The First One to Die
"One of the best crime novels I have read - and I read many. I raced through this book, reading it in a breath-taking, heart-pounding rush… a thrilling roller coaster of a story."Renita D’Silva
She tried to break her fall, twisting desperately, but there was nothing to catch hold of, nothing with which she could stop herself. Her single scream cut through the night air.
One hot summer night, a young woman falls from a rooftop to her death. Detective Alex King is called to the quiet terraced street.
The victim, Keira North, was twenty, happy and carefree. It seems like an accident, but there’s broken glass on the carpet, and witnesses overheard an argument. Could someone have wanted her dead?
Keira’s friends don’t seem as helpful as Alex would expect and the post-mortem reveals that Keira was hiding a secret: she was five months pregnant. Alex’s team soon finds that all of Keira's closest friends have secrets that someone might kill to keep.
As Alex realises Keira might be just the first victim on a list, her leads take her a bit too close to home. With her own demons to fight, can Alex catch the killer, before someone else dies?
The First One to Die is a heart-stopping and shocking detective thriller that will have you gripped until the very last page. Perfect for fans of Patricia Gibney, Angela Marsons, and Val McDermid.
Release date: November 15, 2017
Print pages: 330
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
The First One to Die
All she’d been told was to pack a bag of overnight things and something she could wear out to dinner. Other than that, Chloe had no idea where they were going. Scott picked her up at just gone five o’clock after finishing work. Chloe had been off that day; a rare lazy Sunday spent idling away the hours in Alex’s back garden, making the most of an uncharacteristically warm June. The air had felt so still those past few weeks, so peaceful, that to Chloe’s young yet cynical mind it was inevitable there was something lurking around the corner to upset this alien calm.
In the meantime, she was making a concerted effort to try to enjoy the here and now.
‘What’s this mystery trip in aid of then?’ she asked, as she put her bag in the back and got into the passenger seat of Scott’s car. ‘My birthday’s not for another six weeks.’
He shot her a smile. ‘Does there have to be an occasion?’
‘OK,’ he said, stretching the letters in a drawl. ‘It’s Sunday.’
He gave a shrug as he pulled away from the kerb. ‘Day ends with a y,’ he suggested.
Chloe laughed. She knew it didn’t sound as relaxed as she had hoped it would; if anything, there was something stilted and forced, which she knew he would pick up on. The truth was she’d been dreading this evening. Their six-month relationship had been so far a very calm and steady affair: dinner dates once a week, the occasional cinema trip at weekends (work permitting) and afternoons on mutual days off spent on the sofa at Scott’s flat when his housemate was working and they had the place to themselves.
It had all been very polite.
Yet despite how well they’d been getting on and how much she liked him, Chloe was aware of the elephant in the room. They’d still not had sex. It was ridiculous, she thought – only adolescents and members of the kind of religious group she’d managed to escape from years ago dated someone for six months without having sex with that person, and yet regardless of how much she might have wanted to sleep with Scott, she could never find herself able to switch her mind off from the past. Until she found a way to do it, she felt she was destined to live the life of a nun.
The thought that most men would have given up by now often preyed on her mind. She glanced at Scott as he drove the car down the slip road and on to the M4 headed west. He looked impossibly handsome; even more handsome than the first time she had seen him, way back before Christmas, chatting with another member of staff at the poolside in the leisure centre where he worked. She had found herself unable to take her eyes off him then, like some lovesick teenager transfixed by the new boy at school. Now, she still couldn’t believe that she was here, sitting in his car beside him.
Something had to go wrong. And yet, so far, there had been no well-concealed flaw let carelessly slip; no chip in the otherwise perfect exterior.
Chloe had lived a life that had repeatedly reminded her of the mantra that if something appeared too good to be true, it usually was. The thought wasn’t helping her in her quest to move forward: a move Alex was constantly reminding her she needed to make.
When they arrived at the hotel, Chloe realised it must have cost a small fortune. She had never stayed in a hotel where a member of staff carried guests’ bags to the room, and within moments of merely being in the lobby she found herself feeling horribly out of place.
‘You OK?’ Scott asked, sensing her anxiety.
Chloe took a glance at the clothes she was wearing – sandals, leggings and a thin cotton off-the-shoulder sweater – and felt a wave of relief at the thought of the dress in her suitcase. ‘Yeah, fine,’ she lied.
