Someone was following her. She was sure of it.
Hurrying along the winding lane, her flat shoes slapping on the tarmac, she glanced between the trees of the woodland that grew up on both sides. Long shadows snaked around the trunks, melting into each other, forming one amorphous shape. Only moments ago, she’d heard twigs snapping and branches rustling on her left. Her first thought was that it had been a rabbit or a fox. But then her mind had started whispering terrible things in her ear. Someone’s there. They’re watching you. They know what you’ve been doing.
She quickened her pace. Soon, it would be dark and she would be vulnerable. But if she could make it to the main road and the bus shelter, she could get to someplace safe.
Glancing over her shoulder, she saw the grand old manor house in the near distance. The gardens lay still. A few vehicles sat on the gravel drive, all unoccupied. No one was coming after her.
It was her mind playing tricks, that was all. The conversation she’d had back at the house was planting seeds of paranoia. She’d been warned to stop. To keep her mouth shut. But it was much too late for that.
The path twisted to the left. The woodland shadows reached the treeline and stretched long fingers towards her. Fear pricked her skin. Fresh tears welled at the corners of her eyes.
How had she been so blind? All this time, she’d thought she’d been doing good. Helping. Supporting. Bringing peace. But now all she saw was the horror of it all. She’d been so naïve!
Tears came, spilling down her pale white skin and painting black spots on the blue cotton of her uniform.
A loud snap splintered the air. It had come from the woodland, just up ahead.
Maybe it wasn’t her imagination after all.
She broke into a run. Above her, the sky was bruised purple and smeared with bloody streaks. Up ahead, the path twisted again, coiling like a snake.
She ran faster, risking a second glance over her shoulder, seeing only trees and asphalt and swarming shadows. Her lungs were burning, her eyes stinging. Panic was rising up inside her like an evil spirit.
But there was the mouth of the lane and the road beyond. Her escape. She flung herself towards it, almost tripping over her feet as she stumbled to safety.
Relief flooding her veins, she slowed her pace to a hurried walk and drew in deep breaths. The bus shelter was just up ahead, next to an elevated pedestrian walkway that spanned the road.
She glanced up, hoping to see people. But there was no one. Not even a car on the road.
She was alone out here. Alone with darkness falling fast. Or maybe she wasn’t alone at all. She shot a glance back at the mouth of the lane. There was someone there, standing in the shadows.
No, it was her eyes playing tricks, just like her mind.
She turned back to the bus shelter, where a single yellow light illuminated like a beacon. Pulling out her phone, she checked the time. 8:48 p.m. Her bus would be here in five minutes. Five long minutes in which anything could happen.
Reaching the shelter, she pressed herself up against the glass, her breaths heaving in and out. Four minutes until the bus arrived. She prayed it would be on time.
Where was she going? She could go home. To him. To another beating. But he might be able to help her put things right. Or she could run, maybe go to her parents. If she could get to an airport.
Vehicle headlights appeared in the near distance, growing closer with each passing second. She held her breath, hoping that it was her bus. The vehicle came closer, the roar of the engine filling her ears. The car shot past. She watched its rear lights fading fast, dread climbing up her throat. Silence resumed. Until something moved in the bushes.
Blood rushing in her ears, she spun around. Nothing was there. She made a decision; a bad one. Finding his number, she hit the call button on the phone screen, then pressed the phone to her ear.
He picked up after three rings.
“Where the hell are you?” he growled, his voice dripping with anger.
She glanced at the mouth of the lane, then shook her head.
“I’m at the bus stop,” she said, her accent laced with a Germanic twang. “Are you at home?”
“I told you to stay here, but you didn’t listen. You never do. That big mouth of yours is nothing but trouble.”
“Please,” she said. “I’m scared. I don’t want to fight.”
“You should have thought about that before. I warned you, didn’t I? I told you to mind your own business.”
“Please . . . I’m coming home and then I think we should leave.”
“I’m not going anywhere. You dug your own grave. As far as I’m concerned you’re on your own.”
More headlights appeared in the distance. She squinted, trying to make out the vehicle. Her stomach fluttered as it came closer. It was her bus.
“Are you still there?” she said, breathing into the phone.
The line crackled. She glanced over her shoulder at the mouth of the lane, then along the road, where the bus was gradually making its way towards her.
“Are you there?” she said again, panic making her voice shrill.
A sound rustled behind her.
She twisted around. A towering figure burst from the shadows. Before she could scream, a powerful hand clamped over her mouth. An arm wrapped around her waist and hoisted her from the ground.
“I’m right here,” a voice whispered in her ear.
Then she was carried, kicking and squealing, into the trees.
The bus drove past the empty shelter. Then it was silent and dark.
She was drowning, pulled under by limbs and bodies, swept along by currents of voices, music, and car engines. Dark shadows circled her like hungry sharks. Hands and elbows pushed and shoved. Exhaust fumes clogged her throat. This was the old part of the city. There were no smooth walls here, no towers made of steel and glass. This was all shadows and sculptures, buttresses and winding alleys; Victorian London hiding among the skyscrapers.
The crowd surged and spat the woman out, leaving her at the mouth of a narrow street. She paused for a minute, counting to four as she inhaled through her nose, to seven as she held her breath, then to eight as she exhaled through her mouth.
The early November air chilled her bones as she moved along the street, checking the address she had written on notepaper, until she stood in front of a tall apartment building. A plaque above the entrance read: The Holmeswood. A woman in her early fifties and dressed head to toe in chocolate fur was waiting outside.
