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  • Published: 4 February 2020
  • ISBN: 9781405932578
  • Imprint: Michael Joseph
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 400
  • RRP: $19.99

Then She Vanishes

Extract

Prologue

March 2012

I feel calm as I watch the sun rise behind the row of ice-cream-coloured houses. Not as I imagined a person would feel who’s about to commit murder. I’m not nervous, or sweaty-palmed. My heart isn’t even racing. There’s no adrenalin pumping through my veins. Not yet, anyway. Maybe that will come later. But now, in this moment, I’m overcome with a kind of peace. As though everything that has happened in my life so far has led up to this point. There’s no going back.

Now, which house?

They are all Georgian, beautiful, tall and elegant, with their perfectly proportioned windows and arched front doors. They remind me of an illustration in a children’s book, some long and thin, others stocky and square. They face towards the choppy, wind-beaten sea and the small port, with its handful of fishing boats, marooned on the sloping sands now that the tide is out. Perfect holiday homes, even out of season. Even on a cold, gusty March day such as this.

Powder blue, soft peach, pale pink, clotted cream. Which one?

And then I see it. A brilliant white with cobalt-painted window frames, dwarfed by the taller, more graceful houses either side of it. It’s the West Ham sticker nestled into the corner of the top right-hand window that sways me.

That’s the house.

I pick up the shotgun from the footwell, enjoying the weight of it in my hands, the power of it, and for the first time I feel a frisson of . . . what? Fear? No, not fear. Because I’ve never felt less afraid. What, then? Control? Yes, that’s exactly it. At last I feel totally and utterly in control.

I step out of the car. The wind has picked up and I almost trap the end of my scarf in the door. It’s as if the elements are out to get me. To stop me.

It’s just gone 6.30 a.m. The road is quiet, the front gardens tidy, with a row of black wheelie-bins left out for the refuse collectors. One has been pushed over by the wind, its contents spilling onto the pavement and coating the tarmac with potato peelings, empty baked-beans tins and wet kitchen roll. To my left I can see a solitary dog-walker on the beach, just a black silhouette in the distance. They are too far out to see me. And what I’m about to do.

I move the shotgun to eye-height and stride towards the white house, confidence brimming with every step I take. Everything has taken on a surreal quality, as if I’m in a video game. I stop when I get to the front door. I pull back the trigger, firing a single shot, and the lock splinters. The noise is bound to alert the neighbours and the occupants. I’d better be quick.

I kick the door open and stride into a narrow hallway. The staircase is straight ahead and I dart up it, every one of my senses alert. At the top is a door. I push it open and see a man getting out of bed. On his bottom half he’s wearing a pair of striped pyjama trousers, his large stomach hanging over the waistband. He has a gold rope necklace at his throat and wiry grey hairs covering his chest. The gunshot must have woken him. He’s older, late fifties, with thinning hair and broad shoulders. I’m repulsed by the sight of him. He tries to stand up when he sees me in the doorframe, his mouth slack, his brow furrowed. ‘What the . . . ?’ Before he has time to finish his sentence I aim the gun at his head and watch in fascination as his blood splatters the Regency-striped wallpaper behind him. He flops back against the duvet, staining it red, his eyes still open.

I turn to leave. A woman is blocking my way. She’s even older than the man, and has white candyfloss curls. She’s wearing a flowery nightie. She’s stunned at first, her eyes widening in recognition at the sight of me. And then she starts screaming. I silence her with a bullet to her chest, which propels her down the stairs as though she’s a ragdoll. She lies in a crumpled heap at the bottom and, calmly, I step over her to leave. I can hear a dog barking somewhere in the house, maybe the kitchen, and I falter for just a few seconds. Then I stride out of the front door.

A young guy wearing Lycra is in the neighbouring front garden, wheeling his bin down the path. When he notices me all the colour drains from his face, his jaw slack. I must look mad with my unwashed hair and crumpled clothes. It’s almost funny. I ignore him and get into the car, throwing the gun onto the back seat.

I can see Lycra Guy through my rear-view mirror as I pull away. A mobile phone is pressed to his ear and he’s gesticulating. I think I hear another scream although it could be the seagulls lined up on the wall, their beady eyes watching me, judging me.

It’s only then that I begin to shake uncontrollably. I can’t be sure whether it’s the adrenalin, or the realization that there is definitely no going back for me. For us.

This is just the beginning.

 

1

Jess

BRISTOL AND SOMERSET HERALD

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

DOUBLE MURDER SHOCKS SLEEPY SEASIDE TOWN

by Jessica Fox

A MURDER investigation is under way after two people were found dead at a house in the seaside Somerset town of Tilby on Friday.

