Excerpt: Substitute by Susi Holliday

Substitute

Susi Holliday

 

To all of my family and friends . . . 
because it would be impossible to choose only three.

 

‘Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions.’

—T. S. Eliot

 

Prologue

The room is stark, yet stifling. Clean white walls, standard-issue bed, two plastic chairs. Both occupied.

He sits by her bed, waiting for the inevitable, keeping a watchful eye on the doctor who sits silently in the corner. The monitor beeps a steady rhythm, her chest rises and falls . . .

His head buzzes.

She’s like a doll, he thinks, lying there with the blankets pulled up to her chin. Her face is shrunken, waxen. Her eyes have been closed for some time now. They won’t open again, unless—

The door swings open and the nurse’s urgent, whispered voice interrupts his thoughts. ‘It’s for you.’ She’s holding a cordless phone, one hand over the mouthpiece. ‘It’s your daughter. She wants to come here . . .’

He turns to the doctor in the corner, watches him stand, smooth down the creases in his white coat. His face, his whole demeanour, is impassive. He frowns, but still says nothing.

He turns back to the nurse. ‘How did she get this number?’

‘I don’t know,’ the nurse says. There’s a hint of guilt in her voice, as if she might somehow be responsible, but she can’t be. He knows this.

‘Hang up,’ he says, calmer than he feels. Trying to breathe. Trying to push it all away. What a mess.

The monitor’s high-pitched screech stops anyone else from replying.

Flatline.

Susi Holliday

No! Not yet. His heart is hammering, the harsh sound of the machine cuts through him. ‘Please,’ he says, turning to the doctor. Pleading. Desperate. ‘Are you sure you can’t do something? We’ve got five minutes from this point, right? Can’t you at least—’

The doctor walks slowly around the bed and switches off the machine. No urgency at all. He shakes his head. ‘Not this time. We’ve been through all this. You’ve been unlucky, that’s all.’

He bunches his hands into fists. There’s no point arguing.

‘Your daughter?’ the nurse says to him.

He swallows. Feels like his throat is closing up. Feels like he might choke. Feels like he might want to. He looks down at the bed, then back at the nurse. He shakes his head, slowly.

‘Just tell her that I’m sorry.’

 

PART 1

One

Chrissie (Now)

She spots him from the bedroom window. Jittery. Anxious. Cheap suit and battered briefcase. He shifts from one foot to the other. Rings the doorbell, rattles the knocker for good measure. Glances at his watch. She stands back, concealing herself behind the curtain so that if he looks up he won’t see her.

She doesn’t have time for this today – this dishcloth salesman or Jehovah or whatever he is. She’s been kind to them in the past – buying overpriced J-Cloths from ex-cons, promising to read The Watchtower thrust into her hands. But today she can’t face going through the motions of a polite, awkward conversation with a stranger.

Unfortunately, he glances up at the window just then, face etched into a frown, and she’s pretty sure he’s seen her. He rings the doorbell again and stares right at her, then looks away and rattles the knocker once more.

She responds by backing further into the bedroom, so she can only see the top of his head, where a blossoming bald patch glints in the sunlight. Finally, he rattles the letterbox and a sharp stab of irritation pierces the base of her skull. Persistent little bugger.

He’s not going away.

Her sigh turns into a stream of muttered obscenities as she slowly makes her way down the stairs.

Careful, careful.

It’s what she’s trained Holly to say to herself before she goes up or down. These stairs are so bloody steep.

She’s past the halfway landing when the letterbox snaps open and a pair of dark, curranty eyes appear in the slot.

‘Mrs Tate? Christina Tate? Please don’t ignore me, Mrs Tate . . .’

The letterbox snaps shut.

She leans on the bannister, sucks in a breath. How does he know my name? She never uses her full name anymore. She’s Chrissie, now. Has been for a long time. A million thoughts whizz through her head. Taxman? Has there been some catastrophic error? No. She’s good at sorting out the finances. Is it Nathan? Has something happened? No. They’d send uniformed police for that, wouldn’t they? They’d come as a pair and they wouldn’t be so shifty. Her heart stops.

Holly . . .

No.

