>>> Prologue <<<
The night wasn't going according to Stephanie's plans. In fact, it wasn't going well at all. Furious, she stared up at the ceiling of her studio flat, wondering if it might come down any time soon, and with it her partying neighbours. The noise had been annoying all evening. Now, however, it was unbearable. The loud stomping of at least twenty people, accompanied by even louder music, the bass thumping through the thin walls of the Victorian conversion made it impossible to sleep. Even the earplugs she had finally resorted to weren't helping. It wasn't the first time that she had been kept awake; the three people sharing the flat above didn't understand the concept of respect. Stephanie had tried everything possible, from talking to them politely to a much firmer tone. She'd involved her landlady, the agent, the council—nothing resolved the problem. Two years of hell and she was at her wits' end; a nervous wreck, the exhaustion finally leading to depression, which eventually led to her losing her job. She was stuck in an unwanted situation; no money meant she couldn't move elsewhere. Shaking with anger, she threw back the duvet, got up, and slipped into her clothes.
Shivering in the cold, dark hallway, her heart racing, she banged her fist hard on the wood.
'Ouch!' The last blow was one too many; her hand was hot and she knew it was probably red and going to swell. She swallowed tears of frustration and waited. Nothing.
'Right, you bastards, I'll get through to you whatever it takes,' she said through clenched teeth, grabbed the first thing available—one of her boots—and slammed it with all the power she could muster against the door. Several times. Her wrists hurt and she was out of breath. Finally the door opened and Natalie stared at her.
'Can I help you?' Natalie asked, her voice carrying little compassion; it was clear what was about to come.
Stephanie breathed in and instantly regretted it; the smell of alcohol and tobacco hit her full on in her face.
'Hi, Natalie. I was just wondering if you knew that it's gone three in the morning.'
'I'd really like to sleep now. Could you at least keep it down a bit?'
Natalie shrugged. Her face showed no signs of being sorry. 'Okay.'
'Maybe you could move upstairs, to your bedroom? I mean I wouldn't be able to hear you, then.'
Stephanie tried to stay as calm as possible; she might finally reach a compromise. 'You see, I can't go anywhere as I only have this one room, which is underneath your living room. You have another level.'
Natalie shifted slightly, processing what had been suggested, then her eyes grew large and her expression changed. 'You know what? I think you're really rude. If you live in a house like this in London, you should expect some noise. If you can't take it, then you should move!'
With that she slammed the door. Speechless and feeling sick, Stephanie returned to her flat, consumed by hatred.
Natalie stomped upstairs to the living room where everyone was merrily drinking and chatting, oblivious to the exchange that had just happened. She slalomed—careful to avoid stepping on hands, bottles and ashtrays—around a snogging couple. A girl she had not seen before was sleeping on the floor as if she had been dropped there. Engaged in a chat with her crush, her flatmate Laura sat on the sofa by the window, but looked up as Natalie approached.
'Hey, you all right?' Laura asked.
'Guess what? Bitch downstairs complained again.'
Laura sighed. 'What's new?'
'Yeah, said we should move to my room.'
'No. She didn't!'
'Yeah, she did.' Natalie snorted. 'As if ...'
Laura shrugged twisting a strand of her shoulder-length dark hair between her fingers. 'What's she gonna do? Call the police?'
'I doubt she will.'
'No, she'd better not,' Laura said, shaking her head, 'but we'll have the landlady in our hair tomorrow.'
'Don't care,' Natalie replied. 'And anyway, she'll have her peace for a while since we're going,' she gestured with thumb over her shoulder, 'you know where.'
Laura nodded and Natalie continued, 'Today's today and today means party.' She grinned, turned on her heel and went into the kitchen to get herself a beer.
The next day, Stephanie called her landlady. She was slightly hungover after the bottle of wine she'd had last night. Watching a film didn't work, she hadn't been able to understand a word. It had been torture since those people moved in. Nothing else but torture.
'Oh, hello, it's me again. Stephanie.'
'Hello, how are you?'
'Not good, to be honest. You probably guessed it, but I have to complain once again.'
'What have they done now?'
'I don't know what to do anymore. Maybe you need to move out.'
