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Path of Needles
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Path of Needles

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Author: Alison Littlewood
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books, 2013
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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Horror
Sub-Genre Tags: Fairytale Horror
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Synopsis

Some fairy tales are born of dreams . . . and some are born of nightmares. A murderer is on the loose, but the gruesome way in which the bodies are being posed has the police at a loss. Until, on a hunch, Alice Hyland, an expert in fairyt ales is called in. And it is Alice who finds the connection between the body of Chrissie Farrell and an obscure Italian version of Snow White. Then, when a second body is found, Alice is dragged further into the investigation – until she herself becomes a suspect. Now Alice must fight, not just to prove her innocence, but to protect herself: because it’s looking like she might well be next.


Excerpt

PATH OF NEEDLES

CHAPTER ONE

Angie Farrell knew the photograph was hidden beneath her handbag, the black clutch with the silver studs which was still sitting where she had abandoned it the night before, on the table. She set down her bowl of cereal next to it, slopping a little skimmed milk over the side, and started spooning cornflakes into her mouth. The crispness was too loud, hard against her teeth, jarring in her skull. She'd had a drink when she got in, and then another - she hadn't meant to, but she'd been torn between going straight to bed or waiting up for Chrissie, and instead she'd found herself standing alone in the lounge, staring at her reflection in the mirror. The house had been silent, and cold: the heating had long since clicked off and winter hadn't quite given up its grip.

Angie hadn't switched on the lamp, but the sidelong glare of the fluorescent light in the kitchen had illuminated the lines settling deeper across her forehead and around her lips. She hadn't moved, and she hadn't looked at the photograph again. She had seen it already; she didn't need to look at it twice. She had checked the clock, though, and seen that the dance was over, and that was when she had decided to open a bottle of wine, no matter that it was just her. Maurice left years ago, bought a cheap bar on one of the more unfashionable stretches of Spanish coastline with his bit of fluff. He'd not even lingered long enough to ask for a divorce; it was Angie who'd had to do that, Angie who'd had to organise everything, as if Maurice was suddenly the younger one, his new woman's youth rubbing off on him. It was Angie who'd had to tell Chrissie she was now a child of a broken home, and she'd tried not to relish those words, even though she was fizzing and spitting with spite. It was Angie who had to drink alone.

She stirred, leaned across the table and dragged the bag towards her, bringing the photograph with it. She pulled it from underneath the bag and turned it over and for a moment she was dazzled by her daughter's smile.

No, not dazzled: she winced.

Chrissie was framed by a chain of giant daffodils and daisies, their stalks spun of green twine, the white petals narrow strips of paper, the yellow ones fragile tissue, almost transparent where spotlights shone through them. The lights cast a warm glow across her daughter's skin and picked out bright points on the crown she wore - just a cheap plastic thing covered in glue-spotted sequins, but in that moment her daughter had made it look like something magnificent. It was in her eyes too, the knowledge of her own blithe beauty. The photograph had been taken at the spring dance. Chrissie was surrounded by her classmates, though she wasn't looking at any of them; it was they who looked at her; that was their job. She was Christina, crowned before them all, queen of the dance, queen of the springtime in her coral dress and her cheap crown. Everyone else smiled up at Chrissie, her adoring courtiers.

Angie was in the picture too. Angie hadn't been smiling.

She dropped her head as her eyes filled with tears. She ran a finger over the picture but found no smooth skin or satin dress, only a cold surface she couldn't penetrate. She was full of the things she wanted to say, but didn't know what they were; she only knew she was so proud of Chrissie, her beautiful little girl - and at the same time she wanted to tear the picture in two with her teeth.

It had started with Mr Cosgrove. There weren't many teachers at the dance; the parent-helpers covered it, mums like Angie, those who weren't forbidden to be there by their kids for fear of embarrassment. But Mr Cosgrove had been there, and he looked like one of the cool teachers, the kind who tell their pupils to call them by their first name. Angie didn't know his first name but she had crossed the dance floor and sidled up to him as he ladled fruit punch into a paper cup. He grinned and passed it to her. The DJ was playing some throbbing beat.

