Read the Excerpt: The Night They Vanished by Vanessa Savage
noun: dark tourism
tourism that involves traveling to places associated with death and suffering.
HANNA—Wednesday 7 p.m.
The unopened Christmas card watches me from the shelf. It does that a lot, sometimes shouting for attention, some- times calling coyly. I should put the thing away in a drawer. Or burn it. Or maybe I should actually open it. It probably just says “Merry Christmas.” Or it’ll be one of those round-robin cards, detailing everything my family has been up to over the year, a bragging list of their achievements, a hollow reminder of all the things I haven’t been there for— Look at what you’re missing!
Or—and this is why I still haven’t opened it—it could be a personal message: Why haven’t you…? When will you…? I wish you’d . . . Or, if it’s written by my dad rather than my stepmother (highly unlikely but…), it’ll be: How dare you? I should have known you’d . . . Typical behavior from you… I should never have expected more . . .
Why on earth should I subject myself to that? Bland message, round robin, screaming accusations—it’ll hurt whatever it is, so the bloody thing can shout all it wants, I will not open it. But my resolve wavers as it always does when I go to grab it, to bin it, to hide it, my hand hovering in mid-air, like I think I’ll be punished for daring to throw it away unopened.
My phone buzzes and I glance at it. It’s Dee being telepathic again. Okay? the message says.
Am I? Another buzz—I know what today is. We can rain check if you like.
Not telepathic then, she doesn’t know about the card. She’s just noted the date. The irony is I’d forgotten. Haunted by a damned unopened Christmas card rather than the things I should really be haunted by. I catch sight of the tattoo I got last year—it’s not like I could forget for long now that I have that permanent reminder.
I turn my back on the card and tap out a reply to Dee. I won’t cancel our night out, not because of a card or a date.
The sky is ominously dark when I step outside, so I head for my car even though the pub is only ten minutes away. To be honest, I probably would have taken the car even if the sky were clear. The quickest way to the pub skirts the park, along a quiet road popular with joggers. But it’s also popular with joyriders, because it’s long and straight with no speed bumps, and there was a nasty hit-and-run less than two minutes from my house a few months ago. The police sign appealing for witnesses is still there, but as far as I know, no one has come forward. Like I said, the road is creepily quiet. So, car it is, even though the one-way system means it’ll take just as long to drive as it would to walk.
But I freeze, keys in hand, when I get to my car—my front tire is flat. I could cry, I really could. Why do I bother? I should take this as the sign it obviously is, let today’s date envelop me and coat me in a layer of darkness, go back in, cancel Dee, stuff myself with cake, and cry myself to sleep. I crouch to look closer—the tire is not just flat, it’s shredded. No way is this a puncture: it’s been slashed. The urge to cry fades as I straighten up and the first drops of rain fall heavy on my head. Clutching my car key so tight it digs into my palm, I storm back into my house, swearing under my breath as I chuck the keys down and get out my phone. “Liam—you fucker,” I say as soon as he answers.
There’s a pause. “Hanna?”
“You slashed my tire, you shit, you absolute shit.” Another pause. I hear muffled voices, hear him moving,
a door closing. “What the hell are you on about?” he says when he comes back on the line.
“My car—my tire slashed to ribbons. Ringing any bells?” I say it through clenched teeth.
“Are you insane? Why the hell would I slash your tires? Jesus, Hanna, you need to get a life and leave me alone. I’ve told you this before. If this is some crazy cry for help, I’m—” “Oh, don’t give me that shit. What is this, some kind of revenge? For all the delusional paranoid crap you spouted at me just because you saw me near your flat? I told you I
had nothing to do with what happened.”
He snorts down the phone. “Yeah—you keep telling yourself that, why don’t you? Look, I haven’t been near your car, or your house, or you. I’m with my girlfriend; I’ve been with her all evening. I’ve moved on—hell, I’d moved on before we broke up. You need to let it go and stop calling me.” He pauses. “Or I really will go to the police.”
