The Chalet des Anglais should be the ideal locale for recently-widowed Oxford don Emily to begin cutting through the fog of her grief. With no electricity, running water, or access by car, the rustic chalet nestled at the foot of the verdant, snow-topped Alps should afford Emily both time and space to heal. Joining her will be a collection of friends from the university, as well as other fellows, graduates, and undergraduates.
Something feels off, though—heightening Emily’s existing grief-induced anxiety. Before even making it to the airport, she’s unnerved by a break-in at her home. Once at the chalet, tension amongst the guests is palpable. Her friends and colleagues are behaving oddly, and competition for a newly opened position has introduced a streak of meanness into the otherwise relaxing getaway. As hostilities grow, Emily begins to wonder if the chalet’s dark history has cast a shadow over the retreat. In the salon, a curious grandfather clock looms, the only piece of furniture to survive a deadly blaze a century ago. As its discordant bell begins to invade everyone’s dreams, someone very real has been searching through Emily’s things and attempting to hack into her computer.
When a student disappears, Emily realizes that she’d better separate friend from foe, and real from imagined—or the next disappearance may be her own.
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There's someone in the house.
I know it as soon as I'm inside, though I couldn't say how. Some indescribable change in the air, perhaps, or a sound I hadn't consciously registered. A wave of adrenaline sweeps over my skin, prickling all hair follicles on end. I stand frozen, just inside the still open front door, a layer of warm air and sunshine pressing at my back and the shadowy cool of the terraced house silently waiting for me. But it's the wrong type of silence. I stand motionless, staring, my ears straining to catch any sound above my own racing heartbeat, which is thumping in my ears, thumping in my throat; waiting for a moving shadow or the thud of a footfall or even just the tiniest of creaks-but nothing comes. The house, the intruder, me: we are all holding our breath.
I squint down the corridor that leads to the open-plan kitchen/living area at the back. Beyond the rectangle of the doorframe, I can see the bright saturated green of the back garden's lawn through the floor-to-ceiling windows at the rear of the house, verdant in the sunshine after the rain we've been having. Call the police, I think. Call the police, call the neighbors and scream until somebody-anybody-comes . . . But even if I scream, no one will come: the residential street outside is quiet, drowsy with the heat; and anyway, most of my neighbors will be either at work or away for their summer vacation. And what can I tell the police? Come quickly because I have an absolute conviction that there's an intruder in my house, even though I haven't actually looked?
But I know it's true: there's someone in the house. I can sense it with a pressing urgency, as if there's music playing at a pitch that's below my range of hearing, but nonetheless felt.
Do something. Find something, some kind of weapon. Wait-I know . . .
I check that my phone is easily accessible in my pocket, then slide my rucksack off my shoulder, easing it to the floor as quietly as possible-though surely whoever is here must have heard me come in-before reaching out slowly, silently, to the coat cupboard that is just beside me. My heartbeat is a hammering thud that must be audible streets away. I know the cupboard door will squeak, regardless of whether I open it slowly or fast. Fast, I decide. Fast, and use the noise.
I take a deep breath. Go. "Get out of my house; I'm calling the police right now!" I yell, and keep yelling as I yank the screeching cupboard door open with one hand and reach in with the other to grab a club-any club-from the golf bag that languishes beneath the coats. Words keep tumbling out of my mouth, though I have no real idea of what I'm shouting as I yank the club out, briefly entangling it with a navy rain jacket that slips off its hanger and falls to the floor as I charge with my improvised weapon toward the back of the house. Surely the intruder will head straight for the open front door? I don't want to be in the way when they do. I reach the living room, with the afternoon sun streaming in through the French doors, and whirl around so my back is to the sunlight, holding the club diagonally in front of me with both hands on the shaft, no longer yelling and poised to spring. Where is the intruder? Upstairs? I strain to listen. The house is silent, but I'm not fooled. Something is coming, something is coming, something is . . .