'Good tune,' he said. He pronounced it 'choon', and that was when Angie knew he was one of the cool teachers. She didn't know the name of the band, but she recognised the sound from the CDs Chrissie liked to blast from her room and she nodded along to the rhythm. She took a sip of the punch and pulled a face.

'I know,' said Mr Cosgrove, 'it could use something.'

She turned and gave him her smile, the full beam, and nodded. She was still moving to the music. She had a good body for dancing, worked out at the gym four times a week, five when she could manage it. Her hair swung around her face, a shade darker than Chrissie's pale blonde. Mr Cosgrove was probably in his late thirties. He was regular of feature and untidy of hair, unshaven. Angie liked untidy hair in a man, imagined for a moment what her daughter would say if she put out a hand and ran her fingers through it, right there in front of everybody; she smiled, imagining the scandalised shrieks. Chrissie was somewhere behind her, no doubt at the centre of a huddle of her friends. They'd all be covering their mouths with their hands while yelling their gossip over the music. No doubt they were wondering why no one had yet sneaked vodka into the punch. Angie was beginning to wonder too.

'You must be Chrissie's mum,' Mr Cosgrove was saying. He put out a hand and she shook it, catching it only by the fingers. She could feel the bones beneath the skin.

'Angie,' she said. 'My name's Angie.'

'Nice to meet you, Angie. I'm Matt.'

Angie felt the muscles in her face relax and she took a deep breath. 'It is a good tune,' she said, and he held up his paper cup and touched it to hers before taking a deep draught. An impulse took her and she opened her mouth and started to form the words that would take the two of them somewhere else, put a real drink in their hands, if only for a little while, then he was speaking and the impulse curled and died. She could taste it, already a stale, dead thing.

'Here we go,' he said, rolling his eyes. 'The big moment.'

The music died away and Angie could feel her heartbeat again rather than the steady duh-duh-duh of the music. She was vaguely disappointed; she wondered if she would ever again feel the fluttering inside that meant a new man, wondered if her husband still got that with his bit of fluff. She scowled as an older teacher stepped onto the stage and up to the microphone.

He cleared his throat and the room hushed. He had a bald patch that shone damply under the spotlights and he touched his hand to it before bringing it to the microphone. Angie wrinkled her nose, thinking of someone else coming along and taking hold of the damp, cold metal.

Two smiling girls in low-cut dresses stepped onto the stage and flanked the teacher. Their waists were tiny, tight, never stretched by fat before being punished by hours in the gym. They were smiling. One of them held an envelope and the other held a velvet cushion that appeared deeply purple in the dim light. On the cushion was a crown.

Angie already knew what was going to happen; it was potent in the air, latent in Chrissie's clenched hands. Her daughter stood at the front of the crowd, her posture loose and effortless, smiling a casual smile that belied the tension in her fists.

The teacher flicked the microphone, ignoring the dead sound that echoed around the room, and cleared his throat again. He muttered something, how delightful it was they could all be there, how beautiful everyone looked, but how there could be only one queen of the spring dance.

One smiling girl passed him the envelope. The other glanced at the crown.

He opened the envelope, the paper sticking to his clammy hands, and gave another cough-cough of embarrassment. 'A popular choice,' he said, looking around. 'Our new queen is Chrissie Farrell.'

Applause erupted, and there were shouts, the occasional low jeer drowned out by the rest. Angie smiled, or thought she did, but there was sorrow in it too: so long ago. She felt a hand on her arm: the teacher, and he was smiling at her. She couldn't remember his name.

He nodded up towards the stage and his eyes remained there as he spoke. 'Isn't that your daughter? Come on, you can go closer.'

And of course that was what Angie wanted; what mother would not? She looked up and saw that Chrissie was beautiful, and pride came at last. Her eyes stung. Was she crying? She allowed herself to be led to the edge of the stage and stood there clapping as Chrissie received her crown, displaying her even white teeth. Her skin was smooth as buttercream.

'She's a lovely girl,' the teacher said, clapping, still at Angie's shoulder, easy in his louche posture and his untidy hair.

Angie frowned, and that was when everything turned to white. She winced, then the dark rushed back. She looked at Chrissie and saw yellow afterimages dancing about her daughter's face and when they cleared she saw Chrissie hadn't flinched at all, had taken the camera flash as her due. Mr-- What was his name? He was still clapping, and as he did, his eyes flicked up and down her daughter's body.

