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The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle


I forget everything between footsteps.

“Anna!” I finish shouting, snapping my mouth shut in surprise.

My mind has gone blank. I don’t know who Anna is or why I’m calling her name. I don’t even know how I got here. I’m stood in a forest, shielding my eyes from the spitting rain. My heart’s thumping, I reek of sweat and my legs are shaking. I must have been running but I can’t remember why.

“How did—” I’m cut short by the sight of my own hands. They’re bony, ugly. A stranger’s hands. I don’t recognize them at all.

Feeling the first touch of panic, I try to recall something else about myself: a family member, my address, age…anything, but nothing’s coming. I don’t even have a name. Every memory I had a few seconds ago is gone.

My throat tightens, breaths coming loud and fast. The forest is spinning, black spots inking my sight.

Be calm.

“I can’t breathe,” I gasp, blood roaring in my ears as I sink to the ground, my fingers digging into the dirt.

You can breathe; you just need to calm down.

There’s comfort in this inner voice, cold authority.

Close your eyes. Listen to the forest. Collect yourself.

Obeying the voice, I squeeze my eyes shut, but all I can hear is my own panicked wheezing. For the longest time it crushes every other sound, but slowly, ever so slowly, I work a hole in my fear, allowing other noises to break through. Raindrops are tapping the leaves, branches rustling overhead.

There’s a stream away to my right and crows in the trees, their wings cracking the air as they take flight. Something’s scurrying in the undergrowth, the thump of rabbit feet passing near enough to touch. One by one, I knit these new memories together until I’ve got five minutes of past to wrap myself in. It’s enough to stanch the panic, at least for now.

I get to my feet clumsily, surprised by how tall I am, how far from the ground I seem to be. Swaying a little, I wipe the wet leaves from my trousers, noticing for the first time that I’m wearing a dinner jacket, the shirt splattered with mud and red wine. I must have been at a party. My pockets are empty and I don’t have a coat, so I can’t have strayed too far.

That’s reassuring.

Judging by the light, it’s morning, so I’ve probably been out here all night. No one gets dressed up to spend an evening alone, which means somebody must know I’m missing by now. Surely, beyond these trees, a house is coming awake in alarm, search parties striking out to find me? My eyes roam the trees, half-expecting to see my friends emerging through the foliage, pats on the back and gentle jokes escorting me back home, but daydreams won’t deliver me from this forest, and I can’t linger here hoping for rescue. My body’s shaking, my teeth chattering. I need to start walking, if only to keep warm, but I can’t see anything except trees. There’s no way to know whether I’m moving toward help or blundering away from it.

At a loss, I return to the last concern of the man I was.


Whoever this woman is, she’s clearly the reason I’m out here, but I can’t picture her. Perhaps she’s my wife, or my daughter? Neither feels right, and yet there’s a pull in the name. I can feel it trying to lead my mind somewhere.

“Anna!” I shout, more out of desperation than hope.

“Help me!” a woman screams back.

I spin, seeking the voice, dizzying myself, glimpsing her between distant trees, a woman in a black dress running for her life. Seconds later, I spot her pursuer crashing through the foliage after her.

“You there, stop!” I yell, but my voice is weak and weary; they trample it underfoot.

Shock pins me in place, and the two of them are almost out of sight by the time I give chase, flying after them with a haste I’d never have thought possible from my aching body. Even so, no matter how hard I run, they’re always a little ahead.

Sweat pours off my brow, my already weak legs shaking until they give out, sending me sprawling into the dirt. Scrambling through the leaves, I heave myself up in time to meet her scream. It floods the forest, sharp with fear, and is cut silent by a gunshot.

“Anna!” I call out desperately. “Anna!”

There’s no response, just the fading echo of the pistol’s report.

“Thirty seconds,” I mutter. That’s how long I hesitated when I first spotted her, and that’s how far away I was when she was murdered. Thirty seconds of indecision…thirty seconds to abandon somebody completely.

There’s a thick branch by my feet, and picking it up, I swing it experimentally, comforted by the weight and rough texture of the bark. It won’t do me very much good against a pistol, but it’s better than investigating these woods with my hands in the air. I’m still panting, still trembling after the run, but guilt nudges me in the direction of Anna’s scream. Wary of making too much noise, I brush aside the low-hanging branches, searching for something I don’t really want to see.

Twigs crack to my left.

I stop breathing, listening fiercely.

The sound comes again, footsteps crunching over leaves and branches, circling around behind me.

My blood runs cold, freezing me in place. I don’t dare look over my shoulder.

The cracking of twigs moves closer, shallow breaths only a little behind me. My legs falter, the branch dropping from my hands.

I would pray, but I don’t remember the words.

Warm breath touches my neck. I smell alcohol and cigarettes, the odor of an unwashed body.

