Destroy Me is an addictive psychological thriller from the kindle bestselling author Karen Cole. Perfect for fans of Karin Slaughter and Erin Kelly. Discover the opening chapter here!
Clouds sail past my window, shape-shifting as they go, and I pass the time by trying to work out what they resemble. That one, with the hint of grey at the edge, looks like a crab claw; another is like an embryo or a mermaid – I can’t decide which. I wish I could defy gravity and float up there with them. It seems blissful, the idea of resting my head on a cloud. But I know that in reality a cloud would just be damp and cold, like fog.
I notice things like clouds now. I notice a lot that I never noticed before – for example, the way the leaves on the bush outside my window shiver in the wind and the spider’s web that’s tangled in its branches. There’s no sign of the spider, but I can see a fly caught in the deceptively delicate thread. It isn’t moving but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s dead.
I know how that fly feels. I know what it feels like to be trapped – how quickly anger and frustration can turn to despair, and despair to resignation. I know that prisoners try to find ways to keep their sanity – that they jealously store memories and feed off them slowly, rationing them so there will be enough to last. And that when they run out of memories their imaginations expand to fill the void. My mind often leaves my body behind and journeys to places I’ve never been. It soars into the sky and it plunges to the depths of the ocean with giant squid and treasure-laden shipwrecks. On good days I can appreciate the magical power of my mind.
But on bad days – and I have to admit they are more frequent than the good days lately – my mind shrinks into bitterness and recrimination, and then I start to plot and plan and think about all I have lost and who is to blame.
I’m in the kitchen slicing onions for tonight’s spaghetti Bolognese, when I hear Dylan yelling.
‘Mummy, you’re on TV! Come quickly!’
The knife slips, slicing into the tip of my forefinger and I curse under my breath as blood oozes out, dribbling on to the chopping board and staining the onion pink. Tearing off a strip of paper towel, I press it into the wound. Then I scurry into the living room where I find Dylan cross-legged on the carpet, his mouth smeared with chocolate, surrounded by the debris of his Lego castle. Delilah is lying next to him, licking the chocolate wrapper. My first instinct is to snap at him. He knows that Delilah mustn’t eat chocolate – that it’s bad for dogs. But I pick up the wrapper, take a deep, angry breath and bite back my annoyance. He’s only five years old and he’s had a tough time lately. I need to remember that.
‘You’re too late, Mummy,’ he says reproachfully. ‘You were on TV. But you’re gone now.’
I rub my stinging eyes, making them smart even more, and blink at the screen. The news is on; something about a climate-change protest. People are marching and chanting, holding up banners. A grey-haired woman in a tie-dyed shirt is being interviewed, proclaiming earnestly, jabbing her finger at the reporter. Maybe Dylan saw someone that looked like me in the crowd, or perhaps he simply made it up. Lately, he’ll do almost anything to get my attention. Since Theo moved in with Harper, I think he’s worried that if he doesn’t keep tabs on me, I’ll leave too. If I’m out of his sight for more than a few minutes, he panics. And several times in the last few weeks I’ve woken up to find that he’s crawled into bed with me, his little arm clamped on to me like a limpet. I don’t make him go back to his bed. If I’m honest, I like the company – I like the feel of his warm, little body breathing next to mine.
‘You don’t want to watch the news, do you?’ I say, switching to another channel. I don’t want him to see something that will distress him. He had nightmares after an episode of Scooby Doo, so God only knows what trauma-inducing effect a news piece about knife crime in London or war in Syria might have.
But he’s lost interest in the television anyway. He’s busily ripping the heads off his Lego people and stacking them one on top of the other. ‘Look what I made,’ he announces proudly. ‘He’s got one, two, three, four . . . ten heads!’
I examine his handiwork uneasily. Theo lets him watch all kinds of stuff that is way too old for him – as if he’s in a rush for him to grow up. It’s one of the things we argue about. Used to argue about. We don’t argue any more. We just exchange chilly pleasantries on the doorstep and short, practical instructions about Dylan.
‘Mm, that’s great, sweetie,’ I say brightly, squatting beside him on the carpet and running a hand over his soft, stubbly head. I’m already regretting my decision to have his beautiful black curls cropped. I thought it would make him look tougher, less of a target for bullies at his new school. But the barber went overboard with the clippers and the overall effect – his short bristles, puny body and huge eyes – makes him look more like a victim than ever.
‘Are you looking forward to your first day tomorrow?’ I ask anxiously. How will he cope with being separated from me? Will he make friends, or will the other kids tease him? Will his off-the-wall humour and strange, dreamy manner set him apart? I try to ignore a rogue image of him standing all alone and lost in the playground, a group of kids pointing and chanting insults at him.
‘Mm,’ he says, as he picks up a plastic dinosaur. ‘Look, they’re fighting.’ He smashes the dinosaur into the man with ten heads and the heads topple, scattering over the carpet. He doesn’t want to talk about tomorrow. Of course he doesn’t. He’s only five. Tomorrow barely exists for him. He’s living in the moment. Loving life. I could learn a lot from him.
