Authors: Alex North
Tags: #Thriller, #Horror, #Mystery, #Suspense, #Adult
“What was that?” she said.
She breathed slowly. The seconds passed.
Then she frowned slightly.
“There’s something I need to tell you,” she said.
More silence. Just that quiet breathing.
“I just can’t remember what it is,” she said.
I waited. I had no idea what time or place my mother was speaking from right now, as my own words had clearly disrupted her. Was she still at the railway station that day with me? Or were these thoughts coming from somewhere else entirely?
But there was no answer to that question. Whatever my mother had been dreaming before, she returned to it now.
Are you saying my son was murdered because of a ghost?
Amanda was still thinking about that question as she arrived back at the department. Instead of heading straight to her office, she got into the elevator and pressed the button for the basement.
It was certainly the place for ghosts down here. While the rest of the building had been modernized a few years previously, the basement remained untouched. The paint on the walls was coming away in patches, as though picked at by fingernails, and a couple of the overhead lights flickered as she walked beneath them. The corridors down here were silent other than an omnipresent buzzing sound. Whenever Amanda visited the basement, she was never sure if the noise came from the lights above, the wiring in the walls, or something else altogether. Or which of those options unnerved her the most.
The dark room, then.
When she reached it, she knocked on the door and waited. Even though she didn’t like it down here, it seemed easier to pay a personal call than to pick up the phone or send an email.
She heard movement from inside, and then the door opened a few seconds later. Detective Theo Rowan had a way of opening a door
not quite as wide as you might expect; it reminded her of someone keeping the chain on at the arrival of an unwelcome visitor. But the reputation he had throughout the department was largely down to the work he did; in person, Amanda imagined he would be a surprise to people who had heard of but never met him. Theo was in his late twenties, with an athletic build and a mass of curly blond hair. And despite all the talk about him being creepy, he had a nice smile. It appeared now.
While the smile remained, the door didn’t open any wider.
“To what do I owe the pleasure?” he said.
“I need help finding someone.”
Which was not, both of them knew, his job. But she had already tried the usual channels without success, and she figured Theo would recognize she was looking for a slightly different approach. Not outright illegal, but perhaps less conventional than the rule book strictly allowed for.
She also guessed he would be intrigued by the prospect of that. She was right. After a moment, the door opened properly.
“You should absolutely come in, then.”
She followed Theo into the room, closing the door behind her. Despite the unofficial title that officers had given it, the dark room was in reality anything but. Although it lacked natural light, it was so brightly illuminated, and the surfaces so impeccably clean and polished, that it reminded her of a laboratory.
And in a way, there really were things growing in here.
Amanda looked to one side. While most of the room was white and swept clear, the desks covered with neatly arranged monitors, one of the walls was darker and messier. A huge library of black hard drives was slotted into an elaborate shelving system, the cables that
emerged between them carefully looped and tied but still creating a mass of bristly texture from which a multitude of tiny green and red LED lights blinked out like spider eyes. Each of the hard drives was carefully marked with a thin white label. Many of them, she knew, were the names of children. Not real, living ones, but the fake online personas that Theo and his team had created. There were equally fabricated adult identities. Other drives simply listed the names of internet forums. Some of those were notorious, but others, mercifully, were well beneath the radar of the general public.
The work Theo did in the dark room was simultaneously straightforward and horrifying. He and his team spent their days in the depths of the internet, dredging its silt. If there was anybody who could help her track down a ghost online, it was Detective Theo Rowan.
He was the only one in right now, and he led her over to a desk at the far end of the room.
“This is to do with the Price murder?” he said.
“Yes. The Unsolved and—”
“The Unknown. Yes, I remember. Tell me what you need.”
Amanda explained about the history of the case, and the user on the forum who had sent the photograph of what appeared to be Charlie Crabtree’s dream diary. Using Foster’s login, she had established that everybody registered on the site had a personal profile, but CC666’s had been left entirely blank. The site was hosted outside of the country, and the registration was private. She had contacted the anonymous owner through a link on the forum but had been met with silence. He or she seemed to have no desire to cooperate with the police. All of which meant that, so far, the only lead she had on the user known as CC666 was their words on a screen. It seemed like there was nowhere else to go.
Theo listened carefully, but halfway through he had already
turned his attention to a monitor in front of him and begun typing quickly.
“And you think this person might be Crabtree?” he said.
