Read an extract of Sam Wilson's unique concept thriller, where society is divided by the signs of the zodiac
Read an extract of Sam Wilson's unique concept thriller, where society is divided by the signs of the zodiac
Rachel was going to be late for her first day of work, but it wasn’t her fault. The laundromat on Gull Street didn’t open until eight in the morning, and the manager at Jiffyclean Maid Service always insisted that their uniforms should be spotless, even though each of the maids had only one set each. She’d worked late the night before at a fortieth birthday party at a Sagittarius house in West Skye, and a drunken straggler had accidentally tipped some guacamole down the front of her white apron while making a half-hearted attempt to hit on her.
‘Lucky you’re wearing that,’ he had said to cover his embarrassment. He didn’t know that she couldn’t show up the next day at a new client’s house with a soiled uniform. After four hours’ fretful sleep she had woken just before the laundromat opened and raced to clean the uni- form. She sat in front of the washing machine and watched the clothes slosh around inside as the time ticked down to nine a.m., when she was meant to be at the new client’s house.
She waited as long as she could bear, then cancelled the drying cycle early and went to the laundromat’s bathroom to put on the uniform. She didn’t realize how damp her clothes were until the heat faded, leaving her checked blue dress sticking to her legs, clammy and cold. She bundled up her warm morning clothes into a plastic bag and got on a bus heading to Conway Heights. Every few minutes throughout the trip she double-checked the time. When it got to nine and she still hadn’t arrived, her heart sank. She didn’t like letting people down. She was a Libra. Conway Heights was a fancy district out in the south- ern suburbs of San Celeste. Rachel stared distractedly out of the window at tennis courts, trimmed trees and fake Tuscan villas. Everything was clean and expensive. She felt like an interloper.
The bus stopped on the corner of Morin Road. Rachel’s plastic bag full of dry clothes bounced against her leg as she ran three blocks uphill to Eden Drive. The houses she passed all had front yards with palm trees and manicured flower beds.
Her client’s home was a wide, single-storey building with beige walls and a low-sloped roof. She mentally prepared her apology as she walked up the brick path to the front-door alcove. Her finger was on the intercom button when she saw that the door was already open a crack.
She tapped it with her knuckles, opening it a little more. ‘Hello?’ she called. ‘Jiffyclean Maid Service!’
There was no answer.
A splinter of wood was sticking out halfway up the door frame. She touched it experimentally. It was the length of her finger, torn off opposite the lock. The door had been kicked in.
‘Hello?’ she called again, and pressed the intercom button. A speaker buzzed somewhere deep in the house, but there was no reply.
Rachel shivered in her damp dress. She stepped backwards into the sunshine and looked up, then down the road. There was no sign of life and no sound except distant traffic and barking dogs.
She clenched her jaw and took her pink and purple phone out of the plastic bag.
It connected after two rings.
‘911. What is the nature of your emergency?’
‘Hello?’ said Rachel uncertainly. ‘I’m outside . . . um . . . 36 Eden Drive in Conway Heights. I just got here and the door’s kicked in, and no one’s answering when I call inside.’
There was the faint sound of fingers clicking on a keyboard and the operator spoke again. Her voice was warm and calm. There was a Libra lilt to it, which was reassuring.
‘All right, I’m sending a patrol car to you. Can I have your name, please?’
‘And is it your home?’
‘No,’ said Rachel. ‘I work for Jiffyclean. I’m a maid.’
‘All right, Rachel. It’ll be about eight minutes until the officers get there. I just need to ask you a few more questions, OK, hon?’
Hon? Definitely a Libra. ‘Yeah, sure,’ said Rachel.
‘OK. Can you tell me what you look like, so the officers will recognize you when they get there?’
‘Sure. I’m about five-eight, five-nine, I’ve got blonde hair and I’m in a blue checked dress with a white apron. Is that enough?’
She waited, but there was no response. ‘Hello?’ she said.
For a moment she thought she’d been cut off, but she could hear a distant voice. She lowered the phone and could still hear it. A man was speaking nearby.
On the left side of the house was a garden wall covered with climbing flowers and an ornate cast-iron gate with peeling white paint. She heard the man’s voice again coming from behind it and felt a flood of relief. Of course. The client was in the backyard, which is why he hadn’t answered when she called. Everything was fine. She pushed down on the gate’s latch and went through, touching her hair to make sure her ponytail hadn’t come loose.
‘Hello?’ she called again. ‘Mr Williams?’
She followed a path around the side of the house, through a wicker arch covered in dying vines. The house was built on a hillside and the lawn sloped down to give a view across the city, all the way to the WSCR Tower.
Behind the house was an empty swimming pool. There was a trench dug into the ground next to it, and the paving slabs on one side had been pulled up and stacked against the back wall of the house.
‘Hello? Rachel?’ said the operator on her phone.
Rachel brought it back up to her ear. ‘Hey, sorry, I thought I heard something.’
‘From the house?’
‘No, from the backyard, but there’s no one here.’ ‘Rachel, listen to me,’ said the operator. ‘I need you to go to the front of the house so the officers know they’re at the right place.’ Her voice was firm and Rachel was good enough with people to detect something else. It was fear. As Rachel turned back to the gate she heard a new noise. It was a straining, choking sound just on the edge of her hearing. She froze and listened. After a few seconds it came again, from the trench by the pool.
‘There’s someone here,’ she said.
‘Rachel,’ said the operator sharply. ‘Please go back to the road.’
