Alyssa Clark is about to find out that reading really can be murder.
If you like twists, turns and compelling, conflicted characters, you’ll love The Library Murders, a gripping new mystery from the McIlvanney Prize-nominated author of In the Silence.
Read on for a sneak peek at the first chapter.
The incident at Thornhill Library on Monday the first of March took just eighteen seconds to play out in its entirety.
The effects were felt for considerably longer.
Sixty-three minutes before
They say a life’s trajectory can change in an instant, transformed beyond all recognition purely by virtue of being in the right place at the right time. Or, more often than not, the wrong place at the wrong time.
The place was an unfamiliar sofa. The time had just gone 8.30 a.m. And for Alyssa Clark – waking up with the hangover from hell and breath to match – both were, beyond a shadow of a doubt, all sorts of wrong.
Swallowing a wave of nausea, she manoeuvred into an upright position and set her Wayfarers in place on the bridge of her nose, bringing her surroundings into as much focus as she was going to get given her present condition. Once the room had – for the most part – stopped spinning, she forced herself onto her feet and staggered to the door, sidestepping the slumbering form of Jenny Nicholson, prostrate on the floor and snoring contentedly. In the bathroom, Alyssa gulped down a glass of water and tried to recollect the precise order of events which had led to her waking up on someone else’s couch with half the alcohol reserve in Glasgow in her bloodstream. They’d met up at Sleazy’s on Sauchiehall Street just after nine, she recalled – her, Jenny, Gobby and Spud – and spent the next several hours drinking the place dry and hollering at each other over the deafening roar of music, before they stumbled out into the street in the wee hours and made their way, by a meandering and circuitous route, back to Spud’s flat in Cowcaddens for videogames and more drinking. Somewhere between three and four in the morning, they’d finally succumbed to the inevitable after Jenny, who’d spent much of the night alternating between trying to seduce the perennially unobservant Gobby and declaring that she was almost certainly dying of alcohol poisoning, had lain down on the floor and failed to get back up – which had seemed as good a sign as any to the rest of them that it was time to call it a night.
Alyssa squinted at the grubby mirror and stuck her tongue out at her reflection. She concluded she looked almost as bad as she felt. Almost, but not quite. Her makeup, still in place and only suffering from minimal smudging, hid the worst effects of last night’s frivolities, the bleariness in her eyes masked by the tinted lenses of her Wayfarers. And she had an infallible plan for a full and speedy recovery: catch the next bus back to Laurieston and hop straight into bed, spend the rest of the day catching up on some much-needed shut-eye and be fresh as a daisy for starting her new job tomorrow.
As she stood trying to work up the enthusiasm to actually put one foot in front of the other and make a move, her eyes strayed to the calendar on the wall. For a moment, the significance of what she was seeing failed to register. Then, with a pin-sharp clarity that belied her booze-marinated brain, she saw it. Monday the first of March. It was tomorrow today.
She was out of the flat in seconds, crashing out into the grey morning with her jacket trailing from one arm. She cast around wildly, blinking as the harsh daylight seared her poor, delicate eyeballs. Traffic roared past in both directions, the busy Cowcaddens Road already at full capacity despite the ungodly hour. Across the road, she spotted a number three bus idling at the stop. After a moment, a break in the traffic materialised, but by the time she made it to the other side the bus had already pulled away from the kerb. There then followed an ungainly dash up the pavement behind it until it came to a halt at a set of lights where, after much hammering on the door, the driver finally took pity on her and let her in. She shoved what she was sure was far too much money into his hand, snatched her ticket from the dispenser, staggered up the gangway and collapsed into the back row seat, breathless and sweaty and with a nagging sense that, sooner or later, she was going to spew.
It’s OK, she told herself. You can still make it. And even if you are late, so what? It’s an entry-level job in a public library, not fricking NASA.
Twenty-two minutes before
At just after 9.10 a.m. – or to be precise, ten minutes after her shift was due to start – the bus finally came to a juddering halt on Chancery Street. She hurried down the gangway, flashing a perfunctory smile at the young man who stepped aside to let her pass. Alighting on the pavement, she clocked the library fifty yards up ahead, then realised there was no way she was going to be able to face an entire day on the trot without first getting some form of both hydration and pain relief.
Five minutes later, she emerged from the newsagent across the road, armed with a bottle of Irn Bru and a pack of Paracetamol Plus.
‘Spare some change, wee pet?’ said the homeless guy with the matted beard and stained cagoule sitting cross-legged outside the shop as she paused to pop a couple of pills.
