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Read an extract of Paper Dolls by Lisa Bradley

Paper Dolls by Lisa Bradley

Paper Dolls is the gripping debut psychological thriller from author Lisa Bradley. Perfect for fans of Heidi Perks and CL Taylor, Paper Dolls is a must read psychological thriller for the summer. Read how it begins below.

 

Paper Dolls publishes in paperback and ebook on 6th August.

 

Prologue

29 July 2003

The newspapers were stacked up high – matte and musky, folds exact, edges freshly cut. The man picked up the top copy, still warm and smudgy under his fingers.
Friday commuters milled in front of the big clock, a caged tiger pacing back and forth, men in their ironed shirts, women with their dewy make-up. The muggy smell of hot metal wafted in from the automatic doors leading to Platform One, which sported professionals waiting for the city express, and friends, clumped in little twos or threes, sipping lattes from paper cups and giggling in anticipation of shopping trips and white wine before lunchtime.The man paid for his paper at the station cafe and ordered a coffee, one elbow on the wooden counter to the left of the muffins and buttery taupe pastries. Feeling his stomach grumble, he smoothed out the pages while the machine hissed and puffed.
A young blonde girl placed her order and stood to one side, wrapping her arms around herself. She looked cold, on the verge on shivering despite the pleasant July morning. The man looked back down and eyed a pastry again, calculating how many calories that would add up to. He’d promised his wife he would stick to the diet this time. Sighing, he looked down, and his eyes skimmed the front of the paper. A picture of a teenager was splashed across the front. Her blonde hair was pulled into a thick honey ponytail, her face scrubbed clean, no make-up like his daughter and her friends, with their bottle tans that stained the bedding and complicated hair in little butterfly clips.
Sparkling blue eyes and a plump, rosy lower lip with a handful of freckles across her cheekbones. The headline read: Family devastated without Hope. He read on. A missing girl – just fifteen. Hope. The paper must have loved that one for the headline. Two days gone, model student, popular, loved horses. Some sick bastards around. He shook his head and thought of his daughter and how she’d walked home from the cinema last night on her own.
The woman called his order and he reached for his black coffee – no milk, no sugar. He sighed as he brought it to his lips. The girl next to him looked down at his paper, her hair falling against her face, and she was so motionless, so statuesque, that she was almost captivating.
The man looked away quickly, deliberately, lifting his coffee and folding the paper under his arm while he took a seat on the row of stools facing the counter. The girl carried two coffee cups over to the stand where the milk stood, with shaking hands. He tried not to watch her as she went to pick up the metal flask and caught one of the cups with her sleeve. ‘Ow, shit, sorry.’ The hot brown fluid poured out all over the counter, funnelling into a steady stream as it cascaded onto the floor. The girl grabbed a handful of napkins and dropped down, frantically soaking up the mess.
‘It’s all right, love,’ the woman behind the counter clucked, and lifted up the flap, armed with a mop. ‘I’ll sort it.’
The man stood up. The girl was still down on the floor, holding her wrist and wincing. ‘You OK? Did that burn you?’ He leant over the table to get a better look, but she scuttled back, banging into the legs of the woman like a frightened rabbit.
‘It’s OK, here.’ He put down the paper and went to help her up, but she was already clambering to her feet. ‘I’m fine, I’m fine,’ she said. ‘I’m so sorry.’
‘Just hang on a sec, pet, and I’ll pour you another.’ The woman winced as she straightened herself up.
‘No, no, it’s OK.’ The girl looked frantically towards the platform. ‘I think my train is here . . .’
‘Are you sure?’ The woman looked towards the doors. ‘There’s nothing . . .’
But the girl had already gone, pushing her way through the growing throng of suits and heels, and the people nattering into their handsets, their voices a constant drone.
The man and woman looked at each other and shrugged.
He sat back down and carried on reading – the picture still gleaming, leaping off the page. The picture of the girl with honey-blonde hair and blue eyes.
The man looked up, startled, grabbed the paper and made his way to the platform, joining the sea of people as the next arrival was announced. The crowd moved and undulated, swelling and shrinking, as people tried to best position themselves to board.
Where was she? The train was approaching the platform. The man approached a woman in a high-vis vest, gesturing frantically at his paper. She talked into her radio, stalling the train’s departure. The man scoured the faces, the flaring nostrils, the watchful, impatient eyes.
What had she been wearing? Something purple, maybe? Or was it pink? Purple. Purple.
The train doors opened with a swoosh and the people surged forward. The crowd was thinning but he still couldn’t see her. He turned back towards the coffee and briefcase he’d just abandoned in the cafe. It was probably nothing.
And then there she was. Her blue eyes were dim, her hair straggly and swollen with the salt of the sea air.
But it was her. She just stood there. Then she must have felt his gaze, because she lifted her eyes and stared at him. At the paper in his hand. Her shoulders were slumped, but her chin was high. She really was shivering now. Her jaw was clattering, and her fingers trembled as he took a tentative step towards her, his hand reaching into his pocket for his phone. The woman with the radio had spotted her too and moved forward, speaking again in a hushed voice into her transmitter, and the doors that should have slid shut stayed open.
The girl watched them approach her. The man had kind eyes that crinkled and a comforting pudge to his belly. His shirt strained a little against it.
‘Hope?’ He reached his arm out towards her, afraid she would bolt at any second.
She was cold. Deeply cold inside her bones, and the blood was pumping around her body at an alarming rate.
‘It’s OK. Everything is going to be OK.’

