Extract: The Beautiful Dead by Belinda Bauer
Eve Singer makes her living from death. As a TV crime reporter, she’ll go to any length to get the latest scoop. But when a twisted serial killer starts using her to gain the publicity he craves, Eve must decide how far she’s willing to go – and how close she’ll let him get…
Read on for an extract from The Beautiful Dead!
The Beautiful Dead
Layla Martin’s shoes were killing her.
She had bought them on Thursday even though they rubbed her little toes.
A hundred and thirty pounds. A third of her weekly wage.
She’d worn them on Thursday night and again on Friday night while making cheese on toast for tea. And she had worn them to work on a Saturday even though she knew she’d be the only person on the eighth floor – quite possibly in the whole building. She’d wanted to break them in for Monday, when she was planning to walk past the glass-walled office of the new accounts manager at least twenty times, because he had a sports car and a great bum, and the ridiculously high heels made her calves look fabulous.
But now it was those very same heels that she was running in.
Running for her life, she had to assume.
And, as the machine-gun clatter of her brand-new heels rang through the empty stairwell, any consciousness Layla Martin could spare from the terror of being chased by a madman was consumed by the desperate wish that she’d come to work in her usual weekend garb of jeans, jumper and Reeboks.
Because right here, right now, her shoes might mean the difference between life and death …
The man had appeared across the wide open-plan office. She had looked up from the ToppFlyte file and seen him standing at the lift. It had given her a little jolt of surprise and fear. Silly, really – in broad daylight in the middle of London. But she was alone on the eighth floor, and that made all the difference.
Still, he was an ordinary-looking man. Not weird. A delivery guy, most likely – or lost.
‘Hi,’ she’d said. ‘Can I help you?’
‘I am a friend,’ he’d said. ‘I am not fierce.’
She’d frowned. ‘Say again?’
By way of an answer, the ordinary man had put his gloved hand inside his coat and drawn out a knife.
Layla Martin had never been in danger before, but she’d hesitated for only a second before leaping to her feet, grabbing her bag and running.
Because he’d been blocking her way to the lift, she’d headed for the stairs…
Layla didn’t scream. The thought of the sound bouncing endlessly up and down the stairwell only frightened her more – and she was trying not to panic, trying to think. She ran as fast as she dared in those bloody shoes, clutching the black-plastic-covered handrail in case she lost her footing, watching the stairs blur underfoot with eyes that bulged in concentration, desperate not to fall, her long blonde hair swinging into her mouth, her bag bumping her ribs.
There would be someone on the fourth floor. She had once come halfway up in the lift with a woman who’d bitched about working at weekends.
Layla stopped above the fourth-floor landing, panting, gasping.
She forced herself to be quiet so she could listen.
She heard nothing. No one.
Maybe he wasn’t coming after her. Maybe he’d never plannedto. Maybe he hadn’t even had a knife.
He had though…
She started downstairs again – slowly this time – her knees like jelly and her toes on fire.
She pulled open the fire-escape door marked with a giant 4 and took a tentative step on to the carpet.
The lift door slid open. The man was inside. Calm and still, and with the knife – it was a knife! – held casually by his side.
Layla gave a shriek of shock, fear and disbelief. She swung her bag at his head, hitting him a glancing blow, showering him with assorted bag-junk, seeing him flinch and duck. Then she turned back into the stairwell and ran downstairs again.
At the next landing she kicked off her heels and left them there.
This was better.
Layla was not that fit, but she was young and slim and – without the killer heels – she was nimble. She started to get into a rhythm. She barely touched the stairs now, leaping from five or six treads up on to each landing, grabbing the rail as it turned, using it to slingshot around the blind concrete corners. Somewhere behind her she heard a door slam shut. But it was a long way back.
He wasn’t catching her. He wasn’t catching her. She was going to make it!
The sobs that had choked her became hysterical glee in her throat. Her stockinged feet skidded and slid but she used that. She worked it, baby! She had it all under control.
Run jump grab skid turn… Run jump grab skid turn…
It was a helter-skelter without the mats, but with added terror.
But that was good, because it was all going to be OK in the end.