I’m squeezing the phone so hard I’m amazed I haven’t crushed it to dust. “Oh… fuck off,” I say and stab at the screen to end the call, wishing I still had a bloody landline so I could slam the receiver down.
I hate, hate, hate that he can still do this to me two months after we’ve broken up: make me so angry I’m shaking. He is such a bastard—I can’t even go to the police because he’ll no doubt get his new girlfriend to lie and say he hasn’t left her side, that it’s me harassing him and not the other way around…
It had to be him, right?
Oh God, have I just made a total fool of myself? I take a breath, try to let out the anger. It could have been kids, it could have been anyone. I can feel my cheeks reddening. Oh God, Liam is going to think I’m crazy.
No. No—I won’t do this to myself. It’s his own fault my mind automatically went to him, if he weren’t such a idiot I never would have assumed…
I cringe again, remembering my rant. I’ll delete his number—delete all his bloody contacts off my phone. I’ll get the tire fixed and that’ll be it.
I’m horribly late and of course the rain has gotten heavier since I came back in. I take another deep breath. No—no excuses. I’m going out. The walk to the pub will be good and perfectly safe—that rain will cool me off and I can forget all about it—the car, the unopened card, today’s date— before I meet my friends.
Wednesday night and our neighborhood pub is not busy. To be fair, though, it never is—that’s why we like it. We’re always guaranteed a table—like a bunch of nans, we can’t be doing with standing all night, shouting to be heard. Yes, we’re still just about in our twenties, but I did my partying years starting at fourteen, sneaking out through my bedroom window, plastered in makeup with bad fake ID. Jaded and cynical before my fifteenth birthday, the year everything turned to shit. Dee and Seb have been coupled up since sixth-form college so they’re as nanish as me when it comes to a social life, more keen on dinner parties and the kind of parties with quiet background music and lots of comfy chairs rather than clubs. Five minutes here and I’m already feeling soothed, Dee and Seb’s presence like a warm blanket and a mug of hot tea. I don’t mention the slashed tire or my angry fit at Liam when I walk in half an hour late and soak- ing wet, just mutter I had a flat battery so had to walk.
Dee frowns, passing me her dry cardigan from the back of her chair to put on, while she sends Seb to the bar to ask for a pot of tea. Literally a hot blanket and a drink to go with their presence. “You walked the park road?” she says. I smile. “Dee—the hit-and-run car isn’t Christine. There isn’t a possessed Plymouth Fury lurking around every cor-
ner waiting for unaccompanied women to flatten.”
“It’s not funny,” Dee says. “I heard it was no accident. That the driver deliberately mounted the pavement and hit her at sixty miles an hour.”
I wince and then shiver as someone opens the door to the bar and lets in a blast of cold air. “No, of course it’s not funny, but my point stays the same—whoever did it is not still lurking around, are they? I promise to always cross the road safely, Mother Hen.”
Dee glances round to check if Seb is still at the bar. “Changing to a nicer subject—what are you doing on Friday night?” I shrug. “Well, not going out walking, obviously…Netflix?
Possibly a pizza if I’m feeling daring. Why, did you have a better offer for me?”
“I might. How does a date sound?”
“You want to take me on a date? Dee, I’m flattered, but what about Seb?”
“Oh, ha ha, very funny. It’s one of Seb’s friends—Adam? I’m not sure if you’ve met him, but he’s been at parties we’ve all been at, so you may have run into him.”
“A blind date? Oh God, Dee—really?”
“What’s wrong with a blind date? He’s nice—really nice. Fairly recently single, I think. He and Seb were at university together. He moved to Wales a few months ago to work with Seb so he’s employed.” She pauses and grins. “Better than your last few boyfriends already, right?”
I pull a face. “Come on, Dee. Me and a nice, employed, solvent man? That’s never going to work, is it? Besides, I’m awful at first dates. You’ve seen me if someone tries to chat me up—”
“Stop it,” she says gently.
