Authors: Alex North
Tags: #Thriller, #Horror, #Mystery, #Suspense, #Adult
Back in my mother’s house, I locked the doors and then leaned on the kitchen counter, staring out of the window at the Shadows, trying to control my breathing.
Apart from the flies flickering by the fence, the Shadows were completely still.
There was nobody out there now.
And yet I was shaking.
I remembered how, after I’d woken from the nightmare Charlie and his doll had given me years ago, I had done my best to explain it to myself. To rationalize it.
I had dreamed about the room in the basement, and about Red Hands. After the intensity of the day before, faced down by Charlie and his slingshot and the collective madness of my friends, it would almost have been strange if I hadn’t.
I tried to do the same now.
The marks on the door could be a prank. And people had every right to go walking in those woods. Perhaps it was a vagrant I’d seen—a man who lived out there because there was nowhere else for him. It wouldn’t be so strange for someone like that to be dressed that way, wrapped in a worn and tattered old coat.
I wanted to believe it.
But while I didn’t like to admit it, I had been scared just now. I could tell myself there had been no point pursuing the man—that the woods were so dense and impenetrable I would likely have lost him quickly—but however true that might be, I knew it was not a calculation I had made at the time.
No, the sight of him had terrified me.
And I had stood there frozen—a teenager again.
A sudden clattering noise behind me now made me start. But the sound brought a familiar echo of memory from my childhood. It was just the mail slot. I turned around to see the day’s mail had arrived.
I walked down the hall and picked up the spread of letters. More bills and flyers. I placed them on the side with the others, but then thought better of it. They were obviously trivial and irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, but they’d have to be gone through at some point, and a mundane distraction might help right now. Something to ground me in the real world again. So I gathered up the whole pile, took it through to the front room, and sat down on the couch.
My mother was resolutely old school and was still getting paper copies of everything. There were the standard utility bills, which I tore open and scanned without interest, along with a bank statement that I decided to leave alone for the moment. There were take-out menus, and flyers for local gardening and guttering firms.
And then there was a phone bill.
I stared at that for a few seconds after I opened it. It was a quarterly bill for the landline, and it was three sheets thick. My gaze moved down the itemized list of numbers—all of them calls my mother had made—and then moved to the next sheet, and then the last.
Going back close to two months, I found my cell phone number. The date seemed like such a long time ago. What had we talked about? I realized I couldn’t remember. Nothing, probably—just a standard catch-up, which I’d doubtless hurried to the end of without thinking. It had always been my mother who phoned me, and time
seemed to pass between those infrequent calls without me ever feeling a need to make contact myself.
A wave of sadness washed over me at that.
I don’t care if you ever think about me at all.
I’ll think about you instead
Because that was what parents did, wasn’t it? They wanted to protect their children. They wanted the best lives possible for them. And they expected nothing in return for that. But it was clear from the volume of numbers listed here that my mother had felt the need to talk to someone, and I felt guilty now that it had not been me. That I had not thought about her more than I had.
Who had she spoken to instead?
I turned back to the first sheet. There were several calls over the last month to what I recognized as Sally’s phone, along with a few other numbers that meant nothing to me. One in particular stood out from the amount of contact. It was a cell phone number, and while my mother hadn’t called it every day, it had been close enough. The conversations varied in length and had taken place at irregular times, often in the middle of the night. I had no idea who it was, but then, why would I? I knew so little about my mother’s life.
Perhaps it wasn’t quite too late to change that.
I took out my own cell phone and dialed the number. It rang for an age before cutting to an anonymous, robotic voice mail that invited me to leave a message. I didn’t. Instead, I killed the call and then tried again a minute later. Maybe whoever the number belonged to just hadn’t been able to get to the phone.
This time, it didn’t ring at all. It just bleeped emptily.
I ended the call and then frowned at my phone. Whoever was on the other end of the line had decided they didn’t want to answer and had turned their phone off. There didn’t seem to be any other way of interpreting the situation, but I also couldn’t think what to make of it.
I sat there for a moment, confused.
And then my phone rang—a sudden shock of noise and vibration in my hand. I looked down at the screen, expecting to see the same number there, but the call was from Sally.
“It’s your mother,” she told me. “She’s awake. She’s asking for you.”
