The new Emily Swanson novel BAD BLOOD is released next week on Valentine's Day. A prequel set four years before Lost Lives, it finds Emily about to graduate from university as a teacher and facing a dilemma about her future. When her unpopular housemate Becky fails to return home one night, Emily begins to suspect something terrible has happened to her. As she begins to ask questions, Emily finds herself at the centre of a dangerous web of lies, deceit and possible murder in this gripping mystery thriller with a killer twist.
Read the first three chapters right here:
Somerset, England. June, 2011
They were staring at her. She was sure of it. Staring and whispering to one another about the slight, blonde young woman sat alone at the corner table. For twenty minutes now. Well, let them, she thought. There was nothing wrong with dining alone or enjoying a glass of wine in solitude. People did it all the time. The only problem was no one had informed her anxiety.
Emily Swanson poured herself another half glass of Pinot Grigio. You’re twenty-two, a grown woman. Not that silly little shy girl you left back home, walking with her eyes pointed at the ground.
A waiter circled her table, glancing at the empty seats. He smiled, his expression somewhere between pity and irritation. Emily scowled until he sailed away again.
Despite the cold blast of the air conditioning, she felt her face heating up. Perhaps she should go ahead and order. They were sure to turn up soon. Or perhaps she should pay for her drink and leave. Instead, she took a sip of wine and shrank further into her seat.
Someone was calling her name. Across the restaurant, a hand flapped in her direction. Relief poured into her shoulders, releasing the muscles. Well, it’s about time. Smiling, she waved back at the young woman with shoulder length dark hair, who was hurrying towards her.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry. I went into campus to return the last of my library books and who should I bump into but Kerry-Anne Watkins. Christ, that girl has a mouth on her like an outboard motor! She wouldn’t let me go! I’m telling you, with a case of verbal diarrhoea that bad she seriously needs to increase her fibre intake!” Smiling and breathless, Charlotte Walsh sat down. “Anyway, I’m here now. How are you?”
“Hungry.” Emily handed her a menu and poured her a glass of wine. “Becky’s not with you?”
“No, of course not. Did you honestly think she was going to come?”
“She said yesterday morning that she’d be here.”
Charlotte pored over the menu. “What Becky Briar says and what Becky Briar does are rarely the same thing. Didn’t I tell you the very day she moved into our humble home? I said, that girl is not interested in friendship. All she wants is a roof over her head. Why did Taylor have to move out? She was a damn slob but at least we didn’t have to creep around her moods for months on end.”
“But still… It’s supposed to be our last dinner together. An official farewell.”
“All I’m saying is don’t hold your breath. Jesus, I will not miss that girl when I’m gone.”
Emily stared at the empty seat next to her. “What’s with all the blaspheming? If your father could hear you he’d have a heart attack.”
“You noticed that? I’m getting it all out now before I go home next week. It’s back to the butter-wouldn’t-melt daughter of a priest’s life for me. Christ on a bicycle, what am I even doing?”
“You don’t have to go home, you know. There’s a whole world out there.”
“Says the country bumpkin.” Charlotte’s smile faded. “And I do have to go home. I’m all Dad’s got. He would never admit it but he’s been struggling since I’ve been away.”
Emily’s gaze moved to Charlotte’s neck. Something was missing.
“Your necklace,” she said.
Charlotte’s hand reached to the space between her collarbones. “Controversial, isn’t it? I figured university is over, it’s the start of a new era…so why not start with a new me...”
“But it was your mother’s.”
“I know, but lately I’ve decided that my memories of her should be treasured, not worn around my neck like a stone. I’ve made a memory box. It’ll be safe in there. It’s strange, but I feel lighter without it.” Charlotte’s eyes had become wet and glossy. “Speaking of new eras, I can’t believe you’re going to be a teacher. It’s amazing, Emily! Think of all those young lives you’ll be helping to shape. And I’m going to be a historian!”
“What exactly does a historian do?”
“Beats me. Hang out at libraries, drinking tea and wearing cardigans?”
“There’s nothing wrong with wearing cardigans.”
Charlotte smiled. “Anyway, have you made a decision about Principal Talbot’s offer? Or has your mother finally guilt-tripped you into returning home?”
Emily slumped in her seat. She didn’t want to think about her mother right now, who’d already called twice today.
“Let’s order food.”
“You’re running out of time, you know.”
“Thanks for the reminder.” She stared at the menu. She hated menus. With so many things to choose from how did you know if you were picking the right dish?
The waiter came over. “Are you expecting someone else?”
Emily’s eyes drifted to the empty seat. Perhaps Becky would still show up. It would be a shame if she didn’t.
Charlotte ordered first. Emily stumbled and stammered then blushing, picked a dish at random—rice and fish in some sort of marinade. When the waiter had left them, she pulled out her phone.
