Winner of the Macavity Award for Best Mystery Novel and nominated for the Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original
Everyone who lives at 23 Beulah Grove has a secret. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be renting rooms in a sketchy South London building for cash—no credit check, no lease. It’s the kind of place you end up when you you’ve run out of other options. The six residents mostly keep to themselves, but one unbearably hot summer night, a terrible accident pushes them into an uneasy alliance. What they don’t know is that one of them is a killer. He’s already chosen his next victim, and he’ll do anything to protect his secret.
Alex Marwood’s debut novel The Wicked Girls earned her lavish praise from the likes of Elizabeth Haynes, Laura Lippman, and Erin Kelly and received the Edgar Award. Now, Marwood’s back with a brilliant, tightly paced thriller that will keep you up at night and make you ask yourself: just how well do you know your neighbors?
“Taut, assured and reminiscent of Ruth Rendell's psychological novels, Marwood's second book more than lives up to the promise shown in her splendid debut, The Wicked Girls.” —The Guardian
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|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2014 Alex Marwood
He checks his watch and downs the last of his coffee. ‘Okay. Miss Cheryl should be done with her fag break. Let’s take you down to her.’
She follows him down to the interview rooms and he surreptitiously checks his reflection in the wired glass of a door as he passes it. DI Cheyne’s a bit older than he usually goes for, but she’s a good-looking woman. Slightly hard-faced, but a life in the Met doesn’t make for a lot of childlike innocence. Doesn’t hurt to keep your options open, anyway. Women who understand your unorthodox working hours are few and far between; attractive ones even fewer.
‘You should probably know,’ he tells her, ‘she’s pretty tired and upset, and we’ve still got a lot to get through, so if you could keep it shortish, that would be good.’
‘Sure,’ she says. ‘I don’t suppose it’ll take that long, anyway. How is she? Cooperative?’
‘Pissed off,’ he says. ‘In the custody of social services, so you can’t blame her. She’s a bit sulky. And she’s not the sharpest tool in the shop. No point asking her to read anything, for a start.’
‘That’s okay. Think she can look at a photo?’
‘Oh. I should think so. We’ll give it a go, anyway.’
Cheryl Farrell is back in the interview room after her cigarette break, right elbow on the table and tear-streaked face resting wearily on her bandaged hand. She’s pale and, DI Cheyne guesses from the dampness of her forehead, still in some degree of pain. The orthopaedic pink of the shoulder brace that holds her collarbone in place does nothing for her complexion. Could be pretty, thinks DI Cheyne, if it wasn’t for the generally sulky demeanour. Golden-brown skin, curly African hair that she’s bleached until it’s a coppery shade of bronze, over-plucked eyebrows, almond-shaped brown eyes that she rolls at the newcomer.
The lawyer looks as if he hasn’t shifted from his seat in a decade. He’s scribbling furiously. The social worker sits, sensible hair and sensible shoes and an air of New Labour sanctimony pouring off her, in the chair next to the girl. ‘All done!’ she says brightly. ‘She’s had her cancer stick.’
‘Oh, fuck off, you.’ The girl gives her a look that would melt ice.
Merri Cheyne is longing for a smoke herself. Those nicotine tabs give her terrible indigestion. She ignores the social worker – best thing to do in most circumstances if you can manage it, she’s found – and takes a seat on the other side of the table, next to Chris Burke. Cheryl turns back to DC Barnard and looks at him sullenly.
‘So what were you on about?’ Her strong Scouse accent is surprising in one who’s been in the south so long.
‘The television,’ says DC Barnard.
There’s a silence. The girl looks like she would be slumping, if the brace would let her. Truly, thinks DI Cheyne, not the sharpest tool in the shop. He did warn me.
DC Barnard clears his throat. ‘So tell us about the television, Cheryl? How did it come to be in your possession?’
‘How did you get it, Cheryl? Where did it come from?’
‘Oh.’ The girl sniffs heavily and wipes her nose with the back of her hand. ‘He said it was spare,’ she says. ‘Said he’d bought a new one and did I want it?’
‘And you didn’t wonder why he was offering you televisions?’
‘I knew exactly why he was offering it,’ she says, with a glare of defiance.
‘And you accepted it?’
‘If you’re asking if I shagged him to get a second-hand telly, no I didn’t. But there’s no law against letting a fella give you a present because he thinks it might get you to, is there?’
‘Anyway, I needed a telly. D’you know how bloody boring it is if you’ve got no money and no telly? I wasn’t going to give him a . . . ’ she sneaks a look at the social worker to see if she’s going to get a rise, ‘ . . . blow job, but I wasn’t going to tell him to fuck off either, was I?’
‘Well, I can see that there might have been some chance that things could get a bit unpleasant when he realised—’
‘Whatever,’ Cheryl interrupts. Most of your lot –’ she narrows her eyes at her minder again ‘– think they can get a feel for a bag of crisps and a Fanta. At least I wanted a telly.’
The social worker stiffens beside her, offended. Amazing, thinks DI Cheyne. Even after a deluge of scandals, they’re still blanking suggestions that their own might not be perfect.
‘And when was this . . . ?’
‘Don’t know. Two, three weeks? Ages before the weather broke. It was still boiling bloody hot and he kept looking at my tits cause I was wearing a vest. I just thought he was another dirty old bloke. C’mon. Nobody else thought he was up to anything, either. D’you think I’d’ve stayed in that house, if I did?’
‘So you don’t think any of your neighbours had any suspicions, either?’
‘No! I’ve told you! Place smelled like shit, but it’s not exactly the first time I’ve been somewhere that smelled like shit. Anyway, they all had their own stuff to worry about, I should think. We hardly talked to each other, until it happened. It wasn’t a flatshare or anything. We weren’t friends.’