“Stop what? He wouldn’t be interested—unless you’ve told lies about me.” I smile. “Which you probably have because if you gave him the real lowdown, he’d never—”
“Stop it,” she interrupts, less gently this time. “Stop punishing yourself, stop running yourself down. You do deserve a nice date, a nice boyfriend—someone sexy but decent who won’t cheat on you or try to swindle you or treat you like shit.”
Tell that to the Christmas card on my shelf, I want to say but I keep quiet—one more negative comment and Dee will get really mad.
“Come on,” she coaxes. “I saw you flinch at the word ‘date.’ You can’t let your dad do this to you. It’s like he’s permanently sitting on your shoulder, putting you down.”
I don’t know whether to shudder or laugh at the image of my dad in miniature form sitting on my shoulder, but Dee’s right. He is always there.
“And,” Dee continues, “you can’t let Liam the loser do this to you either. He’s gone, over, out of your life. Forget him and move on. Forget both of them.”
I look down at the table, picture myself telling Dee about the tire, about my phone call to Liam, about that ridiculous night outside his flat. Would she believe it was him? Or is she going to think as he did—as I’m beginning to worry myself—that I’m so screwed up I was just looking for a reason to ring him and torture myself all over again? Oh, fuck it—maybe Dee’s right. I should forget I ever met Liam and wasted six months of my life on him. Maybe I’ll go home, chuck the Christmas card in the bin unopened, and say yes to the blind date. Maybe Seb’s friend Adam likes prickly women who socialize like his nan.
“What are you thinking—can I set it up?” she asks, as Seb returns with our drinks and I take a grateful sip of tea, warming my hands on the cup.
“I was thinking about Christmas cards, actually.” “Christmas cards? Hanna—It’s February. Are you sure that’s just tea you’re drinking?”
I don’t agree to the date, not even when Seb joins in with Dee’s coaxing, painting Adam as the perfect date. Dee frowns at my protest that me and perfect are not a good mix, but she lets it go after I promise to think about it.
And I do, I think about it the whole taxi ride home, indulging my imagination in a scenario of me and the perfect Adam hitting it off, falling in love, living a fictional happy-ever-after.
I laugh to myself as I unlock my front door because even solely in my imagination I can’t do it. Even in my imagination, the perfect scenario won’t play out—the happy-ever-after is flimsy, a cardboard cut-out I can’t make real.
What is real is the reminder of that Christmas card—the reminder of who I am and what I’ve done and why I don’t deserve any better than a man like Liam. I think that’s why the Christmas card is still there, why I go through the almost daily ritual of should I open it, should I throw it away—and end up doing nothing at all. It’s a reminder, and a warning, and a way to punish myself.
There’s an envelope on the mat when I get in—a yellow Post-it note stuck to it: Sorry—this was delivered to mine by mistake! The note is from Ben, my half-house neighbor. The postal mix-up happens quite often because of the oddness of our flat layouts. It was what attracted me when I was viewing flats: after traipsing round a dozen identical uninspiring box flats in Cardiff Bay, this place was a breath of fresh air. It was more central, close to the park, and, for some reason, instead of splitting the house into floors, the developer had divided it into two flats vertically to create two maisonettes, both with a living room and kitchenette downstairs and one bedroom and a bathroom upstairs. It was like owning my own mini house with a one-bed flat price and it meant both Ben and I had a narrow strip of garden out the back. The two identical front doors, despite being labeled 27A and 27B, seemed to confuse the postman regularly.
I peel off the yellow sticky label and look at the envelope. My name and address are written on the front in a neat but unfamiliar hand, but the size and weight of the white envelope are so similar to the unopened Christmas card that I shiver, for a moment convinced that the card has found its way back out into the world to be re-delivered. Especially when I walk into the living room and the Christmas card isn’t on the shelf where I left it propped up. I almost throw the newly delivered post across the room before I spot the missing card, the envelope face down on the floor. The wind, that’s all—the wind blew it off when I opened the front door. I pick it up and try to calm myself down. Of course it’s not the same card. This isn’t Harry Potter with dozens of cards about to fly down the chimney until I open one. I rip open the new envelope and immediately wish I hadn’t. It’s a sympathy card. Sorry for your loss, it says on the front in swirly text above a picture of some lilies. I open the card with a shaking hand, but there’s nothing written inside. It’s not coincidental or accidental, the arrival of this card. Someone knows the significance of today’s date. And the only person I can think of who knows the date Jacob died, and would send this card to me, is my father. But would he
really be so breathtakingly cruel?