“Phones at the dinner table? Really?” Charlotte said with a wink.
“I’m going to call Becky. She should be here.”
As Emily waited for the line to connect, her mind wandered back to yesterday morning. Becky had been sullen as usual, and half awake, but she’d agreed to come for what would be their last dinner together as housemates. Not just as housemates, Emily realised. A thought struck her: she hadn’t heard Becky come home last night. She had been out most evenings lately, but Emily would always wake up to the slam of the front door late at night, and the stomp of Becky’s feet on the stairs.
The phone rang for a long time before connecting to an automated voicemail service. She hung up without leaving a message.
“When did you last see Becky?”
Charlotte was busy snapping a bread stick in half. She shrugged a shoulder. “Sunday. Maybe.”
“You didn’t see her last night?”
“I came home around nine. You were in your room. I assumed Becky was either in hers or out. Those are the two places you can usually find her.” She glanced at Emily. “Why?”
Emily shook her head.
“She’s not here because she doesn’t want to be, Em. She doesn’t care. I know it’s not nice to hear but it’s the truth.”
Staring at the empty seat, Emily heaved her shoulders. It wasn’t as if Becky ever socialised with them.
“You’re probably right,” she said.
An uneasy feeling fluttered in her stomach.
Quantock University was a small and relatively new institution. Built in the late eighties and situated thirty minutes west of Glastonbury, the university had been named after the Quantock Hills, England’s first designated Area of Natural Outstanding Beauty. It was a shame, Emily had thought on her very first day, that the campus didn’t reflect such a title. Apart from a few uninspired green areas, Quantock University was a maze of flat-roofed, concrete buildings devoid of personality. Fortunately, its outstanding reputation in the areas of teaching and humanities more than made up for its lack of aesthetics.
Emily walked through the university gates just after four o’clock. The campus was a swirl of chatter. Hordes of students piled in and out of lecture halls and classrooms, and filled recreation areas. Above, the sky was a clear blue with a smattering of clouds. The afternoon sun was warm and pleasant.
Becky had not returned home last night. Emily had checked her room this morning before heading off to her teaching placement at High Mount Secondary School. She had not responded to Emily’s texts or to the two voicemail messages she’d left during her morning break and lunch hour. By the time the afternoon had come around, Emily was distracted and anxious, and had found it difficult to control her cohort of young students. As soon as school had ended and the children had become someone else’s responsibility, she’d slipped out and headed straight to the campus.
Reaching the quad, she scanned the plethora of young men and women milling about in pairs and groups. Some shared smiles and laughter while others sat in tight circles, discussing the state of the world. Emily’s gaze moved from group to group. Becky was not among them.
Moving on, she headed for the Sullivan building, home to the teaching and education department, and where she had spent much of the first three years of her degree. A long hall ran the length of the building, with rooms on both sides. A group of students whom Emily knew from class was strolling towards her. None of them had seen Becky for a long time. Two of them thought she had quit university. None seemed particularly concerned by her disappearance.
Emily continued down the hall, peering into empty rooms. Lectures had finished for the year. Soon, the campus would become a ghost town.
One lecture room had a single occupant. Emily knocked on the door. A calm voice ushered her in. Bill Creed sat behind his desk, busy marking test papers.
“Miss Swanson,” he said, his face lighting up with a brilliant smile. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
Bill was in his early thirties, younger than most of the lecturers in the education department. He was handsome in a boyish kind of way, his green eyes and long, dark lashes a talking point among some of his more enamoured students. And, unlike most of the other lecturers in the education department, he wore no wedding ring, sparking fierce debate over both his relationship status and sexual orientation.
“Hello, Bill,” Emily said, offering him a subdued smile. “I’m looking for Becky Briar. I don’t suppose you’ve seen her?”
Bill leaned back in his chair and interlinked his fingers across his chest. “Ah, the ever-elusive Miss Briar. As much as I would love to say I’ve seen her, you and I both know we’d have a greater chance of seeing a bear in a nun’s outfit wandering the halls of the Sullivan building.” He paused to scribble notes on a student paper. “Have you tried the bar?”
“It’s a little early in the day, isn’t it?” Emily glared at him, offended on Becky’s behalf.
Leaning forward, Bill flashed his green eyes. “I’m sorry. That was a little harsh. It just frustrates me that after almost four years of teaching and learning and toiling away, that Becky would wait until it’s almost all over to go and screw it up. She had the makings of a good teacher. Now I doubt she’ll be allowed to take the exams. What is going on with her?”
Emily shoulders slumped. “I don’t know. She’s been so distant lately. She’s either out all the time or hiding in her room. She’s always in a bad mood and she just won’t talk about it. I’m worried.”
“I hear you. I’ve tried on numerous occasions to reach her, but she has yet to return a single phone call.”
