Extract: Confidence by Denise Mina
When filmmaker Lisa Lee goes missing alongside a priceless Roman silver casket, there is no doubt the two are linked together. The day after her vanishing, the casket is listed for auction in Paris with a reserve price of fifty million euros.
On a thrilling chase across Europe to discover what happened to Lisa, journalists Anna and Fin are caught up in a world of international art smuggling, billionaire con artists and religious zealotry.
Read on for the first chapter of Confidence by Denise Mina!
Lisa Lee had been posting short films on her YouTube channel for a year before she disappeared. She had still only picked up thirty-odd subscribers. There was no particular reason for that, her films were interesting and well shot, the sound was good, they were just a bit off.
Lisa was a bit off.
She starred in all of her own films but her face was inexpressive, her narration obvious. She’d tour amazing abandoned buildings, point the camera at a table and say Oh, look, there’s a table. This elusive blandness made her seem medicated, which posed the question of what she was being medicated for and that took you out of the film. This hinted-at backstory raised other questions: why was she filming herself breaking into places? Wasn’t she worried about getting arrested? Was she trying to resolve something, or escape from something? Why did someone with such a thick working-class accent have such an elaborate, expensive hobby? Was the accent affected? Why would a young, classically good-looking girl have such a severe haircut?
There was too much going on for her to be a one-note internet sensation. Lisa was operating on a lot of different levels.
In the wake of her disappearance her subscribers peaked at just over a million. Her Instagram took off as well, despite the fact that she might never post again, or maybe because of that.
The police asked her dad to take down her films. They thought speculation about them, especially about the chateau, was distracting from the search for her and didn’t see how Lisa’s disappearance in North Berwick could be related to her exploring an abandoned chateau in France.
They were wrong.
It’s worth describing that film for those who didn’t get a chance to see it. It’s just twenty-two minutes or so. She’d made it six months before but only posted it two weeks before she disappeared.
It begins abruptly – Lisa is walking through an autumn wood of bare silver birches, holding the camera with her left hand and training it on her own face, looking forward as if she doesn’t know she’s being filmed.
The air around her seems unnaturally still but we can hear the rustle of dead leaves as she walks, the occasional soft sucking squelch from damp soil underfoot. It must be cold because her cheeks are pinked, her breath becomes visible an inch from her lips, but the frost has lifted from the ground so maybe it’s lunchtime.
Lisa is twenty, slim, with roughly cropped blonde hair. She’s quite intense. When she catches sight of her own face in the viewfinder her nose wrinkles and her shoulder slides up to her ear. She’s dressed in combat-casual: black-and-grey camo trousers, jacket over a hoodie. There’s a crackle of nervous discomfort about her, appropriate because she’s on her way to get into someone’s house without permission and creep around, looking at everything.
Hiya. I’m in France! Excitin’. This is an actual shat-oo I’m taking ye into, eh? Is that how you say it? Shat-oo? It’s a castle anyway, aye. Kinda.
Her accent is a gentle East Coast brogue, girlish and high pitched.
If you like this gonnae chuck us some stars? And reviews really help other people find me here… an’ subscribe to my channel, if you like… She glances at the camera and micro-cringes, turning away, jerking her chin to point up ahead as she walks on. That’s where we’re headed. In there.
She turns the camera to the edge of the wood and a grey-slated turret peeking over the top of the trees. The walls are faded yellow. It looks like a rotting Disney castle.
There. The pointy tower. That’s where we’re going. See, I heard that a big family was living in there – five kids, mum and dad, granny living with them, you know, like, big for nowadays-families, but one morning years ago they all just walked out and never came back. No one seems to know why. An’ they’ve left everything, furniture and clothes, dolls and all this sort of thing…
She walks on, keeping the camera trained forward, scanning the trunks and the ground.
At first glance it looks like an ancient wood but it becomes clear that the history is more complex. Some trees have toppled over. A couple lean drunkenly on their neighbours, one almost perpendicular, its exposed root ball still shaped by the pot it arrived in from a nursery. This is an expensively curated simulacrum of an ancient birch wood, which tells you two things: someone has a lot of money because these things are expensive, and they chose to use that money to create this private world.
