Main The First One To Die

The First One To Die

Four friends. A house full of secrets. And a killer picking them off one by one...

She tried to break her fall, twisting desperately, but there was nothing to catch hold of, nothing with which she could stop herself. Her single scream cut through the night air.

Keira North falls to her death at a party. It initially seems like an accident, but Detectives Alex King and Chloe Lane suspect foul play: they are convinced they are dealing with a murder.

When the detectives start to investigate, they soon find that all of Keira's closest friends have secrets that someone might kill to keep.

And as Alex and Chloe are fighting their own demons and struggling to stay on top of the case, Keira’s killer is circling the group of friends, who one by one find that their lives are in danger…
Language: english
File: EPUB, 411 KB
Download (epub, 411 KB)
You can write a book review and share your experiences. Other readers will always be interested in your opinion of the books you've read. Whether you've loved the book or not, if you give your honest and detailed thoughts then people will find new books that are right for them.

Xplorzine issue 6

Year: 2017
Language: english
File: PDF, 63.69 MB

Nobody’s Child

Language: english
File: EPUB, 354 KB
The First One To Die

An unputdownable crime thriller

Victoria Jenkins



Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

Chapter 59

Chapter 60

Chapter 61

Chapter 62

Chapter 63

Chapter 64

Chapter 65

Chapter 66

Chapter 67

Chapter 68

Chapter 69

Chapter 70

Chapter 71

Chapter 72

Chapter 73

Chapter 74

Chapter 75


A Letter from Victoria

Also by Victoria Jenkins

The Girls in the Water



She forgot that the other girl was holding a knife. For a moment, everything else was wiped away and she was back there, humiliated and with no one to fight her corner. Her arm flew out, her fist meeting the side of the girl’s face. The girl with the knife recoiled, cried out in pain, and fell back against the kitchen door; a second blow was landed. The knife was dropped to the floor. She swung again and again, her anger with the world culminating in a torrent of violent rage. The other girl tried to fight back, but her attacker’s strength overpowered her and she found herself cornered, helpless to do anything other than accept the repeated blows landing upon her. She slid to the floor, desperately trying to cover her face with her arms as her attacker continued like a madwoman; a creature possessed.

At last it stopped. The red mist faded, dropping to the floor like a fallen curtain, leaving her exposed. Then she saw what she’d done. She stopped, stood back; saw the bloody mess she had made of this person she didn’t know. She saw the violence she was capable of; all those years of suffering and endurance built up into one seething outburst of uncontrollable rage. She leaned down and took the knife from the floor. The girl looked up at her, barely able to speak; desperate pleas leaving her mouth in an incoherent babble of pain and fear.

She drew the knife back before plunging it in.

Chapter One

All she’d been told was to pack a bag of overnight things and something she could wear out to dinner. Other than that, Chloe had no idea where they were going. Scott picked her up at just gone five o’clock after finishing work. Chloe had been off that day; a rare lazy Sunday spent idling away the hours in Alex’s back garden, making the most of an uncharacteristically warm June. The air had felt so still those past few weeks, so peaceful, that to Chloe’s young yet cynical mind it was inevitable there was something lurking around the corner to upset this alien calm.

In the meantime, she was making a concerted effort to try to enjoy the here and now.

‘What’s this mystery trip in aid of then?’ she asked, as she put her bag in the back and got into the passenger seat of Scott’s car. ‘My birthday’s not for another six weeks.’

He shot her a smile. ‘Does there have to be an occasion?’


‘OK,’ he said, stretching the letters in a drawl. ‘It’s Sunday.’

‘And …?’

He gave a shrug as he pulled away from the kerb. ‘Day ends with a y,’ he suggested.

Chloe laughed. She knew it didn’t sound as relaxed as she had hoped it would; if anything, there was something stilted and forced, which she knew he would pick up on. The truth was she’d been dreading this evening. Their six-month relationship had been so far a very calm and steady affair: dinner dates once a week, the occasional cinema trip at weekends (work permitting) and afternoons on mutual days off spent on the sofa at Scott’s flat when his housemate was working and they had the place to themselves.

It had all been very polite.

Yet despite how well they’d been getting on and how much she liked him, Chloe was aware of the elephant in the room. They’d still not had sex. It was ridiculous, she thought – only adolescents and members of the kind of religious group she’d managed to escape from years ago dated someone for six months without having sex with that person, and yet regardless of how much she might have wanted to sleep with Scott, she could never find herself able to switch her mind off from the past. Until she found a way to do it, she felt she was destined to live the life of a nun.

The thought that most men would have given up by now often preyed on her mind. She glanced at Scott as he drove the car down the slip road and on to the M4 headed west. He looked impossibly handsome; even more handsome than the first time she had seen him, way back before Christmas, chatting with another member of staff at the poolside in the leisure centre where he worked. She had found herself unable to take her eyes off him then, like some lovesick teenager transfixed by the new boy at school. Now, she still couldn’t believe that she was here, sitting in his car beside him.

Something had to go wrong. And yet, so far, there had been no well-concealed flaw let carelessly slip; no chip in the otherwise perfect exterior.

Chloe had lived a life that had repeatedly reminded her of the mantra that if something appeared too good to be true, it usually was. The thought wasn’t helping her in her quest to move forward: a move Alex was constantly reminding her she needed to make.

* * *

When they arrived at the hotel, Chloe realised it must have cost a small fortune. She had never stayed in a hotel where a member of staff carried guests’ bags to the room, and within moments of merely being in the lobby she found herself feeling horribly out of place.

‘You OK?’ Scott asked, sensing her anxiety.

Chloe took a glance at the clothes she was wearing – sandals, leggings and a thin cotton off-the-shoulder sweater – and felt a wave of relief at the thought of the dress in her suitcase. ‘Yeah, fine,’ she lied.

They went to their room to dress for dinner – Chloe changing in the bathroom in order to keep any glimpse of her body concealed from Scott – and went down to the hotel’s restaurant. She felt mildly ridiculous in the dress she had chosen: an outfit that was so unlike her she wouldn’t have blamed Scott for thinking an intruder had emerged from the en suite. She took pride in her appearance and in her day-to-day life liked to look smart, professional, yet now she was unable to shake off the feeling that she resembled a cast member of an MTV reality show. As they sat, she tugged at the hemline of the dress, wondering whether in her eagerness to look as though she’d made an obvious effort she had ended up appearing desperate.

‘You look lovely,’ Scott told her.

‘I feel stupid.’

Scott opened the menu, using it as an excuse to ignore the comment. ‘What do you fancy?’ he asked, not looking up.

They were interrupted by a waitress, who took their drinks order. Chloe studied the menu without really looking at it, self-consciously pushing a short strand of fading blonde behind her ear. Until recently, her hair had always been long. It had also been bottle-blonde, but she was now allowing the colour to grow out.

When the waitress left, Scott put his menu on the table. ‘Do you want to go?’

‘No,’ Chloe said, too quickly.

‘You just don’t look like you want to be here. We can go and get a bag of chips, order a takeaway … We don’t have to eat here.’

‘It’s fine,’ she said, the words snapping from her more abruptly than she’d intended. Her gaze fell to her left, and to the couple on the next table. The woman was looking over at them, making no attempt to hide her interest in their conversation.

‘I’ll have the beetroot salad,’ Chloe said, choosing the first vegetarian option she’d seen.

Scott returned his attention to the menu. When the waitress came back with their drinks, he ordered food. They sat in silence, the awkwardness punctuated by the occasional comment about the restaurant’s unusual decor and then, later, the food.

‘Is it OK?’ Scott asked. Chloe had been pushing her salad around the plate with her fork, unaware she’d been doing it until she was interrupted. What was wrong with her? she wondered. She was in a lovely restaurant with a lovely man; someone who paid her enough attention to care how her food was. Wasn’t this what she’d wanted?

‘It’s great.’

‘Tell your face then.’ It was said with a smile, but Chloe realised she was proving a disappointment.

‘Come on,’ Scott said, trying to catch the attention of the waitress. ‘I’ll get the bill.’

* * *

Back up in their room, Scott was quick to apologise. ‘This was a stupid idea. I’m so sorry.’

Chloe sat on the edge of the bed. ‘Don’t be silly, it’s not you …’ She cut herself short, aware of what she’d almost said. Of course it wasn’t him – they both knew that much already. It was her and all her stupid insecurities: her reluctance to let anyone too close, her inability to shut off her memories, her apparently incessant need to continue punishing herself for past mistakes.

‘I just, you know … You mentioned feeling guilty about being at Alex’s so much, and Ben’s always at mine, so …’ Scott covered his face with his hands and sighed. ‘Sorry.’

‘Stop saying sorry.’

She patted the duvet beside her, realising as soon as she’d done so that she was like a pet owner beckoning a faithful dog. She wondered how the situation could possibly become any more embarrassing. ‘It’s OK. Honestly.’

He sat beside her. ‘I’ve just gauged this all wrong. It’s a bit too much, isn’t it?’

Chloe nodded. ‘Can I put my other clothes back on?’

‘Course you can. You do look lovely, though.’

She laughed. ‘Don’t be nice. I’m just a fake tan away from Geordie Shore.’

She made to stand from the bed, but Scott took her hand in his, holding her back. ‘I didn’t bring you with the intention of … you know. That’s not what this is about.’

‘Well of course it is.’

She spoke the words before she had time to consider their possible reception. Scott looked as though she’d just thrown something at him: a sort of wounded, shocked expression that evidenced the fact he hadn’t expected her to be quite so blunt about it.

‘Come on, Scott,’ she said, desperate now to make light of the increasingly awkward situation. ‘Dinner, hotel room … You weren’t really planning on us coming back here for a game of Scrabble, were you?’

His eyes remained fixed on her, whether in surprise or disappointment Chloe couldn’t be sure. ‘Actually, I did ask the manager if I could borrow the Scrabble board, but she’s already loaned it out to room twelve.’

Chloe’s face softened and she jabbed him in the ribs with an elbow. ‘I’m sorry. This is lovely, it really is. It’s just … I want to, but …’ She looked away, embarrassed by the words that hadn’t even been spoken.

‘You don’t have to explain anything.’

I do, she thought. She already had, several times over – to the point at which she’d become bored of the sound of her own voice – and yet no matter how often she tried to explain to him why physical intimacy had become such an issue, the words always sounded ridiculous and her reasoning seemed more and more absurd.

Scott squeezed her hand and leaned in to kiss her. ‘The seafront’s just a few streets away,’ he said. ‘Fancy going for a walk?’