DI Burke opens the cardboard folder that DI Cheyne gave him earlier. On the top, an A4 photo of a woman: short, caramel-streaked blonde hair, low-cut white minidress, white slingbacks, white handbag, Versace jacket, oversized sunglasses perched on the top of her head. As unmistakeably Essex as Stansted crotch crystals. She’s looking away from the camera, holding a half-drunk glass of champagne. It looks like a picture taken at a public event of some sort, the races, perhaps. He studies it for a few seconds. Wonders if this will be the picture the papers go with. Clears his throat pointedly, and DC Barnard stops and turns.
‘Sorry, Bob,’ he says. ‘Cheryl, this is DI Cheyne. She’s from Scotland Yard.’
The same bovine unresponsiveness. Cheryl pouts and rolls her eyes again.
‘The Metropolitan Police Headquarters?’
‘Organised Crime Squad,’ interjects DI Cheyne. ‘You can call me Merri, if you like.’
Usually, announcing this will produce some signs of interest, but the girl just gives a don’t-care shrug of her good shoulder.
‘DI Cheyne’s not working on this case,’ he says, ‘but we think there might be a connection with something else she’s working on.’
‘Right,’ says Cheryl, suspiciously.
DI Cheyne smiles at him and takes the folder. Lays it on the table in front of the girl. ‘Cheryl,’ she asks, ‘does the name Lisa Dunne mean anything to you?’
Cheryl shakes her head, her face a mask. Cheyne opens the folder and slides the picture across the table so she can see it.
‘Well, can I ask you, Cheryl? Do you recognise this woman?’
The girl slides the photo towards her, mouth turned down. Looks up, her spidery eyebrows arched. ‘That’s Collette!’ she says. ‘I thought you said Lisa something.’
DI Cheyne and DI Burke exchange a look. Damn, it says. It really was her, then. ‘Collette?’
‘She lived in number two. Didn’t look like this when she was there, but it’s her. Where did you get this?’
‘Collette. She moved in in, ooh, early June. After Nikki went . . . ’ she suddenly looks sick again, and her eyes fill with tears, ‘ . . . went missing.’
‘And have you seen her lately?’
‘What sort of no? Can you be a bit more specific?’
The girl looks blank. DI Cheyne simplifies. ‘Can you remember when you last saw her?’
‘Not for a few days,’ says Cheryl. ‘But I didn’t really think about it. She was never going to be here long, though. I think she only took the flat for a bit, while she did some . . . business or something. Something to do with her mum. I don’t know, really. She wasn’t friendly, exactly. Sort of person who wouldn’t recognise you if you passed her in the street, if you see what I mean. We said hello on the stairs a few times, that sort of thing. Why?’
Chris Burke puts his prepare-yourself face on. ‘Cheryl, I’m afraid that there were some body parts in the flat that didn’t match up with the known victims. The ones in the flat, I mean. There was more in the surrounding area. Down on the railway embankment. In the old bonfire at the end of the garden.’
Cheryl looks as if she’s been socked in the face. Grips the table as though she’s about to faint.
‘Are you okay, Cheryl?’ asks the social worker. ‘We can take another break, if you need.’
‘Are you saying there were more?’
‘Um . . . We’ve not established it as fact. But yes. Things are pointing that way, I’m afraid.’
‘Oh, God,’ she says.
‘And there were . . . among the remains . . . you know he was keeping stuff in the freezer compartment of his fridge, right? Well, there were a couple of fingers in there. So we took prints, and ran them, and, well, they matched up with this woman. Lisa Dunne. She’s been missing for a while. Three years, as a matter of fact. We’ve been looking for her.’
‘Why? What’s she done?’
‘Doesn’t matter, now. She was a witness to something – you don’t need to know the details. But . . . well, we just need to confirm if this is her.’
‘Oh, God,’ she says again. She’s visibly shaken, her brown skin gone grey and her eyes as big as soup plates. ‘Oh, no. He can’t have. She was in Nikki’s room. It’s like he was . . . ’
The police wait while the news sinks in. Well, thinks DI Cheyne. That’s one avenue shut off, and we were days off tracking her down. All that work, and Tony Stott’s still scot-free.
‘I’m sorry,’ she says. ‘I know it’s a shock. But we need you to tell us what you remember about her.’
‘What do you want to know? Oh, God. I can’t take this in.’
‘I’m sure,’ says DI Cheyne gently. ‘It must be a terrible shock. But we need you to concentrate, Cheryl. For Lisa’s sake.’
Cher Farrell swipes an arm across her eyes and clears her nose. Glares at the police, the lawyer, the social worker. ‘Collette,’ she insists. ‘Her name was Collette.’
Three Years Ago
She wakes up with a stiff neck, slumped across her desk. The heating’s gone off and her circulation has slowed, and the cold has woken her. If it hadn’t, she’d probably have slept through until lunchtime. Wouldn’t be the first time . . .
She sits up, her head fogged and her mouth dry. Checks her watch and sees that it’s very nearly six. She’s tired. She’s always tired, these days. Night work really only suits the very young, and Lisa’s thirty-four – no spring chicken, in clubland. As of her last birthday, some of the girls who work here are literally young enough to be her daughter, and she’s feeling it. She used to get through the cashing-up by four-thirty on a Saturday morning, but tonight even the quadruple espresso she took up to the office hasn’t kept her awake.
She pushes herself up from the chair and stretches. At least she’s finished. She remembers, now, deciding that maybe she’d take ten minutes just to close her eyes before she took the cash to the safe, to try and ensure she wouldn’t crash the car on the way home. I’ve got to leave this job, she thinks. I don’t want to spend my nights seeing men at their worst, all slavering with lust and googly-eyed from whatever they’ve been at in the toilets, and I’m too old for these hours. These hours and the stress and the worrying I might end up in jail.
