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Erased

an extract from the novel
by Nick Gifford

Foreword

Erased is my fourth novel for Puffin. Each of these was written for a teen audience and, while the adult reviewers have been positive about them all, Erased is the one that I really think might be of most interest to an adult readership, which is why it's featured here.

The first three led to the Sunday Express labelling me "king of children's horror", which is rather nice. Piggies (2003) is a parallel words horror story, subsequently optioned for the movies; Flesh and Blood (2004) is a more domestic horror story about a rather odd family in a town very much like the one where I grew up; Incubus (2005) stays domestic, whilst bringing in German legend and the building of the Berlin wall. Erased is a bit of a departure, an SF thriller about a teenager learning that his life has been a lie: he's forced to reassess everything he has ever believed to be true, whilst making decisions that could seal the fate of himself and others.

Puffin's publicity for Erased says:

"You're not paranoid if they really are after you.
    Someone is messing with Liam's world. All the rules have changed and his life has unravelled completely. He can't even trust his own memories.
    What he does know is that someone is watching him. Someone thinks he's dangerous.
    Liam has to fight back. There are no bystanders in this terrifying game. Only players and victims.
    And Liam isn't going to be a victim."

And here's the opening...


1. Another Normal Day

Erased by Nick GiffordIt was just another normal day, much like any other. Liam Connor didn't know it would be the last normal day of his life.

Liam was fifteen. He was a bright boy, never top in his class at anything, but always up there. He fitted in. He had lots of friends. He had parents he admired, and he split his time between boarding school and living with his mother and father in their comfortable town house on the outskirts of Norwich. His life could hardly have been more settled.

Liam Connor had been living a lie. Only ... it turned out that it was a lie no-one had thought to let him in on.

Liam Connor was about to find this out.

Liam jumped out of the train as soon as the door would open. It was a Friday evening in the middle of May and normally he would be at school over the weekend. Today, though, they'd granted him an exeat, special permission to leave early and head for home. His father was back from his travels, and Liam and his parents were going to spend the weekend together.

Liam left the station with his bag over his shoulder and crossed onto Riverside Road. A few minutes later he was on New Chapel Road, which cut across one corner of the Heath. Almost home.

He was hot from the walk, and from carrying his weekend bag in the May sunshine. It was only a couple of weeks since he'd last been home, but then it had just been him and Mum. His father worked for the Government and travelled a lot. Ministry of Defence, Liam thought, although he wasn't sure. One time when he'd asked, his dad had just given one of his winning smiles and shaken his head. "Sorry, Liam. I can't tell you what I do. Top secret. If I told you I'd have to kill you..." Liam liked to think that was true, but he suspected his father did something altogether un-glamorous: more carpet fitter or catering consultant than 007.

Liam paused, and let his bag slide from his shoulder, catching the strap in one hand as it slithered down his arm. He rolled his shoulders, wondering why he'd packed so much just for a weekend.

The house looked just the same as it always did. Detached, set back from the road, slightly shielded from view by three silvery eucalyptus trees. There was no sign of anybody at home, no car in the drive. It was probably in the garage, he thought, although Mum hardly ever bothered to park it in there.

He crunched a diagonal route across the drive, then crossed the small patch of front lawn.

The front door was open a short way, as if it had been left for him, or as if someone had casually forgotten to close it upon leaving. He pushed on it gently and it was at that moment that he started to understand that something was very seriously wrong.

He paused on the doorstep. A blackbird clacked angrily from the fence. A car went slowly past, classical music playing softly on the stereo. Somewhere, he heard the whine of a distant lawnmower.

He didn't know what it was, but he knew that something was wrong. Despite all the normal sounds and smells, despite the fact that nothing was obviously amiss, his heart raced and sweat broke out across his brow.

He dropped his bag and went inside.

The hall was no different to usual. Polished floorboards, dark wood panelling covering the lower half of the walls, stairs off to the left turning at right-angles after five steps. A tall mirror was on the wall in front of him. His short blond hair stood in haphazard tufts and spikes and automatically he reached up to smooth it. He could see the apprehension in his own eyes.

"Hello?" His voice sounded strong. It didn't betray the tension he felt. They taught you to project your voice at school.

He turned to the right and pushed at the living room door.

Inside, it was as if a whirlwind had struck.

He went in.