They went to their room to dress for dinner – Chloe changing in the bathroom in order to keep any glimpse of her body concealed from Scott – and went down to the hotel’s restaurant. She felt mildly ridiculous in the dress she had chosen: an outfit that was so unlike her she wouldn’t have blamed Scott for thinking an intruder had emerged from the en suite. She took pride in her appearance and in her day-to-day life liked to look smart, professional, yet now she was unable to shake off the feeling that she resembled a cast member of an MTV reality show. As they sat, she tugged at the hemline of the dress, wondering whether in her eagerness to look as though she’d made an obvious effort she had ended up appearing desperate.
‘You look lovely,’ Scott told her.
‘I feel stupid.’
Scott opened the menu, using it as an excuse to ignore the comment. ‘What do you fancy?’ he asked, not looking up.
They were interrupted by a waitress, who took their drinks order. Chloe studied the menu without really looking at it, self-consciously pushing a short strand of fading blonde behind her ear. Until recently, her hair had always been long. It had also been bottle-blonde, but she was now allowing the colour to grow out.
When the waitress left, Scott put his menu on the table. ‘Do you want to go?’
‘No,’ Chloe said, too quickly.
‘You just don’t look like you want to be here. We can go and get a bag of chips, order a takeaway … We don’t have to eat here.’
‘It’s fine,’ she said, the words snapping from her more abruptly than she’d intended. Her gaze fell to her left, and to the couple on the next table. The woman was looking over at them, making no attempt to hide her interest in their conversation.
‘I’ll have the beetroot salad,’ Chloe said, choosing the first vegetarian option she’d seen.
Scott returned his attention to the menu. When the waitress came back with their drinks, he ordered food. They sat in silence, the awkwardness punctuated by the occasional comment about the restaurant’s unusual decor and then, later, the food.
‘Is it OK?’ Scott asked. Chloe had been pushing her salad around the plate with her fork, unaware she’d been doing it until she was interrupted. What was wrong with her? she wondered. She was in a lovely restaurant with a lovely man; someone who paid her enough attention to care how her food was. Wasn’t this what she’d wanted?
‘Tell your face then.’ It was said with a smile, but Chloe realised she was proving a disappointment.
‘Come on,’ Scott said, trying to catch the attention of the waitress. ‘I’ll get the bill.’
Back up in their room, Scott was quick to apologise. ‘This was a stupid idea. I’m so sorry.’
Chloe sat on the edge of the bed. ‘Don’t be silly, it’s not you …’ She cut herself short, aware of what she’d almost said. Of course it wasn’t him – they both knew that much already. It was her and all her stupid insecurities: her reluctance to let anyone too close, her inability to shut off her memories, her apparently incessant need to continue punishing herself for past mistakes.
‘I just, you know … You mentioned feeling guilty about being at Alex’s so much, and Ben’s always at mine, so …’ Scott covered his face with his hands and sighed. ‘Sorry.’
‘Stop saying sorry.’
She patted the duvet beside her, realising as soon as she’d done so that she was like a pet owner beckoning a faithful dog. She wondered how the situation could possibly become any more embarrassing. ‘It’s OK. Honestly.’
He sat beside her. ‘I’ve just gauged this all wrong. It’s a bit too much, isn’t it?’
Chloe nodded. ‘Can I put my other clothes back on?’
‘Course you can. You do look lovely, though.’
She laughed. ‘Don’t be nice. I’m just a fake tan away from Geordie Shore.’
She made to stand from the bed, but Scott took her hand in his, holding her back. ‘I didn’t bring you with the intention of … you know. That’s not what this is about.’
‘Well of course it is.’
She spoke the words before she had time to consider their possible reception. Scott looked as though she’d just thrown something at him: a sort of wounded, shocked expression that evidenced the fact he hadn’t expected her to be quite so blunt about it.
‘Come on, Scott,’ she said, desperate now to make light of the increasingly awkward situation. ‘Dinner, hotel room … You weren’t really planning on us coming back here for a game of Scrabble, were you?’
His eyes remained fixed on her, whether in surprise or disappointment Chloe couldn’t be sure. ‘Actually, I did ask the manager if I could borrow the Scrabble board, but she’s already loaned it out to room twelve.’
Chloe’s face softened and she jabbed him in the ribs with an elbow. ‘I’m sorry. This is lovely, it really is. It’s just … I want to, but …’ She looked away, embarrassed by the words that hadn’t even been spoken.
