Welcome to the fifth and final part of my mini-series, touting my love for writing prologues!
Today’s extract is quite a long one, as the prologue itself is split between the viewpoints of two main characters, from opposing backgrounds and with vastly different character traits. Prologues can, most definitely, be used to emphasise what the characters are like. I don’t think it’s easy (or necessarily helpful to the book) to use a prologue only for this purpose because the whole book itself, chapter by chapter, should be doing this anyway. But what the prologue can do is show how a character behaves and set up the reader’s expectation for the ways they might react when problems begin to be thrown at them – or, in my book’s case, probably murder…
The extract I have for you today is from Beneath the Flesh. This is, at the time of writing, the book I offer exclusively as a FREE gift to readers who sign up for my Readers’ Club emails. As you’ve probably gathered, the prologue gives the reader a massive insight into the main characters of the book. It also sets up an incident (often called the inciting incident) which directly leads to everything that happens in the main story. Without it, the rest of the action, suspicions and skulduggery would have nothing to hang on. Look at this prologue at a very wordy coat hanger, if you want!
There you have it – the final part of my mini-series showing you how much I love prologues and how I use them. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the extracts. If you want to read more of my work, you’ll find details of all my books on this website and also on many e-book stores.
Please note that, as my extracts are crime-related books or dark fiction of some kind, they are suitable for an adult readership. Please read responsibly.
P.S. The one obvious profanity is replaced with **** for the purposes of this extract.
Beneath the Flesh
TWO MONTHS AGO
The voices were muffled, hidden almost entirely away behind the thick wooden door. Except for that gap where the light seeped onto the landing.
Ella got closer, placing one foot at a time gingerly on the thin strip of well-vacuumed carpet that ran all the way down the centre of the floor. With immense care, she balanced herself against the door frame. That floorboard directly outside the bedroom doorway would be heartless in betraying her presence. Mr Cavannagh had told her he was convinced that his wife had loosened it on purpose, as her own personal warning system. Or just as a convenient excuse to be able to inflict punishment. She imagined the one-sided conversation: Well, Ella. Listening at doors. Sneaking about. That doesn’t happen at Sunny Cottage. And we know what happens if you do something that’s against my rules, don’t we? Ella agreed with Mr Cavannagh; she wished that he dared fix it.
She shook away the imagined voice and concentrated.
There was a crack of about an inch where the door hadn’t closed. Ella’s fingers gripped the dark green paintwork on the door frame. There was nothing to see, except Mr Cavannagh’s window and a wardrobe. She angled her ear to the gap. What was the argument about this time?
The male voice was subdued, struggling to give itself any proper air of authority.
‘It’s not right. Any of this. I’m tired, Miriam. I’m sick of the way I’m forced to do everything you say. Of being controlled. It’s not right.’
‘And just what exactly isn’t right?’
Ella recognised the drop in tone of her landlady’s voice. Her stomach felt like someone had begun to grind it with a cheese grater. Something was brewing, and there were going to be consequences. There always were.
Her finger ends were freezing. It was the lack of fires, and the way the cold shot through the crack in the corner of the window. Bits of snow were whipping through and landing on her back. She tried not to let the shivering that reverberated through her nightie make her arms quiver so much that her hand slipped off the frame. If it happened, then her fingers would squeak down the polished paintwork. Someone – she, Miriam – would come and investigate the sound. Then it would be worse. Everything would be worse.
The voices carried on, Mr Cavannagh trying to fend off his wife’s nasty, cruel sniping, but with little success. She wished Miriam would stop. That she would just go away. Vanish. Poor Mr Cavannagh. Ella still struggled to call him Jim, even though he’d told her to from that very first day. He’d always been lovely to her. He was a kind, gentle man. He didn’t deserve the evil that was spewing at him inside that bedroom. Her body grew hotter as the sadness and anger inside her whirred with nowhere to go.
Her thoughts were cut off as she caught more words from the other side of the door.
‘Sick of being beholden to your meal times. Bedtimes. Sick of being treated like an idiot who’s incapable of doing anything without you laying into me about it or making me out to be an imbecile in front of the lodgers.’
‘Lodger. There’s only one. And we know how much you like her, don’t we, husband of mine?’