Of course, he would. I blink tears from my eyes. It’s stupid, so bloody stupid. Dee is right—I’ve let that Christmas card sit unopened on the shelf for over two months, allowing it to torture me daily, and in the end, it didn’t matter—my father got in a sneak attack, swept aside all my defenses with this new card.
I rip up the sympathy card, tear it into tiny pieces, crumple the envelope up into a ball. I reach for the Christmas card to do the same but hesitate. My dad isn’t in that envelope— it’s just me, punishing myself, exactly as Dee said, but I’m not ready to open that one, or tear it up. I grab the card, open a drawer in the dresser, and shove it inside, right to the back. I won’t give it another thought, even if I’m too cowardly to actually either open or bin the bloody thing.
I double-check all the doors and windows are locked before heading up to take a bath, still twitchy about my poor car. Now that I’m calm, I really don’t think Liam had anything to do with it. Furtive tire slashing is not his style, but the thought that my ex is enough of a shit that my mind immediately turned to him is depressing.
Before I switch off the light to go to bed, I send a text to Dee, typing quickly and pressing send before I can start prevaricating: Okay—set me up with a nice solvent non-cheating non-toxic man.
<Suspicious login alert>
2019-02-17 login failed: incorrect authentication data—6 attempts
2019-02-18 login failed: incorrect authentication data—24 attempts
2019-02-19 login failed: incorrect authentication data—9 attempts
2019-02-20 login failed: incorrect authentication data—35 attempts
2019-02-21 login failed: incorrect authentication data—38 attempts
2019-02-22 login failed: incorrect authentication data—12 attempts
. . .
2019-02-23 login successful: access granted
Friday 7 p.m.
Jeans or a dress? I hover in front of the mirror, a pair of skinny jeans in one hand, a patterned wrap dress in the other. Oh, for God’s sake, we’re only going to the pub. I chuck the dress onto the bed and pull on the jeans. Only the pub, but maybe a nicer top than the plain black jumper I’m currently wearing—it is a date after all.
“Oh, for God’s sake.” I mutter it out loud this time and sink on to the bed, shoving aside the pile of clothes I dumped there as I dithered over what to wear. A date. And not just a date—a blind date. I pick up my phone and call Dee.
“Remind me why I’m doing this again?” I put her on speaker while I take off the black jumper and replace it with the dark green velvet-edged top Dee bought me for Christmas.
“Because you haven’t been out with anyone since Liam the loser and I’m fed up with seeing your miserable face and hearing you moan about it?”
“Not making me feel any better.” I go over to my dressing table and hook in my silver earrings.
“Okay—because Adam is nice, and I think you two will really hit it off?”
“Nice—is there a worse word to describe someone than nice?” I hesitate as I reach for my makeup bag. Will the red lipstick be wasted on someone so nice?
“There’s nothing wrong with nice. It doesn’t mean boring. It means decent. It means he won’t be shagging two other women at the same time as you and always accidentally forget his wallet every time you go out.”
I wince. Ah, yes, Liam. Maybe I’ll stop regretting my meltdown at him on the phone—he might not have slashed my tire, but he was still a shit. I put the red lipstick away. I wore it on my first date with Liam and he ended up wearing more of it than me after a teen-style kissing marathon outside the pub. I go with a berry lip-stain instead. More durable. Although Mr. Blind Date doesn’t sound likely to ruin my makeup. Too nice.
“But a blind date, Dee? It’s just so… desperate.”
“It’s not really a blind date, though. You two have actually been in the same room together although you didn’t technically meet.”
I have vague memories of Dee pointing out a tall bloke with black hair at one of her parties. But as he had his back to us at the time and was on his way out of the door, that’s all I have. Tall, black hair.