‘You don’t have to explain anything.’
I do, she thought. She already had, several times over – to the point at which she’d become bored of the sound of her own voice – and yet no matter how often she tried to explain to him why physical intimacy had become such an issue, the words always sounded ridiculous and her reasoning seemed more and more absurd.
Scott squeezed her hand and leaned in to kiss her. ‘The seafront’s just a few streets away,’ he said. ‘Fancy going for a walk?’
She smiled. ‘Love to.’
It was a warm, clear night and the party had hours earlier spilled from the house and into the yard at the back of the row of terraces. The air felt electric that evening, alive with the excitement and relief of exam season closure. The last exam had taken place two days earlier, and Friday night’s party had gone on right through into Sunday, stopping only for people to catch a few hours’ sleep and restock on supplies before starting again. A dull thud of bass throbbed through the building like an irregular heartbeat, stifling the senses of those people who remained within the four walls of the house. Outside, drinking games were being played around a plastic garden table, its surface barely visible amid the array of bottles and glasses that adorned it. Joints were being passed between friends, bad jokes shared, sexual innuendo thrown into every conversation.
A train rattled past, noisy and fast: the 23.14 from Cardiff Central to Ystrad Rhondda, at this point midway through its hour-long journey; stopping just further up the track in Pontypridd. From the second floor of the terraced house in Treforest, from the bedroom at the back, the students who lived there often watched the trains go past – sometimes on sun-bleached afternoons, sometimes on nights like this, when the orange glow of the carriages would whizz past in a hazy blur of light. They could escape the noise of the world up on the ledge that jutted out over the first-floor bathroom. Up there, secrets had been shared and promises made. They were young – they knew those promises would likely be futile against the weight of time – but some had been made with good intentions.
Jamie Bateman was standing in the kitchen, watching through the window as an unfamiliar group of people laughed exaggeratedly over something that had just been said. He wondered if any of his housemates actually knew these people, or if they’d just heard evidence of a weekend-long party and gravitated towards the nearest available alcohol. Sidestepping the other people who lingered in the kitchen, Jamie moved to the back door. He could see Leah sitting on the stone wall at the end of the yard, her head resting against the side of the wooden shed in the corner. She was watching a drinking game unfold at the table, her face impassive as the people around her grew increasingly animated. Her long hair fell over the side of her face, managing to exaggerate her drunkenness.
He wondered where Tom and Keira had got to. The more he thought about them, the more he realised he didn’t want to know.
A girl fell into him as she passed, steadying herself with a grip on his elbow and a giggled apology. He studied her as she straightened: pale face, pink lips; eyes wide and slightly too far apart. He wondered what she saw when she looked at him. He wondered what any of them saw. Women seemed to look through him as though he wasn’t really there. Everyone seemed to look at him that way. The girl’s apologetic expression quickly changed; she eyed him with curiosity now, wondering why his stare was so prolonged.
When Jamie glanced back out at the yard, Leah had looked up, her eyes now fixed on him. Her dark hair had been swept to one side and her legs were pulled up on to the wall, hugged to her chest as though protecting her. She looked away and turned her attention back to the table.
Jamie went back into the house.
Upstairs, in the back room of the second floor, Tom and Keira were sitting on the ledge outside her bedroom window. She was agitated, annoyed by his refusal to ever see things from anyone else’s point of view. The roof was usually a place for quiet and calm; that evening, it was the only place they could escape the prying eyes and ears of others.
‘How did you think people wouldn’t find out?’ she snapped.
Tom took a deep drag from his cigarette and exhaled slowly, losing the smoke to the summer evening breeze that was more noticeable up there than down in the yard below.
‘Jamie knows as well,’ she told him.
Tom rolled his eyes. ‘Jamie doesn’t know anything. He doesn’t know what day of the week it is most of the time.’
Keira sighed, exasperated. ‘And get that out of my face.’ She gave his arm a shove, redirecting the clouds of smoke that trailed from his cigarette.
He turned sharply to her, alcohol fuelling his already short temper. ‘What is the matter with you tonight?’
‘Jesus.’ Keira turned to the window, swung her slim legs through the gap and went back inside the bedroom. ‘I just thought you were different, that’s all.’
‘Why?’ Tom followed her back into the bedroom, having to duck lower to get his tall frame through the open window.
