three full hours.
Andrew held her wrist and tightened his grip until she released the fabric. He didn’t shake her off, however; only trembled as she sobbed. ‘Ssh,’ he soothed her. ‘Ssh.’ But in his hand was a fistful of her hair, gripped so tight, she could feel the tension carry up the length of his bicep. She wished that he would hit her. She wished that he would pull back his arm and slap her: stun her or blind her to dull at least one of her senses because it was all too much, all too overwhelming. He held her and they watched the shift of figures in the room, working to save Max’s life. It wasn’t the heft and rush of action that left Leila shellshocked, but its sudden ceasing; the quieting inside the room because that’s when she knew there was nothing to save.
A doctor emerged and corralled them to a corner. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, his soft voice morphing into a blare. They had tried to resuscitate him for an hour, he said – an illogical thing to claim, for Leila could swear it was only an instant. They had infused him with cold fluids, packed him with ice and chilled him with fans to bring his temperature down – all to no avail. Max could not be saved.
Andrew stared, unblinking, as if the words had ruptured the circuitry in his brain.
‘There’ll be chances to say goodbye,’ said the doctor gently. ‘But you can see him now if you’d like to. If you wait just a moment, a nurse will take you through.’ He retreated soundlessly, leaving them with their grief.
Andrew turned and pressed his forehead against the wall. For a moment, he didn’t move. Leila watched the insistent dip of his throat as he tried not to cry. He bared his teeth, trying to force his pain into more manageable rage. But then his resolve gave way and he collapsed against the wall. His body shook, but his sobs remained soundless, teetering on the edge of a great gulf of grief. Finally, he made a sound: a dreadful drawing of breath that made Leila flinch. She reached out to comfort him, but he jerked away from her touch.
They remained like that – Andrew slumped against the wall, Leila close but separate – until the nurse arrived to take them to Max’s room. Inside, there was a ringing in the air, like the silence after a loud sound. Leila approached Max tentatively. She took in the soft, round set of his jaw, the inky lashes against his cheek, the splay of his sun-lightened hair. She wanted to kiss him, to stroke a finger against his skin, to hold him to her chest and weep. She reached out to touch him, but Andrew stopped her.
‘No,’ he said, his grip tight on her forearm.
In that harsh syllable, Leila heard all the things he would not say. You left Max. You killed him. You killed my son. The crushing weight of that truth squeezed the air from her lungs. She closed her eyes, unable to confront his pain, for then she would have to face what else was about to break. She couldn’t think what this would do to Yasmin or bear the thought of her anguish. She knelt over, elbows on her knees, to stop herself from retching. Andrew next to her offered no comfort. Instead, he watched his son, both of them as still as a photograph.
Next of Kin is out now in hardback, eBook and audio.