With manic laughter bubbling inside her, Layla burst through the door marked G and into the vast, bright lobby with its shiny polished floor. She turned towards the exit so fast that she skidded over on to her right side with a bang, but was on her feet again before the fall even registered.
The door was right there.
Escape was in sight. More than in sight…
Escape was panoramic.
Coldharbour was a new building and the lobby was a sleek and shiny glass-walled, marble-floored expanse that still smelled of stone dust, and not yet of people. The front wall was entirely glass – smoked grey and impenetrable from outside; but from inside Layla could see that, just thirty yards away, Oxford Street was teeming with Christmas shoppers beating a path through dirty snow.
She ran to the door, fumbling under her armpit and into her bag, her fingers spreading panic among the random objects, clutching and sifting with unaccustomed urgency.
The keys. The keys!
At weekends they had to let themselves in and keep the doors locked. Something about cutting security costs. The cheap bastards. She’d like to see what they thought about cutting costs after this little episode . . .
A door clicked behind her and she turned and saw the man standing at the entrance to the stairwell.
Not coming for her, not running; just standing, watching her escape.
She cackled at him like a witch.
‘FUCK you!’ she shrilled. ‘Fuck YOU!’
She turned back to the door. Mentally she was already outside. Already safe.
Where were the keys?
Then she heard them – that wonderful chink of familiar metal – and for a glorious split second Layla was on Oxford Street in all its slushy glory. She was stepping out on to the crowded pavement alongside that bottle-blonde woman and her Goth daughter. She was brushing past that young man with the cheap bouquet, who had his back to the glass wall and who was looking up and down the road, waiting for someone special. She could already feel the wet city snowflakes melting on her hot cheeks…
And then she realized that her keys were jangling behind her.
With one clutching hand still in her bag, Layla looked around slowly.
The man had her keys.
Maybe they’d hit him in the head when she’d swung her bag; maybe she’d never put them in her bag and he’d picked them up off her desk.
It didn’t matter how he had them.
He had them.
And she didn’t.
He gave a half-smile and tossed the keys a few inches into the air again. They settled in his palm with a sound like money. From here Layla could see the key ring that her flatmate, Dougie, had bought her at the petrol station they used on the Old Kent Road. Lisa Simpson nestled snugly between the black-leather fingers of the man with the knife.
He had driven her down here.
Layla realized that now. Now that it was too late.
He could have killed her on the eighth floor; he could have killed her on the fourth. He could probably have caught her in the stairwell and killed her there. But instead he’d herded her to this very place – like a dumb sheep on that TV show with farmers and collies.
She could see it in his forgettable face: he had her right where he wanted her. Right here in this bright open space with people passing by.
‘Be of good cheer,’ he said. ‘I am not fierce.’ And although he did not speak loudly, his voice swelled to fill the marble lobby so that it came at her gently from all sides.
The man put her keys in his pocket and started to walk towards her, almost casually, the hand with the knife in it swinging gently by his side and his murmur caressing her like a breeze.
‘I do not come to punish.’
She turned and beat the door with her fists. The building was new; nothing rattled, nothing budged, and the heartless glass swallowed the sound smoothly and burped nothing back.
Layla took the deepest breath since her very first, twenty-four years earlier, and screamed.
Nothing came out but a strangled squeak that scurried about the echoing lobby like a silly white mouse. She tried again, but her throat was so tight that air could barely get through in either direction.
Suddenly drowning in fear, Layla pressed her back against the cold glass – an infinite half-inch from where people were safe – and waited for the man to reach her.
‘Softly shall you sleep in my arms,’ he murmured kindly.
Right up until the very last second, Layla Martin didn’t believe that she would – or could – be murdered. She knew that something would save her.
The knife had gone in; the blood had come out, warming the killer’s hands with the joy of creation.
At first the girl had flip-flopped like a fish on the floor. But once she’d understood, she’d calmed down, and died as she should.
Searching his face with her grateful eyes until they’d faded to ash.
And as she had emptied, so he had filled up.
For the first time in a long time, his heart had started to beat, and he had cried with relief.
Thank you, he’d sobbed against her clotted ear. Thank you.
And knew he would do this again.
Wanted to. Needed to.
Looked forward to it.