In Dead Woman Walking, from master of suspense Sharon Bolton, the sole survivor of a hot-air balloon crash witnesses a murder as the balloon is falling (available August 29, 2017).
Just before dawn in the hills near the Scottish border, a man murders a young woman. At the same time, a hot-air balloon crashes out of the sky. There’s just one survivor. She’s seen the killer’s face – but he’s also seen hers. And he won’t rest until he’s eliminated the only witness to his crime. Alone, scared, trusting no one, she’s running to where she feels safe – but it could be the most dangerous place of all…
‘This woman – Jessica Lane – should have died. Eleven people were killed in that crash. Not only did Lane survive, she walked away. She’s still walking.
‘So, I want to know where she’s going. I want to know why she hasn’t been in touch. Why she isn’t seeking help. Why she’s deliberately avoiding the police.
‘I want to know who she’s running from.
‘Most of all, I want her found.’
Wednesday, 20 September
The balloon hung in the air like an inverted Christmas bauble, its voluptuous, candy-striped sphere reflected perfectly in the lake. In the early light, the water glowed with the colours of a ripe peach, pale gold towards its edges, a deeper, richer pink at its heart. There was no wind. No sound. The trees along the shoreline had ceased their pre-dawn rustling and none of the balloon’s thirteen passengers was either moving or speaking. The world seemed to be holding its breath.
Below, as far as the passengers could see in every direction, lay the heather-swept moorland of the Northumberland National Park. Acres of grasses rippled like the pelt of a huge waking animal, streams shimmered like silver snakes and the burning sunrise set the hilltops on fire. The landscape was vast, wild, unchanged in hundreds of years, as though the balloon had become a time machine, floating them back to when the far north of England was home to even fewer people than it is now. They could see no roads, no train lines, no towns or villages.
But for the thirteen of them, the world seemed empty.
The basket was large and rectangular, as is common with pleasure flights, and subdivided into four sections to restrict on-board movement of the passengers. The pilot had his own space in the centre of the rectangle. In one of the compartments were two women in their mid to late thirties. One wearing black, the other green, the two were not quite alike enough to be twins, but obviously sisters. The one in black breathed out a soft bubble of sound, too audible to be a sigh, too happy to be a moan.
‘You’re welcome.’ The sister in green smiled.
The sisters were sharing their compartment with an accountant from Dunstable. His wife and two teenage children were in the one adjacent. On the other side of the pilot were three men on a hiking holiday, dressed like traffic lights in red, orange and green anoraks, a middle-aged couple from Scotland and a retired journalist.
The basket continued its slow, lazy spiral as they drifted above the lake. The constant movement had been one of the biggest surprises of the experience, as had the feel of the air at altitude. It was sharper, somehow, and fresher than it ever felt on the ground. Cool, but not uncomfortably so in the way that frosty mornings are. This air tingled against the skin, fizzed its way down to the lungs.
The woman in green, Jessica, edged closer to her sister, whose face had grown pale and whose hands were clutching the rim of the basket. Her eyes, staring directly down at the water’s surface, were wide with wonder. Jessica was suddenly disturbed by the most alarming thought. That her sister might be about to jump out.
A short while later, she was to think it might have been better if both of them had jumped, that one or two petrifying seconds and a painful encounter with the water’s surface wouldn’t have been so bad. The cool, choking blackness might have finished them off, but equally might have buoyed them up and carried them to shore. Had they leapt at that point they might both have lived.
‘Isn’t it fabulous?’ she said, because she’d learned a long time ago that distraction could sometimes halt a reckless course of action on her sister’s part. ‘Are you enjoying it? I can’t believe we never did this before.’
Isabel smiled but said nothing, because a reply would have been point-less. She was clearly besotted with the whole experience.
‘It’s gorgeous, isn’t it? Look at those colours.’
Still no reply, but Jessica had the satisfaction of seeing her sister lift her head and beam at the trees growing right to the edge of the water. They were like ladies at a ball, jostling for space, their floating gowns trailing down, twisting together, until it was impossible to tell where one ended and another began. Beyond the trees the hills, glowing like precious metals, went on for ever.
‘We’re now above the Harcourt Estate.’ From take-off the pilot had been the only one to speak above a whisper. ‘The original house was built on the rise directly ahead, but destroyed by fire in the late nineteenth century.’
‘Do we need a bit more height?’ The retired journalist with the thinning hair and thickening waistline was frowning at the rapidly approaching trees.