She smiled. ‘Love to.’

Chapter Two

It was a warm, clear night and the party had hours earlier spilled from the house and into the yard at the back of the row of terraces. The air felt electric that evening, alive with the excitement and relief of exam season closure. The last exam had taken place two days earlier, and Friday night’s party had gone on right through into Sunday, stopping only for people to catch a few hours’ sleep and restock on supplies before starting again. A dull thud of bass throbbed through the building like an irregular heartbeat, stifling the senses of those people who remained within the four walls of the house. Outside, drinking games were being played around a plastic garden table, its surface barely visible amid the array of bottles and glasses that adorned it. Joints were being passed between friends, bad jokes shared, sexual innuendo thrown into every conversation.

A train rattled past, noisy and fast: the 23.14 from Cardiff Central to Ystrad Rhondda, at this point midway through its hour-long journey; stopping just further up the track in Pontypridd. From the second floor of the terraced house in Treforest, from the bedroom at the back, the students who lived there often watched the trains go past – sometimes on sun-bleached afternoons, sometimes on nights like this, when the orange glow of the carriages would whizz past in a hazy blur of light. They could escape the noise of the world up on the ledge that jutted out over the first-floor bathroom. Up there, secrets had been shared and promises made. They were young – they knew those promises would likely be futile against the weight of time – but some had been made with good intentions.

Jamie Bateman was standing in the kitchen, watching through the window as an unfamiliar group of people laughed exaggeratedly over something that had just been said. He wondered if any of his housemates actually knew these people, or if they’d just heard evidence of a weekend-long party and gravitated towards the nearest available alcohol. Sidestepping the other people who lingered in the kitchen, Jamie moved to the back door. He could see Leah sitting on the stone wall at the end of the yard, her head resting against the side of the wooden shed in the corner. She was watching a drinking game unfold at the table, her face impassive as the people around her grew increasingly animated. Her long hair fell over the side of her face, managing to exaggerate her drunkenness.

He wondered where Tom and Keira had got to. The more he thought about them, the more he realised he didn’t want to know.

A girl fell into him as she passed, steadying herself with a grip on his elbow and a giggled apology. He studied her as she straightened: pale face, pink lips; eyes wide and slightly too far apart. He wondered what she saw when she looked at him. He wondered what any of them saw. Women seemed to look through him as though he wasn’t really there. Everyone seemed to look at him that way. The girl’s apologetic expression quickly changed; she eyed him with curiosity now, wondering why his stare was so prolonged.

When Jamie glanced back out at the yard, Leah had looked up, her eyes now fixed on him. Her dark hair had been swept to one side and her legs were pulled up on to the wall, hugged to her chest as though protecting her. She looked away and turned her attention back to the table.

Jamie went back into the house.

* * *

Upstairs, in the back room of the second floor, Tom and Keira were sitting on the ledge outside her bedroom window. She was agitated, annoyed by his refusal to ever see things from anyone else’s point of view. The roof was usually a place for quiet and calm; that evening, it was the only place they could escape the prying eyes and ears of others.

‘How did you think people wouldn’t find out?’ she snapped.

Tom took a deep drag from his cigarette and exhaled slowly, losing the smoke to the summer evening breeze that was more noticeable up there than down in the yard below.

‘Jamie knows as well,’ she told him.

Tom rolled his eyes. ‘Jamie doesn’t know anything. He doesn’t know what day of the week it is most of the time.’

Keira sighed, exasperated. ‘And get that out of my face.’ She gave his arm a shove, redirecting the clouds of smoke that trailed from his cigarette.

He turned sharply to her, alcohol fuelling his already short temper. ‘What is the matter with you tonight?’

‘Jesus.’ Keira turned to the window, swung her slim legs through the gap and went back inside the bedroom. ‘I just thought you were different, that’s all.’

‘Why?’ Tom followed her back into the bedroom, having to duck lower to get his tall frame through the open window.


‘Why would you think I’m any different? Different to what?’ It was said with a smirk that was intended to be noticed. It was intended to provoke a response.

God, he was annoying. She had thought for a while she was beginning to like him – he had grown on her during the past eighteen months, although in much the same way as the verruca she’d once needed to have removed – but when he was behaving like this, like his usual stubborn, ignorant self, she could feel nothing but contempt towards him.

‘I just thought you were a bit more intelligent, that’s all. Obviously I was wrong.’

‘Never got caught, have I?’

‘That’s luck, Tom, not cleverness. It’s only a matter of time before your luck runs out. Especially if people are starting to talk.’

He leaned against the wall and took a long drink from the bottle of beer he was holding. ‘I’m going home at the end of the week. It’ll all be forgotten. By September, people will have found someone else to gossip about.’

Keira sighed and sat on the bed. She pushed a length of dark hair from her face and studied him, standing there so casually as though everything was fine. In that moment, she thought she might hate him. She didn’t think she had ever hated anyone before, not really – it wasn’t in her nature to feel anger or bitterness towards other people. But Tom knew how to push people’s buttons.

And recent events had changed everything.

‘I don’t even understand why you’re doing it.’

He smirked again; the look infuriated Keira. ‘You wouldn’t. I mean, look around you, Keira.’ He raised the hand that held the bottle and moved his arm in an exaggerated semicircle in front of him. ‘Look at your life.’

‘I don’t know what you mean,’ she said defensively.

‘Of course you don’t,’ he scoffed, taking another mouthful of beer. ‘All this stuff … it’s so normal to you.’

It was the drink talking, Keira thought. She had seen Tom behave like a pig before, had seen him sarcastic and arrogant and full of himself. But she had never seen him cruel, not like this. Did he mean it? If he did, it hurt more than she might ever have anticipated it would.

‘Whatever you think about me, it doesn’t give you the right to do what you’ve been doing. Have you even bothered to think about the people this might affect?’

Tom’s expression changed, something dulling behind the pale grey of his eyes. ‘You’re so fucking sanctimonious, do you know that, Keira? It must be fucking perfect living in your little princess world.’

‘Oooh,’ she said, retaliating against his spite. ‘Big word there – well done.’

She recoiled on the bed as he threw the bottle he’d been holding against the wall. It smashed into tiny shards and stained the paintwork with an abstract shock of cheap lager. ‘That’s exactly the kind of patronising shit I’m talking about. You make everyone feel this fucking big.’ He moved towards her and waved his hand in her face to demonstrate his meaning.

For the first time, Keira felt afraid of him. She’d found out things about him she would never have thought possible. She didn’t want to be living with someone like this. What else was he capable of?

‘I’m fed up of always being made out to be the bad guy.’ The words were spat in her face, showering her with his anger. ‘You want to know what’s really going on … ask your little friend downstairs.’

Keira’s brow furrowed questioningly. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

He shook his head. ‘Open your eyes, Keira. Life isn’t one giant Disney movie. Oh … and everyone thinks the same as me, by the way. Spoilt little rich bitch.’

Tom stood back and stormed from the room. Keira got up from the bed and stared at the wall on which the thrown drink was already beginning to dry in trails that ran like thick teardrops. They were supposed to be coming back to this house after the summer holiday, returning in September for their final year. They’d got on well together, at the start.

Before they’d known each other, she thought.

She considered what he’d just said. Was that really what he thought of her? Was that what they all thought of her?

She went back to the window and pushed it wide open. Climbing back out, she sat on the ledge they had come to treat as a makeshift balcony and reached for the drink she’d left there. She glanced down at the narrow stretch of yard beneath her, hearing voices and laughter drift up towards her; feeling so much further than just two floors from the people scattered below. She didn’t belong here any more.

There were things she wished she didn’t know; things she wished she’d never been made aware of. She had already signed a contract for the following year’s rental agreement, but there must be some way of getting out of it. She couldn’t come back here now, not with things as complicated as they were.

She felt tears catch at the corners of her eyes. She thought of her mum and dad. She thought of her sister. She wanted to go home.

The bedroom door sounded behind her and Keira sighed, wiping the back of her hand across her eyes in an attempt to conceal her tears. She didn’t want a repeat performance of the argument they’d already had. Tom had said everything there was to say; she didn’t need to hear any more. She felt so upset, she didn’t even want to look at him.

She wondered again whether what he’d said was true, if that was how other people perceived her. She was lucky, she knew that, but she’d never tried to rub anyone’s face in her good fortune. If she had, she’d never meant to. She’d never tried to belittle anyone; she had thought they were her friends. If she really did make people feel that way, she’d never been aware she was doing it.

She felt him behind her, then everything happened so quickly. A hand touched her back for the briefest of moments before a firm shove sent her flailing from the ledge. She tried to break her fall, twisting desperately through the air, but there was nothing to catch hold of, nothing with which she could stop herself.

A single scream cut through the night air.

Chapter Three

The call woke Detective Inspector Alex King at twenty past two in the morning. Uniform had been called to a house in Treforest, where it was reported a young woman had fallen from a rooftop. When Alex got there, the street was eerily quiet. The majority of the partygoers had already been sent home, though by all accounts clearing the scene had been pretty shambolic. Some had fled; others had stayed to gawp. Incidents such as this usually generated crowds of rubberneckers, people who longed for a glimpse of misery as an interlude in their lacklustre lives; a reminder that no matter how disappointing their own existence might be, some poor sod’s had just got a whole lot worse.

According to the call she’d received, there had been an outbreak of panic at the house on Railway Terrace, with many revellers fleeing as soon as they became aware of what had happened, while others gathered around the victim, arguing over what to do. The neighbours in the adjoining houses had been woken by the screams of eyewitnesses.

‘How many people were here?’ Alex asked the first of the two uniformed officers already at the house. He looked barely old enough to be out of school, and the sheepish expression that preceded his response was enough to answer the question.

‘We can’t be certain.’

‘Why not?’

The officer shrugged, which managed to irritate Alex more than any words might have done. ‘There was a houseful, apparently.’

The paramedics had pronounced Keira North dead at the scene. Her housemates were sitting in the living room, a girl and two boys, the three of them side by side on the sofa, stunned into silence. Alex glanced into the room as she passed, unable to ignore the chaos that surrounded the three students. A drink so blue it bordered on fluorescent had been spilled over the end of the beige sofa. Empty bottles and dirty glasses littered the flimsy self-assembly coffee table in the middle of the room. Evidently the party had been an eventful one long before its traumatic ending.