But Rachel was already running to the side of the trench.
‘Oh, God,’ she said. ‘Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God.’ ‘Rachel?’ said the operator.
The man at the bottom was about fifty years old. He had short white hair and was wearing black trousers and a long-sleeved white shirt that was stained with mud at the back and blood at the front. His eyes were able to focus on her for only a second before they rolled back in his head. His mouth was taped closed and one of his nostrils ran with blood. Rachel dropped her plastic bag and ran to the side of the trench, looking for some way to help.
‘Ambulance!’ she shouted into the phone. ‘Oh, God.
The operator’s voice stayed calm. ‘Who’s injured, Rachel?’
‘He’s an old man. He’s been cut open across the belly. His guts . . . oh, God, I can see his guts. I thought they were a hosepipe or something. They’re in the mud –’
Rachel caught the smell of it and gagged. The intestines were punctured. She took a step back from the trench and took a deep breath. She’d always told herself that she would be able to handle herself in an emergency. She knew her priorities. People first. She breathed in the clean air and stepped forward again. The man was squirming and his breaths were short and shallow. His wrists and ankles were bound in duct tape.
‘Hon! I need you to stay with me, OK?’ said the operator.
‘It’s OK, I’m here. He’s been bound and gagged.
There’s so much blood.’
‘OK. Keep talking to me. I’m going to help you through this. I need you to slow the bleeding until the paramedics arrive.’
‘I’ve got a bag of clothes here.’ ‘Are they clean?’
‘No, but I just washed my apron. I’m wearing it now –’ ‘Perfect. Take it off and fold it into a long strip. I’ll tell you where to hold it. The ambulance won’t be long, but you’re going to have to stop that blood.’
Rachel untied her apron and unhooked the strap from over her head. As she was folding it, a movement caught her eye. It was dark inside the house, but it looked as if someone was standing behind the cream-coloured curtains behind the sliding door. She froze.
‘What is it, Rachel?’
‘I think there’s someone in the house.’
The operator was silent. The only sound was the warbling static of cellular reception.
‘Hello?’ said Rachel.
The line clicked, as if the operator was switching back from talking to someone else.
‘Rachel, I need you to go back to the street.’
‘But the man –’
There was a rumbling from the direction of the house. A man in a tan jacket was pulling open the sliding glass doors. He was wearing a baseball cap and a black scarf hid the lower half of his face. Rachel dropped her folded apron and ran.
‘He’s coming!’ she shouted into the phone. ‘Oh, God!’ The side gate had swung closed while she was in the garden. She ran up to it and pulled, but it wouldn’t budge. The man was only a few steps away. She dropped her phone and tugged with both hands, popping the latch open. She ran through the gate and slammed it behind her just as the man caught up. For a moment she was face to face with him. His eyes were bright blue. She turned and ran. Almost immediately, the latch clicked again and the gate swung open again.
A black car was driving down the street ahead. Rachel ran out in front of it with her hands raised. It braked immediately and came to a stop in front of her. The driver, a middle-aged man in an elegant jacket, looked up at her in surprise. She ran round to his window.
‘Help me!’ she shouted. ‘Let me in! Please!’
She could hear the feet of the man who was chasing her getting closer. The driver saw him coming and made a decision. He pressed a button on the door next to him and Rachel heard a clunk as the central locking disengaged.
She opened the back door and threw herself on to the seat. As she tried to slam the door behind her, the man chasing her grabbed it and held tight. Rachel lay on the back seat and kicked at the man’s hand.
‘Drive!’ she shouted. ‘Just drive!’
‘Shhh,’ said the car’s driver. She looked up into the silver barrel of his gun.
‘Stay very still, please,’ he said.
Rachel froze. The man with the scarf over his face pushed her legs off the back seat. He squeezed in next to her and closed the door behind him.
‘Do you have the tape?’ said the driver, keeping the gun on Rachel. His hair was flecked with silver. To Rachel, he looked like a bank manager or an actor playing a CEO on television.
‘Yeah,’ said the other man. ‘Tie her wrists.’
Sirens wailed in the distance, getting closer. Rachel felt a moment of hope.
‘Shit,’ said the driver. ‘Take this.’
He gave the gun to the man with the scarf. As he passed it, Rachel kicked again, trying to knock it out of his hands. The man next to her was quick, though. He grabbed the gun and brought it up to her head in a single swift motion.
‘Uh-uh,’ he said.
The car pulled off and the man in the back kept the gun on her. Slowly, with his other hand, he took a roll of metallic duct tape out of his jacket pocket. He pulled up his scarf to just over his mouth and tore off a two-foot length of tape with his teeth.
‘Wrists,’ he said.
Rachel didn’t move. The man dropped the tape. He leaned in to her and with blinding speed punched her on the side of her jaw. Her eyes watered in shock.
I’ve got to get out of this.
She held her arms forward with her wrists together.
The man grabbed them firmly with one hand. He dropped the gun in his lap and bound her hands with the tape.
The sirens outside the car grew louder and the tone dropped as an ambulance passed by. Rachel looked after it, but it showed no sign of slowing down. They hadn’t seen her. The 911 operator was probably still on the line, on her dropped phone. No one was coming for her.
Rachel was on her own.
Two Storm Wood is the extraordinarily atmospheric and page-turning historical thriller by Philip Gray. Set in 1919, on the desolate battlefields of northern France, the guns may be silent... but the dead are not. Read on for an exclusive extract