I drove too quickly to the hospice. There had been no obvious urgency in what Sally had told me—no sense that I needed to get here before it was too late—but even so. My mother was awake and asking for me, and I was familiar enough with her sleeping patterns that I didn’t want to miss this window to talk. After years of mostly silence between us, it felt like there was so much I wanted to ask.
After parking, I went inside and found Sally waiting for me at the desk. I signed in, and then we walked quickly.
“Is she still awake?” I said.
“She was a minute ago.”
“What did she want to talk to me about?”
“I don’t know.” Sally looked at me sympathetically. “I wouldn’t get your hopes up. She was asking for you, but she still seemed confused to me.”
When we reached the room, Sally waited in the corridor. I pushed the door open slowly and saw my mother lying in the bed. She seemed smaller and weaker than yesterday, her body fading by the hour now, but her eyes were open. She looked at me as I gently closed the door, and then her gaze followed me across the room as I moved to the seat by the bed.
“Sally said there was something you wanted to tell me?”
She frowned. “Who’s Sally?”
The woman who’s been your care worker for months,
“It doesn’t matter,” I said.
“Is she your girlfriend?”
“The one you won’t let me meet yet?”
My mother smiled and looked at the ceiling. I said nothing. It was Jenny she was talking about—that was when and where she was right now.
“You’ll have to ask your father.”
My father, who had been dead for six years. Even in life, I wouldn’t have wanted to ask him anything, and for a moment I couldn’t work out what my mother meant.
She looked at me and smiled encouragingly, willing me on to understand.
Paul. You know he’s the one who keeps things like that. You’ll need two, won’t you? And stamps, of course.”
Then I understood where she was. It was the day I’d shown her the magazine that Jenny gave me, with the details of the short story competition on the back. It might have been free to enter, but that didn’t mean I had everything I needed. Envelopes and stamps. I still remembered the sick feeling in my stomach at the prospect of asking my father for help, along with the dismissive look on his face when I had, after he’d made me explain what I wanted them for.
that they’ll be sending your story back.” My mother tutted to herself. “Not if they know what’s good for them, at any rate.”
“I don’t think it was very good, Mom.”
“Rubbish. I snuck into your room, you see, and read it when you were at school. The one about the man walking around the streets where he grew up? I thought it was
Then she frowned to herself.
“I mean, I know I shouldn’t have done that. But you never
show me anything,
Paul. I’m sorry.”
I swallowed. At the time, it would have mortified me to know she’d done that, but it all felt so distant now that it scarcely seemed to matter.
“That’s okay, Mom.”
She looked back at the ceiling again and closed her eyes. I waited, unsure what to do or say. I’d sped here because she was awake and there had been something she wanted to tell me. Maybe it was foolish, but after what had happened at the house today, I’d imagined it might be connected to that: the knocks at the door; the man I’d seen in the woods.
But it was only this.
“Mom, do you remember me telling you I went in the attic?”
For a moment there was no response. Then she sighed.
“They’re all the same.”
“The … cases?”
“No.” Her eyes still closed, she smiled as though quietly pleased about something. “They’re all the same. That’s why he won’t find it.”
“Who? And what is it he won’t find?”
But she just shook her head. It seemed that whoever
was, and whatever she was hiding from him, she was determined to keep it a secret from me as well. Well, I could search through the newspapers again later. I forced down the frustration I felt and tried a different angle.
“Have you … seen anybody in the woods?”
Again, she didn’t reply immediately. But the smile disappeared, and then, a few seconds later, her eyes suddenly opened and she looked at me in alarm.
“He’s in the woods, Paul!”
“It’s okay, Mom.”
“He’s in the woods. He’s there
I reached out and calmly smoothed the edge of the cover down over the corner of the bed. It felt like a futile attempt to soothe her, but after a moment her body seemed to relax a little.
“Who is in the woods, Mom?”
“I don’t want to say that horrible boy’s name.” She shook her head again and closed her eyes. “Not after what he did. Not after all the pain he’s caused over the years.”
“You saw Charlie in the woods?”
She nodded absently. “Flickering in the trees.”
The image disturbed me and I moved my hand away from the bed. My mother was seeing ghosts now. But I told myself she had likely been seeing them for months.
It didn’t mean they were real.
“Oh,” she said suddenly. “I remember.”
“What I needed to tell you.”
