Extract: Last Seen Alive by Claire Douglas
Libby and James Hall can’t believe their luck when the leaflet comes through the door. Swapping their tiny city flat for a beautiful house by the sea? Who would say no? But once they arrive at The Hideaway Libby starts to get jittery and increasingly paranoid. She is sure that someone is watching them. Something here isn’t right. And when she suspects their lives to be in danger they swiftly decide to return to Bath.
But they can’t pick up their old life so easily. Because this isn’t just a casual house swap. This is something much, much more sinister.
Read on for an extract from Last Seen Alive!
Last Seen Alive
He had such pretty eyes; they were his best feature, the colour of the ocean. Now they are as glassy and lifeless as a china doll’s, staring up at the darkening sky, empty, unseeing. The stone ornament falls from my open palm and spins towards his body, where it lands heavily against his thigh.
Fear takes hold of me so that, for a few moments, I’m rooted to the spot, staring at the dent in his skull and the arc of blood that has sprayed from the back of his head, staining the grass red. Then I kneel down beside him, my knees sinking into the damp lawn. I’m careful not to touch him. I can leave no evidence.
I glance up furtively. The building is over two hundred feet away, the windows opaque, some with curtains hanging open, others with the blinds rolled up. Was anybody watching? I’m already starting to think like a criminal. Was I seen at the bottom of the garden among the weeds and overgrown grass?
Was I seen killing my husband?
Jamie twists the dial on the radio up to full volume so we can hear the Stone Roses over the wind whistling past our ears. He looks like one of those nodding dogs as he moves his head to the music.
‘God, I love this song.’
‘You don’t say,’ I tease, and then grimace when he starts singing along.
He notices. ‘What? I was the lead singer in a band when I was eighteen.’ But he squeezes my thigh, a playful gesture that shows me he’s not offended. ‘You could’ve been our groupie.’
I’m tempted to remind him that he was with Hannah then. She would have been his groupie. But I don’t want to dampen his mood. He seems happier than he’s been in ages. I turn to appraise him, to admire his sharp jaw that curves into his long neck, the fine blond hair just visible above the buttons of his polo shirt, and I feel a flicker of desire. I place my hand where his still rests lightly on my thigh and we interlock our fingers. He catches my eye and smiles before his gaze snaps back to the empty lane that stretches ahead of us.
‘I can’t wait to see the house,’ I say. ‘I wonder what it’s going to be like. I hope it isn’t some kind of dive.’
He raises an eyebrow. ‘A dive? I doubt that. Didn’t Philip Heywood describe it as –’ he puts on his telephone voice ‘– “an imposing seaside pile with panoramic views of the bay”, or some such…’
I laugh. ‘I don’t think so.’
He takes his hand away and places it back on the steering wheel to navigate a bend. ‘The Roseland Peninsula is supposed to be stunning.’
‘The name certainly suggests so.’
‘Apparently it’s derived from rhos, Celtic for heath.’
‘How do you know this stuff?’
He raises an eyebrow. ‘Because I’m a geek.’
‘You are.’ But I’m smiling as I say it. I tug the collar of my coat further up my bare neck. It’s been years since I’ve had long hair but I occasionally miss the warmth of it against my skin, especially in the colder months. The sunshine bounces off the bonnet of the car yet there is a chill in the air, despite the blue skies, reminding us that the threat of an April shower is ever present. I don’t have the heart to tell Jamie to put the roof up. He needs this holiday just as much as I do. Our first nine months of married life haven’t been easy.
I catch sight of our golden retriever Ziggy in the rear-view mirror, lounging across the back seat, his eyes closed, his tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth. It’d been a last-minute decision to bring the dog. Katie, Jamie’s younger sister, had promised to look after him for us, but, as usual, she’d let us down at the eleventh hour.
I feel the drag of car sickness in the pit of my stomach as Jamie navigates another bend and I concentrate on breathing deeply, trying to push the nausea away, my nostrils desperately searching for the sea air that we’d been promised but instead finding the pungent scent of rapeseed from the yellow fields. My right arm feels heavy and itches beneath its cast, but at least it’s given me a good excuse not to have to drive. Not that Jamie encourages me to get behind the wheel any more. Not since early on in our relationship, when I nearly killed us both by pulling onto a busy A‑road and narrowly missing an oncoming lorry.