The sofa had been tipped over onto its back, and Liam could see that the fabric panel stretched across its base frame had been slashed, as if someone had been searching for something. The armchair was on its side, slit open, too. The antique, glass-paneled bookcase had been tipped forward and broken glass was scattered over the floor around it. The Lucien Freud print of a greyhound had been ripped out and its frame smashed. Family photographs and books had snowstormed across the floor. A wooden-backed chair that had once stood against the wall by the bay window had been smashed into the widescreen TV, and now stuck out into the room like some weird kind of sculpture.

Liam stood very still.

Now he regretted having called out. What if they were still here? Whoever "they" were...

He couldn't hear anything from within the house, only the distant sounds of normal life from outside.

Mum ... Dad ... where were they? Was this the aftermath of some kind of row between them? But his parents never fought. Had they been here when this happened...?

He went through to the dining room, and it was in a similar state, the Welsh dresser tipped forward across the table, smashed crockery spread over the table and floor.

He hoped his parents hadn't been here. He didn't want to find them ... broken.

In the kitchen, all the cupboards were open, their contents emptied onto the floor. Out in the garden, nothing seemed to have been touched.

He went to the stairs and hesitated. Should he make a lot of noise, or go up silently? Or should he just leave?

He went up, treading carefully.

He stood on the landing and eyed the half-open doors: his parents' room, his room, the spare, the bathroom. Everything remained silent.

He nudged the first door open with the toe of his school shoe. There was more upheaval in his parents' room, but it looked less violent here. Clothes had been dragged out of the wardrobes and drawers, but nothing had been smashed. Liam could almost kid himself that this was just the normal mess of busy lives.

In the spare room, boxes had been ripped open, and the papers from his parents' desks were everywhere. Their computers were on the floor, cases ripped off, gutted. The bathroom seemed largely untouched.

He hesitated again before the door of his own bedroom, then went in.

Suddenly it was just a normal day again. Back home for the weekend. His bed, his World Cup football chart, the crystal radio set he had built at Christmas, his science-fiction books. The window was open on the first catch: his mother must have been airing the room ahead of his return.

He shut the door and sat on the bed, pulling his knees up to his chest, suddenly shaking quite uncontrollably. He jammed his eyes tightly shut and tensed his whole body, struggling to control the tremors. He felt sick and he felt scared.

What had happened here? Where were Mum and Dad?

They knew he was coming home on the early evening train. Why weren't they waiting for him? Why wasn't Dad in the kitchen cooking one of the huge feasts he liked to prepare, and Mum in the living room, righting the furniture and clearing up the mess?

It must have been kids. Vandals. Or burglars, stealing anything they could carry and then trashing the place just for the hell of it.

So why weren't Mum and Dad here?

He took his phone out of his trouser pocket and flipped it open. No missed calls, no unread texts. He called Dad's mobile but only got through to the answering service. The same with Mum's.

He tried another number. On the fourth ring it was answered. "Yes?" said a familiar voice. "What is it?"

"Kath," said Liam. "It's me. Little brother."

"Oh, hi. How's things, littl'un?"

"I... Do you know where Mum and Dad are?"

"No, why should I?" Kath hardly ever spoke to their parents, even though she only lived a couple of miles away across the city. "Where are you, Liam? You okay?"

"I'm home. I came back for the weekend. They're not here. I don't know where they are."

"Probably out shopping or something. You sure they were expecting you? It's not half-term yet, is it?"

"They invited me back, Kath. Listen ... the house ... the place has been trashed. Something terrible has happened here. I don't know what to do."

There was a silence, then. Eventually, Liam broke it. "Are you still there, Kath?"

"I'm here, littl'un." Her voice had changed, the tone suddenly flat and tired. "Are you okay, Liam? Have you spoken to anyone? Have you called the police?"

"I've only just got here," he said. "No-one's here. I tried Mum and Dad's mobiles but they didn't answer."

"Okay. Listen to me. You need to get yourself out of there. Come away right now -- over here to my place. Once you're here we can work out what to do. Do you understand?"

Liam was only too glad to hear this. All of a sudden the thing he wanted most in the world was to get out of this place.

Downstairs, the front door banged open against the doorstop, a familiar sound to Liam.

