The Avenue. It was supposed to be your new home, your new start. But now it’s moving-in day. And the police have just arrived.
Someone in this neighbourhood is a killer. And when everyone you know is a suspect, who can you trust?
Read an exclusive extract from The Neighbour, the addictive new domestic thriller by bestselling author Fiona Cummins.
Sunday, 29 July 2018
The Avenue – 3.31 p.m.
The removal van packed with the furniture and hopes of the Lockwood family brushed against the rhododendron bushes that surrounded The Avenue, breaking off one of the blooms.
That flower floated to the pavement, petals torn and mangled. The van driver, intent on finding the right house, did not notice the damage he had caused. Neither did the Lockwoods.
As heat trembled the air around them, this family had no idea of how they would come to pray that 25 The Avenue had remained a blurry photograph on the estate agent’s web- site, or that by the end of the summer, their lives would be as ruined as the stem bleeding sap onto the concrete.
Music drifted across the sun-withered afternoon, touching leaves so dry the swell of notes might shake them free, before floating through the open windows of several nearby houses.
Those houses, grouped like guardians in this modest street on the edge of a small town near the Essex coast, had been standing there for many years and borne witness to it all.
From behind the curtains of one of those houses, someone watched the Lockwood family crawl into the driveway behind the moving truck, snap off the radio and emerge from the silver shell of their car, unfolding legs and shaking out arms cramped by hours of travel.
An older woman, attractive, wearing crumpled linen trousers, shielded her eyes, and squeezed the hand of a man, who did not squeeze it back. A boy, eight or nine, bounced around, tugging at his mother’s arm. A teenage girl, languid-limbed and insouciant, brushed her thumb across the screen of her mobile phone and did not look up at the house at all.
The someone watched this family, shiny with promise, and wondered which of them would break first. Because nobody came to The Avenue without death seeping through the gaps in their walls.
Some new families handled the proximity of murder better than others. Two or three had left within weeks, wearing the financial pain of a quick sale. But which details of the killings had the estate agent shared with the latest arrivals? How much should be shared, and when?
Before these questions could be answered, the decision was made.
A wail first. High-pitched. Insistent. Joined by another, and another, rising in rhythm and intensity. A concerto; the solo instruments of police sirens, a rolling bass line of distant traffic and the alto voices of the birds that nestled in this tree-lined avenue, and the woods beyond.
The neighbour glanced down the street to the archway of branches and brambles that crowned one of five public entrances to Blatches Woods. Thirty-seven acres of greenery tucked into this pocket of suburbia, criss-crossed with foot-paths and bridleways. A place to get lost in. Thirty-seven acres that had come to dominate the newspaper headlines and breakfast tables; that had lowered property prices; that had cast a pall across this most ordinary of places.
The word rolled around the neighbour’s mouth. Pall. A cloth used for spreading over a coffin.
The Avenue filled with noise and blue light as the police cars – two, three, four of them – swerved into the kerb in front of the footpath that led to the south-east corner of the woodland. A van – forensic services imprinted across its side – followed a minute later.
Officers – some uniformed, some not – gathered in a knot, waiting for the white suits to ready themselves. One – his hand on the collar of a dog – was being sick. Even from behind the safety of the window, their sense of urgency was palpable. A need to cut through the decaying strings of vines that crept across the carpet moss and bracken, to trample deeper into the dense wall of trees, to interrogate the dog- walker or jogger or whoever had found it this time.
From downstairs, the click of the back door and the sounds of the kettle being filled. A dozen butterflies took flight in the neighbour’s stomach. A glance at the clock. Around fifteen minutes before the door-knockings and questions would begin again.
The Lockwoods were watching this scene unfold with the frozen expressions of comic-book characters: eyes widened; mouths slack and loose; splayed fingers pressed to cheeks. Their bodies were angled towards the police cars in the way that plants are pulled towards the sun. Not a flicker of movement between them, mesmerized by the sight of Mrs Lockwood’s favourite television crime dramas seemingly brought to life opposite their new home, a bruise on the surface of their fresh start. All except the girl, who was taking photographs with her phone.
Three hours later, when the removal men had left and the sun was dipping below the horizon, but the air still ripe with heat, they brought out the body.
A single-use sheet covered the fifth victim’s face, but the detective inspector on the scene – white-faced and trembling – was more concerned with accelerated decomposition in the hot weather than contaminants, and the cadaver was hurried into the mortuary van.
There was no wind to lift the sheet and expose this unfortunate soul to the journalists and photographers, the TV anchors and camera crews who filled The Avenue with their noise and coffee cups and cars that mounted the pavements at awkward angles. But there was no need.
Everybody knew what lay beneath because it was always the same.
A body, fully clothed. A painted face, subtle blush across the cheekbones; lips berry-coloured; lashes lengthened, dark and thick; a light foundation to disguise pallor mortis. As if the victim was not dead, but waiting to be played with, to be kissed back to life by a parent, a lover, a child.
Shoes removed. Hair brushed. Each eye gouged from its bloodied socket with a scalpel and replaced with a miniature glass replica.
The handiwork of a killer the newspapers had named the Doll Maker.
And the face at the window knew who that killer was.
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