AMY STEADMAN Part i
Amy Steadman is a twenty-four year old graduate who is the manager of the lingerie department in an exclusive women's fashion boutique located in a busy out-of-town shopping mall. She lives on her own in the town of Rowley in a small one bedroom flat above an antiques shop on a narrow road just off the main high street.
It's five-thirty in the morning. Amy's alarm has gone off, and she's just dragged herself out of bed.
This morning Amy has to make her quarterly sales presentation to the company's senior management team. She dreads these presentations. She doesn't have a problem with standing up and talking to these self-important, vacuous, grey-suited people, she just doesn't feel comfortable with the way they stare back at her. They are smarmy, lecherous old men and she can feel them undressing her with their eyes. She hates the way they don't listen to anything she says, instead they just watch her. She knows that they fantasise about her. She finds their unwanted interest and their cheap, double-entendre laden conversation offensive and unnecessary but she puts up with it. It's all part of the job.
In Amy's line of business appearance is absolutely everything. She walks the shop floor as a representative of the store and the numerous expensive labels it stocks. She knows that she must be perfectly coiffured and immaculately presented at all times. Customers directly associate her with the products she sells. The better she looks, she often thinks, the more chance she has of making a sale.
After a quick breakfast (she doesn't feel like eating much this morning) and a lukewarm shower (she needs to get a plumber in), Amy dries her hair and sits down in front of the mirror to apply her make-up. An exercise in precision application, the make-up is crucially important to her. Far more than just another part of her perfect appearance, it is a mask. She is painting on her work personality and her customer-facing smile. In fifteen minutes she creates a character far removed from the real Amy Steadman who sits in front of the television most nights, eating chocolate and relaxing in old jeans and baggy jumpers. More importantly, perhaps, the face becomes something she can hide behind. The senior managers who stare and leer at her see only the fixed smile, the white teeth and the flawless complexion. They are unaware of the disinterest and contempt she keeps hidden from them.
Less than an hour after getting out of bed, Amy is dressed, psyched-up and ready to go. She leaves her flat and crawls through the early morning traffic, arriving at work in just under fifty minutes.
It is almost eight o'clock, and the store is just opening its doors to the first customers of the day.
'These shoes are killing me,' Lorraine moans.
'Well what do you expect?' I sigh. Lorraine (who's had more nips, tucks, false tans and hairstyles than the rest of us put together) is a total slave to fashion. 'Bloody hell, girl, those heels would be enough to cripple anyone. Christ, you're virtually walking on tiptoe!'
'You're all right, you've got the height you lucky cow,' she snaps back at me. 'Short buggers like me need all the help we can get.' She stops talking and looks over my shoulder. 'Oh, hang on, stand by your posts everyone, here we go again. Here comes the slime...'
I turn round and see that our overpaid guests from Head Office are beginning to arrive. My heart sinks.
'Morning, Mr Jackson,' I smile through gritted teeth as the area manager makes his entrance with his entourage. What a vile and odious little shit this man is.
'Morning, Andrea,' he grins, getting my name wrong as he does every month. 'Looking more beautiful than ever!'
'And you seem to be more of a fucking creep than ever,' is what I want to say back to him but, of course, I don't. Instead I just smile politely, force out a little laugh and then relax when Maurice Green appears at my side to take Jackson through to the back offices.
'Excuse me, Miss,' a quiet little voice says from behind me. I turn round and look down and see an elderly man clutching a negligee, looking more than just a little bit uncomfortable. An odd choice of nightwear unless he's a transvestite or he's married to a gold-digger. I watched a programme on television a while back about women who marry decrepit and desperate men for their money. I can understand why they do it. Most of the men I've been involved with over the last couple of years haven't had any redeeming qualities other than the size of their wallets.
'What can I do for you, Sir?' I ask, looking around for Lorraine who's suddenly disappeared as she always manages to do when customers need serving. This isn't fair. I have to get to my meeting. I haven't got time to be dealing with customers today.
'I bought this for my wife's birthday last week and she doesn't like it,' he croaks. Judging by the age of the customer in front of me, if his wife isn't a gold-digger then she's most probably somewhere between sixty and eighty years old. Can't imagine I'll want to wear underwear like this at that age.
'I see,' I say, taking the negligee from him and holding it up. There isn't much of it. Definitely not to be worn in the winter. 'Didn't she like it? Do you want a refund or...?'