Eventually, a speck in the distance grows bigger, breaking up the monotonous country road; a tiny petrol station stands forlornly, like a lost child amongst the wild foliage.
‘That must be the one,’ I say, pointing at it in excitement, trying to remember the instructions that Philip Heywood had given me on the phone two days before.
Jamie pulls into the forecourt and switches off the engine, and the world appears to fall quiet for a moment. It’s a welcome silence after the constant din of loud music and buffeting wind. Too much noise has always made me feel stressed and on edge, but Jamie loves to play music as loud as he can get away with.
He reaches over into the back seat and clips the lead onto Ziggy’s collar. ‘Do you want to go and get the key then, Libs? I’ll fill her up as we’re here. Then I’ll take Ziggy over there so he can do his ablutions.’ He indicates a patch of unruly grass to the side of the shop. I agree, relieved to get out and stand on solid ground for a bit.
The guy behind the counter is barely out of his teens. He stares at me with a nonplussed expression on his acne-scarred face when I ask about the key to the Hideaway. ‘I don’t know nothing about a key,’ he says while scratching a pimple on his neck. ‘I’ll get my manager. Name?’
He tuts, not bothering to hide his annoyance. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Elliot… I mean, Hall. Mrs.’ I’m so used to calling myself by my maiden name at work that I sometimes forget I’m now part of someone else’s family.
He slopes off to the back of the shop, his long arms swinging like an ape’s, and disappears through a grey door. The shop is small, the shelves piled high with cans of tuna, beans and plum tomatoes. I’m the only customer. I pick up some mints from the rack in front of me and scan the confectionery for something for Jamie. Something with coconut, his favourite. Then I watch out of the window as Jamie coaxes a reluctant Ziggy back into the car. Our Mini Cooper is the only vehicle on the forecourt.
The guy doesn’t re‑emerge and I feel the fluttering of panic that this is all some elaborate con and there is no key or house by the sea. Then a buxom woman with a mop of dyed blonde hair barrels through the door, key dangling enticingly from her chubby fingers.
‘Elizabeth Hall?’ she says in a thick Cornish accent. I nod and she hands over the key, her face breaking into a smile. ‘Aren’t you lucky, going to stay at the Hideaway. Beautiful views. Not that I’ve ever stayed there myself. I didn’t know they rented it out?’
I take the key gratefully. ‘I don’t know if they do, usually. We’re doing a house swap.’
Her eyes widen. ‘A house swap? What a great idea. So they’re staying in your house while you’re in theirs?’ I push my debit card into the machine. ‘Yes. Although ours is a flat. In Bath.’
‘I’ve heard Bath’s lovely. I’ve never been.’ She rips off the receipt and hands it to me as I retrieve my card. ‘A house swap though. What a great idea.’ Then her eyes sweep over my cast. ‘Recovering from an accident, are you, love?’
I’d like to tell her to mind her own bloody business, and years ago I might have done just that. But those days are behind me; in my job I can’t afford to lose my temper. So I swallow down my irritation. I can’t tell her the truth – I’d be here all day answering questions.
‘I slipped and broke it,’ I say. It’s only a half-lie. ‘In the playground. I’m a teacher.’
She grimaces. ‘Ooh, nasty. Did one of those little blighters push you over?’
I shake my head and force out a laugh, explaining that I’d tripped over a skipping rope which had been left on the tarmac, all the while trying to extricate myself from the conversation by inching further towards the exit. ‘Thanks again,’ I say, waving the key at her and hurrying through the door before she can ask another question.
I spot Jamie through the windscreen, impatiently tapping the steering wheel with his fingers. We’ve had our fair share of rows lately, mostly over money, and I don’t want to upset the fragile equilibrium that we seem to have found since the miscarriage. I slide into the passenger seat. ‘Sorry about that. The woman wouldn’t stop asking me questions.’
His expression darkens. ‘What about?’
‘Oh, my cast. The accident.’
‘You didn’t tell her?’ His voice is unusually sharp.
‘No, of course not.’ I pull the seat belt over my shoulder.
‘Good. We’re supposed to be getting away from it all. Has she given you the key?’
I hold it up to show him. It’s attached to a small glass heart that glints in the sun.
