Read the first chapter of Past Life

An extract from PAST LIFE, the debut novel from Dominic Nolan. The only thing Detective Abigail Boone remembers... is the worst thing that ever happened to her.

Posted on February 11, 2019 in Extract
Tags: Abigail boone, Dominic Nolan, past life

Whatever was happening was already receding, departing from her mind quicker than she could gather up its wool. It surprised her that she was lying down. There was a bare mattress beneath her and she faced the wall. In the low light her eyes slid round the room seeking something familiar, anything that might tell her where she was. Planks neatly boarded up the window, bolted into the wall either side. Walls of cheap Anaglypta, once white but now maroon and bubbled with damp, peeling away at the corner to reveal older laminae beneath like decorative strata.

Evidence of bygone peoples.

She was exhausted. No, more than that – drained, as if it was something done to her, making her bones weary and her head light and daffy. She was scared, felt it low down in her guts, but didn’t know what of. Didn’t know anything, in fact. That icy real- isation set off a mild panic. It would come to her, she told herself, it would all come to her. Just lie here a minute, wait for the obvi- ous stuff to occur.

Such as your name.

Her body began to make itself known. Head pounding, mouth coarse and spitless. One eye was barely more than a slit, her face tender to the touch, and new pains were cropping up faster than she could identify them. She couldn’t have chosen this, whatever this was. Movement was a trial, and battling to sit up she drunk- enly toppled sideways before pushing herself up onto her knees.

She wasn’t alone.

In the far corner a half-dressed girl sat slumped against the wall, legs stretched out before her with bare feet turned inward.

Trying to speak to her, her voice snagged awkwardly. Working up some saliva in her mouth, she cleared her throat with a rasp.

‘Hey.’

Nothing.

‘Hello?’

Crawling towards the girl, she discovered bruised knees and shins along the way. Late teens perhaps, childlike body appearing younger, skin the colour of sand at low tide. She noticed her arm, little bug bites along the veins, and on the floor a needle and spoon, all the makings. Leaning over, she held her hand under the girl’s nose.

‘Shit.’

Finding no pulse at her neck, she pressed her ear to her chest, just above the little top that covered her small breasts. There was nothing, the skin stone cold.

Deep breaths now. Resist the urge to call out.

The door was locked and had no handle on the inside, a brass plate screwed over the hole. One of the planks across the window had been worked loose and, scuttling over on hands and knees, she pulled away the slack end. Peering through the dark glass she saw it was boarded from the outside too. She sat back against the wall beneath the sill, where an unpainted patch and small holes cut in the carpet suggested a radiator had once stood.
The room was ill-lit by a low-wattage bulb in a lamp on the floor, its fuchsia shade grubby and tasselled. It wasn’t plugged into a socket in the room but rather an extension cord that disappeared out beneath the door. The ancient carpet had probably sometime in the seventies been a tangy shade of orange. Now dark and dirtied, it had worn right through in places so soot from the disintegrated underlay spilled out like scorch marks. An accumulation of stains covered it, the nature of which she didn’t care to speculate on.

She was alone and she knew a few things. What a radiator was, and wallpaper and doors and locks and the absence of heartbeats. And, when she heard them, the sound of footsteps. She froze. They came from outside the room, on exposed floorboards she guessed. Edging towards the door, she cocked an ear. Old white paint peeled from the frame, little curls of it on the floor like nail clippings. Her breath was quick and shallow, her heart the loudest thing. She tried to listen over it. Voices, human voices, indistinct through the walls but definitely two voices in another room.

Please God be speaking in the same words I’m thinking.

The footsteps were right outside the door, the voice clear as he passed – she knew it was a man – but none of it made sense, gib- berish to her.

Another one followed, calling out from further away, his noises as incomprehensible as the first’s.

What did that mean? She’d forgotten how people spoke to one another? Maybe wherever she was, she wasn’t from there. A for- eigner, lost and stupid in some faraway place.