None of it adds up. It never does. She knows how many bottles of champagne are left in the cellar, and how many there would be if they’d sold them in the numbers the bar tabs add up to. It’s the same every week. Two hundred people in the club on a good night, and though sometimes they’re footballers or the modern robber barons of the City, slumming it among the tarts and the yobs, or silly young actors who think their stint in the soap they’re in will last for ever, £998 for a bottle of champagne is still steep enough to make them think about the choice between drink and dance; and most of them opt for a bottle of Absolut at four hundred and fifty pounds and a bunch of private dances at fifty pounds (plus tip) a pop. But every Saturday, according to the bar tabs, they sell a hundred, hundred and fifty bottles of fizz. And all of it paid for in cash.
She slaps herself about the face a couple of times to try to wake herself up. Come on, Lisa. Sooner you get this finished, the sooner your day off begins. You can think about this when you’ve slept. Think about handing in your notice before there’s police swarming all over this place. The Adidas bag is back by the desk, where Malik always drops it after he’s been to the bank in the morning. She picks it up and starts counting the bundles of notes into it, one by one. For God’s sake, she thinks – some of them are still in their wrappers. He’s not even trying to make the notes look used any more.
Of course she knows what Tony’s up to. Basildon lads with no obvious source of capital don’t end up owning nightclubs by twenty-six, with no investors. But a place like Nefertiti’s – yeah, get the pun; great name for a lap-dancing establishment, all flash and splash and paps on the door – is a licence to print money. Or if not print it, at least wash it greyish clean. That’s why he makes sure they’re always in the papers, why he bribes the grabby whoremongers of sport and pop and TV to come here with free drinks and girls all night in the VIP lounge. Get a reputation for being where the high rollers go, and nobody will question what you claim they spend, because everyone reads about such crazy profligacy every day in The Sun and everybody knows that footballers are stupid. Those clubs in town, the big ones, can take half a million easy on a Saturday night, on maybe twenty grand’s worth of booze, though they probably actually hand over some goods in exchange for the money, of course.
And here it is: she finishes counting and confirms what she already knows. The bag contains a hundred and eighty-five thousand pounds, give or take a few hundred, in fifties and twenties. And on Monday morning it will go into the bank, and from the bank it will go into the white economy.
She does a last check round the office. Now all she has to do is take the cash down to the safe that’s sunk in concrete in the basement store cupboard, do a last visual round the bar, and then she can lock up and leave it to the cleaners. She quite likes this time of night, despite the smell of spilled drink and sweat and poppers, the lonely smell of spooge from the back rooms. She likes it when the lights are fully up and she can see how this place the punters think is fairyland is made of smoke and mirrors. Velvet benches in pure, liquid-shrugging nylon; the light-up dance floor that’s black with sticky muck, the ornate Louis XV- style mirrors whose frames are made from purest polystyrene. Even Nefertiti herself, presiding over the entrance lobby with her black bangs and her golden crook, titties out for the lads, was cast in stone-effect resin in a factory in Guiyang. She turns out the office lights, turns the key in the door and walks down the stairs.
The bars are based along a white-painted brick corridor lined with curtains in more velvet, royal blue trimmed with gold fringes this time, all hanging from long poles that allow the staff to pull them across and cut off rooms for privacy or move the VIP area around to suit the crowd that’s in, and even close off sections altogether. The reputation of all nightclubs rests on the punters having felt that they were in a crowd, and in Nefertiti’s they can make a crowd of a couple of dozen people if they have to. She walks along the corridor, checking each room as she passes it, making sure no strays have stayed, or passed out unnoticed behind a couch, turning off the lights as she goes. It’s only when she’s halfway to the end that she realises that she’s not alone.
Something’s going on in the Luxor Lounge. Something physical, repetitive and energetic. Sex? Is someone shagging in there? Who is it? Someone left behind? Her own staff, doing the worker’s fuck-you to the bosses?
She slows her pace, quietens the sound of her steps. The corridor is thickly carpeted in black with a gold border and little gold stars. Just a small amount of pattern will hide a multitude of sins. As she approaches, she becomes less sure that it’s sex she’s hearing. There are grunts, and sighs, but also, she’s sure, the sound of groans; and, behind it all, low laughs and chat, as though whoever’s making the sounds is providing the entertainment for a corporate shindig. As she nears the curtain that’s pulled across the entrance, she slows her walk down to a creep, positions herself against the wall and peeps in through a crack in the cloth.
The Luxor Lounge is black and red, dark colours that don’t show the dirt. A good thing, because what’s coming out of the mouth of the man on the floor will never scrub away.
There are six people in the Luxor Lounge. There’s the man who lies still on the floor, as though he has long since given up protecting his vulnerable parts, whose face is so swollen his mother wouldn’t recognise him; Tony Stott, her boss, the big man, the wunderkind, four years younger than she is and millions of pounds richer, all designer suit and gold cufflinks, clean-shaven even at this time of night, his tight curls cut close to his head; a woman she’s not seen before, low-key in a grey suit that, from its cut, she knows didn’t come from Debenhams; a much older man, late fifties, maybe, who wears a dark wool overcoat as though he’s at a funeral. The three of them stand by the bar with an open bottle of Remy, drinking from snifters, watching Malik Otaran and Burim Sadiraj kick and kick and kick. As she watches, she sees the man’s head snap back on his neck. A spurt of blood arches from his crumpled nose, beautiful in its elegance. Malik stands on one foot, lifts up the other to knee height, and stamps down.
The Luxor Lounge falls quiet. Five heads, smiles freezing on faces, pupils still distended with arousal, turn and look in her direction.
Lisa runs for the exit. Knows that she’s running for her life.
He’s a magnificent cat. Rangy and black and swaggering, with great vampire incisors that extend most of the way to his jawline. Green eyes and a kinked tail that speak of oriental blood, and a scarred left ear that shows that he’s not afraid to fight.