'Me?' Stephanie didn't know what else to say, she was too stunned by that suggestion.
'Yes. I'm really sorry. I don't want to lose you, but I can't take the complaints anymore, and I can't throw them out, they pay their rent and I never hear from them.'
'You're kicking me out even though it's not me who disturbs others?'
'I'm afraid you leave me no other choice.'
Stephanie felt a massive lump in her throat and swallowed. Panic set in.
'Are you still there?' her landlady asked.
'Yes,' Stephanie whispered.
'I'll send you a letter with the notice. I'm really sorry, but I can't deal with it anymore.'
Try living with it. 'I can't believe I get punished for their behaviour!' Stephanie looked around her studio flat, the cosy room she'd made her own; she listened to the traffic outside, to the silence from above. Will she really have to leave the flat she called a home, that had grown on her?
'I don't want to do it either, we never had any problems, but I don't see how the situation could be improved.'
'Neither do I,' Stephanie replied, thoughts racing in her head. She needed to check for flats immediately.
'Listen, I need to go. I'm sorry.'
Stephanie stared at her mobile for a whole minute after the conversation ended, trying to grasp what had happened. Those arseholes upstairs won; they would love it. Noisy and ruthless people one: nil for the suffering neighbours. With shaking hands, she called her friend, tears rolling down her cheeks, but only reached his voicemail. Slowly, she came to realise that she'd just been made homeless and that she needed to find something as soon as possible. She opened her laptop and began her search. Only minutes later, the door next to her flat was slammed so hard everything rattled. She clenched her teeth, and on her notepad next to the laptop she wrote: I. Am. Going. To. Kill. Them! Brutally!
>>> 1 <<<
On their way to the hospital, the three of them made plans for the rest of the year: there were plenty of festivals to attend, and Laura—being a music journalist—would get free tickets for almost all of them. The choice was theirs.
'We could even go on holiday, Jason,' Natalie said.
Jason laughed. 'I wish. Think I'd rather pay off some of our debts.'
'You're not going to use all the money for that, are you?' She looked at him in disbelief.
'Haven't decided yet. Can we please not discuss it right now?'
Natalie shrugged. 'It's your money.'
'Hey, you two,' Laura interrupted. 'Shut up already. We're going to spend day and night together from now on, so quit the arguing.'
Natalie nodded. 'You're right. We can sort that out later.'
Jason mumbled something that sounded like an agreement and opened his newspaper to read. Laura snorted, then leaned back and closed her eyes while Natalie stared at the Tube map, twirling a lock of her long, dyed red hair around her finger. In a month's time, they'd have £2500 each, if the drug trial was successful. They had complied with everything they had been told: no caffeine or alcohol for forty eight hours and even stayed away from cigarettes, something Natalie especially found difficult. But the money and what she could do with it had won the argument.
'I hate needles,' Laura said suddenly.
'Me, too,' Natalie answered. Jason only shrugged, continuing to read.
Natalie snorted. 'We'll have to have a massive party when we're back. Piss off that bitch downstairs.'
Jason folded the paper and shook his head. 'What's with your obsession with that woman?'
'I want her to move out,' Natalie replied.
'Yep, get someone nice in, who won't complain all the time.'
Jason sighed. 'Women!'
'Come on, as if you're not annoyed with her.' Laura nudged him in the side.
'Yes, but we're not going to see her for a while, so can we just drop it for now?'
Natalie groaned. 'I hate not sleeping in my own bed. Hopefully we'll get beds next to each other.'
Laura stared at her. 'Bit random.'
'Why? They said there are more people taking part and I really don't want to sleep next to a fat old guy who snores all night.'
Jason laughed. 'I'm sure we can arrange something, lass.'
Laura stood. 'Right, guys, our stop.'
'I feel a little sick,' Natalie said.
'You can still go home,' Jason replied, grinning at her uneasiness.
'Nope,' she shook her head, 'I want to buy a flat screen and go on holiday this year.'
They left the station and took the ten minute walk to the hospital. In front of it, they stopped, looked at each other and grinned.
'Let the adventure begin,' Laura said, ringing the buzzer.