The girl had been crying; there were telltale signs of mascara smudged down her cheek and her skin was flushed with an assault of raw emotion. She was sitting nearest the door, her body turned at an awkward angle from the two boys beside her as though she was trying to block them out and pretend neither of them was present.

‘What sort of state are they in?’ Alex asked the officer, nodding towards the living room.

‘Not too bad now. The girl was pretty drunk when we first arrived, but the accident seems to have sobered her up.’

Alex followed the young officer through to the kitchen. The back door was open, leading out on to a small L-shaped area that passed as garden space. Like the inside of the house, the place was a mess. Smashed glass lay strewn on the patio slabs and cigarette butts adorned every available surface. There was evidence of drug use on the garden table.

She stepped into the yard. It was still warm out, despite the unearthly hour. Another man – the second of the two attending officers – was waiting there for her.

‘Scene-of-crime officers are on their way,’ she told him.

She studied the fallen body. The girl’s head was snapped back at an angle, her eyes still open. They stared past Alex’s shoes, unseeing, the life drained from the pupils. She was wearing a pair of black leggings and a short-sleeved checked shirt that had risen to her waist during the fall. Her long hair was tangled in messy tendrils across her back and face.

‘Why the hell has everything taken so long?’ Alex said, directing her impatience at the officers. ‘The call was made at just before midnight. Almost two and a half hours ago.’

She didn’t need to say any more; the unspoken accusation hung in the air between them. She stood with her hands on her narrow hips, her unnerving focus switching between the two men as she waited for some sort of response.

The second officer shot the first an uneasy glance. ‘It was chaos here. They had a houseful – we tried to get it cleared as quickly as we could.’

‘Cleared? Of what … witnesses?’ Alex shook her head and bit her tongue, saving the reprimand for later. ‘Show me the room.’

She and the first officer went back into the house. The young man showed her upstairs, to the bedroom that had been Keira’s and from which she had fallen. The room was neat and tidy, everything organised and in place. History textbooks lined the shelves above the closed laptop that sat on the desk. A dressing table stood to the side of it, make-up and hair products in orderly rows beneath the mirror. The bed was made, though indentations in the duvet suggested that more than one person had recently sat there.

Hanging above the bed was a photo collage; an array of images protected by clear plastic envelopes. Alex moved to the head of the bed and studied them closely. Many of the photographs had captured moments that had taken place in this house, and the faces she had seen downstairs in the living room were instantly recognisable. Then there were others: family, school friends; an accumulation of a young life’s worth of memories.

The word ‘accident’ echoed in Alex’s brain. Accidents could happen so easily, she thought. Misplaced footing, attention distracted by something or someone; it was easy to be caught off guard and end up suffering the consequences of a moment’s carelessness.

‘Anyone know what’s gone on here?’ she asked.

The broken glass on the carpet near the window indicated that something had happened in this room before Keira North had fallen to her death. It was a beer bottle, thrown against the wall; a splash of stains ran in streaks down the paintwork. Alex went to the window. She could feel the eyes of the young officer behind her, watching her every movement. If the looks that had been passing between him and his colleague were anything to go by, they both realised themselves guilty of a catalogue of errors.

‘We’re not sure. The three downstairs said they don’t know anything about it.’

Alex turned sharply. ‘Did you come up here?’ she asked. ‘When you got here?’

The officer hesitated on a response, which gave her the answer she needed.

‘How long did it take for one of you to get up here?’

The officer looked past her, to the still-open window. ‘Ten minutes,’ he mumbled. ‘Maybe fifteen.’

Alex’s reaction stamped itself on her face. Ten minutes was more than sufficient time for the scene to have been contaminated or altered. What had they been doing during that time, other than chasing off potential witnesses? She pursed her lips, trying to hold in her frustration. She would deal with the two of them later.

She turned back to the window. It was a large single pane of glass, side-opening. It swung into the room, allowing anyone inside to climb out on to what the students had apparently used as a makeshift balcony. It was clearly a breach of some sort of health-and-safety law. How tragic that it would take a young woman’s death for the landlord to do something about it. He or she would probably be facing charges too.

Careful not to touch the window, she leaned out to assess the space. The air was like stepping from a plane into a Mediterranean summer’s evening. There was a stillness; a stark contrast to the reported chaos of events just hours earlier. The cruelty of time, thought Alex. The world kept spinning, clocks kept ticking: time didn’t stop for anyone’s tragedy. Tomorrow the world would carry on as though Keira North had never existed.

There was a concrete ledge that ran the width of Keira’s bedroom, about nine feet long and a foot and a half wide. It led on to the sloping roof of the first-floor bathroom. It was from the ledge that Keira was reported to have fallen. What had she been doing there? It didn’t look obviously dangerous, although Alex imagined that any thoughts of safety had been easily abandoned under the fuggy influence of alcohol. The ledge was not wide enough to comfortably stand on, not without consideration of the drop below; at most, it could be used as a step between the window ledge and the bathroom roof. Partygoers reported having seen Keira sitting on the ledge earlier in the evening, and if that had been the case, Alex wondered how she had come to fall. Losing balance while drunk and standing was one thing; losing balance while sitting down seemed far less plausible, particularly given the angle and placement at which she had landed.

Alex drew back from the window. ‘Anyone with her when she fell?’

‘Her housemates say no.’

‘The three downstairs?’

The young officer nodded. They heard a noise at the front door. ‘SOCOs,’ Alex said. She gave the officer a nod and headed back out onto the landing. As she made her way to the first floor, she could hear the housemates talking downstairs in the living room, whispers that couldn’t be deciphered from her listening spot at the top of the staircase. When she went down further, her footsteps caused creaks on the stairs and the conversation came to a sudden stop.

She stopped at the living room. ‘You’ve all provided statements?’ she asked.

The three nodded, their movements so in sync that it looked almost as though they had been rehearsed.

Back out in the yard, a SOCO was crouched on the ground near Keira North’s body, tracking the area for clues. ‘Broken neck, you think?’ Alex said, as the woman looked up to greet her.

The woman nodded. ‘Good chance.’ She pointed to the roof of the first-floor bathroom. ‘Looks as though she hit the roof there before landing here. Must have been horrific to see.’

More horrific for the poor girl who was now lying at her feet, Alex thought.

She glanced at the yard around them and thought about the bedroom upstairs. Almost three hours had passed before this place had been properly treated as a crime scene. Potential witnesses had been left to walk away. If this turned out not to be a tragic accident, how much crucial evidence had been lost during that time? She looked back at the girl on the ground, and then at the scene-of-crime officers, trying to hold back the thought that this was all too little, too late.

Chapter Four

Chloe and Alex made their way to Interview Room 2, where Tom Stoddard, one of Keira North’s housemates, was sitting waiting. Alex looked tired, dark shadows circling her eyes, the yawn she attempted to stifle behind the back of her hand made obvious by the unintended exhalation that escaped with it.

‘I’m sorry I wasn’t there last night,’ Chloe said, noting her colleague’s efforts to appear more alert than she was. ‘I’d have been able to attend the call with you.’

She had been living at Alex’s house for months now and was worried about outstaying her welcome. Though Alex had done nothing to make her feel in the way, Chloe wasn’t sure that living and working together was always a good idea. She liked their partnership. She liked the friendship they’d developed. She didn’t want Alex to reassess either based on the fact that she had grown sick of finding Chloe’s used make-up wipes left on the bathroom windowsill.

‘You’re allowed a night off,’ Alex told her. ‘How was it, anyway?’

‘It was good.’

‘Good … that’s all you’re giving me?’

Chloe smiled. ‘Yep.’

Alex rolled her eyes. Chloe knew exactly what she fishing for and she would likely make sure she got it later – little though there was to tell – when they were both back at the house. Chloe had been denying herself the chance of happiness for too long; Alex had kept reminding her of the fact. It was about time the habit got cut loose.

Alex pushed open the door to the interview room and held it aside so Chloe could enter first. The young man sitting with his back to them stood hurriedly when he heard them come in, his sudden movement in contrast with the lazy expression his face wore. He stared at them, impassive, his eyes watery behind the telltale sheen of a hangover.

Tom Stoddard was twenty years old and came from Leeds, according to the background check that had now been completed. He was studying architectural engineering at the University of South Wales and claimed to have known Keira North since early in the previous academic year.

‘You can sit down, please, Mr Stoddard.’

The young man slumped back into his chair, his resentment at having to be there already obvious. None of his behaviour seemed normal for someone whose housemate had just the night before fallen to her death.

Alex pressed the button on the tape recorder that sat to the side of the desk against the wall. The boy studied it with scepticism, as though expecting it to spontaneously combust.

‘Interview with Tom Stoddard commencing 11.03, Monday 12th June. Present in the room are Detective Inspector Alex King and Detective Constable Chloe Lane.’

‘Am I under arrest?’ Tom asked, his eyes still fixed on the tape recorder.

‘No. We record every interview in case any detail needs to be returned to. How long had you known Keira North, Mr Stoddard?’

Tom’s eyes finally met Alex’s. They were a pale grey, made even more muted by the alcohol that clearly still flooded his system. When he moved, every action was slowed with the lingering effects of the weekend that had gone before. ‘We met early on in the first year of uni, so October before last, roughly.’

‘How did you meet her?’

‘On a night out with friends. She was with Leah – that’s how I met them both.’

‘Leah Cross? Another of the people you share the house with?’

Tom nodded. Remembering the recording, he said, ‘Yes.’

‘So you got on well, developed a friendship … decided to live together in your second year.’


‘How did that work out?’ Chloe asked.

‘Good. Yeah … it worked out well.’

‘What about Jamie? Did you already know Jamie too?’

Tom shook his head. ‘There are four bedrooms at the house and there were only three of us, so we advertised for someone and chose Jamie.’

‘He’s not a student like the rest of you, is he?’

Tom shook his head. ‘He works for an insurance company.’

‘Did you ever have any involvement with Keira North other than just as friends?’


Alex glanced at Chloe. The answer had come too quickly; it was clearly planned, as though the young man had been waiting for the question. If he had been involved with Keira as anything more than a friend, why lie about it now? It seemed a fair assumption that anyone who had nothing to hide would have no objection to sharing the truth of a relationship.

‘Is there anything you want to tell us about last night, Tom?’ Chloe asked.

The young man was clearly not as calm as he wanted them to think he was. Despite the relaxed posture – the slouched shoulders and the arms that dangled lazily at his sides like a lethargic ape’s – his face betrayed his unease.

‘Someone who was at the party says they saw you going into Keira’s room at approximately half past eleven, about twenty minutes before she fell from the roof,’ Alex said. ‘Was this person mistaken?’

