The Shadows

It was easy enough to find one of the handful of rough paths that snaked through the woods. Once I had, I led the man along it for a while.

He kept a little way behind but shone the flashlight ahead, and the light made the woods seem eerie and otherworldly. The nearest trees on either side were brightly illuminated, every detail of the pitted bark revealed, and I could see a carpet of tangled grass and broken sticks stretching a little way in front. But the light only penetrated so far. The view just feet in front of me was like a black iris, or a hole into which I was leading the two of us.

As we walked, I began to lose track of the direction we were heading. Not that it mattered. After a few minutes, I spotted a convenient break between the trees on the left-hand side—not a path, but manageable—and that was where I decided to take us off-grid.

“We need to go this way.”

“You’re sure?”

At hip-height on the nearest trunk, there was a spread of thin branches hanging down from a larger one, like skeletal fingers poised over a piano. I gestured to them as though they were a landmark I recognized.

“I’m sure.”

I stepped confidently through, hoping it didn’t lead to a dead end. Luck was on my side. A little way along, there was another break between the trees, this time to the right, and I took that, leading us deeper into the woods.

A branch snapped off against my upper arm. With my hands cuffed, I tried awkwardly to bend others out of the way as I went. The deeper into the woods we walked, the less well the flashlight seemed to work, and the trees cast shadows across each other, lending everything a shattered feel. All I could hear in the hush was the twigs snapping beneath our feet as we moved farther and farther away from the rest of the world.

A mile or so, I’d told him.

Of course, I had no actual destination in mind. No real idea of where I was taking this man or what would happen when we reached it.

Suddenly there was a break in the land.

I teetered and almost fell. An enormous stretch of earth had been hacked and gouged out a footstep ahead of us.

Keep calm.

There was no way forward, so I stepped to the left, carefully lifting my foot over a tangle of undergrowth.

“Watch yourself here,” I said.

I just had to hope. I remembered what these woods were like— how it often felt that you weren’t moving through them so much as them shifting around you—and I sent a silent plea to the forest to slide a piece into place that would help me now.

Luck was with me again. A little way along, the ground closed up, and I could lead us off to the right again. The town felt a long way behind us now.

“How much farther?” the man said.

“Still a ways.”

But I could tell from the silence that followed that his patience was running out. I needed to distract him as I took us deeper.

“Why are you doing this?” I said.

No reply.

“Who are you? A soldier, I’m guessing.”

Again, he said nothing. But this time I thought the man was at least considering the question.

“I was a soldier once,” he said finally. “For a long time. And I did some very bad things when I was. Things I’m ashamed of. Afterward, I was a father, and everything started to feel right again.”

His voice sounded so blank, so empty, and I thought I understood now. He was a parent—presumably of the victim in Featherbank that Amanda had told me about. Charlie had never been found, and therefore his child was dead, and it had broken him. That was why he was here, doing what he was doing. He was trying to rectify that.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Be quiet.”

“I was just a kid. I tried to do the best I could. I had no idea it would lead to other kids copying what Charlie did. I genuinely thought it would all just be forgotten.”

And then time ran out.

I stepped between the trees and was faced by a dead end. There was another enormous dip in the land here, the edge ridged with tree roots that looked like black veins coiling out of the crumbling earth. There was no way forward. The ground to the left was overgrown and impassable. To the right, there was a small stretch of earth that ended in a thick wall of trees, the grass and brambles between them as impenetrable as barbed wire.

This was as far as we went.

“There,” I said.

The man stepped out beside me. My heart was beating hard as I pointed at the area of ground to the right of the ravine ahead. He angled the flashlight toward it, flicking the beam back and forth, searching for an old well that wasn’t there.

“Where?”

You used to be so decisive.

I reached out quickly and knocked the flashlight upward toward his face, then shouldered him away from me as hard as I could, as hard as I remembered once going through a boy on a rugby field. He went sprawling—not over the edge as I’d wanted, but at least far enough away for me to spin back the way we’d come.

And then run for my life into the darkness.





FORTY-ONE



Are you saying my son was murdered because of a ghost?

That was what Dean Price had asked her. But as Amanda rocketed along the dark main road toward the town of Gritten Wood, it was Mary Price’s words the same day that returned to her.

Dean used to be in the army.

It’s only since Dean left the army that the two of them started to bond.

Dean’s always been practical. A problem-solver.

At the time Amanda had said this wasn’t a problem anyone could solve, but now she wondered if that was true. Michael Price had been murdered because Charlie Crabtree had never been found. The mystery of his disappearance had cast a shadow over everything and caused so much pain. And that was a problem that could be solved, couldn’t it?

If you had the training and the will.

If you had nothing left to live for.

Back at the department, Mary had told her Dean had walked out of the house three days ago, and she hadn’t heard from him since. His phone was switched off. The man had gone dark.

Everything is fine, Amanda told herself.

She had already checked, and Paul wasn’t in his room at the hotel. But that just meant he was probably at his mother’s house. And, while he wasn’t answering his phone, the most likely explanation was surely that, after the events of the day, he didn’t want to speak to her.

So there was nothing to worry about.

But that was logic speaking, and she was hearing other, louder voices right now. The dark landscape outside the car reminded her of the nightmare she often had, and she was beginning to feel the same panic and urgency it always brought. Someone was in trouble and she was not going to reach them in time.

Her phone was attached to the dashboard. She dialed Dwyer.

“Where the hell did you disappear to?” he said.

“I’m on my way to Gritten Wood.”

She explained what she’d learned from Mary Price.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” he said. “You didn’t think to wait for me?”

“No time. I’m sure everything is okay, but I wanted to get out here as quickly as possible. Stay on the line and I’ll let you know if I need you.”

“I’m sending someone anyway.”

She thought about it. “Fine by me.”

The car in front of her was driving too slowly. Amanda pulled out and overtook it, accelerating away and ignoring the horn blaring behind her—but then the turnoff for Gritten Wood came up suddenly on the left, and she swerved off the main road, hardly slowing as the street narrowed. The car juddered and bounced around her, the tires bumping over the rough ground. The husk of the town appeared ahead of her, as dark and apparently deserted as before.

And beyond it, the black mass of trees.

Her heart started beating more quickly.

She reached the house a minute later. Paul Adams’s car was parked outside. She pulled in behind it, cricking on the hand brake and grabbing her cell phone from the dashboard.

“I’m there,” she said.

“Anything?”

“The car’s here.” She got out and looked at the house. “The hall light’s on.”

“Just stay on the line.”

“Will do.”

“And don’t do anything stupid.”

Amanda remembered the savagery that had been done to Billy Roberts, and the terror she’d felt afterward at having come so close to such a monster.

“Don’t worry, I won’t.”

She kept the phone pressed to her ear as she headed up the path to the front door. She knocked, but didn’t wait for a reply—just turned the handle and found it unlocked. Inside, the brightly lit hallway was empty.

“Paul?” she shouted.

There was no reply.

“What’s going on?” Dwyer said.

“Hang on.”

Amanda stared down the hallway toward the kitchen at the far end. The light wasn’t on in there, but she could feel a breeze coming from that direction. She headed down. The back door was open onto the black, overgrown sea of the yard.

“Back door’s open.”

She stepped out. It was difficult to make out much detail, but she could see the trees at the bottom. The darkness there was absolute.