“East,” a man rasps, dropping something heavy into my pocket.

The presence recedes, his steps retreating into the woods as I sag, pressing my forehead to the dirt, inhaling the smell of wet leaves and rot, tears running down my cheeks.

My relief is pitiable, my cowardice lamentable. I couldn’t even look my tormentor in the eye. What kind of man am I?

It’s some minutes before my fear thaws sufficiently for me to move, and even then, I’m forced to lean against a nearby tree to rest. The murderer’s gift jiggles in my pocket, and dreading what I might find, I plunge my hand inside, withdrawing a silver compass.

“Oh!” I say, surprised.

The glass is cracked and the metal scuffed, the initials SB engraved on the underside. I don’t understand what they mean, but the killer’s instructions were clear. I’m to use the compass to head east.

I glance at the forest guiltily. Anna’s body must be near, but I’m terrified of the killer’s reaction should I arrive upon it. Perhaps that’s why I’m alive, because I didn’t come any closer. Do I really want to test the limits of his mercy?

Assuming that’s what this is.

For the longest time, I stare at the compass’s quivering needle. There’s not much I’m certain of anymore, but I know murderers don’t show mercy. Whatever game he’s playing, I can’t trust his advice and I shouldn’t follow it, but if I don’t… I search the forest again. Every direction looks the same: trees without end beneath a sky filled with spite.

How lost do you have to be to let the devil lead you home?

This lost, I decide. Precisely this lost.

Easing myself off the tree, I lay the compass flat in my palm. It yearns for north, so I point myself east, against the wind and cold, against the world itself.

Hope has deserted me.

I’m a man in purgatory, blind to the sins that chased me here.








The wind howls, the rain has picked up and is hammering through the trees to bounce ankle high off the ground as I follow the compass.

Spotting a flash of color among the gloom, I wade toward it, coming upon a red handkerchief hammered to a tree—the relic of some long-forgotten child’s game, I’d guess. I search for another, finding it a few feet away, then another and another. Stumbling between them, I make my way through the murk until I reach the edge of the forest, the trees giving way to the grounds of a sprawling Georgian manor house, its redbrick facade entombed in ivy. As far as I can tell, it’s abandoned. The long gravel driveway leading to the front door is covered in weeds, and the rectangular lawns either side of it are marshland, their flowers left to wither in the verge.

I look for some sign of life, my gaze roaming the dark windows until I spot a faint light on the second floor. It should be a relief, yet still I hesitate. I have the sense of having stumbled upon something sleeping, that uncertain light the heartbeat of a creature vast and dangerous and still. Why else would a murderer gift me this compass, if not to lead me into the jaws of some greater evil?

It’s the thought of Anna that drives me to take the first step. She lost her life because of those thirty seconds of indecision, and now I’m faltering again. Swallowing my nerves, I wipe the rain from my eyes and cross the lawn, climbing the crumbling steps to the front door. I hammer it with a child’s fury, dashing the last of my strength on the wood. Something terrible happened in that forest, something that can still be punished if I can only rouse the occupants of the house.

Unfortunately, I cannot.

Despite beating myself limp against the door, nobody comes to answer it.

Cupping my hands, I press my nose to the tall windows either side, but the stained glass is thick with dirt, reducing everything inside to a yellowy smudge. I bang on them with my palm, stepping back to search the front of the house for another way in. That’s when I notice the bellpull, the rusty chain tangled in ivy. Wrenching it free, I give it a good yank and keep going until something shifts behind the windows.

The door is opened by a sleepy-looking fellow so extraordinary in his appearance that for a moment we simply stand there, gaping at each other. He’s short and crooked, shriveled by the fire that’s scarred half his face. Overlarge pajamas hang off a coat-hanger frame, a ratty brown dressing gown clinging to his lopsided shoulders. He looks barely human, a remnant of some prior species lost in the folds of our evolution.

“Oh, thank heavens. I need your help,” I say, recovering myself.

He looks at me, mouth agape.

“Do you have a telephone?” I try again. “We need to send for the authorities.”


“Don’t just stand there, you devil!” I cry, shaking him by the shoulders, before pushing past him into the entrance hall, my jaw dropping as my gaze sweeps the room. Every surface is glittering, the checked marble floor reflecting a crystal chandelier adorned with dozens of candles. Framed mirrors line the walls, a wide staircase with an ornate railing sweeping up toward a gallery, a narrow red carpet flowing down the steps like the blood of some slaughtered animal.

A door bangs at the rear of the room, half a dozen servants appearing from deeper in the house, their arms laden with pink and purple flowers, the scent just about covering the smell of hot wax. All conversation stops when they notice the nightmare panting by the door. One by one, they turn toward me, the hall holding its breath. Before long, the only sound is the dripping of my clothes on their nice clean floor.