He visibly relaxes. ‘Thank God. I thought it had all been a mistake. You know what they say? If it’s too good to be true…’
I lean over and kiss the side of his face where his jawline meets his ear, his soft stubble grazing my lips. I love that he’s excited about this. That he’s regaining some of his former spark. That’s what I’d loved about him when I first met him, his enthusiasm for life. He’s a pint-half-full kind of man, but being made redundant, setting up on his own and constantly worrying about money has taken its toll, and I’ve noticed, over the last few months, that some of his brightness has started to fade, like a tarnished coin.
As we head down another narrow lane, thick hedgerows sprinkled with white blossom rearing up on either side, Jamie almost shouts, ‘That must be it!’ his eagerness bringing out his slight West Country twang. He points towards a house on the other side of a T‑junction. I follow his finger. Surely he’s mistaken? The house is huge, even grander than his mother’s.
‘That can’t be it,’ I reply as Jamie veers off the road and onto the driveway, gravel crunching beneath the tyres just as the nasal voice of the sat-nav informs us that we have reached our destination.
The car draws to a halt and Jamie switches the engine off. We sit and stare at the house in an awed silence, both of us taking in the detached, rectangular building with a round turret at one end; all traditional smoky- coloured stone and glass. A creeper grows halfway up the walls so that it looks like a beard. Trees and bushes in varying shades of green envelop the house as if they are embracing it. Beyond the property is a stretch of clear blue ocean sparkling in the distance. The only sounds are the cheerful chirruping of birds and the faint growl of the sea. I can smell the salt on the breeze, mixed with a trace of horse manure.
‘It’s quite remote,’ I say, suddenly feeling a little overwhelmed. I grew up in the countryside – a little two‑up two-down on a small council estate in North Yorkshire – but I’d spent the best part of the last decade in a city. I’m used to having neighbours. Being surrounded by people makes me feel secure, less frightened.
‘It’s amazing,’ says Jamie, his face alight. ‘I can’t quite believe we’re going to be staying here. Good call, Libs.’ He takes a deep breath through his nose. ‘Ah, smell that air. So fresh and clean. No pollution, no fumes.’ Just cow shit instead, I want to say, but bite my lip. I can almost see the tension of the last few months ebbing away from him, transforming him back into the man I’d married.
A squirrel scrambles up a nearby tree and Ziggy barks, a deep woof that shatters the silence as he pulls against his restraint. Jamie laughs and leans over the back seat to unbuckle him, clipping the lead onto his collar. ‘Come on, boy, I know you’re dying to explore.’ Jamie jumps out the car and darts around to open the passenger door for me. ‘Very chivalrous,’ I say, trying not to flinch as I stand up.
He frowns. ‘Are you all right, Libs?’
‘I just can’t wait to get this cast off, that’s all. It makes everything so bloody awkward.’
‘Not much longer, my little heroine.’
I thump his arm playfully with my good hand. ‘Stop taking the piss.’
He kisses my forehead. ‘I’m not taking the piss, you are a heroine,’ he mumbles. ‘Don’t you forget it.’ Then he bounds away from me, dragged by Ziggy, and I follow with trepidation, half expecting the irate owner to come hurtling out of the house to tell us to get off his land. Noticing my hesitation, Jamie beckons me to the door, charcoal-grey aluminium, as clean and polished as the rest of the house. Philip Heywood told me on the phone that it has recently undergone a restoration.
Jamie’s eyes are shining as he looks up from the piece of paper he’s consulting. ‘It is the right place, look,’ he says, to reassure himself as much as me. He prods the paper with his finger, then indicates the slate sign with the words ‘The Hideaway’ carved into its face. ‘Apt name. There isn’t another house for half a mile. And it’s not far from Lizard Point. I’ve always wanted to see the lighthouse.’ He sounds like one of my six-year-olds.
I feel a stab of guilt that we’ve swapped our poky two-bedroom flat in Bath, with the animal hairs and the dog-food aroma, for this. It’s not even a Georgian flat, as one might expect in Bath, but late Victorian.
‘Do you think it was OK to bring Ziggy? I never thought to ask.’
Jamie’s eyes widen in alarm. ‘Shit, Libs. Why didn’t you check? I have no idea.’
