The Silent Sister, p.1Shalini Boland
The Silent Sister
An gripping psychological thriller with a nail-biting twist
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A Letter from Shalini
The Child Next Door
The Millionaire’s Wife
For my wonderful dog, Jess, who keeps me company when I write.
They act as though I’m no one, as though I don’t even exist.
* * *
That’s about to change.
* * *
I’ll make them regret it.
* * *
But first I’ll make them suffer.
I tilt my head to listen. Hold my breath. I’m sure I heard an odd sound coming from downstairs. But all is quiet. I’m in the house alone. Or at least I thought I was…
Leaving my bedroom, I pause on the landing, listening… Silence. And then, again, that same irregular sound making the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Until I realise what it is… the scrape of claws on wood, followed by a low yowl.
‘Frank! What are you doing?’ I pull my old dressing gown around me and clatter down the creaky cottage stairs, hoping my ginger tomcat hasn’t brought a mouse or a rabbit home. I really am not in the mood to deal with a dead rodent. And I’m even less in the mood to deal with a half-dead one. Blood and guts are not my forte, especially first thing in the morning.
In the kitchen, Frank is crouched by the back door, glaring down at the floor, his white-socked paw swiping at something, claws extending and retracting. He barely acknowledges me.
‘What is it, Frank?’
With a certain amount of relief, I realise there’s nothing untoward lying around the kitchen. Well, nothing that I can see so far. So what is it that has got my mischievous cat so worked up? I walk over to him and see that it’s a piece of old paper sticking out of one of the floorboards. Frank gazes up at me and miaows, his green eyes softening for a moment. I scratch his head and stare at the triangle of paper, rising up like a shark’s fin. Frank makes a sound deep in his throat and bashes at the paper with his paw once again. What is it, and how did it get there?
Intrigued, I tug it out with my fingers, dislodging a cloud of dust. The paper is thick and brittle with age. I realise it’s actually a small envelope. From the look of it, it seems years old. I brush away some of the dust and see that the envelope is unopened. Still sealed. My curiosity piqued, I wonder what’s inside. I turn it over and blink at the name written on the front in blue cursive script:
The letter is addressed to me! How strange…
Could it be from my boyfriend, Joe? Perhaps he wrote it months ago and it accidentally fell through a gap in the floorboards. But then how did it work its way up again? Could Frank have somehow got his paw down there and pulled it up? No, the gap is too narrow.
I stare at my name for a moment, at the blue swirling letters. Finally, I ease the envelope open and peer inside. I pull out a single sheet of faded writing paper folded in half. Straightening out the sheet, I stare at the words – there are only a few – which have been penned in the same unfamiliar handwriting:
You’re my only obsession
Weird. Is this some kind of love letter? Whatever it is, it has me spooked. And then I see something that troubles me further – in the top right-hand corner of the letter, someone has written the date:
That’s… Yes. That’s today’s date. How can that be possible? The envelope looks as though it’s been unopened for years, or at the very least months. Maybe it’s just a coincidence. After all, there’s no year written. But what are the odds of discovering a letter from the past on the exact same date that it was written? I grow hot. And then I shiver.
This is crazy. There must be a logical explanation. The back door has no letterbox, so it can’t have been posted through. Either the letter worked its own way up through the floorboards, or… did someone come into the house and deliberately leave the note there? I drop the letter and jump to my feet, my heart thumping uncomfortably as the paper floats to the floor. Could someone have broken in this morning, or last night? Why would they do that? Do I have some creepy secret admirer? I glance out of the window. And try the back door – it’s locked.
I wonder again if the letter could be from Joe. It’s the least horrible explanation. But that doesn’t explain the age of the envelope, or why Joe would tell me I’m his obsession. He’s never said anything like that to me before. Maybe it’s a practical joke. But it’s not funny, and it’s not Joe’s style. He’s a straightforward guy – flowers and chocolates on Valentine’s Day, a card and a pressie on my birthday. Joe has never written me a letter or a note in his life – he hardly even uses texts. And besides, this is nothing like his messy writing. It’s way too neat and beautiful.
I snatch up the letter and stuff it back into the envelope. Unsure what to do with it, I slide it into the side pocket of my handbag for now.