 

1

Now

The girl sat down on the kerb across the road and pulled out her phone from her back pocket. Every day this week. Same time, just past ten. Same cut-off denim shorts. Her hair was always different, though.
She glanced up and Leah pulled back from the kitchen window. Not so fast she looked guilty. Just casually. She wasn’t staring. Not exactly. But she didn’t want to look weird. Turning on the hot tap, Leah rinsed her coffee cup and watched the black water bleed out to beige as it ran over the brim. It’d been another struggle to get up this morning and she was already considering a third cup.
‘Jesus Christ, Mum.’ Luke appeared next to her, chewing on an overstuffed bap. It smelt of mayonnaise and something vaguely fishy. Her stomach curdled. ‘Will you stop staring at kids?’
‘I’m not,’ Leah murmured, ‘I’m washing up. It’s just . . . I feel sorry for her. She’s always here. Doesn’t she have a home to go to?’
Luke snorted and wiped a creamy smear from his top lip with the back of his hand. ‘I told you last night, I wouldn’t feel sorry for Charlie Bates. Why are you washing up, anyway? Is the dishwasher broken?’
‘That’s like the start of a sexist joke,’ Leah said, still looking outside.
A gleaming black SUV appeared around the corner, the sun bouncing off the bodywork. Leah looked at the mud splattered on the hatchback in her driveway and puffed out her cheeks. She’d been threatening to wash it for weeks.
She watched as Hannah, her neighbour’s daughter, leapt out of the passenger seat, hair swinging down her back. She threw her arms around the girl at the kerb. Sweet Hannah. So fawn-like: her wispy hair was biscuity, her legs wobbly, stance awkward and gangly. Her freckles were coming out now the sun had broken through.
‘See.’ Luke raised his eyebrows. ‘She’s not on her own now, is she?’
Bracken, Hannah’s Labrador, bounded out of the back seat and jumped up at Charlie, who laughed and ruffled the top of his chocolate head, then squealed and leapt back.
‘Careful, he’s wet!’ Hannah’s dad, Sam, shouted out of his open window, and then he got out of the car, swinging the keys in a circle round his middle finger. He opened the boot and pulled out a lumpy reusable shopping bag. He was wearing shorts, classic English-summer, knee-length, combat-style shorts with too many pockets and access cords. His trainers looked new. Or at least recently washed. ‘Had to jump into the bloody beck to get him. Daft bugger.’ Sam slammed the boot shut.
*
‘Who’s that girl?’ Leah had asked at dinner last night. ‘The one over the road, knocking about with Hannah all the time?’
Her husband Chris shrugged without looking up, shovelling his penne into his mouth one-handed, eyes on his tablet. It kept pinging and making him scowl. Leah and Luke were eating spaghetti with their meatballs. But Chris didn’t like spaghetti. She always made him penne separately.
‘Charlie Bates,’ Luke said.
‘Is she in Hannah’s year? She looks much older than Hannah.’
‘Yeah. Year eight. Well, going into year nine.’ He reached over for the pepper mill and started grinding forcefully.
‘Calm down. Does it owe you money or something?’ Leah nodded at the mill and raised her brows. ‘You’ll break it.’
‘But the pepper tastes better if you do it faster.’ Luke gave it one last twist.
‘That’s impossible. It’s exactly the same.’ Leah tore off some garlic bread, then thought of her waistline and dropped it onto Chris’s plate.
‘Thanks.’ Chris looked up briefly and flashed her a smile. His whole face changed. He looked stern most of the time. A bit like one of those hunters in old-fashioned paintings with a frown and a pheasant. But his blue eyes always brightened with a smile, and it seemed to make him more real somehow. ‘This is lovely, by the way. New recipe?’
‘No, old. Just mixed up the spices a bit.’ She turned straight back to Luke. ‘So really? This girl is only, what, thirteen? Christ . . . she looks about sixteen.’
‘She vapes and gives Year Tens blow jobs.’
Leah dropped her fork with a clatter.
‘I’ve heard . . .’ Luke hastily added.
‘Who are we talking about?’ Chris looked up with sudden interest.
‘Some girl that Mum’s obsessed with.’
‘I am NOT obsessed. It’s just, you know, she’s been here every day of the summer holidays. I just wondered if she was new to the area or something.’
‘Nah, I think she lives up in Berry Brow Flats.’
‘Oh . . .’ Chris grimaced and looked at Leah.
‘Don’t be a snob, Chris.’ Leah finished the last mouthful of her red wine. She wanted another glass, but Chris hadn’t even touched his. She’d wait till her bath. ‘I’m not being a snob, Leah. It’s you who shudders whenever we drive past.’ Chris waggled his fork at her. A bit of meatball slithered off the prongs and landed on the table in a small pool of passata and garlic. He didn’t notice as his tablet pinged again. ‘God, we need to get this new receptionist in. Everyone is so stressed trying to juggle staffing the counter with appointments. No one understands the system. The booking thingy has totally gone to pot.’
