Anna has everything worked out – a successful company, all the comforts she needs and no ties. But when she stumbles across the body of a young girl on a deserted beach in Lithuania, everything changes.
Anna is compelled to uncover the story behind the tragedy, despite concern from her partner, Will. Everything points towards sex trafficking, but as she searches, her own deepest secrets start to surface.
When Will disappears without a trace, Anna is pulled further into the murky world of organised crime. Time is running out for them all, and there’s a killer out there who will stop at nothing.
Beard enthralls the reader in this fast-paced psychological crime thriller. Anna serves as the perfect power-house protagonist, her daring escapades leaving the reader questioning: how far should one go to solve a murder?
I am happy to share an extract with you. I hope it can convince you enough to read the whole book. Enjoy!
On a strip of sand by a northern sea, salt water caresses pale skin. Bare legs are washed clean, buffed by gentle waves and a million grains of sand. A single shoe, its skinny heel pointing to the sky, lies lonely. Fabric swirls in the backwash, its pattern of leaves and flowers fading in the brine; yellow hair curls and curves like soft seaweed. The eyes, blue as the sky, stare out at the world, which has turned away.
The Baltic Sea, at last. She’s never been as far as this, never seen this vast stretch of white sand, this huge horizon beyond which lies Scandinavia.
The hotel is flanked by sand dunes, each room overlooking the sea. It’s off-season, the winter dragging on, but even in summer people come to escape everyday life. No children here, no tours, no live entertainment. Just views of the huge grey sea and the lowering sky, a long spit of sand that seems to go on for ever, birds screaming. No need to talk to anyone.
She feels the cold blast of sea wind on her cheek as if for the first time, relishes its beating and buffeting as she walks, takes deep gulps of oxygen until her head aches with the freshness of it. She breathes in the icy air. Gradually her mind empties of chatter, her body starts to recalibrate.
Until a small, energetic volcano far away interrupts the gentle flow of the hours.
“Good morning, madam,” the man on reception says. “Have you contacted your airline yet?” His English is immaculate. A small brass badge indicates his name.
Anna’s break is close to an end. “No,” she says. “A couple more days.”
“Haven’t you heard?” His eyes widen with concern. “There’s been a volcanic eruption. Flights all over Europe have been affected. Would you like me to check for you?”
“Lithuania has a volcano?” As far as she knows, there are no mountains at all here.
“No, madam, not here… in Iceland. There’s a big cloud of ash. A lot of flights to the UK are delayed or cancelled.”
“I hadn’t heard. When was this?”
“Yesterday, madam. It was on the news last night.”
She’d gone upstairs early, read for an hour or so, and then slept. She’s been avoiding the news, consciously cutting herself off.
“Yes, I would like you to check my flight for me, please. How long are the delays?”
“Nobody knows. Which airline are you booked with?”
She gives him the name and waits while he stares at the screen in front of him.
A couple approaches; the man waves at the receptionist, who ignores him, engrossed.
“This is ridiculous,” the man says, glancing briefly at Anna. His neck is thick; an angry flush creeps up towards his cheeks. He taps impatiently on the wooden top. “Apparently planes were getting through fine at first, then someone panicked and now they’ve cancelled everything, without even knowing what the risks are. Idiotic.”
The woman holds melodramatic fingers to her forehead, bracelets jangling. “Christ, we could be here for days, or even weeks.”
She’s right, Anna realises with a sinking feeling. If the ash cloud is too dangerous for flying, they won’t be taking any chances.
“Do you need to be back urgently?” Anna says to the woman.
“Well, I certainly don’t want to stay much longer in this dump,” the woman replies, her voice rising in complaint. “I knew we should have left yesterday, but he wouldn’t listen.” The man looks away, an expression of disgust on his face.
Anna realises this is the first time she’s spoken to any of her fellow guests. Strange how a crisis brings people together.
“Your flight’s cancelled, I’m afraid,” the receptionist says, an apologetic look on his face. “It’s the same with all the airlines. I will keep checking for you though.”
She sighs. “Thank you, I appreciate it.” She leaves the couple waiting by the desk and goes through into the lounge, where a stove spreads its woody fragrance into the room. Soft sofas are scattered around, warm blankets on their seat backs, furred footstools beside them. Wooden coffee tables sit on textured carpets and a rack of glossy magazines hangs from a wall. The impression is stylish, opulent, warm. There’s no one else there. Anna takes a seat by the window and dials the office.
A familiar voice on the end of the line.
“Jane, it’s me.”
“Anna, I was expecting your call. I hope you’ve had a good break?”