Her eyes remained closed, and her voice was fainter now. She was drifting off. The window was closing, and I didn’t know how many more there would be.
I leaned closer again.
“I’m so proud of you.”
She smiled slightly. As she drifted back off to sleep, her mind was moving between times, and I knew where she was now. Standing on a railway platform with her son, waiting for him to leave, knowing he would not return. Throwing him out into the world without a thought for herself.
Silence in the room for a moment.
“Thank you,” I said quietly.
“You’re going to be a writer, I think.”
Even though her voice was barely there now, she said it with such conviction that I was unable to reply. Instead, I just sat there, watching the covers rising and falling almost imperceptibly with every small breath she took. And then, eventually, I found the words.
“I love you,” I said.
But my mother was asleep again by then.
I kissed her gently on the forehead and then sat with her for a time.
I’m so proud of you.
Walking outside again later, I thought about those words. They should have brought some comfort, but I knew it hadn’t really been me she was talking to—or, at least, not me now. There was nothing about my present-day life for anybody to be proud of, and whatever there might have been back then had been squandered since. While my mother had been happy that I was escaping from Gritten and what happened here, the reality was that I never had. Not really. The shadow had always been there.
You’re going to be a writer.
What a joke. A part of me was glad her mind had retreated to a time and place where she could still believe I might amount to something.
I pushed open the doors to the hospice, and then squinted as I stepped out into the bright afternoon sun. I walked over to my car, the gravel crunching under my feet, and because of the light and the heat and the emotions churning inside me, it was only when I reached it that I realized another vehicle was parked beside it now, and that a woman was leaning against it with her arms folded, watching me.
She looked to be in her late thirties and had long brown hair tied back in a ponytail. She was not dressed for the weather—dark jeans
and a long black coat—but from the look on her face, the temperature was the least of her worries.
She leaned away from the car. “Paul Adams?”
She nodded to herself, as though I were yet another disappointment in a long line of them.
“Detective Amanda Beck,” she said. “Is there a bar around here, Paul? I don’t know about you, but I could really do with a drink.”
Paul didn’t drive far.
A few minutes after they’d left the hospice, he signaled and pulled into a parking lot. Amanda drove in and parked behind, then followed him into the pub. Given the general state of Gritten, she was worried it would be a pit, but it turned out to be nice enough: dark wood and polished brass; enough screens to suggest it would be lively later but quiet for the moment. Most importantly of all right now, of course, it had a bar.
I need a drink.
Amanda imagined she had said that numerous times in her life, usually after what had been, in hindsight, a comparatively mild day at work. Today it was genuinely true. The near-encounter back at Billy Roberts’s house had caused her fight-or-flight mechanism to kick in, and after the police and ambulance arrived, the adrenaline had begun to settle listlessly in her system like sludge. Adrenaline was a poison; if you didn’t use it up, it used you instead. She had been shivering as she talked to the lead detective, a man named Graham Dwyer, and her hands were still trembling a little even now.
The bartender fetched a beer for Paul automatically. Amanda ordered a vodka tonic along with a separate shot. She downed the latter
in one as soon as it arrived. Paul started to get his wallet out, but she waved him away, her throat burning.
Once the order was settled, she looked around and then led him to a table to one side, as far away from the handful of other customers as possible. As they sat down, she resisted the urge to down the second drink too. Instead, she just took a sip, closing her eyes and rolling the liquid around her mouth.
“Is this about this morning?” Paul said.
Amanda swallowed slowly and opened her eyes. “This morning?”
“The marks on my mother’s door,” Paul said. “An officer came to the house. Holder, I think his name was. He took photos, but he didn’t seem that interested.”
Amanda certainly was. “What kind of marks?”
“Someone knocked on the door in the night and left fist prints on the wood. The officer thought it was probably just a prank.”
“That’s a weird kind of prank.”
“Yeah, I thought so.”
He stared back at her for a moment, as though he wanted to explain a little more but wasn’t sure how. Then he shook his head.
“But you’re not here because of that.”
“No.” Amanda got out her ID and showed him. “I’m not with the Gritten Police Department. I’m from a place called Featherbank.”
She watched his reaction to that closely. If Paul Adams was behind the CC666 account, the place name would surely be familiar to him. But his face didn’t show a flicker of recognition.