"Hey, Kath," he said, rising from the bed. "I heard the door. It's probably Mum and Dad. I'll call you back." He ended the call and slipped his phone back in his pocket.

Easing his bedroom door open, he stepped softly out onto the landing.

It was silent downstairs. Maybe it had just been a breeze catching the door, swinging it open against the doorstop.

Then there was another sound, a muttered word. It was a man's voice, too soft for Liam to be sure but it could easily be his father.

He peered down the stairwell. He saw the top of a man's head. Dark hair cut short. Balding on the crown. No, not his father. Liam could see a corner of the hall mirror from here, and what he could see of the man's face confirmed this. The man's features were too sharp, his face too thin. His dark eyes flicked about, giving him the air of a twitchy animal.

Liam kept his head down. If he could get back to his room, he could climb out of the window and lower himself and then drop to the back lawn.

Just then, deep in his trouser pocket, his phone rang.

The man looked up and saw Liam. His mouth opened, but no sound escaped. He reached for the banister and stepped onto the stairs.

Liam backed away, but the man came up quickly. He was tall, wearing a shabby grey suit and a dark tie loose at the neck. He had the kind of dark, peppered stubble that could never be shaved away. "I don't think you're going to answer that, are you?" he said in a London accent.

Liam reached for his pocket, but didn't take out the phone.

He glanced towards his bedroom door, but realised his chance of escaping through the window had gone. He eyed the gap between the man and the top of the stairs, wondering if he could barge past.

"Don't even think about it," said the man. "Even if you get past me there's a Constable on the door."

Constable ... "You're police?" said Liam, relief flooding in. The phone kept repeating its tune.

"What did you think I was?"

"I... Something's happened," said Liam. "Downstairs. Up here, too." The phone stopped. A second later, it started up again.

"Looks like we caught you red-handed, doesn't it?" said the man.

It took a moment for Liam to work out what he was implying. "What do you mean? It wasn't ... I live here. I've just got here and found it like this." The phone stopped after three rings this time, and remained silent.

"Why should I believe that?"

"Downstairs," said Liam. "I can prove it."

The man stepped aside. There are some people you just dislike immediately, and this was one of them. The lop-sided smirk on his face, the twitchy movements of his eyes, the way he seemed to make accusations with everything he said. "You first," he said, waving a hand towards the stairs.

Liam stepped past him and headed down. Through the open front door he could see the back of a man in police uniform and it was only then that he realised he had seen no proof that this man following him down the stairs actually was a policeman, as he claimed. The sight of the uniform reassured him.

In the front room, Liam stooped to retrieve one of the photographs from the floor. It was one his mother had taken: Liam and his father at Christmas. The two of them: blond, grey eyes, the same rounded features. He handed it to the man, who squinted at it and then stared at Liam. He shrugged. "Looks like you," he said. "You know how it seemed." That seemed to be it, as far as apologies went. "This your dad? Where is he? Where are your parents?"

"I don't know," said Liam. "They should have been here."

"So who did all this, then?"

"How should I know?" Liam's head was hurting now, a deep throbbing ache behind the eyes. "I don't know what's going on."

"Is anything missing?"

Liam shrugged. Only his parents.

"So what do they do? Your parents." As he spoke, the policeman walked slowly around the room, poking at the debris with his feet, occasionally squatting to pick something up for a closer look.

"Mum works in a research centre at the university. Medical research. Dad..." He stopped, flashing back to how his father always avoided the question of exactly what he did for a living -- something that involved a lot of travel, a lot of meetings in London, a lot of secrecy.

"Yes?"

"He works for a government department. Civil Service. He's away a lot."

"Why would anyone want to do this?"

Liam shrugged again. "They're missing," he said. "My parents. They should be here but they've disappeared. What are you going to do?" He rubbed at his aching head.

"We'll do what we can. Has anything like this happened before?"

Liam shook his head. Everything had been pretty much perfect before. A comfortable life, an easy existence. Oddly, he realised that the sun seemed to shine from a blue sky in all of his childhood memories. Life really had been good.

But now... Now his head hurt.

"My sister," he said. "I need to get to my sister."

...continues


© Nick Gifford 2006.
Erased was published by Puffin in January 2006.
Erased by Nick Gifford
Piggies by Nick Gifford Flesh and Blood by Nick GiffordIncubus by Nick Gifford

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...Incubus from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.

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