There was a pause. The wind sighed through the crack and brought more snow in with it. The flakes landed, falling as flat as Mr Cavannagh’s words.
‘You can’t treat the girl the way you do, Miriam. It’s not right.’
Prickles rose, creeping through Ella’s back and wrapping around her neck like a too-tight scarf as a thud shook the floorboards. A chair being knocked over? Ella wasn’t sure. The female voice lost its low tone and now shifted into a serpentine hiss.
‘I can do whatever I like. This is my house and don’t you forget that. You live here because I let you.’
‘And I thought it was because you loved me.’
There was a laugh, a deadened, defeating stamp on the words that should have meant something but no longer did. Maybe they never had.
Ella clung harder to the door frame, palms sweating. She fought with herself to stand still, but the polish was making it difficult. She had to shift her feet. They were slipping on the carpet, that loose floorboard now threatening to betray her existence right outside the room. She breathed in; she wasn’t sure if she breathed out.
Her hands were fighting a losing battle with the sweat- polish combination. She clung to the green paint. A lump formed in her throat as one slimy palm began to slip down the paintwork and she had to reposition herself. Her heart was banging so hard in her ribs she expected it to snap her bones.
She pressed her fingertips against the frame so hard that they grew translucent. Goosebumps spiked in a line, up Ella’s calves and mirrored in her forearms, leaving her fingers tingling. If Miriam caught her out here now…
Her concentration slipped. So did her left hand. A wave of sickness crashed into her throat as she snatched her hand back. Too late, though. The door moved. A boulder of complete terror lodged in Ella’s throat. She waited for the wood to swing on its hinges and bang against the bedroom wall. Then Miriam would fly to the door and… she didn’t want to imagine what happened next. Ella shut her eyes, praying to anything that was listening for nothing to happen.
Weirdly, it didn’t. Ella squinted one eye open, then the other, to find the door open maybe another couple of inches further. No more than that, certainly. But she could see half of the room now.
Miriam was standing with her back towards the door. If Ella had thought she could get away with breathing a sigh of relief, she would have. But she still wasn’t sure she was breathing at all. Mr Cavannagh was nowhere she could see, except for half a bare foot, which was shunting up and down at a violent speed. She’d seen that motion many times before, but usually it was wearing a shoe or a slipper, as it fought off the spiteful sniping of his wife. Where were his slippers? Maybe Mad Miriam had confiscated them.
Ella dithered, toyed with the idea of moving. Leaving the door. Creeping back to bed and not coming out of her room any more that night, or any other night. But something stopped her doing it. It always did. Some tiny, inner rebel that had been buried for years. It came out when she knew she didn’t have to face a conscious Miriam, usually, only a zombified one. She cursed inwardly that this tiny rebel creature that lived inside her refused to take her to safety while Miriam was on the rampage the other side of the door, and instead left her rooted to the spot.
Mr Cavannagh’s voice came from somewhere behind the door, as the bed creaked, and the foot moved out of sight.
Ella winced as he was interrupted by the biting words of his wife.
‘Can’t what, you sad little man?’
‘I can’t let you treat the girl like you do. You know she’s got nowhere else to go.’
Ella’s eyes stung. Miriam didn’t let up.
‘Then she should work harder in the shop, shouldn’t she? Like you do, darling husband.’
‘I’m going to help her find somewhere. A place she can afford. Away from you. There must be somewhere.’
Ella’s chest banged. Mr Cavannagh’s intentions were well meant, but his attempt would come to nothing. She knew that. She buried the knowledge that, if it did, she would be leaving him behind to the tirade of verbal abuse that began again now.
‘And what are you going to do? Declare your repulsive, endless love for her and tell her you’ll look after her until your dying day? Well, that’s coming sooner than you’d like to think, you lecherous old man. Are you going to hole her up in some filthy little flat and tell her that bad Miriam won’t hurt her anymore? You’re pathetic. Pathetic and incapable – in every way.’
If Ella had the courage, she’d have confronted that woman, grabbed her by her hair and smashed her face into the wall.
‘She’s just a kid. Leave her alone.’
Ella detected elements of defiance in Mr Cavannagh’s tone. Anger, even. But not enough. Her heart sank, as if in quicksand. There was never enough. Poor Mr Cavannagh.