‘I don’t shudder,’ Leah said sulkily. ‘It’s not like that.’
‘Well, what is it like?’ Luke grinned. His hair was definitely darker again, Leah noticed. When he’d been little it was so red that he looked as if he was crowned in flames when the sun caught it. But it was burning out now, fading to conker embers to match his eyes – her eyes. ‘You’re the one always banging on about how you grew up on a council estate and we’re not thankful enough, yada yada yada.’
Leah looked back at the wine. ‘I just wondered who she was. That’s all.’
*
Now, Luke crammed the last of his sandwich into his mouth.
‘I’m out,’ he spluttered, his lips oozing with mushed-up orange crumbs and a grey sludge.
‘What are you eating?’ Leah turned her gaze back to Luke.
‘Fishfinger butty.’
‘With mayo?’
Luke nodded. ‘And cheese spread.’
‘Is there anything more revolting than the taste buds of a fourteen-year-old boy?’ Leah shuddered. ‘It’s ten in the morning.’
Human Centipede.’ Luke winked at her. ‘YouTube it.’ ‘I’m good, thanks.’
Leah looked back at the drive. Bracken was in Sam’s front garden, rolling in the borders. She could hear the girls chatting as they went into the house, not the words exactly, but the melodies in their voices overlapping, like the end of a song.
‘Mum?’ Luke ran his hands through his hair and ruffled it up. ‘Do you think, maybe, you need a job?’
‘Don’t be a . . .’ Leah trailed off, a slippery insult rolling like a boiled egg in her mouth. She couldn’t quite bring herself to call her son a twat. At least, not to his face.
‘Twat?’ Luke offered.
‘Just. Stop. Talking. Go down to the skate park and indulge in some light antisocial behaviour like a normal teenager.’
‘Are you saying I’m not normal?’
‘I tidied your room yesterday and I didn’t find anything untoward. I am greatly disappointed at your general lack of civil disobedience. You need to rebel, otherwise you’re going to be one of those people who goes mental in a supermarket one day because they’ve run out of chickpeas and guns everyone down.’
‘We don’t have guns in this country.’
‘Don’t be awkward.’
‘God. So moody . . . Are you on your blob?’ Luke flashed his cheekiest grin. The one that used to get him an extra sweet at the hairdressers.
‘Are you going through puberty yet?’ Leah countered, folding her arms.
‘Although . . . actually, do you still have periods? Or are you too old for that now?’
‘Fuck off!’ Leah went to swat her son, but he ducked and winked.
‘You owe a pound to your swear jar.’ ‘A more cynical mother might think you were deliberately trying to wind her up to wring more cash out of her.’ Leah dug in her jeans pocket and fished out some change.
‘Whatever makes you think that?’ Luke took the money and dropped it into the jam jar on the kitchen windowsill. ‘Although, nearly full, look . . . You’ve been knocking about with Bunty too much.’
Leah scowled and looked back out of the window.
‘Yeah, and isn’t Grand Theft Fortnite or whatever coming out soon?’
But he’d already gone, leaving the patio door ajar behind him and the smell of the wild lavender in the back garden wafting through.
Leah drummed her fingers on the oak worktops. They needed re-oiling. Another job for the list. The coffee machine hissed and spat, and The Moog, her smelly, ageing cross-breed, waddled over, licking at some stray mayonnaise that had been dropped and abandoned by the fridge. She supposed there was a fancy name for The Moog, some ridiculous blend of breed names that commanded thousands of dogs who in reality were mongrels with designer collars. They thought he was part pug, part spaniel and part Jack Russell.
The Moog had been brought to Chris’s vets’ practice by an old boy who’d found him shivering behind the bins in a takeaway’s car park, covered in fleas and with a severe eye infection. Chris had to remove his left eye and brought him home to recover. But when they saw Luke’s face light up, Leah knew he would never be handed on to the shelter. The Moog was very possibly about twenty and yet going to outlive them all.
‘If there was ever a nuclear holocaust, you do realize that all that would be left would be The Moog and some cockroaches,’ Chris had once observed, watching the dog eat leftover chicken Balti.
‘Then The Moog would eat the cockroaches,’ Luke had added proudly.
Still, Leah loved the dog almost as much as Luke did, and he’d been good company the past few weeks. She refreshed the Facebook notifications on her phone and watched the home screen spring back up without any little red markers of validation. She did the same with Instagram, then Twitter.
Everyone was at work, their days rotating, structured and calm. Order and lists. Goals set. Tasks achieved.