Holly is at nursery. Wendy picked her up at 8.30 a.m. and took her there, just as she does every other weekday, while Nathan is out at work and Chrissie works from home trying to deal with an ever-expanding and ever-more-demanding client list. No. This man is not from the nursery. Her heart restarts, as if defibrillated.

She’s still going through the possibilities when the letterbox opens again. ‘Tell me, Mrs Tate – have you ever experienced grief?’

Snap.

A Jehovah, then, not dishcloths. It’s her soul he’s after, not her cash.

Quite the opening, though.

Have you ever experienced grief?

Of course she has. Hasn’t everyone? A vision of her mother at the end slides in front of her eyes. Small and wizened and nothing like the strong, capable woman she once was. And then . . . nowhere. Gone. Chrissie didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye.

Twenty years ago, but it still feels like yesterday.

Chrissie had muddled her way through until the pregnancy had triggered PTSD. She’d been a wreck, after that. Nathan had tried his best, but he hadn’t lost anyone at all, so how could he really understand? She’d suffered dark thoughts, back then. Sometimes now. Most of the last few years have passed by in a blur.

She still wishes that someone else had died instead. Why do the insufferable bastards get to live out their lives yet the good ones get taken too soon?

It’s normal, she knows – this angry stage. But she hadn’t realised how much it would affect her. How it would almost swallow her whole. How long it would last. It’s been years, Chrissie. Nathan’s frustrated voice. I thought we were past the crying stage?

She continues down the stairs, hanging back against the wall.

Funny you should ask. Yes, I have experienced grief, as it happens. You got something for that?

The letterbox snaps open again, the man’s voice drifting through. ‘What if I could ensure that you never had to experience that again, Mrs Tate? Would that be something that might interest you?’

She stomps down the final few stairs and yanks open the door.

‘Who are you?’

The man stands up straight, smoothing down his jacket from where it has crumpled. He extends a bony hand, revealing ragged nails in painful-looking shades of purple and black. Hers is not the first letterbox he’s invaded, she suspects.

‘My name is Joseph Marshall. You don’t know me, but you’ve been recommended by someone who thought you would benefit from my services. Please, may I come in?’

Her first thought is to slam the door in his face, but then those images of her ever-diminishing mother float across her vision again. That loss, that grief, hot and fresh as the day it was inflicted upon her. If losing her mother has branded her like this, how could she possibly survive losing Nathan . . . or, good God, Holly . . .

‘Mrs Tate?’

Joseph Marshall takes a step forward, and she hesitates, just for a moment. Could there be something in what he is selling? She shakes her head. Don’t be ridiculous. She retreats back into the house, letting the door close in front of her, shutting the strange little man and his outrageous notions safely outside.

‘No, thank you,’ she says. ‘Please go away.’

But . . .

She stands behind the closed door for a moment, holding her breath. Imagining that she can hear his breathing through the oak panelling. She stares at the door for a moment longer, then turns away. She’s only taken a few steps when she hears the rattle of the letterbox again, and his reedy voice, drifting through.

‘Not to worry, Mrs Tate . . . I’ll come back.’

She turns and catches a brief glimpse of thin, bruised fingers poking their way into her house. A business card flutters through the letterbox, spiralling gently to the floor.

Snap.

 

 

Two

Chrissie (Now)

Rain is starting to spit against the windows, so she hurries out into the back garden, grabbing the washing off the line. The high-pitched squeals of children in the playground behind the house fly across the low back fence, and she pauses for a moment, watching as frantic parents and childminders try to round up their small charges before everyone gets soaked. The adventure play area is a new addition to the park, and Holly loves it even though she’s a bit too small for most of the activities.

Back inside, Chrissie dumps the wash-basket on the kitchen floor, flicks the kettle on and runs a finger across the trackpad of her laptop, waking up the screen. She was only outside for a few minutes, but she feels damp and cold, and she’s not in the mood for work.

She is in the middle of designing a logo for a new restaurant on Ealing Broadway. There has been an endless procession of businesses in the space, none of them making a go of it for longer than six months. She’s not sure if it’s a holding company who keeps shutting it down as one restaurant and opening it as another, or if there are some nefarious goings-on, but if they were to ask her opinion, she’d say there was very little chance of success with a unit in that location. It might be on the main drag, but it has a tiny frontage that’s more than eclipsed by the ubiquitous chains on either side. Those places are always packed.

