The Shadows

Practical.

That was how he had been when it came to his job. She thought often of the advice he had given her: When you saw something awful, you had to put it away in a box. The box was something you kept locked in your head, and you only ever opened it to throw something else inside. The work, and the sights it brought you, had to be kept separate from your life at all costs. It had sounded so simple, so neat.

He had been so proud of her joining the police, and while she missed him with all her heart, there was also a small part of her that was glad he wasn’t around to see how she’d dealt with the last two years. The box of horrors in her head that would not stay closed. The nightmares she had. The fact that it had turned out she wasn’t the kind of officer he had been, and that she wondered whether she ever could be.

And although she followed her father’s instructions, it didn’t stop her from thinking about him. Today, as always, she wondered how disappointed he would be.

She was on the way back to the car when her phone rang.



* * *



Half an hour later, Amanda was back in Featherbank, walking across the waste ground.

She hated this place. She hated its coarse, sun-scorched bushes. The silence and seclusion. The way the air always felt sick here, as though the land itself had gone sour and you could sense the rot and poison in the ground on some primal level.

“That’s where they found him, right?”

Detective John Dyson, walking beside her, was gesturing toward a skeletal bush. Like everything else that managed to grow here, it was tough and dry and sharp.

“Yeah,” she said. “It is.”

Where they found him.

But it was where they had lost him first. Two years ago, a little boy had disappeared while walking home here, and then, a few weeks afterward, his body had been dumped in the same location. It had been her case. The events that followed had sent her career into a free fall. Before the dead boy, she had imagined herself rising steadily up the ranks over the years, the box in her head sealed safely shut, but it turned out she hadn’t known herself at all.

Dyson nodded to himself.

“They should fence this place off. Nuke it from orbit.”

“It’s people who do bad things,” she said. “If they didn’t do them in one place, they’d just do them somewhere else instead.”

“Maybe.”

He didn’t sound convinced, but nor did he really seem to care. Dyson, Amanda thought, was pretty stupid. In his defense, he at least seemed to realize that, and his entire career had been marked by a singular lack of ambition. In his early fifties now, he did the work, collected the pay, and went home evenings without so much as a backward glance. She envied him.

The thick tree line that marked the top of the quarry was just ahead of them now. She glanced back. The cordon she’d ordered to be set up around the waste ground was obscured by the undergrowth, but she could sense it there. And beyond that, of course, the invisible gears of a major investigation already beginning to turn.

They reached the trees.

“Watch your step here,” Dyson said.

“Watch your own.”

She stepped deliberately in front of him, bending the fence that separated the waste ground from the quarry and then ducking under. There was a faded warning sign attached a little way along, which did nothing to stop local children from exploring the terrain. Perhaps it was even an incentive; it probably would have been to her as a kid. But Dyson was right. The ground here was steep and treacherous, and she concentrated on her footing as she led the way. If she slipped in front of him now she would have to fucking kill him to save face.

The sides of the quarry were dangerously steep, and she made her way down cautiously. Roots and branches, baked pale by the oppressive summer heat, hung out from the rock like tendons, and she gripped the rough coils of them for balance. It was about a hundred and fifty feet down, and she was relieved when she reached solid ground.

A moment later, Dyson’s feet scuffed the stone beside her.

And then there was no sound at all.

The quarry had an eerie, otherworldly quality. It felt self-contained and desolate, and while the sun was still strong on the waste ground above, the temperature was much cooler here. She looked around at the fallen rocks and the clusters of yellowing bushes that grew down here. The place was a maze.

A maze that Elliot Hick had given them directions through.

“This way,” she said.

Earlier that afternoon, two teenage boys had been taken into custody outside a nearby house. One of them, Elliot Hick, had been borderline hysterical; the other, Robbie Foster, empty and calm. Each was holding a knife and a book, and both were soaked almost head to toe in blood. They were being held for questioning at the station, but Hick had already told the attending officer what the two of them had done, and where they would find the results of it.

It wasn’t far, he’d said.

Three hundred feet or so.

Amanda headed between the rocks, taking her time, moving slowly and carefully. There was a pressure to the silence here that felt like being underwater, and her chest was tightening with apprehension at the thought of what they were about to see. Assuming Hick was telling the truth, of course. There was always a chance there was nothing to be found here at all. That this was some kind of bizarre prank.

Amanda reached out and moved a curtain of sharp branches to one side. The notion that this was a practical joke seemed absurd, but it was infinitely preferable to the idea that she was about to step out into a clearing and see— She stopped in her tracks.

And see that.

Dyson stepped out and stood next to her. He was breathing a little faster, although it wasn’t clear if that was from the physical exertion of the climb and the walk, or the sight that lay before them now.

“Jesus Christ,” Dyson said.

The clearing ahead of them was roughly hexagonal, the ground jagged but basically flat, and it was bordered on all sides by trees and tangles of bushes. There was something almost occult about the setting, a first impression that was only enhanced by the tableau laid out there.

The body was about fifteen feet away, directly in the center. It had been posed in a kneeling position, bent over almost in prayer, the thin arms folded backward along the ground like broken wings. It appeared to be that of a teenage boy. He was dressed in shorts and a T-shirt that had ridden up to his armpits, but the blood made it difficult to tell what color the clothing had been. Amanda’s gaze moved over the body. There were numerous dark stab wounds on the boy’s exposed torso, the blood around them pale brown smears on the skin. There was a deeper pool beneath his head, which was tilted awkwardly to one side, barely attached, and facing mercifully away from her.

Dispassionate, Amanda reminded herself.

Aloof.

Practical.

For a moment, the world was completely still. Then she saw something else and frowned.

“What’s that on the ground?” she said.

“It’s a kid’s fucking body, Amanda.”

She ignored Dyson, and took a couple of careful steps farther into the clearing, anxious not to disturb the scene but needing to make sense of what she was seeing. There was more blood on the stone floor, stretching out in a circle on all sides around the body. The pattern seemed too uniform to be accidental, but it was only when she reached the edge of the bloodstains themselves that she realized what they were.

She stared down, her gaze moving here and there.

“What is it?” Dyson said.

Again, she didn’t reply, but this time it was because she didn’t quite know how. Dyson walked across to join her. She was expecting another exclamation, more bluster, but he remained silent and she could tell he was just as disturbed as she was.

She counted the stains as best she could, but it was hard to keep track of them. They were a storm on the ground.

Hundreds of blood-red handprints pressed carefully against the stone.





TWO



The hospice in which my mother was dying was on the grounds of Gritten Hospital.

It seemed a slightly melancholy arrangement to me. On the long drive cross-country, I had wondered why they didn’t go for the hat trick and install a cemetery and a conveyer belt while they were at it. But the grounds turned out to be pleasant. Once past the hospital, the driveway curled leisurely between carefully trimmed lawns dotted with brightly colored flower beds and apple trees, and then over a small bridge with a stream burbling underneath. It was a hot day, and I’d rolled the car window down. The air outside was saturated with the rich smell of freshly cut grass, and the sound of the water on the rocks below seemed threaded through with a child’s laughter.

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