The Shadows

And then she saw Dawson slump a little, as though the air had been taken out of him, and she knew Dwyer had just told him what they were arresting him for. The suspected murder of his wife and stepson, and of Billy Roberts.

For a brief moment, Carl Dawson glanced back to where she and Paul were standing. She had never seen such loss on a man’s face before. It seemed as though everything he’d struggled and worked for over the years had been taken away from him. As if, in that single moment, he was looking back on his whole life and realizing every second of it was pointless and wasted.

And then Dwyer was leading him off toward the car again.

“What’s he done?” Paul said.

Amanda turned back.

“He hasn’t necessarily done anything. We just need to talk to him.” She put a hand on his shoulder and spoke quietly. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine.”

“Why were you here with him?”

“We were just talking.”

She heard a car door slam behind her.

“What were you talking about?” she said.

Paul had been staring over her shoulder, and when he looked at her now, she found it impossible to read the expression on his face. It reminded her of when she’d asked him in the pub if there was anyone else here in Gritten she should talk to. As though he was wrestling with something inside himself, unsure of how much to tell her.

“My mother,” he said.

“What about her?”

“She died.”

“I know,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“And Carl was her friend.”

She looked behind her at the car, where Dwyer was waiting, Carl Dawson in the backseat. They had three brutal murders, and the man was connected to all the victims. I like him for it, Dwyer had told her back at the department, and surely he was right. That was playing the odds, after all. If not him, then who? But, looking back at Paul again now, she thought there was something she was missing—that there was more going on here than they realized.

“Paul?” she said.

Goddamn it. Help me out here.

But his face had gone blank. Whatever decision he’d been agonizing over, he’d clearly made his choice. And when he spoke, it seemed more like he was talking to himself.

“Carl was her friend,” he said again.

Then he looked down and turned away.

“That’s all.”





THIRTY-SEVEN



My father used to burn things.

It was one of the few memories I had of him from my early childhood. I seemed to have gotten through my entire adult life without the need to make a fire of any kind, and yet they had been regular occurrences back then. When I was still young enough for my father not to hate me, I would stand with him in the backyard and watch as he snapped kindling, leaving thin strips of wood hanging from the ends like claws, and help him sweep rustling piles of leaves into the firepit we had there. Newspapers; rubbish; clusters of branches and sharp ropes of brambles. Everything he wanted to dispose of was burned, and then the ashes would be raked over the following day, ready for the fires to come. I supposed that was just the way my father was. When something was no longer useful to him, he took it upon himself to obliterate it from the world.

Perhaps he’d had the right idea.

I stood on the back step now, holding the first of the boxes.

It was evening, and everywhere I looked, the shadows were thickening. Night fell quickly in Gritten, and it would be dark soon. Even now, the face of the woods at the end of the yard had faded into a patchwork of black and gray, occluded further by the mist rising from the tangle of undergrowth below. The air was cooling, and there was a slight breeze that brought the smell of earth and leaves to me.

I’d been in a daze all afternoon, shocked and confused by what had happened: first by everything Carl had told me, and then by the arrival of the police. Amanda had refused to explain what they wanted to talk to Carl about, and I hadn’t heard from her since. Of course, the same held true in reverse. I hadn’t told her what Carl had said, nor had I called and volunteered the information afterward. Back in the playground, it had simply been too soon. It had felt like the decision Carl left me with had been forced upon me and what I really needed was a chance to think and work out the best thing to do.

If I told the truth, three people’s lives would be destroyed and my mother’s involvement would become common knowledge. And to what end? I had gone back and forth, the whole time attempting to distract myself with practicalities. I’d collected my mother’s things from the hospice. I’d obtained a death certificate. I’d looked into funeral arrangements.

But a decision had to be made.

I thought I’d made it now.

I carried the box across the yard. The firepit was a little overgrown, but the bricks at the edges had held, and it was more or less as I remembered: a pale ulcer on the green skin of the lawn. I inverted the box and emptied the newspapers into the pit, then kicked them into a heap in the center, each contact raising puffs of old ash and the sour, dirty aroma of fires long past.

Then I went back inside.

This felt like work that should be done in the dark, so I’d left the lights off in the house for now. There was still enough daylight left to make my way down to the front door where I’d gathered everything together.

I picked up the second box and carried it out to the firepit.

Emptied it.

Was I doing the right thing?

I looked up. The sky above was dark blue and speckled with a faint prickling of stars. No answers to be found there.

I went back inside again and collected the third box, then emptied it into the pit, the pile of newspapers there as dull gray as old bone.

One more to go.

The final box, then. It was already much darker inside than when I’d started, and there was a heaviness to the air, as though my actions were somehow adding to the house rather than subtracting from it. As I carried the box out to the pit, the breeze picked up and the grass around me shivered. I emptied out the contents. My old notebooks. My dream diary. The creative writing magazine. The doll Charlie had given to James. The slim hardback book with Jenny’s story about Red Hands.

But not Charlie’s dream diary.

I frowned.

Where was that?

It took me a moment to realize it must still be upstairs in my mother’s room. When I had seen Carl outside earlier, I had put it down on the bed before following him to the playground. I went back inside again and climbed the stairs slowly. The upstairs hallway was almost pitch-black, as though the house were gathering the night inside itself, and when I walked into my mother’s room, it was full of shapes and shadows. But the diary was obvious: a stark black rectangle on the stripped mattress.

I picked it up.

Am I doing the right thing, Mom?

What my mother would have wanted me to do had been foremost on my mind all afternoon. She had decided to steal the diary from Carl for a reason. After so many years of hoarding guilt, perhaps a part of her had wanted the truth to come out. But equally, at that point her mind had been slipping. She had kept Carl’s secret all this time. Because they had been friends, if not more.

Am I doing the right thing?

I wasn’t sure what she would say if she were here now, and the dark house offered no more answers than the night sky outside. Maybe there weren’t any, I thought. Perhaps life was just a matter of doing what you thought was best at the time and then living with the consequences as best you could afterward. What would my mother have said if she were here now? Probably that I was a grown man. That she’d raised me and protected me as best she could. And that she was gone now, which meant I had to decide what to do for myself.

A noise downstairs.

I stood still for a moment.

Listening.

Nothing more. It was just the house stretching out after the heat of the day, preparing to sleep. Maybe on some level it even knew what I was about to do, and was readying itself to be locked up and forgotten for a time.

I took the diary out into the upstairs hallway.

Then hesitated, looking down the stairs.

It was very dark down there now, and the house felt even more full than it had before. My spine started tingling. Since returning to Gritten, I had never felt entirely alone in here, but that had been because every corner and surface contained memories. Right now I was feeling a different kind of presence.

Someone is downstairs.

The thought came from nowhere.

There was no reason to believe it was true. Everything that had happened here had been down to Carl trying to frighten me away. And yet the silence was ringing in my ears, and some primal part of me was on edge.

I stared down at the front door. I’d put the chain on when I arrived. The back door was unlocked, though.

Could the sound I’d heard have been that door clicking open?

You need to get outside.

Once the thought came, it was suddenly urgent.