Authors: T.J. Lebbon
Published by Avon
An imprint of HarperCollins
1 London Bridge Street
London SE1 9GF
First published in Great Britain by HarperCollins 2015
Copyright © Tim Lebbon 2015
Cover Design © ClarkeVan Meurs 2015
Tim Lebbon asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library.
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
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Source ISBN: 9780008122904
Ebook Edition © May 2015 ISBN: 9780008122898
For Dan the Man
‘Come what may, bad fortune is to be conquered by endurance.’
‘Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must; just never give up.’
Table of Contents
When he wanted to run faster, Chris Sheen imagined being chased by a tiger. Sleek, stealthy, powerful, it pounded silently along the trail behind him, tail swishing at the clasping brambles and eyes focused on his back. He didn’t risk a glance over his shoulder. There was no time for that. If he did his pace would slow, and maybe he’d trip over a tree root or a rock protruding from the uneven path. He’d go sprawling and the big cat would be upon him. All they’d find would be his GPS watch and perhaps one of his running shoes, bloodied and torn and still containing a foot.
He giggled. Sweat ran into his eyes and down his back. Mud was splattered up his legs from the newly ploughed field he’d run across a couple of miles back. Blood pulsed, his heart thudded fast and even, and he had never felt so good.
He loved running with the dawn. Out of the house while it was still dark, leaving Terri and the girls sleeping, he was through one small woodland and already running down towards the canal towpath by the time the sun set the hills alight. Sometimes he saw someone else on the canal, walking their dog or cycling to work, but more often than not he was on his own. This morning he’d seen a buzzard in a field, sitting on a recent kill and staring around as if daring anyone to try for it. Once on the towpath a heron had taken off close by, startling him with its sheer size. He heard a woodpecker at work somewhere, scared ducks into the water with their ducklings, and he’d caught a brief glimpse of a kingfisher’s neon beauty. This early morning world felt like his alone, and he revelled in it.
Now, close to the end of his run, the giggles came in again. It was a familiar feeling. The endorphins were flowing, his heart hammering, and it felt so bloody great to be alive that sometimes he whooped out loud, running through the woods towards home. He ran with assurance and style, flowing across the uneven ground and watching ahead for potential trip hazards. Spider web strands broke across his face, but he didn’t mind. Once, he’d arrived home to find Terri in the kitchen, sleep-ruffled and clasping a warm mug of tea, and when he’d hugged her – ignoring her protestations at his sweat-soaked clothing and cold hands – she’d screeched at the sight of a spider crawling in his hair.
He leaped a stream, slipped, found his footing and ran on. He knew this was a good run, he could feel it, but when he glanced at his watch he saw that he was well on course for a personal best. It was one of his regular routes – through a small woodland on the other side of the village, along a country lane, up a steep hill to a local folly, back down a rocky trail to the canal towpath, then under several bridges until he entered the larger woodland that led back home. Twelve miles, and his best time so far was one hour fifty minutes. Not bad for cross country, and pretty good for a middle-aged former fat bastard. But today he was set to smash that record by five minutes.
It was almost eight o’clock, and he’d still be home in time to make sandwiches for Gemma and Megs to take to school.
He emerged from the woods and headed across the large field behind the village hall. He waved at an old man walking his dog, vaulted the fence instead of passing through the kissing gate, and crossed the village hall car park.
Half a mile now, and he put on a burst of speed to finish at a sprint. It felt so bloody good. When he’d hit forty he’d been thirty pounds overweight and unfit, but then everything had changed. A comment one day from Terri –
I love you cuddly
– had started a snowball effect of worry about his weight, unhappiness at his appearance, and concern for his kids. He wanted to see them grow up. He wanted to take his grandkids for long walks. Four years later he was fitter than he’d ever been, leaner, stronger. He’d tucked his first two marathons under his belt, and the year before he’d completed his first Ironman, with plans for more. The Chris of four years ago wouldn’t recognise the Chris of today, and he couldn’t deny a little smugness at that thought.
