Brutal unsolved murders all coincidentally connected to Astrid Bell put her six housemates on guard in bestseller Nicci French's latest chilling psychological thriller.
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Until It's Over
By Nicci French
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2007 Joined-Up Writing
All rights reserved.
I had cycled around London for week after week, month after month, and I knew that one day I would have an accident. The only question was, which kind? One of the other messengers had been heading along Regent Street at speed when a taxi had swung out to make a U-turn without looking. Or, at least, without looking for a bike, because people don't look for bikes. Don had hit the side of the taxi full on and woken up in hospital unable to recall his own name.
There's a pub, the Horse and Jockey, where a whole bunch of us despatch riders meet up on Friday evenings and drink and gossip and share stories and laugh about tumbles. But every few months or so there'd be worse news. The most recent was about the man who was cycling down near the Elephant and Castle. He was alongside a lorry that turned left without indicating and cut the corner. That's when the gap between the lorry and the kerb shrinks from about three feet to about three inches. All you can do is get off the road. But in that case there was an iron railing in the way. The next time I cycled past I saw that people had taped bunches of flowers to it.
When these accidents happen, sometimes it's the cyclist's fault and sometimes it isn't. I've heard stories of bus drivers deliberately ramming bikes. I've seen plenty of cyclists who think that traffic lights don't apply to them. But the person on the bike always comes off second best. Which is why you should wear a helmet and try to stay away from lorries and always assume that the driver is a blind, stupid psychopath.
Even so, I knew that one day I would have an accident. There were so many different kinds, and I thought the most likely was the one that was hardest to avoid or plan against. So it proved. But I never thought it would take place within thirty yards of my own house. As I turned into Maitland Road, I was about to swing my leg over the cross-bar. I was forty-five seconds from a hot shower and in my mind I was already off the bike and indoors, after six hours in the saddle, when a car door opened into the road in front of me, like the wing of a metal bird, and I hit it.
There was no time for me to respond in any way, to swerve or to shield myself. And yet the events seemed to occur in slow motion. As my bike slammed against the door I was able to see that I was hitting it from the wrong direction: instead of pushing the door shut, I was pushing it further open. I felt it screech and bend but then stop as the momentum transferred itself from the door back to the bike and especially to the most mobile part of the bike, which was me. I remembered that my feet were in the stirrups and if they remained fastened, I would get tangled in the bike and might break both my legs. But then, as if in answer, my feet detached themselves, like two peas popped from a pod, and I flew over the door, leaving my bike behind.
It all happened so quickly that I couldn't protect myself as I fell or avoid any obstacle. At the same time it happened so slowly that I was able to think about it as it was taking place. I had many thoughts, but it wasn't clear whether they were happening one after another or all at the same time. I thought: I'm having an accident. This is what it's like to have an accident. I thought: I'm going to be hurt, probably quite badly. I thought: I'm going to have to make arrangements. It looks like I won't be at work tomorrow. I'll have to phone Campbell and let him know. Or someone will. And then I thought: How stupid. We're meeting for dinner tonight, one of those rare occasions when we all sit round the table together, and it seems like I won't be there. And I even had time to think: What will I look like, lying flung out on the road?
At which point I hit the ground. I had flipped over like an incompetent acrobat and landed on my back, hard, hitting the wind out of me, so that I made an 'oof' sound. I rolled and felt bits of me bang and scrape along the road surface. When I heard my body hit the Tarmac, there was no pain at first. It was like a bang and a bright flash. But I knew that the pain was on its way and suddenly there it was, at the centre of everything, beating against me in wave after wave, light pulsing in my eyes in reds and purples and bright yellows, each pulse a different sort of hurt. I made an attempt to move. I was in the road. The road was a dangerous place. A lorry might run over me. It didn't matter. I was incapable of movement. All I could do was swear, over and over again: 'Fuck. Shit. Fuck. Shit.'