Detectives were called to the beachside property in Shackleton Road just after 7 a.m. When the police entered the cottage they found two bodies, thought to be local businessman Clive Wilson, 58, and his mother, Deirdre Wilson, 76. They had been shot. The property was cordoned off and police and forensics of­ficers were at the scene throughout the day.

A third person, 32-year-old Heather Underwood, was found unconscious at a caravan park less than half a mile away. She had sustained a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest and is currently in a critical condition in hospital.

Detective Chief Inspector Gary Ruthgow of Avon and Somerset Police said of­ficers were called to the Georgian property by paramedics. He con­firmed that detectives are not looking for anyone else in relation to the deaths. He said: ‘This is a small town and I would urge anyone with any information that could assist with our investigation to please get in touch.’

Neighbours on the well-heeled street, which consists of a boutique hotel as well as permanent residences and second homes, are shocked and saddened by the horrific murders.

 

I sit back in my chair and re-read the article. The deadline is in twenty minutes. It’s taken me nearly an hour to write just five paragraphs. If I don’t send it soon it won’t make the front page tomorrow, and my news editor, Ted, will have my guts for garters (one of his favourite phrases and always said in a droll tone).

I glance out of the window at the rooftops of Bristol. I can see the cathedral’s spire from up here and the buildings that cluster around College Green. I can tell it’s raining by the sea of colourful umbrellas obscuring the pavements, moving almost as one. A line of traffic chugs up Park Street and a double-decker bus belches smoke as it heaves itself up the hill, like an unfit runner.

Ever since I spoke to DCI Ruthgow this morning I’ve not been able to get the interview out of my head. His words are eating away at me. I’m dying for a cigarette but I daren’t leave my desk until I’ve filed this story. I glance across at Jack, my smoking companion. He’s hunched over his computer, tapping at his keyboard, a phone cradled between shoulder and chin. Sensing me watching, he lifts his head and pulls a silly face. And then, in a placatory voice, he says into the receiver, ‘Yes, yes, I quite understand, Madam. No, I didn’t realize they would use that photo of your cat . . . I agree, quite inappropriate given his untimely demise . . . Uh-huh, yes, not Fluffy’s best side admittedly but, no, I didn’t think he looked fat.’

I can’t help but smile and turn back to my computer, studying the words on the screen again, trying to push away the thought I’ve had since speaking to DCI Ruthgow earlier. But it won’t budge.

Is it my Heather?

Tilby is a small town. I should know: I grew up there. And this Heather Underwood would be the same age as the Heather I went to school with. The Heather I was best friends with. We lost touch when we left school, but for a while – for a good couple of years, in fact – we were inseparable. As far as I remember, there was only one caravan park in Tilby, and it was owned by Heather’s family. The surname is different – she was a Powell back then – but it’s too much of a coincidence, although not beyond impossible. Heather isn’t that unusual a name. I flick back through my notebook, trying to decipher my shorthand. Yes, in our interview Ruthgow confirmed that, after killing two people, Heather Underwood went back to the caravan park where she lives with her husband and young son and tried to take her own life.

Heather always wanted to leave Tilby. Would she really still be living at the same address after all this time?

‘Haven’t you finished that yet, Jess?’

I turn to see Ted standing over me, his breath smelling of coffee and cigarettes overlaid with a faint hint of mint. He runs a hand over his beard. It’s the colour of a tobacco stain, the same as his hair.

‘Yep. I’m just about to file it.’

‘Good.’ He peers at my screen. ‘Didn’t you go to school in Tilby?’

‘I did.’ I don’t remember telling him that, although it’s on my CV. But the man’s like a bloodhound.

‘You’re about the same age, aren’t you? Did you know this girl?’

I take a breath. ‘I’m . . . Actually, I’m not sure. I was friends with a Heather. But . . .’ But the Heather I knew would never have been capable of something like this, I want to say. The Heather I knew was sweet, quiet, kind. She always had so much time for people. The old woman with the beginnings of dementia whom we’d bump into in the corner shop: Heather would help her home when it was obvious she couldn’t remember the way. Or she’d pilfer blankets from her house to give to the homeless man who slept beneath the underpass when it was cold. She was always polite and well-mannered, remembering to say thank you to bus drivers and shopkeepers when I always forgot, desperate to eat my sweets or get to my destination.

 Yet there was another side to her, too. I remember the last time I saw her: her green eyes had blazed, her fists clenched at her sides. That was the only time I’d ever seen her in a rage. I had been scared of her sudden unpredictability, like a horse I’d always thought placid that was now about to rear and buck. But it was towards the end of our friendship, when everything went wrong and she was angry with the world. With me. It was understandable.