A dark shape explodes out of the small study to my left, running straight for me. For a moment I'm frozen, staring blankly at the man-for it seems to be a man, though his head is covered by a black balaclava-who is heading directly toward me. Why is he not heading for the open front door? Belatedly, in blind panic, I swing the club viciously, but too late; he's almost upon me. Only at the last minute, he veers, planting a foot on the seat of one of the armchairs and leaping over the back, and my clumsy swing connects only in a glancing blow on his lower back, the club continuing in an arcing path. I hear, rather than see, it smash through the crystal vase that was on the sideboard, because I'm whirling round to keep the intruder in my vision; he's at the sliding doors, yanking one open to run out into the garden, where, without any hesitation whatsoever, he sprints across the small lawn to scale the cedar-planked back fence and disappear into the lane behind.
I'm left staring at the red-brown horizontal planks of the cedar fence, the club still gripped tightly in my hands. A small breeze slips in through the now open sliding door, carrying with it the shouts of children playing, a car starting somewhere, a bee buzzing round the lavender in the garden-the lazy sounds and smells of summer. I'm alone now; the insistent press of danger has receded. I am very much alone.
The police-an officer and a forensics specialist-come quickly. Perhaps there’s less for them to do in Oxford in summer, when the bulk of the student body has melted away. The tourists more than make up the numbers, but I imagine they’re less troublesome: nobody comes to visit the city of dreaming spires for the nightlife.
The forensics specialist takes out some sort of kit and starts to look around while the officer and I sit on the sofa. He's a spare man with a no-nonsense attitude, but his eyes are kind when they meet mine. I sip from a cup of tea whilst I answer his questions, though what I really want is something much stronger. The golf club is on the floor now. It feels like a talisman, like I shouldn't ever be without it; I keep one foot pressed on it as I try to describe the intruder. I assume male, given build; somewhere between five foot ten and six foot; lean and obviously quite athletic; Caucasian, judging by the small patches of skin visible around the balaclava. Wearing dark clothing of the sporting variety: black joggers and a long-sleeved top. Gloves? I'm not sure on that. I find myself saying It all happened so fast. The cliché doesn't do the experience justice. That moment when he exploded toward me, when I was frozen in his path . . .
"He must have accessed from the rear," says the colleague, stepping carefully over the navy rain jacket that's still strewn on the floor. Nick's jacket: a good one, but too big for me. I ought to do something with it; it shouldn't go to waste. She crosses to inspect the sliding doors. "There's no sign of forced entry at the front door- Ah, here we go. There are marks here on the doorframe, and the lock is damaged. We won't get a print, though." She looks across at me, mild disapproval edging into her tone. "You really should think about an alarm system and additional locks on these sliding doors." I nod, though I'm thinking that it's a little late to lock the stable door after the horse has bolted. Though I suppose horses can always bolt again.
"And you're sure nothing is missing, Mrs. Rivers?" asks the officer.
"Doctor," I say reflexively. "Dr. Rivers."
"Dr. Rivers," he repeats. "Do you work up at the JR, then?"
He means the John Radcliffe Hospital. I shake my head. "I'm not a medical doctor. I'm an academic." My eyes move inadvertently toward the shadowy entrance to the study-only an alcove, really-as if the intruder might burst from there again.
"Ah. But you're sure nothing is missing? Bikes, electronics, money, jewelry, passports, other valuables?"
"Nothing that I can see. I had my passport with me, and I'm wearing most of my jewelry." I see them both eyeing my minimalistic adornments. "As I said, Oxford academic." I make an attempt at a wry smile. "We're not known for our disposable cash."
"Well, I would think it was an opportunist thief and they couldn't have been here long," says the officer in a tone that suggests he's bringing his questions to a close. "Probably just got here when you disturbed him. Or her." They are not convinced, given the balaclava and genderless clothing, that the thief is necessarily male; in their eyes, that may be an assumption of mine that has stuck in my head, tainting what I really saw and remember. Unconscious bias. I suppose it could be; they're right to keep an open mind. But nevertheless I can't shake the feeling that the intruder was male.
"He-or she-must be local," I muse. "Not everyone would know about the access to the garden from the lane at the back." Nor about the study either, in fact, though I suppose he simply looked for a place to hide when he heard me come in.
"Did the intruder pick up and smash the vase?" asks the specialist. "If we're lucky I might get a print off one of the larger pieces."