Drink in place, she checks her scribbled notes that are spread across the worktop and clicks open a new window, ready to start all over again. The work she’d done earlier is all wrong. She’d been unsure before, but after popping upstairs to get one of her design books, and being interrupted by that very strange man, she’s now certain. The brief was brief, as they often are, but she’s going to have to rethink this one entirely. She taps out a quick text message to the client, asking him to call her. It’d be good if he got back to her tonight, so she could make another start on the design in the morning.

She takes a sip of her coffee and opens the fridge, realising that she’s forgotten to do the online shop. Glancing at the time on the microwave clock, she knows it’s too late to pop out before Holly comes home, and sure enough, just as she closes the fridge door, wrinkling her nose at the faint but unmistakable smell of something on the turn, she hears the sound of the key in the lock, followed by the pattering of small, excited footsteps.

‘Mummy, Mummy, I’m home!’

Holly barrels into the kitchen, flinging her arms around her legs, before pulling away and wrestling with her Peppa Pig backpack, tangling her pigtails under the straps in the process.

‘Ow, I’m stuck, Mummy!’ she cries, just as Wendy appears in the doorway behind her, looping the straps off and freeing her hair before Chrissie has a chance to put her mug down and help.

‘I did a painting,’ Holly continues, unperturbed, her voice high-pitched and breathless, her cheeks pink, like fresh apples.

‘Slow down, honey,’ she says, smiling across at Wendy.

‘She ran most of the way back. Ran and chattered. It’s been an exciting morning at the hell-mouth.’ Wendy rolls her eyes and picks Holly’s discarded backpack off the floor. ‘Have you seen the state of those concrete planters at the end of the road? I know they’re meant to be there to stop the cars from using the street as a rat run, but someone’s managed to tip one of them over. Soil and smashed begonias all over the road. They must’ve had a bloody forklift . . .’

Chrissie crouches down and pulls her daughter in for a hug. ‘Are you going to tell Mummy what happened?’

Wendy opens the fridge and takes out a carton of apple juice, piercing the little hole on top with a straw.

‘Tommy Cole wet himself at break time and Sally Johnstone slipped in his puddle of wee and started crying and then Annabel Freer started laughing and then Tommy pushed her and she fell over and then Miss Barr got cross and said a bad word that—’

‘Holly, honey, you need to slow down a bit, OK? And take a drink before you tell me the rest, you’re all hot and sweaty.’ She takes the box of juice from Wendy and hands it to Holly, who sucks down a huge gulp, then seems to calm down at last. She turns to Wendy. ‘Did you two get caught in the rain?’

Wendy shrugs. ‘It’s only drizzling.’

Holly grabs Chrissie around one leg. ‘Can I watch Peppa Pig?’

‘Of course. Let’s get your shoes off first and then I’ll switch it on, OK?’

Holly nods, kicking off her shoes as she wanders through to the sitting room. Chrissie switches the programme on for her, and within moments, Holly is curled up on the sofa, transfixed.

‘Peace for half an hour then,’ Wendy says.

Chrissie turns to her friend. ‘I don’t think they’re concrete.’

Wendy looks at her, confused.

‘The planters . . . I think they have to be moveable for the emergency services. I don’t know what the point of them actually is. Nobody likes them.’

Wendy shakes her head and follows her back through to the kitchen. She flops on to one of the kitchen chairs and peers at Chrissie’s computer. ‘You’re doing a logo for Meet-4-Meat?’

‘For all the good it’ll do. Didn’t work as a pizza place, a café, a noodle shop or a bakery. I can’t see that a badly named Argentinian BBQ is going to do much better, but they’re paying a decent amount so I’m determined to come up with something that might work.’

‘I’m sure it’s a money-laundering front. Are they paying cash?’

Chrissie nods, glances over at her mug on the counter. ‘Coffee or wine?’

‘What do you think? It’s nearly one p.m. I’ve no child-minding clients this afternoon. I’ve had the morning from hell—’

‘What did Miss Barr say then?’ She hands her friend a bottle of red wine and a corkscrew, then sets two glasses on the table.

