Read the First Three Chapters from The Nightjar

Alice Wyndham has been plagued by visions of birds her whole life…until the mysterious Crowley reveals that Alice is an ‘aviarist’: capable of seeing nightjars, magical birds that guard human souls. When her best friend is hit by a car, only Alice can find and save her nightjar.

With Crowley’s help, Alice travels to the Rookery, a hidden, magical alternate London to hone her newfound talents. But a faction intent on annihilating magic users will stop at nothing to destroy the new aviarist. And is Crowley really working with her, or against her? Alice must risk everything to save her best friend—and uncover the strange truth about herself.

The Nightjar by Deborah Hewitt is a stunning contemporary fantasy debut about another London, a magical world hidden behind the bustling modern city we know—publishing September 3rd with Tor Books.

 

 

1

The trouble began on a bitter November morning, when Alice Wyndham left her flat and found a box on the front doorstep. It was entirely unremarkable: a plain brown cardboard cube about twelve inches wide. The only odd thing about it was that every inch was wrapped in clear adhesive tape.

For Alice Wyndham, the label said. Do not open.

She stared at it. Who on earth would send a parcel and give instructions not to open it? A glance at her watch made her wince. Damn. Her bus was due in ten minutes. She could not be late today. The mystery of the box would have to wait.

She quickly stowed the package in the hallway and hurried down the path. Head bent into the biting wind, she failed to spot the driver of a nondescript black car, watching her with mild disinterest. Robert Lattimer was slender, with skin the colour of weak porridge and a cultivated ability to hide in plain sight. He glanced up from his notepad and carefully inscribed Alice Wyndham, box number 326 on a blank page. His pen hovered over his notepad, and after a moment’s hesitation he added, Aviarist?

 

Half an hour later, Alice was mentally composing her own obituary. Of all the things she’d expected this morning, death by psychotic bus driver was not one of them. Still, it might be preferable to what was waiting for her at the office. A full contingent of the senior managers would be arriving soon, ready to listen to her presentation—her first since she’d joined the company over a year ago. Her best friend, Jen, had promised her a bottle of prosecco if she got through it. Privately, Alice thought she stood a better chance if she had the prosecco before the presentation.

She tried to recall the opening lines. The survey of customers who complained about our concessionary stores revealed that… that they… Shit. What had the survey revealed? Her handouts were in the office. Why had she left them there?

Without warning, the driver stamped the brakes, and Alice lurched forward, her knees hitting the chair in front. There was a flash of blurred movement outside and the doors burst open. A swirl of icy rain drenched the front-row seats.

She closed her eyes as a little old lady clambered on-board. Concentrate. The survey revealed—

Something brushed her shoulder. The old woman was looming over her, engulfing her in a waft of Yardley’s English Lavender.

‘Hello,’ she croaked, staring at Alice with cataract-riddled eyes. She looked too old to exist, like something long dead that had been dug up and stuffed.

‘Do you mind if I sit here?’ she asked.

Alice smiled politely. There were plenty of other empty seats, but Alice was a magnet for lonely pensioners. It was something to do with her face—a wholesome, rosy-cheeked sort of face that spoke of chastity and virtue. Though if she was in any way chaste it wasn’t through lack of trying. Old ladies loved her face. Men? Not so much.

‘Of course,’ she said. ‘Let me move my bag.’

When the bus finally rolled off, it ploughed through a cluster of magpies and the birds scattered, pinwheeling into the dull skies above Larkhall Park.

The old woman watched them intently. ‘Pretty little things, aren’t they?’ she said, waving a bony hand, her fingers fluttering like the birds’ wings.

Alice’s heart sank as she watched one lone magpie swoop back over the roof of a newsagent’s. Great omen… One for sorrow.

‘I know what you are,’ the old woman continued.

Alice’s brow furrowed.

‘I know what you are,’ she repeated.

There was a bewildered pause. This was all a bit existential for a Friday morning. ‘I’m a customer complaints researcher for a shoe company,’ said Alice, with a confused smile.

‘No,’ said the woman. ‘That’s what you do, not what you are. I know about the birds.’

Alice stiffened. Birds? Where was the polite but stilted conversation about traffic jams or bad weather? Hardly anyone knew about her fear of birds, and it was the last thing she wanted to be thinking about this morning.

‘What do you mean?’ Alice asked slowly. ‘You can tell… I don’t like birds? Is that it?’

The woman nodded but fixed her with a stern look, as though personally offended by Alice’s ornithophobia.