Sighing, she splashed soya milk into her coffee and scowled at the colour. It always tasted off, but in the past few months her jeans had definitely got tighter, and her stomach had started lying next to her in bed.
Last night’s leftover meatball sauce winked at her, and as she went to shut the fridge she paused briefly, thinking how good it would taste heated up on bread with some extra Tabasco.
She glanced at the clock: 11 a.m. She couldn’t put it off much longer.
Leah wouldn’t call herself ‘a runner’. She had a vision of how a runner looked: striding against the skyline, the burst of a sunset sketching out her silhouette, or slate rain pounding down on her chest, streaking her face, drenching her hair. She’d be with a dog: one like Bracken, not The Moog with his stubby little legs and low belly, snorting and wheezing listlessly at her side. Her legs would pound a rhythm on the ground and her hips would swing. She would be one of those women who wore numbers tacked to their backs and posted maps and times on social media.
She told herself this as she strapped her phone on her upper arm, connected her Bluetooth earbuds and selected her playlist. She’d yet to hit 10k without having to walk, but she’d come a long way in a year, thanks to an app and the sudden empty hours that would once have seemed almost hedonistic to her.
She didn’t stretch. Because she wasn’t a runner. Instead she walked up the street briskly and swung her arms to get the blood flowing where the phone straps were tight.
By the time Leah reached the park, the back of her neck was already damp and her hairline heavy. She preferred running in winter, when the streets were emptier and the park was shadowy. She loved seeing her breath in the air and feeling the tingle of her fingers in the cold. Running in summer was less romantic, and as she began to jog, she felt very aware of her tummy jiggling in the less-than-forgiving jersey shorts.
Cressheld Park was small. A war memorial, where the local teenagers would sprawl with limbs dripping, sat at the centre. Luke and his friends would sometimes skate up and down the paths that circled it, flipping their boards and speaking in tongues.
Vacant-eyed new mums would push their buggies around the boat pond, barely holding together a conversation while their bundles screamed and writhed.
There was an ice-cream cafe in the boatshed. Not a farm-style brown-bread-and-jam artisan venue, but machine ice cream topped with sprinkles in cheap cones that disintegrated in one lick.
Leah ran on, trying to find her pace, checking that her thighs weren’t wobbling too much.
Her nineties grunge music gave her a steady rhythm and she ran upwards to the swings. The music reminded her of purple hair dye and ripped fishnet tights, Newcastle Brown Ale and wishful dreams of boys with bass guitars and German army jackets.
She focused on her breathing, always the bit she couldn’t quite handle, and her feet as the field sloped upwards and away from the playground. One in front of the other. Don’t look at the top of the hill. Just concentrate on the next step.
The trees, the spindly ones of black and silver that never seemed to leaf, were on her right, growing denser. Her breath began to stick at the back of her throat. She turned between the trees and felt the relief of the flat, if crooked, path. The track on her playlist changed to the Smashing Pumpkins and Leah adjusted her pace to match the bass line.
She thought of sticky university summers: working in bars while all her friends went home; cut-price rent in large, empty houses; rattling about and pulling double shifts to stave off the loneliness; nothing but her CDs and the conference crowd to keep her company – businessmen on work trips with white clammy faces and bloodshot eyes, pale-grey suits and damp ties. She thought of the one man in particular who’d tried to put his hand directly between her legs when she leant over the table for the empties, asking in a whisper, with his fat tongue and whisky eyes, when her break was.
So, at the fag end of third year, when everyone else was trying to eke out just one last drag, Leah already had her boxes and suitcases piled in the hall. When her housemates were blowing the last of their loans on the festival circuits, Leah managed to save up a few hundred quid from those double shifts for a rusty Fiat Panda that still had a choke but no left windscreen wiper. Her lecturer had told her there were two ways to put herself ahead of the crowd of eager graduates looking for that first break into journalism. One hundred words per minute shorthand and her own car. So she dedicated the last semester to getting both.
There was no way she was spending another summer pulling pints and being groped by townies. Her only home was in four boxes and a holdall. Not in a four-bed detached on a cul-de-sac.
She didn’t even stay for her graduation ceremony. There would be no one there to watch her. So what was the point?