‘Gave it all to the bus driver, sorry,’ she said absentmindedly, and slugged back a mouthful of fizz. ‘And I’m not your wee pet.’
He held up both hands in a gesture of truce. ‘My mistake. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.’
She crossed the road, playing cat-and-mouse with the traffic, and found herself gazing up at one of those grand old Carnegie buildings, so consecrated in the minds of the decision-makers that any attempt to bring them even vaguely into the twenty-first century with such radical notions as disabled access and properly functioning central heating were immediately met with howls of outrage and can’t-be-dones. The words ‘THORNHILL PUBLIC LIBRARY’ were engraved on the stone arch above the doorway. On the door itself was a laminated sign declaring that, owing to repeated abuse of staff goodwill, the public toilet was for service users only and that access was contingent on production of a valid library card. Alyssa hoped no one around here ever got the runs.
Stepping inside, she found herself in a low-ceilinged foyer, the marble flooring scuffed and stained by the passage of countless feet. ‘GLASGOW LOVES READING’ proclaimed a tall banner near the door, its bold assertion illustrated by a picture of a group of people, all improbably photogenic and infinitely more multi-coloured than the average Scottish family, smiling at one another as they enjoyed their suspiciously pristine books – which, much like the people themselves, looked fresh off the assembly line. Even the baby was beaming, clutching a board-book while its doting parents looked on approvingly. Alyssa strongly suspected it was a stock photo and that the family wasn’t actually Scottish at all… or, for that matter, a family.
Crossing the foyer, she headed through another door into the main library – a roomy affair with a faintly damp smell. Straight ahead was a work area encircled by a wooden countertop, behind which three people were gathered. One – a tall, rake-thin man in his forties with a quiff and a feeble-looking excuse for a beard – was holding court while his two companions, both women, listened with weary disinterest. Beyond the desk, a wrought-iron spiral staircase in the middle of the room created a natural central well around which the bookshelves were arranged like spokes on a wheel. Dust-motes danced in light rays filtering down from a glass dome some thirty feet up, giving the place a vaguely ecclesiastical atmosphere. Alyssa counted perhaps half a dozen customers browsing the shelves, most of them decidedly on the elderly side. Not exactly heaving.
She came to a halt at the desk while the quiff-haired guy continued to pontificate.
‘I’m telling you,’ he declared, voice raised several orders of magnitude beyond what was necessary for such an intimate gathering, ‘we shouldnae let ’em divide us like this. If we adopted a united front, they’d not have a leg to stand on.’
‘Oh, hark at him!’ declared one of the two women – barrel-chested, in her late fifties, sporting granny glasses and puckered lips. ‘United front, is it? He’ll be having us all stand up shouting “I’m Spartacus!” next.’
The other woman, a good twenty-five years younger, her blonde hair in bunches, tittered into her coffee cup and said nothing, but that didn’t stop Quiff Hair shooting her an acrid look.
‘Dunno what everyone thinks is so funny,’ he snapped. ‘This is a serious matter. There’s principles at stake here.’
‘You’re right, Jason, you’re right,’ said Blondie, doing an impressive job of sounding utterly sincere even as her face simultaneously betrayed her true feelings. ‘It’s a matter of life and death. And you know that, all things being equal, I’d be first in line to take this particular bullet for you. But unless you’re willing to take over Tiny Tots for me, I’m afraid my presence here is fairly essential.’
‘Oh no.’ Jason shook his head firmly. ‘No way. If they think I’m gonnae get down on my knees to sing “Old MacDonald had a farm” with the babbies, they’ve got another thing coming.’
‘And I’m sure the babies and their mums are profoundly grateful for your strong and principled stance.’
Just then, Granny Glasses caught sight of Alyssa over Jason’s shoulder. She instantly stiffened and cleared her throat. Jason swung around to face her, eyes narrowing suspiciously. She got the distinct impression he wasn’t thrilled to discover he had an audience.
‘If it’s a computer you’re after, just away through and log yourself on,’ he said, nodding to a door off to the left. ‘There’s hunners of empty machines. We don’t need to see your card.’
‘Huh?’ Alyssa was momentarily thrown. ‘No, no, I don’t need a computer. I’m Alyssa Clark. New library assistant?’ she added hopefully.
Jason gave her a look that might best be described as scepticism laced with contempt, then glanced over at his two companions. ‘Never knew we were getting fresh meat. Either of yous hear anything about this?’