Today he is asserting his mastery of his territory by visiting. He’s been attached to the house for so long that no one remembers who originally brought him here, or if, indeed, anybody did. Some tenants shoo him away with angry hisses, afraid of his panther grace and unblinking stare, some sweep him into their arms with coos and growls of admiration, give him a warm place to sleep, and weep when they, as they all do, have to leave him behind. Twenty-six tenants have passed through the house on Beulah Grove since he took up residence, and he has never gone hungry enough to move on himself. He has had many names and for now it’s Psycho.
He stands in the window – The Lover has thrown it open because the heat inside is so stifling he’s afraid he’ll make the air damp with his sweat – and surveys the space, then leaps on to the back of the chair where the girl sits. He leans forward and sniffs her ginger hair, touches an ear with his fine damp nose. Affronted by her failure to respond he raises his face and looks up at the man. Blinks.
The Lover is weeping. He sits in a folding chair against the far wall, his face buried in his hands, and rocks. The tears come more quickly every time. He used to have a few hours – even a day or two – in which to savour the company, enjoy the romance, before the despair overtook him; to hold the hand and stroke the cheek and take pleasure in togetherness. But each event seems less delightful than the last, seems to pass so quickly that, almost as soon as it’s done, the yearning begins again, the loneliness breaking over his head like a wave.
He’s apologising, as he always does. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says, and the words catch, salty, in his throat. ‘Oh, Nikki, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean it.’
She doesn’t reply. Stares, vacant, past his shoulder, her mouth half open, surprised.
‘You just . . . ’ he says. ‘I was afraid you were going to go away again. I can’t bear it, you see. Can’t bear it. I’m so alone.’
He continues to weep. He’s consumed with self-pity, eaten up with the emptiness of his existence. My life is full of busy-work, he thinks. I do and I act and I help and I organise, and at the end of the day it’s always the same. Just me. Me, alone, and the world going on as though I had never existed. They wouldn’t notice – none of them – for months, if I disappeared. Families like mine, no money, fractured marriages, siblings only half-related and homes already full to bursting, we drift apart when someone goes away. I don’t speak to my half-brother or sisters from one year’s end to the next, just bump into them sometimes when I make the trip back at Christmas. Worst of all, my mother always sounds surprised to hear my voice on the phone, though she hears it, regular as clockwork, first Sunday of every month, while Songs of Praise is on. They wouldn’t notice. Nobody would notice. I would vanish in a puff of smoke and make a nasty clearing-up job for someone further down the line.
He raises his eyes and looks at Nikki, the source of his suffering. A pretty girl. Not spectacular, not anything that anyone would say was out of his league, though he supposes that eyebrows might be raised at the difference in their ages. It was all I ever wanted, he thinks. A nice girl. No great ambition, no over-whelming passion like they play out in the movies, no champagne and roses. Just someone to stay with me, someone who wouldn’t go away.
The cat is standing by the wardrobe now, sniffing at the crack between the doors. The Lover leaps to his feet and shoos it off, claps his hands and hisses so that it tenses; then, with a baleful yowl, it jumps on to the bed and out of the window. He considers closing it to keep the cat out, but in this heat his dwelling space has become stifling, overwhelming, and he’s afraid that the smells it draws out will spread through the house. He wipes his salty face on his sleeve and tries to pull himself together. We can have a nice evening, at least, he thinks, as he looks back at his silent companion. I’ll have a glass of wine, hold her hand. Maybe she’d like to watch a film with me, before we begin.
Her right hand, knocked by the cat’s passing, slips suddenly from the arm of the chair and hangs in mid-air, still and soft. Such a pretty hand, he thinks, the nails always clean and scrupulously shaped. I noticed that about her the first time I saw her; always wanted to take that hand in my own, to press its smooth skin between my palms.
No time like the present. He fetches the fold-up chair and plants it beside the armchair. Funny, he thinks. She looks smaller than she used to. More fragile, more frail. More like someone who needs my protection. He puts the forearm back, along the chair’s arm, and goes to the kitchen drawer to fetch the scissors. Cuts, very slowly, very carefully, through the duck tape around her neck, then lifts the plastic bag it holds there – thick, heavy, transparent from her head, carefully, so as not to mess up her lovely hair. He’ll give her a bath, later. Strip off her stained clothing and run it through the washing machine, shampoo her sweaty locks and comb them down, dust her with baby powder. In heat like this, it’ll all be dry in no time.
‘There,’ he says kindly and plants a loving kiss on her temple, where no pulse beats any more. He takes his seat and lifts the hand, just briefly, to his lips. ‘There,’ he says again, and enfolds it between his own, larger, rougher palms, as he has always imagined.
‘This is nice, isn’t it?’ he asks, rhetorically.
Despite the cloying heat he wears a cardigan that smells of tobacco, frying, and those dark creases on the body that the air never reaches. His male-pattern baldness is accentuated by a scurfy comb-over, and a pair of smeary spectacles hide his eyes. And he’s fat, front-buttock fat, bulge-over-your-waistband fat. He wheezes as he leads the way slowly up the front steps, his bulk making a flight that was designed as a graceful decoration for a house of substance look narrow and mean as he climbs.
The wheezing, she thinks. It’s not just the weight. There’s something more to it. He’s excited. Feeling pleased with himself. There’s . . . lust in those laboured breaths. I can feel it. The way he looked me up and down on the steps; he wasn’t just deciding if I seemed respectable; he was checking out my tits.
She dismisses the thought, impatiently. Get over yourself, Collette. And so what, anyway? A dirty old man getting a thrill: it’s not like you’re not used to that, is it?