Lisa turns the camera back to herself.
I’m completely bricking it, to be honest, I’m always bricking it at this point, but I’m going in. That’s the whole point of doing this, I suppose. In a way. That’s the whole point. For me, anyway. Facing your fears and committing to sharing that with other people, sort of… She attempts a smile but it warps into a grimace.
A sudden movement draws our eye; fifty feet behind her in the woods. Two men approach, keeping their distance but facing Lisa, following her. One of them looks straight into the camera, a black snood pulled up over his mouth and nose.
Lisa’s still smiling awkwardly into the camera when she hears the report of a twig snapping behind her. Fear flares in her eyes.
The film cuts.
Now we’re looking at a still: a Catholic altar through a hazy yellow filter. The altar is covered in a simple white cloth embroidered in red-and-gold thread with the Chi Rho symbol: a P with an X through it. A large silver crucifix stands upright in the centre and a set of priestly vestments are hanging on a clothes stand to the side, as if the Invisible Man has been ordained and is waiting for his cue.
I found this cut terrifying when I first saw it. I almost turned it off. I assumed that Lisa had been attacked by the two men in the wood, had been raped and murdered, and this film was a memorial to her. But then the title of the film comes up in a mad, jaunty font:
ABANDONED MANSION IN FRANCE:
THEY LEFT EVERYTHING!
This is typical of the edits. They’re rough and often meaningless. Lisa isn’t a film- maker, she isn’t trying to say anything subtle, she just wants to show us things. But it’s hard not to read meaning into edits. To watch is to try and make sense of the film. My pattern-recognition instincts were triggered by the cuts but for Lisa editing was just happenstance. Look at this. Now look at that. That’s difficult to accept. Our minds resist meaninglessness.
After a few beats the title card is replaced with drone footage of the wood looking down through the naked birch trees to the forest floor. The shot is super high-res, passing overhead in slow motion. Every branch and leaf is picked out in detail, even the drone’s own shadow ripples crisply across high branches.
The drone glides out over the lip of the wood, over a gravelled forecourt in front of the chateau, to find Lisa with the two men who were walking behind her in the wood.
They’re standing in a tight cluster together on steps up to the front door. A setting autumn sun warms their faces as they grin straight up at us, waving and jumping around, mouthing ‘Hello!’ It’s later in the day, after they’ve been inside and shed their bags and hoods.
Maybe you only see this because it’s slow-mo, if it was faster the subtle shift in mood might not register, but Lisa and the two men glance at each other, realise they’re overreacting to the appearance of the drone, laugh at themselves and pantomime their own enthusiasm. They’re having a good laugh together.
But there’s another man there too, not part of the jolly group, standing at the bottom of the steps, solemn and serious. He’s stout and older, dressed in a washed-out metal band T-shirt and joggers. His chin is on his chest. He looks as if he’s texting furiously on a phone with two hands. He’s actually operating the drone controls and has to concentrate hard.
The drone tilts up to show the chateau’s yellow facade and the turrets at all four corners of the building. The roof has caved in towards the back. Beyond the chateau are turned fields and an equine paddock in the distance, outlined by a white picket fence. This is a wealthy area.
The drone swings a turn around the building, slowing as it approaches the group on the stairs. The drone operator looks straight at us, straight into the lens as it approaches, his eyebrows thick and black, his blue eyes delighted, his arm outstretched like a falconer’s. The drone alights and a broad, warm smile bursts on his face.
We’re inside the chateau looking out one of the dirty glass panels on the front door, out to the forecourt and the steps. Lisa narrates in an awed voice:
So, I’m IN. But I tell you what: this floor feels really soft under my feet here. This building is going to collapse soon. I’ve felt that before in other places I’ve went, there’s a kinda tipping point, sort of thing, where everything feels like wet cardboard and there’s not long a building can stand in that state, eh? Like it’s gonnae fold in on itself soon. Still, look at all of this: see how fast the family’s left here?
Turning slowly into the hallway, she shows us a big set of dark wooden stairs carpeted with grey dust. Next to that is a table laid out for a children’s tea party with cups and side plates, a silver coffee pot and even cutlery. Thick dust has settled over the table like a cloth.