Blondie shrugged, while Granny Glasses laughed. ‘And why, pray tell, would they tell me anything? Me, a humble slave to the machine? I just do as I’m telt. They say “jump”, I say “how high?” They tell me to clean the public loos, I set off with a smile and a skip in my step.’
Jason turned to Alyssa again, his expression only marginally less hostile than before. ‘Sure you’re meant to be here? Wouldnae be the first time so-called management got their wires crossed.’
Alyssa was about to respond when a fourth person materialised alongside her, a stack of books tucked under one arm. ‘What’s the trouble?’ he inquired, pleasantly enough.
He was in his late twenties, Alyssa reckoned. Short and overweight, he reminded her of one of the Seven Dwarfs, minus the beard and pickaxe.
‘Reckons she’s meant to be working here,’ said Jason, jerking a thumb in Alyssa’s direction.
‘I don’t reckon,’ said Alyssa. She’d reached the limits of her patience with people talking about her as if she wasn’t there. ‘I am supposed to be working here. I was told to report here at nine for my induction.’
‘You get that in writing?’
‘No – they told me over the phone. I didn’t—’
Jason raised a chiding finger. ‘Always get everything in writing from that lot. If there’s a paper trail, they cannae pull the wool over your eyes and make out you signed up to something you never did.’
‘Should we get Denise on the blower?’ suggested the tubby guy. ‘She ought to be able to straighten this out.’
Alyssa perked up, recognising the name. ‘Denise? As in Denise Forsyth? She’s supposed to do my—’
‘Can’t contact a VMO about a work matter while they’re on annual leave,’ said Granny Glasses adamantly. ‘Them’s the rules.’
Jason rubbed the underside of his chin with a long finger. ‘Four of us plus new girl here puts us over capacity, and I’m buggered if I’m getting sent on relief just cos HR couldnae handle a piss-up in a brewery.’ He glanced briefly in Alyssa’s direction. ‘Nae offence, darling.’
‘None taken,’ said Alyssa, not sure she particularly liked being referred to either as ‘new girl’ or ‘darling’ – though she supposed both were a step up from ‘fresh meat’.
‘Yeah, but she won’t be counted as staff,’ pointed out Blondie. ‘New hires are meant to shadow for the first fortnight. So we’re technically still only four bodies.’
Granny Glasses shook her head. ‘Not true. Safe operating levels guidelines are purely about how many bodies you have in the building, not how many of those bodies are fully qualified. Check the Business Processes folder if you don’t believe me.’
As an uneasy silence descended, the tubby guy turned to Alyssa with the first genuine smile she’d received since arriving. ‘Well, never mind. You’re here now. Might as well muck in. C’mon, I’ll give you the grand tour.’
Not trusting herself to say anything – and not convinced anyone would listen if she did – Alyssa allowed herself to be led away, following him as he set off at a surprisingly brisk pace for one so short and stocky.
‘Welcome to Thornhill Library,’ he said, doing a passable imitation of a flight attendant running through the emergency landing procedure. ‘There’s not a whole lot to it, but I’d consider it a dereliction of duty if I didn’t subject you to the full carnival of delights. What did you say your name was, again?’
‘Pleased to meet you, Alyssa. I’m Davy. Is that “Alyssa” with a “Y” or an “I”? You’ll have to excuse Jason, by the way. He’s our union rep. Takes his role dead seriously.’
‘I can tell.’
His strident, overly cheerful tones would have been tough to endure at the best of times. In her present state, they were about as pleasurable as having her teeth pulled with rusty pliers.
‘And his sparring partner with the oh-so-stylish bifocals is Eva. Nearly three decades’ service and still as upbeat and positive as the day she started. We also have the lovely Laura with us today. Anything to do with entertaining the kiddies, she’s your girl. Ask nicely and she’ll also stretch to birthday parties, christenings and baby showers.’
Davy turned to face Alyssa, arms spread wide, which only added to his impression of a flight attendant. ‘Now, to your right and to your left are the children’s library and the reading room respectively. Not that much reading goes on in there these days. Nowadays it’s your de facto internet café, which makes up the bulk of our footfall. Word to the wise: do not, under any circumstances, be tempted to set foot in there. Step through that door and you’ll be in there all day helping folk download boarding passes and supermarket vouchers.’
Alyssa wondered how it was possible, in this day and age, for a human being to function without basic IT skills.
‘Up there,’ continued Davy, pointing up the spiral staircase as they wound their way past it, ‘are all the non-fiction and reference books. ‘Not to be tackled if you suffer from vertigo. You don’t suffer from vertigo, do you? The office is up there too, where our boss, the Mistress of Pain, spends her time plotting our demise and lord knows what else. When she’s not off living it up in sunny Barbados, that is.’