The Landlord stops for a rest on the small landing outside the front door, one hand leaning on the wall, and stares down at her. She shifts the Adidas bag further up her shoulder, giving herself a chance to surreptitiously pull her scarf over the open neck of her shirt. She’s as modestly dressed as the heat of the day will allow, but she’s suddenly uncomfortably aware that her clothes are clinging damply to her skin.
He takes a couple of breaths before he speaks. ‘I wasn’t expecting anyone yet, you see,’ he says, clearly believing that he is offering an explanation for something.
She stands and waits, unsure how to respond. The bag is heavy and she wishes he would just move on to their destination, so she can drop it on the floor and shake out her arm.
‘They usually start coming round the next day,’ he says. ‘Or in the evening, anyway. After the advert goes in. Not, like, an hour after. You caught me on the hop.’
‘Sorry,’ she says, not sure why she’s apologising.
He takes a key from his cardigan pocket, whirls it by the tag around his index finger. ‘Luckily I was here anyway,’ he says. ‘Had a bit of admin to deal with downstairs. Thing is, it’s not ready. I was going to get a cleaner in to deal with it, but I thought we had all day.’
‘Oh, that’s okay,’ says Collette. ‘I’m good with a bottle of Flash. There’s a hoover, right? In the house?’
He has wet lips. They smack together, a nasty shade of blueish pink. ‘Sure,’ he says. ‘We’ve got one of those. But it’s not that.’
He turns to fit the key into the front door. It’s a heavy door, two panels of glass patterned with etched ivy leaves allowing light into the hallway beyond. A graceful door, made to match the aspirations of a Victorian on the way up, not the security needs of a run-down rooming house. ‘It’s the last tenant, you see. She skipped out on her rent and left her stuff behind.’
‘Oh,’ says Collette.
‘Must’ve wanted gone in a hurry, is all I’m saying,’ he says. ‘Because she’s left pretty much everything. I kept it all for as long as I could . . . but I’m not a charity.’
‘No,’ says Collette. ‘Of course not.’
‘So it’ll need clearing out. Just so you know.’
‘Mmm,’ she says, uncertainly. ‘I was hoping to move in today.’
‘Well, that doesn’t give me much time to check out your references,’ he says, smugly. ‘Does it?’
‘No,’ she says. She wishes he hadn’t followed him into the hall. It’s airless in here, even with the door open. The smell from his clothes bursts over her in gusts as he reaches round and pushes it to. She peers into the gloom and sees a stained grey carpet, a Utility table piled with post and a payphone attached to the wall. Haven’t seen one of those in years, she thinks. Wonder how much he gets out of it each month?
A drop of sweat works its way loose from beneath the bag strap over her shoulder and trickles down into her cleavage. From behind the door to her left, to her surprise, she hears the strains of a violin playing some classical air. Not what she’d expected to hear in a place like this. If she’d thought about music at all, she’d have put her money on hip hop. ‘But I really don’t want to have to spend money on a hotel, if I can manage it,’ she says.
‘Haven’t you got anyone you can go and stay with? In the meantime?’
She’s got her story all lined up and ready to go. ‘No,’ she says. ‘I’ve been living in Spain for the last few years. I’ve sort of lost touch with a lot of people. But my mum’s in the hospital and I want to be near her. And, you know, you come back and you realise you don’t really know anybody, any more. You know how people move around, in London. I lost touch with my school friends, and we never had any other family. It was just Mum and me . . . ’
She stops, and, just as she’s practised in countless mirrors over the last few years, turns big, hurt eyes up to look at him. This look has helped her though more awkward situations than anything else. ‘Sorry,’ she concludes. ‘You don’t want to hear about my problems.’
Lying is easy. It’s so, so easy once you’ve got into the swing of it. Just say what you’ve got to say confidently, keep it as close to the truth as you can get away with, then look vulnerable and find an excuse to duck out of the conversation as quickly as you can. Ninety-nine per cent of the time, people will just go along with whatever you tell them.
The Landlord looks faintly pleased. He thinks he’s got me, she thinks. Thinks he’s sussed me out. He’d be twirling his moustaches, right now, if he had them. ‘Well,’ he says, his voice full of speculation, ‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘It’s not your problem,’ she tells him, humbly. ‘I understand that. But it means that I . . . you know . . . I don’t really have anything by way of references, because I always lived at home, before I went away.’
‘What were you doing in Spain?’ he asks.
She tells the prepared story, the one that nobody ever wants to hear. ‘I got married. He owned a bar on the Costa del Sol. More fool me . . . Anyway, here I am now, no husband. Life, isn’t it?’
He eyes her, speculatively. The pound signs are lighting up behind his spectacles. ‘I daresay we can come to an arrangement,’ he says.
Who are you kidding? You’re a cash-in-hand landlord who rents his rooms out through cards in newsagents’ windows. I don’t suppose you’ve checked a reference in your life, as long as the money comes on time. Of course we can come to an arrangement.
‘Maybe if I gave you an extra month’s deposit?’ she offers, as though the idea has only just come to her. ‘I think I could probably manage that. I’ve got a bit put by. At least I managed to salvage that much, even if my dignity’s still in Torremolinos.’
He looks pleased, then wolfish. ‘You know it’s already first, last and damage, don’t you?’
‘I thought it would be,’ she says evenly, and looks at a greasy stain on the wall, at a level with her face. Someone – people – obviously feel their way up here in the dark, the flats of their hands against the wall to steady themselves. I bet none of those light bulbs works.
‘Well, maybe you’d like to see the studio,’ he says.
‘Studio’ is an exaggeration, but she had expected that from the fact that she’d found it advertised on a slightly grubby file card in a newsagent’s window rather than on a glossy photo stand in an estate agent’s. Northbourne is gentrifying fast, but City money has yet to drift this far south, and these Victorian streets still play host to a dwindling number of plasterboard walls and two-burner stoves and halls full of bicycles.
