Published on: 27/06/2013
The fifth psychological thriller in Tania Carver’s award-nominated, internationally bestselling Phil Brennan and Marina Esposito series. Available for pre-order now.
From the outside, the house was unremarkable. Just one of many on an ordinary, suburban estate. But inside was a different matter. With pink ribbons and pink walls, stuffed toy animals everywhere and a dining table laid out for a tea party, it was a doll’s house.
The doll was sitting at the table. Life size, with blonde, pigtailed hair and rosy red cheeks, dressed in her best pink party dress. Her finger and thumb curled round the handle of a fine china teacup. An adult woman. Covered in blood. Eviscerated. Dead.
In all his years on the force, DI Phil Brennan of the Major Incident Squad has never encountered a scene like it. As he investigates he uncovers more bizarre revelations and realises that he must act fast; the next murder has already been planned and the victim is close to home . . .
Everything was perfect. Just like she had imagined it. Yearned for it.
And she knew that he wanted it too.
The butterflies in her stomach made her tingle and shake. She tried to ignore them, or at least enjoy their nervy, shivering anticipation, and gave the living room one final inspection. She saw a speck of dust or a curl of fluff on the carpet that may or may not have been imaginaryand bent down to pick it up. Holding it between thumb and forefinger she walked into the kitchen, put it in the pedal bin, knocked any dirt residue off her fingers and smoothed her skirt down, the material crackling beneath her fingers, electric, removing any creases. Everything had to be perfect. Including herself. Especially herself.
A quick check of the pans on the stove in the kitchen – everything simmering away nicely, the extractor fan humming, the windows lightly misted with the homely fog of cooking – then back into the living room for yet another look round. She crossed to the sofa, moved a cushion, repositioning it slightly. Then moved it back again. She didn’t need to, knew it was just nerves. She stood back, admiring. Everything was as she had pictured it, the best it could be. But then it should be. It had to be. She would only be doing this once.
And she would have no second chance.
The room was open plan; the living room at one end, the dining area at the back of the house. The cushions had been plumped up, placed in exactly the right spots on the sofa and armchairs. The room had been stripped, decorated, painted. Then cleaned, dusted and accessorised. Everything was in its place. She turned to the dining area. The table was laid out as she had wanted it, as they had both agreed. The crockery and cutlery, the tableware and place settings, even the covers and tie-backs on the chairs all matching and co-ordinated. It looked beautiful.
She smiled. Felt something stir within. A ripple ran through her. Pride, she thought. Pride that her feminine skills and womanly ways were to be appreciated by someone at last. Someone special. Very special. She could have cried but it would have spoiled her make-up.
She hadn’t just waited a long time for this evening; it was the culmination of a lifetime. She held out her hands, ignored the shaking and admired her nails. They had been professionally rendered the day before. Glossy acrylics, French-manicured, shaped and buffed. Costly, but worth every penny. Shiny and strong, they felt like they were more a part of her than her real ones underneath. Just like everything else, in fact. She smiled at her own joke, giggled. Then stopped. Remembered what all this was for. And hoped he would appreciate it.
He would. She knew he would. She wouldn’t have gone to all this trouble if it were otherwise. Wouldn’t have made the effort for him. When they had first spoken to each other she had thought he sounded promising. Better than all the others. Not a fantasist, a time-waster. Something more real about him. Honest about his intentions. And when they met for the first time her hopes had been confirmed. He’d touched her, nothing serious, just stroking her arm, and there had been a definite spark, an exchange of energy as a frisson of electricity passed between the pair of them, jumping both ways. They looked at each other when it happened. And they knew. She had found him. The man she had been waiting for. Mr Right. And she was just perfect for him. He had found his Miss Right.
She had been looking for him for a long time. She had thought she had found him on a few occasions. It had gone from nervous curiosity to a huge yearning to find not just anyone to fill the emptiness but the right person to make her complete. But the times before had just been false dawns. So many that she had started to despair of ever finding anyone. The patterns had become depressingly familiar. She met quite a few men but most didn’t interest her. Or there wasn’t a great enough spark. The few that she did find something in common with she would see again. And that would usually lead to a relationship.
The sex was always important, and she enjoyed it, but that wasn’t the most important aspect, she told herself. She enjoyed the closeness that came from being with someone. The intimacy. And of course being accepted for who she was. Once that happened she would work hard to make sure it developed into a relationship. She would encourage her partners to share things with her. Their hopes, their dreams. Their fantasies. And in turn she would do the same with them. For the most part it would be fun. She would try to kindle the spark between them and they would find themselves moving on from just sharing to acting out those fantasises. She thoroughly enjoyed that. Then, when they had come to know each other really well, their inhibitions cast aside and her fear of rejection diminished, when she felt secure enough to say anything and be sure they weren’t going to run, she would tell them her ultimate fantasy. The one that would make her life complete.
And then her would-be perfect partner would turn out to be just like all the others. Not always straight away. Some would hang around, try to accommodate what she wanted, force themselves to want it too. But it would never work. So they would start to find excuses for not seeing her. Work appointments. Family commitments. They would still come round for sex when they were in the mood, and she would always give them what they wanted in the hope they would stay, but it was never enough. They wanted some of her but they couldn’t take all of her. And gradually they would leave her, bit by bit. Excuse by excuse. Every single one. Every time.
It would leave her devastated, heartbroken. Back to square one and bereft. The unfulfilled fire would still burn within her, giving her the strength to try again. He must be out there somewhere, she would think. He must be.
And she would start looking once again.
Now her quest had brought her to this one. Things had started the same way, progressed from a spark to a flame to a fire. It was going well. Very well. And very quickly. So well she had felt able to tell him of her ultimate desire. And he didn’t run away. Didn’t call her names or feel repelled by what she told him. He just nodded. Smiled. And told her his ultimate fantasy.
And that was when she knew she had found him. Her perfect man.
She checked her watch. The butterflies fluttered once more. Bashing their beautiful wings against her raw nerve endings. He was due any minute.
She gave one last look round the living room, one last look round the dining room. A quick check of the kitchen. She didn’t want anything to spoil it. That would be awful.
She looked down at her hands once more. Still trembling. Only to be expected. She had every right to be nervous. She was about to embark on the proudest, most beautiful, most perfect moment of her life. She was going to become who she had always dreamed she could be. The doll’s house was still in the corner of the living room. The one she had played with when she was little, had taken with her everywhere she had gone. She thought of the hours she had spent with it, losing herself in the lives of the dolls, wishing she could live there permanently, become one of them. She looked up, caught her reflection in the mirror over the fireplace. Smiled.
She had a very pretty smile, even if she said so herself. Mostly when she looked in the mirror, especially when she didn’t have any makeup on, all she could see were her sad eyes. Sad and depressing. Because she knew what was behind them and hated it, always avoided looking at them. But with her make-up on she was a different person. One who could smile at herself, properly smile, because she saw the person she had always imagined herself being. The person she now was.
‘You’re beautiful,’ she said. ‘Beautiful.’
The doorbell rang.
Her breath caught in her throat. She looked round again.
Smoothed down imaginary wrinkles in her dress, gave the room one last check. She took a deep breath. Another.
And, her heart hammering in her chest, the butterflies trying to escape, went down the hall to open the door.
Smiling as brightly and as widely as she could.