Checking the time on my phone, I realise I only have fifteen minutes before I need to leave for work. I suppose I should have some breakfast, but my hunger has evaporated, my head is buzzing, my hands trembling. Besides, I’m not even dressed yet. I always like to give myself plenty of time to get ready before work. Can’t stand it when I have to rush around. Joe leaves for the garage at seven thirty, so I usually have a whole hour to myself. My quiet time. But now I’m going to have to hurry.
I run back upstairs. With my heart still pounding, I get dressed on autopilot, shrugging on a blue and white wrap dress, picking out a necklace and slipping on a pair of kitten-heel sandals. I’m lucky to own such nice clothes. One of the perks of being the manager of Georgio’s – Malmesbury’s most upmarket clothes and gift shop – is that I get a decent staff discount. But as I’m getting ready I can’t seem to distract myself, all I can think about is that letter. Someone obviously put it there deliberately for me to find. Why would they do that?
I check myself in
I make my way back downstairs and into the kitchen where Frank is walking around, his ears flat, tail twitching back and forth. He obviously feels as unsettled as I do. With my phone on speaker, I call Joe while spooning cat food into Frank’s dish. As expected, my call goes straight to voicemail, so I leave a message:
‘Hey, it’s me. I found a weird letter at home. It’s not from you, is it? It doesn’t look like your writing, but I can’t think who else could have put it there. Call me back when you get this. Love you.’
But I already know the letter isn’t from Joe. Was it written by a secret admirer, or is someone playing a twisted kind of game, trying to get my attention? I don’t know. But I can’t shake the feeling that this is something far more sinister…
At Georgio’s, Pippa and I are kneeling on the floor, a small electric fan angled towards us, redistributing hot, stale air as we unpack box after box of designer handbags. Her eyes are wide as I tell her about my strange and unsettling morning discovering the letter.
‘Ooh, darling,’ Pippa says in her plummy drawl. ‘Sounds like some freak’s got a giant-sized crush on you.’
Pippa Hargreaves is the poshest person I know. She lives locally in a crumbling stately home with her brother and parents who are an actual lord and lady – but extremely broke. I suspect her connection with all the royals in the area is why our boss, George, hired her to work at Georgio’s because Pippa pulls in the wealthy customers – the hunting, shooting and fishing crowd, most of whom she went to school with. Her parents were only able to afford the exorbitant education fees by selling off land from their estate.
‘Maybe it’s a love letter from a customer,’ she continues.
‘Do you think so?’ It’s all I’ve been thinking about this morning – who could possibly have left me that letter?
‘Could be,’ Pippa says, pulling out a navy Radley handbag, sliding the strap over her shoulder and walking over to the mirror. ‘What do you think?’ she calls over, pouting at her reflection. She’s attractive in a horsey way, with slightly protruding front teeth. But her skin is clear and her hair is shiny and blonde.
‘Looks good,’ I reply, thinking that for someone who claims to be broke, she has an awful lot of handbags.
‘Hmm, it does, doesn’t it,’ Pippa muses, gazing at her reflection, turning this way and that. ‘I might put it out the back and have a think about buying it.’
Pippa and I met at a local modern dance class when we were about ten years old. We always got on well, but never really socialised outside of dance events due to our vastly different backgrounds. Then, after leaving school, we were always bumping into one another at local parties, pubs and bars, and we became sort of friends – the overlapping part of a social Venn diagram.
‘What about George?’ Pippa calls from the stockroom.
‘What about him?’
‘You know,’ she says, returning and kneeling down next to me. ‘Our dear, darling boss, George. He’s your landlord, too, isn’t he? So he’s got a key. Could have been him who left the letter.’
‘George?’ I straighten up, thinking about it. ‘No. No way. And anyway, he’s old enough to be my dad. He’s married with kids.’
‘Since when has that stopped anyone?’ she drawls.
‘Stopped anyone what?’
‘Being a stalker?’ She laughs.
‘It’s not funny, Pip. It’s creepy.’
‘What about Leon? We already know he definitely fancies you.’
She’s talking about Leon Whittaker, who owns the wine bar up the road. ‘Well, I hope it’s not Leon,’ I reply, ‘because if it is, then that means he’s asking for trouble.’
‘True. Forget that. On second thoughts, there’s no way it’s Leon.’