It’s a decent-sized room, at least. At the front of the house, it must have been the drawing room once. But it smells. It’s stale from sitting through a heatwave with the large sash window that overlooks the street firmly closed and her predecessor’s discarded clothes in a heap in the corner. But also, she notices, because there is a small pile of food on the countertop to her left. A bag of potatoes, blackened and liquefying, half an onion, a block of cheese, an open jar of blueish pickle and the stump end of a sliced loaf, barely recognisable beneath blankets of hairy mould. In the sink, a bowl and a mug have been left to soak in water that has taken on the scent of a sewer. There’s the drip, drip, drip of a tap.
The Landlord has the grace to look slightly abashed. ‘Like I say,’ he says, ‘I haven’t had the chance to get it cleaned up.’
Collette puts the Adidas bag down on the floor, relieved to be rid of it after another journey during which she kept hold of it constantly, fearfully, terrified to let it out of her sight. Without it, she’d be sunk, but she’s heartily sick of the sight of it.
‘Where’s the bathroom?’ she asks.
She’d known it was too much to hope that a ‘studio’ in this neck of the woods would have the luxury of an en-suite and she’s glad that she’s always had a strong stomach with a relatively insensitive gag reflex, because she’s tired of running. She tries to persuade herself that it’s not so bad. Once the window’s been open a while and all that stuff’s safely out for the bin man, and I’ve burned a couple of scented candles – it’s not for ever, after all. Just until you’ve done the right thing. God knows what’s in that fridge, though.
‘So the other people . . . ’ she says. ‘Who else lives here at the moment?’
He gives her one of those goggling looks that suggests that the question is somehow impertinent. ‘If I’m going to be sharing a bathroom,’ she adds, ‘I wouldn’t mind knowing who I’ll be sharing it with?’
‘Oh, don’t worry about that,’ he says. ‘Nice quiet man, Gerard Bright. Recently divorced, I think. Music teacher. The others are harmless enough. No junkies or anything, if you’re worried about that. And it’s only Mr Bright you’ll be sharing with. The two upstairs have a bathroom between them, too.’
He shuffles over to the window, pushes back the half-closed polyester curtains and throws up the lower sash. She’s pleased to see that it moves easily, as though the groove in which it runs has received a recent application of lubricant. The increased light does little to improve the prospect before her, though. Every surface is covered with dust, and the unchanged bedclothes look grubby and worn.
‘I’ll get someone in to bag it all up,’ he says, and jangles his keys. ‘It shouldn’t take too long.’
Collette perches on the edge of the armchair – she doesn’t want to sit in it fully until she’s given it a proper inspection – and tucks the bag behind her feet. ‘It’s okay. I’ll take it and I’ll sort it out. It’s nothing a few bin liners and a vacuum cleaner won’t fix.’
The Landlord raises his eyebrows.
‘Oh, sorry,’ says Collette. ‘I didn’t think. Unless you . . . you know . . . ’ she waves a hand over the abandoned junk, the tiny TV, the pile of George at Asda dresses, ‘ . . . yourself . . . ’
He looks so offended that she knows immediately that this was exactly what he had been planning, and that, now the option has been cut off, offence is his only option. She gazes at him innocently. ‘I mean, I . . . I guess some of it could go to a charity shop or something.’
The Landlord huffs and turns away. ‘I doubt it,’ he says.
‘So.’ The bag is burning a hole in her ankle. She wants some quiet, some space to get her head together, and get it hidden away. ‘How about it, then?’
She sees him startle. Fuck’s sake, he thinks I’m propositioning him! Just look at you, man. It’s astonishing how some men can believe they’re gods among men even when they’re standing next to a mirror. ‘The room?’ she adds, hastily. ‘Can I have it?’
He knows he’s got the upper hand. No one who had any options would be offering to move in on some stranger’s discarded knickers, their unwashed crockery. ‘Depends,’ he says.
No way, she thinks.
‘What with the no references, I’ll need a bigger deposit. You know. For security. I’m not a charity. I’m already out a month on this little . . . ’ He gestures round the room, at the evidence of the hasty departure.
Collette blinks: once, twice. Waits.
‘And no cheques,’ he says. ‘I’ll need it in cash. Like the rent. I’ve done enough bouncing cheques to last me a lifetime.’
‘That’s okay,’ she says. ‘I guessed that would be the case. Is the extra month not enough, then?’
He stands there, pretends to consider the question. She should have held back, earlier. He’s got the measure of how few choices she has available. ‘Six weeks,’ he says, ‘on top of the normal deposit. And the rent’s in advance.’
‘So that’s . . . ’ she says, thinking. She’s got two grand in her bra, counted out from the bag in her hotel room this morning. She didn’t think she could possibly need more, even in this market.
‘Twenty-one hundred,’ he says. ‘And you don’t move in until I’ve got it.’
She takes a deep breath. It’s okay, Collette, she tells herself. He’s not going to mug you. Not in his own house. But, Jesus, he’s making Paris look like a holiday camp.
‘I can give you two grand now. I’ll have to go to the cashpoint for the rest tomorrow.’
His tongue runs across his lips and he shifts on the spot. Cash clearly has a near-erotic effect on him. He narrows his eyes at her, and licks his lips again.
She stands up and turns her back. She has no wish to put her hand near her breasts in view of this grubby old lecher. But it’s perfect, the room. It’s off the radar in every way. No one from her old life would look for her here and she needs this place, needs the time to regroup, see to Janine and work out what she’s going to do next.
The cash is warm, slightly damp from contact with her heat-soaked skin. She turns back and holds the money out. The Landlord pinches it between thumb and forefinger, and stares her in the face. I must hold his gaze. I mustn’t be the one to look down first. If I do, he’ll know he’s the boss and I’ll never see the back of him.