‘I didn’t expect the house to be so big and posh, that’s why. Philip said there was still building work going on. I thought it meant it would be a bit more…’ I pause, taking in the neatly tended plants and bushes that encompass the driveway ‘…unfinished.’
My fears are confirmed as soon as we step over the threshold. It’s definitely not the sort of place to bring a dog. Everything is so white: the sofas, the rugs, the walls. I know we’ll stain it somehow, with our messy ways and Ziggy’s dirty paws. Apart from a pile of rubble near the tree in the far corner of the garden, there is little evidence that any building work has taken place.
I take the lead from Jamie, too worried to let Ziggy go, unable to shake the feeling that we are trespassing as I wander into the kitchen. It’s huge and open-plan, with white gloss cabinets and marble worktops. Bifold doors open onto a wide garden that overlooks an expansive beach below.
‘Look at this, Jay,’ I call, my head in the American-style fridge, practically salivating at all the food. ‘There’s enough here to feed a family of ten.’
Jamie joins me to peer inside. ‘Ooh, they have pâté, smoked salmon, a massive Stilton – and look at all those craft beers!’ He grins at me. ‘This is heaven!’ ‘Our fridge is practically empty,’ I say, ashamed of the pint of milk and curled‑up ham that I’d left behind. I never even thought about stocking it up.
‘Don’t worry about it, they’ve got more important things on their minds.’ He drifts over to the kitchen island and picks up a lined piece of paper that looks like it’s been ripped out of a notebook. ‘It says here we can help ourselves to the food. Isn’t that generous?’ He doesn’t wait for an answer as he tosses the note aside and wanders around the kitchen, touching appliances and tinkering with various knobs and buttons. ‘Wow, this kitchen is fantastic,’ he exclaims as a 20‑inch TV pops up seamlessly from the island worktop.
I smile inwardly, knowing how much Jamie would love to have the money to spend on the latest gadgets.
‘You can fiddle later,’ I say, pulling him away from the spaceship-like coffee machine. ‘Let’s explore.’ I take Ziggy off his lead. Jamie grabs my hand and we race around the house like over-excited teenagers, the dog at our heels, barking joyfully.
There are solid oak floors throughout, with an impressive floating glass staircase in the large, square living room that curves up to the second floor. Colourful abstract paintings adorn the chalky white walls and there is a huge head-and-shoulders shot of a woman who must be Tara Heywood in the living room, her head thrown back, her large brown eyes dancing. Upstairs I poke my head around the door of the first bedroom, which contains a sofa bed and a faded, antique dolls’ house. Shelves along one wall are crammed with toys; not modern ones that my kids at school would play with, but old-fashioned and unsettling. Punch and Judy puppets are slumped against a china doll with one foot missing, and an ugly clown stands next to a stuffed weasel. Surely this isn’t their daughter’s room? It would have given me nightmares as a child.
The other two bedrooms are bigger and there is a traditional study with a leather-topped desk. I pad into the room. Bookshelves line the walls, although they are half empty; a few dog-eared romance novels, a classic-car manual and an encyclopaedia. I count three more stuffed animals: a ferret, a fox and a sad-looking rodent that looks a bit like a rat but could equally be some kind of mole.
At the end of the corridor, in the circular turret, is the master bedroom. It’s the largest room by far, with an en‑suite bathroom and a separate dressing room. ‘Wow, this is bigger than our whole flat.’ I stand and gawp at it in amazement – at the floor‑to‑ceiling windows, the four-poster bed with floating white muslin, the roll-top bath. There is another head and shoulders shot of Tara, black and white, her expression more serious this time. I go to the window and gaze out at the beach below. I can’t see another soul. It’s idyllic.
‘I didn’t expect it to be so modern, so opulent,’ I say as Jamie comes to stand next to me. ‘I thought it would be a quaint cottage or something.’
‘Don’t you like it?’ Jamie looks astonished that I might not.
‘No, it’s not that. It’s amazing. Like properly amazing, the sort of house you’d see in a film. It must cost millions. It’s just . . . it doesn’t seem a fair swap.’
He shrugs and puts his arm around me. ‘It’s what they wanted, remember. It was their idea.’