I’m transported to last Christmas Eve when Leon Whittaker started chatting me up. Joe got angry with him for paying me so much attention when it was clear I was there with him, but Leon was cocky and refused to apologise. Punches were thrown, and Joe ended up knocking Leon unconscious. Joe was arrested. He pleaded guilty in court and received a fine and a twenty-six-week prison sentence, suspended for eighteen months. But we went through a few really stressful months, not knowing if he would end up behind bars. I wish I could forget the whole terrible episode.
I shake my head, trying to dislodge the memories. ‘Seriously though, Pippa, it’s weird, right? The letter sticking out of the floorboards.’ I hand her the pricing gun but instead of actually using it, she lays it down on her lap.
‘It is a bit spooky, darling,’ she agrees. ‘But maybe it really is just an innocent love letter and someone went a bit over the top on the delivery method.’
‘I’m going to check my phone’ – I get to my feet – ‘see if Joe’s got my message yet. Can you finish pricing the purses?’
‘I would, but it looks like Fenella and Co. are coming in.’
I glance over to the entrance, where I see a gaggle of Pippa’s old school friends on the pavement pointing at the window display. ‘Okay, Pip. Put the pricing on hold. You’re up. Make sure you bankrupt the lot of them.’
Pippa smirks and stands up, passing the price gun back to me and taking a deep breath. ‘Consider it done.’
I know it’s hard for Pippa. Her family used to be one of the wealthiest around, and now she can no longer afford to socialise with all her old friends. But she never complains about it. Just shrugs her shoulders and says that’s life. Stiff upper lip and all that. It’s not an uncommon situation for the British nobility to find themselves in. I should imagine the cost of running such enormous estates runs into thousands of pounds per month these days. The Manor House has been in Pippa’s family for centuries and so it’s hard for them to even consider selling.
By contrast, I was brought up locally by middle-class parents who had a mortgage on a perfectly respectable three-bedroom semi-detached house. I went to the local comprehensive school and would no more expect to be invited to Prince Charles and Camilla’s for tea than I would expect to fly to the moon. So, Pippa and I live on different social planets, but we’ve always got on well. And, considering she’s part of the nobility, she doesn’t seem to have a problem taking orders from me, her manager. I guess she’s… grounded.
‘Pippa, sweetie!’ Fenella Sherston-Moore sweeps into Georgio’s followed by three of her equally privileged friends. They greet one another in a shower of exclamations and air kisses.
I retreat into the back room to check my phone. There’s a text from Joe:
Got your message. What’s the note about? Meet at The Crown for lunch at one?
My heart rate quickens. So, the note wasn’t from Joe, then. I already guessed it wasn’t, but now that I know for sure, it’s made me doubly anxious. I tap out a quick reply:
Really busy so might be a bit late. Order me a cheese sarnie xx
I walk back out onto the shop floor feeling strange, like everything has shifted a little to the left. Someone – not Joe – left me an unsettling letter in my home. My mind is all over the place. Should I be worried?
Pippa walks past me with armfuls of clothes. Fenella and her friends haven’t bothered to draw the fitting-room curtains; instead, they’re stripping off in full view of the other customers with an enviable lack of self-consciousness. They stand in their Agent Provocateur underwear, tossing their hair and talking about Saturday’s polo match while Pippa hands them item after item, suggesting matching jewellery, belts and bags. George is going to be over the moon with today’s sales figures. I give Pippa an encouraging smile.
Somehow, for the rest of the morning, I manage to pull myself together enough to deal with the invoices that have become due. But my mind isn’t on my work. It’s on the letter and who could be behind it.
* * *
After a busy morning, I manage to slip away to meet Joe for lunch, leaving Pippa in charge of the shop. I walk quickly down the High Street, weaving between clusters of tourists who are blocking the narrow pavement, hovering outside restaurants and bars, checking out the menus on the wall. Or who, like me, are simply nipping out for a lunch break. The sun lasers down on my head and I’m looking forward to sitting down with a nice cold drink.
Malmesbury, our pretty market town, is situated in Wiltshire on the edge of the Cotswolds – the largest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in England, with its sweeping meadows, rolling hills, quaint cottages and stately homes. The Prince of Wales’ Highgrove Estate is just up the road in Tetbury, and there are more than a few movie stars, models and musicians living in the area. We also get a lot of customers who live most of the year in London but have their second homes here. They love bringing their friends down for the weekend, spending their money in the local delis, boutiques and clothes and gift shops like Georgio’s.
The Silent Sister by Shalini Boland / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on25 votes