After a few formalities, they sat in the waiting area they had been led to. Natalie grabbed Jason's hand and pointed at syringes on the tray. 'Hold my hand, please?'
''Course I will.' He gently stroked her face and gave her a kiss on the cheek. It was times like this when he felt manly, the protector. It was she who wore the trousers in their relationship; and she could be overpowering. He loved her, but he loved her all the more at this moment.
A blonde nurse appeared and nodded at her. 'Okay, let's get it done and over with, eh?' she said. Natalie stood, pale-faced.
Jason stood, too. 'Is it all right if I come with you?' He smiled at the nurse. 'She's a little scared of needles.'
The nurse shrugged. 'No problem, she's not the first.'
'Please be gentle with me,' Natalie whined. Jason put his arm around her.
'I'll use the smallest needle I can find. You'll hardly notice, but you know you'll have a plastic tube in your vein? It'll have to stay for the whole period, I'm afraid.'
'Don't care,' Natalie muttered as she sat, 'as long as I don't feel the needle going in.'
'No worries, it'll be over before you know it.' The nurse prepared Natalie's arm, then nodded to Jason, who diverted his girlfriend's attention. A few moments later Natalie hissed softly and squeezed her eyes shut.
'Thank God for that. Wasn't that bad, thank you.' Natalie said with a small shudder.
After Jason and Laura received their IVs, they were told to go to the ward. They went up three flights and arrived out of breath and dizzy.
'And I thought we were here for a relaxed time, not for fitness,' Natalie said to Laura, who sat on a bed.
'As far as I know we don't need to run up and down all the time,' Laura replied with a grin.
A door opened and a short, slightly overweight nurse entered the room. 'Hello there. Reception called that you were on your way up.' She looked at a chart. 'I'm Anna, one of the nurses keeping an eye on you. The other one is Claire, who you've already met. We're just waiting for one other person to join you, then you'll get something to eat and your first tablet.' She spoke with a faint Eastern European accent. All three nodded and introduced themselves.
'So how is it going to be? Do we have to stay inside all the time, or are we allowed to go out?' Jason asked.
Anna smiled. 'I'm afraid you're imprisoned for the time being and visitors will have to show their bags. We need to be sure that you aren't breaking the rules.'
Natalie frowned. 'You're not giving us stripy outfits, though, are you?' And hopefully not your pink shoes. Although the 80s were the trend right now, those neon colours were painful to look at.
'No, we're not going that far. We want you to see it as a holiday. Away from your daily stress, no work, no bills, no nothing, just you.' Now, Anna grinned.
'That's exactly what I need. Not to have to listen to all those terrible bands who think they're the next Oasis.' Laura snorted.
'Hello? Am I in the right place here?' a male voice behind Anna said.
She turned around to greet the new arrival. 'For drug trial number 1322? What's your name?' she asked.
He cleared his throat. 'Gary. Gary O'Neil.'
She let her finger wander down her list, ticked behind his name and said, 'Yes, welcome. Are you hungry?'
He nodded. 'Very.'
Natalie craned her neck to see him better. He was a tiny guy, his face red from either climbing the stairs or embarrassment, matching his hair. From the accent, she figured he was Irish. Shy blue eyes met hers for a fraction of a second while he stood in the door like a naughty schoolboy.
Laura took the opportunity to introduce herself and the others.
'Feels a bit like school trip, doesn't it? Meeting new people, all meals at the same time, lights out at ten!' Jason said, readjusting his ponytail and taking in the room. Typical hospital: beds with tables next to them, curtains for privacy, drawn back made it one big dorm; grey-white patterned linoleum flooring, trolleys for discarded syringes and clothes; the smell of disinfectants.
Anna said, 'You can leave your bags here, the ward will be locked for now. I'm going to show you round quickly and then you'll get a late breakfast.'
'That's music to my ears; I'm starving,' Jason mumbled and followed the group. As soon as they stepped into the corridor, the light went on.
'Motion sensor. Nice,' Gary said.
Anna nodded. 'We're trying to be energy efficient.' She pointed left and right, explaining where they could play pool or watch TV, where they could find computers or additional toilets. She told them about the consulting rooms and finally, they arrived at the canteen, which smelled deliciously of food. Each of them grabbed a tray and sat down at one of the four white tables.
