Dark Mode sneak peek – read an excerpt

Dark Mode novel by Ashley Kalagian Blunt cover plus sneak peek headline

My debut novel is out in less than two months! I’m incredibly excited to share it with readers – if you’re a fellow crime fiction fan, I wrote this book for you.

Dark Mode is a psychological thriller that explores the intersection of violence and misogyny online and in real life through the story of a Sydney garden-centre owner, whose discovery of a murdered woman near her home makes her suspect her secret past is catching up with her.

Below is a special sneak peek, the opening scene of Dark Mode. In writing this, I wanted to subvert one of the most common tropes in crime fiction.

True crime obsessives might also notice details from an infamous unsolved murder – trust me, it plays a big part part in the story.

Enjoy!

Dark Mode
Prologue

Sunday, 15 January 2017

A spider web caught at Reagan’s face as she turned the corner, its invisible strands trailing across her cheeks. Busy rubbing the web from her eyes, she got closer than she otherwise might have. Close enough for the early morning sun to catch the wet inner cavity of the naked, pale-skinned torso on the concrete.

A mannequin. It had to be. Human bodies didn’t come apart like that.

She edged forward. Gipps Lane was tidy, all bitumen and graffitied concrete, brick walls, and two commercial dumpsters. Nothing alive, not a dandelion or a tuft of moss. Her Timex read 5.57 am. The sun had barely cracked the horizon and already Sydney’s mid-January heat was clinging to her skin.

The body lay in a patch of light, its two severed pieces a half-metre apart, off-centre.

A mannequin wouldn’t have a wet body cavity, and now that Reagan was closer, she could see flies crawling over the flesh.

A metallic whiff of organ meat caught in her nostrils, jarring loose a memory of a night her mother had cooked liver for dinner.

It’s a body. Reagan stood frozen, the knuckles of both hands pressing into her lips. Above, masked lapwings broke the hush, their sharp kri-kri-kri like an alarm.
There was no blood. None on the concrete, none on the body. And for someone to die like that, there should have been a lot of blood.

The smell hit her again – amorphophallus titanum. Corpse flower. The plant’s giant blossoms gave off a rotting, sweaty, mothball smell to attract carnivorous insects.

The woman’s right breast was gone, leaving a rough-edged circle of pinkish-red flesh. A strip of her left thigh was missing. A grotesque joker smile marred her face. Her arms were flung above her head, and her spread legs lay to the right of the torso, as if they could be part of another person. She looked younger than Reagan, twenty or so, no lines framing her eyes. Her skin was chalky. A rash of red bumps ran along the crease of her legs, and chipped turquoise polish covered her toenails. She had no clothes, tattoos or jewellery, no handbag. Her face tilted eastward. Like a sunflower.

It was her hair that made Reagan gasp. The dark mess of it fanned around her head, quivering in the breeze.

She straightened, head flicking right and left. No people, and along the bricked back walls and metal roller doors lining the laneway, no windows. On weekdays there were more people about, but at dawn on Sunday, the streets looked abandoned.

A fly crawled along the dead woman’s lip, disappearing into her mouth.

Someone needed to call the cops.

And there was no way it would be Reagan.

A flap of wings startled her. An ibis, black-eyed and skulking, stalked toward the body.

Reagan stamped her foot. The bird ignored her, its long black toes curling around the pale skin of the woman’s wrist.

‘Get away!’ Reagan kicked, coming close, and the ibis hopped down, rearing and ruffling its wings as it scuttled away.

Her mobile was in her pocket. But that was traceable, even if she blocked her number.

She needed to get out of there.

She scanned the buildings. No white configurations aimed like oversized guns, no bulbous dark glass. How could there be no cameras? Someone had to be seeing this. The cops must be on their way.

The gamey, butcher-shop smell hung in the air.

A couple emerged from the park at the laneway’s end, two silhouettes dwarfed by fig trees, a dog racing ahead. If they saw Reagan sprinting away, it would be worse than if they met her standing over the body, holding out empty hands and saying, I just found her, call triple zero.

But if she stayed, the police would want her name, her real birthdate, her actual address, not her postbox. They’d ask a hundred questions, then they’d ask again, their voices flinty, eyes like eels.

Two more ibises snuck toward the body. Shit. Where were the couple with the dog? They should be around the corner, with a mobile each, hopefully with the dog leashed.

An ibis pecked at the woman’s foot.

With a grimace, Reagan flung one awkward foot out, her back to the ibises, finding her stride.

There was a payphone on Enmore Road. You can call anonymously.

But nothing was anonymous these days. If the police wanted her name, they’d get it.

The concrete building on the corner cast the street into shadow. Reagan didn’t see the cyclist, hunched over his curled handlebars, a blur of sky-blue spandex and sweat, until she was right in front of him.

He swerved, the swoosh of air from the bike riffling her tank top. A warning rippled through her guts. His helmet. It’d been ungainly, protruding. She twisted back. The cyclist continued along the side street. That was definitely a camera on his head.

Above, a raven groaned. She thought of the ibis stepping on the body and quickened her pace.

She hadn’t used a payphone since she was a teen. The half booth sheltering this one smelled like urine, and the handset was grimy. Her pulse bashed at her ears. Report it and hang up.

She couldn’t force herself to dial.

Her Timex read 6.03. Someone else would see the woman. This was a busy neighbourhood, only a few stops from Central Station.

When the woman’s death made the news, when he realised how close he’d come to her, the cyclist would review his footage, hand it over to the police. Would it be days before they identified Reagan, or hours?

Unless he hadn’t been recording.

She dropped the receiver, wishing she’d run past the woman, blinking sweat and spider web out of her eyes.

‘I’m sorry. I can’t.’ It came out under her breath, unexpected. She ran, too fast, fighting to calm her pace.

Sydney red gums lined her street. Neighbours grew gerberas and coleus alongside strips of patchy, browning grass. They’d gone thirty-four days without rain in the roiling summer heat. Scientists had discovered that plants in need of water produced a high frequency distress sound, an ultrasonic scream far outside the range of human hearing. Reagan couldn’t hear the plants screaming, but she swore she could feel it.

She’d put on her running gear with a tentative smile that morning, admiring the new peach tank she’d received for Christmas, and tugging on her favourite cap, the colours of the Sydney Olympics logo faded with age. Thinking today could be the day things turned around.

Now the dead woman’s face stayed with her. Pale and oval-shaped with a broad forehead, defined lips, thin straight eyebrows, a cherubic nose. And those loose, wild black curls.

She could have been Reagan’s twin.

It could be a coincidence. A gigantic fucking coincidence. But there was another possibility.

Him.

Quote from Anna Downes: 'A fierce wake-up call of a thriller'

Dark Mode is out 1 March in Australia and New Zealand, and 13 April in the UK.

PS. As if in celebration of the novel, a rare corpse flower recently bloomed at the Cairns Botanic Gardens!


4 responses to “Dark Mode sneak peek – read an excerpt”

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