‘She’s not a child. She’s twenty-three. Seven years of being here and you know she’s no child, don’t you?’ Insinuation dripped from Miriam’s words. Ella fumed inside. What she was suggesting wasn’t even close to being true. Miriam continued, jibing at her husband. ‘You know. She’s old enough to rent my room with her wages, except she doesn’t, does she? She lives here rent-free because of you. And to expect me to cook her evening meal. And so she can expect to abide by my rules, like other tenants before her.’
‘And look what happened to them. What you did to them.’ There was an audible sigh. ‘You take all her wages off her anyway. What’s she supposed to pay with? Fresh air? It’s bad enough that you’ve stuck her in that bloody shop of yours. Seven years. Ella, you poor kid.’
The floorboards inside the room creaked. Ella’s legs stiffened. They were like ice inside, sweat breaking out on her skin and feeling like it was turning to ice, too. She fought an almost uncontrollable shiver.
Miriam’s voice sank low again. Her words drawled. Ella could picture Mr Cavannagh’s face, red and blotchy, waiting for the backlash. It came.
‘And now, before I go and make my cocoa and take it to my bed, I think you need reminding that you’ve been ungrateful, and that you’ve broken the house rules. Bed by ten applies to everyone. It’s half past. If you think I wouldn’t find this…’
There was a jingle. It sounded like a key. Couldn’t the poor man even smoke his pipe outside at night? Ella had seen him from the window. He’d looked up and smiled at her, then put one vertical finger to his lips as he’d wrapped one arm around the coat which covered his pyjamas. She would never have said anything. They had an understanding. And the snow would cover his footprints in seconds.
But nothing covered the fear in his voice.
‘I’m not going to let you. No, Miriam…’
There was a silence. Ella froze to the spot, her fingers gripping the door frame so hard that the tips were completely numb. She couldn’t see either of them now, and bile stung her throat.
‘I’m going to… There are people I can tell, you know. Or I could just… leave…’ Mr Cavannagh’s voice tailed away.
Ella flinched at the sound that followed. Like the noise she imagined might emanate from a squealing pig if you stuffed it in a duvet.
Silence flooded the air, hanging there, waiting. The wind snaked cold around her shoulders and snow flicked in and disappeared into the carpet.
Then, finally, there was just one word, uttered by the lady of the house.
Ella tried not to gulp air or gag on her own spit as she inched her feet backwards. As soon as she was on firm, silent carpet, she shot back along the landing. Her hands shook as she closed her bedroom door. This once, she was thankful for Miriam’s obsession with oiling hinges and polishing door catches.
Ella didn’t move. Not at all. She wasn’t sure how many minutes passed before the bedroom door opened, just enough to leave a silhouetted figure standing, hand on hip, fingers flexing on the door handle. Ella knew that was what she would see if she was stupid enough to open her eyes.
She kept them closed.
A grunt fell from Miriam’s half-open mouth as consciousness began to infiltrate her. Her brain grew less fuzzy until she recognised there was silence, apart from the slow, constant dripping of a tap. It took a split second for that to irritate her.
She listened for the ringing. But there was none. That wasn’t right. That meant she wasn’t in control of the time she woke up and something else had done it when she hadn’t wanted it to. Her irritation bubbled away as she laid there. Why hadn’t the alarm clock done its job? It should have woken her at the exact time she set. What was the point in relying on anything to do a job properly?
Her feet hurt: two painful, freezing blocks on the end of her ankles. So cold she might have been outside in the ice house. Or what had once been the ice house. Dilapidated mess that Jim should have fixed but hadn’t. The bubbling annoyance switched to anger, forcing her to open her eyes.
No, she was sure she was inside. She was in bed because it wasn’t time to get up yet. Her side hurt. It was cold, too, and there was a dull pain throbbing through her ribs. Her tongue stuck to the back of her mouth as she tried to swallow and pull herself upright but failed. It wasn’t the bed that was underneath her. She felt around. Whatever was there was hard, solid. And her hand touched on something else, too. Thin, long. She flinched as it clattered towards her head and narrowly missed her.