'You have a coffee machine there, you can drink as much as you like, though I'm afraid, it's decaffeinated,' Anna explained.
Natalie groaned. 'No fags, no caffeine, no freedom—anything we are allowed to do?'
Laura kicked her under the table.
'You knew that all before, so stop moaning. Anna's just doing her job.'
'Thank you.' Anna smiled. 'Now eat and come back to the ward for your first drug in twenty minutes, please.'
'Sorry,' Natalie said and grinned. 'I'll be in a better mood when I've had something to eat.'
'Yeah, she can be bitchy when she's hungry,' Jason said. He turned to Gary, who had followed their exchange quietly with burning ears. 'Don't let her scare you.'
Gary's eyes dropped to the plate in front of him. Natalie bit her lip. It's going to be fun with this shy guy.
Jason and Laura shrugged and began to tuck in. So did Natalie and finally even Gary—seemingly overcome by hunger—ate. Scrambled eggs, sausages, and hash browns; a bit bland, but nothing to spit at if you were hungry. It didn't take long to polish off their meals. Jason shoved his plate into the middle of the table and burped behind his hand. Laura gave him a meaningful look and Natalie shook her head. Gary sniggered briefly but fell silent immediately when he realised he'd drawn their attention.
'Well, I'd say, it's time to be guinea pigs,' Natalie said. She stretched and ruffled her hair.
'Have you done this before?' Gary asked, his voice barely audible.
She shook her head. 'Nope, it's our first time. You?'
'Once, yes.' He swallowed and his eyes widened. 'Good money, it is.'
'We're all in it for that, I guess,' Jason mumbled.
Laura nodded, then asked, 'Are the twenty minutes up?'
Jason glanced at the clock at the wall and sighed. 'Yeah. Let's go.'
They got up, put their plates on the counter, and filed through the door back to the dorm.
'You have to tell us about your last trial,' Natalie addressed Gary, whose ears promptly began to glow again. 'What was it for?'
'Um ... Polio. Went for two weeks.'
Natalie's interest was piqued. 'Any horror stories?'
'Gee, Nat, leave him alone for now. You'll have enough time to squeeze every detail out of him,' Laura said. Though she was curious too, she could see how uncomfortable he was.
'What? I know you want to hear all the dirty details,' Natalie replied flippantly.
Jason clapped him on the shoulder. 'Maybe we can play a game of pool later, what do you think?'
Gary shrugged. 'I guess so.'
They walked past the rest rooms. Natalie quickly disappeared to the ladies' while the others continued their way back.
'I wonder what the others are like and why they didn't join us this morning,' Laura said.
'Probably couldn't get off work,' Jason replied.
'Yeah, might be. Gary what do you do?'
'I work in IT.'
Who would have thought? Jason grinned to himself.
Laura nodded. 'Ah. I hear it's well paid.'
'Guess so. Can't complain.' Gary's answer carried a bit more confidence. By the time they'd reached the joined dorm Natalie had caught up with them. They found a dark-haired tall woman with piercings in her nose and brow talking to Anna who turned. 'Ah, how was the food?'
'Good,' they replied in a choir.
Anna laughed. 'I doubt it. This is Sarah. A bit late, so she'll have to wait until tonight.' The woman gave a small wave but said nothing.
Uh, late comer has to go hungry? Natalie waved back. 'Hope you had a good breakfast.'
Sarah shrugged. 'Nothing too big, but I won't fall to pieces.'
'Hi,' said Jason.
'Hi,' Sarah replied.
Gary just stared. Laura let her eyes rest on the newcomer for a little longer. Sarah didn't look like one to be messed with. Tattoos covered her neck, arms and calves, and Laura could make out the contours of pierced nipples through her shirt. Sarah returned the glance and lifted her chin with a sly smile.
'You,' Anna said, handing a small container each to Jason, Gary, Natalie, and Laura, 'take this with a cup of water, which you'll find on the bedside table.'
The four of them nodded and obediently followed her order. Natalie pretended to choke.
'Very funny,' Anna said, her tone dripping with irony.
Laura sniggered, imagining that Anna had probably seen it a hundred times before.