‘Birds are incredible creatures,’ she said, her reedy voice stretched thin. ‘Did you know the bald eagle mates for life? Faithful. Loyal. Now tell me this: are those not qualities you admire?’

Alice winced. Even the bald eagle had a more successful love life than she did.

‘I… appreciate what you’re saying…’

‘Sylvie,’ the old lady supplied.

‘Sylvie,’ said Alice. ‘Well, birds are just… The thing about birds is…’

Her throat tightened, and she turned away. It was the thing she most disliked about London. She didn’t mind the traffic, the noise or the unfavourable odds of being murdered. It was the birds she detested, and London was riddled with them. Ravens in the Tower, swans on the Thames, pigeons… everywhere. They’d blighted her entire childhood, and now, the only place she liked to see them was on her dinner plate.

They sat in silence for the rest of the journey, the rain slamming against the glass with malevolent intent. At Trafalgar Square, Alice hauled herself upright and edged past her neighbour.

‘Just a moment, dear.’

Sylvie was teetering up behind her, swaying on her little matchstick legs.

‘This is my stop too. Could you help me off?’

She held out her arm, and after a brief pause Alice took it and led her carefully into the full might of the thundering rain.

‘Thank you,’ said Sylvie as the bus rolled away. ‘Would you mind seeing me across the road?’

Alice glanced helplessly at Trafalgar Square: one of her least favourite places in the city. She had no umbrella, and she’d hoped to sprint all the way to work.

‘Please?’ said Sylvie.

Alice felt a pang of guilt. She could hardly say no.

‘Of course,’ she said, flashing Sylvie a strained smile.

She squinted into the rain and wrapped one arm around the old woman. As soon as a gap opened up in the traffic, she propelled Sylvie across the road and plunged reluctantly through the square’s mass of pigeons.

The rain had plastered her hair to her face. Perfect. Just the impression she wanted to make to her bosses.

‘Okay then, well you have a nice day,’ she said, preparing to dart away.

‘Wait a moment,’ said Sylvie, snatching at her wrist. She was staring at something. Alice glanced over her shoulder, but only saw Nelson’s Column towering above.

‘I haven’t been quite truthful with you,’ said Sylvie.

Alice smiled distractedly. ‘Look, if this is about—oh, I don’t know—the benefits of RSPB membership or—’

‘It isn’t. It’s about the box.’

Alice’s mouth fell open. ‘Sorry, did you just say “the box”?’

Sylvie nodded.

‘Which box?’ asked Alice. ‘Are you saying you sent the box I found on my doorstep?’

‘I did.’

Alice let out an astonished laugh. ‘But—’

‘Listen to me, Alice,’ Sylvie said quietly.

‘How do you know my name?’ asked Alice, growing uneasy. ‘Who are you?’

‘I don’t have time to explain,’ Sylvie wheezed. Her breath was coming in shallow bursts, and her skin had turned the exact colour and texture of parchment.

‘I left the box for you just in case I didn’t meet you today,’ she said, forcing a smile. ‘But I wanted to see you, to make sure I had the right person.’

‘The right person for what?’ asked Alice.

The smile fell from Sylvie’s lips and she stumbled backwards, her heels scattering pigeons as she went. With a soft moan, the old woman’s knees sagged, and Alice shot forward and threw an arm around her waist.

‘Shit! Sylvie?’

Small and slight though Sylvie was, Alice could barely hold her up. She cast a panicked glance about her at the commuters hurrying past.

‘Help!’ she yelled. ‘Call an ambulance!’

The old woman’s eyelids flickered and she sighed a deep, rattling breath. Her fingers fumbled blindly at Alice’s collar and tugged her closer.

‘The birds,’ she whispered. ‘You mustn’t spurn them…’

What?’ said Alice. ‘No, Sylvie, that’s not—’

‘Crowley…’ she murmured. ‘Crowley is coming for you, Alice. You’re not… safe. Once I go… you won’t be safe.’

‘Shh,’ said Alice. ‘It’s okay. Don’t try to speak.’

She caught a glimpse of movement. A security guard had peeled away from The National Gallery. He rushed down the steps towards her, followed closely by two luminous yellow blurs. Paramedics.

Raindrops glistened on Sylvie’s face and pooled in the hollows of her collarbones.

‘Someone’s coming,’ Alice said, her voice trembling. ‘They’re going to take you to the hospital. Okay? Just hang on.’

Sylvie’s eyes flew open, alert and wild.

Alice,’ she hissed. ‘Open the box!

With one last, futile gasp, the breath left her body and she fell limp in Alice’s arms, her brow smoothing at the last.