‘Poor Gilly. The fuck was out of her mouth before she had a chance to stop it. I mean, it’s mad in that place most days, but it was the combination of it all – not to mention that Annabel had been winding Tommy up all morning as it was, little madam that she is. Gilly had separated them three times already, and then Tommy had swiped Annabel’s drink and gulped it down straight after his own, so it’s not surprising that he couldn’t keep it in . . .’ She takes a mouthful of wine. ‘I had to speak to his mother when she arrived, and you know what that’s like.’

Oh yes. Chrissie’s met Karen Cole on more than one occasion. In fact, she can’t escape her now that she’s working at the Co-op up the road, which is the one Chrissie always uses when she’s forgotten the online order – which is more often than not, these days. How a woman like that could pass an interview for a store manager is a mystery to everyone who crosses her path.

‘I’m sure she made every excuse for her little cherub.’

Wendy drains her glass and picks up the bottle. ‘Obviously.’

‘Well, I’ve had a bit of a morning myself, actually,’ she says, picking up her own glass and taking a sip. ‘Some weirdo came to the door. At first I thought he was trying to sell dishcloths or whatever. Out of a briefcase!’ She pauses to take another sip. ‘Anyway, he knew my name.’ Christina. She winces. ‘Shouted it through the letterbox . . .’

Wendy raises her eyebrows. ‘Intriguing,’ she says. ‘You don’t think it’s got anything to do with this work you’re doing, do you? I’m telling you, I’m sure that client is dodgy – do you even have the name of who owns the place?’

‘Nope. I told you. It’s always a different manager when I go in there. I’m sure you’re right that there’s something weird going on, but it’s not for me to investigate. I’m a graphic designer, not Miss bloody Marple.’

‘Maybe you should ditch this work, Chrissie. Do you really need it?’

She swallows back a sharp retort. No, I don’t need it, do I. Nathan’s salary pays the bills. Only my little hobby this, isn’t it? She knows she’ll only sound defensive. It’s her work that pays for the fancy holidays, Nathan’s salary not quite stretching that far, with most of his extra money going to overpay the mortgage and reduce their monthly bills. It might not be a huge house, and it’s only a semi-detached, but it’s in an area where square footage costs a premium. Even if it does come with neighbours on the other side of the party wall who don’t want to speak to you. Wendy doesn’t know all this, of course. Why would she?

‘Forget that,’ she says. ‘This man was nothing to do with Meet-4-Meat. He asked me a weird question about grief . . . said he could stop me from having to suffer it ever again.’

Wendy snorts. ‘Well, that’s ridiculous.’ She takes another large mouthful of wine.

‘I know. Of course it is. But I don’t know . . . it unsettled me. Made me think of Mum.’

Wendy leans over and puts a hand over hers, giving it a little squeeze. ‘Maybe it’s time for you to talk about your mum . . . and your dad? You’ve never—’

Chrissie yanks her hand away and Wendy jumps back, startled. Silence falls between them, only punctuated by the grunts and high-pitched voices coming from Peppa and the rest of the pig family on the TV.

‘Sorry,’ Wendy says, pushing her chair back and standing up. ‘That was a stupid thing to say.’ She gives Chrissie a brief smile, then turns towards the sitting room, calling out ‘Bye sweetie, see you tomorrow’ to Holly – who doesn’t reply.

Chrissie walks Wendy to the door. ‘No, I’m sorry,’ she says. ‘I overreacted. It’s just . . .’

‘I know,’ Wendy says. ‘Look, just forget about it. Forget about all of it. When I come round tomorrow, let’s arrange a night out for us, OK? It’s been too long since we just went out and forgot about work and nursery chatter and all of that. We need a girls’ night. High heels. Drinks. Sexy barmen. What do you reckon?’

‘Yes,’ Chrissie says, feeling her mood lift at the thought. ‘Nathan can curtail some of his late nights for a change. I’m sure his clients don’t need him quite as often as he makes out . . .’

Wendy gives her a brief, odd look and then smiles. ‘Oh, talking of Nathan – Holly’s done him a painting. It’s rolled up in her backpack.’ She leans in and kisses Chrissie on the cheek, and then she’s gone.

