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The Killer You Know
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I’ll murder three strangers. And you’ll know it was me . . .
“A blinder of a read” — SUN
“A scary, compelling and a completely original page-turner” — Irish Independent
“An original and gripping thriller” — Laura Marshall
Summer 1997: When Will jokes about becoming a serial killer, his friends just laugh it off. But Adeline can’t help but feel there’s something darker lurking behind his words.
Winter 2015: Years later, Adeline returns to Blythe for a reunion of the old gang — except Will doesn’t show up. Reminiscing about old times, they look up the details of his supposed murder spree. But the mood soon changes when they discover two recent deaths that match.
As the group attempts to track Will down, they realize that he is playing a sinister game that harks back to one they used to play as kids.
Only this time there are lives at stake . . .
Readers are absolutely loving The Killer You Know:
“A compelling, unpredictable thriller that conveys the changing nature of long-lasting friendships beautifully. How well do we know even our closest of friends? Highly recommended.” — Elisabeth Carpender
“A twisty, clever exploration of claustrophobic childhood friendships and the darkness they can lead to.” — Dervla McTiernan
“The Killer You Know is one of my favourite reads of the year. I LOVED it. Pacey, nostalgic, excellent very well-developed characters, and a clever plot” — Niki MacKAy
“A gripping, compelling read with a brilliant premise and a wonderfully twisting storyline. An incredible debut.” — TM Logan
“Compelling, creepy, and brilliantly executed, The Killer You Know is an original new voice in the thriller world.” — Phoebe Morgan
“Brilliantly atmospheric tale of toxic friendship, with a killer hook — what if one of your gang turned out to be a serial killer? Loved it.” — Liz Barnsely
All of this started the night Will told us he was going to be a serial killer.
He said, “Okay, I’ve decided what I want to do when I’m older.” We looked over at him.
He was the last to answer the question, which meant soon we’d start the long hike home from the electricity pylon deep in the forgotten overgrowth between our village and the next.
What will you be doing in another sixteen years’ time?
It was all coming to an end: the night, the summer, the campfire burning on the concrete around which the five of us sat. Most of us secretly wanted everything to go on like this, perhaps for ever, despite saying out loud that we were excited by the mysteries of adulthood. None of us could believe things would ever be as good as this again, whatever problems we had with our parents or each other.
Except maybe Will, sitting there smoking his brother’s drugs while the rest of us only wanted to get drunk. Will, milking the moment of reveal for dramatic effect behind a cloud of breath mist and cigarette smoke. Who knew what was going on in his head? Maybe he did think that there would be something better after this.
“You need to kill at least three people to be a serial killer, right?” Will said, his rich voice filling the dome of light the flames had created around us. “So that’s what I’ll do.”
In the past this sort of thing would have been funny—classic Will, what a weirdo. To the others it still was. But to me everything about him was sinister, from what he was saying to the way the shadows cast on his face hid his true expression. I’d always known he was in a different world to the rest of us, but that world had never been frightening before. After what I’d seen in the last few weeks of that summer, I couldn’t even fake a laugh.
“Maybe it won’t be exactly sixteen years,” Will said, “but at some point in the future. I’ll kill three people, all totally unrelated to each other. I’ll make them look like suicides so I won’t get caught. In different ways, and in different places—ones you wouldn’t expect.”
He was sniggering now, but I shivered—and not just because the fire was on the way out.
“I’ll vanish from January to January one year, no one will hear from me. I’ll be off the radar.”
The others started asking questions, grinning, eager for more.
“Where will you kill them?”
“Won’t that be difficult to get away with?”
“How will you fool people?”
They all chimed in, and Will relayed the grim details to drunk laughter and applause—for the most part making it sound like he was improvising the whole thing.
From beyond our circle soft noises drew my attention, cracks and rustling. And looking up, I swore I saw the silhouette of a person standing about ten feet behind Will, at the place where the concrete met the high grass and the weeds. But then it was gone. A trick of the starlight, maybe. Or perhaps too much alcohol mixed up with that sense of foreboding I couldn’t shake.