They just, like – whoosh – all walked out the front door in a oner and never came back.
She sidles past the table to a small door under the stairs, she opens it and shines her phone torch inside. It’s a dark corridor leading to stone steps down into a black water that licks lazily at the steps, the movement magnified by an oily rainbow surface.
God… Absolutely stinks in there.
She backs out, reaches over to shut the door and her camera accidentally captures the two men from the front steps crossing the hall behind her. They realise they’re being filmed and freeze.
Oh, says Lisa and moves so that she’s in front of the lens with the men over her shoulder in the background.
Lisa seems taller now that she’s made it inside, younger, her eyes bright and wide and her pallor flushed. She points back her shoulder to the men, watching herself in the viewfinder.
This is Florian.
He’s tall and skinny, blond with a tentative shoehorn moustache and the perfect skin of a very young man.
This is Gregor.
Gregor is short and brawny with a wry grin. He has cropped dark hair and a chaotic monobrow. His lips are parted expectantly, as if he’s on the brink of laughing.
They’re the Belgian urbex team I’ve been chatting to online, you might have seen… We all drove down here together. Well – they drove me. Say ‘hi’, guys?
Florian and Gregor are camera-shy. Florian gives a fast little wave to the camera, squeaks with panic, and they both snicker and scuttle out of view. Lisa waits until they’re in the next room and whispers:
We don’t always get on in the community, you know that, I’ve had my battles, but those guys are total diamonds. They’ve just telt me that I shouldn’t say ‘shat-oo’, it’s ‘shat-oh’. But they didn’t make me feel dead thick or anything. They just, like, they were nice about it, you know?
Unthinkingly, as if she’s rehearsing or enjoying the word, she whispers to herself, shat-oh. Check out their website. I’ll put their deets up.
Through another small door she leads us into a private chapel. This is a new building, an extension made of breeze blocks and concrete.
No way. Look! I tell ye, this family were very religious, there’s crucifixes and religious stuff everywhere.
Unfamiliar with Catholicism, she misnames almost everything.
There, that’s… the wee stage for the priest to do his preaching… Benches here, for the people. Tablecloth on the altar – that’s still there. The priest’s wee dress. Even the silver cross standing up. And I’ll tell you what – that is a nice cross too. I know it isn’t steel because it’d be rusty as anything by now. Been shut up here for years. It’s made of silver, that is. See how it’s foxed from the damp and grey, like? That’s actual silver. They’ve just left it. It’s a shame.
She turns the camera to the floor; raw concrete covered with a beautiful red Persian rug. Moths have flourished here, dissolving the weave that holds the tufts together so the corner of the carpet crumbles away like a gingernut biscuit left in a saucer of milk.
Sad to see these things just left. This should be saved, all this stuff, because it’s, basically, like, antiques.
She’s in a huge living room papered yellow. Whole strips have slithered off the damp walls revealing smooth wet plaster. The yellow is bright and cheerful, a damask in an oversized pattern. The chateau’s decor is full of confident choices like this.
Lisa pans the camera to a patch of deep black velvet mould galloping across the ceiling.
Oh, shit… she fumbles her scarf up over her face. Don’t want to get that in your lungs, spores from black mould, it’s as bad as asbestos. Have to be careful… Sometimes asbestos is why a place got left suddenly but don’t think there is any here. The whole building seems redone. The plasterwork under the wallpaper is new. The floor looks pretty new. That little church was new. But they’ve done all that and then walked out suddenly. Weird. This whole place is weird though. Look…
She turns slowly to a white marble fireplace topped with a massive painting of St Sebastian shot through with arrows. In a better painting by a better artist he’d be looking heavenward in an ecstasy of faith, but it’s not very good and he looks like an exasperated supply teacher.
She’s in a kitchen, high-ceilinged and bright, painted apple green. Hanging all along the walls are long- handled copper pans, too high to be anything but decoration, higgledy-piggledy but somehow a coherent pattern too. Like the rest of the house, the room is cheerful, decorated by someone with a great eye and a feel for the subtlety of colour and textures.