Chrissie picks up Holly’s backpack and pulls out the rolled piece of paper. She feels a small ping of annoyance, as if someone has flicked her ear. Another painting for Nathan? How come it’s the parent she sees the least that their daughter seems to favour the most?

 

 

Three

Chrissie (Now)

She’s thrown the wine bottle into the recycling, rinsed the glasses, and is tidying away her laptop and her notes when Holly appears in the doorway, thumb jammed into her mouth.

‘Mummy, can I play upstairs now?’

‘Of course you can, sweetie.’ She leans down and gently pulls Holly’s hand away from her mouth, kissing her thumb. ‘Daddy will be home soon.’ She kisses Holly’s thumb again. ‘We’ll go out to the park . . .’ She kisses her thumb once more. ‘Then we’ll have something yummy for tea. OK?’

‘Pizza?’

Chrissie smiles. Her daughter knows her only too well. ‘I think pizza sounds just perfect.’

‘Don’t forget to give Daddy my picture,’ Holly says, running through the dining room. She stops at the bottom of the stairs and turns back to Chrissie with a big grin and a thumbs up. ‘Careful, careful,’ she whispers.

‘Careful, careful.’ Chrissie grins back, then waits at the bottom of the stairs while Holly climbs up. The only thing that she hates about this house are the stairs. Too narrow, too steep. But there’s not much they can do except train Holly to walk up and down rather than run, and to follow the same advice themselves. Once Holly is safely past the halfway landing and her footsteps have broken into a run along the top hallway, Chrissie breathes a sigh of relief. One day, she’ll stop being terrified of these stairs.

Maybe.

She turns around and pushes the inside doormat against the doorframe with her foot, straightening it up, and as she does, she notices the business card from earlier, wedged underneath. She’d forgotten about it after seeing it drifting in through the letterbox. It must’ve been disturbed when Wendy had opened the door and Holly had flown in like the little tornado that she is.

She picks it up and slides it into the back pocket of her jeans.

She’s back in the kitchen, arranging a selection of takeaway leaflets across the table in a fanned horseshoe design, when she hears the key in the lock.

Nathan stomps into the kitchen. ‘Seriously?’ He tosses his work bag on to the table, sending the leaflets flying. ‘Takeaway again?’

She can smell beer on his breath, but says nothing. She’s hardly one to talk today.

‘I’ve had a total nightmare of a day,’ he says. ‘Some idiot nearly knocked me off the platform on to the tracks. Bumped me from behind.’ He opens the fridge and takes out a bottle of beer, flipping off the cap. ‘Bloody dangerous. One of these days it’ll be more than a near miss.’ He takes a pull of his beer. ‘Aren’t you going to say anything? What’ve you been doing, anyway?’ He nods towards her laptop.

She takes a deep breath, counting to ten before answering. It’s not the first time he’s come home complaining about the commute, or about his job. Trying to insinuate she’s not pulling her weight, when she’s the one who has to juggle working from home with looking after the house, and Holly, save for the few hours she’s out at nursery. She watches as he drains the rest of his beer, then sets the bottle down on the worktop with a sigh.

‘I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘I’m just tired. I think I need a bath and an early night . . .’

Chrissie forces a smile into her voice. ‘Let’s pop to the park first, OK? The rain’s off and I really think it’s good for us all to stick to the family routine.’ She pauses. ‘You hardly see her during the week.’ She waits for the inevitable explosion, but it doesn’t come.

Nathan rubs a hand across his stubbled chin. He does look tired. ‘OK.’

‘Oh, I almost forgot,’ Chrissie says. ‘This is for you.’ She hands him Holly’s rolled-up drawing.

He unrolls it, and she can’t help but look. Four people in this one. A man in the centre – Nathan, presumably – a woman on either side. The women look the same, except one has an upturned curve for a mouth and the other’s is downturned. They’re all holding hands. In front of them, a small girl on roller skates that she assumes is Holly. Holly doesn’t have roller skates, but it’s all she talks about at the moment.

‘A woman either side, eh? You are a lucky Daddy.’