Gradually the pain started to locate itself. It was like rain that had fallen and was now settling into puddles and rivulets. I felt dizzy but my helmet had saved my head. My upper back was numb where I had landed on it. What really hurt for the moment were lots of other places – my elbows, the side of one knee. One of my hands had been bent back and was throbbing. With the other I touched my thigh and felt sticky wetness and bits of gravel. A tiny part of my brain still had time to think: How stupid. If this had not happened, I would be in the house and everything would be normal. Now I'm here and I'm going to have to deal with it, and if only I didn't.
I lay back and the Tarmac was warm against me and I could even smell it, oily and sharp. The sun was low and yolky in the fading blue.
A shadow fell across me, a shape blocking the sky. 'Are you all right?' it said.
'No,' I said. 'Fuck.'
'I'm so sorry,' it said. 'I opened the door. I didn't see you. I should have looked. I'm so, so sorry. Are you hurt? Shall I call an ambulance?'
Another wave of pain hit me. 'Leave me alone,' I said.
'I'm so, so sorry.'
I took a deep breath and the pain receded a little and the person came into focus. I saw the vaguely familiar face of a middle-aged woman and I saw her silver car and I saw the open door, which had been bent outwards by the impact. I took another deep breath and made the effort to say something that wasn't just whimpering or swearing. 'You should look.'
'I'm so sorry.'
I was going to tell her again to go away but suddenly felt nauseous and had to devote my energy to stopping myself vomiting in the street. I had to get home. It was only a few yards away. I felt like an animal that needed to crawl into its hole, preferably to die. With a groan, I rolled over and began to push myself up. It hurt terribly but through the fog I noticed that my limbs were functioning. Nothing was obviously shattered; no tendons had been torn.
I heard a familiar voice and, indeed, a familiar name. My own. Astrid. That was another good sign. I knew who I was. I looked up and saw a familiar face gazing down at me with concern. Then another swam into focus behind the first: two were staring at me with the same expression.
'What the hell happened?' one said.
Stupidly and inexplicably, I felt embarrassed.
'Davy,' I said. 'Dario. I just came off the bike. It's nothing. I just –'
'I opened my door,' the woman said. 'She rode into it. It was all my fault. Should I call an ambulance?'
'How's my bike?' I said.
'Don't worry about it,' said Davy, bending down, his face creased with concern. 'How are you doing?'
I sat up in the road. I flexed my jaw, felt my teeth with my tongue. I felt my tongue with my teeth.
'I think I'm all right,' I said. 'A bit shaken.' I stood up, flinched.
'What about my bike?'
Dario walked round to the other side of the car door and stood the bike up. 'It's a bit bent,' he said. He tried to push it but the front wheel was jammed in the fork.
'It looks ...' I was trying to say that it looked the way I felt but the sentence seemed too hard to construct. Instead I said I wanted to get into the house. The woman asked again about getting an ambulance but I shook my head and groaned because my neck felt sore.
'I'll pay for the bike,' the woman said.
'Yes, you will.'
'I live just here. I'll come and see you. Is there anything else I can do now?'
I tried to say something snappy, like 'You've done enough already,' but it was too much of an effort and, anyway, she looked upset and bothered and she wasn't defending herself like some people would have done. I looked round and she was trying to close the offending door. It took two goes to get it shut. Dario picked up my bike and Davy put an arm carefully round me and led me towards our house. Dario nodded at someone.
'Who's that?' I said.
'Nobody,' he said. 'How's your head?'
I rubbed my temple cautiously. 'Feels a bit funny.'
'We were sitting outside on the front step,' said Dario, 'having a smoke and enjoying the evening, weren't we, Davy?'
'Right,' said Davy. 'And there was a crash and there you were.'
'Bloody stupid,' I said.
'Can you make it? It's just a few more yards.'
'It's OK,' I said, though my legs were quaking and the door seemed to be receding rather than getting closer. Davy shouted for Miles, then Dario joined in even more loudly, and the sound echoed round my skull, making me flinch. Davy led me through the gate and Miles appeared from inside at the top of the steps. When he saw the state of me, his expression was almost comic. 'What the hell happened?' he said.
