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Killing Me Softly by Nicci French

To Kersti and Philip

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nicci French is the pseudonym for the writing partnership of journalists Nicci Gerrard and Sean French. The couple are married and live in Suffolk.

There are now ten bestselling novels by Nicci French: The Memory Game, The Safe House, Killing Me Softly, Beneath the Skin, The Red Room, Land of the Living, Secret Smile, Catch Me When I Fall, Losing You and Until It’s Over (the new hardback, published in May 2008).

Killing Me Softly

Nicci French

PENGUIN BOOKS

PENGUIN BOOKS

Published by the Penguin Group

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First published by Michael Joseph 1999

First published in Penguin Books 2000

This edition published 2008

1

Copyright © Joined-Up Writing, 1999

All rights reserved

The moral right of the author has been asserted

Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

978-0-14-192366-6

He knew he was going to die. And he knew dimly, somewhere far inside himself, that he ought not to want to die. He should do something to save himself but he couldn’t think what. Perhaps if he could make sense of what had happened. If only the wind and the snow would slacken. They had battered him for so long that he could hardly distinguish the sound from the cold and the stinging on his face. Always there was the struggle, the last struggle, really, to breathe oxygen from this air of eight thousand metres above sea-level, where humans weren’t meant to live. His oxygen cylinders were long since empty, the valves frozen up, the mask nothing but an encumbrance.

It might be minutes, more likely hours. But he would be dead before the morning came. That was all right, though. He was drowsy and calm. Under his layers of windproof nylon, Gore-Tex, wool, polypropylene, he could feel his heart beating at twice its normal rate, a prisoner hammering frantically at his chest. Yet his brain was sluggish, dreamy. Which was a mistake, because they all needed to stay awake, keep moving, until they were rescued. He knew he should sit up, stand up, clap his hands together furiously, wake his companions. He was too comfortable. It was good to lie down and rest at last. He had been tired for such a long time.

He no longer felt cold, which was a relief. He looked down to where one of his hands, which had slipped from its mitten, lay at a curious angle. It had been purple but now – he leaned forward curiously – it was a waxy white. Strange that he should be so thirsty. He had a bottle in his jacket, which was frozen and useless to him. He was surrounded by snow, which was equally useless. It was almost funny. Lucky he wasn’t a doctor, like Francoise.

Where was she? When they had reached the end of the line, they should have been in the Camp Three col. She had gone ahead and they hadn’t seen her again. The others had stayed together, blundered around, lost all sense of direction, any feeling about where on the mountain they were, and had nestled hopelessly into this excuse for a gully. And yet there was something he had to remember, an object lost in his mind, and not only did he not know where it was, he didn’t know what it was.

He couldn’t even see his feet. This morning, when they had set out, the mountains had shimmered in the thin

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