‘Why would you think I’m any different? Different to what?’ It was said with a smirk that was intended to be noticed. It was intended to provoke a response.
God, he was annoying. She had thought for a while she was beginning to like him – he had grown on her during the past eighteen months, although in much the same way as the verruca she’d once needed to have removed – but when he was behaving like this, like his usual stubborn, ignorant self, she could feel nothing but contempt towards him.
‘I just thought you were a bit more intelligent, that’s all. Obviously I was wrong.’
‘Never got caught, have I?’
‘That’s luck, Tom, not cleverness. It’s only a matter of time before your luck runs out. Especially if people are starting to talk.’
He leaned against the wall and took a long drink from the bottle of beer he was holding. ‘I’m going home at the end of the week. It’ll all be forgotten. By September, people will have found someone else to gossip about.’
Keira sighed and sat on the bed. She pushed a length of dark hair from her face and studied him, standing there so casually as though everything was fine. In that moment, she thought she might hate him. She didn’t think she had ever hated anyone before, not really – it wasn’t in her nature to feel anger or bitterness towards other people. But Tom knew how to push people’s buttons.
And recent events had changed everything.
‘I don’t even understand why you’re doing it.’
He smirked again; the look infuriated Keira. ‘You wouldn’t. I mean, look around you, Keira.’ He raised the hand that held the bottle and moved his arm in an exaggerated semicircle in front of him. ‘Look at your life.’
‘I don’t know what you mean,’ she said defensively.
‘Of course you don’t,’ he scoffed, taking another mouthful of beer. ‘All this stuff … it’s so normal to you.’
It was the drink talking, Keira thought. She had seen Tom behave like a pig before, had seen him sarcastic and arrogant and full of himself. But she had never seen him cruel, not like this. Did he mean it? If he did, it hurt more than she might ever have anticipated it would.
‘Whatever you think about me, it doesn’t give you the right to do what you’ve been doing. Have you even bothered to think about the people this might affect?’
Tom’s expression changed, something dulling behind the pale grey of his eyes. ‘You’re so fucking sanctimonious, do you know that, Keira? It must be fucking perfect living in your little princess world.’
‘Oooh,’ she said, retaliating against his spite. ‘Big word there – well done.’
She recoiled on the bed as he threw the bottle he’d been holding against the wall. It smashed into tiny shards and stained the paintwork with an abstract shock of cheap lager. ‘That’s exactly the kind of patronising shit I’m talking about. You make everyone feel this fucking big.’ He moved towards her and waved his hand in her face to demonstrate his meaning.
For the first time, Keira felt afraid of him. She’d found out things about him she would never have thought possible. She didn’t want to be living with someone like this. What else was he capable of?
‘I’m fed up of always being made out to be the bad guy.’ The words were spat in her face, showering her with his anger. ‘You want to know what’s really going on … ask your little friend downstairs.’
Keira’s brow furrowed questioningly. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
He shook his head. ‘Open your eyes, Keira. Life isn’t one giant Disney movie. Oh … and everyone thinks the same as me, by the way. Spoilt little rich bitch.’
Tom stood back and stormed from the room. Keira got up from the bed and stared at the wall on which the thrown drink was already beginning to dry in trails that ran like thick teardrops. They were supposed to be coming back to this house after the summer holiday, returning in September for their final year. They’d got on well together, at the start.
Before they’d known each other, she thought.
She considered what he’d just said. Was that really what he thought of her? Was that what they all thought of her?
She went back to the window and pushed it wide open. Climbing back out, she sat on the ledge they had come to treat as a makeshift balcony and reached for the drink she’d left there. She glanced down at the narrow stretch of yard beneath her, hearing voices and laughter drift up towards her; feeling so much further than just two floors from the people scattered below. She didn’t belong here any more.
There were things she wished she didn’t know; things she wished she’d never been made aware of. She had already signed a contract for the following year’s rental agreement, but there must be some way of getting out of it. She couldn’t come back here now, not with things as complicated as they were.
She felt tears catch at the corners of her eyes. She thought of her mum and dad. She thought of her sister. She wanted to go home.
The bedroom door sounded behind her and Keira sighed, wiping the back of her hand across her eyes in an attempt to conceal her tears. She didn’t want a repeat performance of the argument they’d already had. Tom had said everything there was to say; she didn’t need to hear any more. She felt so upset, she didn’t even want to look at him.