“I don’t know,” Amanda said. “It doesn’t seem possible, but that’s what they seem to be implying in their messages. And given the way they encouraged Hick and Foster, I’d very much like to find out who they are. I just can’t see how.”
Theo finished typing.
“I can maybe get you their IP address.”
“Possibly. But you have to bear in mind that, even if I do, that might not be precise enough to identify them. IP addresses vary in their accuracy. I might not be able to pinpoint their exact house for you, but it might at least narrow it down to an area.”
“That would be good,” Amanda said. “How?”
Theo gestured across the room at his wall of hard drives.
“With a little help from my friends.”
Or, in other words: set a ghost to catch a ghost.
Theo explained he would use one of his cultivated false identities to set up an account at the forum, providing enough information on the profile for someone looking at it to establish that they appeared to be a living, breathing person with no connection to the police. He would then send a direct message to CC666, including a link designed to pique their curiosity. The link itself would look generic and innocent—the two of them chose a newspaper article—but it would run through a spoof page first that the person who clicked on it would never see. That page would record extensive data about the user: their internet connection; the details of their computer; a location of sorts. And since CC666 was the only person who would ever visit that link, they could be confident any information they got would belong to their man or woman.
Theo made it sound simple.
“Of course, it depends on CC666 taking the bait,” he said.
He raised an eyebrow and laughed.
As Amanda took the elevator upstairs, she was still pondering the question she’d now been asked twice that day.
Did she think the user was Charlie Crabtree?
It was hard to imagine. Surely Crabtree must be dead by now. Or else someone would have found him. He had been fifteen years old at the time of the murder, and while what she had learned about the case had given her an idea of how cunning he had been and how carefully his plan had unfolded, it was difficult to believe he could have evaded capture all these years.
But not impossible.
The idea chilled her. If it really was him, then what was he doing?
What might his plan be now?
Back in her office, Amanda closed the blinds, switched off the light, and turned to her computer. She told herself to be sensible. Before she started thinking about ghosts, there were other avenues to explore.
I was there. DM me.
The police might not have found Charlie Crabtree twenty-five years ago, but the evidence against Billy Roberts had been overwhelming. Roberts had pled guilty to the murder. His lawyer had attempted to argue the boy was suffering from schizophrenia, but the diagnosis was contested by a second psychiatric examination, and the judge had ultimately rejected it. Implications of childhood abuse were taken into account, along with an acceptance that Crabtree had taken the lead in the crime. In the end, Roberts had been sentenced to twenty years in prison for the killing.
According to the online files she read through, he had responded
well to the various initiatives and programs he had enrolled in over the course of his sentence. Evaluative reports repeatedly described him as thoughtful, repentant, and unlikely to present a further danger to society. He had been judged fit for release, and paroled over ten years ago.
Amanda leaned back in her chair.
Billy Roberts, a person who really
been there that day, was out there in the world somewhere right now.
The knowledge provoked mixed feelings. She had become familiar with the killing in Gritten, and the ferocity of what had been done there had lodged in her head. How could it not, she thought, when she had seen a reproduction of it with her own eyes in the quarry? The idea that one of the people responsible for such an atrocity was free in the community shook her a little.
But, of course, Billy Roberts had been little more than a child at the time of the murder. And she had to believe that people could change.
At the same time, she was reluctant to rely entirely on the judgments of strangers when it came to that. She read the reports on the screen again. Roberts may well have presented himself as thoughtful and repentant on the surface, but who knew what unseen damage the murder and subsequent incarceration had done to him on a deeper level?
Especially when he knew that Charlie had gotten away with it.
Amanda opened a new tab on the computer and started typing. She was prepared to attempt to trace Billy Roberts through the parole system—albeit gritting her teeth at the contortions that might involve—but it turned out that would not be necessary. As unbelievable as she found it, his address and phone number were publicly listed.
At least, she assumed it was him. It had to be. The address on the system was only a couple of miles away from the center of Gritten, and a quick sideways check to the original file told her it had been
where Roberts’s parents had lived at the time. Digging a little deeper, she found herself blinking at what she discovered. Roberts’s mother had died while he was in prison. Upon his release, it seemed he had returned home and lived with his father, who had then died a couple of years afterward. Roberts had remained in the family home ever since.