Tom’s arms moved from his sides to his chest, where he folded them in a barricade against the two women sitting opposite him. ‘No. I did go in there.’

‘Was this person right about the time at which they saw you going into the room?’

He shrugged. ‘I don’t know. I suppose so. You lose track of time at parties.’

Alex sat back, mirroring his pose. He was aware of it and it seemed to unsettle him.

‘There was arguing heard coming from the bedroom. What were you and Keira arguing about, Tom?’

He sat forward and put his arms on the desk. ‘Who was it?’ he asked. ‘This person,’ he added, mimicking Alex’s phrasing.

The comment was met with Alex’s trademark curled lip. She’d seen enough of this young man to decide she didn’t like him: too sure of himself, too arrogant, too ready with his excuses. One of his housemates had died, yet he was behaving as though she had just popped out for a while and would be returning later, as usual. His only concern seemed to be centred on the inconvenience her demise was causing him.

‘You had a houseful last night, Tom. Safe to say more than one person saw you go into or come out of Keira’s room. So let’s try again … What were the two of you arguing about?’

‘Keira fell from the roof,’ Tom stated. ‘It was an accident, wasn’t it? Why are you asking me all these questions?’

‘We need to speak with everyone who was at the party last night to build a picture of the events that led up to Miss North’s death. What were you arguing with her about?’

‘I was downstairs when she fell,’ he said, ignoring Alex’s question yet again. ‘I was in the kitchen. There are people who’ll tell you that’s where I was. I didn’t see her fall. I don’t know what happened.’

‘Thank you for that,’ Alex said, ‘but it wasn’t what I asked.’

The young man glanced at Chloe before looking back at Alex. If he thought he was going to get any reassurance from her, Alex thought, he was looking in the wrong place. Chloe had a particular dislike of liars.

‘Look,’ Tom eventually said, ‘Keira was a bit uptight, all right? She wasn’t happy about how many people turned up over the weekend and she was freaking out about the mess. It was just a silly argument, that’s all. Just drink talking.’

Alex nodded. ‘Drink talking. You or her?’

‘Both,’ Tom said with a shrug.

Alex sat back in her chair and let her eye dark eyes rest on him for longer than was intended to be comfortable. ‘If you think of anything else, Mr Stoddard, please let us know. I assume you’ll be going home for the summer?’

‘Yeah. Few days’ time.’

The young man stood, having already taken his cue that he was free to leave. There was something so arrogant about him, Alex thought again; something overly confident in his manner, despite the nerves so apparent during the interview.

Had this man – little more than a boy – taken the life of his housemate? And if so, why had he done it?

Chapter Five

Leah heard voices in Leighton’s office, so she waited outside and managed to resist the urge to pace the corridor. She hadn’t got a minute’s sleep. They had spent half the night in the waiting room at the police station and the other half on sofas at friends’ houses. Keira’s death persisted in playing over in her mind, that ear-splintering scream still ringing in her head like the replaying of a nightmare. She had seen her fall, and now she couldn’t erase that sight from her mind. Keira had bounced like a rag doll from the bathroom roof to the yard below, her body landing with a thud that had seemed to echo into the night.

When she closed her eyes, she could see her friend lying lifeless on the patio slabs. She wondered whether the image would ever fade.

The department was quiet. The exams were finished and a majority of students were now thinking about heading home for the summer, if they hadn’t already done so. Leah wasn’t going home, she’d decided months earlier. There were too many things she could be doing in South Wales – productive ways in which her time could be spent, rather than whiling away the summer months back in Devon – and going home had never really been an option anyway.

But in the aftermath of Keira’s death, she wondered whether leaving for a while wouldn’t be such a bad thing. The house would be filled with the memory of her friend, each room consumed by the echoes of her voice and her laughter. She already felt haunted; she didn’t know whether she’d be able to stay here on her own.

The door to the office opened abruptly, startling Leah from her thoughts. A male member of staff – one of the tutors who’d taught her on a modern European fiction module – emerged from the office and gave her a second look as he made his way past.

‘Hi,’ Leah said.

The man nodded but said nothing.

Leighton was sitting at his desk, a half-eaten sandwich and a cup of tea in front of him. He looked up at her, his face unable to disguise his response to seeing her yet again in his office. He had apparently assumed that the end of the exams would mean the end of her too.

‘I might get to finish these papers this side of Christmas,’ he said with a sigh. He put his pen down on the desk and held her stare, his expression reading like a question mark.

Leah hovered by the door. ‘Sorry … shall I leave you?’

‘No, it’s fine,’ he said, pushing his chair back from the desk. It was clearly far from fine. ‘What do you want?’

Leah’s face fell. She didn’t like him when he was like this – cold, unwelcoming, as he was most of the time. Yet the more distant he became, the closer she wanted to get. He seemed to treat all his students this way, and she wondered what he was even doing there. He didn’t seem to like lecturing; he didn’t seem to like the students – not the majority of them, at least. Perhaps he was bitter, she thought. Not for the first time, she noticed the titles that sat on the bookshelves that lined his office. There were the classics, the texts that featured on the various modules he must have taught over the years; there were theoretical studies on the authors who were at the top of his list of apparent preferences. Among them, almost hidden if you weren’t looking for them, lurked his own titles – his brief foray into novel-writing that had resulted in lacklustre sales and what must clearly have been a disappointment for him after such obvious faith in his own creative abilities.

‘I take it you’ve heard about last night? Everyone seems to know already.’

Leighton pushed his sandwich aside and ran a hand through his dark hair. ‘Yeah, bad news always travels quickly. It’s terrible. Do they know what happened?’

Leah sat in the chair opposite him. If she waited for an invitation to sit, she’d be there all afternoon. She studied his face, trying to find the signs of the softer him she knew existed somewhere behind the stern exterior.

‘I know what happened,’ she told him. ‘I saw her fall.’

She didn’t think for a moment that Leighton was interested in any of this, but she didn’t have anyone else to talk to about it. Jamie had gone to work after speaking to the police, and Tom had been called to the station later that morning. She didn’t really want to talk to either of them anyway. The atmosphere had been frosty in the house for a while before Keira’s death; now, it had turned to ice between them.

Leah herself was due at the station within the next hour. Although they’d given statements the night before, the fact that they’d all been drinking meant the police were asking for them again, sober this time. She had known they would all be reinterviewed. She supposed it was part of the procedure, under the circumstances.

What were the circumstances, though? Keira had fallen, hadn’t she?

‘That must have been awful.’

She hated the sound of his insincerity. In fact, it made her angry; a pulsing sensation that she felt in the depths of her stomach, churning like acid burn. He didn’t really care about her. He didn’t care about any of them. He hadn’t cared when she’d been upset before … why would he start now?

‘It was. I haven’t slept all night … I can’t get her out of my head. You know when people talk about things happening in slow motion, like in a film, or an out-of-body experience? That’s what it was like. I saw her fall, and I couldn’t do anything to stop it. I felt so helpless.’ She paused. ‘Have you ever felt like that?’

Leighton’s eyes narrowed. He had no sympathy for her – that much was obvious. He just wanted her out of his office. Men like him took what they wanted, when they wanted, and they could never see why they should be held accountable for their choices. Their actions.

She wanted him to hold her, but she realised they’d gone beyond that long ago.

‘Term’s over,’ he said, as though she needed reminding. ‘You shouldn’t be here.’

She leaned on the desk, disturbing the paperwork waiting for him. ‘It’s like that, is it?’ she asked, unable to keep the disappointment from her voice. ‘So I do what over the summer, exactly? Wait for you to contact me?’

The photograph of Leighton’s wife and two daughters that sat at the corner of the desk had been disturbed with the rest of his things, so that it was turned towards Leah as though to taunt her. She had seen it before: his wife, blonde and glamorous; his two daughters, Isobel and Olivia, younger versions of their mother, both of them picture-perfect. How could he keep that image there, Leah wondered, facing him every day – their beautiful faces looking out at him, watching him – when he knew what he was guilty of?

‘I think that’s probably for the best, don’t you?’

She figured it was a rhetorical question, but she wasn’t going to just accept it. ‘So we go about things on your terms then, when you say so?’

Leighton’s jaw flexed. ‘Leah, these buildings are a ghost town during the summer. You keep showing up here, people are going to get suspicious. Is that what you want?’

She bit her lip. To be honest, she wasn’t sure the idea of people finding out the truth really bothered her too much. He was the one with a family. He was the one who had to go home every evening to his wife and get into bed with her knowing he was lying to her. It was his neck on the line, not hers. When she thought about it – which she had, often – she realised she really didn’t have much to lose.

‘No,’ she said. ‘It’s not.’ She stood from the chair and made a point of reaching for the photograph to turn it back to where it had originally faced. Leighton watched her do it. He might have had the good grace to at least look ashamed, embarrassed – something – but no, he was far too self-assured for that.

‘You’ll be in touch then?’

Leighton nodded. There was a knock at the door; not waiting for a response, the person on the other side clattered into the room, almost falling into Leah.

Anna Stapleton, the creative writing tutor, was dressed in her standard faux-boho fashion, all floor-length floral skirt and more cheap jewellery than an Argos catalogue. She seemed to exist in a haze of perfume, suffocating anyone who had the misfortune to get too close. ‘Oh, sorry – I didn’t realise you had company.’

‘Actually, Leah’s just leaving.’

Anna gave her a smile, which Leah returned.

‘I’ll leave you to it then,’ Leah said reluctantly.

She left the office and pulled the door shut behind her. She waited a moment in the corridor, absorbing the promise that had been made. She knew Leighton had been telling the truth when he said he’d be in touch.

He was always back in touch.

Chapter Six

Alex glanced through the open doorway at the couple waiting for her in the family room. It was one of the supposedly nicer rooms at the station; carpeted, as though soft flooring might in some way lessen the hard truths delivered within those four walls.

‘I can do this with you if you want me to,’ Chloe offered.

Alex shook her head, her focus still fixed on Keira North’s parents. Of course she didn’t have to deliver the news that Keira was dead; the family’s local constabulary had been informed of the tragedy, and it had been left to a couple of their officers to relay the news to the young woman’s parents.

‘This is the worst part of the job,’ she said, thinking aloud. ‘Well … one of them.’

The physical reactions of loved ones in the immediate aftermath of such news, the expressions on their faces, was something Alex found difficult to forget. The sounds that accompanied them were often even more harrowing and persistent; those guttural reactions, those low moans that emanated from the depths of a person would stay with her for long afterwards, their echoes haunting her.