‘Don’t worry, folks, I’ve done this before.’ The six-foot, red-haired Geordie pilot tickled the air above the burner with a short burst of flame and those closest to him felt the oven-blast of hot air on their heads. ‘I like to stay low at this point because these woods are one of the best places in Northumberland to see red squirrels. Also, whilst it’s a bit late in the year, ospreys.’
There was a sudden flurry of camera activity, and a pressing towards the side of the basket closest to the woods. Neither of the sisters had brought a camera, so they were the first to see the ruined upper sections of the house come into view, rising from the tree canopy like badly stained teeth. The sister in black shuddered.
‘The sixteenth-century house was built here for defensive purposes,’ said the pilot as the balloon rose a little to skirt the treetops. ‘Back then, you’d get an uninterrupted view of nearly fifty miles of countryside. Fifteen minutes from landing, folks.’
‘Is that one? Top of the wide tree with yellow leaves? Greyish-brown feathers.’ One of the hikers was pointing back towards the treetops and the focus of attention shifted away from the house.
‘Could be.’ The pilot raised his binoculars, turning his back on the direction of travel.
‘There’s someone down there.’
‘Where? In the woods?’ Jessica followed her sister’s gaze, but her own eyesight had never been as good. Isabel’s hearing was better too, and she had always been the first to pick up scents, to detect the strange flavours in food. As though she were the sharper, clearer-forged of the two.
‘Behind the house.’
Jessica stood on tiptoe. Over her sister’s shoulder she could see the great gaping holes in the roof, the collapsing walls.
‘A girl. Running.’
Low enough to make out tiny pillows of moss and broken roof slates, the balloon passed over the house. The pilot, distracted by his attempt to spot an osprey, had allowed them to fall lower still.
A darting figure – a young woman, slim and dark-haired, wearing blue clothes that had an eastern look about them – had reached the far wall of the garden.
‘What’s she doing?’
Behind them, others were trying to photograph the osprey and the journalist was advising on how best to capture wildlife. Only the two sisters were watching the girl on the ground. Jessica glanced round, unsure whether to alert the others or not. Reaching into the pocket of her jacket she found her phone.
Down in the garden, from around a line of bushes, a man came walking slowly, but purposefully. From above, the two sisters could only make out his build, short but stocky. He wore an oversized leather jacket and a dark trilby. White shirt. His dark hair curled down below the rim of the hat.
Trotting along by his side was a large German shepherd.
‘Oh!’ Jessica pressed even closer to her sister. ‘Bella, hold still, let me just—’
At the sight of the man, the girl cowered down, her hands clasped tight above her head.
‘What?’ said Isabel.
‘I don’t believe it! It is him.’
‘Who? Jess, do you know that man?’
‘Sean!’ Jessica reached back, touched the pilot’s arm. ‘You need to see this.’
‘What is it?’ He turned their way, so did the accountant.
‘He’s got a gun.’ The accountant’s teenage son had spotted the pair on the ground, was pointing to what appeared to be a rifle or shotgun in the man’s left hand. In his right, he had a large stone.
‘Oh my God, he has,’ said the teenager’s mother. ‘What do we do?’
They were still talking in shrill whispers.
Others in the basket had lost interest in the osprey and more heads were turning their way. The girl on the ground looked up, saw the balloon, and began to scream. The man, who hadn’t seen them or heard them yet, raised the stone high. The girl seemed to be trying to press herself into the ground. The man brought the stone down.
The girl didn’t scream again. The strangled cry, perfectly audible in the dawn air, came from someone in the balloon. It was the only sound they made. Shock held them tight. The man on the ground turned and looked up. His dog did the same. The dog began to bark. The passengers in the balloon saw the man drop the rock and lift a hand to his head, holding his hat in place as he craned his neck and stared upwards.
‘Oh Christ,’ said Jessica.
The air around them roared as Sean opened the valve and released the flame, but he’d told them in the briefing that up to ten seconds’ delay would follow any action on his part. It could be ten seconds before the balloon was rising properly. Isabel, probably remembering the same thing, was counting softly. ‘Ten, nine…’
Jessica brought her phone up, flicked to camera mode and took the man’s picture. He saw her do it. For a second he stared directly into her eyes.
The man on the ground passed the gun into his right hand.
‘Get down! Everyone down!’ Jessica pushed her sister below the rim of the basket and dropped down herself, reaching back to tug on the accountant’s arm. Unable to duck completely, there simply wasn’t room for all of them to kneel in the basket. She left her eyes pinned on the man below, the top of her head dangerously exposed.
His dog was running in excited circles now, barking up at the strange thing in the sky.
‘Six, five…’ counted Isabel.
Jessica thought perhaps they were rising, but slowly. People were still on their feet. ‘Get down,’ she tried again.