‘I wish.’ Nathan laughs. ‘I think these are both you,’ he says. ‘You’re such an omnipresent force, she’s had to draw two of you. The two faces of Chrissie Tate. That sounds like a movie—’

‘Oh shut up! Go and get Holly, will you?’

He lets go of one side, and the painting re-rolls itself. He hands it to her like a baton before he heads out of the room. She unfurls it once more, takes a pack of Blu-Tack from the drawer, ready to put it up beside the others that decorate the walls of the kitchen. But there’s something about this one that she doesn’t like very much. She re-rolls it tightly then puts it in the corner next to the stacks of paper and the paints and pens and all the crafting paraphernalia. Perhaps Holly will forget about it and do another. She makes a mental note to ask her daughter about it one day. About the two women. And about why the paintings are always given to Nathan, and not her.

She sits down at the table, squaring away her laptop and work notes. After a moment, she hears pattering feet and squeals, followed by the careful thump thump of Holly making her way down the stairs.

Holly runs into the kitchen, frowning. ‘I was making a blanket fort for the bears!’

Chrissie smiles. ‘I know you were, sweetie. You can leave them in there all nice and cosy, while we pop out to the park for a little while. How does that sound?’

‘OK!’ Holly runs to the back door, reaching up to lean on the handle, trying to pull it down.

‘Shoes!’ Nathan calls, following her into the kitchen. He gives Chrissie a brief smile and a small shrug – his usual sorry gesture – before bending down to push Holly’s shoes on to her feet. He opens the back door.

‘Phone!’ Chrissie calls after him, and Nathan takes his phone out of his pocket and slides it along the worktop, where it comes to rest by the kettle. She lays hers beside it. No phones, is her rule for family time before Holly goes to bed. They’d barely speak to each other otherwise. She hesitates for a moment, thinking about the client. She wants them to call back tonight. It’d be Sod’s Law they’d call when she doesn’t have her phone, but she doesn’t want to break her own rules – that’d be the start of it and Nathan would gladly pull her up, and just like that, her carefully curated family time would be ruined. She sighs, then picks the phone up again and turns the ringer volume to maximum. If they ring, she’ll hear it from the park and come back in – it’s literally thirty seconds’ walk from the back door to the park entrance, crossing the narrow alleyway that runs along the back of the houses. Their house is practically in the park, which is a nuisance when she’s trying to work and there are kids out there shrieking. If the client doesn’t call, she’ll try them again when Holly is in bed.

‘I’ll cook something nice for us tomorrow,’ she shouts to Nathan as she steps outside. He’s halfway down the back path. ‘One of your favourites. Extra-cheesy mac ’n’ cheese? Spicy chicken wraps and sweet-potato wedges? You can pick.’

‘Maybe I’ll cook for a change,’ he shouts back. ‘Hardly rocket science, is it?’

I’ll believe it when I see it, Chrissie thinks. But says nothing. She doesn’t want to spoil the mood.

 

 

Four

Joseph (Now)

Joseph waits patiently in the queue for the lanyards. There are a couple of people in front of him, both taking longer than they should to locate their own names from the neat rows of name badges lined across the long table. Even from where he’s standing, without having to strain, he can see that the names are in alphabetical order. How hard can it be? He shifts from foot to foot, smooths his hands down his trousers. Then takes a step forward when it’s finally his turn, keeping his eyes down as he scans the rows of cards close up.

‘Good evening, sir. May I take your name?’ The woman behind the table smiles up at him. She has no reason to doubt him. Why would she? He’s got just as much right to be here as anyone else. Well, he would do. Had he purchased a ticket. Thankfully, unlike the other two before him, who’ve both marched off through the swinging glass doors, he’s prepared for this.

He chooses a name and raises his eyes to meet hers. ‘It’s Terrence Bowman,’ he says, remembering to smile and trying not to fidget. ‘Orchard Scientific.’

The woman nods and runs a finger down the ‘Bs’, passing ‘Bannatyne’ and ‘Beecham’ before coming to rest on the name he’s given her.

‘Here you go.’ She takes a long silver chain from a box to her right, then hands him the name badge, a brochure, and the chain in a well-practised move. ‘Enjoy the conference,’ she says, already turning away to deal with the next person in the queue.

