- Published: 3 May 2022
- ISBN: 9781405938525
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 400
- RRP: $22.99
Lie Beside Me
The twisty and gripping psychological thriller from the Richard & Judy bestselling author
I felt cold. Cold in the way of night sweats. In the way of a slow waking to damp sheets that stuck to my skin. It was like that time when I thought I had lymphoma but was, in fact, falling to pieces mentally instead. Do you remember that? I would wake up every night, drenched and shivering, having sweated so much that it had soaked half the mattress.
I fought waking up. I was too tired, and too aware of the hangover that was about to descend. I was hating myself before I’d even opened my eyes. Well, hating Drunk Louise, anyway. That irresponsible, crappy version of myself who always seems to screw everything up, just so she can have a good time.
So I was half awake and hating it. And I thought that maybe if I shuffled back onto your side of the bed, then I’d find a dry area, and possibly even the duvet, and I’d be able to go back to sleep.
I couldn’t seem to find the duvet. So instead, I squirmed further back to tuck into your body. It’s always the warmest way to sleep, with you wrapped around me. But it didn’t make me warmer. What had been dampness became shivering wetness. Something was soaking into my nightshirt.
And I remember working out that it wasn’t, in fact, a nightshirt. There were thin, hard straps digging into my shoulders and the restrictive feeling of tight fabric. So, clothes. Drunk Louise had gone to sleep in her clothes. And that made me feel a little afraid of what else she might have done.
I opened my eyes a slit, and I turned over. I saw you as a shadow at first. A reassuring, humped silhouette. The window behind you was lit with the orange glow of the street lamp down the road. It wasn’t dawn yet.
That light confused me. I’ve never known you go to sleep with the curtains open. Not once in five years.
I remember I put a hand down to the mattress and then looked at it. I wasn’t quite sure whether I could see a darker mark on my palm, but it occurred to me quite suddenly that the wetness might be blood.
It didn’t shock me yet. Not even when I saw a . . . spread of it between us. It was a dark circle that stretched almost as far as the pillows and down to my knees.
And then I felt a creeping understanding. A realisation that there were none of the normal sounds of sleep coming from you. No breath. No familiar squeak high up in your nose. No gurgling stomach, which always seems to feature in the early hours.
I touched you on the shoulder. And for some stupid reason, I whispered at you instead of speaking properly. ‘Niall. Niall.’ Like it was possible to check you were OK without actually waking you up.
There were two things that hit me, and I don’t know which one came first. I can’t quite remember either one being clear before the other.
The first thing was that you were cold. Colder than the sheets. Colder than the feeling of my dress on my skin. A coldness that made your skin feel alien.
And the second thing was stranger. It was realising that you were strange. Your silhouette was too big. It was wider at the shoulder than you are. Perhaps thinner at the waist.
By the time I turned the light on and saw the bleached-white face of a stranger looking back at me, I already knew.
It wasn’t you. It wasn’t you.
The call reached Juliette Hanson at 6:46 a.m. It was an icecold first of March, early enough that there were still stars out beyond the gap in her badly fitted curtains, and cold enough for an overnight fall of snow to have frozen into bright, glittering crystals. It was also a Saturday, but Hanson was wide awake now. More awake than she’d been on any day this week.
Unidentified male found dead, the DCI had said. It was the most piercing of alarms. She was already swinging her feet out of bed as he went on to read the address.
She’d never heard of Saints Close, but the chief added that it was north-east of the city centre. She was likely to be on-scene before him.
She dragged a clean trouser suit out of the wardrobe, grabbed her toothbrush and toothpaste, and took them all downstairs with her. She snapped the kettle on and dressed quickly while it boiled. She threw instant granules into her thermos mug and dumped boiling water and milk on top, then went to grab her shoes. She’d left her socks upstairs, she realised. It wasn’t the weather to do without, and she ran up to grab the thickest pair she could find. She was fully dressed and standing at the front door by 6:53, her blonde hair pulled back into an untidy bun that would just have to do.
She paused with her hand on the bolt of the door. She needed a moment to prepare, mentally, for the few steps to her car. Climbing into the vehicle quickly meant having her keys ready. Her bag looped over her shoulder just right. Her movements planned out.
She was pretty sure there would be nobody out there today. Who would want to hang around her house before dawn on a freezing morning? But she was going to make sure, anyway.
She’d developed a habit of pulling the door shut as she moved off the doorstep, letting the Yale lock click into place, and it was so practised that she didn’t even need to think about it today. She checked right and left as she approached the car, too, which she had reversed up as close to the porch as possible. There were no footsteps in the snow, she saw. No sign of anyone close by.