Another flame burst upwards, just as the man on the ground raised his gun. The sounds of terror erupted into the still dawn air. Passengers began to scream, to shout to each other, to the pilot. As the accountant reached across, pushing his family below its brim, the basket began to turn, taking the two sisters further away from the drama on the ground.
‘Four, three…’ They were definitely going up, faster now.
‘Hold tight!’ Sean burned a third time.
‘Two, one.’ In her head, Jessica counted another second, then another. Yes, they were climbing quickly now. The balloon passed beyond the walled perimeter of the garden, gaining height with every second.
‘Oh thank God! – Quick, take us up – Oh my God! Everyone, keep your heads down.’
The basket swung back and she could see the garden again. Through an archway, where a sturdy wooden door would once have hung, the man on the ground had stepped out into the open space behind the house. Jessica brought her phone up and took his picture again. A clear shot this time. Unfortunately, he had the same.
‘Heads down! Heads down!’
She had no idea who was shouting, she thought it was probably the pilot, but she couldn’t move, couldn’t duck completely below the basket rim. She continued to stare at the man who was holding the rifle, had the butt tucked against his shoulder, was steadying himself against the wall.
He was aiming at her. She was sure of it.
The shot – so loud, so clear, and so very, very close – was followed by several seconds of shocked silence. Then low mutterings and a stifled moan. The teenage girl began to sob.
The balloon was rising very fast now, the ground shrinking away. Already the two figures, one coiled like a felled snake, the other striding fast along the rise of land as though it might catch him, were becoming indistinct. In the corner of her eye, Jessica saw another head appear over the rim. She could hear movement, scrabbling against the rattan framework of the basket. The other passengers were getting to their feet. Her sister pushed and she leaned back, allowing her to rise.
‘Did that really happen?’ ‘I can’t believe that just happened!’ ‘Is everyone all right?’ ‘Helen? Poppy? Nathan? Talk to me.’
The man on the ground raised his rifle again and the basket swung as people ducked for cover. This time, the two sisters stayed where they were. They were very high now, probably as high as they’d been since the trip started, and several hundred metres away. They must be safe.
‘Is there a signal up here?’ The journalist was still below the rim of the basket. ‘We need to call the police.’
Jessica had already checked her phone. Nothing. There was little or no signal in the Northumberland National Park. It remained one of the most remote, sparsely populated, least accessible regions of the country.
Heads began appearing again. The accountant, who’d introduced himself earlier as Harry, reached out for his wife, who had one arm around each of her children. People, visibly shaken, were looking down at the rise of land, the ruined house, the autumn patchwork of woodland. The lake was still shining in the dawn light like a discarded penny. It seemed a long way away.
‘It’s OK. Everybody be calm. Nat, are you all right? It’s over. We’re too far away now. I can’t even see him any more. Jesus wept, did I really see that?’
Jessica could feel tension settling as terror gave way to relief. She checked her phone again. Down on the ground was a woman who couldn’t get away. Someone with a different network might have more luck. She opened her mouth to ask them all to check their phones—
The screaming thumped against the side of her head like a hammer blow.
As one, the passengers turned towards the sound. On the other side of the basket stood a middle-aged schoolteacher called Natalie. Her screaming continued, her hands clamped tight to her face. Her husband clutched her shoulders, trying to turn her face towards himself.
The other passengers looked at her, followed her eyeline and saw immediately that something was missing. And that its absence spelled disaster.
Sean, the big, red-haired pilot, was no longer standing upright in his separate compartment in the middle of the basket, one hand on the burner valve, the other clutching his binoculars. Those closest to him craned forward, as though he too might be cowering out of sight. The teenage boy was pulled back by his father. A male hiker turned away, revulsion on his face.
‘What?’ ‘Where is he?’ ‘Where’s he gone?’
Jessica pressed closer and stood on tiptoe to see over the accountant’s shoulder, then raised her phone again and began taking photographs.
The interior of the pilot’s compartment looked as though someone had shaken a lidless can of red paint around. Blood and a glutinous grey slime dripped down the rattan sides. In the bottom of the basket was slumped a tangle of limbs and torso.
The pilot’s head had been shot clean from his body.
Want more? Listen to Chapter 3!
Copyright © 2017 Sharon Bolton.
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Sharon Bolton is a Mary Higgins Clark Award winner and an ITW Thriller Award, CWA Gold Dagger and Barry Award nominee. Her books included the Lacey Flint novels: Now You See Me, Dead Scared, Lost, and A Dark and Twisted Tide. She lives near London, England.