She blinked a few times. Why was it so dark? And why was she so cold, and in pain? She grasped onto all her senses as realisation hit her with its mallet in her chest. It had happened again, hadn’t it?
In the bit of insipid, shadowy light that reflected off the snow outside, she recognised that the object which had nearly smacked her on the head was the handle of the mop. What the hell…?
Apart from that bit of snow-induced glimmer, there was still dark outside, as she finally let it dawn on her that the room that she was in was the kitchen. Or, more accurately, that she was spreadeagled on the step which dropped down from the kitchen into the old wash house. No wonder she was freezing. The floor was made of the original Georgian encaustic stone tiles.
Something was digging into her side; that was what was causing the pain. The edge of the step, presumably. Her palm jabbed around beneath her and touched something. It was cold, but not as much as the floor. And it had a rounded edge. Her hand grasped it and she pulled it out from under her.
She forced her body upright and flicked on a light. She stared at her hand, gripping the handle of the object tightly in her palm. Pointing away from her, about eight inches long, was a thick blade. It was caked in blood. Her head struggled to comprehend what her eyes were seeing. The blood had dried on the metal and caught the dim artificial light as brown streaks and globules made of purple rust.
Her eyes cast down at herself. At the blood. Was she bleeding? It was smeared all over one side of the pure white cotton. She lifted her nightie and ascertained that she wasn’t. Only – that pain in her side really hurt.
Her head began to spin. She let the knife clatter to the floor as she caught her reflection in the window, against the blackness outside. That, and the incessant mesh of snow that was falling. There was so much snow out there you could get lost in it and no one would know you were there. The weather forecaster had said that it was going to go on for weeks yet. In the window, it looked like it was trying to erase her, bombarding her with an endless stream of white, mocking the blood stain that had leeched into her nightie.
She snapped her gaze away and shuddered. The motion of it was making her feel quite sick. The light off would be better. She stood there, on the icy stone floor, in the dark once more. Her bones were aching from her feet upwards, but it made her brain refocus. She had to think: if she was here now, she must have been somewhere else before she ended up in the kitchen.
She rummaged in her memories, trying to find what she could of the previous night. That little cow had scuttled off to bed at the mention of half rations for breakfast if she even contemplated helping herself to any of the leftovers. Greedy little swine. Then there had been the row with Jim. Useless specimen. At least she didn’t have to justify him as a disappointment to the generations of her family who were buried in the graveyard. Why did he have to be so pathetic?
That word – ‘pathetic’ – triggered something. She’d hit Jim with – oh, who knows what it was this time? He was talking like he was going to leave. Leave, and take that sad, pretty, young little…
Her tongue didn’t seem to want to allow her to swallow. As silently as she always did when she was awake, she crept up the stairs and towards Jim’s bedroom. She paused by the door of that sneaky little creature. No movement from her. That was good.
Jim’s door was already ajar. She held in a sigh of relief. He must be dressed, then. That was something, at least. Anything was better than having to look at that revolting black toe nail on his right foot. She kept waiting for the big toe to drop off. If it did, it wouldn’t make him any more useless around the place than he already was.
Without bothering to knock, she walked in. The room was empty. His bed was empty. A snapshot pummelled her brain, all of it taking no more than a second – her arm swinging, Jim making some stupid sound. Then she’d left. She’d definitely left the room. And that little cow was asleep, she’d doubly checked that. And then she’d woken on the step between the kitchen and the wash house. Instinctively, she rubbed the spot where the pain was slicing into her.
So why was there blood all over Jim’s bed sheets?
She ripped them off. It had soaked through into the mattress. She just stared at the dirty patch that was turning brown and had seeped into the fibres of the fabric. A waxy sweat broke out of every pore on her body and she smelled strange. If she didn’t know better, she’d have thought she was going to be sick. But she was never sick. She never lost control of herself like that.
Miriam grabbed and tugged at the mattress, grunting as she twisted it up onto its side, then let it fall back into place on its reverse side. That was better. The mess was invisible now. Gone.
She swallowed hard. Picked up the bundle of sheets. Took them into her own room. Without a sound, without even a thought going through her head, she went through the motions of undressing, putting on day clothes, picking up the sheets once more, and silently padding on the carpet where she knew the floorboards didn’t creak, returning to the kitchen.