‘Make sure you tidy all those up when you finish,’ I say, as I head back to the kitchen. I need to stop worrying. There’s no point in spending your life worrying. What good does it do? I ought to live in the moment like Dylan. I pull the medicine box out of the cupboard and root around for a plaster. Perhaps I should go back to that mindfulness course I started a while ago. What was it the coach told us? Pay attention to everything around you. Don’t judge, just be aware. I wrap the plaster around my finger, watching the way the red blood seeps through the fabric. I’m not judging, just observing. Then I stare out at the sky through the window. It stares back, grey, blank and indifferent. The garden is wet from the recent rain, the leaves dripping, the grass saturated. A sparrow hops across the lawn pecking for worms. The hedge needs trimming. Theo always used to do that. No, that’s a judgement. I mustn’t judge. I turn back to the cooking and tip the onions into the pan, watching them sizzle. Not judging them. I breathe deeply through my nose. Tomorrow will be okay, I tell myself. Everything will be okay.
After we’ve eaten and Dylan’s had a bath, he clambers into bed, clutching the fluffy Komodo dragon Harper bought him at London Zoo. They went about a month ago, all three of them: Theo, Dylan and Theo’s girlfriend, Harper. And Dylan came back, eyes shining, full of stories about funny monkeys and how they all laughed when Harper dropped her ice cream. That’s when I knew that Harper was probably a permanent fixture in Theo’s life. I hate to admit it, but there’s no way he would have introduced her to Dylan if he wasn’t serious about her.
‘Why’s your face all cross, Mummy?’ Dylan asks me, running his fingers along the Komodo dragon’s fur.
‘Is it?’ I look at my reflection in the mirror on his wardrobe door and catch a glimpse of my expression. He’s right. I do look cross. I look bitter, angry and old. In this light I look much older than my age, not to mention fat. A fat, bitter old hag, I think. With an effort I wipe the frown away and smile fondly at Dylan.
‘I’m just tired,’ I say.
‘I want to sleep in your bed, please, Mummy,’ Dylan begs, hopping up and down. His face is still flushed from the bath and his eyes are glittering with fatigue and excitement.
‘Big boys sleep in their own beds.’ I say, kissing his cheek. It’s soft and smooth and he smells of talcum powder and baby shampoo. ‘Now lie down.’
I sit next to him on the bed, propped against a pillow, his head resting against my belly, and read him our favourite story, ‘Naughty Nelly’s New Neighbours’. It’s a simple but clever story about a girl whose neighbours turn out to be monsters.
‘Do you think our neighbours are monsters?’ Dylan asks me, wide-eyed, when I’ve finished. He wriggles down under the covers and pops his thumb in his mouth. I think about Eileen, who lives next door – the way she yelled at Dylan the other day for accidentally throwing his ball into her garden and the malicious gleam in her eye when I told her about Theo leaving.
‘They could be,’ I say. Then, catching the alarm in his yes, I add, ‘Friendly monsters, of course.’
Once Dylan’s asleep I make sure his things are packed for tomorrow and I make his lunch: cheese and Marmite sandwiches, some carrot sticks and a bag of salt and vinegar crisps. Then I take a pack and eat it myself. One won’t do any harm. This is day two of my diet and I’m craving sugary and salty food. I sit down at my laptop and write. My target is a thousand words a day and the deadline is looming. I’m writing a young adult book – the second in a series about a teenage ghost.
When Theo and I first married, we lived in Bristol. He had a job at a nearby school, and I worked as a local news reporter at the Bristol Gazette. I loved my job, but I’d always harboured a secret ambition to write a book and I spent most of my evenings and weekends scribbling away and firing off short stories to publishers and competitions without any luck. Then, shortly after Dylan was born, Theo was offered Head of Department at a school in Cirencester and we decided to move back to the town where I grew up. It’s a small place and it was hard to find a job in journalism here, so I decided to make a serious attempt at writing the book I’d always dreamed of writing. And about three years ago, when Dylan was two, I saw a competition in a magazine for young adult fiction. On a whim, I sent off the first three chapters of a ghost story called Embers. To my amazement, I won, and just like that was given a contract for two books.
Normally, I love delving into a fictional world where anything is possible and I’m very much in control. But tonight, the words won’t come. I’m trying to write the first chapter, which picks up after the end of the last book when Molly, my heroine, discovers that she died in a car accident. But for some reason, this evening, I feel completely uninspired. Every single sentence squeezes its way on to the page, painfully. After about an hour, I give up and check my phone to see if the guy from the other night has phoned me. Of course, he hasn’t. Feeling disappointed but not that surprised, I pick up my laptop and wander absent-mindedly into the kitchen where I open the packet of chocolate animal biscuits I bought for Dylan and munch my way through them while I read what I’ve written. The whole thing seems like garbage and it doesn’t tie in with the first book at all. I sigh, and reaching for another biscuit, I realise there aren’t any left. I’ve eaten the entire jumbo-sized packet. And I’ve dropped crumbs all down the front of my t-shirt. My stomach seems to have grown exponentially in the last five minutes, bulging over the top of my jeans. What would Sara at Weight Watchers say? What would Luke think if he did actually phone for another date?