“Then when I’m done,” he said, “I’ll go back to whatever job I was doing—working in an office or some place. Go out clubbing and get smashed like everyone else. No one would ever know when they’re asking me to write a report, or when they’re dancing next to me. But I would. That’d be enough. I’ll know, and you lot will too, if you remember this—and I reckon you will.”
He wasn’t wrong about that.
I’m convinced nostalgia’s an illness.
… if you took off your rose-tints, I think you’d both see this film for what it is.
I turned off the engine but let the podcast continue, only half-listening to the sound of my own voice coming through the car speakers. Over the road from where I’d parked, my parents’ galley kitchen was lit up like a set awaiting actors. They’d hung strange paintings on the far wall and completely changed the colour scheme. The mustard paint was gone. Instead, some interior designer had detonated a magnolia bomb in there.
My dashboard clock read 21.12. Was it too late to go in? Possibly. Hopefully. They were still up for sure—Dad never left the lights on.
Okay, Xan, Jon, I think the time’s come to decide whether Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’s orientalist classic Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom goes into the crusher.
Orientalist classic? Nice.
So you’re on the fence, Adeline?
I switched off the stereo.
I ought to go in. I’d only come home to Blythe for tomorrow’s reunion, but it’d be impossible to relax without first finding out more about Mum’s diagnosis. Dad had been agitated on the phone last week; all he’d managed to tell me was that there was something wrong with her lungs. When he’d given the phone to her so she could elaborate, Mum hung up without saying a word once he’d left the room.
It was something terminal, it had to be. And if so, morally speaking, I needed to open up a dialogue again—end the stupid cold war of silence we’d been fighting ever since my last visit. Even if it was just to make Dad’s life easier.
Yet I stayed in the car, fingering the keys dangling from the ignition. I’d expected this to be difficult—had been dreading it, in fact—but what I’d not expected was the anger that welled up once the lights of the M6 were behind me, and the roads became snakier in direct proportion to just how arse-end-of-nowhere each passing village was.
Blythe. Fucking Blythe. One lane of houses off a main road to somewhere better. A pub, an abandoned bus shelter, and nothing else for miles on either side. This was a place to hide from the world, not a real part of it. A dormitory, and every bare field or barn or dead badger that had been illuminated in the headlights was a reminder of just how isolated I’d been here. If it hadn’t been for the friends I’d made, God.
I started the car. It wasn’t worth it; I was losing myself, regressing already, preparing comebacks for what Mum might potentially attack me for: blue streak in my black hair, dark eye make-up, nose stud. No, I needed to just go and focus on the reunion. I’d head straight to the hotel and make notes on the podcast—it needed re-editing anyway. This cut made me sound too snarky, too irritable—the friction between the three of us perhaps seeping into my performance. It lacked the genuine affection for the films that had served Nostalgia Crush so well over the years.
Besides, I could always try again on my way back to London.
I dropped the handbrake. With my last glance up at the house I noticed an actor wandering on to the illuminated set: Dad, shuffling across the kitchen. He was smaller than I remembered, and his hair, once the grey of pencil lead, was now white.
It had been over a year, and all that time was visible at once. I tried to bite my nails but they’d been well gnawed already.
Groaning, I pulled up the handbrake and turned off the engine. And when Dad saw me walking up the drive, I put on my warmest smile and waved.
The place had all the charm of a retirement home, which I suppose was appropriate. Dad showed me to a lounge I no longer recognised, the chemical smell of renovation still in the air. Only a minimalist plastic Christmas tree in the corner honoured the season.
“Wow, you really can’t come home again,” I said.
“Your mum wanted to get the place right while we were still able to, you know?”
Pronounced Mom rather than mum here in the West Midlands, of course: the lost United State. I’d been a southerner so long now it always caught me out.
“Where is she?”
“In bed, love. She had a funny turn this afternoon. I’ll check if she’s up to seeing you. You in a rush?”
“No,” I said, and he limped away.
Before I could ask about his leg he closed the stairwell door behind him.