‘Morning, Carol!’ he shouted across the road. Their friend was dragging rubbish bags up her driveway, still wearing her dressing gown.
‘Nutter!’ she called back, waving. She was wildly overweight and never walked anywhere, even drove to the village shop. Chris was fond of her, but knew who the real nutter was.
There was a strange car parked at the end of his street, a suited man in the driver’s seat talking into a Bluetooth headset. He caught Chris’s eye then looked away, still talking. Smooth-looking bastard. Salesman, maybe. Chris hoped the guy didn’t knock at his door, but the ‘No Cold Callers’ sign didn’t deter most. He was an architect, he worked from his home studio, and nothing annoyed him more than people disturbing him to try to sell him things on his doorstep.
Their house came into view. One more injection of power, swing those arms forward and back, watch the style, land on mid-foot and sweep forward, and
hit the watch.
Chris looked at his time and muttered a delighted ‘Yes!’ Terri wouldn’t really care that he’d beaten his best time by almost six minutes. He’d tell her anyway.
Their bedroom curtains were still drawn. That was weird, because Terri had to leave for work in less than half an hour. Maybe she’d missed the alarm, although the girls foraging downstairs for breakfast and arguing over what to watch on TV should have woken her.
Panting heavily, already feeling the burn settling into his muscles, he plucked the front door key from his pocket and slipped it into the lock. He needed a pint of water and a bowl of cereal and fruit. But for another few seconds he breathed in the peace and quiet, readying himself for the pre-school chaos inside.
As he pushed the door open he already knew that something was different.
No, not different
, he thought.
Wrong. Something’s wrong
‘Terri?’ he called, closing the door behind him. ‘Gemma? Megs?’ Nothing. No angry voices as his daughters bickered. No tired admonishments as Terri tried to get ready for work while the girls dressed for school. No sound of the shower running or perfumed scents on the air. The TV in the living room was muted, there was no music from upstairs, and the alarm on Terri’s phone beside the bed must have been turned off. One of the joys of going out early was that he didn’t have to wake up to One Direction singing one of their bland songs. Though Terri said she liked waking to blandness: it meant the day could only get better.
And there was something else. Something he couldn’t quite place, apart from the unnatural silence, the stillness.
‘Terri?’ Four steps and he could look into the living room. The TV was off. There was no breakfast stuff scattered around. Usually the girls left their bowls for someone else to clear up, and lately he and Terri had been leaving them until after school, making the girls clear away their mess from the morning. Sometimes, anyway. More often than not he’d pick them up during the day, on his way through from his studio to the kitchen to throw a salad together for lunch. After today’s run he’d probably treat himself to something more substantial, maybe some cheese on toast or a bacon bagel with
One of Terri’s slippers was on the floor by the doorway into their large kitchen-diner. Just one of them, lying abandoned on its side. So she’d been downstairs, at least.
‘Hello?’ No answer. They were hiding from him, of course, waiting to pounce when he climbed the stairs. But that certainty couldn’t prevent the stab of fear that pierced his chest and ran cold down his spine as he started up.
It’s not like Terri
, he thought.
Me, yeah, I’ll jump out of cupboards and lark around, scare the kids. But not her
. ‘Okay, I’m sweating more than usual, and the first person I find gets a really big hug.’
No giggles. No sounds of girls struggling further beneath beds or into wardrobes. The boiler ticked as it heated water, and that was all. The only noise in this usually bustling family home.
Chris ran up the last few stairs and checked the girls’ bedrooms. They were empty, messy as usual, clothes strewn about. Gemma was almost fifteen now, and amongst the books and DVD cases were make-up packaging and teen magazines. Megs was nine. She had more stuffed toys than was probably necessary, and Chris waded into her room, shifting them aside with his muddy trainers.
Terri’ll kill me for not taking them off
, he thought, but right then he didn’t care. Something was wrong, and every time he breathed
He could smell coffee. It had been rich on the air when he’d opened the front door, and it was only now that he acknowledged the scent. Terri hated coffee. And she’d never have made some ready for him because she knew he liked it hot, fresh, and brewed by his own hand.