I’ve tried not to think about Heather in recent years, but now a picture of her forms in my head, like a reflection in water, slowly sharpening and gaining focus. Dressed in a long, floaty skirt and DM boots, twirling around on the lawn, singing along to ‘Charlotte Sometimes’ by The Cure; the tinkling sound of the many bangles jangling on her arm; cantering on her little black pony, Lucky, her long dark hair cascading down her back.

I take a deep breath. I really need a fag.

 Ted makes a smacking sound as he chews gum in my ear, reminding me he’s still standing beside me. ‘You better get your butt down to Tilby,’ he says, in his Essex accent. He’s lived in Bristol for years but has never managed to pick up the West Country twang. Although, when he’s had a few, he likes to rib me about mine. ‘And take Jack with you. See if it’s the Heather you knew at school. She’s unconscious so the police can’t charge her yet.’

The subtext being that we can print what we want until they do.

Ted doesn’t often show excitement or happiness or any other emotion apart from grumpiness. Unless he’s had a few beers, when his humour shows through like a slice of sunlight beneath a grey cloud. Most of the time he wears a harassed expression and, when he’s not smoking or drinking coffee, he frantically chews gum, his jaw going nineteen to the dozen. But now his small blue eyes shine with rare delight, as though he’s a pitbull about to be given a slab of raw meat.

‘I was about to look on the electoral roll – see if she still lives with Leo or Margot.’

‘Don’t worry about that now. Even if it isn’t the Heather you knew, you still need to be there. Interview whoever she was living with. Describe where she shot herself for colour. You know the drill.’

I do indeed. I could do it in my sleep. Yet before, when I worked in London, I never knew the people involved. Now, if it’s my old friend Heather . . . I shake my head, not allowing my thoughts to go there. I have to treat it as any other job.

I stand up and pull my sheepskin coat from the back of the chair. It’s heavy and warm (it’s always so cold in here ‒ the heating rarely works properly) and I wrap it around myself gratefully. I got it in the charity shop on Park Street, where I buy most of my clothes, and it’s the colour of toffee with a shaggy cream collar and cuffs. Jack’s still on the phone so I scrawl a quick note, saying I’ll meet him outside.

‘Nice coat, Jess,’ calls our receptionist, Sue, as I scurry past, shoving my notebook into my bag. She’s in her late fifties with a crop of silver hair and twinkly eyes that crinkle when she laughs. She’s like a lovely cuddly aunt who always refers to me as ‘a girl’, asking me about my life and my boyfriend, as though living vicariously through ‘my youth’ even though, at thirty-one, I’m not particularly young. Some days I feel very, very old. And very, very jaded. Like today.

‘Thanks,’ I call back, taking the cigarettes from my pocket as I head out of the reception area. ‘Got it for a bargain in BS8.’

‘And I’m liking the new fringe,’ she adds. I touch it self-consciously, although I know it frames my face, softens my blunt bob, and the platinum blonde contrasts with my chocolate- brown eyes. ‘Very Debbie Harry.’

I laugh off her compliment – although I’m secretly delighted – promising to bring her back a coffee (the machine stuff in the office tastes of plastic), then shoulder my way through the door, down the stairs and onto Park Street.

Our offices are in a red-brick building directly above a newsagent’s. There are only six of us who work out of here – two snappers, two reporters, including myself and a trainee called Ellie, Ted and Sue. Our headquarters are on a trading estate a few miles out of town. We type up our copy, then send it down the line to the subs at HQ. Jack and I often joke that our office is where the dregs are sent. The staff they don’t want to get rid of, but don’t want hanging about the main newsroom. I can’t understand what Jack’s done to warrant such a situation. How could anyone dislike him? I tell him that he’s only here because he was the last in. As soon as a snapper leaves HQ (and it’s amazing how high the turnover of staff is there, how quickly they jump ship to a daily like the Bristol Daily News), Jack will have left before he can say ‘digital camera’. I doubt the other photographer, Seth, will ever go anywhere else. He’s long past retirement.

I can’t allow myself to wonder how I’d cope without Jack if he left. I know it will happen eventually. Jack pretends otherwise, but underneath his easy-going persona he’s ambitious. It’s only a matter of time before he moves on. I, on the other hand, am happier here in our little office, away from prying eyes and ears. And Ted is a good boss. Despite his grumpiness, he trusts us and leaves us to make our own decisions (and most afternoons he leaves early to slope o to the local pub). I don’t want to be stuck out on some soulless industrial estate. I like being able to walk out onto Park Street. I love the hustle and bustle, the shops, the cafés, the buskers. It reminds me of London. Not to mention that I can walk to work from where I live.