Natalie stuck her tongue out. 'Couldn't be more disgusting. Why don't they ever invent drugs that taste like strawberries?'
'Now there's an idea.' Anna put her hands to her hips and shook her head. 'Always one clown in the group.'
Natalie lifted one eyebrow. 'Sorry, won't happen again.'
Jason grinned. This is going to be a challenge for Nat.
Laura glanced at Sarah, who had started to unpack her bag in the meantime, paying no attention to the banter. She was unreadable; her reservation was a welcoming challenge. It certainly would make for a more interesting stay. At this moment, Sarah's dark eyes bored into Laura's and she busied herself with taking another sip from her cup. She needed to be a bit more careful.
'Hey, Laura, I'm going to check my e-mails. You coming?' Natalie jumped to her feet and headed for the door, then turned to wait for her. 'Well?'
Laura sighed. 'Yeah, why not?' She reluctantly got up and followed her friend.
'Gary, you up for a game of pool?' Jason asked.
'Can we do it later? I've brought some work.'
'Seriously, dude? You working?' Jason didn't think anyone could be that meek.
'They don't know about this. Told them I need a few days to work from home.'
Jason shrugged. 'No worries, man. Just give us a shout when you're done.'
'Okay. Sorry.' Gary had shrunk into the pillows of his bed, laptop open, already tapping the keyboard. Jason frowned and took off after Laura and Natalie. Sarah and Gary didn't seem to be much fun, so he decided it was best to stick with the girls. When he entered the computer room, they were both engrossed in either reading e-mails or surfing the Internet.
'Hey, those two are boring, man,' he said.
'Who cares?' Natalie replied.
Laura scrolled up and down her e-mails. 'I think Sarah is quite hot.'
Jason grunted. 'You think so?'
Natalie turned and glared at Jason. 'Don't tell me you didn't take a second look at her!'
'What?' Jason shook his head. 'As if she's my type. And besides, you've been flirting like hell with that poor guy.'
'I was being nice!'
'Oh, here we go again.' Laura threw her arms up. 'Can't you go one day without arguing?'
Jason and Natalie stared at her. 'We're not arguing.'
Laura returned her attention to the screen. 'Whatever.'
Natalie put a hand on her friend's shoulder. 'You're right.'
'Yeah, sorry.' Jason pulled Natalie close and kissed her. 'Better?'
Laura sighed. 'I mean it. As if it's not enough having you fighting in the evenings and weekends.'
'Oh, now you're exaggerating.' Natalie pouted.
'You're probably not aware of it.'
'Okay, I'd better go and take a nap,' Jason said, letting go of Natalie.
She kissed him again and smiled. 'No make-up sex for the time being, you realise this?'
'As far as I can tell, there won't be much sex at all.' He grinned back.
'I'm reading, hello?' Laura growled.
'I'm out of here. Laters,' Jason said and left.
He was fast asleep, softly snoring, in foetal position and with his mouth open, when Laura and Natalie got back. Sarah was reading and looked up from her Kindle briefly.
'What are you reading?' Laura asked.
Man you are a piece of work. But Laura smiled and shrugged. She'd have plenty of time to get through to her. 'Gary, how many people were in your last trial?'
He didn't respond.
'Oi, Gary,' Natalie said. 'You copy?'
He jumped and removed his headphones. 'Huh?'
Laura laughed. 'I asked how many people were in your last trial.'
He thought for a while, then counted on his fingers. 'Ten, I think.'
Natalie flopped next to Laura. 'Must have been busy,' she said, twisting a strand of her hair between her fingers.
Gary hit another few keys, then shut his laptop and put it aside. 'Yes,' his ears began to change colour, 'but only for two days, then three of them left.'
'Seriously? Why?' Natalie smacked Laura in the arm as if to say, told you so. Laura shook her head and caught Sarah sitting up, too.
He took a deep breath. 'Everything went fine, then one had an emergency at home, one girl said she couldn't sleep in the hospital, and the other guy had a bad reaction to the drugs.'
There were several seconds of silence. Sarah blew a lock of hair out of her face, which was full of disbelief and Natalie chewed on her lip thinking about the what-ifs. Laura folded her arms across her chest. 'What happened to the guy?'