He shakes his head.
'No. Actually I was wondering whether you had it in any other colours,' he says as his face turns lobster pink with embarrassment. He's taken me by surprise. 'She doesn't like black,' he explains, 'says she'd rather have red.'
I can't be late for the meeting so I'll have to hand the old gent over to a colleague. Typically there's no-one about. I'm about to lead him over to the customer services desk when I stop. Something's caught my eye over by the main doors. I can see Gary Bright, the area finance director. He's crouched down on all fours and he looks like he's choking or being sick. He's dropped his briefcase and it's open and there are confidential papers blowing all over the shop. I run over to try and help him. I call for Jenny Clarke who's the duty first aid officer. Christ, someone else is down now. A woman just to the left of me has collapsed against the customer service desk. Bloody hell, she looks like she's suffocating. Her face is red and her eyes are bulging. She's holding onto her neck and... Shit, Shirley Peters from sportswear is lying on the floor at the bottom of the escalator. She looks as if she's just...
Oh my God. What's that?
I can feel something at the back of my throat. It's like I've got something trapped. I keep trying to clear it but I can hardly swallow. Something's tickling and scratching the back and sides of my throat and I keep coughing to try and clear it away. I need to get some water. It's still there. It won't go. Stronger now. Christ, it feels like someone's got a hand round my neck. Need to get help. Jesus it hurts. It's stinging and burning. Bloody hell, I can't swallow. I can't breathe.
Oh God, I can taste blood in my mouth.
Don't panic. Slow down. Try and breathe. Try and...
Starved of oxygen, Amy fell back into a rail of expensive designer dresses, pulling half of the display down on top of her. She gagged and retched as blood seeped and dribbled down the inside of her inflamed throat. Unable to focus, she was momentarily aware of frantic, terrified movement all around her.
Quickly suffocating, she clawed at her neck and then began to thrash about as the remaining oxygen in her blood stream was rapidly used up. Already numb and unresponsive, she felt no pain when her flailing arms and legs smacked against the hard marble floor and the metal display units around her.
Her mouth and chin now covered with blood, she tried to stand but couldn't. The world became dark and the screams around her became muffled and then silent. The terrifying, claustrophobic panic which filled her mind disappeared.
Less than a minute after becoming infected, Amy Steadman was dead. JIM HARPER
Fucking hell, I'm in big trouble. I can't believe I've been so stupid. Christ, I'm never going to get out of this one.
There are mistakes and there are mistakes. There are small mistakes and minor indiscretions that you can brush under the carpet and there are fucking huge mistakes that you know are going to cost you big time and haunt you for the rest of your life. This is a fucking huge mistake. It was a moment of madness. It was a really bloody stupid thing to do.
I'm in a hotel room. It only took me a couple of seconds to get my bearings after I woke up. I'm here on a course from work. This is day two of five. The way things are going it could be my last day in the job. It's a quarter to eight and the first session of the morning starts in less than an hour. I've missed breakfast but that doesn't matter. I couldn't eat anything. I feel sick to my stomach. The problem is, this isn't my hotel room. My room is next door and I shouldn't be here.
I'm keeping as still as I can, lying on my side and looking out of a crack in the curtains at a dull and rainy morning outside. I'm trying to work my way back through the events of last night to try and remember everything that happened. We're here for the week - Monday morning through until lunchtime Friday. There are seventeen of us here from different outlets up and down the country. We had a formal meal last night to break the ice and to get to know everyone, then we moved into the bar. And that was where we stayed. I got talking to a couple of lads from up north, and then I ended up with two girls who work in my area. I'd met one of them before, but I didn't recognise her friend. Turns out she was Helen Hunter - the daughter of Bill Hunter, my area director and one of the hardest, most unforgiving and ruthless bastards you could ever have the misfortune to come across. My missus, Chloe, works in his office.
And here's where things begin to get really, really complicated and unpleasant. I haven't plucked up the courage to check yet, but I'm ninety-nine percent sure that this is Helen Hunter's bed. And I'm equally certain that Helen Hunter is in it with me. Whoever it is that's lying next to me, she's just wrapped her arm around me and now she's started kissing my neck.