I sat on their pristine white leather sofa and listened to the murmur of conversation in the room above, trying to gauge her mood. Even though the words were inaudible, the Brummie accent’s seesaw melody was clear. I had no accent—Mum had made sure of that during childhood. She’d flattened down any sentences that tried to rise up at the end like a kid playing Whac-A-Mole.
That’s why you got into Cambridge, she’d once said.
Where was the graduation picture that used to be on the mantelpiece? Apparently not even that had survived, any personal touch sacrificed to the great, off-white God of Property Development.
I sighed. All this poison wasn’t going to help should Mum desire an audience. I needed to stay positive. I took out my phone. An unread message had arrived sometime during my journey up from London.
How you holding up? Is it tonight?
Xan, our podcast’s enthusiast, the heart to my mouth and to Jon’s brain. The episodes were built upon Xan’s passion for some classic movie being gradually dampened by Jon and me, condemning it to the so-called “crusher” unless we found solid reasons for mercy.
Before I could reply to him the stairs began to creak, and shortly after the stairwell door opened again. Dad nodded.
Mother would see me now.
“Do you want a drink, Jan?” Dad asked from behind me.
Mum, sitting up in bed, declined. He left to go and fetch Mum’s pills, and I went to give her a kiss. She offered a cheek. Unlike Dad, she hadn’t aged at all. She looked well, if anything.
“What did he do to his leg?” I said.
She shook her head. “He tripped in the garden, on one of the branches growing over the path. I told him it wanted cutting.” She pronounced the last word like footing.
“And what’s happening with you, Mum?”
She shrugged. “It’s not good, Adeline. They said it was my lungs. All the coughing… They did a scan and then the doctor asked if I’d ever been near asbestos. Well, I haven’t, but your grandad used to work on the roofs, and I was always climbing on him when he got back from work. They said it’s all scratched up on the inside, and it’s going to gradually get wor—”
She started coughing. It sounded painful and I put a hand on her shoulder, but her pointed glance at my chewed nails made me withdraw it into a fist.
“Do you need anything?” I said.
Mum shook her head, then pointed at my feet. “Those boots do nothing for you, love.” Leaving no time for me to react, she added: “Are you still with the teacher? Is he here?”
“No,” I said, surprised she’d remembered Rich.
“Oh,” she said, deflating into the bed and forcing another small cough through her throat.
“Can I help while I’m back?”
Mum thought about this. “Why have you come back, Adeline?” She paused. “I was really hoping it might be because you wanted to apologise.”
I bit the inside of my cheek. Last time I’d been here I’d endured a birthday meal of Mum’s drunken remarks about my advancing age, about how sad it was that she might never be a grandmother. Then she’d blamed my “problem” on the anti-authoritarian streak I’d inherited from Dad, and suggested that, while Dad had been something of a disappointment, he’d at least been a man. It might not be fashionable to say, she’d said, but women can’t get on in the world ruffling feathers all the time. That had been enough, and I’d kissed Dad goodbye and left for London without another word.
“I’m sorry,” I said, because if Mum really was dying, any encounters we shared should at least be neutral. There wasn’t enough time in the universe to fix what was broken between us, but a respectful truce wasn’t out of the question.
“That’s the tone of voice you’re going to choose?” Mum said.
Again, I bit my cheek. “I’m seeing some old friends, Mum, and I was worried about you. If you aren’t interested in getting on, and if you don’t need anything, I’ll just go. I don’t want a fight, honestly.”
Mum straightened up. “Who do you still know here?”
“You won’t remember them.”
“Your college friends?”
“No, some Blythe friends.”
“I knew all your little Blythe friends. Steven. I remember him. His dad had that house at the bottom of the lane. Wealthy man, but he only rented it. It’s all done up now.”
I nodded, had seen the now extended and updated farmhouse in my headlights at the end of Elm Close when parking up. “Steve’s coming,” I said.
“See, I remember. And the diddy one, from India. What was his name?”
Now I shook my head. “Rupesh was born in Birmingham, Mum.” In my mind I could see the footpath that ran to Hampton-in-Arden, the village next to Blythe. I’d passed the exit earlier, and Rupesh had been the person that came into my mind.
“You know what I meant. And I remember Jessica, too. The red-haired girl.”