“Paulina Blanchard?” The younger woman’s voice was a whisper above the street noise. She was pretty: mid-twenties, pale skin and green eyes, blonde hair scooped into a winter hat. “My name’s Emily Swanson. I’m here for the viewing?”
Paulina nodded, then opened the file she was holding in a gloved hand and took her time to slide her finger down the appointments list.
“Emily Swanson . . .” she said.
“Sorry to keep you waiting in the cold. I lost my way.” Emily smiled uncertainly as Paulina looked her up and down.
“Yes, well, you should have been here at two. I have another viewing in fifteen minutes with a married couple, financial types. So, I’m afraid we’ll have to make this quick.”
The letting agent pulled open the grand door of the building. As they stepped inside, the outside world fell silent.
“As you can see this is the lobby.” Paulina removed her hat to reveal a head of tight, salt and pepper curls. “Mailboxes are on your left. The lift is on your right.”
The exterior architecture may have been Victorian, but the interior was distinctly Art Deco. Faded red and white tiles made a sprawling grid beneath Emily’s feet, while two great pillars flanked her sides. A stained glass design of birds and flowers filled the space above the lift doors.
“It’s beautiful.” Emily’s gaze climbed the sprawling staircase that sat in the centre of the lobby.
“Will your partner be joining us?” Paulina asked, eyeing Emily.
“No partner. It’s just me.”
“You’re aware of how much this apartment costs to rent?”
“I can afford it.”
“I see. Any children?”
Emily’s fingers glided over the grooves of the lift doors then slipped inside her coat pockets. She glanced at the letting agent, ignoring the sudden pounding of her heart. Slowly, she shook her head.
“Well, there are thirteen apartments in the building,” Paulina continued, arching an eyebrow. “Four on each floor, with the penthouse at the top.”
“Thirteen? Isn’t that meant to be bad luck for buildings?”
“That’s why there’s a 12A, and the penthouse, 12B. You’ll be looking at 12A.” Paulina tapped her wrist. “That’s three minutes up already and we haven’t even made it upstairs.”
The lift was slow and moaned like a rheumatic old man as the two women rode in silence to the fourth floor. Emily felt Paulina’s steely gaze pressing into her skin. She didn’t fit the letting agent’s profile, that much was obvious. But instead of meeting the woman’s glare, Emily kept her eyes glued to the doors. After a long, excruciating minute, the lift ground to a halt with a startling screech of brakes. The doors slid open and Paulina brushed past, taking off along a gloomy corridor with faded blue carpet and a window at the far end that let in little light.
“The tenant will be at work right now,” she said. Stopping outside of apartment 12A, she unlocked the door and held it open for Emily, who thanked her quietly as she stepped inside.
A small chandelier of imitation crystals hung from the high ceiling of an L-shaped hallway. A coat stand stood in the corner, its arms empty like winter branches.
“There are original floorboards in all rooms except the kitchen,” Paulina said, continuing her rehearsed sales speech as she shut the door and took the lead once more. “On your left, you’ll find ample storage cupboards. Doors up ahead lead to the living room, bedroom, and bathroom. Access to the kitchen is via the living room. Shall we?”
Emily trailed behind as they moved along the hallway, her eyes fixed on Paulina’s back. She didn’t like the woman. She didn’t like the way she kept looking at her. Judging her. And she didn’t like the questions she was asking.
Up ahead, Paulina opened a door and peered inside. Her face reddened. “I’m sorry, but there appears to be a spot of mess. I’d specifically reminded the tenant to keep the place tidy for today’s viewings, but clearly he doesn’t know the meaning of the word!”
“It’s no bother,” Emily replied, hiding a smile as she imagined the angry phone call that the tenant would no doubt receive later.
The living room was tall and wide. Three arched windows stretched from ceiling to floor, overlooking the city. Two leather sofas sat on one side, a dining table and chairs on the other. In the centre of the room, stacks of open boxes and rolls of packing tape covered the floor, along with a mountain of the current tenant’s belongings.
“What a view!” Paulina enthused, directing Emily’s attention away from the mess and towards the windows.
Emily moved over to the centre window and pressed her face against the glass. Down below, streams of people flooded the pavement, their bodies bobbing around like microbes in a Petri dish.
“Why is the tenant moving out?” she asked.
Behind her, Paulina shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “His wife left him. She was German, so I imagine she went back home. No point in him staying alone in a big place like this. Far too expensive. You have a job, I presume?”
Emily returned her curious gaze to the array of belongings. The remnants of a life together did not make such a big pile, she thought.
“Not yet. I’m relocating.”
Emily gave the letting agent a nervous glance, but she dared not elaborate. Besides, all Paulina Blanchard needed to know was if Emily could afford the rent. Which she could. For now.
The letting agent furled her brow, then flipped through the pages of her file. “Well, as I mentioned, it’s not the cheapest of places. We’ll need to run some checks—bank references, credit scoring, that sort of thing—but I’m sure you wouldn’t be wasting my time. Speaking of which, we should see the rest of the apartment. The kitchen is right through here.”
Emily watched the woman skirt around the tenant’s belongings and disappear through a pair of saloon doors at the far end of the room. She watched the doors swing back and forth like pendulums. Then she returned her gaze to the windows and the cityscape beyond. She liked this apartment. She liked it a lot. And as long as Paulina Blanchard didn’t find out who Emily Swanson really was or what she’d done, it would be hers.
“Your new home,” Emily whispered, as an anxious knot began to form in her stomach.