Keep calm. Just try and keep calm and get things into perspective. Am I sure it's Helen? I'm having trouble remembering last night clearly. I remember sitting in the bar with the two girls, drinking heavily. I was starting to get to the stage where you really know you've had a few drinks and your body starts to try and tell you to stop. Sometimes the beer plays tricks on you - the alcohol sort of waits for a while and then creeps up and rushes you all of a sudden. I'd been fine all night but suddenly I could feel myself going and I knew I'd reached the point where having another drink would have been a mistake. I know I stopped in the bar for at least two more pints after that. One of the girls finally got up and went to bed and I remember being left there with the other. It was definitely Helen. The rest of our group were long gone and we were the only two left in the bar. We were having one of those conversations where you start discussing things you know you shouldn't be talking about. She started telling me about her relationships and then moved on to her sexual likes and dislikes (concentrating more on the likes). I started to get more and more uncomfortable and, at the same time, more and more excited. She was flirting with me (okay, I was flirting with her too) and I remember thinking that I was going to have to try and be a bit more distant in the morning because we have a whole week to get through together and I didn't want to give her the wrong impression. Problem was that by that time I'd already done more than enough.
I remember finishing our drinks and leaving the bar. We walked through the lobby together and went up to our rooms. We walked down the same corridor together and I started to get jumpy because I thought she was following me. I stopped outside my room and took out my key and she did the same with the room next door. She made some cheap comment about fate and coincidence and destiny or something and I just mumbled because my brain had long since stopped functioning properly. I remember thinking that I should just go into my room, shut the door and go to bed but I was having one of those moments where my body had decided that it was going to completely ignore whatever my brain tried to tell it to do.
Helen Hunt is a cheap (but good-looking) tart with a reputation for sleeping around and being a marriage-breaker. I was screaming silently at myself to turn and run but my nervous system seemed to have gone into meltdown, leaving my genitals in full control of the rest of my body. So instead of walking away from her I walked towards her. She wrapped her arms around my neck and whispered something filthy in my ear. I couldn't remember what it was she said, I just remembered smelling her perfume and the booze and feeling her breath tickling the side of my face. We started to kiss. One kiss, then another, then another and another until we were practically eating each other's faces. My hands started to wander. I grabbed her backside and pulled her closer. One thing quickly led to another and... and that's why I'm in trouble now.
It has to be said though, what I remember of last night was damn good. She lived up to her reputation. She was half-undressed by the time we'd made it onto the bed and I was completely undressed seconds later. The lights were full on and the curtains were open but neither of us cared. All I could think about was fucking her senseless. There was no hint of passion, just sheer lust and physical need. It felt like just minutes, but I remember looking at the clock on the bedside table at one o'clock, then two and then three. At some point one of us had turned the lights off and we'd finally fallen asleep.
Despite the fact that what I've done is wrong whichever way you look at it, it was bloody good. Just lying here thinking about what she did to me is making me feel horny again...
'We've got half an hour before the course starts,' a whispered voice says from behind me. She wraps her arms tight around me and starts to drag her nails across my chest. It hurts but Christ, it's really turning me on. I should try to be strong and say no but what's the point? The damage has already been done. There's nothing I can do. Might as well lie back and enjoy it...
She rolls me over and I find myself looking up into Helen Hunter's face. She looks fucking beautiful - an absolute gem. For a second it's easy to forget that I'm married and that the woman I'm in bed with is the precious daughter of my boss' boss. I can't think straight. All I can do is react that what she's doing to me. Now she's sliding down underneath the covers. She's biting my chest and licking me and she's not stopping there. She's going lower. I put my hands behind my head and lie back and get ready to take it.
Quarter past eight. It's over and all of the sudden excitement and lust has gone. Now all I feel is stupidity and regret. What have I done? Why have I done it again? Helen's grinning at me like an idiot but then, compared to me, she's got nothing to lose. Chances are I've already lost everything. How the hell am I going to be able to look Chloe in the face now? After the last time I promised her this would never happen again. I know I mean nothing to Helen and it's just been a bit of fun for her. I'm just another one of her victims, another conquest. She's renowned for it and I should have known better. She'll walk away from this without a bad word being said against her and I'll take all the flack. If Bill Hunter finds out then I've had it. I've probably just thrown away my marriage, my house and my career for one night of sex. What a fucking idiot.