He darted along the landing to their room. Empty, bedclothes dragged down onto the floor. Terri’s phone was on the carpet beside the bed. As if it had been knocked from the bedside table.
‘Terri!’ Chris shouted, shocked at the note of panic in his voice. For an endless moment he didn’t know which way to turn, what to do. Grab her phone and call the police? And tell them what? Go back downstairs, then, check out the kitchen-diner where they were probably hiding, or maybe just sitting down having a quiet breakfast. Maybe he’d been so pumped up when he’d come in that he hadn’t heard them answer, and now they’d be frowning at each other with jam on their lips, Terri rolling her eyes and the girls laughing as their dad staggered into the kitchen, a sweat-soaked wreck who’d almost run himself into the ground.
But when he glanced into the large family bathroom and saw the shower curtain on the floor, its plastic hooks strewn across the tiles along with scattered pot pourri, bath dry but for the splash of blood across one side and the smear across the wall beside the shower head, he knew that everything had changed.
His vision and senses became focused, sharpened by fear for his family and the surrealness of this moment. He saw things he might not have otherwise noticed. The bathroom window was closed, and Terri always opened it first thing in the morning. Megs’ sleep teddy – the one cuddly toy she couldn’t get into bed without – was propped behind the bathroom door on the laundry basket. The shower power supply was on but the curtain, splayed across the floor with one end up on the toilet seat, was dry.
Gemma tried shaving her legs, cut herself. Terri panicked, took her to hospital. But that just didn’t add up. She’d have taken her phone, and he always took his mobile when he went for a run,
! He frantically dug it from his waist bag and checked, but there were no missed calls, no emails.
Breathing heavier now, he smelled coffee again.
He ran downstairs, trying to blink away the image of blood. Splashed on the bath. Smeared on the wall, as if someone had it on their hand, reaching for purchase as they fell from the bath (or were pulled, maybe they were
) and took the shower curtain with them.
He ran past the still-empty living room and barged the kitchen door aside. It struck the door stop and bounced back at him, and he shoved it open again, blocking it with his foot, not making any sense of what he saw, because what he’d expected to see was his family sitting at the small table eating breakfast, Gemma perhaps with a bandage on her hand and looking sorry for herself.
Coffee. Terri hated coffee.
There was a man leaning casually against a kitchen cupboard beside the back door. The door was ajar, a small fingerprint of blood on the UPVC jamb. The man was holding a mug, the one from a Yorkie Easter egg that Chris’s mum still insisted on buying him every Easter, much to his secret delight. The man watched Chris while taking another long sip of coffee. He raised his eyebrows in greeting.
‘Who are you?’ Chris asked.
The man lowered the mug and swallowed. ‘Good coffee. Ethiopian. You ever been there?’
The stranger put the mug on the worktop beside him and picked up a phone. He wore a nice polo shirt, chinos, well-polished boots. He reminded Chris of the guy he’d seen sitting in the car at the end of the street, and that connection suddenly seemed all too real.
‘Where are my family? What are you doing here?’ Chris’s attention kept flitting to the open back door, that dab of blood. He was filled with a sudden, utter dread. His legs felt weak. His bladder relaxed.
The man looked at his watch, glanced at the phone screen, and sighed. ‘Stay in the house. Don’t go out. Don’t call the police, or your wife and children will be executed. I’ll be in touch.’ Then he turned and opened the back door.
‘Wait!’ Chris said, darting across the kitchen for the man, reaching, fingertips brushing the fine cotton of his polo shirt before the intruder turned fluidly and stood, motionless. He stared at Chris, his eyes empty, face blank and terrifying.
‘I’ll be in touch,’ he said again. He exuded danger in waves. Chris took one step back, and the man left and closed the back door behind him.
Terrified, shaking, alone, Chris waited for whatever might come next.