‘Someone’s going to have to accompany them to the hospital. I’d rather you stayed here. Leah Cross is due in soon. Find out everything you can.’

‘You really don’t believe this was an accident, do you?’

‘No,’ Alex said, reaching for the door handle. ‘I really don’t.’

Chloe put a hand on her arm. ‘I’ll be upstairs if you need me.’

Knowing she could no longer delay the inevitable, Alex stepped into the family room and closed the door behind her, leaving Chloe to head back upstairs. David North stood from his chair, his wife’s hand still clutched tightly in his.

‘Mr North,’ Alex said, shaking his free hand. ‘Mrs North. I’m Detective Inspector King.’

She didn’t get any further: Louisa North’s sob filled the room in a burst of noise and emotion. David North sat back quickly, putting a comforting arm around his wife’s shoulder.

‘I told you,’ Louisa said to him, concealing her face behind a hand as though ashamed to have anyone else see her tears. ‘I said this would happen.’

Alex took a free chair to the side of David and gave him a look that was intended to be supportive. Whether or not it would have the desired effect was impossible to tell. How on earth could she offer any useful support to a couple who had just lost one of their children?

‘Said what would happen?’ she asked gently.

Louisa North – a petite woman who looked younger than her forty-seven years – wiped her fingertips beneath each eye in turn before lowering her hand and looking at Alex for the first time. ‘We were told there’d been an accident. That Keira had fallen. So why are we here, speaking with you? Detective inspectors work on crimes, don’t they? Not accidents.’

Her previous single sob now escalated into a full-blown bout of tears, and Alex reached for the box of tissues that sat on one of the shelves, offering it to David. She watched as he pulled one from the box and pressed it into Louisa’s hand.

‘What are we going to tell Natasha?’ the woman sobbed.

Natasha was the couple’s younger daughter, eighteen and in her final year of sixth form. The sisters were apparently close; so close that Natasha had been considering studying in Cardiff that September so that she could be near to Keira.

‘We don’t yet know the exact circumstances surrounding your daughter’s death,’ Alex told them, ‘but we do know that an argument took place in her bedroom shortly before the fall. Until we’ve established what happened, we don’t want to come to any conclusions. You’ve been assigned a family liaison officer. She’s here in the station – I’ll introduce you. Any questions you may have, or concerns, please speak with her. She’s here to help you in any way she can.’

‘Keira was murdered, then – that’s what you’re saying, isn’t it?’

David North’s hand tightened around his wife’s. ‘That’s not what’s being said, love.’ His own voice was shaking now, weighted down with the force of a grief that was likely not yet fully realised. How long would it take for the impact of what had happened to this family to take its full effect? A month? A year? Alex suspected that in many cases no amount of time was enough to absorb the shock of such a loss. People just found – somehow – a way to adapt; their bodies continued to function, yet their minds would never exist in the same way again. Life went on, but lives stopped.

‘I appreciate that this must be incredibly difficult for you, but we will need one of you to make a formal identification.’ She paused, knowing that what was to come next would only add further suffering to an already harrowing situation. ‘Due to the circumstances surrounding your daughter’s death, it has been necessary for a post-mortem to be carried out.’

David North looked at her with confusion, his eyes narrowing in an expression of unreserved accusation. His wife lowered her hands from her face. Her eyes were red and bloodshot and her mouth was set in a scowl, ready for attack.

‘No one told us,’ David said. His voice was calm, for now, almost disbelieving. The repercussions of Alex’s words hadn’t quite sunk in, that much was obvious.

‘Post-mortems need to be carried out quickly, within the first couple of days after death.’ Particularly where a crime is suspected, Alex thought.

‘We didn’t give permission,’ Louisa said. ‘No one asked us. We didn’t give permission.’

Alex leaned forward in her chair. ‘The decision is never taken lightly, Mrs North. We have reason to consider misadventure, and carrying out the post-mortem was the first step in giving us the best possible chance of finding out what happened to Keira, and why.’

‘You cut her up,’ Louisa said slowly, looking at Alex yet through her. ‘You cut up my little girl.’

At her side, Alex could see Keira’s father visibly react to his wife’s choice of words. His shoulders stiffened as though he was fighting to keep himself upright and his face contorted in a pained grimace, holding back his own tears.

‘I know this is incredibly difficult, but we will need a formal identification of the body.’

Louisa North clung to her husband’s hand, her face buried in his chest and her wails muffled by his clothing.

‘Was she drunk when she fell?’ David asked.

She looked up sharply at him, a look of horror on her face. ‘Why would you ask that?’ She snatched her hand away from his, holding it in a fist in her lap. ‘Whose side are you on?’

David sighed. The sound was tired – exhausted – and it seemed to fill the room, sending a further surge of anger through his wife. Alex didn’t want to play audience to the scene about to unfold, but it was sadly part of her job.

‘This isn’t about sides,’ David said, fighting to keep his emotions in check.

Louisa stood suddenly and turned to the wall, her arms folded across her stomach. From behind her, Alex could see the woman’s shoulders shaking. David North was looking up at his wife pleadingly, but she refused to meet his eyes.

Alex stood. ‘Keira wasn’t drunk,’ she told them.

‘You see,’ Louisa snapped, turning back to her husband. ‘She was a good girl, a sensible girl. She wasn’t some idiot who got so drunk she couldn’t stand – she was never like that. Why would you even start to think that?’ She turned her focus to Alex. ‘So what now?’ she asked, anger spilling from her every word. ‘You cut her open just so you could tell us what we already knew. My daughter is dead and all you can do is sit here talking about whether or not she was drunk. If you think there was more to it, why aren’t you doing something about it? Why aren’t you looking for whoever did this to my daughter?’

David North reached out and put his hand on the sleeve of his wife’s jacket, but it was quickly knocked away.

‘Mrs North, I know this is an awful time for you and I appreciate that all this has come as a shock, but—’

The laugh that cut Alex’s words short was harsh and brittle, and in that moment Louisa North looked nothing like the woman who had walked into the station an hour earlier. All pretence at composure had been lost; now she was merely an embodiment of her emotions, raw and visceral, every nerve and scar visible.

‘You know, do you?’ she said accusingly. ‘You know what it’s like to lose a child and then have some stupid woman who’s doing nothing tell you she appreciates what you’re going through?’

The words might have hurt her, but the look Louisa North gave her was far more painful. Alex wanted to take the woman’s suffering, hold it in her hands, discard it for her, leave it somewhere it could be safely forgotten; somewhere from where it would never be able to make a return. She wanted to bring Keira back, undo everything that had happened to this family. Instead she stood there, as Louisa had said, doing nothing.

She thought the woman was going to hit her. Louisa’s hand was still balled into a fist, tensed and ready at her side, her face set in a look of such anger it seemed to have cast itself as permanent. Judging by David North’s reaction, he had also had the same thought. He put a hand out to his wife again, taking her by the arm. His fingers wrapped around her wrist and he pulled her gently back to the chair beside him.

‘Come on, love,’ he coaxed. ‘Come on.’

At once all the anger seemed to leave her; in its place, an overwhelming grief. Louisa North sank into the chair, her body collapsing as though her bones had been reduced to foam. She pressed her head against her husband’s shoulder. When she wailed – a guttural, piercing, animal noise – the sound was stifled by his sleeve. He put both arms around her, rocking her like a child.

Alex’s eyes met his, and in that moment she felt they at least understood one another, even if she could never know what they were going through.

She reached for the door handle and left the room, closing the door softly behind her.

She would give them some time alone before she told them their daughter had been pregnant.

Chapter Seven

You never know what you are capable of until you do it.

Bad thoughts have travelled with me for a long time now, but that’s all they ever were. They were only thoughts, and there was no one to tell me whether they were wrong or right. There was no wrong or right. They were only thoughts. The thought isn’t a crime: the deed is. When you take the thought and put it into action, that’s when everything changes. I’ve changed. I should probably fear it, but there is something about it that is empowering.

I waited behind her, but not for long. I didn’t want to allow myself time to change my mind. Waiting would lead to deliberation and I’ve already done too much of that, for far too long. Too many people have got away with what they’ve done. But not this time.

Approaching her, I could smell her perfume, thick and expensive – so strong she might have bathed in it. It seems strange to describe a scent as smug, but that’s exactly what it was.

I hate her. I hate all of them.

It is so easy to blend in and go unnoticed. Hate can be kept well hidden: if you want it to, it can remain without colour, taste, sound. I have chewed it up and swallowed it down for so long now, digesting it for the sake of others, when all I’ve really wanted to do was spit it out and let everyone see it in all its disgusting truth.

The sound of her scream has stayed with me. It replays in my brain, disturbing yet somehow satisfying. It sounds like helplessness. Like despair. It sounds exactly like the things I have felt but have kept locked inside for all this time. I have transferred my pain to someone else, and it feels good to finally be rid of it.

Had I thought myself capable of it, really? No.

Did she deserve it? Yes.

Chapter Eight

Alex stood at the side of the table upon which Keira North’s body lay beneath a sheet, trying not to let her focus linger for too long on the girl’s parents. Nothing could have prepared them for seeing their daughter as she was now. The wail that had ripped from Louisa North’s throat was even more disturbing than the one that had filled the station when Alex had informed the couple that Keira had been pregnant.

‘She was raped.’ Louisa turned sharply to Alex now, her eyes red and expression defiant. ‘She must have been. She wouldn’t have let this happen.’

David moved from his wife, recoiling as though the suggestion had caused him physical injury. ‘I doubt that’s what happened,’ he said quietly.

Louisa turned her attention to him. ‘How would you know?’ she snapped. ‘None of us know anything.’

‘She wouldn’t have kept it, would she? And she’d have told someone, surely? I don’t know.’ David turned away from them both, no longer able to look at the shape of his daughter’s form beneath the mortuary sheet. Alex could still see the girl’s dead eyes staring past her as she had lain on the cold ground of the backyard at the house where she had died, though she had tried to fight the image from her mind. She could see the stitches that had sewn up Keira’s abdomen; a crude attempt to mask the cuts that had been made to remove the baby from her womb. A girl, the pathologist had said.

‘We may be able to tell more once Keira’s laptop has been examined,’ she told them.

‘You’ve taken her laptop?’ Louisa’s anger flared, redirecting itself at Alex. Her face reddened and her jaw tightened, trying to hold back the torrent of fury Alex knew still lay behind it.