“Sebastian?” A handsome blond fellow in a cricket sweater and linen trousers is trotting down the staircase two steps at a time. He looks to be in his early fifties, though age has left him decadently rumpled rather than weary and worn. Keeping his hands in his pockets, he crosses the floor toward me, cutting a straight line through the silent servants who part before him. I doubt he even notices them, so intent are his eyes upon me.

“My dear man, what on earth happened to you?” he asks, concern crumpling his brow. “Last I saw—”

“We must fetch the police,” I say, clutching his forearm. “Anna’s been murdered.”

Shocked whispers spring up around us.

He frowns at me, casting a quick glance at the servants, who’ve all taken a step closer.

“Anna?” he asks in a hushed voice.

“Yes. Anna. She was being chased.”

“By whom?”

“Some figure in black. We must involve the police!”

“Shortly, shortly, let’s go up to your room first,” he soothes, ushering me toward the staircase.

I don’t know if it’s the heat of the house, or the relief of finding a friendly face, but I’m beginning to feel faint, and I have to use the banister to keep from stumbling as we climb the steps.

A grandfather clock greets us at the top, its mechanism rusting, seconds turned to dust on its pendulum. It’s later than I thought, almost 10:30 a.m.

Passages either side of us lead off into opposite wings of the house, although the one into the east wing is blocked by a velvet curtain that’s been hastily nailed to the ceiling, a small sign pinned to the material proclaiming the area under decoration.

Impatient to unburden myself of the morning’s trauma, I try again to raise the issue of Anna, but my Samaritan silences me with a conspiratorial shake of the head.

“These damnable servants will smear your words up and down the house in half a minute,” he says, his voice low enough to scoop off the floor. “Best we talk in private.”

He’s away from me in two strides, but I can barely walk in a straight line, let alone keep pace.

“My dear man, you look dreadful,” he says, noticing that I’ve fallen behind.

Supporting my arm, he guides me along the passage, his hand at my back, fingers pressed against my spine. Though a simple gesture, I can feel his urgency as he leads me along a gloomy corridor with bedrooms either side, maids dusting inside. The walls must have been recently repainted for the fumes are making my eyes water, further evidence of a hurried restoration gathering as we progress along the passage. Mismatched stain is splashed across the floorboards, rugs laid down to try and muffle creaking joints. Wingback chairs have been arranged to hide the cracks in the walls, while paintings and porcelain vases attempt to lure the eye from crumbling cornices. Given the extent of the decay, such concealment seems a futile gesture. They’ve carpeted a ruin.

“Ah, this is your bedroom, isn’t it?” says my companion, opening a door near the end of the corridor.

Cold air slaps me in the face, reviving me a little, but he walks ahead to close the raised window it’s pouring through. Following behind, I enter a pleasant room with a four-poster bed set in the middle of the floor, its regal bearing only slightly let down by the sagging canopy and threadbare curtains, their embroidered birds flying apart at the seams. A folding screen has been pulled across the left side of the room, an iron bathtub visible through the gaps between the panels. Other than that, the furniture’s sparse—just a nightstand and a large wardrobe near the window, both of them splintered and faded. About the only personal item I can see is a King James Bible on the nightstand, its cover worn through and pages dog-eared.

As my Samaritan wrestles with the stiff window, I come to stand beside him, the view momentarily driving all else from my mind. Dense forest surrounds us, its green canopy unbroken by either a village or road. Without that compass, without a murderer’s kindness, I’d never have found this place, and yet I cannot shake the feeling that I’ve been lured into a trap. After all, why kill Anna and spare me, if there wasn’t some grander plan behind it? What does this devil want from me that he couldn’t take in the forest?

Slamming the window shut, my companion gestures to an armchair next to a subdued fire, and passing me a crisp white towel from the cupboard, he sits down on the edge of the bed, tossing one leg across the other. “Start at the beginning, old love,” he says.

“There isn’t time,” I say, gripping the arm of the chair. “I’ll answer all your questions in due course, but we must first call for the police and search those woods! There’s a madman loose.”

His eyes flicker across me, as though the truth of the matter is to be found within the folds of my soiled clothing.

“I’m afraid we can’t call anybody. There’s no line up here,” he says, rubbing his neck. “But we can search the woods and send a servant to the village, should we find anything. How long will it take you to change? You’ll need to show us where it happened.”

“Well.” I’m wringing the towel in my hands. “It’s difficult. I was disoriented.”

“Descriptions, then,” he says, hitching up a trouser leg, exposing the gray sock at his ankle. “What did the murderer look like?”

“I never saw his face. He was wearing a heavy black coat.”

“And this Anna?”

“She was also wearing black,” I say, heat rising into my cheeks as I realize this is the extent of my information. “I… Well, I only know her name.”

