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Extract: Never Saw Me Coming by Vera Kurian

Never Saw Me Coming by Vera Kurian is a sharp, electrifying and hugely entertaining debut thriller with an unforgettable anti-heroine.

Meet Chloe. First-year student, ordinary, legging-wearing, girl next door… and highly intelligent diagnosed psychopath. Her hobbies include yogalates, parties, and plotting to kill Will Bachman.

Chloe is part of a secret clinical study of young psychopaths run by the university’s Psychology Department. Most psychopaths aren’t criminals, but when a string of murders on campus causes upheaval, Chloe’s private vendetta is sidelined. Partnered with fellow study participants she can’t trust – and distracted by typical university life – Chloe has to walk the line between hunter and prey.

Read on for the first chapter of Never Saw Me Coming by Vera Kurian!
 

Never Saw Me Coming
by
Vera Kurian

One

Day 60

As soon as the door to my new dorm room closed, I went to the window, scanning across the quad for him. It wasn’t like there was any possibility he would just happen to be out there among the families lugging moving boxes or the handful of students sprawled in the grass.
        But there! A head of dirty-blond waves. Will. My mouth opened. Then the person turned and I saw it was only a girl with an unfortunate haircut. Seriously, you’d think she’d put in more of an effort for move-in day.
        I turned and faced my empty dorm room with its sad linoleum floors, mentally going through my to-do list. 1. Get rid of Mom. Check. She had already left and was probably speeding up the I-95, popping open a bottle of champagne now that she was finally rid of me. 2. Claim the most advantageous space before my roommate, Yessica, arrived. 3. Make six to eight friends before 4. My mandatory check-in appointment at the psychology department. 5. Find Will.
        We had a double with two bedrooms, one clearly larger than the other. While my normal instinct was to claim the larger one, I immediately saw the problem with that. The larger bedroom had windows that overlooked the quad. What if I wanted to crawl in or out of my window in the middle of the night? People will record anything even remotely interesting on their phones these days, and I could be easily seen from the other dorms and academic halls that lined the quad—too much of an audience for my liking.
        I took the smaller room. My generosity would score me points with my new roomie, but more importantly, the room had a view of the brick wall of the building next to us and there was a metal fire escape attached directly to the window. Easy access in and out of my room without detection—perfect. I dumped some of my boxes into the room and made the bed, placing my stuffed plushie whale on top to clearly stake my claim. The voices inside the dorm were calling me and I had to establish myself quickly.
        I gave myself a brief once-over before leaving the room, reapplying my lip gloss and fixing my hair. The hair had to be just right—a loose, effortless side French braid that actually wasn’t effortless. You have to be the kind of girl who “doesn’t put any effort in” but naturally rolls out of bed looking like a horny but somehow demure starlet. If you meet some standard of objective attractiveness, people think you’re better than you actually are—smarter, more interesting, worthier of existing. Combined with the right personality, this can be powerful.
        Brewser had one long hallway with rooms shooting off on either side. I peeked into the room next door where two brunettes were wrestling a duvet out of a plastic package. “Hi!” I chirped. “I’m Chloe!” I could be whatever they wanted me to be. A fun girl, a potential best friend, someone to tell secrets to over midnight snacks. This type of socializing was just me playing little roles for a few moments, but when I need to go all in, I can. I can make myself younger when I want to, opting for looser clothes that hide my body and making my eyes shiny with dumbness—a whole costume of innocence. I can look older with makeup and carefully selected clothes, showing skin when necessary. It’s easy because people tend to see what they want to.
        I went door to door. Room 202. “Omigod I love your hair,” I said to a bubbly blonde I suspect will end up popular.
        Room 206. “You’re not brothers, are you?” I said shyly to two boys on the crew team (nice bodies but baby faces—not my taste). They grinned at me, looked at my boobs, and each vied to say something clever. Neither was clever.
        Room 212 was a pair of awkward girls. I was friendly to them but didn’t linger long because I knew they would never be key players.
        While I met a few more people, I was simultaneously assessing who seemed like they were going to be part of Greek life. Will was in a frat—SAE—and one of my first orders of business was to get in with that frat. The crew boys were already in the hallway loudly talking about going out to a club that night. That was good—an outing, and the crew boys seemed like they would be the type to pledge a frat. “I love dancing,” I said to what’s-his-name, the taller of the two, fingering the end of my braid. “It’s the best way to get to know people.” He smiled down at me, his eyes crinkling. If high school taught me anything, it’s that social life is a game that revolves around navigating hierarchies. Be someone guys want to fuck or you will be invisible to them. Be someone the girls want firmly tucked into their inner circles, whether as friend or enemy, or die the death of being totally irrelevant.
        Even from our brief interactions, I could tell no one in this dorm was in my program. I’ve never met someone like me, but when I do eventually, I think it will be like two wolves meeting in the night, sniffing and recognizing a fellow hunter. But I doubt they would put two of us in the same dorm—there were only seven and they probably had to spread us out to prevent a war from breaking out.