"No, I did it. With the, um"-I lean down to pick up the golf club and look at the head of it properly-"seven iron." I see Nick deep in conversation with someone-who? Does it matter? And where were we anyway?-his beanpole figure hunched over like a shepherd's crook so that his words could be safely delivered to the ear of a smaller man as he said earnestly, If in doubt, use a seven iron. Nick, who had only taken up golfing six months before, giving golfing advice; I teased him about it mercilessly all the way home. None so fanatical as a convert. Even in those first moments, in the grip of that sweep of adrenaline, like a hand stroking an electric shock across me, I didn't consider that it could have been Nick in the house. I've moved beyond denial, I suppose. I know it will never again be Nick.
"I'm sorry?" asks the officer.
I don't know what I've said to prompt that. "It's nothing. Just something my husband said."
He looks up from his pad. "Is he at work?"
"No. No, he died a few months ago. A traffic accident." I've learned how to say it: the right amount of information to impart, and the right pace at which to do it. Not so rushed that the listener might miss what you've said, but not so drawn out that they become terrified you might dissolve on the spot.
"I'm sorry," he says again, though this time it's not a question and his expression is appropriately grave. I expect that in his profession, he's learned a few things too. I incline my head briefly; the social contract has been completed. He eyes the rucksack in the hallway. "Just back from a holiday?"
I shake my head. "About to go, actually. Well, not a holiday exactly; a reading retreat at a chalet in the Alps. I wouldn't have been here, except I missed my flight. I'm booked on tomorrow's instead now." I look around the room, somehow surprised afresh to find myself here. I was never the sort of person who missed flights. But then, I was never the sort of person who couldn't get out of bed in the morning or found themselves in tears at the supermarket cash register either.
The police wrap up shortly after that, promising emails with victim-of-crime information, but nothing more; we all know they won't catch him. And why should they expend resources and time on a thief who ultimately appears to have stolen nothing and done no harm to anybody or anything except an inexcusably flimsy door lock? I turn the key in the front door after they leave, and use the sliding chain for good measure, all of which seems rather pointless, given the unfettered access at the rear of the house on account of the damaged lock. Then I lean my back against the secure front door, the club still in one hand, and slide down to a seated position, wondering what I should be doing. Calling a locksmith, probably. I also have nothing in the fridge, given I hadn't expected to be here; I should call for takeout too. I look at the head of the club, at the grooves across the face of it. If in doubt, use a seven iron. It's a long time before I move.
I've been at the chalet for a day now. Mike is here too; I hadn't expected that he would be. He's not in the slightest bit interested in me, which is fine-except, no, to be honest, it rankles; it's like he's been warned off or something. Maybe he has, come to think of it. Maybe James has been mouthing off about that stupid bet again.
Anyway, Mike's here; and a postgrad called Olive, who I'd guess is a bit younger than Mike, probably late twenties. There are two other undergrads besides Julie, James and me (although technically I suppose I'm not an undergraduate anymore), and Julie was right: the other two-Caleb and Akash-are nice enough, if deeply in the geeky camp. Everyone is very gung ho about the no-electricity, no-running-water malarkey, so naturally I'm very gung ho too, whilst secretly thanking the powers that be for the invention of dry shampoo. I don't think I have the right clothing either; it's only been twenty-four hours, but it's apparent already that it's absolutely de rigueur to wear battered hiking shorts or trousers in a gruesome shade of khaki or blue or dusty brown-anything the color of a bruise. My Daisy Dukes are raising eyebrows; I can feel myself stiffening in that half-defiant, half-awkward way when I spot the sidelong glances. But so what if I don't have the right clothes: I'm here. Just like you always said: turn nothing down. Julie has all the right stuff, of course. I guess you acquire it without even trying if you grow up spending all summer in Cornwall and three weeks every winter in Verbier.
Will is coming later today-with his girlfriend, apparently. That was something of a surprise. Ha! I like my understatement there: something of a surprise. (Oxford has taught me that: the power of understatement. See: I'm learning!) He'd certainly failed to mention her. I wouldn't have approached him if I'd known. Wait; a qualifier might be appropriate: I probably wouldn't have. Screw it, at least I can be honest here: even the probably isn't quite right. The best that can be said is that I might not have. It's not like they're married or anything.