Joseph slips the chain through the hole and secures it, then slides it over his head. He flips the badge so it faces his chest and mentally congratulates himself for a job well done.

There are so many attendees to deal with, by the time the real Terrence Bowman arrives the woman will have forgotten his face. Joseph had seen the box next to the chains, filled with stacks of blank cards and plastic sleeves. A couple of Sharpies lying in wait, for any missing names to be handwritten if required.

Observant. Excellent attention to detail. Always two of his strongest suits.

He pushes open the glass door and vanishes into the throng. Just another conference attendee.

He scans the room. A wide, airy space lined with small tables, some with partitions – most with some kind of advertising banner or sign board either behind or to one side. The ceilings are high and the chattering noise is a dull roar. Directly in front of him is an information booth, a screen behind it showing a map of the various rooms, interrupted by scrolling banner adverts along the top and the bottom. There are smaller screens at either side of the desk. He remembers to smile at the young man behind the booth, then makes his way to the unoccupied screen on the left. He taps it to wake it up, then slides his finger along the bottom until he finds what he’s looking for.

Attendees.

He has to scroll through three pages to find her. Dr Ris Anderson – GenYSis Therapeutics. Ris. He wonders why she’s chosen this version of her name. It’s unusual, certainly. Perhaps she wants to be memorable.

He’s certain she will be that.

Once he’s checked her location on the floor plan, he taps the screen again to get it back home.

He takes his time as he passes the various booths. Stops occasionally to read some of the posters. Remembers to smile at the people stationed beside them. Some, desperate to push whatever it is they are there to sell. Others, with pained expressions suggesting they’d drawn the short straw, would clearly prefer to be anywhere but here.

He used to enjoy things like this. But that was a lifetime ago, and besides, he’s not here to enjoy himself. He has someone to find.

He has a job to do.

She’s sitting down behind her table, flicking through the brochure, when he arrives in front of her. Sensing him, she looks up – and for a moment she looks startled, before composing herself quickly.

‘Good afternoon,’ he says, launching straight into it. He takes a good look at her face. It’s definitely her. He’d made sure to memorise her face from the information on her company website. He couldn’t afford to make a mistake here.

It’d been easier with Mrs Tate. He knew where she lived, because she works from home and that was the address he’d found for her on her company’s website. But Dr Anderson had proven trickier to pin down without raising any red flags. This was the issue with him not being allowed access to all resources. His relationship with his employers and his level of security access was a complex situation. Luckily it had been easy enough to find out Dr Anderson’s whereabouts today. Once he’d got the details of who she worked for, the company website had helped him along by proudly displaying their esteemed representatives and their involvement in this conference.

GenYSis Therapeutics: Medical advances in rare genetic diseases.

So appropriate.

She looks at him expectantly, waiting for him to say more, and when he doesn’t, she says, ‘Hello. Welcome to GenYSis Therapeutics. I’m Dr Ris Anderson. Were you happy to browse through the materials on show, or did you have any specific questions for me?’

He feels a little flurry of excitement. He quickly taps his watch, glances down to check the reading. 70bpm. Bit high, but well within the safe limits.

‘As a matter of fact, I do, Doctor.’ He lifts his head to look her in the eye; remembers to smile. ‘Tell me, Dr Anderson, have you ever experienced grief?’

 

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Susi Holliday is the UK bestselling author of the creepy and claustrophobic Banktoun trilogy (Black Wood, Willow Walk and The Damselfly), the festive serial killer thriller The Deaths of December, the supernatural mystery The Lingering, a psychological thriller set on the Trans-Siberian Express (Violet) and a horror novella (Mr Sandman). Her latest two thrillers (The Last Resort and Substitute) contain a speculative-science edge. By day, she works in clinical research. She also mentors aspiring crime writers via CrimeFictionCoach. Find out more at susiholliday.com.

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Text copyright © 2021 by Susi Holliday

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

Published by Thomas & Mercer, Seattle

www.apub.com

Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Thomas & Mercer are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc., or its affiliates.

ISBN-13: 9781542020046

ISBN-10: 1542020042

Cover design by The Brewster Project

Printed in the United States of America

 

 

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