‘It might give us an idea of what happened leading up to the party,’ Alex explained. ‘We need to know who she’d been in contact with.’

‘So her privacy is violated for a second time?’ Louisa snapped, stepping towards Alex. ‘It’s not enough for you that she’s been cut up, that she’s …’ She glanced back to her daughter, unable to look for too long. She still couldn’t bring herself to speak about or acknowledge the baby.

‘They’re just trying to find out the truth,’ David said, trying to pacify his wife.

‘The truth,’ Louisa spat, ‘is that our daughter has been treated like a piece of meat, and you’re happy with that, are you? You’re OK to let it happen, just standing there and doing nothing?’

She pushed past him as she left the room, her tears audible as she fell out into the corridor. Rather than go after her, David moved closer to his daughter.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said.

Alex wasn’t sure whether he was apologising to her or to Keira.

* * *

Chloe sat with DC Daniel Mason in one of the station’s interview rooms. Opposite them, Leah Cross was already crying. Chloe had fetched a box of tissues, one of which the girl now held to her face as though trying to conceal her tears behind it.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said.

‘No need to apologise,’ Chloe told her. ‘We need to talk to everyone who was at the party last night,’ she explained, ‘so thank you for coming in. You were in the back garden when Keira fell, is that correct?’

Leah nodded. A loud sob was followed by a sharp intake of breath as she attempted to regain her composure. ‘Sorry,’ she said again, ‘it’s just been such a shock.’

‘Of course. Take your time.’

Leah sat back in her seat, lowering the tissue from her face. She held it in her lap between both hands, tearing fine strips into it. ‘I was in the yard, sitting on the back wall. Everyone was laughing, drinking … you know, just normal stuff. There was a scream …’ She hesitated for a moment to catch her breath again. ‘Keira was suddenly just there, on the ground, not moving. I can’t stop picturing her lying there.’

Dan looked to Chloe. He always seemed uneasy around crying, she thought, despite the fact that he had two young daughters. She’d have thought he would be well versed in dealing with emotional outbursts.

‘Were you and Keira close friends?’ he asked Leah.

The young woman nodded. ‘Yeah. We got on well. She was a really nice girl. I can’t believe what’s happened.’

‘This is going to be a difficult thing to consider, Leah,’ Chloe said, ‘but do you know of anyone Keira might have had a disagreement with recently? A falling-out over anything?’

The girl looked at her, her face caught by surprise. ‘No. I mean … Keira got on with everyone. Why would you ask that?’

‘An argument was heard coming from Keira’s room just before she died,’ Dan told her. ‘Tom has admitted he argued with her. Any idea what it might have been about?’

Leah shook her head. ‘I was outside for most of the evening. I only popped back in a couple of times to use the bathroom, and I went to the one on the first floor – the boys’ one. I didn’t see Keira much last night.’

‘Why was that?’ Chloe asked.

Leah shrugged. ‘She’d been a bit quiet over the past couple of weeks. I don’t know … she just wasn’t herself. I think she was tired after the exams and was looking forward to going home. I didn’t think too much of it really.’

‘Did Keira have a boyfriend?’

Leah shook her head.

‘But you’d have known if she did?’

‘Of course. I mean … yeah, I’m pretty sure she’d have told me. She was seeing someone for a bit last year, over the summer, but she’d met him back home and they decided it couldn’t really go anywhere, not with them both going back to different universities. Since then, she’d not been seeing anyone.’

She stopped and studied them critically for a moment, suspicious now. ‘Why are you asking about all this?’

‘Keira was pregnant,’ Chloe told her quietly. Leah’s reaction was enough to confirm she’d known nothing about this. She moved her hands from her lap, resting them on the table in front of her before gripping its edges as though it was the only thing keeping her upright.

‘She didn’t tell you?’ Chloe said.

Leah shook her head. ‘No. No, she didn’t tell me. How far gone was she?’

‘Five months. Any idea who the father might have been?’

She shook her head again. ‘She never said anything to me. I mean, I thought we were close, I thought she used to tell me things, but obviously not.’ She stopped for a moment, her face crestfallen. She had taken the news of the pregnancy personally, reading Keira’s silence as a question mark over the friendship she had thought they’d shared.

‘Why are you asking me this?’ she said again. ‘You don’t think …’ Her words trailed into silence and her face fell as she realised the implications of the questions. ‘I thought this was an accident?’

‘We don’t know anything yet,’ Chloe admitted. ‘That’s why we need to gain as many facts as possible. You’ve been really helpful, Leah, thank you. If you think of anything else, no matter how small it might seem, please let us know.’

Chapter Nine

It was obvious why Jamie was home late from work that evening. He stumbled into the house at around 8.15, falling into the hallway and sending Tom’s bike clattering to the tiled floor with a noise that would have woken the others if they hadn’t still been up. They had been allowed to return to the house that afternoon. Leah was in the makeshift dining room, a narrow space that was a thoroughfare between the kitchen at the back of the house and the long hallway. It was barely wide enough for the table she was sitting at, but she didn’t like to eat upstairs and the living room was always taken over by Tom, who was usually watching TV while wearing little more than a pair of boxers.

He was in there now, sprawled on the sofa in front of some mind-numbing crap that Leah would only sit through if someone paid her for her wasted time. She was trying to make a plan. A long fourteen weeks lay ahead of her, quiet time in which she wouldn’t have the distractions of her university course or anything else. Or at least so she’d thought. After what had happened, it was difficult to focus on anything else.

She was determined, now more than ever, to do something productive. Everything suddenly seemed even more urgent. More fragile. She didn’t want to waste the time she had. Life was precious – social media was always reminding her as much: Seize the moment, Today is a gift, that’s why they call it the present, and all those other crappy, supposedly motivational quotations that filled her newsfeed every time she caught up with the internet. They had a point, she supposed, no matter how simpering some of them were in their execution.

And planning was keeping her mind from the memory of Keira’s body lying lifeless on the patio slabs in the yard. It was keeping the echoes of that scream at bay.

‘Jesus Christ, watch it.’

Leah leaned back in her chair to look through the open dining room door and down the hallway. Tom had emerged from the living room – for once, he’d been considerate enough to put on a T-shirt – and was assessing the damage to his bike. At his side, Jamie was propping himself up with a shoulder against the wall and eyeing Tom with a silent, simmering contempt.

‘You know something, don’t you?’

At the sound of Jamie’s words, Leah pushed back her chair and headed out into the hall. Tom had rested his bike back against the wall and was trying to go back into the living room, but Jamie was blocking the doorway.

‘You’re drunk, Jay,’ Tom said. ‘Get out of the way.’

Jamie’s face was pink, flushed with alcohol. He was a terrible drinker. The others had found out not long after he’d moved in that just a couple of drinks was enough to send him silly, and too many could prove disastrous, which had happened on several occasions. He’d had a pretty sheltered background from what Leah knew of him: strict parents who had made a point of never allowing him to get away with normal teenage antics and had been keen for him to follow in the family farming business, regardless of what he wanted to do with his own life. He’d moved from Carmarthen to South Wales in an attempt to get away from them, but it seemed to everyone else that independence was something Jamie struggled with.

‘Get your fucking hands off me,’ he said now, as Tom tried to push him aside from the living room doorway.

‘Jamie, come on. I’ll make you a cuppa.’ Leah looked at him imploringly, not wanting the scene to escalate. There were tears in Jamie’s eyes.

‘Why did the police want to speak to you about Keira?’ he asked, still looking at Tom.

Tom’s sigh was audible. ‘They spoke to everyone. That’s what they do.’

‘You were in there longer than the rest of us. Why?’ Jamie’s voice was shaking, tripping across the words. For a moment, Leah felt almost sorry for him.

‘For fuck’s sake, just leave it.’ Tom barged Jamie with his shoulder, but didn’t expect the retaliation that met him. Jamie was tall and strong, but Leah had never seen him use his size to particular effect before. The first blow hit Tom in the stomach, winding him. He staggered and stumbled back out into the hallway, falling into Leah. She knew it wouldn’t end there. There was no way Tom was going to take a punch without fighting back, if only for the sake of defending his wounded pride. Regaining his balance, he lunged at Jamie.

Leah moved between them, but her efforts to put an end to the fight before it got started were rewarded with a punch, meant for Tom, to the side of her face. She was momentarily numbed, as though her head had been submerged in ice; almost as though there was no feeling at all. It didn’t last long: within seconds, a searing, burning sensation was setting fire to her skin. She put a hand to her cheek, pressing lightly. She could already feel it bruising.

Jamie seemed to sober up immediately. ‘God, Leah, I am so sorry. I didn’t mean …’

She raised a hand to him, accepting his apology. She didn’t blame him; she blamed Tom. He was always trying to stir up trouble; always trying to goad Jamie. Even now, her face swelling and her expression betraying obvious pain, he was standing there smirking, oblivious to everything but yet another opportunity to belittle his housemate.

‘Nice one, Jay,’ he said. ‘Punching girls. Tell you what, you want to be careful when the police show up looking for you. They’ll have you down as prime suspect.’

Jamie’s face twisted into a grimace. Leah had never seen him like this, so pent up, so aggressive. She couldn’t bring herself to look at Tom. Jamie had a point: what had the police wanted to speak to Tom about? Yes, they’d spoken to all of them, but neither she nor Jamie had been kept as long as Tom had. Leah had never trusted him. Now she was beginning to wonder whether she was safe under the same roof.

She put a hand on Jamie’s arm, ignoring Tom. ‘Go to the kitchen. Please. I’ll be there in a second.’

Jamie peeled his eyes from Tom, mumbled something beneath his breath and headed down the hallway and into the dining room, leaving Leah and Tom alone in the hallway.

‘How can you stand there smirking after what’s happened?’ she said.

‘Look at you, doing your best friend act,’ he replied with a sneer.

Leah looked him up and down, her expression laced with contempt. For a moment she felt like blurting out what the police had told her that afternoon. Tom hadn’t mentioned it, so she doubted he knew. If he had known, he would have used it as yet another way to wind Jamie up. She decided to save it, storing the information for a time when it could do the greatest damage. If anyone deserved it, it was Tom.

‘You slept with her, didn’t you?’

Tom said nothing.

‘Was it just to get at him?’ Leah gestured towards the door through which Jamie had disappeared. When she didn’t get an answer, she took her assumption as accurate. ‘I think we all need a break from each other. When are you going home?’

‘Wednesday,’ Tom said. He pushed past her and headed up the stairs, leaving Leah in the hallway staring at the empty space his arrogance had moments earlier filled.