Presumably, given his background, he’d had little choice, but it was still hard to imagine a man committing such a crime and then returning to the town where it had happened. Living there—or at least attempting to. She wondered how many of his neighbors had remembered or learned what Roberts had done, and whether his continuing presence in the area had been more difficult for them or for him.
Amanda picked up the phone.
It rang for a while.
A man’s voice. It somehow managed to sound both gruff and empty at the same time, as though he were annoyed to be disturbed by something he knew couldn’t possibly matter. There were other voices in the background. She could hear swearing and shouting, but it was all distant, as though coming from another room.
“Hello,” Amanda said. “Is this William Roberts?”
“Who are you?”
“My name is Detective Amanda Beck. I’m trying—”
Roberts hung up.
Amanda tried calling the number again. This time, as she had more or less expected, there was no answer.
Why don’t you want to talk to me, Billy?
There were a million possible answers to the question, of course. But the fact remained that there was someone out there who claimed
to have been present on the day of the killing in Gritten, who had access to what looked like Charlie Crabtree’s missing dream diary, and who had helped to incite a murder. While the sting Theo had set up might give her a result, Roberts seemed a decent candidate to be looking at in the meantime.
She closed down the computer and went to see Lyons.
I wanted to see Jenny again, and I had an idea of the best way to find her. The way the white wine had appeared without her ordering suggested she was a regular at the pub when she was in town, and I could imagine a routine that saw her escaping her mother’s house to get some time by herself in the afternoons.
And sure enough, as I walked into the pub, I spotted her immediately, sitting at the same table as before, a glass of wine in front of her. I got a drink and made my way over. She looked up a little guiltily as I approached.
“You caught me,” she said. “I don’t have a problem, honestly.”
“Hey—I’m here too. Mind if I sit?”
“By all means.”
I sat down across from her, then began picking at a beer mat to give my hands something to do. The two of us sat in silence for a moment, until finally she leaned back in her chair.
“I was thinking about what you told me yesterday.”
“What was that?”
“Stuff about your life. I always thought you’d be married with kids by now. Writing your stories. And also, the way you didn’t want to
look into what your mother said. It’s just so different from how you used to be. Let’s just say that I remember you being a little more … proactive.”
She raised a knowing eyebrow. I realized that even after all this time she still had the ability to make me blush, and I ran my finger over the condensation on the bottle of beer to distract myself.
She was right, of course. But rather than thinking about me and her back then, I found myself remembering that day at rugby instead—the day Hague died—and how I’d been so determined to get through the boy opposite me on the field. About the way it had always been me who stuck up for James and protected him. And the focus I’d had back then, working on my ideas for stories late into the night, the house dark and silent around me.
“I guess so,” I said.
“So what changed?”
I looked at her. “You know what changed.”
“But it’s been twenty-five years.” She gave me a pointed look in return. “That seems a long time to be
I didn’t reply. Again, I supposed she was right. While I had spent most of my life trying not to think about what had happened in Gritten, the truth was you didn’t need to think about something for it to affect you. I had been knocked off course, and by keeping my eyes closed, I had never been able to correct that trajectory.
“Well,” I said finally. “I did look into what my mother said. I searched the house. You’d have been proud of me.”
“So you searched. And?”
“And I found.”
I told her about the boxes of newspapers my mother had collected—the coverage not only of what Charlie and Billy had done here in Gritten, but of the murders that had been committed since. How it appeared that, over the years, other teenagers had read about Charlie
and sought to emulate what some of them believed he’d managed to achieve.
“Copycat cases,” I said. “I checked online. All the details are there. Charlie thought a sacrifice to Red Hands would allow him to live in the dream world forever, and because he actually
vanish, there are some people who think he managed it.”
Jenny shook her head. “But that’s…”
“Ridiculous? Yeah, I know. But there are all these websites.” I started to reach for my phone, but then thought better of it. “It’s nuts. These websleuths—I mean, that’s literally what they call themselves—they’re poring over every little detail, trying to figure out how Charlie disappeared.”
“People like a good mystery,” Jenny said.
“But nobody’s ever going to solve it. For all anybody knows, Charlie could even be alive.”
Immediately I wished I could take the words back. The thought of him escaping justice after what he’d done was unbearable in itself, but it was also unnerving to imagine he might be somewhere out there. Even after all this time, the idea of him being close by scared me.
There was a beat of silence.