Later, when the photographs were printed and Chrissie thrust the picture into her hands, Angie saw what it had caught: the crease between her eyes accentuated by her expression, the dry-looking skin, her narrowed eyes appearing almost sly. All she could think was: I thought I had been smiling. In the picture she wasn't smiling, wasn't the image of the proud, happy parent that she should have been. She looked envious; she looked unhappy. She looked old.

Angie turned to the teacher, meaning to ask him for that drink after all - not for tonight, Chrissie might want her around, but another time maybe - and found an empty space at her side. The teacher was standing by a group of girls, bending so that one of them could whisper in his ear. He was smiling.

'Mum.'

It was Chrissie. Her daughter looked shorter than she had on the stage, and not merely because of the platform: she seemed somehow diminished, just Chrissie, her daughter, once more, the crown on her head a cheap plastic thing. Angie smiled back - a real smile - and reached out to put her arms around her.

Chrissie took a step away, wobbling on her heels, and held something up to ward off her mother: the photograph. 'There's a bunch of people going to Kirsty's after,' she said. 'I might be late.'

'Chrissie, we spoke about this.'

'Mum, don't start.'

Angie shut her mouth so abruptly she heard her lips snap together, and the smile turned to a scowl. 'Chrissie, I came here tonight because of you - and now you want to go off and--'

Chrissie rolled her eyes and pushed the photograph at Angie; she had to take it or let it fall to the floor.

'I have to, Mum. Everyone is. Stop treating me like a kid, okay? Take the picture home, will you?' Chrissie leaned forward, kissed her mother lightly on the cheek and was gone, with only a flash of vibrant coral dress as she vanished among the others.

Angie held the photograph tight against her breasts. It was a long time before she held it out and looked at it properly, and she didn't like what she saw, not at all. She glanced around her. The DJ was playing another tune she didn't know and the dance floor was becoming crowded. A couple filed past her, so close the girl's dress swept Angie's legs. The teacher with the untidy hair seemed to have gone.

She wound her way back to the refreshments table, the picture tucked under her arm, and poured another cup of punch. She couldn't see her daughter but the photographer was still there, in one corner, and girls were lining up for him, giggling. She could hear a printer whirring beneath the interminable thud of the music. Angie headed over there. There would be other pictures of Chrissie among the rest - and of you, a voice whispered in her mind; another picture to show she wasn't the way she appeared in the image she held.

It's a photograph. It only shows the truth.

She shook her head to clear her mind and went up to the table, spread with images of young girls: girls in red dresses, black dresses, pink dresses, their hair worn high or spilling around their shoulders. Their smiles were all the same.

'Can I take that?'

A picture was pulled from Angie's hand. She was in the way, as ever, cramping their style. She recognised the self-pity in her thoughts, decided she didn't care. Then she heard something that made her stop and listen:

'Cosgrove, yeah, you're not kidding!'

'Fit as anything. You seen his hair?' A squeal of laughter.

Cosgrove. That was him, the cool teacher.

'Single an' all.'

'That's not what I heard.'

There was a break in the words - they had moved on or lowered their voices - then:

'Shagging Whatshername in Beaver's group.' There was a high giggle that made Angie think of glass. Beaver: didn't Chrissie call her form tutor Beaver? Mrs Beavers, her name was.

Shagging Whatshername in Beaver's group.

'Dirty bastard.' This time both voices joined in the loud, shrill laughter that went on for a long time until suddenly the camera flashed, turning everything white once more, making colours garish and faces pale: bringing everything into the light, if only for a moment.

Shagging whatshername in Beaver's group.

No, Angie thought, it didn't have to be Chrissie, of course, it didn't. There were other girls in the class, and other groups; there was always other gossip. It didn't even have to be true. The man might not be sleeping with anybody, much less a pupil. He surely wouldn't risk so much for so stupid, so flighty a thing. And then she remembered the way the teacher had looked at her daughter, his eyes flicking up and down her body, the way he'd moved away from Angie without a word. The way he had bent so that a girl could whisper in his ear, so close he must surely have felt her warm breath on his neck.