As far as she was concerned, Wednesday couldn’t come quickly enough.

She made her way back through the dining room to the kitchen, where Jamie was waiting as instructed. He cut a pathetic sight, she thought, his pale blue eyes blurry with the weight of alcohol and his blond hair a mess, as though he’d just got out of bed rather than having just arrived home. His work clothes were creased; his shirt was hanging out from his trousers and was buttoned up wrong, making him look like a schoolboy who still needed his mum to dress him in the morning.

‘I am so sorry,’ he slurred.

Leah shook away the apology, although the heat in her face was still burning like a flame. ‘It’s fine. It wasn’t your fault.’

‘I can’t get my head around what’s happened.’ Jamie stumbled to the sink and reached for a glass from the draining board. He filled it with cold water from the tap and drained it in a series of noisy gulps.

‘I know. None of us can.’

‘He doesn’t seem too bothered.’

‘Ignore him. He’s not as cool and calm as he likes people to think. Anyway, he’ll be gone in a couple of days.’

Jamie turned back to her, using the worktop to steady himself. ‘Just you and me, then.’

Leah watched him for a moment, uncertain whether this was a good or a bad thing. ‘Just you and me.’

They heard the sound of Tom’s footsteps hurrying back down the stairs; moments later, there was the slam of the front door as he left the house.

Jamie finished his water and put the glass into the sink. ‘How come you’re not going home for the summer?’

Leah shrugged. ‘Not much to go home for. Anyway … you should probably go to bed. Try to get some sleep … things will look better in the morning.’

Even to her own ears, her words sounded hollow. Nothing ever looked better in the morning. In Leah’s experience, things only ever looked worse.

Chapter Ten

Alex stood in Superintendent Harry Blake’s office trying to maintain her composure. It was difficult when she knew he doubted everything she believed about Keira North’s death. He had already made it clear he thought it was simply an accident.

‘You’ve heard what happened last night, I take it?’ he said. ‘A sixteen-year-old girl’s in a coma after taking something at a nightclub.’

‘I know, sir. Chloe and Dan are heading over to the hospital soon to speak with the girl’s mother.’

‘Her condition is critical,’ Blake said. ‘This needs our focus. By all accounts, the girl took one of those so-called party smarties that have been doing the rounds. The drugs squad in Cardiff has been working on this stuff for months. Whatever scum sold her that poison, I want him caught.’

The drug was a combination of Ecstasy mixed with a high volume of caffeine, intended to give users enough energy to see them through a night and into the next morning. They’d been given their nickname due to their bright pink colour, as well as the fact that they were apparently being distributed mostly among teenagers. What hadn’t been so clear, yet was becoming increasingly evident, was their possible side effects.

‘Yes, sir,’ Alex muttered, speaking more to herself than to Blake. ‘And I realise it needs our focus – of course it does. But just as this girl isn’t less important than Keira North, Keira isn’t less important than her either.’

The superintendent sighed and sat back in his chair. Not for the first time, Alex found herself thinking he shouldn’t be there. He should have been gone months ago; he was supposed to be in remission, but his coming back to work had only proven a hindrance to his recovery. He looked pale and exhausted and she wished he would start looking after himself. She respected the fact that he hadn’t wanted to leave before a suitable replacement had been found, yet at the same time she couldn’t condone the way in which he seemed to want things neatly wrapped up for an easy ending to his career.

If only life was that simple, she thought.

‘I don’t need to remind you that what happened to that girl is a serious crime,’ Blake said, and for a moment Alex was unsure which girl he was referring to. ‘These bastards are obviously targeting teens, and it’s our responsibility to make sure no one else’s daughter or son ends up in intensive care. She’s the third teenager in less than four months to be hospitalised. Now I appreciate that what happened to Keira North is tragic, but there is nothing concrete to suggest it was anything more than an accident.’

Alex held his gaze, trying to stop her top lip from curling. She could feel her frustrations coming to a bubble, ready to hit boiling point. ‘Only because the attending officers made a complete balls-up of things.’

The superintendent raised his eyebrows, waiting for further explanation. Alex was more than happy to provide it for him.

‘They took over an hour to clear the house of people, during which time every possible piece of evidence had plenty of time in which to become contaminated. They took contact details for an estimated fifty per cent of the people there, leaving us with now-unknown witnesses who might have been able to shed some light on what happened up in that bedroom. So yes, sir, we have nothing concrete at the moment, but I think it’s fair to say it’s evident why not.’

She paused for breath. She had already reprimanded the attending officers, though it had been far less polite than this.

‘There was an argument in that bedroom not long before Keira died. There was evidence of violence, and, according to the pathologist, it was unlikely she would have landed where she did, in the position she did, if it had been a simple fall. I’d like to go public with this now. We need to speak with as many of the people who left that party without providing a statement as possible. Perhaps news of Keira’s pregnancy might prompt a few more to come forward.’ She paused again, briefly mulling over her next words. ‘I respect you, sir, you know that, but are you sure you’re not letting your own situation colour your judgement of this case?’

Blake’s face tightened. ‘Meaning?’

‘Meaning it would be the easy option to consider this an accident. Quiet last few weeks.’

A couple of years ago, Alex would never have thought to speak this bluntly to her superior. Things were different now. There was so much behind them and so little time left. He was taking early retirement following a cancer diagnosis, a course of chemotherapy and a reconsideration of his life’s priorities. The job didn’t come first any more, and Alex appreciated that. He had two children still young enough for him to play more of a role in their lives than his career had previously allowed for. She got it, all of it.

Yet he also had to understand that she didn’t have those things. Seeking the truth was her priority.

‘That’s what you think of me?’ he said, his words steeped in a genuine sadness that made her feel instantly guilty for her choice of phrasing. ‘After all this time, you think I’m just opting for the easy route?’

Alex sighed. ‘That’s not what I meant,’ she said, knowing her words had made it sound as though that was exactly what she thought.

‘I think you’re becoming too involved in this one, Alex. Your attitude towards this case changed completely once you knew that young woman had been pregnant.’

Alex held his gaze, her jaw tensed in defiance. ‘Keira,’ she said, although she knew the superintendent was well aware of this. ‘Her name’s Keira.’

‘You asked for a chance to prove this was more than an accident. So far, we’ve got nothing more than supposition and hearsay. I need something concrete to justify keeping this open as a case.’

Alex rolled her eyes. ‘Money. Of course. We’d better consider the budget, hadn’t we? More important than anyone’s life, obviously.’

‘I’ve asked you for evidence,’ Blake said, ignoring her reaction. ‘Find it.’

* * *

Keira North’s face stared down at Alex from the evidence board in the incident room at the station. She had been a small girl, slim in build and with a face that looked like so many other young female faces these days, Alex thought: pencilled-in eyebrows, kohl eyeliner; pouting, gloss-stained smile. Young women were so heavily made-up these days that it was becoming impossible to tell what any individual actually looked like. It seemed strange to Alex – and curiously sad – that everyone should want to look the same.

Or maybe she was just getting old.

The team had assembled for a meeting regarding the investigation. The argument heard not long before Keira fell from the window and the smashed bottle that lay strewn in shards on the young woman’s bedroom carpet implied that her death had been more than a tragic accident. Interviews with her housemates had subsequently aroused further suspicion, particularly in the case of Tom Stoddard. A theory of suicide had been bandied about by a couple of officers, but the post-mortem report that rested on the table beneath Alex’s hand was about to put an end to further talk of that.

‘OK,’ she said, addressing the team. ‘Let’s get started. A few of you haven’t had much involvement with this case until today, so I’ll get you up to speed.’ She raised a hand and pointed to the image on the evidence board. ‘Keira North. Turned twenty last month. Studied history at the University of South Wales, second year. Her family is from Monmouthshire – they’ve already arrived in Pontypridd and are understandably distraught at their daughter’s death.’

She paused to clear her throat. She was conscious of the envelope that still lay beneath her hand; of the pregnancy that had now been shared with the dead girl’s parents. Louisa North’s reaction to the news was something she was not going to be able to forget in a hurry.

‘According to people who knew her, Keira was bright, friendly and happy. Her coursework grades were all good and she was predicted to do well in her end-of-year exams. She was supposed to be heading home to Monmouthshire this coming weekend, where she had a job lined up for the summer months.’

‘Which would seem to rule out a possible suicide,’ said DC Daniel Mason. He was sitting at the front of the group, just along from Chloe. The station’s resident IT expert, he had proved his worth on a number of recent cases.

Alex raised her hand in agreement. ‘Makes it seem increasingly unlikely. And as I said, Keira was reportedly a happy young woman. She’d made plans. None of these things suggest a person intending to take her own life. It’s nonsensical.’

Her tone had changed, and with it her expression. It was obvious that her words were aimed at a couple of individuals among the group, and those people knew who they were. Those who had been suggesting suicide as a possibility despite the evidence stacking up against its likelihood were exactly the same people who broke out into a rash at the first glimpse of paperwork. They didn’t want the hassle, and if hassle-free meant truth-free, then so be it.

Alex glanced at Chloe. Her eyes were somewhere else, averted from the photograph of Keira on the evidence board. She wondered if the young woman’s thoughts in that moment were close to her own. Chloe knew better than anyone how devastating a false suicide conclusion could be.

‘There are a number of reasons why this death is being considered suspicious. First, an argument was overheard between Keira and a man a short time before she fell from the window. We now know that the man in question was Tom Stoddard.’

‘Her housemate?’ one of the DCs asked.

Alex nodded. ‘One of them. Tom Stoddard, Leah Cross, Jamie Bateman. All living in the same house as Keira since September last year. All at the party on Sunday night. There was also broken glass on the carpet in Keira’s bedroom,’ Alex continued, gesturing to the other images that adorned the evidence board. ‘If you look at the stains on the wall here, it’s obvious this bottle wasn’t dropped accidentally. It was thrown against the wall. Tom Stoddard denies having done it. He said the argument heard between them was just about the number of people who’d turned up to the party over the weekend.’

Alex paused and slid the envelope that held the post-mortem result from the table. ‘The most important update at the moment is the fact that Keira was five months pregnant when she died. It perhaps gives us a motive. The rest of the post-mortem findings,’ she continued. ‘Her neck was broken in the fall. And despite what we all might have assumed, Keira wasn’t drunk. The toxicology report states there was no alcohol detected.’


Alex shook her head. ‘We’ll need to look into this further – check out whether she’d been seeing a doctor or a midwife. Also, had she told anyone else about the pregnancy?’