It took five paces to get to the driver’s door, and she had the car unlocked on pace number two. By pace number three she was pretty sure that she was alone, but she kept moving at speed anyway. She didn’t pause until she was inside the car with the doors locked and the engine running.
She spent a moment, after that, doing nothing more than breathing in and out. She hated that she felt like this. She hated, too, that it was almost worse when he wasn’t waiting in the shadows than when he was.
DCI Jonah Sheens was buzzing with curiosity as he pulled his Mondeo into Saints Close. He’d been sad to climb out of Jojo Magos’s warm bed, and to miss their one lazy morning together. He also felt a little grubby in yesterday’s shirt and trousers. But overriding these considerations was keen interest. An unidentified man at a residential house. A death. All the questions that went with it.
Saints Close turned out to be a meandering little group of sixties houses off Belmont Road. Chunky detached buildings with decent-sized gardens out at the front. A place of solid salaries. But nothing particularly flashy. No million-pound piles. Volkswagens rather than Audis parked up in driveways.
Jonah noticed that someone had added an apostrophe after the final S of ‘Saints’ on the street sign, using some kind of sticker that was much larger than the rest of the typeface. He smiled slightly to himself. That kind of a street, then.
He hitched the car half up onto the pavement behind the scientific support van. Three emergency vehicles in total, and Hanson’s little Nissan parked further up. The cluster stood out, the only vehicles that were clean and free of snow. He was glad to shrug on his thick padded jacket and pull on ski gloves before he climbed out.
The garden to number eleven was bounded by trees. Snowy firs standing between leafless sycamore branches. At the front an overgrown hedge screened the ground floor from view. It looked like it would be gloomy in that front garden, even in daylight.
Approaching the gate, he struggled to make out much beyond the white forms of the forensics team and a nylon screen being manhandled into place halfway down the garden.
One of the overalled figures moved to meet him. Linda McCullough, forensic scientist for Southampton and the New Forest, and undisputed lead of the scene of crime team. He took a step forwards onto the clear plastic sheeting that had been rolled out from the front door up to the pavement.
‘Tell me,’ Jonah said.
‘We’ve only just arrived,’ McCullough told him, lowering her mask to speak to him. ‘Victim’s a young white male. The homeowner called it in. She told us she’d found him just before six thirty.’
Jonah saw that one of the figures was spooling a cable out of the front door, unwinding it towards a pair of wide-based portable floodlights. He couldn’t see much within the house. A lighted hallway. Stairs to one side.
‘Anyone else in the house?’
‘Your constable’s here, but nobody else.’
The floodlights burst into brilliant life, dousing the garden with light. He squinted against the sudden brightness, and then followed McCullough behind the screen they’d now erected on the grass.
A young man lay a few feet behind it, his white dragon-motif T-shirt dominated by a large crimson bloom. As McCullough involved herself in angling the lights, Jonah crouched down over the body. He gazed first at the colourless face. A chiselled, high-cheekboned face. It had been handsome, he thought, up until today.
He took in the powerful shoulders and lean abdomen, and a knife that lay close by, sticky with drying blood. Then his gaze travelled to the stained snow beneath the body.
‘Not much blood,’ he muttered.
McCullough gave an audible sigh as she lifted her mask back into place. ‘Sheens . . .’
‘All right, I know.’ He grinned at her, and straightened up. ‘You do your job, and I’ll go and make the coffee.’
Ben Lightman arrived after that, only just returned from annual leave and looking as perfectly unruffled and moviestar handsome as ever. He clearly wasn’t dressed warmly enough to hang around outside but showed no signs of concern. It was as if the cold was something that affected other people.
He listened in stillness to the sparse information they had so far.
‘I’d like witness statements from the surrounding houses,’ Jonah finished up. ‘You can have my coat and gloves. Juliette’s with the homeowner so I’ll go and check in with her.’
Lightman nodded, taking the offered coat and beginning to put it on. ‘And presumably Domnall can come with me once he’s here?’
‘He can,’ Jonah agreed. ‘Give him a few.’
Of the four of them Domnall O’Malley actually lived the closest to the crime scene. But O’Malley had never been a man to hurry unless he had no other choice, and despite a previous career in the military he managed his life in a haphazard, seat-of-his-pants fashion. Jonah was well used to it and was happy to let him do things his way.
Jonah headed inside and found Hanson in a large, beautifully decorated sitting room just off the hall. She’d managed to dress herself formally in a navy suit and cream shirt, and looked respectable, if slightly thrown together.