That’s Adam, she’d said. He was Seb’s best mate at uni.
So now Dee is trying to set up her best mate from school with her boyfriend’s best mate from university so we could be a cozy foursome, having cozy dinner parties forever more and living happily ever after, blah blah blah.
The thought makes my throat go tight. However many warm cardigans and hot drinks Dee wraps me in, I am never going to be the cozy dinner party type. Never ever.
I wonder how Seb pitched me to Adam—did he describe me as nice?
Ha. Doubt it. I love Seb because Dee does, but our relationship has always been a bit… wary? Is that the word? Of course, he met me at my rock-bottom worst—when I was more feral monster than best friend to Dee—so it’s understandable a hint of that original wariness is still there. To be fair, if it wasn’t, I’d think less of him.
I sigh and glance down at my phone to check the time. “I’d better go if I’m going.” I pick up my bag, check for
I pull a face at myself in the mirror. It’s my dad’s face in feminine form that looks back at me. I hate that I got none of my mum, that I look so much like him. It’s why I tried so hard as a teenager to change how I looked—bleaching my hair, plastering on the makeup, piercing my nose. Bonus points for me how insane it made him. I’ve stopped doing that now, but maybe I should start again. Blue hair could be nice to match my eyes.
“Do you think I’d look good with blue hair?” I ask Dee. “Hell, yes, I think you’d look shit hot with blue hair.”
She pauses. “Please, Hanna, let yourself enjoy tonight. Remember you are worth it. You are worthy of a nice man, a good man. You have to stop hating yourself.”
They’re the words she’s been saying to me for nearly a decade. I look down at the tattoo on my wrist. “Thank you, Dee, but I’m okay, I’m good—I don’t need another intervention. Save the motivational speak for your clients. I’ll call you tomorrow, let you know how it went.”
He’s late. Only five minutes, but as I ended up being fifteen minutes early, I’ve now had twenty minutes of jumping every time the door opened, every time I saw someone tall or someone with black hair. He’s late and now I’m pissed off and self-consciously aware that everyone in the pub—with their sideway glances at the table I’m hogging, the spare chair I’ve refused to give up five times now—thinks I’ve been stood up.
I’m extra antsy because this bar reminds me of the one where I met Liam, where he “accidentally” spilled my drink and flirted as he bought me another one. Three months in and I caught him “accidentally” spilling another woman’s drink in another bar like this one when he didn’t realize I was there. The fact that I carried on seeing him for another three months after that doesn’t make me feel any better about being here.
It means when Adam finally appears, six minutes and twelve seconds late, I greet him with a scowl instead of a smile and am already wondering how long before I can make my escape. My shoulders are hunched, and I can almost feel the hostile prickles becoming real all over my skin. I’m like a curled-up, scowling porcupine. A curled-up, scowling porcupine nan wishing she’d stuck with the Netflix and pizza plan. “Hanna?” He raises his eyebrows as he speaks and despite the scowl on my face, I grudgingly acknowledge he has a good smile. He looks nice, like Dee said. I force
myself to smile and stand up to greet him. “Hi, Adam.”
“Sorry I’m late,” he says. “Can I get you a drink?” “Um—just a Coke, please.”
I shake my head. “I don’t drink.”
There’s a short, awkward silence and I wonder if he’s evaluating the situation, wondering how much fun a date in a pub with a non-drinker could possibly be.
The awkward silence gets longer when he returns from the bar with my Coke and a pint for himself and even though I hate myself for it, I find myself again comparing it to my first date with Liam, the one that ended with a lipstick-sharing kiss that invited catcalls from passing strangers.
Dee’s plea to give this a chance echoes in my head. “I’m sorry,” I say. “Dee didn’t actually tell me much about you other than how nice you were.”
“Nice?” Adam winces. “Thanks, Dee. She couldn’t have said sexy or funny or… dangerously brooding? Anything but nice?”
I laugh. “So that’s the real you, is it? Sexily funny yet dangerously brooding?”
He grins. “Or dangerously funny?”