She put the ID away. “I’m here because of a crime that occurred there last weekend. A murder. Two boys killed one of their classmates.”
That got a reaction. Paul closed his eyes and began rubbing his forehead with his fingertips. Again, she watched him. He would be
forty or so now, she estimated, but had the kind of appealing face she imagined under normal circumstances could pass for much younger. Right now he seemed weighed down by the world, every single one of those years etched on his features. It seemed like she’d just added more.
“Another one,” he said quietly.
“There have been two others over the years. At least.”
. Amanda took out her phone. “Do you have the names?”
She typed the details he gave her into her notes app. She would need to look into those later. Was it possible CC666 was involved there too?
“I didn’t know about those,” she admitted.
“I only found out about them yesterday. Until then, I had no idea. I assumed all that … that it had been forgotten about.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Yeah, I saw. I don’t understand it.”
“Well, you know.” Amanda shrugged, and dropped her next reference as casually as possible. “People are always interested in the unsolved and the unknown.”
He shook his head. “But it wasn’t
“No, that’s true.” If he had ever heard of the forum before, he was a good actor. She made a calculation. “That’s actually the name of a website. The Unsolved and the Unknown. You ever heard of it?”
“Me neither until a few days ago. The thing is, the boys in Featherbank were both members on there. They were obsessed with the Charlie Crabtree case. And there was another user who seemed to be encouraging them. This person knew a lot about what happened here in Gritten.”
“Yeah, I noticed a lot of people do.”
“This particular one was implying they were Charlie Crabtree.”
That worked like a magic spell. For a moment, Paul’s whole body was totally still. Then an expression of disbelief appeared on his face: a mixture of disgust and confusion and grief.
was that good an actor, Amanda decided. Whatever else Paul Adams might be, and whatever troubles were going on in his life, she was sure he wasn’t behind the CC666 account.
Which was almost disappointing.
“Why would anyone
that?” he said.
“I don’t know.” She hesitated. “I mean, do you think it’s possible they were telling the truth?”
“No. Charlie’s dead.”
But he said it too quickly, in a way that seemed to be a magic spell of its own: an incantation that, if you repeated it often enough, would become true.
“How can you be sure?” she said. “From what I can tell, the police searched those woods extensively.”
Paul thought about that for a while.
“I remember that,” he said finally. “I remember hearing the dogs barking from my bedroom window. Every now and then, I’d spot an officer in the tree line. But the thing is, the way it reads online, Charlie vanished without a trace. And that’s just not true.”
“No. He and the others had been in those woods so often that there were traces of him
. The dogs would find a trail that would lead them back to another, and they’d end up going in circles. Literally chasing their tails. So, yeah, the search was extensive, but unless you’ve been in there, it’s really not obvious how big those woods are. How easy it is to get lost in there.”
All of which might be true, but she could still sense the doubt there. He wasn’t as certain as he wanted to sound. Even in the face of the evidence and the weight of probability, there was a part of him that wasn’t quite so sure. And she could tell the idea scared him.
“Did you know Billy Roberts was living in Gritten?” she said.
“No.” He blinked. “Fuck. I had no idea.”
“He was living in his parents’ old house.”
“I didn’t even know he’d been released.”
“Really?” Another truth, she thought, but this one surprised her. “Given what happened, I’d have thought you’d have been following the case over the years.”
“The opposite. I’ve done my best not to think about it at all. After I left here, I just wanted to forget about it. Pretend it never happened.”
Everyone has a fucking box in their head to hide things in
. Apart from her, of course. She didn’t need to close her eyes right now to recall the sight of Billy Roberts on his blood-soaked couch. The image kept pressing at the edge of her mind, and it was all she could do to keep it out. There were going to be nightmares later.
living?” Paul said.
“You said Billy
That was sharp of him. Amanda picked up her drink and took another sip, wondering how much to tell him. But it wasn’t like the news wouldn’t spread quickly.
“He was found dead today,” she said.
I found him dead.
“I don’t want to go into that right now. And I just want to stress this: I’m not officially involved in that investigation. The Gritten police already have several suspects they want to talk to. I was visiting him on a completely unrelated matter.”
Paul considered that.
“You think he might be the person behind the online messages?”
“I don’t know. It’s one line of inquiry. Do you think that’s the kind of thing he would do?”
“Billy? I don’t know anything about him.”