Anna’s cheered by the businesslike voice, the sound of the real world. “I have indeed, thanks to you. It’s been really good; I’ve managed to relax, as you wanted me to. But now I’m keen to get back and I can’t.”
“I know, what bad luck.”
“It is. Listen, can you do some checking for me please?”
“Of course I can. Fire away.”
“Can you book the first available flight home, if you can find one, and maybe look a couple of days ahead as well? We may need to take what we can get, so look at interconnecting flights too. And it might be useful to keep an eye on all the updates from your end.”
“Okay. I’ll get onto the airlines now. I’ll call as soon as I have something to report.”
“Great, thank you, oh, and I’ll go to Vilnius tomorrow, anyway. I want to be closer to the airport, and I won’t get much done here. Can you find me a hotel please?”
She checks a couple of news sites to get the latest. It’s not looking good. The volcano is top story, speculation rife about the fallout. There are images of the plume, dark and billowing. Europe’s airlines are in chaos. People all over the world are hysterical, booking any number of flights over the next three weeks, aiming to travel as soon as the flight ban is lifted. It’ll be chaos for much longer than that, with the nightmare of insurance claims and refunds.
She risks a look at Facebook, finds a barrage of stories and dramas from people in far-off places. Some are happy: Yessss! We’ve got to stay! Many, though, are stressed and anxious.
All the benefit of the last few days has gone up in smoke. Literally. With nothing to do but wait, she grabs her coat and boots and sets off for a last long walk along the beach.
There are no people here, no animals, just a few hooded crows hopping at the shoreline in the distance, a seagull coasting on the swell of wind high above, mewling at the empty sky. No plants to be seen, no trees, though beyond the white sand dunes on her left soft, fragrant pine forests line the length of the spit.
She walks, leaning into the wind, hat pulled down over her ears, eyes half closed. She watches her feet, one following the other, as if they are separate from her, marching alone. Beneath her feet the sand forms exotic patterns, fashioned by the sea breeze into whorls and ridges. Pure white shells stand proud like markers, each pushed upright into a tiny drift of sand by the relentless wind. When she turns to look behind her, as her hair whips around her face, there’s nothing for miles but hard white sand and grey shoreline. Her footprints are already barely there, her presence wiped out. Ahead of her is more of the same. She revels in the open sky, the vastness of the sea.
She stops, plunges her hands into the cold water and cups them to her mouth. It’s not salty, as they said. She wonders why. When she turns, the crows have landed close by. One, hopping delicately among shells and pale grey twigs along the waterline, cocks its head and considers
her, its eye knowing, intelligent. What does it know? Its partner – friend? brother? – follows, mimicking its movements and for a moment they dance in harmony together, hop, look, peck, hop. When she starts to walk again, they fly up in formation, flapping their wings, balancing on the breeze, and land again ahead, keeping a sharp eye on her. She wonders what they’re hoping for.
Further on, more birds arrive, investigating a pile of washed-up detritus, twigs and seaweed, chattering and calling to each other. Close by there’s a casualty, a dead bird, its body wedged into the sand.
But it’s not a bird, it’s a woman’s shoe, black and shiny, its sharp heel pointing towards the sky. It’s out of place here, a landscape unsullied by the touch of humans
The crows stay with her as she walks, her hands plunged deep into her pockets for warmth, her feet tramping on, until the weather closes in for real and the rain starts to batter her face and the skin on her legs turns cold under the wet denim of her jeans.
When she turns to go back, the wind pushes her from behind, urging her on. She can barely see in the driving rain. She has no idea how far she’s gone, and when she gazes back in the direction of the hotel, blinking against the drops that cling to her eyelashes, she can see nothing but grey sea and white sand. There’s no sign of where she’s come from, where she’s been.
Half an hour passes and she’s still not sure how far she has to go. Cursing herself for not taking more notice of her surroundings, she walks on until with relief she recognises, again, the pile of detritus. The crows have gone now; the wind has sent them off to calmer waters. The shoe still lies, incongruous, a pointer to the grim sky, the sand beginning to mount around it, claiming it along with the shells and the seaweed.
She’s about to hurry on when something catches her eye. She hesitates. There’s something odd about the ebb and flow of the seawater in and around the pile of seaweed. It sucks and pulls at a shape in the sand. She steps forward to take a better look, fighting to keep her hood in place, her hair tearing at her eyes and face. Leaning down, she pulls the brown slime of the seaweed away and recoils in horror.
Underneath is the white curve of a human leg.
For a moment everything stops. The wind seems to settle, the gentle rhythm of the sea slows. She can’t breathe.