        I had to go then, leaving my new friends behind, to check in with the program.
        The psychology department was diagonally across the quad, visible from the windows of the common area of my room. The quad was lush grass crisscrossed with brick paths, with each brick having the name of an alumnus engraved into it—John Smith, class of ’03. Funny—Will was never going to get a brick, but I was. One of the larger dorms, Tyler Hall, had a massive banner hung on it that said WELCOME FRESHMAN!!! I stopped to take a selfie with the banner in the background: here’s a girl excited for her first day of college, busy doing college things!
        It’s practically destiny that I ended up at John Adams University. I knew I had to be in DC, which meant applying to Georgetown, American University, George Washington University, John Adams, Catholic University, and Trinity College—all of which are inside the District. As safeties, I also applied to reasonably close places like George Mason and the University of Maryland. I got into all of them except for Georgetown. Seriously, fuck them. My application was golden: I have an IQ of 135—five points short of genius—solid SATs and grades. I paid for most of my wardrobe with a business I set up writing papers for other students. Who knows how many of them got into college with a heartfelt essay about the dead cancer grandmother they didn’t actually have.
        I had been offered scholarship money at various schools, but nothing like what Adams had offered. Even if I had turned down the psychology study, I still could have gotten generous scholarships given to students with my pedigree to entice them to a Tier 2 liberal arts school. But I didn’t care—Adams was always my first choice because of Will. Another bonus was the school’s placement in DC: a busy city with a relatively high murder rate. The campus was in the gentrifying neighborhood of Shaw, just east of bougie Logan Circle, and south of U Street, a popular going-out destination. A neighborhood that, despite the presence of nice restaurants, was also a place where drunk people occasionally got into fights and stabbed each other and pedestrians got mugged. Law enforcement was busy with the constant parade of protests, conferences, and visiting diplomats—they probably gave two shits about what was going on in the mind of a random eighteen-year-old girl with an iPhone in her hand and a benign look on her face.
        I liked the somber castle look of the psychology department. Its dark red bricks were covered with ivy and the windows, edged with black iron, were warbled like they had old glass in them. The inside was dimly lit by a hanging chandelier with flickering amber bulbs, and the cavernous foyer smelled like old books. When I walked through it, I imagined a camera following me, viewers worried about what dangerous things might come my way. I would be the one they would root for.
        I went up the curving staircase to the sixth floor where I was supposed to check in with my program. Room 615 was tucked at the end of the hallway, secluded. A placard on the door said Leonard Wyman, PhD, and Elena Torres, Doctoral Candidate. I recognized the names from my paperwork.
        I knocked and a few seconds later a woman flung open the door. “You must be Chloe Sevre!”
        She stuck out her hand. They probably had a whole dossier on me. I had had a bunch of phone interviews with a couple of screeners, then one with Wyman himself, and they had also interviewed my mother and high school counselor.
        The woman’s hand was bony, but warm and dry, and her eyes were chocolate brown and unafraid. “I’m Elena, one of Dr. Wyman’s grad students.” She smiled and gestured for me to come inside. She led me past a messy reception area, a desk cluttered with papers and three laptops, and down a hallway to a smaller office, hers presumably.
        She closed the door behind us. “We’ll get you all settled. Everything was fine with the financial aid office before you got here?” As one of the seven students in the study, I was granted a free ride to John Adams University. All I had to give in exchange was my willingness to be a full-time guinea pig in their Multimethod Psychopathy Panel Study.
        I nodded, looking around. Her shelves were crammed with books and stacks of printed-out articles. Three different versions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Tomes on “abnormal” psychology. Robert Hare’s book Without Conscience, which I had read.
        “Great,” Elena said. She pulled something up on her computer. She took a bite of the scone resting on her mousepad and chewed loudly. She was pretty in a grad student sort of way. Olive skin and a nice collarbone. You could picture her falling in love with some reedy nerd and trying to have children too late. “Here you are!” She clicked a few times and her printer came to life. When she stood up to retrieve the paper, I leaned over, trying to see her computer screen, but she had a privacy shield. I didn’t know if it was supposed to be a secret or something, but I had found out how many students were in the program when one of the administrators had been working out my financial aid package. I was dying of curiosity about the other six students. The bizarre elite.
        Elena handed me a bunch of paper-clipped documents. They were consent forms for the study, assurances that my data would be kept private, that there was minimal risk associated with computer-based surveys, that blood drawings would be performed by a licensed phlebotomist, blah blah blah. A lot more about privacy, location tracking—which I paid closer attention to—and what their legal obligations were to report it if I threatened to either harm myself or others. Oh, please. I wasn’t planning on making any of my threats known.