I’ve been given a second chance and I’ll always be grateful to Ted for that. He took me on when nobody else would.

We have our own entrance: a single blue door set into the brick wall. There’s no sign, nothing to suggest that a newspaper operates behind it. Sometimes a homeless man huddles under a dirty blanket in the doorway. He’s called Stan. I often bring him a coffee when I’m getting one for Sue. Today he’s not here, just an empty can of Foster’s scrunched up in the corner and the faint whiff of urine. I shelter in the doorway and light a cigarette, inhaling it deeply.

The rain is still coming down. It’s fine and drizzly. I like the rain. I always have, the heavier the better; the way it smells, the sound it makes as it clatters into drains, the whoosh of it as tyres part puddles. Even nicer if it’s accompanied by thunder and lightning. Most people think it odd, but Heather felt the same as me. I remember the sound of it drumming on the aluminium roof of the barn at her family’s caravan park. We loved that barn, with its mezzanine level where they kept the hay for the horses. They had so much land, acres of it. It had been her uncle Leo’s idea to set up one of the fields as a caravan park. We used to escape to that barn with our art pads, tartan blankets embedded with yellow hairs from the family’s ancient Labrador, Goldie, pulled over our knees as we tried to sketch the pond or the fountain in her garden, or the caravans in the field beyond, a ribbon of sea glistening enticingly in the distance. Her house was amazing: five bedrooms and a room they called the Den. So much grander than the cramped cottage with the low ceilings that Mum and I shared. Although Heather’s house wasn’t posh: it was lived- in, with old- fashioned furniture, sanded original floorboards and checked blankets thrown over the back of well-worn sofas, very different from the pristine yet sparsely furnished two-up-two-down we had.

Heather tried to teach me to ride. She had such patience, leading me endlessly around the paddock on Lucky, while I tried to get the hang of it. She would tell me funny stories of her mishaps, like the time she thought she’d lost the use of her legs after one of the horses bucked her off. ‘I was such a drama queen about it,’ she’d said, giggling, ‘lying in the middle of the field insisting I was paralysed. My instructor just told me to stop being silly and get back on the horse.’ Despite Heather’s best efforts I never took to riding. I preferred spending time grooming the pony and French-plaiting its tail.

Heather had a menagerie of animals in that barn – a goat she’d rescued, chickens, a pet rat. She spent time with each one, tending them with such love I could only watch with a mixture of awe and envy. My own mother never allowed me to have any pets, saying they were a tie, but Heather’s mum, Margot, was happy for her to have all sorts of animals parading about the place. They even had a peacock that strutted across the field, showing off its feathers. Sometimes, guiltily, I wished my mum was more like Heather’s.

 I keep trying to imagine that same sensible girl as a grown woman walking into a house and shooting dead two people.

Tilby’s only fifteen miles away. It won’t take me and Jack long to get there to find out for certain. If he ever turns up. I keep the car parked at my flat on the Welsh Back. It’s only a ten-minute walk from here.

I take another deep drag of the cigarette, instantly feeling calmer. I’ve given up everything else that was bad for me: London, the Daily Tribune, binge-drinking, the odd recreational drugs, the constant moving around, living with different housemates. But I can’t give up this. I need some vices.

I blow out smoke slowly. An old lady wearing a clear plastic hairnet shoots me a disapproving look as she shuffles past. Undeterred, I carry on puffing until only the butt is left. Why is Jack taking so long?

Tilby Manor Caravan Park. The name pops into my head. That was what the Powells had called it. I’d forgotten. I can still remember how much I loved spending time there. We spent our days sketching, or playing house in one of the empty caravans, or spying on Heather’s big sister and her boyfriend. It was idyllic, really. I spent more time at her home than I did my own.

Until our childhood was cut brutally short in 1994.

I went back to her house only a few times after that, and our friendship, which had once been so strong, began to weaken and break, like a strand of my now over-processed hair. By the time we were doing our GCSEs we were acquaintances, mumbling a hello to each other as we passed in the corridors.

If this woman, this killer, is the Heather I knew at school, the story could help my career and put me back on the map, which I desperately need after what happened at the Tribune. I know so much about her and her family. Too much.

But is that what I really want? And at what cost?


Then She Vanishes Claire Douglas

From the Sunday Times bestselling author of Local Girl Missing and Do Not Disturb - a new thriller that tears at the heart while keeping it racing.

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