They’d reached the back of the library now and were facing a door labelled ‘STAFF ONLY’. Alyssa, who’d long since concluded that Davy was someone who did a lot of talking and next to no listening, abandoned any thought of interjecting as he rabbited on about the staff toilets, the kitchen and the ins and outs of the milk rota, wondering when he was going to finally shut up and give the pneumatic drill inside her skull a rest.
‘And here we have the break room,’ he went on, ushering her into a low-ceilinged room with a table, an assortment of mismatched chairs and, at the far end, a row of metal lockers. ‘Your stuff should be safe enough in here, but we’ll get you a locker just as soon as. Shame we didn’t have advance notice of your coming or we’d’ve had everything all set up.’
‘What about this one?’ Alyssa pointed to the locker at the end of the row. Its door, emblazoned with a dog-eared ‘SCOTTISH SURVIVALISTS SOCIETY’ sticker, lay slightly ajar.
Davy eyed it dubiously. ‘Probably best if we leave that one be for now.’ A shadow seemed to fall on his face. Then, as quickly as it had come, it passed and his expression brightened. ‘Hey, nice ink-work.’
‘Oh… right. Thanks.’
She rubbed her bare arms self-consciously, aware that the baggy T-shirt she had on showed off her sleeve tattoos – just some of the many pieces of body art, of varying designs and levels of quality, that festooned her person – in all their glory. She wasn’t sure how her new employers felt about tattoos and had planned on keeping hers covered, at least until she’d settled into the job and it would be harder for them to get rid of her on a whim. But then, she hadn’t reckoned with rucking up to her first shift in last night’s clothes.
‘Always fancied getting one myself. Nothing too in-your-face – just something small and tasteful, somewhere nobody can see it except me.’
‘So why don’t you?’
Davy made a sheepish face. ‘Scared of needles.’ A moment elapsed, then his brain appeared to shift gears again. ‘Love the accent, by the way. Which part of the States you from?’
‘I’m not,’ said Alyssa flatly.
‘Oh. I thought—’
‘You thought wrong. I’m from Canada.’
‘Well, which part of Canada are you from, then?’ he said impatiently, as if the distinction was of no importance.
‘You won’t have heard of it.’
‘My dude, trust me – you won’t.’
Davy thought about it for a moment, then shrugged. ‘Fair enough. Odds are I’ll winkle it out of you one way or another before long. I’m persistent that way. Now then, what’s it to be? Officially, there’s a whole heap of boring paperwork you’re supposed to go through before I let you loose on the poor, unsuspecting public, but I always say it’s better to just get stuck in and get your hands dirty. There’s nothing in those dusty old tomes you won’t pick up a gazillion times faster learning by doing. What say you?’
The idea of sitting in some secluded corner working her way through a stack of instruction manuals didn’t sound to Alyssa like the worst thing in the world. At least, if she was left to her own devices, she could get through her hangover without having to suffer Davy’s incessant running commentary. But then, she wasn’t sure she trusted herself to keep her eyes open without serious stimulation. Odds were she’d be passed out on the floor long before the clock struck ten.
In any event, Davy, taking her silence as acquiescence, made the decision for her. ‘Knew we’d be on the same page. No time like the present, then!’
Eleven minutes before
They got back to find Jason and Eva still at each other’s throats. Laura was nowhere to be seen, and a small queue had begun to develop at the counter, which clearly neither Jason nor Eva had any intention of seeing to anytime soon.
‘It’s the boiled frog phenomenon,’ Jason was saying. ‘We should’ve put our feet down years back when it first started, refused all they extra responsibilities and they’d’ve had no choice but to go back to the drawing board. ’Stead, everyone’s just got used to it and now, when you even so much as mention industrial action, their eyes just glaze over.’
‘Can’t imagine why that could be,’ said Davy. He flashed Alyssa a conspiratorial wink. ‘Mark me, he’ll still be banging on about this by lunchtime.’ Slipping behind the counter, he turned to face the elderly woman at the front of the queue. ‘Morning, Mrs Mackie. Find everything you were looking for…?’
Alyssa stepped behind the counter and plonked herself on a vacant stool, seemingly forgotten by all and sundry. She’d always imagined libraries as oases of calm; sacred, peaceful places where time stood still and the denizens consisted of obsessive bookworms, the elderly and people who hadn’t yet discovered Google. This one appeared to be a hotbed of insanity that served as a homing beacon to society’s most profoundly dysfunctional – and that was just the staff.
