Amy Steadman is a twenty-four year old graduate who manages the lingerie department in an exclusive women’s fashion boutique located in a busy out-of-town shopping outlet. She lives on her own in the town of Rowley in a small one bedroom flat above an antiques shop on a narrow road just off the main high street.

     It’s five-thirty in the morning. Amy’s alarm has gone off, and she’s just dragged herself out of bed after a miserable night’s sleep. This morning Amy has to make her quarterly sales presentation to the company’s senior management team. She dreads these meetings. She doesn’t have a problem with standing up and presenting to these self-important, grey-suited people, but she detests the way they stare back at her. They are smarmy, lecherous old men and she can feel them undressing her with their eyes. She hates the way they don’t listen to anything she says, the way they joke and taunt her and make lewd, inappropriate comments. She finds their cheap, double-entendre-laden conversation offensive but she puts up with it. It’s all part of the job.

     In Amy’s line of business appearance is everything. She walks the shop floor as a representative of the store and the numerous designer labels it stocks. She knows that she must be perfectly coiffured and immaculately presented at all times. Customers directly associate her with the products she sells. The better she looks, the more chance she has of making a sale.


     After a quick breakfast (she doesn’t feel like eating much this morning) and a lukewarm shower (she needs to get her landlord to sort out the plumbing), Amy dries her hair and sits down in front of the mirror to apply her make-up. An exercise in precision application, this is crucially important to her. Far more than just another part of her perfect appearance, it is a mask. She is painting on her work personality and her customer-facing smile. In fifteen minutes she creates a character far removed from the real Amy Steadman: the girl who sits in front of the television most nights, eating chocolate and relaxing in her pyjamas and baggy jumpers. She hides behind the mask. The senior managers who stare and leer at her see only the fixed smile, the perfect white teeth and the flawless complexion. They are unaware of the strength of the contempt she feels for them.

     Less than an hour after getting out of bed, Amy is dressed, psyched-up and ready to go. She leaves her flat and crawls through the early morning traffic in her wreck of a car, arriving at work in just under fifty minutes. It is almost eight o’clock, and the store is just about to open its doors to the first customers of the day.

    “These shoes are killing me,” Lorraine moans.

    “Well what do you expect?” I sigh. We go through this every morning. Lorraine (who’s had more nips, tucks, false tans and hairstyles than the rest of us put together) is a total slave to fashion. “Bloody hell, girl, those heels would be enough to cripple anyone. You’re virtually walking on tiptoe!”

     “You’re all right, you’ve got the height you lucky cow,” she says. “Short buggers like me need all the help we can get.” She stops talking and looks over my shoulder. “Oh, hang on, here they come.”

     I turn around and see that the first of our overpaid visitors from Head Office are beginning to arrive. My heart sinks.

     “Morning, Mr Jackson,” I say, smiling through gritted teeth as the area manager makes his entrance with his entourage. What a vile and odious little shit Jeff Brent is.

     “Morning, Andrea,” he grins, getting my name wrong as he does every month. “Looking more beautiful than ever!”

     “And you’re more of a fucking creep than ever,” is what I want to say back to him but, of course, I don’t. Instead I just smile politely, force out a little laugh and then relax when Maurice Green appears at my side to take Brent through to the back offices.

     “Excuse me, Miss,” a quiet little voice says from somewhere behind me. I turn around and see an elderly man clutching a negligee, looking more than just a little bit uncomfortable. It’s an odd choice of nightwear unless he’s either married to a gold-digger or he’s a transvestite.

     “What can I do for you, Sir?” I ask, looking around for Lorraine who’s suddenly disappeared the way she always does when customers need serving. This isn’t fair. I have to get to my meeting. I haven’t got time to be dealing with customers today.

     “I bought this for my wife’s birthday last week and she doesn’t like it,” he croaks. Judging by the age of the customer in front of me, if she isn’t a gold-digger then his wife’s most probably somewhere between sixty and eighty years old. Can’t imagine I’ll be wearing underwear like this at that age.

     “I see,” I say, taking the negligee from him and holding it up. There isn’t much of it. Definitely not to be worn in winter. “Didn’t she like it? Do you want a refund?”

     He shakes his head.

     “No. Actually I was wondering whether you had it in any other colours,” he says as his face turns lobster pink with embarrassment. He’s taken me by surprise. “She doesn’t like black,” he explains, “says she’d rather have red.”

     I can’t be late for the meeting so I’ll have to hand the old gent over to a colleague. Typically there’s no-one about when you need them. I’m about to lead him over to the customer services desk when I stop. Something’s caught my eye over by the main doors. I can see Gary Bright, the area finance director, down on all fours. He looks like he’s being sick. Is he chocking? He’s dropped his briefcase and there are confidential papers blowing all over the store. I look for Jenny Clarke who’s the duty first aid officer but Christ, someone else is down now. A woman just to the left of me has collapsed against the customer service desk. Bloody hell, she looks like she’s suffocating. She’s clawing at her neck and her face is red and her eyes bulging. Shit, Shirley Peters from sportswear is lying on the floor at the bottom of the escalator now, her skirt caught, the steps dragging her back. She looks as if she’s just-

     Oh God, what’s that?

     I can feel something at the back of my throat. It’s like I’ve got something trapped. I keep trying to clear it but I can hardly swallow and the more I cough, the worse it gets. Something’s scratching the back and sides of my throat and I can’t clear it. I need to get some water. It’s still there. It won’t go. Stronger now, getting worse. Christ, it feels like someone’s got their hand around my neck. I need to get help. Jesus it hurts. It’s stinging and burning. Bloody hell, I can’t swallow. I can’t breathe.

     Calm down.

     Oh fuck, I can taste blood in my mouth. 

     Just don’t panic. Slow down. Try and breathe. Try and-


     Starved of oxygen, Amy fell back into a rail of expensive designer dresses, pulling half the display down on top of her. She gagged and retched as blood dribbled down the inside of her inflamed throat. Unable to focus, she was momentarily aware of frantic, terrified movement all around her.

     She clawed at her neck and began to thrash about as the remaining oxygen in her blood stream rapidly disappeared. Already numb and unresponsive, she felt no pain when her flailing arms and legs smacked against the hard marble floor and the metal display units around her.

     Her mouth and chin now covered with blood, Amy tried to stand but couldn’t. The world became dark and the screams around her became muffled and then fell silent.

     Less than a minute after infection, Amy Steadman was dead.