He sighs. ‘God, Libs, this is a stroke of luck.’ I face him, noticing the bags under his eyes, his grey complexion, and push down my uneasiness. The Cornish air will be good for him. And for me. I touch my stomach self-consciously and Jamie notices. ‘We need this,’ he says. ‘You need this. After what happened at school and then the miscarriage…’
Tears spring into my eyes and I blink them away. I can’t think about it. I’ve come here to help me forget. To heal. ‘Yes.’ My voice is thick. ‘It’s a beautiful place. We’re very lucky.’
‘We’d better keep it tidy.’ He pulls a face and I can hear the amusement in his voice. It’s a standing joke between us, our mutual messiness, and we take great enjoyment out of accusing the other of being the worst.
I glance at Jamie; he still dresses like a student in his faded jeans, ripped at the knee. ‘We should have taken our shoes off,’ I say, looking pointedly at his scruffy Converse. ‘And we’re going to have to keep Ziggy’s paws clean. We should’ve bought those dog socks we saw in that pet shop.’ I giggle at the thought of Ziggy in fluffy socks. He’d never forgive us.
Jamie laughs, loud and heartily. It echoes around the house. I haven’t heard that sound enough in the last few months and it makes my heart soar. ‘Do you know what we need to do?’ he says, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes as he grabs my hand.
He inclines his head towards the bed. ‘We’re going to have to christen it.’
I raise an eyebrow. ‘Really? What, now?’
‘No time like the present.’ He sweeps me up effortlessly – he is nearly a foot taller than I am – and carries me to the bed. We tumble onto the soft cotton sheets, our limbs entwined, and he starts kissing my neck in the way he knows I love. I wrap my legs around him, pressing my body to his, feeling more contented, happy, than I have in months.
We spend ages in bed, taking our time, exploring each other’s bodies, just like we used to in the early days, before we got married, before things became complicated. Before his family’s interference and Hannah’s quiet, unnerving presence in our lives. Afterwards I snuggle up against Jamie’s shoulder. It feels unnatural to have to lie on my left side, to avoid leaning on my cast. It feels so heavy and cumbersome. Less than two weeks, I remind myself.
I’m content for a while watching the sun going down, creating shadows across the lawn. Then I spring up from the bed, covering myself with a sheet, conscious that the windows have no curtains.
‘Where are you going?’ Jamie murmurs, gathering the feathered duvet around his armpits.
‘To nose through Tara’s wardrobe,’ I say, raising my eyebrow playfully.
‘Libs! You can’t do that.’
‘Oh, come on. Surely you’re intrigued? Don’t you want to know more about Philip and Tara Heywood?’
He shrugs, a lazy smile playing on his lips. ‘Not really.’
‘Well, I do.’ I shuffle over to the en‑suite dressing room in my makeshift toga. Ziggy follows me and stretches out on the fleecy rug in the middle of the floor.
The dressing room is about the same size as our bedroom back at home. A floor-length mirror hangs on one wall and a button-backed chair sits next to it. It’s like a changing room in a fancy shop. This isn’t even their main residence, just a holiday home. It makes me wonder what their actual home must be like. I reach up to flick through the clothes: long evening dresses, strappy sun dresses, floaty skirts, tops in silky fabrics. I take a long emerald dress from the hanger and drape it against my body, admiring myself in the mirror, although it’s way too long for me and the extra material pools around my feet. I resemble a little girl trying on her mum’s clothes. Or even a boy, with my short pixie cut. I return the dress and open a drawer of underwear. There are sexy thongs and high-end lacy basques. I recognise one I’d seen on an Agent Provocateur website. All very classy and out of my price range. Nothing tacky here.
I move to the shoes. They are on narrow metal shelves that pull out from the wall and are in every conceivable style and colour. All designer brands, some of which I’ve never heard of. I think of my tatty ballet pumps that I bought from Top Shop as I cradle a pair of patent red stilettos. Size 7, much too big for my size 4 feet. I put them back despondently.
‘I can’t even borrow her shoes,’ I wail as I climb back into the four-poster bed. ‘She’s a giant. Or a supermodel.’
‘Or an alien,’ adds Jamie.
‘A very beautiful alien,’ I laugh. ‘How the other half live, huh?’
He pulls me into his arms and says softly against my hair, ‘Well, we’re that other half this week, Libs. So let’s enjoy it.’