Something seemed to change in the air. A stillness stole over the square and hushed the fluttering of wings and the pecking of the birds. The pigeons crowding Trafalgar seemed to freeze in a silent tableau of respect. It held for just a moment, like an intake of breath, and then it broke. Motion and noise snapped back into the city and every single bird rose, whirling into the sky above Nelson’s Column—a teeming churning mass of wings and feathers and claws.

‘Did she hit her head?’ a voice barked. ‘Are you a relative? Is she on any medication?’

The paramedics had appeared and were shouting questions at her that she couldn’t answer.

‘What?’ she mumbled in a daze.

With frustrated sighs, they snatched Sylvie from her arms and pushed her away. They lowered the old woman to the ground and began to count out loud as they compressed her creaking chest. But they were too late.

Alice stood in silence, the rain falling around her like white noise, like sand through an hourglass, as the strange old woman met her death in Trafalgar Square. The birds watched from the tops of the surrounding buildings, lining the slanted roofs and parapets like mourners at a state funeral.

 


2

Her hands were shaking so much that she dropped her swipe card twice before managing to open the electronic doors. The office was deserted—the desks empty, the phones silent—and she knew a brief moment of elation. Maybe there’d been a fire alarm and they’d evacuated the building. But then she heard cups chinking nearby and realized they were all crowded into the conference room. Great.

She quickly peeled off her sopping coat and scarf as she scanned her desk for her handouts.

They weren’t there.

She surveyed the horror of her empty workstation. Maybe someone had taken them into the conference room for her? She nodded. Right. She took a breath and marched in, smiling manically at the expectant faces. A cry went up from one of her workmates, Ryan.

‘Call off the search! She’s arrived!’

There was a rumble of corporate-style laughter—like a herd of braying donkeys—and she cast a frantic eye over the room, searching for her documents.

An irritated voice rose, and the room fell silent. ‘Shall we begin?’

Mr. McGreevy, the most senior of the senior managers, peered at her over the top of his laptop and snapped the lid down sharply.

‘Yes,’ she croaked. ‘Of course.’ She cleared her throat, and her eyes alighted on Sandra, the office gasbag. She was watching Alice with a smirk, and suspicion as to the fate of her handouts curdled in Alice’s stomach.

McGreevy sighed. ‘Can you please just get on with it?’

‘Okay,’ she said, turning to face the front. ‘Thank you all for coming. And I apologize for my punctuality.’

McGreevy grunted. ‘Lack of punctuality.’

She took a deep breath. ‘Over the past year, surveys relating to our concessionary stores have revealed that the quality of our shoes is our customers’ biggest concern. Twenty-four per cent of buyers returned their shoes within thirty days.’

‘Which shoes?’ said McGreevy.

‘Sorry?’

He poured himself a drink from the water jug on the vast central table. ‘Presumably, there’s a manufacturing problem. Which shoes were returned?’

‘That’s a great question,’ said Alice’s line manager, Colin, nodding along like a deranged puppet. Grovelling creep.

‘Well… I did have some handouts with the details, but…’

McGreevy stared at her, his lips puckered.

‘I—Well, as a matter of fact,’ she rallied, ‘I can show you a pair from the line. Because I actually purchased some myself and… if you can just see, right here, where the stitching has started to fray—’

In horrible slow motion, her foot swung up and somehow caught the jug. McGreevy stared, immobile with shock, as the water chugged over his paperwork. There was a mass scramble to evacuate seats before the gushing water spilled onto clothing.

Mr. McGreevy glared at her, a nerve pulsing above his eye. She glanced down. There was a wet electronic crackle. Oh God. His laptop

‘Alice,’ Colin murmured. ‘I’d like a word in my office.’

 

Colin sat opposite her, arms folded across his massive chest and a pensive look on his face.

‘So. Bit of a cock-up, wasn’t it?’

She nodded mutely. Through the window, she could see Sandra, Colin’s personal Rottweiler, fixing her blonde hair with a hand mirror. It was a perfectly coiffured 1980s-style disaster.

Colin grunted and sat back. ‘Aside from turning up late and nearly electrocuting McGreevy, what I don’t get is how the fuck anyone can give a presentation without handouts.’

This was it then. The moment she was handed her P45.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Look, Colin—’

‘The look on McGreevy’s face when you shoved your foot under his nose was priceless though,’ he interrupted. ‘I think he thought you were going to give him a lap dance.’ He winked, and her cheeks flamed.

Please. Kill me now.