No.

If she didn't trust a man such as Cosgrove, she had to trust Chrissie. The girl wouldn't be so stupid, wouldn't waste herself that way. Of course it wasn't Chrissie they'd been talking about; she should think better of her daughter. Chrissie could walk into a room and own it with her million-watt smile. Her daughter.

'Do you want your picture taking?'

Angie looked up, startled, and shook her head. No, she didn't want her picture taking; she didn't even want to be here any longer. She stepped back and allowed someone to take her place. She glanced around the room again. It was all going off exactly the way it should. There was no need for her to be here, not now. There were more than enough adults, and it wasn't as if Chrissie would notice. Angie was already taking out her mobile phone to call a taxi as she slipped out of the door.

* * *

If only she hadn't started to drink after the dance, she would have called Chrissie last night. It wouldn't have helped, of course - the girl would have recognised the number and ignored the call - but it would have made Angie feel better. Of course, she had realised before too long that her daughter wasn't coming home. She should be angry, she supposed, but it was difficult to feel anything except lethargy. She could call her now, but she wasn't ready, couldn't bring herself to face Chrissie's antagonism. Chrissie had been with her friend Kirsty, she'd said. She never listened to her mother when she was with her friends.

Angie sighed. At least it was her day off; she could always go back to bed. She'd hear the door bang when Chrissie walked in - she always slammed it - so she could wait until then to rouse the energy for the argument that was no doubt their due.

Angie pushed away the half-eaten cereal. She had a sudden, vivid image of the teacher, Mr Cosgrove: a close-up of his face, the features pleasantly grizzled like some fast-living rock star, and that made her think of the giggling girls. She pushed the thought away. Chrissie would never get mixed up with someone like that; why the hell should it have been her they were talking about? Not everything had to revolve around her daughter, like - like a crowd around a stage.

She heard a sound at the door and waited for the metallic skitter of Chrissie's key in the lock. Instead she heard the slap of the letterbox, and a moment later the dull thud of something hitting the carpet.

At first Angie didn't move; she just stared down into the mush that had been her breakfast, then she pushed herself up from her stool and went to see what it was.

* * *

A brown-paper parcel was sitting on the carpet. It rested at a thirty-degree angle to the door, facing away from her, and there was something wrong with it. It should be fastened with string, Angie thought. It was that kind of parcel, carefully wrapped, carefully folded. She didn't know what it was about it that was off, somehow - and then she walked closer, and she did: her name and address were printed neatly in black marker, but there were no stamps. It could be from one of her neighbours, perhaps - but then why write her address? Angie shook her head. She was being silly, the result of her hangover; she was looking a gift horse in the mouth.

She picked up the parcel, feeling the dry, clean paper. How long was it since she'd had a parcel wrapped in brown paper? It was nice, a pleasantly old-fashioned thing to do. She shook it and heard something shift inside, kept looking at it as she turned and walked back into the kitchen. She collected the scissors and snipped along a fold, opening the new edges and the slit tape, smoothing out the paper. There was a light grain in it, a diagonal pattern which felt nice under her fingers. She opened the scissors, slipped the blade under the top of the wrapping and slid it down the length of the parcel.

There was a box inside, new and unmarked, not yet reused the way Angie recycled old packaging, taping new addresses on top of the old. The box was pale tan with black elasticised strips around it. As Angie slipped off the bands she thought she caught a faint smell, as if the wrapping had been stored somewhere musty.

She lifted the shallow lid, revealing a spill of white tissue paper, and smiled in spite of everything, the evening she'd had, the headache, the queasiness that lingered in her stomach. Good things come in small packages, she thought, and even better ones in tissue paper, wrapped in layers and layers of it, crinkly like--

--like the lines around your eyes.

Angie pulled a face.

There was a smooth object inside the box, her fingers had touched it: glass. She pulled out sheets of tissue paper and laid them carefully on the breakfast table. She could see the glass now, and it was crimson, the stuff inside it at any rate. She saw it had leaked a little in transit, a dark, almost brown splodge clinging to the last of the tissue, sticking layers of it together. Angie pulled it free with a hiss of frustration and saw what was in the box.

Copyright © 2013 by Alison Littlewood


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