The Shadows

Detective Theo Rowan worked in the basement of the department. His office was commonly referred to as the “dark room,” and the reason for that nomenclature was twofold. It came from the lack of windows and natural light down there, and also the work Theo and his team did within it. Amanda knew many officers in the department thought Theo was creepy. She figured that was fair enough. If some people kept sealed boxes of horror in their heads, Theo’s probably held a fucking trunk.

But he was efficient. Within twenty minutes of her call to him, her email pinged and a complete download of all of Hick’s and Foster’s posts and messages on The Unsolved and the Unknown arrived in her in-box. She blinked as she took in the volume of material: the messages had been pasted into a Word document that was close to a hundred pages long. The pair of them had clearly been active participants on the forum.

Amanda scrolled down and started reading at random.

RF532: Limited success with lucid dreaming so far. Some experience of RH but @EH808 and I still struggling to connect. Advice?

PT109: Difficult to say. Sounds like you’re making progress. But don’t run before you can walk. Keep up the diaries and incubation and you and @EH808 will get there! Have faith brother.

She read several similar messages that were equally oblique, but which all pointed toward the same conclusion. Foster and Hick had been engaged in some kind of experiment, and they were seeking advice and help in doing so on this forum. But it was difficult to make sense of what it was.

Further on, a post took a more sinister turn.

RF532: Can anyone confirm the precise make of knife that was used by CC and BR? Thanks in advance.

FG634: I can! It was an Ithaca S3 hunting knife. There were a handful of photographs in the newspaper coverage at the time. Attaching some old scans I made. Posted FOR INFO ONLY as always. All best.



The images weren’t included in the document. But a few minutes later, in a post from a couple of months ago, she found what she was searching for.

RF532: Advice folks. @EH808 and I now having constant success. Shared LDs every night. RH etc. Now thinking of next level, but slightly nervous given failed attempts in past. What do folks think went wrong there? Why did it work for CC and not for BR and the others? Theories welcome.

CC666: I was there. DM me.

Amanda peered at the screen. That was the only contribution to the thread by the user known as CC666. There were a handful of posts afterward, including a comment from SR483 expressing reservations about Foster’s question and asking for advice from the moderator. But nothing appeared to come of that, and neither Foster nor Hick replied to the thread again.

I was there. DM me.

The record of the two boys’ direct messages on the site was pasted in at the back of the file. Amanda scrolled through to that, and quickly found the exchange between Foster, Hick, and whoever was posting as CC666. The thread took up several pages.

[Participants]: @RF532, @EH808, @CC666

RF532: Hey there CC666. When you say you were there, what do you mean?

CC666: You know what happened in Gritten. That’s all I’m prepared to say, but here’s a token. You can read between the lines and make up your own mind. Do you want the answer to your question or not?

There had been an attachment to that particular message: [entry.jpg]. Amanda couldn’t open it directly from the document, but from the messages that followed, it seemed that Foster and Hick had been impressed by the contents.

RF532: Yes!

CC666: Good. It didn’t work for Billy or the others because they didn’t believe strongly enough. But it worked for me, and it can work for you. You just need to follow the instructions.

Amanda read on, feeling increasingly sick.

After a while, she closed down the transcripts and opened the national database, searching for details of a different crime in a different place. She had never heard of Gritten before now. It turned out to be an industrial town a hundred miles north of Featherbank. A quarter of a century ago, a murder had been committed there.

She opened the file.

And then leaned closer to the screen, unable to believe what she was seeing. There was a photograph here. It had been taken years ago, but it might have come from Featherbank that very day. The image showed a playground. The body there had been rolled under one of the nearby hedges, perhaps in a half-hearted attempt to hide it, and the ground was patterned with hundreds of bloody handprints.

She read through what had happened.

On the afternoon of the killing, a teenager named Paul Adams had been taken into custody on suspicion of murder. But he had been released that evening, when a boy named Billy Roberts had wandered into the town, bloodstained and holding a book and a knife, and confessed to the crime. He and a boy called Charlie Crabtree had killed one of their classmates in the playground that day.

The police in Gritten had their what and who almost immediately, but the why had taken a little longer to emerge—a story that was gradually pieced together over the days and weeks that followed.

In the months leading up to the crime, Charlie Crabtree and Billy Roberts had become obsessed with lucid dreaming. They had kept diaries. They had believed they shared the same dreams while asleep. And over time, they had conjured up a shadowy figure that ruled over this fantasy kingdom, the killing an act of sacrifice to him. By doing so, they believed they would disappear from the real world and live—all-powerful—in the land of dreams forever.

After the murder, the two boys walked to the nearby woods with their knives and dream diaries, took sleeping pills, and fell asleep in the undergrowth. Billy Roberts woke up hours later and staggered back to the town, where he was immediately arrested.

But not Charlie Crabtree.

Because he had vanished off the face of the earth and was never seen again.




In the first few days after returning to Gritten, I spent my time drifting between the house and the hospice.

My mother continued to deteriorate. She was asleep during most of my visits, and I felt guilty over the relief that came from that. While I told myself it was best for her to be resting, I knew I was also afraid of what she might say if she was awake. On the few occasions she was, I found myself holding my breath, waiting for her to say something else about a past I had made a conscious decision to seal away and avoid. She didn’t. Most often, she was confused and didn’t seem to recognize me at all. It was as though I were a stranger—and I supposed I might as well have been, a thought that delivered a parcel of guilt from a different direction, and which left me confused too. I didn’t know what I wanted to happen. I didn’t know what to say or what I wanted to hear.

After visiting her, I would go to a pub for a time. It was a local place I remembered sneaking into as a teenager, and it had changed more than I had. Spit and sawdust back then, it was a sports bar now, slick and efficient, the décor dark wood and the lighting soft. It was never busy in the afternoon. I would sit at a table with a single beer, listening to the clack of pool balls from somewhere at the far end of the room, and for an hour or so I would try not to think of anything at all.

Because back at the house, the memories were everywhere.

I had put my old possessions back in the box, but I could always feel them inside—a constant throb of threat from across the room by the desk—and the ghost of the boy I’d imagined sitting there seemed to become more solid by the day.

I remembered the lunchtime when Charlie had first started talking to us about dreams—about incubation—and how midnight that day had found me sitting at the desk. That was always my favorite part of the day. Chores and homework done; the house silent; my parents asleep. I would sneak out of bed, click on the lamp, and work on my stories. I had so many notebooks back then. I kept them hidden away in the desk drawer, because my father wouldn’t have hesitated to read them if he found them, and I could easily imagine the sneer on his face if he did.

But that night, the notebook before me had been new.

Events that lunchtime had panned out exactly the way I’d expected them to. Charlie had decided we were all going to do something, and so eventually we had agreed to go along with it. Even the process had been predictable. James had been interested, which meant that Billy—keen not to be replaced in Charlie’s affections—had joined in too. That left me on my own, and eventually I’d given in.

Lucid dreams.

As much as I’d disparaged it at the time, the thought of it had intrigued me. Looking around my dusty, threadbare bedroom, and thinking about the misery of my home life and the flat, gray, beaten-down world around me, the idea of being able to escape it all and experience whatever I wanted was appealing. It had felt like it might be the only way I ever would.

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