The first voice stopped outside. At the sound of a key in the lock she scooted back over to the mattress and lay exactly as she’d woken, back to the door. She heard it swing open and felt eyes on her, but nobody came in. The other one was shouting from afar, the closer one replying. The door pulled to again, this time unlocked.

She chanced a peek over her shoulder, then moved quickly and quietly to the door. It was open a crack and she could see one of them through another doorway across the hall a few yards down. His feet and legs, his bulk resting on his thighs where he sat on a stool. He held a tray on his knees and wore gloves, thin disposable ones. With a fork in his fist, a balaclava rolled up over his chin, he heaped tangles of tinned spaghetti into his mouth, loose ends whipping about, leaving a trail of sauce across his full lips.

She almost laughed. Spaghetti. She knew what that was too.

A third voice in the other room, a woman’s. Not speech, but other noises.

Noises of fear. Noises of pain.

Putting the tray on the floor, the man heaved himself to his feet and moved deeper into the room, out of view. His size was such that he listed from side to side, more of a lumberer than a walker. The noises of someone being struck, of a woman pleading.

She slipped out of the door into the hall, where power cables trailed up and down the floor. A door down the end, past the room the rumpus was coming from, looked like the entrance to a flat. There were two other rooms the other way. The first, almost directly opposite, was a bathroom, frosted glass in the door. The other was a kitchen. A camping stove was heating a pan of water on the side and another pan, smeared with congealing sauce, sat in the sink. The window was boarded up like in the other room, but the various power cables came together and went out through a hole cut in the bottom plank to wherever the electricity was being siphoned from.

She crept back to the bathroom, leaving the door open enough to see the door of the room she’d been locked in. Key was still in it. The bathroom was small and windowless, served only by the cata- racted light from the sandblasted door panels. A newspaper hung over the edge of the bath and she squinted in the dark, stifling a cry of joy as she read and understood the headlines. She scrambled around for anything else she might read, but the room was bare.

A small cabinet above the basin was empty, but closing it she caught sight of herself in the mirror and didn’t recognise the face. Not because it was marked and bruised, but because she was certain she had never seen it before. The mouth was doing strange things in the glass and she didn’t know the colour of the eyes. Trembling, she got down on the floor, sitting beneath the basin with her knees drawn up. The plaster walls had been stripped, the plumbing exposed, and the bath was without its panel. A broken shard of tile lay on the floor. She picked it up, clutched it close to her.

Through the wall the other woman cried out again. She lis- tened to her and, pressing herself further back into the gap between the cold ceramic pedestal and the crumbling wall, lis- tened to the sounds of the things they did to her.

Heavy footsteps approached down the hall. Forcing herself up, she hid behind the door in a sprinter’s crouch. When the dark shape moved across the pearly glass, she hurled herself out and crashed into the mass, jamming the fractured tile deep into it.

He roared and arched his back, reaching for the tile. Her hand had slipped, slicing her palm on the sharp edge, but the tile stuck fast in him under the shoulder blade. The impact staggered him into the room and she pulled the door closed behind him, locking it and removing the key, sending it skating across the hard bath- room floor into a dark corner beneath the tub.

No way the other man didn’t hear the commotion and the big one was already shouting. He kicked at the door but it opened inwards, so the frame held against his boot.

In the kitchen, the pan was boiling over furiously, water spit- ting in the flames. She took hold of the end of the handle, hot but not too hot, keeping it on the heat. Hopping from foot to foot, she could hear the other one in the hall.

Closer, closer, let him come to you.

She lifted the pan and jumped out.

Baseball cap and a bandana around his mouth and nose so she could see only his eyes, dark and implacable with black brows. A brush of dark hair sprouting out around each copper ear. His jeans were undone, the open flaps and unbuckled belt ends clutched together in one fist.

They stared at one another, and she flicked the pan.

Boiling water scalded his face and he gave a peculiar shriek, dropping his jeans and clawing at the steaming bandana. He col- lapsed into a sitting position, jeans pooled around his ankles, and she tossed the remaining water into his lap, drawing another scream.

The big one had booted the panelling out of the bottom half of the door and on his hands and knees was trying to force his way through a hole that needed to be twice as big.