The song came to an end and, in the pause between the tracks, Leah heard the crackle of twigs under her feet and a rustle of life in the undergrowth.
She broke into the clearing from between the velvety bark of the chestnut trees that Luke used to attack with sticks for conkers, his glossy, sappy treasures held up to her like pearls from an oyster in his chubby little hands, and she picked up her pace. Over the field, and down the left-hand side to the riverbank, across the bridge and back to the playground. She could do it. She carried on up the muddy banking and past the dilapidated caravan. No one knew how it had come to be there, but the roots of the trees had claimed it for their own now. A wax jacket still hung from a peg inside, just visible through the smeared front window, where the clutter from a rag-and-bone man’s life was piled up like a barricade.
Leah often had a squint through the greasy windows as she jogged past, always trying to spot something that might indicate a new resident. Her arm buzzed violently as she was deciphering the lumps in the shadows and she shrieked. ‘Shit!’ Leah ripped the band off her upper arm and steadied her breath before jabbing at the answer button. Her fingers felt fat and slippery and it took her two attempts to slide the icon across.
‘Dave?’
‘Hi . . . Leah?’
It was always infuriating that he questioned if it was her. As if, after fourteen years, he didn’t recognize her voice.
‘Yeah.’
‘You OK? You sound like you’re in the middle of something.’
That Geordie lilt.
‘Just out for a run,’ she replied, with a touch of smugness. Last time Dave had picked Luke up she could definitely see the start of a double chin and a meaty upper arm.
‘Oh. Good for you.’
Leah rolled her eyes. ‘Everything sorted for this weekend? You’re not cancelling, are you?’
‘No, no, course not. Everything’s fine . . .’
‘OK. So, what’s up?’
‘Nothing, I just wanted to say . . . you know. Good luck for tonight.’
‘Oh.’ Leah took a deep breath and looked to the sky. The branches of the birches above her head knotted together like a tapestry. A bird broke from the top branch and set flight into the sky. On the other end she could hear rustling, a blend of voices in the background. It sounded underwater and echoey.
‘So, are you staying up for it? It’s midnight, isn’t it?’ ‘Yeah. Bloody Netflix. Why can’t they make it at 9 p.m. like normal channels? I feel like some Star Wars geek, queuing outside a cinema for the big release.’
Dave laughed, but they both knew his heart wasn’t in it.
‘You OK? I’m sure it will be nothing to worry about.’
‘Yeah. Well. I doubt that. Fuck. Maybe I shouldn’t have talked to them. I mean, I wasn’t . . . feeling great at the time. I hope I don’t come across a bit unhinged.’
‘Don’t start that . . .’ He paused. ‘Anyway, it’s good you’re out. You know. Running. How’s everything generally?’
‘I’m great. Listen, thanks for the call. See you next weekend.’
Leah hung up the phone without waiting for a reply, strapped it back to her arm, and began to run again.