As Alyssa sat there, acutely conscious that her clothes reeked of cigarette smoke, booze and her own sweat, Laura emerged from the reading room off to the left, a rolled-up floor-mat over her shoulder, and stormed over to the desk with a face like thunder.
‘Just so you know,’ she announced, ‘that creep’s in again, and he’s on a computer.’
Her assembled colleagues exchanged sighs and exclamations of exasperation.
‘I thought you changed his pin-code,’ said Jason, looking accusingly at Davy.
Davy turned to face him as Mrs Mackie departed, her books successfully checked out. ‘Aye, well, someone obviously changed it back.’
‘You can’t change a service user’s pin-code without their permission,’ said Eva. ‘Says so in the Business Processes folder.’
‘It’ll be they pricks at Tollcross Library,’ said Jason, ignoring her – something, Alyssa was coming to realise, he was extremely good at. ‘Bloody free-for-all there, so it is. They let the punters away with murder. Don’t want to pay your late fees? Fine, we’ll wipe ’em. Barred from libraries for a year? It’s OK, we’ll set you up with a brand new card…’
‘What’s this guy supposed to have done that’s so bad, anyway?’ Alyssa asked.
Four pairs of eyes instantly turned to face her, and she was once again left with the impression that she’d said something she shouldn’t.
‘Who did you say you were again?’ said Jason.
‘Alyssa. Alyssa Clark.’
‘And you’re sure you’re supposed to be here?’
‘Positive,’ she said. Though she was starting to wonder.
‘Porn,’ said Laura flatly. ‘He spends all day looking at porn. And it’s, like, a public computer? In any sane organisation, he’d’ve been out on his ear before he knew what hit him.’
‘Ah.’ Jason raised a finger. ‘But you forget, this isn’t a sane organisation. This is North Kelvin District Libraries. We provide a vital service to this fair city and must have reasonable grounds to deny it to any of its citizens.’
‘He was caught looking at smut in a place used by families and children. I’d call that reasonable grounds.’
‘Hey, I don’t make up the rules. Dinnae shoot the messenger.’
‘Yeah, well, I doubt the mums coming to Tiny Tots would be too happy to learn there was a pervert in the building.’
Davy piped up, ‘Denise said, if he came in again, we weren’t to antagonise him. We’re to contact Head Office and let them deal with it.’
Laura, ignoring him, continued to stare Jason down with a steely gaze. ‘Well, if he’s still here when the little ones start to arrive, I’m cancelling the entire session.’ There was an unspoken and THEN you’ll be sorry buried in there somewhere.
‘Ah, for Christ’s sake,’ muttered Jason. Then, brushing past Alyssa like she wasn’t even there, he commandeered the nearest computer and began tapping at the keys.
Davy turned to Eva. ‘Gonnae give North Hanover Street a bell? Tell ’em we’ve got a developing situation.’
‘Why me?’ Eva retorted, adopting an arms-folded, standoffish pose. ‘It was me who spoke to ’em last time. Me who got an earful off of bloody Nikki Wyatt for not using my initiative.’
‘Yes, but you always manage to sweet-talk her so beautifully. It’s a joy to behold.’
Eva was momentarily tongue-tied and, to Alyssa’s eyes, seemed to be on the verge of blushing. Eventually, muttering a rather flustered ‘Well all right then’, she made her way over to the phone, lifted the receiver and began to dial.
Jason, meanwhile, looked up from his computer screen with a sly, satisfied smile. ‘Here we go. Meltdown in five, four, three, two…’
As if on cue, a large man in his mid-forties came storming out of the reading room and made a beeline for the desk, fists clenched by his sides. He had pock-marked skin and tufts of badly cut hair sticking out from under a navy-blue beanie hat emblazoned with a Scotland flag. He stomped up to the desk and stood there, breathing loudly through flared nostrils. Laura, still standing on the same side of the counter as him, edged away from him, eyeing him the way one normally would shit on a shoe.
‘My–my–my computer’s broke,’ he announced.
Jason gazed at him laconically. ‘That seems highly improbable.’
‘It went off and–and now it won’t let me back on. I tell you, it’s broke.’
Jason raised an eyebrow. ‘Mr Ramage, were you, by any chance, looking at things you weren’t supposed to again?’
‘No!’ Ramage’s face, including the tips of his very prominent ears, flushed scarlet. Alyssa half-expected steam to rise from his head.
‘You sure about that?’