Emily looked up.
“Let’s just say I had to do some damage control after she stopped attending her teaching placement,” Bill said.
Emily tried to hide her shock by staring at the floor. She had no idea that Becky had not been attending her placement. Missing lectures was one thing, but without the placement, her chances of qualifying as a teacher were zero.
Mistaking her expression for cynicism, Bill said, “Believe it or not, Emily, some of us lecturers actually care about our students. Some of us even want our students to do well — and not just because your results reflect our teaching skills.”
And pay grade, Emily thought. She stared across the lecture hall, at the rows of empty chairs. “Well, I don’t know what’s going on with Becky.”
She thought about sharing her concerns over Becky’s whereabouts but decided against it. There was the possibility that she’d stayed over at a friend’s, or a boy’s, and that she was back home right now, sleeping off a hangover. So why was there a knot of anxiety growing in Emily’s stomach?
“I’ll say it again—it’s a real disappointment she’s not going to make it through the exams. It’s a waste of everyone’s time and effort. Including Miss Briar’s.” Bill swept his hair away from his eyes and flashed Emily a smile. “But thank goodness for the likes of you. I’ve heard nothing but good things from Principal Talbot. He tells me he’s offered you a post at High Mount. They’ll be very lucky to have you.”
Blushing, Emily dug her hands into her pockets. “I haven’t accepted it yet.”
“Oh? Why not?”
Emily shrugged a shoulder.
“Well, I’ll be here, pen poised, ready to write you a glowing reference when you do.”
She thanked him, noting with discomfort how his gaze lingered a little too long.
“Well, if you see Becky, would you please ask her to call me?”
Leaving the Sullivan building, Emily headed towards the cafeteria. Groups of students sat at tables picking at sandwiches and cold pizza slices. Next, she stopped by the Students’ Union building, which housed the student welfare centre and, just along from it, the student bar. Emily had always found that amusing: pour out your sorrows then drown them in tequila shots. There were already a few young patrons huddled around tables in the dimly lit bar, and a couple of women bent over the pool table, their eyes narrowed with concentration.
The last place Emily could think of to check was the theatre. She’d heard Becky mention her ‘actor friends’ a few times in the past. Most students tended to stick to their own tribes. Emily had seen it countless times in the cafeteria: English literature students on one table, psychology on another, the artists all gathered in the quad, smoking roll ups. Becky was different. It was as if she’d chosen the wrong path and had regretted it ever since.
“Teachers suck,” she’d once said, on a rare occasion she had sat next to Emily during a lecture. Emily had wondered if Becky had been referring to her.
The theatre was small and modern with black walls and laminate flooring; the stage unremarkable but purposefully so, Emily thought. A blank page on which to create. No one was around but she could hear voices floating out from backstage. A sign on a door to the right of the stage read: GREEN ROOM.
Emily hesitated. Actors and performers always seemed to hold themselves in high regard. For a moment, she wondered what they would think of her; a quiet country girl, who had worked hard to lose most of her accent, and had no creative leanings whatsoever. That wasn’t entirely true. She loved to garden, and if planting seeds and nurturing them until they bloomed with life couldn’t be called creative, well, she didn’t know what could.
Shrugging off her nerves, she entered the green room. Students dressed in loose clothing, most of whom were ridiculously good-looking, milled about. Some were busy rehearsing lines in a corner. Others lounged on beanbags, idly chatting while staring at phone screens. All of them looked up as Emily came closer. Some regarded her unfamiliar face with curiosity. Most returned to their conversations, uninterested in this pretty but forgettable young woman who had entered their domain.
Emily searched the room with her eyes. Becky was not here. A handsome young man, tall and lithe, broke away from a group and bounded up to Emily.
“Hi,” he said, his deep brown eyes, earnest and soulful. “You look a little lost.”
Emily told him she was looking for her friend, that she knew she sometimes hung out here.
“Oh, Becky, sure. Yeah, she’s here sometimes. I think she has a not-so-secret desire to tread the boards. God knows why she’s training to be a teacher. What’s that saying? Those who can’t do, teach.”
Emily smiled through tight lips. “Has she been around the last couple of days?”
“I’m not sure. Just a minute.” The young man turned and addressed the other actors.
“She was supposed to meet a group of us at the bar on Monday night,” another equally handsome young man said, “but she called to cancel.”
“Did she say why?”
“Just that she had to be someplace else.” The young man shot a glance at his friends. “Is there something wrong?”
Mild concern rippled through the group. Emily shook her head. She didn’t even know if Becky was missing yet. “If you see her, can you tell her to call me?”
Leaving the theatre, Emily did one more sweep of the campus before making her way to the bus stop. She tried Becky’s number again. This time, it went straight to voicemail without ringing.