‘What are you doing tonight?’ he said.

‘Tonight?’

He grinned. ‘I want to see you at The Piggery and Poke. Eight p.m. for my birthday session.’

Alice’s face remained impassive, but her internal organs shrivelled at the mere thought.

‘We’re all going,’ he said. ‘If you don’t come, it’s going to look like you’re turning down opportunities to bond with your colleagues. McGreevy wanted you gone, but I put in a good word you say?’

What she wanted to say would probably get her fired on the spot. She bit back a groan at the memory of last year’s birthday drinking session. Colin standing up to raise a toast—to himself—his shirt half unbuttoned and beer spilled down his front. ‘Alice!’ he’d bellowed at her. ‘I’ve got a nice big present to show you later. I’ll take you back to mine so you can unwrap it!’

She pulled a strained smile. ‘I—Colin, tonight I really just want to get an early night. I’m… really shaken up by something that happened on the way to work.’

‘Great. See you there.’

He turned back to his computer, and Alice slunk back to her own desk. When she reached it, she froze. Her missing handouts were on her keyboard… next to a caricature she’d doodled—and binned—in the last staff meeting.

‘You want to be careful where you leave your rubbish,’ said Sandra—the subject of the unfortunate doodle. ‘I found those last night.’

She gave a vengeful smile and sauntered off. Bloodyfucking office harridan. In Alice’s brief absence, a Post-it had been left on her monitor, and she snatched it up.

Someone rang while you were in with Colin. Lee Crow? Leah Crow? Didn’t get a number. Said it was important but personal.

The personal had been underlined. Twice. To underscore the fact that such calls were banned at work.

She frowned. She didn’t know anyone with that name. And to get personal calls suggested you had a personal life. Which she didn’t. It was probably a mistake.

The next call came several hours later, at 4.45 p.m.

‘Alice, hi, it’s Dan from reception. There’s a man down here asking for you, but he doesn’t have a visitor’s pass. Shall I send him up?’

Alice scrubbed at her forehead. She wasn’t important enough to have visitors at work. She barely had her own chair.

‘What’s his name?’

There was a pause. ‘Mr… Crowley, I think he said.’

Crowley. She blinked. Crowley. Crow-lee? Something niggled at her memory. Lee Crow? She scrambled for the Post-it note she’d binned earlier. The underlined personal leapt out at her.

A vision of a small, wizened figure rose in her memory. Crowley is coming for you… You’re not… safe.

‘Hello? You still there, love?’

She shook herself. ‘Sorry, Dan, I was just… Can you ask him what he wants?’

She heard muffled voices, then, ‘Er… He says he’s got an important message for you about your destiny.’

‘My destiny?’ she said flatly. ‘Who is he—God?’

‘He says he wants to talk to you about a gift you’ve received.’

‘What gi—’ She cut herself short. The box?

‘He looks a bit… agitated,’ whispered Dan. ‘I think you’d better come to reception.’

 

As the lift jerked its way down, Alice slumped back against the cool mirrored walls. Three identical brown-eyed Alices were reflected back at her, all with weary expressions and brown hair that rebelled against any notion of sleekness.

Clearly, a mistake had been made in giving her the box, and she would just explain that to this Mr Crowley. It was a misunderstanding—that was all.

Her confidence wavered when the lift doors opened and she spotted her visitor, arms folded with a grim look on his face. It wasn’t a pretty face. Impossible, with that Roman nose. As in, a nose from an era that predated plastic surgery. He shook his hair—dark brown and overlong, reaching past his cheekbones—out of his eyes and looked at his watch.

She made to step out of the lift but paused. He was quite… striking, actually. Definitely not her type, but there was something arresting about the set of his jaw and the dark eyebrows.

He seemed completely out of place, given the tailored designer suits and carefully groomed hair of the other people milling around the waiting area. His long, dark coat, faded black trousers, scuffed boots and high-necked white shirt made him look like an undertaker. Maybe he’d been sent from whichever funeral parlour was dealing with Sylvie’s body. But if so, what did he want with her and how had he found her?

The more she looked, the more convinced she was of his sinister intentions. She stabbed a thumb at the lift buttons to take her back up to floor thirteen. She missed. Her thumb crunched the alarm button instead. Typically, given her day so far, the lift wailed like a banshee.

‘Damn,’ she mumbled, jabbing urgently at the keypad.

Her visitor’s head snapped up and their eyes met. He hurried towards her, shouting, ‘Miss Wynd—’ but the doors slammed mercifully shit and the lift swooped upwards. Alice slumped backwards and breathed a sigh of relief.