. Even though Paul had just been told Roberts was dead, the information hadn’t sunk in far enough yet for him to correct his speech. She had already been confident Paul wasn’t behind the CC666 account. She was sure now he hadn’t been involved in killing Billy Roberts.
So who had been?
An unrelated matter,
she’d just told Paul, and that was likely true. While she wasn’t involved in the murder investigation itself, she had been on the scene, given a detailed statement, and talked to Detective Graham Dwyer afterward. Dwyer already had a list of people he wanted to bring in and talk to. Billy Roberts had been a loose part of a local circle of drinkers who enjoyed an often volatile relationship: men who were borderline homeless, and who fell out and fought viciously within the space of half a bottle, all the suppressed anger and resentment exploding out of them. In advance of forensics, those connections would be the natural focus of the investigation, and Amanda figured the odds were good Dwyer would turn out to be right.
But she couldn’t rid herself of the feeling she’d had outside Roberts’s door earlier—the sensation that someone had been standing on the other side of that flimsy wood, staring out at her. If that was the case, it suggested a killer far more in control of themselves than the working theory supported. And Amanda didn’t like to believe that whoever had done the terrible things she’d seen inside that house had been cool and collected while they did it.
Because what kind of monster was that?
Paul was staring off into space, looking helpless and almost overloaded by the information she’d given him.
“I’m sorry for dredging up bad memories,” she said.
He shook his head.
“Believe me, they were all already being dredged.”
“Your mother … isn’t well?”
“Well, I was trying to be circumspect about things.”
“There’s really no need.”
She nodded, remembering what it had been like when her father was dying. The endless visits; the smell of the hospital; the way he seemed diminished by every passing day, shrinking into a figure that didn’t fit with the size of the man who filled her memories. It had seemed impossible. But everything is okay until it isn’t. People are there, large as life and taken for granted, and then they aren’t.
“Well, I’m sorry,” she said. “It must be very hard for you right now.”
“I think it’s probably harder for her.”
Paul picked up his beer and downed half of it in one gulp.
“I hadn’t seen her in a long time,” he said. “Not been back
. You know how it can feel like you put something away and forget about it, and it’s like it’s gone? But then you realize it’s actually been there the whole time.”
“Like a box that won’t stay shut?” she said.
“Believe me, I know that one every day. You’re staying at your mother’s house, right?”
“I’m surprised you didn’t opt for a hotel,” she said.
“Lecturers don’t get paid that much.”
He didn’t answer, and she found herself trying to imagine how it must feel, returning to a childhood home with so much sour history in its walls and floorboards. Especially when, unlike Billy Roberts,
Paul probably hadn’t needed to. But looking at him now, Amanda recognized that a lot of the weight he was carrying was guilt, and she wondered if, despite not wanting to think about what had happened here, a part of him had decided that maybe, deep down, he needed to.
“I don’t know,” he said eventually, speaking slowly as though he were working out the same thing for himself. “As difficult as it’s been, I think I owe my mother. She looked after me when I was a kid. Protected me. Raised me. Maybe it’s the least I can do. Although, obviously, it’s too late now.”
Her phone buzzed. She checked it and found a message from Lyons requesting an update on what the hell was going on. It was worded so politely she could tell he was furious at being kept in the dark. Well, he could wait. She scrolled back up, hoping there might be an update from Theo, but there was nothing. The mysterious user behind the CC666 account clearly hadn’t taken the bait yet. And, of course, if it turned out to have been Billy Roberts, now they never would.
A flash of the scene earlier.
She pushed it away and drained her glass.
“Okay,” she said. “I need to go.”
“Well, thanks for the drink.”
“That’s okay. Now that I know that lecturers don’t earn much, I’m relieved I could help out. I’ll probably be in touch. It might be handy to talk about what happened here, even if it’s just to give me an idea of what I’m looking for.”
“I don’t know how much help I can be.”
“Me neither. But we’ll see.” She stood up. “In the meantime, is there anyone else in the area it’s worth me talking to?”
At that, Paul looked past her toward the door of the pub.
Up until then, he’d come across as so unguarded that she hadn’t
doubted a single thing he’d said. But there was something different about his manner now. He didn’t look like someone scanning his memory for a name, so much as someone who already had one in mind and was deciding whether or not to say it.
“No,” he said eventually. “Nobody.”