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The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
Author:Stuart Turton

The 7? Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

Stuart Turton



1


Day One

I forget everything between footsteps.

‘Anna!’ I finish shouting, snapping my mouth shut in surprise.

My mind has gone blank. I don’t know who Anna is or why I’m calling her name. I don’t even know how I got here. I’m standing in a forest, shielding my eyes from the spitting rain. My heart’s thumping, I reek of sweat and my legs are shaking. I must have been running but I can’t remember why.

‘How did—’ I’m cut short by the sight of my own hands. They’re bony, ugly. A stranger’s hands. I don’t recognise them at all.

Feeling the first touch of panic, I try to recall something else about myself: a family member, my address, age, anything, but nothing’s coming. I don’t even have a name. Every memory I had a few seconds ago is gone.

My throat tightens, breaths coming loud and fast. The forest is spinning, black spots inking my sight.

Be calm.

‘I can’t breathe,’ I gasp, blood roaring in my ears as I sink to the ground, my fingers digging into the dirt.

You can breathe, you just need to calm down.

There’s comfort in this inner voice, cold authority.

Close your eyes, listen to the forest. Collect yourself.

Obeying the voice, I squeeze my eyes shut but all I can hear is my own panicked wheezing. For the longest time it crushes every other sound, but slowly, ever so slowly, I work a hole in my fear, allowing other noises to break through. Raindrops are tapping the leaves, branches rustling overhead. There’s a stream away to my right and crows in the trees, their wings cracking the air as they take flight. Something’s scurrying in the undergrowth, the thump of rabbit feet passing near enough to touch. One by one I knit these new memories together until I’ve got five minutes of past to wrap myself in. It’s enough to staunch the panic, at least for now.

I get to my feet clumsily, surprised by how tall I am, how far from the ground I seem to be. Swaying a little, I wipe the wet leaves from my trousers, noticing for the first time that I’m wearing a dinner jacket, the shirt splattered with mud and red wine. I must have been at a party. My pockets are empty and I don’t have a coat, so I can’t have strayed too far. That’s reassuring.

Judging by the light, it’s morning, so I’ve probably been out here all night. No one gets dressed up to spend an evening alone, which means somebody must know I’m missing by now. Surely, beyond these trees, a house is coming awake in alarm, search parties striking out to find me? My eyes roam the trees, half-expecting to see my friends emerging through the foliage, pats on the back and gentle jokes escorting me back home, but daydreams won’t deliver me from this forest, and I can’t linger here hoping for rescue. I’m shivering, my teeth chattering. I need to start walking, if only to keep warm, but I can’t see anything except trees. There’s no way to know whether I’m moving towards help, or blundering away from it.

At a loss, I return to the last concern of the man I was.

‘Anna!’

Whoever this woman is, she’s clearly the reason I’m out here, but I can’t picture her. Perhaps she’s my wife, or my daughter? Neither feels right, and yet there’s a pull in the name. I can feel it trying to lead my mind somewhere.

‘Anna!’ I shout, more out of desperation than hope.

‘Help me!’ a woman screams back.

I spin, seeking the voice, dizzying myself, glimpsing her between distant trees, a woman in a black dress running for her life. Seconds later, I spot her pursuer crashing through the foliage after her.

‘You there, stop,’ I yell, but my voice is weak and weary; they trample it underfoot.

Shock pins me in place, and the two of them are almost out of sight by the time I give chase, flying after them with a haste I’d never have thought possible from my aching body. Even so, no matter how hard I run, they’re always a little ahead.

Sweat pours off my brow, my already weak legs growing heavier until they give out, sending me sprawling into the dirt. Scrambling through the leaves, I heave myself up in time to meet her scream. It floods the forest, sharp with fear, and is cut silent by a gunshot.

‘Anna!’ I call out desperately. ‘Anna!’

There’s no response, just the fading echo of the pistol’s report.

Thirty seconds. That’s how long I hesitated when I first spotted her and that’s how far away I was when she was murdered. Thirty seconds of indecision, thirty seconds to abandon somebody completely.

There’s a thick branch by my feet and, picking it up, I swing it experimentally, comforted by the weight and rough texture of the bark. It won’t do me very much good against a pistol, but it’s better than investigating these woods with my hands in the air. I’m still panting, still trembling after the run, but guilt nudges me in the direction of Anna’s scream. Wary of making too much noise, I brush aside the low-hanging branches, searching for something I don’t really want to see.

Twigs crack to my left.

I stop breathing, listening fiercely.

The sound comes again, footsteps crunching over leaves and branches, circling around behind me.

My blood runs cold, freezing me in place. I don’t dare look over my shoulder.

The cracking of twigs moves closer, shallow breaths only a little behind me. My legs falter, the branch dropping from my hands.

I would pray, but I don’t remember the words.

Warm breath touches my neck. I smell alcohol and cigarettes, the odour of an unwashed body.

‘East,’ a man rasps, dropping something heavy into my pocket.

The presence recedes, his steps retreating into the woods as I sag, pressing my forehead to the dirt, inhaling the smell of wet leaves and rot, tears running down my cheeks.