Colleagues were preparing for the end-of-day cut-and-run when she reached her desk again. She logged off her computer and yanked her coat on, thinking hard. Someone dressed like a furious undertaker had tracked her to her office, and wanted to rob her of a gift she hadn’t asked for in the first place. What was Jen going to say? With Jen’s track record of bad romantic choices, she’d probably ask for his number.

Alice had just reached the door when twenty telephones started shrieking behind her, and she paused. Hands snatched them up and heads turned to stare at her with narrowed and curious eyes. Voices simultaneously assailed her.

‘Hey, wait, Alice, it’s for you. It’s—’

‘Yes, she’s here. Alice, it’s—’

‘I’ll shout her. Alice! Wait, there’s a guy asking for you, called—’

‘Alice. It’s Mr—’

‘—Crowley.’

A hush descended on the office, and her colleagues looked at each other in confusion.

‘Wait,’ said Sandra. ‘How can we all be talking to the same bloke at once?’

Alice wrenched the door open and fled.

Before it slammed shut behind her, she heard Sandra say to someone, ‘She’s on her way down.’

Bitch.

 


3

She really couldn’t have choreographed it any better if she’d tried. Mr Crowley was glaring at the lift with a pinched expression on his face, evidently waiting for her to re-emerge. But when the metal doors sprang open, it was a cleaner who trudged out instead, dragging a massive industrial hoover. Mr Crowley spun away in irritation, and Alice, peeking from around a corner, took the chance to race down the last flight of stairs unseen and slip through the fire escape at the bottom.

She hurried into the alley at the rear and made her getaway along the quieter back streets. Jen was due to get out of work early, and they were meeting up for the journey home. They’d been living together since they’d left university four years ago, but their friendship long predated their London years.

She and Jen had lived in each other’s pockets since they’d been old enough to climb the fence between their parents’ gardens, in Henley-on-Thames. They’d learned to ride their bikes together; their families had both holidayed in Wales; they’d picked the same subjects at school, and helped each other get over their first broken hearts. When Alice had found out she was adopted, it was Jen who’d helped her come to terms with her new reality. They might have had different surnames, but they’d always considered themselves sisters —and there was no one Alice trusted more in the world.

A short walk to Charing Cross in the rain was offset by a long wait outside Jen’s IT support office. Alice was drenched by the time Jen emerged, the wind whipping her red hair across her glasses.

‘I’ve seriously had enough of this weather,’ said Jen as they dived onto the number 87. ‘I’m emigrating.’

Alice grinned as London blurred past them. They’d been plotting their escape since they were teenagers, while everyone else their age was busy drinking cider in the park.

‘Where to?’ asked Alice.

Jen sighed. ‘I would literally move abroad tonight—if someone gave me a free plane ticket and accommodation.’

‘Well, I have a tent and a weekly bus pass, but that’s all I can offer,’ said Alice. ‘Now, if you hadn’t dumped Giuseppe you could have had—’

‘Chlamydia,’ scoffed Jen. ‘Thanks, but I’ll pass.’

The rain was coming down harder now, exploding against the window and starbursting across the glass.

‘So, how did your moment of fame go today?’ Jen asked.

‘I think it’s fair to say my presentation went craply.’

‘Craply?’

‘If it isn’t a word, it should be. And Sandra wasn’t even the worst part.’

She told Jen about the box, Sylvie and the mysterious undertaker.

‘Wow,’ said Jen. ‘That poor woman.’

There was a respectful pause, then Jen said, ‘So… what do you think is in the box?’

‘No idea.’

‘What about money? She could have been a Miss Havisham-style benefactor.’

‘Actually,’ said Alice, ‘Abel Magwitch was the benefactor in Great Expectations, not Miss Havisham.’

‘Shh,’ said Jen. ‘Don’t spoil this for me. It’s our destiny to be rich.’

‘Jen, get a grip. People don’t leave money to complete strangers.’

‘But why else would that Mr Crowley guy want it?’

The rain was bouncing off the pavements when they stepped off the bus, driving across the road in great horizontal gusts. Alice staggered into their hallway, battling to close the door while Jen pounced on the parcel.

‘For Alice Wyndham,’ Jen read aloud. ‘Do not open.’

Alice shrugged and peeled off her wet coat.

‘Do you want to do the honours then?’ asked Jen, thrusting the box under her nose.

She stared at it. She couldn’t explain why, exactly, but she was fighting the urge to hurl the parcel out into the street.