“I suppose he might as well be,” I said. “Because people are still listening to him, aren’t they? Still
“Why do you think your mother kept it all?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “I think she didn’t want me to know about it or have to deal with it. There’s a whole lot of guilt there, and it feels like she was taking it on so I didn’t have to.”
“You don’t have anything to feel guilty about,” she said.
“Yeah, I do.”
I looked at her, and a different memory came back to me. The first lucid dream I ever had happened a couple of weeks after Charlie and
James appeared to have shared their first dream. It had started out as one of the recurring ones I kept having about the dark market—wandering along narrow aisles as something huge and dangerous hunted me—but this time had been different.
I’ve been here before,
I recognize this.
I had pinched the sides of my nose shut and tried to breathe. There were various ways to test whether you were dreaming or not, but Charlie had told us
the nose trick
was the most reliable. In real life, you wouldn’t be able to breathe, but in a dream you always could. I was met with the startling, impossible sensation of my lungs filling with air.
I’m dreaming right now
I had looked around at the gray stalls, the dimly illuminated crates, the rickety tables and dark, creaking canopies, and they had all seemed completely real. The world had been indistinguishable from the one around me while I was awake, and I had felt a profound sense of wonder. Everything was so intricate that it had been ridiculous to think my brain was capable of constructing something so elaborate.
Show me the way out of here,
Jenny’s voice had come immediately from over to my left.
It was Jenny whom my subconscious had conjured up to help me during that first lucid dream. If it hadn’t, things would have turned out very differently.
You don’t have anything to feel guilty about.
“I do,” I said again now.
Jenny frowned at me.
how you’ve felt all this time?”
“No,” I said. “That’s a new thing. When I left here, I made the de
cision to pack it away—to leave it all behind me. Guilty is just how I
have been feeling.”
“God, you should talk to someone.”
“Someone proper, I mean. Someone who can help.”
“That word again. Like I said, you used to be more decisive.” She sighed and stood up. “I have to go.”
“But seriously. Think about what I said.”
As I watched her walk away to the door, I did.
You don’t have anything to feel guilty about
. I thought about it over and over, and tried to believe it, but it didn’t feel true.
Later, I woke suddenly in the middle of the night, unsure what was happening. The bedroom around me was almost pitch-black. I was sure I had been pulled out of a state of deep sleep—jerked awake by something—but I didn’t know what.
I lay there, my heart singing.
The bedroom revealed itself gradually, shadowy shapes emerging slowly, as though stepping forward out of the darkness toward me. My old room. The sight of it brought a disturbing sensation I had become used to in the days since I’d arrived back. I was not where I should be, and yet the room was so familiar that it felt like someplace where I had always been.
I sat up quickly, my heart pounding now.
The sounds had come from downstairs—someone knocking at the front door. Except it had been more rhythmic than that: the
noises spaced out, as though it took an effort for whoever was out there to lift their arm. From the weight of the blows, it seemed as though they were trying to hammer the door off its hinges.
I swung my legs out of bed, then scrabbled on the floor beside me. My phone came alive in my hand as I found it; it was just after three o’clock in the morning. Panicking slightly, I pulled on the jeans from last night and padded out onto the upstairs hallway.
Downstairs, the floor by the front door was illuminated by a wedge of weak light from the street outside. I stared down at it for a moment, expecting to hear the noises again and see the door rattle in its frame from the force of the impact.
You used to be more decisive.
So I headed down carefully, the phone still in my hand. When I reached the front door, I swiped the phone open and flicked on the flashlight option. Bright light filled the hallway, then the beam flickered around as I unhooked the chain and opened the door.
There was nobody outside. The front path was empty and the street beyond was deserted.
The gate was open, though.
Had I left it like that?
I couldn’t remember. I stepped outside, the night air cool on my skin and the stone path rough beneath my bare feet. I shone the flashlight left and right, flecking the overgrown yard with light and shadow. Nobody hiding there. Then I made my way down the path, and through that open gate onto the sidewalk. The street was bathed in a sickly sheen of amber, empty in both directions.
The whole town was silent and still.
I closed the gate, and then headed back to the house. As I reached the front door, the beam from the flashlight passed over it.
I froze, my heart beating quickly now.
Then I steadied the light, and my skin began to crawl as I shined the beam over the wood and thought about the knocking I’d just heard.
And as I took in the marks that had been left on the door.