'Car door,' said Davy.
I was quickly surrounded by my housemates. Davy tried to hang the bike on the hooks on the wall in the hallway. Because it was damaged it didn't fit properly. He took it down again and started to fiddle with it, getting oil on the front of his lovely white shirt. 'That's going to need some work,' he said, with relish.
Pippa came down the stairs and said something rude to Davy about how it was me that needed checking, not the bike. She gave me a very light hug, hardly touching me. Mick looked at me impassively over the banisters from the floor above.
'Bring her through,' said Miles. 'Get her downstairs.'
'I'm fine,' I said.
They insisted and I was half helped, half dragged down the stairs into the large kitchen-dining area where we ate and talked and spent our time when we weren't in our own rooms. I was placed on the sofa near the double doors and Dario, Pippa and Miles sat staring at me, asking over and over how I was feeling. I was clear-headed now. The shock of the accident had settled into simple, ordinary pain. I knew it was going to hurt like hell the next morning but it would be all right. Dario took a cigarette from a pack in his pocket and lit it.
'We should cut her clothes off,' he said. 'The way they do in A and E departments.'
'In your dreams,' I said.
'Do you need to see a doctor?' Miles asked.
'I need a hot bath.'
'About the hot part,' said Dario. 'There might be a problem with that.'CHAPTER 2
There's something satisfying about the aftermath of an accident in which you haven't really been hurt. Especially when you look worse than you feel. I felt all right, but there was a lovely bruise flowering on my calf, a raw graze down my thigh, a gash on my hand, and my left cheek had an ugly scrape. My wrist was swollen. I stung and throbbed and ached, but in a masochistically pleasurable way. I kept pressing my cuts to make sure they were still bleeding. After a shallow, tepid bath, I lay on my bed in old jogging pants and a T-shirt, and assorted members of the household strayed in to ask me if I was all right and to hear yet again how it had happened. I began to feel almost proud of myself.
'It was all in slow motion,' I repeated for the fourth time.
Davy and Dario, the two heroic rescuers, were looking down at me. Dario lit another cigarette, except it wasn't a cigarette, and a familiar illegal smell drifted across my room.
'You must have fallen in a really natural way,' said Davy. 'That's why you didn't get seriously injured. It's pretty impressive. It's the way they train paratroopers. But you did it naturally.'
'It wasn't in my control,' I said.
Dario took a huge drag on his spliff. 'Or like a really, really drunk person,' he said. 'When really drunk people fall over, they don't get injured because their body's so relaxed.'
'Let's have a look,' said Mick, sitting on the edge of the bed.
I might have made a caustic remark if someone else had said that, but with Mick you don't really make caustic remarks. He's a man of few words. It's as if it takes a painful effort for him to speak, and when he does the rest of us generally fall silent. I wanted to ask why he was more qualified than anyone else to assess the damage, but I knew he would simply shrug.
'Does this hurt?' he asked, as I flinched. 'Or this?' He pressed a hand against my ribs, then lifted each leg, one after the other, feeling along my calves over thick daubs of oil that no amount of scrubbing with warm soapy water had removed. 'Nothing broken,' he said, which I knew anyway.
Pippa appeared with a small bottle of blue liquid and a handful of cotton wool.
'Will it sting?' I asked.
'Not a bit,' she said, and applied a liberal dousing of disinfectant to my cheek.
'Shit!' I yelled, squirming away from her. 'Stop at once!'
'Because, because,' she said mysteriously, slapping another sodden wad of cotton wool on to my thigh.
'Have a drag on this,' said Dario, offering me his spliff. 'It's good for pain and nausea.'
'I'll pass,' I said.
'Are you all right for the meal?' said Pippa.
'Owen's bringing it on the way back from his studio.'
He arrived with an Indian takeaway in brown-paper carrier-bags and put them on the table, then looked up and saw me at the head, in a large chair, propped up with pillows. He frowned. 'You get into a fight?'
'With a car door.'
'Those are some bruises,' he said.
'They'll be worse tomorrow.'