‘No,’ she said firmly. ‘I don’t.’

Alice collapsed on the living room sofa, keen to keep her distance from the box, but Jen followed. There was a long pause, and then Jen tentatively said, ‘What if I get some scissors and have a quick look? If it’s something great I’ll tell you what it is. And if it’s rubbish I’ll bin it, okay?’

Alice nodded reluctantly, and Jen left to grab the scissors. Out in the hallway, the doorbell rang.

‘Can I help you?’ Jen’s voice floated into the living room.

‘I’m looking for a Miss Alice Wyndham.’

‘What do you want? You’re not a bailiff, are you?’

Alice poked her head into the hallway and sucked in a breath. A tall man with a nose that may well have been carved out of granite peered at her over Jen’s shoulder. The man from her office.

Jen grinned and glanced at Alice, a question in her eyes. Alice shook her head. She knew exactly what Jen was thinking, but cold, taciturn men were not her thing—no matter how oddly striking she found them.

What was he doing here?

‘Are you stalking me?’ she asked, narrowing her eyes and fumbling for the first weapon she had to hand—an old netball trophy.

‘Don’t flatter yourself,’ he said impatiently. ‘I just want to talk to you about the gift you received. I know you have it.’

Alice pushed Jen out of the way and made to slam the front door, but he darted forward to fill the doorframe.

‘Look, Mr Crowley,’ she said, in a voice full of polite restraint, ‘I didn’t ask for that box and I don’t want it. So you can have it. In fact, I insist.’

Jen drew a sharp breath and grabbed Alice’s wrist. ‘Hang on a minute,’ she whispered.

‘My name is Crowley,’ he said, with an exasperated sigh. ‘Not Mister Crowley. It’s a forename. Rhymes with jowly.’ He smiled blandly, but she swore his eyes tracked down her face and paused somewhere below her jowl-free chin.

Outrage dug deep into Alice’s bones. Was he calling her jowly? What the actual fuck? She might have to put up with Sandra’s catty remarks all day long, but this—she made to slam the door shut, until his pained intake of breath stopped her.

‘Wait. Please. I… apologize. It has been a long and difficult day.’

‘Oh, don’t worry,’ she said, her voice sweetly acidic. ‘I’m a masochist. I love it when strangers turn up on my doorstep to insult me.’

‘I didn’t actually insult you,’ he said. ‘You inferred.’

‘Because you insinuated.’

He winced apologetically. ‘May we start this again? You received something from… an acquaintance of mine. Sylvie.’

‘An acquaintance?’ she said. ‘Hardly—she warned me you were dangerous. But you can have your box, all right? I never asked for it anyway. Here.’

She snatched it from Jen’s hands and shoved it at him. But he made no move to take it.

Relief flitted across Crowley’s face. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘That’s hers; I recognize the handwriting. Now open it. Please.’

This was not what she’d been expecting.

‘You want me to open it?’

‘Well, it does have your name on it,’ he said offhandedly, earning a glare from Alice.

‘But… she said you were coming for me. I thought it was because you wanted the box.’

He raised an eyebrow and turned to Jen.

‘Well?’ he said. ‘Help her.’

Jen jumped to attention, apparently catalysed by the fact that he wasn’t going to contest ownership of the box. With great enthusiasm, she hacked the lid off with the scissors.

Inside was an envelope with Alice’s name on it. That was all. No money, no great mystery. Just an envelope.

‘Maybe it’s… a cheque?’ said Jen.

Alice pulled it out, hesitantly. Crowley’s shoulders relaxed just a fraction at the sight of it, and he stepped back, leaving him clear of the threshold.

‘So it is you,’ he murmured in wonder.

In a daze, Alice nudged the door with her hip, and it slammed closed. Evicted from the flat, Crowley rapped sharply on the wood.

‘Open the door,’ he shouted. ‘Please—I haven’t finished speaking to you.’

‘Why did she say I was in danger?’ Alice said to the locked door. ‘If you don’t want what’s in the box, then what do you want?’

‘You’re not in danger from me,’ he snapped. ‘I’ve come for you precisely because you’re in danger.’

She ignored him, but Jen shouted, ‘If you don’t get away from our property we’re calling the police!’

Alice was vaguely aware of an explosion of muffled cursing beyond the door as she drifted into the living room with the envelope.

Jen stared at her expectantly.

Alice swallowed and then tore into the paper. Something light and soft fluttered gently to the floor.

It was a feather.

Talk about an anticlimax.

Excerpted from The Nightjar, copyright © 2019 by Deborah Hewitt

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