- Published: 16 February 2021
- ISBN: 9781787633322
- Imprint: Bantam Press
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 400
- RRP: $37.00
The spine-tingling breakout Sunday Times bestseller and Reese Witherspoon Book Club Pick
Discarded medical equipment litters the floor: surgical tools blistered with rust, broken bottles, jars, the scratched spine of an old invalid chair. A torn mattress sits slumped against the wall, bile-yellow stains pocking the surface.
Hand clamped tight around his briefcase, Daniel Lemaitre feels a sharp wave of revulsion: it’s as if time has taken over the building’s soul, left something rotten and diseased in its place.
He moves quickly down the corridor, footsteps echoing on the tiled floor.
Keep your eyes on the door. Don’t look back.
But the decaying objects pull at his gaze, each one telling stories. It doesn’t take much to imagine the people who’d stayed here, coughing up their lungs.
Sometimes he thinks he can even smell it, what this place used to be – the sharp, acrid scent of chemicals still lingering in the air from the old operating wards.
Daniel’s halfway down the corridor when he stops.
A movement in the room opposite – a dark, distorted blur. His stomach drops. He stares, motionless, his gaze picking over the shadowy contents of the room – a slew of papers scattered across the floor, the contorted tubes of a breathing apparatus, a broken bedframe, frayed restraints hanging loose.
His skin is prickling with tension, but nothing happens. The building is quiet, still.
He exhales heavily, starts walking again.
Don’t be stupid, he tells himself. You’re tired. Too many late nights, early mornings.
Reaching the front door, Daniel pulls it open. The wind howls angrily, jerking it back on its hinges. As he steps forward, he’s blinded by an icy gust of snowflakes, but it’s a relief to be outside.
The sanatorium unnerves him. Though he knows what it will become – has sketched every door, window and light switch of the new hotel – at the moment he can’t help but react to its past, what it used to be.
The exterior isn’t much better, he thinks, glancing up. The stark, rectangular structure is mottled with snow. It’s decaying, neglected – the balconies and balustrades, the long verandah, crumbled and rotting. A few windows are still intact, but most are boarded up, ugly squares of chipboard studding the facade.
Daniel thinks about the contrast with his own home in Vevey, overlooking the lake. The contemporary blockish design is constructed mostly of glass to take in panoramic views of the water. It has a rooftop terrace, a small mooring.
He designed it all.
With the image comes Jo, his wife. She’ll have just got back from work, her mind still churning over advertising budgets, briefs, already corralling the kids into doing their homework.
He imagines her in the kitchen, preparing dinner, auburn hair falling across her face as she efficiently chops and slices. It’ll be something easy – pasta, fish, stir-fry. Neither of them is good at the domestics.
The thought buoys him, but only momentarily. As he crosses the car park Daniel feels the first flickers of trepidation about the drive home.
The sanatorium wasn’t easy to get to in the best of weather, its position isolated, high among the mountains. This was a deliberate choice, engineered to keep the tuberculosis patients away from the smog of the towns and cities and keep the rest of the population away from them.
But the remote location meant the road leading to it was nightmarish, a series of hairpin bends cutting through a dense forest of firs. On the drive up this morning the road itself was barely visible – snowflakes hurling themselves at the windscreen like icy white darts, making it impossible to see more than a few metres ahead.
Daniel’s nearly at the car when his foot catches on something – the tattered remains of a placard, half covered by snow. The letters are crude, daubed in red.
NON AUX TRAVAUX!! NO TO BUILDING WORKS!!
Anger spiking, Daniel tramples it underfoot. The protestors had been here last week. Over fifty of them, shouting abuse, waving their gaudy placards in his face. It had been filmed on mobile phones, shared on social media.
That was just one of the endless battles they’d had to fight to bring this project to fruition. People claimed they wanted progress, the tourist francs that followed, but when it came down to actually building, they baulked.
Daniel knew why. People don’t like a winner.
It’s what his father had said to him once, and it was true. The locals had been proud at the start. They’d approved of his small successes – the shopping mall in Sion, the apartment block in Sierre overlooking the Rhone – but then he’d become too much, hadn’t he? Too much of a success, a personality.
Daniel got the feeling that, in their eyes, he’d had his share of the pie and was now being greedy by taking more. Only thirty-three, and his architectural practice is thriving – offices in Sion, Lausanne, Geneva. One planned for Zurich.
It was the same with Lucas, the property developer and one of his oldest friends. Mid-thirties, and he already owned three landmark hotels.
People resented them for their success.
And this project had been the nail in the coffin. They’d had it all: online trolls, emails, letters to the office. Planning objections.
They came for him first. Rumours began circulating on local blogs and social media that the business was struggling. Then they’d started on Lucas. Similar stories, stories he could easily dismiss, but one in particular stuck.