‘I’ll need a receipt for that,’ she says.
Collette closes the door, tries to put the snib down on the flimsy Yalelock. It slides, but doesn’t engage. She waits, her ear pressed against a wooden panel, and listens for the sound of his leaving. Hears him hover in the hall outside, feels the weight of his labouring breath. After a minute or so his shuffling tread moves away, starts slowly up the stairs. He lets out a small grunt as he takes each step.
She looks round her new home. Yellowing magnolia walls, thin polyester curtains in a pattern of geometric colour blocks on a field of blue that she recognises from several one-star hotels she’s stayed in over the years, the unmade bed, the armchair, the small Formica table below the window. The previous tenant’s hairbrush lying on the windowsill, a few red hairs caught in the bristles. What sort of person moves on without even taking their hairbrush? she wonders.
Someone like you, she replies. She remembers her last room, in Barcelona: the clothes she will never see again, her make-up scattered across the top of the chest of drawers, her books, the necklaces hanging from panel-pins knocked into the back of the bedroom door, the sounds of café life in the street below. At least, thank God, she’d put the bag in a locker at the station, because once she’d seen Malik in the street outside she could never risk going in there again. She feels tears prick the back of her eyes. Someone will come along, eventually, when the rent runs out, and throw it all away. No one will wonder where she’s gone, why she left in such careless haste. She feels a certain fellow feeling with the vanished tenant. She’s part of the easy-come, easy-go world now and only Tony Stott wants to know where she is.
Collette goes over to the bed and pulls back the bedclothes. They smell of someone else. She saw a big Asda nearby from the window of the train. She’ll head there and buy a couple of sets when she’s had a rest; maybe even treat herself to a new duvet and pillows, too.
You mustn’t spend it all, she thinks, automatically, the way she has each time she’s started again. Don’t go blowing it. It’s all you have, Collette.
She fetches the bag from under the chair. Sits on the bed and checks, as she’s checked every hour since she fled for the station, that the contents are still there, pulls out the small stash of emergency belongings she stored in there and lays them out to mark her territory. A couple of summer dresses, a cardigan, flip-flops, a couple of pairs of knickers, a sponge bag with a toothbrush, a tube of face cream and a small collection of eyeliners from her handbag. All she’s salvaged, this time. Not much to show for nearly forty years, but it’s better than no life at all.
She sits, then lies, on this stranger’s bottom sheet. It’s mercifully free of stains, at least. She can’t face the thin, sad-looking pillows, though. Uses the bag and what remains inside as a rest for her head instead. It’s firm, unyielding. Who’d’ve thought? she wonders, that you could be this uncomfortable lying on a hundred thousand pounds?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is one of those books you cannot put down. I like the way Alex Marwood developed the characters and she kept me turning the pages. I cannot wait to read her next book. Alex Marwood, you are my new favorite author!!
I was privileged to be able to review "The Killer Next Door" by Alex Marwood. This is her second book, the first, Edgar Award winner "Wicked Girls" was given a glowing review from Stephen King. After reading the synopsis of "The Killer Next Door" I was seriously intrigued to get into it. An old mansion has been broken up into six suites and the six renters all have secrets they want to keep. 23 Beulah Grove is the kind of rooming house where there are no credit checks, no background searches and no rental agreements. The landlord has power over whether you stay but you get to keep your secrets. The story opens with the revelation that one of the residents is a killer. The author then takes us back in time to let us meet the residents of Beulah Grove. The premise of this thriller is really exciting and the author develops the characters so well you find yourself hoping they get out of this alive. The women were especially well developed and I would have loved to learn a little more about the men in this book. Ms. Marwood is an excellent writer, she's easy to read and her prose flow like water off a slick surface. My one complaint is that there is just too much unimportant detail which can be easily skipped by the reader but does lesson the enjoyability of the book. The mystery is slowed and the thrilling rush to an ending is kept hostage by just too many words that could easily be cut by a good editor. This book has great characters, well fleshed out (no pun intended, lol) and the author's excellent narrative skills made me want to finish the book. I can understand why many reviewers have loved Alex Marwood's writing and I'm betting that "Wicked Girls" was even better than "The Killer Next Door". It makes me wish I had read her debut novel first, maybe I would have enjoyed this one even more. Although I'm only giving this mystery/thriller a three star rating, I have great hope that her next book has fewer long flowing descriptions and even more amazing characters. I know that would make for a near perfect read.
Very engrossing. Good characters and well-written. Ready to read more from this author. Some parts are NOT for the squeamish!
This book has something for everyone. It contains mystery, horror, excitiment, and swretness,
The residents of 23 Beulah Grove all have something to hide, renting rooms in a decrepit house from a nasty and lecherous landlord with his own secrets. The six people who live there mostly leave each other alone to their own devices, but one humid night, a horrible accident will bring them together. However, there are some secrets which cannot be shared…for there is a killer who lives at 23 Beulah Grove and the next victim has already been selected. THE KILLER NEXT DOOR is a book leads the reader through to the unusual ending by the connections which will be formed to the different characters. THE KILLER NEXT DOOR builds on the characters’ reactions to the situations in which they found themselves. The author has a way of getting the reader into the characters’ heads with exquisitely tight writing and dynamic character building. Each character has their own set of sad circumstances which has led them to 23 Beulah Grove and I loved the interplay between them while they start to uncover the truth about the people who they live with. THE KILLER NEXT DOOR is a fascinating book which I definitely recommend.
