Chapter 1: THREE YEARS EARLIER
I was in the pool when it happened.
I should have been upstairs in the house. I should have been helping my cousin Luisa get two bedrooms ready for the family friends who were coming to stay. Vacuuming, dusting, changing sheets, blah boring blah. When Luisa’s mobile rang, all we’d done was yank the cover off a super-size duvet.
She looked at the caller display, a shine of sweat on her forehead.
She looked at the caller display, a shine of sweat on her forehead. It was actually too hot that day to do anything other than bomb into the swimming pool, but Auntie Tania had given strict instructions. As Luisa swiped the screen to answer the call, she sat down on the bed, on the mattress cover that we were supposed to be changing.
“Hey!” she said into the phone.
I stood staring at her for a few seconds, wondering if I’d look like her when I was seventeen. In five years’ time, would I have de-chubbed and become beautiful? We shared some genetic material, so there was a tiny bit of hope. I was staring at her, but it still took me a moment or two to realize that she was making dusting movements at me with one hand.
When I picked up the yellow duster, she gave me the thumbs up, flopped back against a coverless pillow and said, “So, what’s happening tonight? I am soooo bored.”
Dusting was a big thing in that house. A cleaner came several times a week, and in between times my Auntie Tania was always wiping surfaces. It was weird because it should have been my mum who was obsessed with cleaning, not her sister. We were the family with a kid who got sick easily. Mum was obsessed with quite a lot of things, but cleaning wasn’t one of them.
With the cleaner away for a few days, Auntie Tania had decided Luisa and I should do our bit. So I dusted everything I could see in both bedrooms and I shoved eight pillows into pillowcases, including the one that Luisa had been leaning against. She rolled off it when she saw that I needed it, but she didn’t finish her phone conversation. I shook a single duvet into a flowery cover, making as much flapping noise as I could so she’d get the hint. She didn’t.
I’d been staying at West Hill House over three weeks by then and I had less than a week to go. Those last days were dragging and I’d had enough. Three whole weeks of being helpful and polite. It would be a strain on anyone, right? In the end I started up the vacuum cleaner about a metre away from Luisa.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her stand up, still talking, and walk over to the socket in the wall. When the vacuum cleaner cut out, I pretended to be surprised.
“Get lost, Bethany,” Luisa said.
I was happy to oblige; I put down the hose of the vacuum cleaner and made straight for the airing cupboard to grab a stripy swimming towel. I was already wearing a bikini under my shorts and T-shirt.
The pool was at the end of the garden, and the quickest way to reach it was through the French doors at the back of the house. I’d forgotten my flip-flops and I winced as my bare feet made contact with the gravel, but it was only five steps until I reached the soft grass. The air was clammy, and everything was still, even the water in the swimming pool. It looked like a shiny, turquoise rock-face, a massive jewel.
Something was out of place, something more than the strangeness of someone sneaking into the house round the back.
The rule was I could swim whenever I wanted, as long as it wasn’t after a big meal. I was a good swimmer – not as good as Uncle Martin, but just as good as Luisa, and way better than Auntie Tania, who swam with her head out of the water so her face didn’t get wet.
The pool was fenced off with glass panels held together by steel posts to keep out visiting dogs and little kids. There were some days when I had problems with the childproof gate, but that afternoon wasn’t one of them. I peeled off my shorts and top, leaving them on the paved pool area where I dropped them, next to the towel. I’d planned to bomb into the pool, but when it came to it, the stillness of the day made me want to step slowly down the ladder into the water instead. When I was at waist-level, I turned and let myself drift into a glide, feeling the coolness of the water against my hot face, embracing the muffled world.
My hair was shorter back then, not quite shoulder length, but it still swept across my nose and mouth underwater. I stopped swimming and trod water. As I tucked a stray lock behind my ear, I heard noise. Footsteps on gravel.
Auntie Tania must have been back already, even though I hadn’t heard her car sweep up the drive. She wouldn’t be pleased to find me in the pool if the bedrooms hadn’t been finished. I swam to the side. While she brought the shopping in through the front door, I’d sneak back into the house.
But before I hauled myself out, the footsteps changed pace. Someone was running.
Auntie Tania was someone who walked briskly; she never ran. A figure came round the side of the house in a rush, a blur of black jogging trousers and a dark green hoodie with the hood up. He ran as if he knew where he was going, towards the French doors.
Fear thudded in my stomach as I watched him slip inside the house. He didn’t look like one of Luisa’s friends. Something was out of place, something more than the strangeness of someone sneaking into the house round the back. My body knew it before my head caught up: he was wearing the wrong clothes for such a hot day.
I needed to tell Luisa, but my mobile was inside the house. Maybe she was still on the phone and I wouldn’t have been able to get through anyway. I could get out of the pool and run round to the front door, which was likely to be open. I could sprint down the driveway and run to the care home at the end of the road for help. It felt miles away, but I could do it.
I stood on the bottom rung of the swimming ladder and wished I knew what to do. There was the sound of raised voices. Shouts. A bang. Was it from a gun? Another one. Fast footsteps on gravel again. Scruffy white trainers were all I saw as I shrank back into the pool.
With a shaky hand, I held on to the side of the pool and waited. I heard a car drive incredibly fast down the drive. I heard birds making ugly cawing noises and the gentle slap of water against the tiled sides.
It was hard to heave myself out of the pool. All the warmth had gone from my shivery body, and fear had made me weak. I don’t remember wrapping myself in the towel, or walking out of the pool area, across the grass or the gravel. I found myself by the French doors, and I called, “Luisa?”
There was no answer, so I shouted louder. “Luisa!” Then I was screaming her name and somehow I forced myself to walk into the living room. She was there – on the floor. I saw the blood and her eyes, open but unseeing.
That was the day my cousin was murdered.