I found this kitchen the creepiest part of the film because some of the things in there were recognisably contemporary: a range cooker in pastel blue from an expensive brand I’ve coveted online, the same Danish-designed highchair that I had for my girls when they were toddlers. It converts from a highchair into the world’s most uncomfortable perch seat. An overpriced toaster and a Bodum coffee press I’ve seen in a hundred kitchens. But everything was rotting and covered in dust. It made the kitchen feel simultaneously contemporary and ancient, like looking back at the present from the future.
Short bit: Lisa’s on the big staircase in the hall, staying close to the wall, when a sudden shower of dust falls from the ceiling above her. She shows us it twisting and falling, catching the light like a stairwell chandelier in a Vegas hotel. Lisa’s face is sliced in half by the shot and she freezes, mouth ajar, eye bright, looking straight into the camera. As the shower ends a gleeful smile dawns on her face. She survived that.
She’s in a child’s bedroom looking at a windowsill crammed with Furbies, all different colours, fur matted with dust. Their dead eyes are half shut and they look out at the room, tipsy and disdainful.
Whoa! Original Furbies. You could eBay the shit out of these. But you know, you wouldn’t though. Obviously. Take nothing. If you’re going to rearrange everything you find for better pictures you might as well stay home and do that. There’s just no point coming all this way… No point.
She climbs about in a couple of other bedrooms and a bathroom with a collapsed floor. But the money shot comes in the attic.
She’s in a small doorway on the top floor looking into a low-ceilinged room with a run of little dirty windows along one wall. There are steps down into it and it is lined with bookshelves, some of which have fallen and spilled the books onto the floor. By the fireplace is a comfy reading chair with a floor lamp at its shoulder. The mould is rampant in here. Lisa is anxious about that until she sees the carcasses.
Three dead pigeons lie under the window, desiccated, just piles of feathers and bones and beaks. They’ve been there for a long time. They must have got trapped, she says, got in through the hole in the roof back there and not been able to find their way back out.
Poor things. Poor, poor wee things. Wee trapped things…
She is freaked out by the bodies and clings to the wall by the fireplace, scrambling over a pile of books to get past them. This is when she stumbles, almost falls and slaps a hand on the wall next to the fireplace to steady herself.
The wall drops open.
It’s a secret door.
She rights herself. She looks at it, touches it, pushes it open a little more. She smiles at us.
She looks in through the gap, back out at us, her mouth a smiley little ‘o’, then she pushes it wider, forgetting to show us what she’s looking at.
What the fuck…?
She turns on her phone torch, shines it in and her eyes widen.
Oh my God. Whoah!
She shoulders the door wide and brings the camera up to let us see what she’s seeing.
It is a frightening room, windowless, not at all in keeping with the domestic rest of the chateau. Walls, ceiling and floor are painted black. A dead bulb hangs on a bare wire. The floor isn’t dusty because this room has been sealed.
In the middle is an old office desk from the 1980s and an orange plastic chair sitting at an odd angle, facing a wall that is blank except for a small, square painting, framed in gold and swathed in cellophane. The image on the canvas can be seen only briefly, winking out at us between flashes of reflected light from Lisa’s phone torch on the plastic.
It’s a painting of a hand. A hand holding a yellow pen and it is writing something, but the image is cropped so that, if they are writing something, we can’t see what it is. The brushwork is soupy and impressionistic, too loose for something so small. It looks like a detail from a larger painting.
Sitting on the desk is a box shaped like a duty-free carton of cigarettes but rounded at the edges. It’s silver, foxed and dun like the cross on the altar. There’s elaborate raised ornamentation on the side and an inscription on the top.
Whoaw! Lisa grins at it. Bloody hell, what in the fuck’s going on?
She steps into the room and puts a hand out to the silver box. It’s in this moment of forgetting that her sleeve rides up and we see her heavily scarred forearm. We see it very briefly, like the painting of the hand; a mountain range of scar ridges. Lisa has been cutting herself for a long time, slashing deep across the meat on her forearm.
She’s in a bright place, maybe a garage, filming a dune of broken furniture shored up against a corrugated-iron side wall. One of the guys, Florian or Gregor, asks her if she’s OK. He sounds worried.
Aye! Aye! Yeah, I’m totally fine. Fine.
But her voice is wavering and the camera trembles.
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