She wondered again whether what he’d said was true, if that was how other people perceived her. She was lucky, she knew that, but she’d never tried to rub anyone’s face in her good fortune. If she had, she’d never meant to. She’d never tried to belittle anyone; she had thought they were her friends. If she really did make people feel that way, she’d never been aware she was doing it.
She felt him behind her, then everything happened so quickly. A hand touched her back for the briefest of moments before a firm shove sent her flailing from the ledge. She tried to break her fall, twisting desperately through the air, but there was nothing to catch hold of, nothing with which she could stop herself.
A single scream cut through the night air.
The call woke Detective Inspector Alex King at twenty past two in the morning. Uniform had been called to a house in Treforest, where it was reported a young woman had fallen from a rooftop. When Alex got there, the street was eerily quiet. The majority of the partygoers had already been sent home, though by all accounts clearing the scene had been pretty shambolic. Some had fled; others had stayed to gawp. Incidents such as this usually generated crowds of rubberneckers, people who longed for a glimpse of misery as an interlude in their lacklustre lives; a reminder that no matter how disappointing their own existence might be, some poor sod’s had just got a whole lot worse.
According to the call she’d received, there had been an outbreak of panic at the house on Railway Terrace, with many revellers fleeing as soon as they became aware of what had happened, while others gathered around the victim, arguing over what to do. The neighbours in the adjoining houses had been woken by the screams of eyewitnesses.
‘How many people were here?’ Alex asked the first of the two uniformed officers already at the house. He looked barely old enough to be out of school, and the sheepish expression that preceded his response was enough to answer the question.
‘We can’t be certain.’
The officer shrugged, which managed to irritate Alex more than any words might have done. ‘There was a houseful, apparently.’
The paramedics had pronounced Keira North dead at the scene. Her housemates were sitting in the living room, a girl and two boys, the three of them side by side on the sofa, stunned into silence. Alex glanced into the room as she passed, unable to ignore the chaos that surrounded the three students. A drink so blue it bordered on fluorescent had been spilled over the end of the beige sofa. Empty bottles and dirty glasses littered the flimsy self-assembly coffee table in the middle of the room. Evidently the party had been an eventful one long before its traumatic ending.
The girl had been crying; there were telltale signs of mascara smudged down her cheek and her skin was flushed with an assault of raw emotion. She was sitting nearest the door, her body turned at an awkward angle from the two boys beside her as though she was trying to block them out and pretend neither of them was present.
‘What sort of state are they in?’ Alex asked the officer, nodding towards the living room.
‘Not too bad now. The girl was pretty drunk when we first arrived, but the accident seems to have sobered her up.’
Alex followed the young officer through to the kitchen. The back door was open, leading out on to a small L-shaped area that passed as garden space. Like the inside of the house, the place was a mess. Smashed glass lay strewn on the patio slabs and cigarette butts adorned every available surface. There was evidence of drug use on the garden table.
She stepped into the yard. It was still warm out, despite the unearthly hour. Another man – the second of the two attending officers – was waiting there for her.
‘Scene-of-crime officers are on their way,’ she told him.
She studied the fallen body. The girl’s head was snapped back at an angle, her eyes still open. They stared past Alex’s shoes, unseeing, the life drained from the pupils. She was wearing a pair of black leggings and a short-sleeved checked shirt that had risen to her waist during the fall. Her long hair was tangled in messy tendrils across her back and face.
‘Why the hell has everything taken so long?’ Alex said, directing her impatience at the officers. ‘The call was made at just before midnight. Almost two and a half hours ago.’
She didn’t need to say any more; the unspoken accusation hung in the air between them. She stood with her hands on her narrow hips, her unnerving focus switching between the two men as she waited for some sort of response.
The second officer shot the first an uneasy glance. ‘It was chaos here. They had a houseful – we tried to get it cleared as quickly as we could.’
‘Cleared? Of what … witnesses?’ Alex shook her head and bit her tongue, saving the reprimand for later. ‘Show me the room.’
She and the first officer went back into the house. The young man showed her upstairs, to the bedroom that had been Keira’s and from which she had fallen. The room was neat and tidy, everything organised and in place. History textbooks lined the shelves above the closed laptop that sat on the desk. A dressing table stood to the side of it, make-up and hair products in orderly rows beneath the mirror. The bed was made, though indentations in the duvet suggested that more than one person had recent. . .
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...