‘Did her parents know?’ one of the DCs at the back of the room asked.

Alex shook her head. Louisa North’s reaction to the news that her daughter had been pregnant had been one of complete denial. She had continued in her insistence that her daughter had been ‘a sensible girl’. Sensible or not, Keira had only been twenty years old. Thinking back to herself and her friends at that age, it occurred to Alex that even the most sensible of twenty-year-olds didn’t really have a clue.

‘She was barely showing, so she’d obviously been able to disguise the pregnancy from others,’ she continued. ‘None of her housemates mentioned it, so unless they were hiding the fact, it would seem they didn’t know. Keira was due home soon – perhaps it was her intention to tell her parents then. We’ll never know. But it seems unlikely there was no one she’d have confided in. It’s a huge knowledge to carry alone, particularly at her age and away from home. I find it hard to believe that no one else knew her secret.

‘I don’t believe Keira North fell from that window accidentally. She was seen by several eyewitnesses sitting on the ledge during the time leading up to her death – something she and the other people living in that house had apparently done countless times before. Having been up there, it’s difficult to see how someone sitting could have fallen. She was sober. Also, the trajectory at which she fell – the placement of her body upon landing – makes it seem unlikely that she simply lost her balance. She hit the roof of the first-floor bathroom in a way that could only have been achieved through force from behind.’

Alex scanned the room, knowing that half her colleagues were as sceptical of her suspicions as Harry Blake was. Most of them would have written this off as an accident and forgotten about Keira North and her unborn daughter. There was a reason why the police treated everything as suspicious until proven otherwise, but Alex knew she’d take no satisfaction in using Keira’s death as the case with which to highlight the point.

Chloe caught her eye and gave her a reassuring nod. Alex needed it. It was confirmation that at least one person in the room didn’t think she was overreacting and reading more into this situation than there was.

‘There’ll be a statement going out in a press release later today. Right, things to do,’ Alex said, looking back at the images on the board. ‘Eyewitness accounts need to be chased up from the people who’ve not yet already been spoken to. Dan, I know you’re going to the hospital with Chloe shortly, but once we’ve got Keira’s laptop and phone, we’ll need a check on her recent emails, contacts – in particular, anything we can find relating to the pregnancy.’

‘You think it’s got something to do with her death?’

‘Too soon to say,’ Alex admitted. ‘But like I said, it’s given us a motive. Maybe someone knew about it and wasn’t too happy. Until we find evidence to the contrary, we’re all working on a murder investigation. Let’s please not forget that.’

Chapter Eleven

Chloe and Dan stood in the intensive care unit, outside the girl’s private room. They could see into the room, could see the shape beneath the blanket on the bed, but Amy Barker’s face was obscured by a mass of bandages and wires. Her mother was sitting in a chair beside her, both hands wrapped around one of her daughter’s. Janet Barker’s head was dipped forward, her face partially obscured by the straggly mess of her hair. She looked sleep-deprived; distraught. She didn’t notice the two officers for a while, her attention fixed on her child’s face and on the horrifying damage one tiny tablet and a momentary lapse in judgement had caused.

The doctor treating Amy was looking at his notes. He ushered Chloe and Dan away from the window and out of view of the girl’s mother. ‘She’s still in a critical condition,’ he told them. ‘At the moment, her chances of survival are fifty-fifty. The next twenty-four hours will be crucial.’

‘You’re pretty certain it was one of these party smarties she took?’ Dan asked.

‘We are now, yes. Amy has shown classic symptoms of an extreme reaction to the Ecstasy in the tablet. The initial fever reported by the people around her at the club was followed by hypothermia, which caused the kidney failure we’re now treating. What isn’t so clear is the effect on Amy’s brain. That’s where the next twenty-four hours come in.’

Chloe’s attention remained with the scene she had just witnessed, her concentration momentarily stolen by the thought of Janet Barker and her unconscious daughter. She couldn’t begin to imagine what must have been going through the woman’s mind.

‘Why the hell do these kids want to take this shit?’ Dan muttered, as the doctor left them.

‘It’s sold on the basis of its caffeine content, apparently. They think they’re going to get a six-hour high from it. The dealers don’t promote the Ecstasy side effects, obviously. Far less appealing.’

They stopped talking as Amy’s mother appeared at the doorway, eyeing the two of them with uncertainty. She had been expecting them; she had already spoken with officers the night before, when her daughter had been rushed to hospital from the club in which she had taken the drug, but she had been in such an emotional state that they hadn’t been able to gather much information from her.

Chloe introduced herself and Dan before leading Janet Barker to the relatives’ room along the corridor. It was sparse and brightly lit, headache-inducing.

‘The doctor has informed us of Amy’s current condition,’ she said as Janet took a seat beside her, ‘so we appreciate what a difficult time this is. We do need a bit more information about last night, though, to help us build a picture of what happened to Amy before she took the drug. I’m sorry to have to ask this, but have you known your daughter to ever do something like this before?’

She had expected indignation from the woman – anger, maybe – but instead the question was met with a reluctant and tired shrug of the shoulders. ‘Maybe … I don’t know. I’d like to be able to say no, but how well does anyone know what their teenager is up to? She’s sixteen – I can’t follow her round all her life.’ Janet’s tone had become increasingly defensive, as though she thought the police held her responsible for what had happened to her daughter. Chloe wondered if, at some subconscious level, she might have automatically formed an opinion of this woman based on her daughter’s actions.

‘We’re not here to pass judgement, Mrs Barker.’

‘Ms,’ Janet quickly corrected her.

‘Ms … sorry. Our concern is with finding whoever supplied your daughter with the drugs and making sure that person can’t cause anyone else harm. You might be aware of the media coverage this particular drug has received in recent months?’

Janet nodded. She twisted her hands in her lap. ‘I’ve seen it on the news. Amy’s not the first, is she? Probably won’t be the last, either. They never bloody learn.’ She sighed and sat back in her chair, leaning her head back and gazing up at the ceiling. She exhaled slowly, as if releasing all the tension accumulated over the past twelve hours. ‘They’re everywhere,’ she said, almost talking to herself. ‘Ask any of the kids – if they want them, they’re easy enough to come by.’

‘Amy’s mentioned this to you before?’

‘I’ve heard her and her friends talking. I always thought she’d have a bit more sense.’

‘Which friends were with her last night, Ms Barker? It was an under-eighteens night, wasn’t it?’

Janet Barker nodded. It had already occurred to Chloe that given the circumstances, the person who had supplied Amy Barker with the drugs that had landed her in the ICU was likely to have been either a fellow teenager or a member of staff at the nightclub. Was there someone working at the club who was selling drugs to sixteen-year-olds? What sort of person did that?

They had already requested CCTV footage from the club’s manager. Dan had offered to trawl through it when they got back to the station.

‘She went with her friend Jade,’ Janet told them. ‘She’s here somewhere.’

‘At the hospital?’


‘Do you have her number?’ Dan asked. ‘If you could get her up here, we could do with having a chat with her.’

‘Probably best not to mention us over the phone, though,’ Chloe added. ‘Might scare her off.’

Janet nodded and reached for her mobile phone from her pocket. A moment later, she was talking to her daughter’s friend, asking her if she could return to the unit. Chloe wondered whether Jade too had taken something the night before. Had both girls tried what they’d been sold or given, and Amy been the unlucky one?

‘How has Jade been towards you?’ Chloe asked once the call was ended. ‘Must be difficult for her to be here. She might be blaming herself.’

Janet gave an audible tut. ‘Doubt it. They’re all the same these days, aren’t they? Me, me, me. I don’t think Jade would know guilt if it strolled up and slapped her in the face.’ She looked away for a moment in an apparent attempt to conceal the bitterness she felt towards her daughter’s friend. ‘She’s here, though, I suppose,’ she said, seeming to momentarily regret the anger of her words. ‘That’s something, at least.’

They spoke a while longer, as Janet filled the room with stories of her daughter’s behaviour at school – not a bad girl, as she put it, but not an angel either. She liked to see how far she could push the boundaries any adult set around her; she had been the same as a young child. She stopped talking after a while, as though worried she had said too much and might have inadvertently incriminated Amy by telling them how she had tested her teachers’ patience.

The door sounded and Jade entered the room. A small girl for her age, she had an array of piercings in her ears and looked as though she was still wearing the make-up she’d applied to go out the evening before. She had obviously been home at some point to get changed, and was now wearing a pair of leggings and an oversized T-shirt that swallowed her tiny frame.

‘They said you were in—’

She stopped mid-sentence as she registered Chloe and Dan sitting with Janet. Chloe had barely had time to stand before the girl shot from the room, yanking the door shut behind her.

‘Damn,’ she muttered.

She ran after her, following her as she pushed through the double doors that led out of the ICU. She called out the girl’s name in the corridor, but Jade only quickened her pace, the trainers she was wearing obviously coming in handy. It was almost as though she’d worn them with this exact purpose in mind, Chloe thought, as she panted behind her.

Chloe hated to run, and the girl was much faster. She seemed to fly down the stairwell, and within seconds she was gone. Chloe stood looking down at the empty flight of steps. It seemed everyone they wanted to speak to preferred not to speak to them.

Chapter Twelve

Alex pulled up outside the student house on Railway Terrace. The street looked different in daylight: wider and dirtier, the buildings neglected and the air permeated with a tinge of grey despite the burst of summer sunshine fighting through the clouds overhead. She glanced in the rear-view mirror. David and Louisa North had parked up behind her. She could see Louisa in the passenger seat, staring blankly at the house in which her daughter had died just two days earlier.

‘Here goes,’ Alex said to herself, reaching for the door handle.

She was still disappointed by Harry Blake’s response to the case. Scene-of-crime officers had attended the house in the early hours of Monday morning, but only after hours had already passed. The mistakes made by the first attending officers meant the building hadn’t been searched thoroughly. Before the first signs of daylight, the young woman’s death had been all but pronounced an accident by most. Superintendent Blake agreed, and Alex wasn’t sure he would allow her sufficient time to prove otherwise.

She only hoped the others living there had had the common sense not to go into Keira’s room and touch any of her things. The girl’s parents had already endured enough. Tom Stoddard hadn’t struck Alex as the most sensitive of individuals, although why he’d want to go into Keira’s room following her death, she didn’t know. Unless there was something he was trying to hide.

The three housemates had been told when the police and Keira’s parents would be visiting the house and had been asked to make sure the