“Jen,” I said. “She’s the one that’s organised it.”
“Jennifer. Are you sure? Are they the ones then, the ones you’re seeing?”
“It depends who shows up.”
“Who else was there?” Mum stared at her fingers like they might hold the answer. “Who was the other tall boy?”
“Will,” I said.
“Will. I see his mum around. She still lives in the area.”
Mum started to cough again. I returned my hand to her shoulder. Voice soft, I said, “Mum, is it… bad?” When she didn’t answer, I asked, “How long do we have left?”
“Adeline, don’t be so morbid. You’ve always been so morbid.”
“I’m not being morbid. I probably need to know.”
“Shush. Well, yes, it is. But five years, they think, or maybe ten. Could be more. The doctor said I might die of something else before then.” She said this with a bit too much enthusiasm.
“You sound disappointed.”
“I’m not. I just… I was bracing myself for a last goodbye, you know?”
“No, you’re not rid of me yet.”
I frowned. “So you’re indefinitely dying.”
“Yes, if you want.”
“Sort of like before, then.” And sort of like the rest of humanity.
“Are you going to say sorry properly before you go, Adeline?”
“It was good seeing you, Mum,” I said. “I’m around for a few days if you need me.”
What sounded like a slightly hammy cough followed me out of the bedroom and into the hallway.
Leaning on the banister halfway up the stairs was Dad. He held a bottle of pills.
“Just having a bit of rest,” he said, and gave me a smile that hurt to look at.
I drove east out of Blythe, over the bridge with secret tunnels that in the height of summer you could crawl through if the river was low enough. It was only five miles to the Travel Inn in the next village, Balsall Common. Those five miles might as well have been an endless desert when we were kids.
In my room, I treated myself to a red wine from the mini-bar, then another. I’d held it together tonight, and had made the right call seeing Mum.
Typical of her to contract a terminal illness that didn’t kill you, though: maximum sympathy, minimum cost. Dad was seventy-five this year, and the chances were he’d be waiting on her into his nineties. He wouldn’t let Mum want for anything, even if it meant killing himself.
I tipped the final mouthful of wine down the sink, barely recognising the owner of such dark thoughts. Was I wishing Mum dead? This was what happened when you came home. You thought you’d built an adult identity for yourself, but two seconds after walking through the door you were a child again.
Had I been this hateful as a kid? Probably, and, being fair, with some cause. I could almost taste the bitterness. I licked my lips. Perhaps it was just the hotel Merlot.
From my bag I pulled out my tablet and lay with it on the bed, hoping to find a film to distract me. I opened my email account. Other than direct text messaging apps it was the only online communication tool I liked to use these days, the increase in misogynist abuse on social media having risen along with the podcast’s popularity. A new email from a dating site starting, “Hey babe,” greeted me. I deleted it.
I still needed to reply to Xan, so went to find my phone. He’d been standing behind me when I opened Jen’s email last year suggesting a reunion the following Christmas. When he asked who Jen was and I told him about my old friends, and about my first real boyfriend, Steve, Xan was intrigued. Then he saw Steve’s picture on social media.
“Have a type much?”
It had occurred to me before that there were some physical similarities between Steve and my ex, Rich: long face, dark hair, built for an overcoat. But the additional confirmation of Xan’s comment bothered me. In other ways besides looks Rich had reminded me of Steve. His slightly laboured cool had the evocative power of a strong smell or a song, drawing me in despite now being old enough to know better.
The clock on the bedside table read 10.30 p.m. Perhaps I’d get an early night, make the most of the day tomorrow. The reunion wasn’t until seven. I was actually looking forward to it now. Before it had been daunting, the likelihood being we’d have nothing in common any more. But after my drive through the villages earlier I couldn’t care less: they’d been my saviours once.
We’d all kept in touch from a distance over the years, but I’d ignored one or two invites to actually meet up. Until the podcast I’d never done anything I’d been proud enough to want to show the people who used to know me. It would be exciting seeing them all again. Who were they now? What did they do?