The woman who sat near her looked unprepared for any of this. She was somewhere in her early thirties, and was swathed in a thick dressing gown over pyjamas. Her feet were bare, and she had the remains of make-up around her eyes. Her very dark hair looked damp, and had been scraped back into an uneven ponytail. She shivered continuously, most likely because there was a dead man in her front garden, but just possibly also because of the blast of arctic air that was making its way through the two open doors.
‘Ah,’ Hanson said, giving him a smile. ‘This is my DCI. This is Louise Reakes, sir. She found the body and called us in.’
Hanson’s hint of a Brummie accent had stepped up this morning, and Jonah guessed it was deliberate. An unthreatening regional burr was reassuring.
‘Let’s get this door closed,’ Jonah said, pushing the sitting-room door shut. ‘We can at least stop the cold getting in here.’ And then, as he pulled up an upright chair opposite the woman on the sofa, he added, ‘I’m so sorry for all of this.’
‘It’s all right,’ Louise said, hoarsely. ‘Can’t be helped. It’s not like you put him there . . .’ Her mouth twisted slightly in wry humour. For a moment she looked like she might be about to apologise, and then she dropped her gaze to her hands.
‘Did you know the victim?’ Jonah asked, gently.
Louise shook her head. ‘No. I’ve never seen him before in my life. I’m sorry.’
‘Once we’ve identified him, we’ll try to get some images from social media,’ Hanson said. ‘Sometimes it’s hard to recognise someone when . . .’ She nodded instead of finishing the sentence.
‘OK,’ Louise said. ‘But I’m pretty sure. I mean, he’s big, isn’t he? Tall and . . . and strong. I don’t know anyone like that.’ Again that twist of the mouth. ‘And Niall’s friends are all middle-aged GPs or lawyers.’
‘Is Niall your husband?’ Jonah asked.
‘Oh. Yes. He’s away until later today. Conference in Geneva.’
‘Do you work too?’ Hanson asked.
‘God, yes. I’d never be a housewife. I’d go crazy.’ Louise laughed, slightly nervously. Her eyes travelled to Jonah again and back. ‘I’m a musician.’
Hanson grinned. ‘That’s great. Modern or . . .?’
‘I’m a harpist.’ Louise jerked her head towards the hall. ‘My music room’s through there.’
‘Can you tell me how you found him?’ This from Jonah.
There was a clear change of expression. Louise retied her dressing gown over herself before saying, ‘Sure.’ It was a tight, constricted word. ‘I woke up just before six thirty, really hungover. I had my friend April round last night, and she’s a massive drinker.’ She smiled slightly. ‘Terrible influence. I always end up wrecked when we hang out.’
‘She didn’t stay here?’ Hanson asked.
‘No.’ Louise shook her head. ‘She usually goes home.’
‘So it was just you last night,’ Hanson confirmed.
‘Yes,’ Louise said. ‘Just me.’ She paused, finding her thread again. ‘So I woke up early feeling like shit. I wanted to make tea so I went to get the milk from outside. We have proper deliveries here. In bottles.’ She suddenly shook her head. ‘Sorry.’
‘It’s OK,’ Hanson said. ‘There’s no rush.’
‘So I saw this . . . shape on the lawn. And I couldn’t quite process it at first. And then I went to see and . . . and I called the police.’
‘And you didn’t see anyone else out there?’ Jonah asked. ‘Anyone on the street?’
‘No . . .’ She shook her head, and then said, ‘But I thought . . . Maybe it’s not much use, but I think I got woken up in the early hours by a loud car engine.’
‘What time was that?’
‘I don’t know . . .’ She looked off to one side. ‘I’m not sure if I checked. A while before. Could have been four a.m.’
‘The victim wasn’t there when your friend left?’
‘No, definitely not,’ she said, twisting her hands over each other. ‘Shit, I could never have gone to bed with . . .’
‘What time was that?’
Louise gave him a slightly confused look, and then said, hesitantly, ‘I’m not – I suppose midnight.’
‘And there’s nothing else you can remember?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘Sorry.’
Jonah nodded and rose. ‘We’ll see if anyone else heard anything. I might have a few more questions at some point, but I hope we won’t be too long here.’
‘That’s OK,’ Louise said.
Hanson got to her feet, too, and looked down at Louise’s shivering form. ‘Let me make you a tea before I head out.’
‘Oh, thank you.’ Louise’s expression was a little pained. ‘Are you sure you don’t want me to . . .? Everything’s in particular places, you know.’ And then she made an obvious effort to smile. ‘But that would be nice. If you’re sure.’
Something clicked in the house and he froze, looking towards the closed door, his heart racing. Had it been the front door? Had someone come in?
She made her skittering, sliding way down the riverbank. Her trainers hit the flat ground at the lip of the water, and she wobbled but recovered.
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