The Shadows

“All right.”

I picked up the handcuffs. They were solid and professional, with little distance between the cuffs. Police-issue, I thought—or military, perhaps. And there was that air of authority to the man, as though controlling and hurting people came naturally to him.

I slipped one cuff over my left wrist and clicked it shut.

“A bit tighter,” he said.

I did as I was told.

“Now the other.”

I repeated the action with the other wrist. The action rendered me helpless, but I had been already. Maybe there was even some comfort in the knowledge that he felt the need to restrain me. If he wanted to kill me, I would surely be dead by now.

“What do you want?” I said again.

And again, there was no answer.

Instead, he squatted down and looked me over dispassionately. The knife was much closer now, and I could see it was serrated on one side, thin and wicked on the other. The way the man looked at me, it was like he was examining a carcass he had been given the task of butchering, and a chill ran through me as I realized there might be other reasons to restrain me, and that there were worse fates than simply being dead.

I felt a buzzing against my thigh.

My phone ringing.

The man heard it too and reached into my pocket. He examined the screen for a moment, then placed the phone casually on the floor and sent it spinning away into the dark front room.

He held up the knife.

“Do you see this?” he said.

“Yes.”

“This means you and I are going to have a talk.”

“About what?”

“Be quiet. The talk will go on for as long as it needs to. If you don’t give me the answers I want, I will hurt you very badly until you do. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“Because I know you have those answers. I know you know what happened to Charlie Crabtree and where he disappeared to.”

I blinked.

I wasn’t sure what I’d been thinking this was—a robbery, perhaps. But I remembered Billy Roberts now, and how shaken Amanda had seemed after coming from the scene.

The talk will go on for as long as it needs to.

The man placed his knee on my side, leaning down and pinning me to the floor, then traced the tip of the knife over my shoulder.

“I have no idea what happened to Charlie,” I said.

“Really? Why were you planning to burn the evidence, then?”

I tried to think.

“I just wanted to be done with it all. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

That seemed to anger him. The pressure of his knee on my side increased, and he moved the knife to my cheek. I felt the tip of it pierce the skin there, a fingertip away from my right eye.

“You know what happened to him,” he said.

I could tell him the truth, but I didn’t want to, and from the expression on his face I thought he was planning to hurt me whatever I said. Despite the situation, I felt anger flaring up inside me. Fury that, even after all these years, Charlie still had the capacity to get to me, and determination that it was going to stop.

“Tell me where Charlie is.”

The tip of the knife suddenly went in deeper, and I winced as the man turned his hand, needling the blade against my cheekbone. The pain wasn’t terrible, not yet, but the glinting metal filled my right eye, and the anticipation was worse.

You need to tell him a story.

“Hague,” I said.

The name came from nowhere, arriving in my head as suddenly and violently as the van that had taken Hague’s life.

The beginning of a story.

Now I just needed to find the rest.

But for now, the blade stopped turning as the man considered my answer. It was taking him a second to place the name, but I could tell it was familiar to him. He must have read through the same online forums as I had.

A moment later, the knife moved away from my face.

“The boy who was killed in the accident,” he said.

“No,” I said. “Not him. His older brother. Rob Hague—that was his name.”

I had no idea if that was true.

“What about him?”

“He was in prison, but he got out that year. There were rumors circulating about what Charlie had said on the rugby field that day. Some people thought that Charlie really had caused the accident, and Rob Hague was one of them. He blamed Charlie for killing his brother.”

It was a complete fabrication, of course, but now that I’d started to tell it, I realized I could see it unfolding in my head, the way I had on rare occasions as a teenager when I sat and planned out my stories. Rob Hague and his friends cruising around in their car. Looking for an opportunity to deal with Charlie, and finding him wandering alone near Gritten Wood after he woke up and abandoned Billy among the trees.

Dragging him into the car.

A beating that got out of hand.

“There were three of them,” I said. “I can’t remember the other names. After Charlie died, they panicked. They kept his body wrapped up in a roll of carpet in the trunk of the car. Later on, they got rid of the body in the woods and burned the car.”

“Where in the woods?”

“There’s an old well.”

“The wells were all searched.”

“Beforehand. So where better to hide a body?”

I held my breath as the man thought about that. I needed him to believe the story enough to buy me some time. I had no idea what I was going to do with that time, but I did know I didn’t want him to start hurting me. That whatever happened, it was going to be on my terms.

Eventually he moved the knife.

“How do you know about that?”

“Hague showed me.”

“Why would he do that?”

A good question.

“This was a couple of months later,” I said. “He knew I hated Charlie, and he thought I might want to know that justice had been done. Maybe he figured he could trust me not to tell. And he was right about that.”

The man looked at me.

Not quite believing yet. But nearly.

“Hague gave me something,” I said.

I nodded toward Charlie’s dream diary, which I’d dropped by the door when I was first hit. The man stared at it for a moment, then reached out and picked it up, flicking through the pages. Whoever he was, he had clearly learned enough about the case to understand what he was seeing.

“And I’m glad,” I said. “I’m fucking glad he told me.”

Even if the rest of what I’d said was fiction, there was nothing pretend about the venom in my voice then. If my story had been true—if Hague’s brother really had turned up on my doorstep—I’d have gone into those woods with him in a heartbeat. And when he looked at me, the man could see I was telling the truth.

A few seconds later, he tossed the diary into the front room.

“You’re going to take me there,” he said.





FORTY



I stood outside the back door on the edge of the yard, the coils and swirls of grass before me a frozen, dark blue sea. The pitch-black trees at the bottom might as well have been the end of the world. Behind me, the man flicked on a flashlight. The beam turned the undergrowth ahead into a colorless carpet of texture and shadow.

“We go in this way?” he said.

“We’re less likely to be seen this way.”

“How far is it?”

I thought about it. “A mile or so.”

“You’d better not be lying to me.” He pressed the knife against the base of my spine. “You know what will happen if you are.”

“I’m not lying.”

I breathed in the night air. It was cool now. And it was strange how calm I felt, especially as I had no idea how the minutes ahead were going to pan out. In all likelihood this man was going to kill me, and all I was really achieving here was to stretch out whatever time I had left. But there was an off-kilter edge to the world, and an unreal quality to the silence. It felt as though the man and I had stepped out of time and found ourselves in a place where the past and present mingled more freely than usual.

A place where anything might happen.

I lifted my cuffed hands, pinched my nose shut, and tried to breathe.

“What are you doing?” he said.

I lowered my hands.

“Nothing. Come on.”

And then I set off down the yard, hardly aware of him following aside from the bobbing light that kept quiet, methodical pace. At the bottom of the yard, I pulled the old chicken wire away from the posts and trampled it down. The man shone the flashlight into the woods, revealing a route so overgrown at the sides and overhead that it was more like a tunnel than a path.

I looked behind me. With the light shining so brightly, it was impossible to see the man, but I had the impression that he was as uneasy as I was—or as I should have been. And then I turned and stepped over the remains of the fence, and began pushing my way through the branches and foliage that were already scratching at my arms.

Heading off into the Shadows for one last time.



* * *