'Which one? The one who had the reaction?'
She nodded. 'Yep.'
He shrugged. 'Dunno, he suddenly said he didn't feel so well, broke out in sweat and then collapsed.'
Natalie gasped. 'He collapsed?'
'What happened?' Sarah asked.
Gary's eyes lit up. 'Yeah, it was totally weird. And so sudden.'
'You're joking!' Natalie said, looking around the room, finishing at the still peacefully-sleeping Jason, who had stopped snoring and turned away from them.
Laura stole a peek at Sarah, who, somehow, had lost her cool and sat motionless, her hand over her mouth as if to stop words coming out, shock in her eyes.
'He was all right, though,' Gary quickly added to lighten the mood. 'But he then decided it wasn't for him.'
'What a waste of time. Two days for nothing,' Natalie said.
Sarah shook her head. 'Nah, you get paid if you drop out.'
'As long as it's not your fault,' Laura remarked.
'Still,' Natalie said. 'All the inconvenience, then the embarrassment. I bet he was embarrassed.'
Gary smiled. 'A bit, but not for long. He left an hour later.'
Natalie stood. 'I wouldn't leave. Anyway, I don't feel anything. Do you?'
'I feel good,' Laura said, and Gary shook his head. Sarah had recovered and returned to her book.
'What's the time?' Jason croaked from behind Laura.
'Oh, sleeping ugly is awake,' she teased.
'I'm getting a coffee, anyone else want one?' Natalie asked.
'No thank you,' Sarah and Gary answered almost in unison. Jason yawned and rubbed his face. 'I'll have one, please.'
'Me, too,' Laura answered. 'Do you need help?'
Natalie snorted. 'I'm sure I can manage three cups.'
'All right. Just asking, hon.'
'Back in a tick,' Natalie said and was out the door.
Jason got up, pulling a face. 'Seriously, how long have I been sleeping?' He grabbed his toothbrush and toothpaste and went to the sink.
'An hour or so. Don't worry, you didn't miss anything,' Laura replied.
A sharp intake of breath made her glance over to Sarah who had her brows furrowed, probably disagreeing with what she'd said. 'What?'
'He didn't miss anything, apart from Gary's story.'
Jason stopped brushing for a moment. 'What story?'
Laura filled him in, watching his eyes go wider with surprise and excitement.
'Well, I feel okay.' He rinsed his mouth, then patted his body, arms and legs.
'You're such a comedian,' Laura said, laughing, but she was worried. Although they had been warned about these things, the thought of having to deal with hefty side effects was not pleasant and something she had pushed aside. Now, Gary had managed to awaken them. 'Ah, guess we'll be fine.'
'Help, please?' a muffled voice said.
Everyone turned: Natalie stood outside, clutching three cups.
Laura got up and opened the door.
'Cheers.' Natalie handed her and Jason a cup each and sat on her bed. 'So what do we do all day? I wish I'd brought a book.'
Jason shrugged. 'It's going to be rather boring if every day is like this.'
'Here we go, moaning again,' Natalie said.
'Don't start.' Laura wiggled a finger at her.
Gary perked up. 'Jason, perhaps we could have a game now?'
'Anything to get me away from that woman.'
'Gee, thanks,' Natalie snapped, glaring after them, then left for the bathroom.
Again, Sarah looked up and shortly after, stared at the ceiling. 'Not wanting to be rude, but arguing couples was the last thing I expected.'
'Try living with them,' Laura said and laughed.
'No thanks, I'm done with flat shares.' She gestured towards the door and added, 'for that very reason.'
'If I could afford to live on my own, believe me, I would. Love them to bits, but the arguments can get annoying.'
'Had that for years.'
Laura unpacked her bag, glad Sarah had warmed to her. The realisation of her not being so cool and reserved, instead being friendly even, made Laura look forward to the time they'd share here. Although Sarah might be a bit older than her average type of women, Laura found herself attracted to her.
'What do you do for a living then?' Laura asked.
'I work for a production company. They do short films and documentaries.'
'What sort of documentaries?'
Sarah ran her fingers through her hair, cleared her throat and said, 'Actually, we do porn.'