She put down the pile of bedding very carefully, right next to where the knife lay. She stood there, looking at it – she wasn’t sure how long for. A spurt of instinctive energy in her arm made it grab the knife and thrust it in among the pile of sheets. She took a few quick steps back and heaved a harsh sigh. That was better. She couldn’t see it anymore. If she just looked out the window, towards the snow, everything would be fine.
But the snow made her feel dizzy. She held her jaw firm and boiled the kettle. Made a coffee. Just as she was about to pick up the cup, her peripheral vision caught sight of the sheets, leaving her skin pricking all over. She rearranged the bedding, so all she could see were the parts that still looked like pure white cotton. She nodded and gave a little grunt as she considered it, aesthetically. Then she grabbed the bottle of Jim’s whiskey out of cupboard, sneered at it, and poured away half her coffee. When she next tasted her drink, there was more alcohol than caffeine. She shuddered as it hit the back of her mouth.
Miriam tried to hold her coffee without shaking the contents over the draining board. She argued with her conscience, sometimes silently, sometimes aloud, the gist of it being that it should get a grip on itself. It seemed to work, although every so often her entire body shook. She clutched the cup and swigged back the liquid.
What the hell was that? Miriam spun round, the remaining contents of the cup spattering itself in an arc across her clean clothes.
‘**** hell.’ She glared at the pathetic creature who stood there in the doorway. Her chest hammered and her heart rate began on some kind of horrific ‘fast forward’ race to leave her breathless. She knew she had to recover herself. Behave normally. It should have been easy. For Miriam, this had always been easy before. Why the hell couldn’t she calm herself fast enough for the girl to be too dense to notice?
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…’ The stupid creature was stuttering an apology now. It was sickening. Miriam glowered at her, hatred jabbing behind her eyes.
‘What are you doing up so early? Did you think you’d help yourself to extra food before I got down here, is that it? I told you yesterday…’
The sneaky little cat was withering. Simpering. It might work on Jim but it didn’t work on her.
‘No, not at all. I’m sorry. I just… I don’t know. I thought I heard a noise. I thought you were talking to…’
Miriam told her feet to move. She managed to drag them to a spot in front of the pile of sheets where that knife was balancing in the middle. She wanted to look round and check that the blood wasn’t seeping through her pristine cotton and displaying itself to the girl, but she needed to stay focused. Take control. The pain in her side hurt. She resisted holding onto it as she planted her solid five feet, three inches in front the girl.
The little cow was standing there. Just standing there. Why was she watching? Did the sneaky little creature stay awake and watch her walking around in the dead of night without any knowledge that she was doing it, or where she went? Or what she did? Could the girl tell her?
No, that was stupid, and Miriam was anything but that. She came from a family of intelligence, dignity. She must make sure that there was nothing to tell. That there was no way of telling anything. Is that what she’d done upstairs? She couldn’t remember. She didn’t remember getting the knife. She’d left Jim and gone to her own bed. Then she’d fallen asleep. And then… what? Why did this keep happening?
‘It’s not half past seven yet. If you continue to come downstairs before breakfast time, before I’m ready to serve, I might be forced to put a lock on your door at night. And take your light bulb away. How would it feel, being locked in, in the dark, and only I have the key to release you?’
That got rid of the girl. In her twenties and incapable of many things. She couldn’t stand up for herself. She did whatever she was told to avoid punishment.
Miriam shot a quick glance at the bedding. She grabbed the knife and thrust it into the sink. As she ran the tap, the thick, crusted dirty red began to fall away under the warm water, in clumps at first, then in an insipid pink stream, until only metal shone back at her. Now what?
The kitchen was old. Parts of it had stopped working over the years, much to her disgust, especially as there was no spare money to mend it. But for once she was thankful, as she opened the drawer which housed the cutlery. If she slid the knife through from this drawer to the next, it would drop – there, like that. Into the disused drawer. Miriam pulled at the handle. It was stuck. It had been stuck for well over a decade.
She couldn’t see the knife. No one could see it. It was gone. It didn’t exist. Now all she had to do was get something on those stains before she put the sheets in a boil wash. Then everything would be fine.
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