        When I finished signing the documents, I saw that Elena was withdrawing a small package from a safe. She pulled something shiny out of a small box. “And here’s your smartwatch.” I liked it immediately. It was sleek and black, like something you’d see in a spy movie. “You’re to wear it at all times, as stipulated. It tracks your heart rate and sleep rhythms—oh, it’s waterproof, by the way, so don’t worry about taking it off in the shower. You can even swim with it.” I held out my arm, and like a jeweler with a tennis bracelet she fastened it around my left wrist. “If it cramps your style, you can also take off the wristband and wear it as pendant under your shirt. When there’s a mood log for you to take, you’ll get an icon like this.” She did something on her computer and a little red exclamation point appeared on the black screen of the smartwatch. She gestured for me to touch it. When I did, the exclamation point disappeared and was replaced by text asking me what activity I was doing right then, and then the question How happy do you feel right now? 1 2 3 4 5 6 7. “The mood logs are pretty short,” she explained. “They won’t take more than a couple minutes. You’re supposed to take them as soon as you get the notice—this is to try to measure how people actually feel throughout the day, not in artificial lab settings. But it’s okay to wait if you’re taking a test—I wouldn’t want a professor to think you were cheating or something.”
        “Do the professors at Adams know I’m in the study?”
        “No, your participation and diagnosis are entirely confidential.”
        “And the watch tracks where I am all the time?”
        “No. I mean, a satellite probably does somewhere, but no, the only time we retain location data is when you submit a mood log because we want to understand the context of where you were and what you were feeling. I think you’ll be interested to see how this can help you understand your own emotions.” She smiled at me widely, showing one snaggletooth. I was relieved about the location tracking. I had a backup plan, of course—taking off the smartwatch and leaving it in my room, or maybe hiding it in Yessica’s stuff so that it tracked her, not me, if I was up to no good. A liability turned into an alibi: the watch says I was at home studying and drinking a glass of milk!
        “How often am I coming in for the other experiments?”
        “They’re not necessarily experiments. Some of them are just surveys. But it won’t be more than one or two a week, and the MRIs we schedule weeks in advance.”
        I admired my new watch. When I touched the blank face it woke up, showing an array of clever icons. “What about the other six students? Will I meet them?”
        “Not face-to-face, really, but you might interact with them down the line.”
        It sounded interesting actually. Sure, I was there for the free scholarship to be in the city where Will was, but let’s be honest. People love psychology because people are narcissistic. And as a psychopath I’m particularly narcissistic.
        Elena stacked some papers together and rapped them against the desk, lining them all up. “You’ll have an intake meeting with Dr. Wyman this week, but there isn’t anything else we need from you today, so welcome to the study!”
        With my new toy adorning my wrist, I headed back across the quad to the dorm, hoping Yessica had shown up. Yessica was my biggest wild card—someone who could intentionally or not make my life and plans very difficult, and I wanted to suss out what sort of roommate she would be. If she was cool, we could be a power couple at Brewser. If she was nosy, I would have yet another problem to deal with.
        I heard movement inside the room just before I went in. A lanky, nut-brown girl with massive dark waves was shoving a box into the corner. “Chloe!” she shouted. She came over, a big grin on her face, and we shook hands. “I’m Yessica!” She had huge dark eyes framed with thick, possibly fake eyelashes. Points for good skin and the flat, elf-style boots. Double points for the minifridge. “I just got here! I feel so bad—are you sure
you want the smaller room?”
        “I’m okay—I prefer to face in that direction.” We helped each other unpack, yammering on in the way girls do, deciding what should go where as I assessed her. I decided she was more of a positive than a negative addition. She was pretty, funny, and seemed laid-back—not someone who would snoop through my computer or raise an eyebrow if I brought a guy home. After we put our stuff away we went into the noisy hallway to meet more people. There was more talk of going out.
        I was impatient. I knew this was the right thing to be doing—forming alliances, making a good impression—but I wanted to get things going. It was August 24, the start of Freshman Orientation, sixty days until October 23. This was a date I had carefully selected—it gave me enough time to maneuver, but more importantly there was going to be a massive protest in DC that day, centering on the National Mall. It was a convergence of several different demonstrations: a pro-free speech rally, an antiracism rally that was protesting the pro-free speech rally, a proimpeachment rally, and a March for the Earth demonstration. Based on social media postings, Airbnb rentals in the city, and bus ticket sales, pundits were predicting that the convergence of political fervor was going to lead to a turnout that would tax every city resource. The timing was auspicious. The news had previously covered how such massive events often led to cell phone networks being overburdened. The police would have their hands full with protestors and skirmishes breaking out, as they have had for the past few years. It was going to be chaos.
        It was the perfect day to kill Will Bachman.

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Never Saw Me Coming

Vera Kurian

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