Feeling frustrated and disgusted with myself, I delete the whole chapter. Then I check my messages on Facebook. I have two Facebook accounts – one for me and one for ‘Ophelia Black’, my alter ego. Ophelia Black is the pseudonym dreamed up by the publishing team for Embers because they thought that my real name, Catherine Bayntun, was too difficult to spell and not very sellable.
On my real Facebook page my friend Gaby has sent me a message asking what happened after she left the other night. Ophelia Black has two: one from some obscure magazine asking me to answer a few questions and another from someone called George Wilkinson. I open the message from George. There’s no writing, just a photograph – a picture of a gravestone.
The headstone looks relatively new, shiny and black. The inscription is obscured by a vase of pink roses; just the last letter of the name is visible. I enlarge the image, but I still can’t read it. The last letter could be an R, but I am not sure.
Why would anyone send me a picture of a grave? It’s slightly unnerving. Is it some kind of threat? No, it’s probably just a fan trying to spark a new idea for a sequel to Embers, I decide. I click on George’s profile. He looks like an ordinary middle-aged man from Wisconsin in the USA. In the picture, he’s grinning at the camera. He’s wearing a baseball cap and has a bushy moustache. He doesn’t look like the kind of person who would read Embers. He’s way too old for a start. I close the page. It’s nothing, I tell myself. George Wilkinson has clearly mistaken me for another Ophelia Black. But even so, I feel a twinge of unease as I snap the laptop shut and head to the living room.
In the living room, I set up the ironing board to iron Dylan’s school shirts and switch on the TV, catching the end of the evening news. After the weather forecast, the local news comes on. The newscaster is talking about a pile-up on the A417, but I’m not really listening. I’m still wondering why George from Wisconsin sent me that message.
But when I happen to glance up at the TV, I notice that the woman reading the news is looking particularly serious. She’s talking about a crime that was committed on Friday night – a grisly murder, and in Cecily Hill of all places! It’s just a ten minute walk from here. I put the iron down. I’m shocked. That kind of crime just doesn’t happen in this sleepy Cotswold town. It’s a place where people come to retire – a pretty, peaceful place where people get up in arms when someone builds an extension without planning permission or because the new pavements caused someone to break their hip. Even the news anchor looks visibly shaken as she relates the details. The police, she says, aren’t sure about the exact time the victim was killed, but they have revealed that she was stabbed no fewer than four times in the chest.
Then a picture flashes up on the screen and everything else is completely wiped from my mind. I forget the ironing. I forget Wisconsin George. I even forget Dylan. I can’t think of anything but the image dominating the screen. Time stops and the world around me blurs and stretches into lightning-fast shrieks of meaningless colour. It’s just me and that picture in a universe which suddenly makes no sense.
‘This woman was seen on Friday night near the scene of the crime,’ says the news reader grimly. ‘She is thought to be in her early thirties, and she was wearing a white t-shirt with blue jeans. Police are appealing for her or anyone who knows her to come forward and help the police with their enquiries.’
It’s a computer-generated photofit of a woman with a plump, round face and long, brown, wavy hair. Except for the fact that her skin is a little too smooth, and her face is expressionless, making her look slightly plastic, the image is very realistic. She’s got a high forehead, thick, arched eyebrows and there’s even a small brown mole on her left cheek. She’s an ordinary-looking woman – entirely unremarkable. She looks like the best friend in a movie – the one who inexplicably spends all her time worrying about the beautiful heroine and doesn’t appear to have a life of her own. You certainly wouldn’t single her out in a crowd, but nevertheless, her features make up a face that, like every face on the planet, is unique as a fingerprint.
And Dylan was right. She looks exactly like me.
by Karen Cole
An addictive psychological thriller from a kindle bestseller. For fans of Karin Slaughter and Erin Kelly.
SOME SECRETS ARE BEST LEFT BURIED...
Cat panics when she sees a photofit of a murder suspect flash up on the news. It looks exactly like her, and to make matters worse, the victim is her childhood best friend, Charlie.
The following day, the police arrive at her doorstep to question her. She hadn't seen or spoken to Charlie in years, but could the secrets of their past finally be coming back to haunt her?
Desperate to find out who gave the police her description and to protect her five-year-old son, Cat investigates. She knows she is innocent and will stop at nothing to prove it. But some secrets are best left buried...
See what readers are saying about Karen Cole:
'Every time I thought I had it sussed a curveball was thrown. Beautifully dark and compelling'
Caz, Amazon reviewer
'If you like Karin Slaughter you will love this!'
Cath, Amazon reviewer
'I was constantly guessing throughout and I still didn't see that ending coming even though the clues are there!'
Chanel, Amazon reviewer
'I absolutely loved this book. I could never have guessed the outcome'
Annie, Amazon reviewer