There’s another silence but it’s a warmer one, and I remember that although there were no silences on that first date with Liam, it was purely because he didn’t let me get a word in. He monopolized the conversation for the entire six months I knew him. And Adam maintains eye contact the whole time we’re talking. Liam was always looking away, looking to see who’d walked in, who’d walked out. Adam looks at me like we’re the only people in the bar. The attention makes my cheeks burn and something—only a tiny something, but something—flutters in my stomach.
“I’m almost scared to ask what Dee said about me to get you to agree to this,” I say.
He smiles. “All good things, I promise. She said you were smart and pretty. Quiet but only until you got to know someone.”
“But not nice?”
“Oh, definitely not nice, she said.”
I laugh and raise my glass. “To Dee and her terrible match-making sales pitch. We must both be desperate if we agreed after that.”
He hesitates, opens his mouth, closes it, clears his throat before speaking. “Actually, I asked about you first. A while ago now—I saw you at a party, so I already knew about the pretty part of her pitch. I talked to Seb about you, but he said you were seeing someone.”
I’m flustered, wrong-footed. I didn’t, I don’t… I’m not the girl someone notices across a crowded room. Men tend to come across me by accident, surprised to find me in a quiet corner. He asked about me? When? Why didn’t Dee mention it?
I lean back in my seat. I need to get this back on standard first-date track. “So, dangerously nice Adam—you work with Seb?”
It’s an awkward segue but other than a slight hesitation before he answers, he goes with it. “Yeah—I’m freelance, but I do a fair bit of work for his company.”
“You’re a web developer?”
He nods. “I know—it sounds pretty boring. Code and PHP and WordPress. But I design as well. What about you?” I shrug one shoulder. “Nothing exciting. I work in admin.”
“But at a magazine, right? Seb told me.”
“Yeah… and I do some writing. Freelance as well, but I’ve sold a few articles.”
“So, is that what you’d like to do full time?”
I hesitate. “Not really—I mean, yes, I’d like to write full time, but not in a nine-to-five. I’d have to move to London to get a decent writing job. I’d rather stay here and freelance. The joys of a city, but I like being able to get to the sea in under an hour.”
He smiles. “Yeah, me too. I’m originally from some suburban commuter town no one’s ever heard of a million miles from the coast. I came here for college and although I’ve done my stint in London, it was like coming home when I moved back here.”
“When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was leave Wales. I wanted to move away, deny my roots, drop the Welsh accent. London was the intoxicating dream destination I spent my teen years yearning for…” I pause, shrug, write off five or six years in that one shrug, before continuing. “Then after a while, I worked out I didn’t have to run that far. I stopped, took a breath, and realized I like living in Wales. It was the small-town life I needed to get away from, not the country itself.”
I make the decision as I get up to buy another round of drinks that this will be the last one. He is nice, as Dee said, and funny, but with no hint of any sexy or brooding, it’s fairly obvious there’s no spark. I’ll drink my second Coke, make sure it’s been an hour, and come up with some polite excuse.
He’s rolled up his shirtsleeves by the time I get back to the table and he runs his hand through his hair, leaving it a bit messed-up. It makes me pause—I’ve got a thing for a good forearm, I can’t lie, and the sexy bed-head thing is a definite improvement on the Mr. Clean Cut who walked through the door. Okay, so possibly some sexy to add to the nice and funny.
He’s leaning back in his chair, looking more relaxed as he starts his second pint, and as I sit opposite him, still stiff and awkward, I wish, for the millionth time since I stopped, that I still drank. I used to like it—not getting drunk necessarily, but the slow mellowing, the warm fuzziness. I was never very good at stopping at the warm fuzzy stage, that was the problem.
“So, Seb said you and Dee grew up together?” he asks, back to the first-date script, but distracting me by leaning forward and resting his delicious forearms on the table, one of his hands brushing mine.