Before I’d left social media, I’d looked at Steve’s Facebook profile. The photographs were all sunsets and fields, none featured him. Did he have a partner? Was he married? Rupesh was, I’d seen pictures of both his secular and his traditional wedding ceremonies. He’d never been that religious so maybe he had gone through the motions to appease extended family. Or had his opinions, and his hard-headedness, softened over the years? I hoped not. I’d always liked that about him. Jen was a keen over-sharer on Facebook. I’d seen all her holiday photos and teaching updates, not to mention the dubiously attributed inspirational quotes about creativity that inevitably followed her failed auditions. Her dream had been to act back when we first knew her, and I admired her persistence despite only having managed to score a few bit parts on British TV dramas I’d never heard of. Part of me hoped she would still be trying, and another part, the part that had blocked her posts from appearing on my timeline, wanted her to have found another pursuit that wasn’t so demoralising.
I messaged Xan, then lay on the bed with my eyes closed listening to the hum of the fridge.
I’d once looked up Will but nothing about his adult life stuck in my mind. When I tried again recently I found nothing at all. He was a mystery to me. I hoped his life had worked out well, but my memories of him weren’t overly positive. To say he’d been awkward and strange was kind. Although, God, he had made us all laugh sometimes.
Some kids around Adeline’s age are out in the field behind the back garden. She sees them from the hall window, an Asian boy in a white shirt and a girl with red hair in two plaits. Every so often they cup their hands around their mouths to yell something that drifts over to the house. Oh Bee, Oh Bee, Oh Bee Wanker, Oh Bee. They’re keen; Adeline is still in her dressing gown.
The two kids in the field hang around the village a lot. They’re usually with another one, a boy with strawberry-blond hair who is as tall as an adult and sometimes wears a beanie. The week before, not long into the summer holidays and the Saturday they first moved to Blythe, she’d run into the girl and the blond-haired boy when exploring the surrounding fields. They’d been squashing coins on a train track a few miles from Elm Close, a proper fucking Hovis advert. They’d asked how old she was and when she said fifteen they said she looked seventeen. Adeline assumed they were taking the piss—she had lied: she wouldn’t be fifteen until the end of the August—so she’d been snarly with them, told them they’d derail the train.
She should’ve tried harder. Already too much of this holiday has been spent in her room while the summer burned like touch-paper outside. Maybe in her big black boots, with her fishnets and eyeliner, she does look older. Especially out here in the countryside.
Oh Bee, Wanker, Oh Bee.
She dresses: Green Day T-shirt, short black skirt and tights. She grabs her Discman, puts in her earphones and locks up the house. Green Day fizzes in her ears, too: Insomniac, the sound of shopping in the Birmingham city centre with Alexa in Cult Clothing and The Oasis, of drinking alcopops down by the canal at Brindley Place. The album was a present from Alexa. Adeline misses Alexa, and her old house, and her old school. She knows she doesn’t belong in the countryside. She’d been right all along when she screamed and shouted at her parents when they broke the news that they were moving.
Outside, she turns left from her drive, towards the end of the cul-de-sac. The neighbour’s dog startles her by jumping up at the fence and barking with machine-gun-like insistence. She steps back, forced to place one foot into the road. At the last second she raises her head; a silver van jerks to a stop with only half a metre to spare. She holds up an apologetic hand, and the driver, a scowling man with a moustache, shakes his head before indicating to turn into the very house where the dog lives.
Her mouth drops open. Why is he shaking his head? It was his dog, his fault she had to step into the road in the first place. The dog runs over to the van but it’s tied to a pole in the centre of the front lawn and is yanked back. It turns to snap at the lead with its ugly little head. It’s the kind of dog with “bull” in the name, the sort that probably attacks small children. The lead is only two metres long—probably the reason it’s so aggressive. Before the man gets out of his van, Adeline sticks up her middle finger and extends her arm, then stomps on, hoping he didn’t see but pleased she’d done it. Cruel bastard.
Not much further along is the entrance to an alley between two houses; a yellow arrow on a fencepost marks the public footpath. The alley smells like hell: dog faeces and compost from one of the nearby gardens. Once through she is in the field with the kids, and her nose fills with the aroma of manure. As shit goes, it’s an improvement. She follows the footpath until the girl with the plaits notices her and waves. She approaches Adeline, and so Adeline takes out her earphones.