“Forgive me, Sebastian. I assumed she was a friend of yours.”

“No…” I stammer. “I mean, perhaps. I can’t be certain.”

Hands dangling between his knees, my Samaritan leans forward with a confused smile. “I’m missing something, I think. How can you know her name, but not be certain—”

“My memory is lost, damn it,” I interrupt, the confession thudding on the floor between us. “I can’t remember my own name, let alone those of my friends.”

Skepticism billows up behind his eyes. I can’t blame him; even to my ears, this all sounds absurd.

“My memory has no bearing on what I witnessed,” I insist, clutching at the tatters of my credibility. “I saw a woman being chased. She screamed and was silenced by a gunshot. We have to search those woods!”

“I see.” He pauses, brushing some lint from a trouser leg. His next words are offerings, carefully chosen and even more carefully placed before me.

“Is there a chance the two people you saw were lovers? Playing a game in the woods, perhaps? The sound might have been a branch cracking, even a starting pistol.”

“No, no. She called for help; she was afraid,” I say, my agitation sending me leaping from the chair, the dirty towel thrown on the floor.

“Of course, of course,” he says reassuringly, watching me pace. “I do believe you, my dear fellow, but the police are so precise about these things and they do delight in making their betters look foolish.”

I stare at him helplessly, drowning in a sea of platitudes.

“Her killer gave me this,” I say, suddenly remembering the compass, which I tug from my pocket. It’s smeared with mud, forcing me to wipe it clean with my sleeve. “There are letters on the back,” I say, pointing a trembling finger toward them.

He views the compass through narrowed eyes, turning it over in a methodical fashion.

“SB,” he says slowly, looking up at me.

“Yes!” “Sebastian Bell.” He pauses, weighing my confusion. “That’s your name, Sebastian. These are your initials. This is your compass.”

My mouth opens and closes, no sound coming out. “I must have lost it,” I say eventually. “Perhaps the killer picked it up.”

“Perhaps.” He nods.

It’s his kindness that knocks the wind out of me. He thinks I’m half mad, a drunken fool who spent the night in the forest and came back raving. Yet instead of being angry, he pities me. That’s the worst part. Anger’s solid; it has weight. You can beat your fists against it. Pity’s a fog to become lost within.

I drop into the chair, my head cradled in my hands. There’s a killer on the loose, and I have no way of convincing him of the danger.

A killer who showed you the way home?

“I know what I saw,” I say.

You don’t even know who you are.

“I’m sure you do,” says my companion, mistaking the nature of my protest.

I stare at nothing, thinking only of a woman called Anna lying dead in the forest.

“Look, you rest here,” he says, standing up. “I’ll ask around the house, see if anybody’s missing. Maybe that will turn something up.”

His tone is conciliatory but matter of fact. Kind as he’s been to me, I cannot trust his doubt will get anything done. Once that door closes behind him, he’ll scatter a few halfhearted questions among the staff, while Anna lays abandoned.

“I saw a woman murdered,” I say, getting to my feet wearily. “A woman I should have helped, and if I have to search every inch of those woods to prove it, I’ll do so.”

He holds my gaze a second, his skepticism faltering in the face of my certainty.

“Where will you start?” he asks. “There are thousands of acres of forest out there, and for all your good intentions, you could barely make it up the stairs. Whoever this Anna is, she’s already dead and her murderer’s fled. Give me an hour to gather a search party and ask my questions. Somebody in this house must know who she is and where she went. We’ll find her, I promise, but we have to do it the right way.”

He squeezes my shoulder.

“Can you do as I ask? One hour, please.”

Objections choke me, but he’s right. I need to rest, to recover my strength, and as guilty as I feel about Anna’s death, I do not want to stalk into that forest alone. I barely made it out of there the first time.

I submit with a meek nod of the head.

“Thank you, Sebastian,” he says. “A bath’s been run. Why don’t you clean yourself up? I’ll send for the doctor and ask my valet to lay out some clothes for you. Rest a little. We’ll meet in the drawing room at lunchtime.”

I should ask after this place before he leaves, my purpose here, but I’m impatient for him to start asking his questions so we can get on with our search. Only one question seems important now, and he’s already opened the door by the time I find the words to ask it.

“Do I have any family in the house?” I ask. “Anybody who might be worried about me?”

He glances at me over his shoulder, wary with sympathy.

“You’re a bachelor, old man. No family to speak of beyond a dotty aunt somewhere with a hand on your purse strings. You have friends, of course, myself among them, but whoever this Anna is, you’ve never mentioned her to me. Truth be told, until today, I’ve never even heard you say the name.”

Embarrassed, he turns his back on my disappointment and disappears into the cold corridor, the fire flickering uncertainly as the door closes behind him.

The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
by by Stuart Turton