Telling her he was going to fucking kill her.

Dirty little bitch.

She understood his words perfectly now.

A woman tottered into the hallway from the other room, moving gingerly on the balls of her feet. Wearing only a grimy white vest, her blonde hair darkly streaked with blood, she wiped more from her eye as it trickled down from her scalp.

Grabbing the pan, she strode over to the burns victim and clouted him about the head again and again. Making strange noises, he grabbed at her ankles but she smashed his elbow with the heavy bottom of the pan and his breathing could barely keep pace with his cries.

When she spoke, it made no sense, like the men before but dif- ferent. She went into the pockets of the burnt man’s jeans and rooted around, coming up with keys. As she got the front door open, the big one was almost through the hole, splintered bits of door tugging at him. A wooden panel hung across the doorway outside, but was affixed by only one corner and swung aside easily.

Clambering through after the other woman, she covered her eyes. Though grey and overcast, the light was still blinding and she blinked into the sun as if it was something new. Having expected the baked ochre bricks of some desert place, as the kalei- doscope faded from her eyes she found herself on the external deck of the first floor of a low-rise housing block in a distinctly British town. Flats up and down the way were similarly boarded up, the car park beneath them almost empty. Maybe half a mile away the tubular crown of a stadium squatted on the skyline, and nearer than that, standing at staggered intervals, three tower blocks. Giant tombstones facing the dying sun.

Something struck her hard on the back of the leg and she tum- bled sideways.

The big one was coming out through the door and had hold of her.

‘Run,’ she screamed at the other woman. ‘Don’t fucking stop.’

The woman was frozen for an instant until yelled at again, then she was off in a sprint towards the stairwell at the end of the deck. Him, she kicked out at with her heel, catching him in the side of the head and flat against his shoulder. He lost his grip on her leg and she fell back into the shadow of the balcony wall, scram- bling to her feet and making off in the other direction to the woman. It was a dead end, a granite wall beyond the door to the final flat. She could hear him coming after her. The other woman was in the clear. She didn’t have the legs for a chase anyway. She pulled up as he was upon her, a big hand round each bicep, thumbs digging painfully into her armpits. He slammed her against the balcony wall, back bent over the edge. She turned her face away, expecting him to hit her, but he did nothing.

Looked at her through his mask.

Studied her.

Then lifted her up and threw her over the side.

Backwards she went, feet coming up over her head, spinning out into gravity. Something hard and immovable caught her across the hip and thigh. She was looking at the sky, and then suddenly the ground, like getting punched in the face with a mountain.

The sky was back again. She remained perfectly still, assessing her options. There was a car beside her. She tried to crawl under it – it was important she not be found until she had fully gathered herself. No part of her was of a mind to obey, however. Something in her mouth, bits of hard stuff she tried to spit out, but it was like syrup in there.

Voices came and faces along with them, hovering above her.

Someone touched her shoulder, offered comfort. Their words were familiar.

They told her to stay still, don’t move. Help’s on its way.

She wanted to laugh. Where’d you think I’m going to go? Can’t even get under this car.

Far above the faces, curls of black smoke quilled to the top of the sky, kiting on the breeze that ushered in the end of day. Tongues of fire darted into view where the boards over the windows ignited, the flat alight now along with the horrors it concealed.

Her leg hurt in a way she couldn’t quite figure. It was beneath her, or beside her. Something billowed out above her, a jacket, and floated down to cover her. She realised she was shivering. People were saying it was going to be okay, saying it like a question. She thought maybe she knew them, or she wanted to.

Other voices came, more authoritative. She wanted to speak, to tell them.

Reassure them she was still alive in there, and she still knew a few things.

Tell me your name, love.

That one wasn’t supposed to be difficult.

Tell me what happened.

I don’t remember, she said, or probably just thought.

It’s okay, love. It’s okay.

They didn’t get it. It wasn’t okay. She didn’t remember what had happened. She didn’t remember anything that had happened before waking up in that room, not even her own name.

She didn’t remember anything about anything.

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