She forces herself to look again. The skin is translucent, there’s no colour at all, as if the life has drained away into the sea. Steeling herself, she crouches down and pulls the slimy seaweed away.
The eyes of a young girl stare out at her, empty, lifeless.
Reeling, she collapses onto her knees, hands over her mouth, stomach churning. She reaches out a trembling hand and feels for a pulse on the alabaster neck. At the touch of the ice-cold skin she snatches her hand away as if scalded, scrambling backwards, her feet slipping and stumbling, away from the pile of seaweed, running, running through the icy rain.
At the hotel, she moves through the hours that follow like a ghost, the vision of the girl ever-present in her horrified mind. The police arrive in force and she loses all track of time. She’s plied with sugary tea laced with brandy, her coat removed, a blanket wrapped round her shoulders. In the lounge, she sits in front of the stove, which they stoke until the flames roar and crackle. When her hands shake too much to sip, someone holds the mug to her mouth. She can feel its warmth, the steam rising in her eyes. There seem to be a lot of them helping, moving
around her, shouting instructions, until suddenly there are only two: a woman in uniform and a man.
They ask her a hundred questions, not many of which she can answer. No, she didn’t see anyone else. Yes, she probably passed it on her way out, away from the hotel, but didn’t notice it, what with the wind and the rain. Though she did notice the shoe. No, she can’t put her finger on why it caught her eye on the way back. She has no idea how far she walked, no idea what time she left the hotel, or what time she came across the body.
The policewoman says very little. Perhaps she’s there to provide comfort; a shoulder to cry on. The man, though gentle, is insistent. He asks her to describe, many times, what she’s seen. At one point, early on, he leaves her and she hears loud voices in the foyer. The body has been found.
She asks when he comes back. He says they’ve found the body of a girl, and that she is certainly dead. That’s when she starts to cry.
Soon after, some food appears, but she can’t eat. She asks them to take it away. Just having it there makes her feel sick.
Eventually, to her great relief, the police have done their job. Handing her a card in case she thinks of anything more, they thank her and leave. The kindly receptionist takes her up to her room. She almost collapses when the door closes behind her.
It’s one in the morning.
She raids the minibar and pours herself a long drink. There’s no ice, and it’s warm, but she doesn’t care. Dumping everything on the floor, she collapses onto the bed and pushes off her boots, still stained with salt, ingrained with sand.
The images of the last few hours are not going to leave. She lies in her clothes, the light on and her eyes open, knowing sleep won’t come.
In the morning, her body feels brittle, her head ready to burst. She checks out early, brushing away the concern of the staff at the front desk. Yes, she was a little shocked yesterday, but now she feels fine, perfectly okay to drive. The police have her details if they need her, and she has theirs.
She needs to get back to the capital, to be near the airport. Quite apart from that, she’s keen to get away from the sudden horror of the beach, forget that terrible image, occupy her exhausted mind with other things.
A cold wind whips her hair around her face as she climbs into the car. Flakes of snow melt on the windscreen as she starts the engine, the wipers destroying each wet smear as they flip from side to side. In Lithuania, the April weather is unpredictable. It’s worth being prepared for anything here and she’s glad she brought warm clothes.
The spit has only one road, linking the few small groups of houses – not enough to call villages – along its length. The car ferry that will carry her to Klaipeda, on mainland Lithuania, isn’t far but she takes it slowly; she doesn’t want to risk a breakdown or an accident when there are so few people around. Her reactions aren’t what they should be after last night.
She turns the headlights on as a precaution and fiddles with the radio until she finds some music. As she sets off, the wind and sleet buffet the car.
She expects to see next to nothing on the road, but a few minutes into her journey flashing blue lights ahead interrupt her concentration. Two police cars, official crests on the driver doors, are parked up at angles on the dunes beside the road; an area alongside is cordoned off with flapping red tape. A black-clad policeman, muffled and hunched against the wind, talks into a radio, his arm draped over the open door of the car, a weapon on his hip. Another man is inside, a mobile phone at his ear.
As she passes, she risks a sideways glance towards the sea. A glimpse of figures moving around close to the shore, where a white tent flaps and billows in the wind. Like a snapshot, the scene is gone in an instant
Thank you, Susanna Beard and Legend Press.
About the author
Susanna has always been a writer, but only recently took the plunge into writing novels, inspired by a course at the Faber Academy in London. Susanna has a vivid imagination and loves deep dark stories, from Victorian Gothic to contemporary Nordic noir tales, though she reads widely in many different genres. She has swum with whale sharks, fallen down a crevasse and walked through the sewers in Brighton – not in that order. She aims to write at least ten more novels – each better than the one before – and not to get old.