“That’s right, in some minute village you definitely won’t have heard of. Littledean—a diminutive of the almost as small West Dean, about forty minutes down the coast.” I pause and smile. “West Dean has pubs, a few shops, and a school. Littledean is tucked on the end, about twenty houses, one village shop, and a bus stop. Oh, and a holiday park. Me and Dee were the only kids of the same age who lived there permanently—we had to end up as either best friends or mortal enemies. But it is near the sea. We pretty much grew up on the beach.”
“It sounds idyllic.”
I snort. “Hardly. I spent all my time on the beach to get away from my house.”
“Ah, sorry. I didn’t mean…”
“It’s okay. Ignore me. I didn’t get on so well with my dad growing up—I spent more time with Dee than I did at home. She’s my real family.”
He runs his hand through his hair again and I get a definite surge of the warm and fuzzies. Maybe the barman sneaked vodka into my Coke. Then Adam leans forward and smiles and I’m— Woah. Really good smile. Maybe I’ll stay for one more Coke after all.
“West Dean… Littledean… Actually, I have heard of it.” “Really?”
“Yeah, I stayed with Seb’s family a couple of times when we were at university, and we visited a few places I was interested in…”
“In Littledean and West Dean? Seriously?”
He opens his mouth, closes it again, then laughs. “Okay— I promised Seb I wouldn’t mention this on a first date . . .”
“You’re married? A serial killer? A priest? Is this where the dangerous you mentioned comes in?”
“I built this website… it makes me a bit of extra cash.
It’s called The Dark Tourist.” I look back at him blankly.
“Dark tourism—you know, where people do tours of notorious historic crime scenes?”
“What—like the Jack the Ripper tour?”
“Something like that—but my website specializes in under-the-radar sites. People pay a subscription and get access to the stories and locations. I got interested in it back in uni when I stayed with Seb and his family. Such a small, close-knit community and there are all these places with such sad histories that no one from outside knows about.” He pauses and shoots a glance at me, his cheeks looking a little red. Is this where he tells me he’s got a voyeuristic kink for old murder scenes?
I pull a face. “That sounds . . . really creepy. Who would be interested in that? What about the poor people who still live there?”
“You’d be surprised—it’s a genuine thing. There are loads of other websites dedicated to it. But what mine offers is like . . . say if you went to London to do the Jack the Ripper tour, you could go on my website and get a list of another ten crime sites you might not have heard of.”
The wannabe journalist in me feels a little tug of curiosity— it would actually make a pretty good story to find some of the people who do this for fun. “So is that what you’re into, then?” I ask. “Lurking round murder sites on your day off?”
He smiles again. “Not exactly. I did a lot of photography at uni as part of my course and I got into urban exploring— you know, where you explore abandoned buildings? I found it fascinating. Some of the places I went to—whole lives just abandoned. The whole Dark Tourist thing started from there. One of the abandoned houses I checked out… I looked into the history of it and it was pretty gruesome, not a serial- killer house or anything—nothing that would make the nationals, but for people into dark tourism…” He stops. “It does all sound pretty creepy, doesn’t it? Now I get why Seb suggested I don’t mention it on a first date.”
“And it might explain why Dee went no further than nice in her description of you—nice but with creepy, ghoul-ish hobbies?”
“Mmm, maybe rewind and pretend I never mentioned it?” He pauses. “Maybe save it for the second date?”
It’s an invitation of sorts—we’ve both finished our drinks and it feels like this date is over. I’m surprised to see we’ve been here over an hour and a half. Longer than I’d planned. And I’m not sure anymore that I want the date to be over. His hobbies might be a bit off, but he’s actually . . . I like him. I like his hair and his smile and his arms. Oh, his arms . . .
But do I like him enough? Enough to accept a second date, enough to hesitate in some doorway and wait for a kiss? See how durable the berry lip-stain is? After Liam, I’m not sure if I can be bothered. If I like him enough to bother. “Listen,” he says, leaning forward, giving me that smile again. (Maybe I do—if he keeps smiling that smile, maybe I
do like him enough.) “Do you want to see something?”
A surprised burst of laughter escapes me. “Do I want to see something? What—your penis?” I clap my hand over my mouth—did I really say that out loud?