“Have you seen a dog?” plaits girl asks. She is in dungarees, and with her hair she’s a perfect match for the surroundings. She’s wearing a lot of foundation for a farm girl, though. So conventional. Probably a typical airhead, the sort that shops at chain stores like Mizzle and pretends to like music to impress boys. It might just be bad skin, though; she’ll give her a chance.
“I just got attacked by one tied up in a garden,” Adeline says.
“Not that one,” plaits girl says, wrinkling her nose.
“Have you lost one, then?” Adeline says.
“Our friend Steve has. We’ve been looking all afternoon.”
The Asian kid wanders over and smiles at her, says hi. As well as his smart shirt, she notices the boy’s black hair is neatly combed into a side parting. “None of us even like it that much. I’m always saying he shouldn’t let it off his lead.”
“What make is it?” Adeline says.
Plaits girl laughs at this. “What make? I don’t know, it’s this high and shaggy and a bit grey.” She holds her palm flat just above her waist. “It’s a real mutant, to be fair. It walks funny because it has something wrong with its back, you’d know it if you saw it.”
“It bites you when you stroke it,” the Asian kid says and frowns. “It’s really old.”
“But you know, fuck it,” plaits girl says, “Steve loves it, and we have something to do today.”
It’s the “fuck” popping out from that innocent-looking face that makes Adeline like this girl immediately. “I can help look if you want,” she says. “I honestly have nothing better to do.”
“Join the club,” the Asian kid says.
The dog’s name is Obi-Wan Kenobi, which Adeline doesn’t need to be told is a character from Star Wars, a film she watched once with Dad. Plaits girl’s name is Jen and the boy is Rupesh. By late afternoon, when the clouds cover the sun and the breeze turns cold, they have exhausted the two fields behind Adeline’s house, and the fields beyond that which belong to a pick-your-own fruit farm.
In a field of what she reckons is corn directly behind Elm Close they run into the blond-haired kid, Will. His pale skin is sunburned; his belt is decorated with badges bearing the names of mostly U.S. grunge bands. Nirvana is the only one that she’s actually heard of, their smiley-face logo with the crossed-out eyes grinning from between Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. He appears to accept Adeline’s presence without question, almost not noticing her at all. Adeline has grown used to attention from boys over the last year, particularly the way in which they now look at her. She mostly enjoys it, even if it makes her want to check herself in a mirror to make sure she doesn’t have a toothpaste stain on her lips or crusty sleep in the corners of her eyes. Will’s reaction is refreshing, and a bit annoying.
“Anything?” Jen says to Will. There’s concern in her voice that wasn’t there earlier. He shakes his head.
“It’ll be fine,” Rupesh says, then looks at Adeline. “He’s escaped before.”
The fruitless search for Obi soon becomes a search for Steve, too. They head further away from the cul-de-sac, deeper into the fields, before coming out near a weird lake not far from the train tracks where she first met them. This is where Will last saw Steve.
- "An original and gripping thriller combined with an evocative coming of age story that will be achingly familiar."—Laura Marshall, author of Friend Request
- "A compelling, unpredictable thriller that conveys the changing nature of long-lasting friendships beautifully. How well do we know even our closest of friends? Highly recommended."—Elisabeth Carpenter, author of 99 Red Balloons
- "A gripping, compelling read with a brilliant premise and a wonderfully twisting storyline. An incredible debut."—T. M. Logan, author of Lies
- "A thrilling read and an exceptional debut novel."—Rachel Edwards, author of Darling
- "Compelling, creepy, and brilliantly executed . . . an original new voice in the thriller world."—Phoebe Morgan, author of The Doll House
- "A twisty, clever exploration of claustrophobic childhood friendships and the darkness they can lead to."—Dervla McTiernan, author of The Ruin
- "Arresting . . . . offers sharp insights into group dynamics and peer manipulation. Masters is a writer to watch."—Publishers Weekly
- On Sale
- Aug 28, 2018
- Page Count
- 432 pages