To celebrate the publication of Amanda Brooke’s page-turning thriller, Don’t Turn Around, here is an exclusive sneak peek at the opening chapter!
The rhythmic slap of my ballet shoes against the linoleum-covered steps echoes down the stairwell. As my pace slows, my head droops and my gaze falls onto the worn and familiar treads that lead to the seventh floor and home. I know each and every scuff mark, every chip of paint, and even the crumpled tissues and sweet wrappers discarded by my thoughtless neighbours are familiar to me. Unlike my apartment block’s gleaming city-centre exterior, its spine has an air of abandonment. The stairwell is rarely used and less frequently cleaned, and there have been times when I’ve taken it upon myself to return with rubber gloves and a bin bag, but no more. Believe me, I’ve tried, but nothing I do ever makes a difference.
My legs are trembling by the time I reach my floor and I take a moment to catch my breath. Drawn to the window with its view of the Liverpool waterfront, I follow the line of docks until they’re rudely interrupted by the modern edifice of a thirteen-storey office block that sits awkwardly between Canning Dock and the Pier Head. This is Mann Island, and although it hasn’t been an island for centuries, the place where I work certainly looks stranded next to the iconic outlines of the Port of Liverpool, Cunard and Liver Buildings. The Three Graces had been basking in the afterglow of a crisp autumn day when I’d set off on the short trek home along the Strand, but the world has darkened since, and the Graces have been reduced to silhouettes, pockmarked with yellow, fluorescent lights. As I step back from the window, my eyes refocus and I catch my reflection.
The apparition floating beyond the sheet of glass is weighed down by the heavy houndstooth woollen jacket hanging off her shoulders. Her round face is framed by straggly mouse-brown hair and a severe fringe that’s become frayed from her exertions. Her complexion is pale against the starless night and there’s no spark in her eyes. The fight has left her.
I don’t recognise this woman captured by the failing light, or perhaps I do. There’s something about her that reminds me of Meg. My cousin’s hair was a similar shade although you would describe hers as golden, and she never hid behind a fringe. Meg was bold, and yet the hopelessness in the face that stares back at me immediately brings her to mind.
I retreat to the exit door only to stop when I hear a noise. The soft squeak of a rubber sole on linoleum came from the floor above, or I think it did. The world falls silent again and I’m about to dismiss the crawling sensation that I’m being watched when—
Instinctively, I grab the safety bar but I don’t open the door because I’ve already recognised the deep voice that sent a jolt of terror down my spine. The fact that he’s here shouldn’t surprise me, and I know it won’t matter if I run away, or stand and fight. He’s already won.
I turn my head slowly but he stops me.
‘Don’t turn around.’
Keeping my head to the side, I stare at the window with its mirror image of the landing behind me. No figure appears from the shadows, no hand reaches out to wrap around my neck.
‘What is this? Don’t you have the guts to face me?’ I ask, my voice surprisingly calm.
There’s a pause and when he replies, he sounds closer. ‘If I thought it was going to be easy, we would have had this conversation ten years ago.’
‘This conversation?’ I ask. ‘If it’s a confession you’re planning, I’m not the one you should be talking to. It’s Meg’s parents who deserve answers.’
‘Ruth and Geoff don’t need to hear what I have to say.’
‘I suppose you’re going to tell me you’ve been protecting them all these years.’
‘Not only them.’
My laugh catches in my dry throat. ‘Oh, I see. You’ve been protecting me too.’
‘If Meg had wanted you to know everything, she’d have told you everything.’
‘Maybe she tried,’ I reply as I picture a torn scrap of yellow lined paper. Meg’s suicide note, or at least a remnant of it.
‘No, she didn’t,’ he says with finality. ‘Christ, Jen, didn’t you know her at all?’
‘She was my best friend. Of course I knew her!’ I tell him, raising my voice to camouflage the doubt.
‘Not like I did,’ he says in a whisper.
A door swings open three flights down and shrieks of laughter ricochet off the walls as a group of raucous, and possibly drunken friends race to the ground floor. Their giddiness reminds me of times lost, but I can’t trust my memories. How many of Meg’s smiles were a disguise for unfathomable pain?
When another door slams shut and stillness returns, I hear the whisper of stealthy footfalls. I scan the reflection of the empty landing and glimpse movement on the small section of the stairs that are visible to me. I spy a pair of black boots and legs clad in dark jeans. I twist my body towards him.
‘I said, don’t turn around.’
‘Because I can’t . . .’ He curses under his breath. ‘I won’t do this if you’re looking at me.’