His smile freezes, then widens. “Well, I wasn’t offering that quite yet,” he says. “I was going to suggest dinner before a full frontal.” He hesitates long enough for me to die of embarrassment, to pull off my burning skin and bury myself in the ground.
“I was actually going to show you a building.” “A building?”
“An abandoned one. I found it a while ago—it’s not far from here.”
“So, on our first date—when we’re essentially strangers— you want to take me to an abandoned building . . .”
He laughs. “Dangerously brooding, remember? But I’m not planning to murder you, I promise.”
“Oh, that’s reassuring. Because of course if you were planning to murder me, you’d tell me up front.”
“Well—how about I don’t actually take you into the abandoned building—we just look through the window? It’s . . . it might explain better why I’m into the whole urban exploring thing. And maybe it could be something you write about? I’m always looking for features for my website if you can’t sell it elsewhere.”
I could just go home now. Pick up that pizza, watch some crap TV, call Dee and hear the disappointment in her voice when I tell her the date was over in under two hours.
Or… “Sure,” I say. “Why not? But no murdering, okay?”
The conversation flows more easily as we stroll along the brightly lit streets. He tells me about his younger brother and his parents, his friends and his job. I tell him very little, skating over the subject of family but telling him more about the writing I’ve done, how I dream of earning a full-time living from freelance writing. He seems genuinely interested in my little life: the home, the career, the friendships I’m so proud of building. Perhaps we should have done the date this way round—met somewhere a mile from the pub, talked our way there.
The streets get less well-lit as we walk away from the center of town and despite my earlier joking, I do begin to feel a little on edge. I know he’s a friend of Seb’s, but to me he’s a stranger and no one has a clue where I am. My imagination paints a picture of me never making it home, of Dee calling, worried, of Adam acting surprised and pretending we parted ways at the pub while wiping my blood from his hands and stuffing my body in the freezer.
“This is it,” he says, making me jump, interrupting my macabre thoughts.
It’s obvious the house is abandoned—no secret urban explorers’ code needed—the windows are boarded up. It’s a small Victorian end-of-terrace on a quiet, badly lit street. Half the houses seem empty: they look neglected and overgrown.
“I’m not sure about this,” I say, looking back toward the brighter, busier streets.
“Come on,” he says, walking up the path and round the side of the house.
I hesitate, then follow, cursing as I almost trip over a large stone. The garden is a jungle and I have to push aside overgrown plants to catch him up. He’s in the back garden. The boards from the window here are lying on the floor, the glass in the window is smashed.
“Did you do this?” I speak softly. It’s dark and quiet and even though I know the house is empty, this feels too much like breaking and entering. I don’t want someone hearing us and calling the police.
“No—squatters or kids, I don’t know. There’s nothing worth stealing inside.”
I join him at the window. He pulls out his phone and switches on the torch app, shining it into the house.
It’s a dining room—the table still in place, two chairs, one lying on its side on the floor. There’s a vase of dead flowers in the middle of the table, a bowl and a plate, everything thick with dust. It’s weird and creepy and somehow sad and the back of my neck prickles.
“I wonder what happened,” Adam says, his voice as quiet as mine. “Who lived here? Where did they go? It’s like they just disappeared halfway through a meal.”
“Maybe the owner died and didn’t have a family to clear the house for them.” The earlier pang of sadness I felt grows.
“Yeah…” He sighs. Then he turns to me the same moment I turn to him and we’re both leaning in and then we’re kissing in the garden of an abandoned house. I shiver as he pulls me closer.
How very un-nanish. Fifteen-year-old me would have been proud.
And that’s the thought that makes me pull away.
Order the Book
Hanna has barely spoken to her family since the tragedy that rocked their lives fourteen years ago. The tragedy for which they held Hanna responsible.
Then she sees her family home listed as the scene of a horrific crime. Number of victims: three. Date of crime: today. Frantic, Hanna tries to contact her family, only to find they have disappeared.
To find them, Hanna will have to confront what happened all those years ago.
And the person determined to make her pay for it . . .
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