It bothered Daniel, more than he cared to admit.
Talk of bribes. Corruption.
Daniel had tried to speak to Lucas about it, but his friend had shut the conversation down. The thought nags at him, an itch, like so many things on this project, but he forces the thought away. He has to ignore it. Focus on the end result. This hotel will cement his reputation. Lucas’s drive and his compulsion for detail have propelled Daniel to a spectacularly ambitious design, an endpoint he hadn’t thought possible.
Daniel reaches the car. The windscreen is thick with fresh snow; too much for the wipers. He’ll have to scrape it off.
But as he reaches into his pocket for his key he notices something.
A bracelet, lying beside the front tyre.
He bends down, picks it up. It’s thin and made of copper. Daniel twists it between his fingers. He can make out a row of numbers engraved on the interior . . . a date?
Daniel frowns. It has to belong to someone who’d been up there today, surely? Otherwise it would already be covered in snow.
But what were they doing so close to his car?
Images of the protestors flicker through his mind, their angry, jeering faces.
Could it be them?
Daniel makes himself take a long, deep breath, but as he pushes the bracelet into his pocket he catches a glimpse of something: a movement behind the ridge of snow that’s built up against the wall of the car park.
A hazy profile.
His palms are sweaty around his key fob. Pushing down hard on the fob to open the boot, he freezes as he looks up.
A figure, standing in front of him, positioned between him and his car.
Daniel stares, briefly paralysed, his brain frantically trying to process what he’s seeing – how could someone have moved so quickly towards him without him noticing?
The figure is dressed in black. Something is covering their face.
It resembles a gas mask; the same basic form, but it’s missing the filter at the front. Instead, there’s a thick rubber hose running from mouth to nose. A connector. The hose is ribbed, black; it quivers as the figure shifts from foot to foot.
The effect is horrifying. Monstrous. Something scraped from the darkest depths of the unconscious mind.
Think, he tells himself, think. His brain starts churning through possibilities, ways to make this something innocuous, benign. It’s a prank, that’s all: one of the protestors, trying to scare him. Then the figure steps towards him. A precise, controlled movement.
All Daniel can see is the lurid magnified close-up of the black rubber stretched across the face. The ribbed lines of the hose. Then he hears the breathing; a strange, wet sucking sound coming from the mask. Liquid exhalations.
His heart is pounding against his ribcage.
‘What is this?’ Daniel says, hearing the fear in his voice. A tremble he tries to stamp out. ‘Who are you? What are you trying to do?’ A drip trickles down his face. Snow melting against the heat of his skin, or sweat? He can’t tell.
Come on, he tells himself. Get control of yourself. It’s some stupid prick messing around.
Just walk past and get into your car.
It’s then, from this angle, that he notices another car. A car that wasn’t there when he arrived. A black pick-up. A Nissan.
Come on, Daniel. Move.
But his body is frozen, refusing to obey. All he can do is listen to the strange breathing sound coming from the mask. It’s louder now, faster, more laboured.
A soft sucking noise and then a high-pitched whistle.
Over and over.
The figure lurches closer, something in their hand. A knife? Daniel can’t make it out. The thick gloves they’re wearing are concealing most of it.
He manages to propel himself forwards, one step, then two, but fear makes his muscles seize. He stumbles in the snow, right foot sliding out from under him.
By the time he straightens it’s too late: the gloved hand clamps over his mouth. Daniel can smell the stale mustiness of the glove but also the mask – the curious burnt-plastic odour of rubber, laced with something else.
But before his brain can make the connection something pierces his thigh. A single, sharp pain. His thoughts scatter, then his mind goes quiet.
A quiet that, within seconds, tips over into nothingness.
The two suspects sat on mismatched furniture in the white and almost featureless lounge, waiting for something to happen.
Cindy Thomas was tuned in to her police scanner as she drove through the Friday-morning rush to her job at the San Francisco Chronicle.
She sleeps. A pale girl in a white room. Machines surround her. Mechanical guardians, they tether the sleeping girl to the land of the living, stopping her from drifting away on an eternal, dark tide.
It was four nights before Christmas Eve, and the city of San Francisco had decked the halls, houses, and grand public edifices in a sparkling, merry Christmas display.
Well, I’m dying! A lot of men make it to the end of their life and they don’t know they’ve reached it.
The call comes at 3 a.m. The jagged ring of the bedside telephone tearing a hole in our sleep. I reach out a hand to silence it.
Temperatures that late January morning plunged to four degrees above zero, and still people came by the hundreds of thousands, packing both sides of the procession route from Capitol Hill to the White House.
I watched the eight-story apartment building on 161st, about half a block from Melrose Avenue.