Shit, what the hell do I do now? She's moved and I'm left lying on the bed on my own, looking up at the ceiling and trying to work out how I'm going to bluff my way out of this one. Easiest thing would be to grab my stuff from the room next door and do a runner but I know I can't do that. I just can't believe I've been so stupid again. This is definitely the worst yet. I've never done anything this bad before. Actually, the first night Chloe and I spent together was pretty similar in a lot of respects but this is different and this was a mistake. I'll talk to Helen now and tell her that it meant nothing.
She's in the shower. Despite the fact that we've just spent the night together and I've already explored every available inch of her naked body I now feel embarrassed because she's undressed. I don't want to look at her but I can't help myself and she knows it. She's flirting with me again. Bloody woman knows that I'm watching her and she's going to make me pay for it.
'Look,' I say, clearing my throat, 'we need to talk.'
She doesn't answer at first. I don't know if she can hear me over the noise of the shower. I'll have to raise my voice although that's the last thing I want to do. Most of the course delegates' rooms are probably on this floor. I don't have any choice. This is a conversation that won't wait. I have to say my piece now.
'Listen, I'm going back to my room now. I had a great time last night but we shouldn't have done what we...'
She peers around the side of the shower curtain, making sure she shows just enough flesh to keep me interested and make me lose my train of thought.
'I'll see you later,' she smiles, 'play your cards right and your whole week will be as good as last night.'
'I'm sorry,' I try to protest. 'You're a really great girl, but I think we've made a mistake. I don't think we should see each other for the rest of the...'
She's shaking her head.
'Too late for that,' she grins. 'You're going to learn more in this little room than you will on the course,' she promises. 'I'm going to do things to you that are barely legal. You're mine for the rest of the...'
She stops talking. The expression on her face changes suddenly.
'What's the matter?' I ask, half-thinking that she's just winding me up.
'I...' she stammers, 'I can't...'
She grabs hold of her neck with one hand and grips the shower curtain with the other to keep herself steady. She can't breathe. She's suffocating. She's trying to breathe in but she can't get any air. She's looking at me with wide, frightened eyes and I don't know what to do. I just stand there. I can't move. I want to help her but I don't know what to do.
Her legs buckle underneath her and she falls, pulling the shower curtain down with her. Her head hits the faucet with a soft thud that makes me feel sick. Now she's lying in the bath shaking and choking and there's blood pouring out of a gash on the side of her head and washing down the plughole, mixing with the foam and running water. I turn off the shower. Christ, there's blood everywhere. I need to get help.
I run to the bed to get my trousers. My legs are wet from the water that's splashed on me from the shower and I can't get them on. I stumble and trip around the room. I grab the phone and dial for reception to ask them to get an ambulance but there's no answer. No-one's picking up.
I'm standing in the bathroom door again now, half-dressed. Helen's not moving. I've got to do something but I can't bring myself to touch her. Christ, I think she's dead. What the fucking hell is happening here...?
Now I know that I must be a real spineless bastard. Poor girl's lying dead in front of me and for a split second I feel relieved. Now I might have a chance of salvaging my life from this mess. I can tell them that I was in the room next door and I heard her fall down so I came in to help and I found her like this...
Hold on, maybe that will only make things worse. My things are all over this room. Not just my clothes either, there will be hairs and fingerprints and God knows what else all over the bed and probably all over and inside her too. Fucking hell, what if they say I did it? What if they think I pushed her over in the shower to keep her quiet about what we'd done together?
Got to get out of here. Can't stay here any longer.
I grab my things off the bed and run to the door. I try and leave the room but then I see her body again and my conscience tries to make me stop and help her. But I'm too fucking scared. I open the door and go out into the corridor.
There's another body on the floor. Jesus Christ, it's a porter. I don't want to get any closer to him. I can see his face and it's all twisted and contorted with pain and there's blood on the carpet around his mouth.
There's another body further down, just outside one of the rooms. It's Steve Jenkins. I sat opposite him at dinner last night.
I can't handle this.
I let myself into my room and sit on the end of the bed.
I can't hear anyone.
I try the phone again but no-one answers.
I'll wait here for a couple of minutes then I'll go and find help.
James Harper cowered in his hotel room for more than two hours before finally plucking up courage to go out and look for help. The smell of burning forced him into action. The hotel kitchens were on fire.
He searched the entire building but could find no-one else left alive. His colleagues, the course tutors, the guests and the entire staff of the hotel were dead.