Read The Shadows: A Novel Online

Authors: Alex North

Tags: #Thriller, #Horror, #Mystery, #Suspense, #Adult

The Shadows: A Novel (4 page)

I looked at James and I could see he was considering that, and I wondered what he would choose to do if he could do anything at all. Get back at the bullies who tormented him? Envision a happier home life? Escape from Gritten altogether? I imagined the idea must appeal to him, and I didn’t like the way he was staring at Charlie as though he’d just been offered something magical.

“They’re still just
dreams,
” I said. “When you wake up, it’s not like it matters. It hasn’t changed anything.”

Charlie looked at me. For a moment his expression seemed completely blank, but there was an undercurrent to it that set me on edge, as though I’d committed some kind of transgression by challenging him.

“What do you mean?” he said.

I shrugged. “Just that. They’re only dreams. They don’t make any difference.”

Charlie smiled then, and for some reason it unnerved me more than the blankness had. It was the same smile he’d shown to Hague
that day, one that suggested he was way ahead of me, and that I’d said something simplistic and childish that he himself had gotten past a long time ago.

They’re only dreams.

A smile that said he knew a secret I didn’t.

SIX
NOW

Amanda worked late that night.

She drew the blinds in her office and turned off the light, so that the only illumination in the room came from the computer screen on her desk and an angled lamp beside it. The arrangement was probably not great for her eyesight, but she liked working this way when she could. It concentrated her attention and made the rest of the world go away. It allowed her to think.

What she was thinking about right now was dream diaries.

The concept seemed ridiculous to her. Everyday diaries were alien enough—if something happened that wasn’t important enough to remember
in your actual head,
what was the point in writing it down? The idea of going one step further and recording your dreams as well was so far off-planet she needed a telescope to see it. But that appeared to be what she was looking at now.

While Robbie Foster was not cooperating, and Elliot Hick was borderline hysterical, the police had managed to establish a rough timeline of events, and Amanda now knew a little more about what had happened. Close to midday, Hick and Foster had gone to the quarry with a friend of theirs named Michael Price, and they had murdered him there. Afterward, they had taken sleep
ing pills. When they eventually woke up, they had wandered out across the waste ground, bloodstained and lost, at which point they had been spotted by a concerned member of the public. Each of the boys was carrying a knife and a book. Neither had denied the killing, and while the forensics would take time, Amanda had no doubt the two teenagers were guilty. She had the
what
and she had the
who
.

What she didn’t understand yet was
why
.

She’d had a meeting with her boss, Detective Chief Inspector Colin Lyons, an hour ago. Lyons was a notorious bastard, and she had known full well the calculations that had been going through his head at the time. There had been a murder on his patch, which looked bad, but the killers were already in custody and there appeared to be no risk to the wider community. The convictions were going to be iron clad, and the department would look good as a result. A boy was dead, basically, but things could have been worse.

That was how Lyons’s mind worked—and while her father had certainly not been a bastard, Amanda imagined the two men would at least have understood each other.
Why
was not necessarily a question that mattered. Motivations, causes, reasons—they almost always turned out to be mundane and disappointing. What explanation could there possibly be for the horror she had seen in the quarry that afternoon that would make sense of it? Asking why was like diving into a black hole. The deeper you went, the less light you found.

But she had been compelled to look.

And she had found darkness that was difficult to understand. Foster and Hick had taken their dream diaries with them to the murder scene, and on the desk before her now were printed scans of the last few entries. She read what the boys had written down that morning.

Robbie Foster’s first:

I am in the quarry. The light is strange. I perform nose trick and environment technique to stabilize then walk to the stage. Elliot is waiting for me. He’s vague but I can tell he’s really there. (We both place hands on the ground.) RH is in the bushes watching us and I almost see his face. Elliot sees him too, and we both know it’s time.

And then Elliot Hick’s:

I am at the stage in the quarry. The air is an odd color. Robbie arrives a moment later, and we stabilize each other by placing our hands on the ground. It takes a while, but then I feel RH. I still can’t see his face, but he’s in the bushes to one side. Robbie smiles at me. We have prepared everything carefully and know exactly what to do, just like Charlie told us. We both know tomorrow is the time.

Amanda leaned back in her chair.

Taking the entries at face value, it appeared that both boys had dreamed the same thing. Except the accounts were not identical. It was more like an event being described from two different perspectives. As though Hick and Foster had been in the same dream together.

Which was obviously not possible.

Of course, the boys had to be delusional to have done what they had, and what interested her most were the other details there. What did RH mean?

And who was Charlie?

Whoever he was, Hick’s entry in particular implied the pair of them had been following instructions from him. And that in turn
suggested the killing might not be quite as contained as Lyons had hoped.

Amanda put the printouts to one side and turned her attention to her computer, opening the case file that was building online. Hick’s and Foster’s laptops had been seized earlier. Both were awaiting full analysis, but she did have a list of their browsing activities. The pair had frequented various sites online. But, scanning through the details now, it seemed that one specific forum had commanded the majority of their attention.

The Unsolved and the Unknown.

Amanda typed the address into her own browser.

She was met by a schlocky-looking true crime website. The title was scrawled at the top in red, as though by a fingertip dipped in blood, and below it there was a dizzying number of sub-forums. The folders were arranged chronologically by the most recent post, and the one at the top of the page caught her attention immediately.

Crabtree/Roberts—“RH”

The use of RH could hardly be a coincidence. She clicked through, and was then faced by another wall of posts, each of which had numerous replies of their own. The top few were in italics—old, pinned threads, she assumed—but her heart sank as she clicked on the most recent post below and began reading the thread.

LP242: Guys, just got word of a murder in Featherbank. It’s not far from where I live which is how I know. No details on the victim yet but local rumor is a teenager and police have two boys in custody. Close to @RF532 and @EH808 I think? They’ve not been online today as far as I can tell. Hope they’ve not done something stupid? Trying to find out more.

KH854: No recent posts I can find either. The murder itself is on the news, but no connection to RH I can find so far?? Let’s not jump to conclusions. Copying @RF532 and @EH808. Check in with us, guys!

SR483: Thoughts with the poor parents regardless. My reservations about @RF532 and @EH808 are a matter of record. Also perhaps the Mods might reflect on whether this is finally time to ban @CC666? Because if this is true then @CC666 has blood on his/her fucking hands.

LP242: Okay, spoken to law enforcement source I trust. Victim and perps being widely named locally. Being told victim was nearly beheaded, dream diaries found, handprints on the ground. 100% RH, but police either being coy or haven’t made the link. God damn it, @RF532 and @EH808. We all shitpost on here, but I never thought you’d go through with it. RIP to the poor kid you killed and I hope you guys rot in hell.

Amanda read the whole thread again.

@CC666 has blood on his/her fucking hands
.

She checked the time and picked up the phone.

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.

[knife1.jpg]

[blackwidow1.jpg]

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.

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