The bus appeared at the corner and began its approach. Emily considered what she should do now. Did she call the police and file a missing persons report? Did she call Becky’s parents? The bus pulled in and she boarded. She would go home first. That was what she would do. And when she found Becky slouched on the sofa or playing her music too loudly in her room, she would give her a piece of her mind for making her worry.
The bus pulled away from the kerb. Emily stared out of the window, the anxious knot in her stomach growing into a ball.
Emily’s home was situated on the outskirts of town. Her first year of university had been spent living on campus in student accommodation. The constant noise and partying had been manageable at first. She had even spent a few memorable evenings in various rooms, drinking her first drinks and making friends—including Charlotte Walsh. But once the settling in period was over and it was time for serious study, living on campus became intolerable. She’d found herself making the three-hour journey back to Cornwall at weekends, just so that she could work in peace. This appeased her mother, who had been having difficulty adjusting to living alone, but being away from her friends at weekends left Emily feeling lonely.
When Charlotte suggested finding a house together, Emily agreed without a moment’s thought. After a long search, they found a large three-bedroom house on the outskirts of town. There were several repairs needed, and the décor had been untouched since the seventies (green paisley print wallpaper, swirly red carpets), but the rent was cheap and the street was quiet.
Emily and Charlotte had lived there for the past three years. Taylor had lived with them for the first two. Then she’d fallen pregnant and had decided to keep the baby. Emily had put up a Room to Rent notice in the education building, and Becky had responded. She hadn’t been their ideal choice, but it was an awkward time of year to find the perfect housemate, and neither of them had the money to cover the rest of the rent.
Now, Emily and Charlotte stood in the centre of Becky’s bedroom, surrounded by a sea of clothes, and inhaling days old air.
“I think you’re overreacting. This isn’t the first time that Becky’s gone AWOL,” Charlotte said, wrinkling her nose in disgust.
Emily folded her arms across her chest and gazed at the debris. “I don’t know. It feels different this time. No one’s seen her. No one knows where she is. I’ve sent her texts and left voicemails… I don’t think she would leave us worrying like this.”
“Then you don’t know Becky as well as you think you do.”
“She’s obviously been going through something lately. We’ve both been on the receiving end of her mood swings. She’s missed too many lectures, failed assignments... Bill told me she hasn’t been turning up to her teaching placement.” Emily paused, deep lines forming across her brow. She moved over to the dresser where a battered old jewellery box sat on top, along with a mess of plastic beads and an array of makeup. “Whatever’s been going on with Becky, perhaps it’s connected to why she’s disappeared.”
“Or perhaps you’re jumping to conclusions.” Charlotte shuddered at the sight of a cereal bowl on the bedside cabinet, its contents left to fester.
“I’m going to phone around. If no one else has seen her then I think it’s time to contact her parents.”
Emily gave the room another sweep with her eyes as Charlotte headed for the door.
“She’ll probably come walking in any minute, you know.”
“I hope you’re right. I really do.”
But Charlotte wasn’t right. Emily returned to her bedroom, relieved to be surrounded by neatness and order once again, and began making phone calls. Twenty minutes later, Becky’s whereabouts were still a mystery, and all Emily had managed to do was spread her anxiety to others. Even Charlotte had taken to checking her phone and coming in and out of Emily’s room. A little past 9 PM, Emily placed a call to Becky’s parents.
Mrs Briar answered. She and her husband hadn’t heard from Becky in days.
“That’s nothing new, mind you,” she said, but the worry in her voice was unmistakable. “I’ll try calling her. Perhaps she’s just blowing off steam before the finals. I know she’s been working so hard lately. I was young and a student once. I remember how stressful those last months can be.”
Emily opened her mouth then closed it again. She did not want to be the one to tell Mrs Briar her daughter had been telling lies.
“I’ll call her,” she said again. “I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about.”
By then her voice had become high and tremulous.
Emily had hoped to feel reassured by Mrs Briar’s words. Instead, her anxiety clambered into her chest.
All she could do now was sit and wait. Perhaps try and study for a while. She tried for twenty minutes then gave up, electing instead to force herself into the kitchen and make something to eat.
She was about to start slicing up onions when her phone rang. But it was not Mrs Briar calling. It was Emily’s friend, Angela Jackson.
“Sorry, I only just listened to your message. I was studying,” she said, high-pitched and breathless. “Has Becky turned up yet?”
“No. I just talked to her mum. No one’s seen her.”
There was a brief pause before Angela spoke again. “I saw her. I saw Becky.”
“Monday evening at uni. She was with a guy. They were having a fight.” She paused again. “Emily, she got into the car with him and he drove off.”
Emily’s heart began to thump in her chest.
“What guy?” she said.
Copyright 2017. Malcolm Richards
Bad Blood (An Emily Swanson Prequel is released on all major platforms and in paperback, February, 14th, 2017.