'You should have seen her,' said Davy, sitting beside me. He looked more shocked than I was. 'She flew through the air.'
'Like a human cannonball,' said Dario, taking the chair on the other side.
'Does it hurt?'
'Not so much.'
'Of course it fucking hurts,' said Pippa. 'Look at her.'
'No. Don't look at me. My nose is twice its usual size. How much do we owe for this lot, Owen?'
'Eight quid each.'
There was muttering as people fumbled in pockets and purses, counted out coins and demanded change. Dario pulled a roll of notes out of his pocket, peeled off a twenty and tossed it to Owen. 'Keep the change,' he said. 'I probably owe you anyway.'
'Did you win the lottery?' said Owen, with an expression of distrust.
Dario looked shifty. 'Someone owed me,' he said.
Everyone sat round the kitchen table and eased off the foil lids, pulled tabs on beer cans, passed round chipped plates and an odd assortment of cutlery. Pippa helped herself to Dario's spliff and took a deep drag.
'Are lawyers allowed to do that?' asked Miles.
'Not in the office,' Pippa said, and looked round the group. 'How often does this happen? It's us and just us.'
'Now we are seven,' said Dario, clinking his fork against his plate for silence, then immediately shovelled an enormous amount of rice into his mouth and chewed for several seconds while we all waited. 'Like the Seven Dwarfs,' he said at last.
'There are certain things we need to discuss,' said Miles, rather formally. 'To start with, can I say –'
'You're Doc,' said Dario.
'If we're like the Seven Dwarfs –'
'Which we're not.'
'– you're definitely Doc,' said Dario.
'Because I own this house? And who else is going to get the drains fixed and make sure the bills are paid?'
'The dwarfs represent the parts that make up the psyche,' said Dario.
'Is this what I flew into a car door for?' I said. The beer was making me feel mellow and the pain had receded.
'You're Angry,' said Dario to Mick.
Mick ignored him.
'Is there an Angry?' I asked. 'I don't remember him.'
'There's Grumpy,' said Davy.
'Pippa's Randy, right?' said Dario, winking across the table at Davy.
This was a reference to the fact that Pippa was not in a proper relationship, but instead had a fair amount of extremely short ones.
'Oh, boys, boys,' I said. 'That's pathetic.'
'I think we can agree that Dopey's taken,' said Pippa.
'You can have Sleepy, then,' said Dario. 'No one can sleep like you.'
This wasn't strictly fair. Pippa only sleeps at weekends, when she goes to bed in the small hours and gets up in the afternoon, looking puffy, dazed and replete. During the week she's a dutiful worker who rises at seven. Dario, on the other hand, sleeps whenever he likes.
'We're running out of the good ones,' said Davy. 'Owen can be Sneezy.'
Excerpted from Until It's Over by Nicci French. Copyright © 2007 Joined-Up Writing. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In London Astrid Bell loves her life as a bike messenger and living with six roommates in a dumpy house on Maitland. She especially likes her flatmates who are best buddies to her though she knows each one of their flaws and idiosyncrasies. Riding her bike on her way home from work, Astrid collides with the car door of a neighbor Margaret Farrell. Her pals assist a somewhat battered Astrid home. Soon after the collision, someone kills Margaret, beating her to death in what the cops believe was an out of control rage. The police question the seven mates, but each has an alibi. Soon a second homicide tied back to Astrid occurs followed by another. The police suspect a stunned Astrid who has no explanation as to why someone would kill for her over minor indiscretions. The tale is broken into two interrelated segments with the first setting the stage mostly starring Astrid and the second how the acts were performed by the killer. Readers know early on who the serial killer is and why; yet the beauty of Nicci French's talent is that the suspense keeps intensifying until the end. Astrid is a terrific young woman whose life turns upside down from the moment she collides with the car which was unknown at that time to her or her buds. That incident apparently set in motion the murdering spree. Fans will enjoy this engaging thriller wondering UNTIL IT'S OVER what will happen next to a beleaguered Astrid. Harriet Klausner