‘I–I–I wasn’t. You–you–you trying to make out that I’m some sort of a, that I’m a liar?’
‘No one’s trying to make out anything, Mr Ramage. But if you think we can’t see what you’re looking at just cos you sit at the back of the room, you’re sorely mistaken. We’ll get someone from Head Office to deal with your inquiry just as soon as. In the meantime, may I suggest perusing the contents of one of our many fine books?’ He pointed toward the rows of shelves to the back of the library. ‘Preferably over there and downwind of the desk.’
Ramage eyed each of the assembled staff in turn, his eyes coming to rest on Alyssa. She swiftly wiped anything approaching a smile from her face.
‘You… you… bastards!’ he spluttered, his voice rising to a crescendo. ‘Stuck-up, evil, spiteful bastards!’
Davy stepped forward with hands raised in a plea for calm. ‘Now, now, Mr Ramage, there’s no need for language like that. As my colleague said, we’re on the phone to Head Office as we speak. If you’ll just be patient a bit longer—’
Ramage jabbed a trembling finger at Davy, extending his entire arm across the desk so that the tip came close to touching his nose. ‘Just yous wait. A reckoning’s coming. One of these days, yous’ll bite off more than yous can chew. Then yous’ll be s–s–sorry.’
Davy, for his part, did an admirable job of not appearing fazed by either the threat or the invasion of his personal space. ‘Like I said, the matter’s being dealt with. I’m sure this can all be resolved perfectly amicably.’
Ramage made what Alyssa initially assumed was merely a noise of disgust at the back of his throat. Her illusions were swiftly shattered as a gob of phlegm landed a few inches from her elbow on the countertop. She leapt off the stool and backed off to the other side of the work area.
Ramage pointed at each of the assembled staff, once again leaving Alyssa till last. ‘J–j–just wait,’ he repeated, then turned on his heel and stormed out.
An uneasy silence lingered in the wake of his departure. The various customers, who’d stopped to watch the unfolding encounter, continued to stare apprehensively in the direction of the desk. Then, almost as one, they returned to browsing the shelves, a low murmur of conversation once again rising.
Laura was first to speak. ‘What an arse! Well, that’s it. They’ll have to bar him now. You can’t go around making threats against people and not expect to face the consequences.’
‘Ah, it was never a threat,’ said Jason. ‘The man’s all mooth and nae troosers. He’s just raging cos he got caught with his pants down.’
‘Well, I’m glad you can be so blasé about it, but if you ask me, someone should be calling the police right this minute.’
Jason made a sweeping gesture with his hand. ‘You go right ahead – just as soon as madam gets off the blower to our lords and masters.’
Eva, who still had the phone clamped between ear and shoulder, made an obscene-looking gesture before turning her back on him.
With the drama having subsided, staff and punters alike started to go about their business once more. Davy began to gather up the books lying on the returns trolley at the foot of the desk. Jason produced a packet of digestive biscuits from under the counter and proceeded to cram one into his mouth whole. Eva, still waiting for someone to deal with her enquiry, began to hum the tune to ‘Take This Job and Shove It’.
At that moment, there was a sound of footsteps on the marble floor in the foyer. The hinges on the door to the main library squeaked as it swung open. Laura glanced in the direction of the new arrival, then gave a squeak of horror and dropped her floor-mat. Alyssa lowered her phone and turned to see what the fuss was about.
A man stood facing the desk. He was dressed all in black. A balaclava covered most of his face, leaving only his eyes visible through a narrow slit. In his right hand, he held a black plastic handgun.
For the next few seconds, time seemed to stand still. No one moved or spoke. A few stray crumbs fell from Jason’s mouth. At the other end of the phone line, a woman’s voice could be faintly heard, asking Eva if she was still there.
Alyssa felt a nervous laugh bubbling up in her diaphragm. It got as far as her mouth before the man raised the gun and opened fire.
The first blast exploded into Jason’s face, spraying an arc of blood and biscuit into the air.
The second hit Laura in the chest. She dropped like a sack of potatoes.
The third took out Eva, the bullet entering the centre of her forehead. She was still holding the phone when she went down.
The fourth hit Davy in the back as he made a run for it. He crumpled to the floor and lay still.
The shooter turned to Alyssa. Their eyes met, the distance between them less than an arm’s length. For a moment, they just stared at one another. Alyssa could hear her own heart beating a totem against her ribcage. She felt something warm and wet running down the inside of her leggings.
‘Please,’ she said. ‘I’m only new.’
The man raised his gun and pulled the trigger.
To be continued...