I received this as an ARC from Penguin's First to Read. Nobody comes to 23 Beulah Grove unless they have run out of options or have a secret that needs protecting. The tenants form loose friendships with one another but live with the understanding that they don't really know each other. In fact, when one resident leaves without a trace, none of them even begin to suspect that one of their neighbors might be a murderer. The novel focuses on the hidden lives of each of the characters and how they strive to keep their problems hidden from each other. One of the highlights of this book is the how the relationships develop between the characters and the effects their secrets have on these tenuous relationships. Multiple characters provide the narration: Celeste has just moved to Beulah Grove from living abroad. She was witness to a crime years before and is struggling to find a place where she can be safe from her former boss while still being close to her mother whose health is rapidly declining. Cher is a fifteen year old who has witness horrors far worse than any child should ever bare witness to. After a stint in foster care, she has run away seeking a better life for herself than the prostitution and druggie life so many of her peers have fallen to. Vesta has lived her entire life at Beulah Grove from childhood through to old age, but she dreams of a new life with a house in Ilfracombe along the ocean. Her deep emotional attachment to her parents and their home makes her hesitant but she knows she is miserable where she is. Finally, "the Lover" is terrified at the prospect of spending the rest of his life alone and finds companionship in his women whom he has murdered and is attempting to permanently preserve. While some of the tenants are friends, it's not until an unfortunate accident that they come together in a sort of alliance. It is because of the numerous characters that I was largely impressed with Marwood's ability to make me sympathize with each and every one of them. I felt each of their pain, even the Lover's at points, and longed for them all to have happy endings even though their situations were so bleak and hopeless. I especially loved the relationships with Vesta as she served as a motherly figure for all of the residents. While some of the chapters seemed to drag with too many of the characters' thoughts and not enough dialogue or action, I still thoroughly enjoyed connecting with each character. I especially ached reading Cher's chapters, as her life is just so pathetically sad yet you want so badly for her to find happiness. While I loved the relationships side of the novel, I wasn't quite as thrilled with the actual plotline pertaining to the murders. Although the plot was well thought out and a realistic read, it just didn't have the page turning suspense of many thrillers. This is probably largely due to Marwood only having six tenants to work with as possible killers. I did enjoy the bluntness Marwood used in describing how the Lover preserved his women. Although it was disturbing, it was refreshing and pretty interesting to read a book that didn't shy away from gore. If you love thrillers in general, The Killer Next Door is certainly an enjoyable read that I would recommend, although it's nothing particularly special. It's definitely not a novel for the faint of heart however. I've read many a murder mystery but this one is by far the most descriptive in regards to the killings.
Not for the faint of heart. This highly suspenseful book is packed with greatly developed characters and a plot that grabs you and won't let go. The ending is something I didn't see coming and really was a shocker. Packed with very explicit and gory details of murder and the corpses disposal, etc. The author's descriptions are so good that you can actually visualize and smell what is going on. Makes you cringe!!!! Also contains some sex and foul language. Based in England, it is loaded with British phrases. These are not typos. Well edited.
Interesting female characters, although we don't get to know much about all the male characters. Too many details that may upset delicate stomachs. A warning should have been posted to prospective buyers of this novel.
A Very Good Book Contemporary, Mystery, Some Romantic Elements London, England There are six residents currently living at 23 Beulah Grove. They also all have secrets. It is the only reason they would live in rooms for rent that are in a dodgy old building. They can pay in cash with no credit checks and definitely no leases. One night during an unbearably hot summer a terrible accident brings the six together in a very uneasy alliance. What they don’t realize is that one of them is actually a killer. A killer that has already picked out his next victim. He will also do anything to protect his secret. This is a story that pulls the reader in. With every word read the reader learns a little more about the occupants of 23 Beulah Grove. It also has some great twists and turns that keep the reader guessing just who the killer is and what will happen next. With a series of mishaps that happen throughout the story it makes for a book that is hard to put down until the mystery is finally revealed. It is enough to make you wonder about your neighbors and just what they might be hiding. The story keeps the reader on the hook until the very end. The reader is never sure until the end just how this one will turn out and if the residents will make it out of this whole or even at all. received a review copy
Abruptly ended but pretty good
This was a little different than I thought it would be based on the title. I saw this audiobook while it was on sale at Audible recently and decided to buy it largely because of the title and the narrator. I thought that it would be a book completely focused on the killer alluded to in the title. That's not exactly what the book was. It's focus was not just on the killer but the entire building's tenants. Everything came together in the end and I did enjoy the story. There are a lot of characters that make up this story. Each of these people have their own story to tell and as the book unfolds we do learn quite a bit about them. This group of individuals have more than their fair share of problems. I loved how they became close to each other as things happened. The friendships that developed felt very real. Of course, there were a couple of characters that were anything but lovable. The landlord was a piece of work that made my skin crawl anytime we took a peek at his thoughts. Then there is the killer. These sections were actually some of my favorite in the story but I tend to like stories that are rather gruesome but not all readers will enjoy those parts as much as I did. I thought the narrator did a fabulous job. There are a lot of characters to keep straight in this book and they do spend a lot of time interacting with each other. The narrator was able to use distinctive voices for each character and seamlessly switched back and forth. I never had any difficulty keeping track of who was who in the story. I do think that I liked this story a bit more because I chose the audio format. The narrator really brought a lot to the story. I would recommend this audiobook to others. I think that the strong characters and the mystery of the killer worked well together in this story. This is the first book by Alex Marwood that I have read but I plan to look for her work in the future.
“The Killer Next Door” is a suspenseful tale that’s not for the light hearted or weak stomached. A motley crew running from this and that, are assembled in a ramshackle set of flats and as the title would indicate one of them is a killer. The book doesn’t have a true “hero” in the traditional sense but the characters are interesting and compelling. The killer is a very sick individual and the author goes into great detail into their mindset and actions making for a sometimes gory story line. I found it fascinating, entertaining and even sometimes gag worthy. Overall very well done.
I liked this even better than er Wicked Gils, which was great. I like that she let's.the reader know from he start a killer.is living in the building. It was fun guessing who it was. Some.great twists to the story too.
I want to read it!