Authors: Alex North
Tags: #Thriller, #Horror, #Mystery, #Suspense, #Adult
“Did you hear anything?” he said. “In the night?”
I thought about it again. As far as I could recall I’d slept through undisturbed.
“Not that I remember.”
“Are you sure?”
James looked as tired as I was. But scared too.
“I don’t know,” I said. “What am I supposed to have heard?”
But after a moment, James turned away and looked out of the window at the bleak landscape flashing past.
“Yeah. It really
“Someone knocking at the door. Did you hear that?”
“You mean, you did?”
“No, it’s just what my mother said. Someone was hammering at our door in the middle of the night. She was pissed off about it because it woke her up.” James shrugged, a small, timid gesture that was barely even completed. “So she woke me and Dad up too. There was nobody there, though. I thought maybe she imagined it, except there was something on the door this morning. That was what she was doing—cleaning it off.”
“Cleaning what off?”
Again, James didn’t reply. I wondered if he actually knew—or if there had even been anything there at all. Eileen drank a lot, and she wasn’t the type of person to admit she’d gotten something wrong. It was easy to believe she’d imagined a noise in the night, overreacted, and had just been cleaning the door this morning as a way of stubbornly pretending she was right.
The bus turned off the main road and began making its way past the abandoned factories, run-down shops, and boarded-up houses.
James said something under his breath that I didn’t quite catch.
“What?” I said.
He was still watching the dull scenery, his voice so quiet I could barely hear him.
“She said there was blood on our door.”
Officer Owen Holder squinted at my mother’s front door.
“What do you think it is?” he said.
“I don’t know. It looks like blood.”
“Yeah, I guess.” He tilted his head. “Maybe.”
I said that word too much, and it annoyed me to hear it now. There were three crimson smears on the door, each about the size of the side of a balled-up fist, and they stood out starkly against the white wood, glinting dully in the morning light. If it had been unnerving to see them by flashlight, alone in the darkness, the sight of them now made me feel sick. They were starting to congeal, and a couple of flies had already been drawn to them.
“I think it’s definitely blood,” I said.
“They weren’t there before?”
“You can’t really miss them, can you?”
“No,” Holder said. “I suppose not.”
Then he leaned back, stuffing his hands in his pockets, and he frowned, as though unsure exactly what he was supposed to do about this. I wasn’t sure either. I’d hesitated before calling the police, and had eventually decided it could at least wait until morning. But now, whatever the outcome, I was glad that I had. The marks on the
door were clearly a message of some kind, and even if I didn’t quite understand the meaning yet, it frightened me more than I wanted to admit.
I hadn’t attempted to get back to sleep after being woken by the knocks. Instead, I’d checked the locks on every door and window in the house, and then sat in the darkness on my mother’s bed, with the curtains parted a sliver to give me a view of the street. I had waited and watched until the silence in the air began to sing. And while there had been nobody out there, no sign of movement in the town at all, I had still had the crawling sensation of being watched.
The feeling remained now.
Holder took a long, slow breath and then glanced down the front path toward the street. He looked doubtful.
“I’m not really sure what to say, Mr. Adams. It’s vandalism of a kind, I suppose. And I appreciate it must be annoying. But there’s no actual
been done. It’s probably just a prank.”
One of you lot out playing silly fuckers.
Despite the warmth of the morning, the memory sent a chill through me. But Holder looked to be in his late twenties at most, and I assumed he was way too young to know what had happened here all those years ago. I could have attempted to explain, but it felt like there was too much to say to bring him up to speed. And even if I did that, to understand the real significance you would need to have lived through it in the first place.
“I’d like a record made of it, at least,” I said.
He sighed, then took out his phone. “Of course, sir.”
He took photos of the front door from a couple of different angles, and I stood back with my arms folded, scanning the street and the nearby houses. Again, there was nothing to see. But if someone was watching me, at least they’d know I was taking the situation seriously. That—at least on the surface—I wasn’t going to be intimidated.
After Holder was done and gone, I went back inside. The whole
situation felt both strange and anticlimactic; something serious had happened, but the house itself looked perfectly normal, and life appeared to be going on in the same way it had over the past few days. I wasn’t sure what to do.
Clean the door, for a start.
Yes—that was the proactive thing to do, wasn’t it? So I took cloths, a bucket of water, and a bottle of disinfectant out onto the doorstep and set to work. But the whole time, I kept checking the street behind me. And even though there was nobody there, I was glad when I was finished and I could get back inside and lock the front door against the world.
The house was silent.
Who could have left those marks? It was an impossible question to answer. When I had been reading online yesterday, I had seen numerous references to the knocks on the door at James’s house. It was just one of many infamous details in the case: a piece of the puzzle known to thousands of internet obsessives. If somebody wanted to play a prank on me, there was a wealth of material for them to draw inspiration from.
And perhaps that was all it was.
But as I thought about those posts I’d read online, I also remembered the users who believed Charlie was still alive out there somewhere, and the ones who imagined he really had achieved the impossible. The sense of foreboding that had been gathering for days was stronger now. The feeling that the past was not gone, and that something awful was coming.
But if so, what?
I walked slowly up the stairs, then stood by the window, looking up at the attic. The hatch was closed, but I could almost feel the red handprints and the boxes of newspapers sealed away above me.
It’s in the house, Paul.
It’s in the fucking house!
The urgency of my mother’s words came back to me now, along with the panic and fear straining her voice. I had found boxes full of reports on three different murders, separated by years but with a common thread that led back to me. As painful as it had been to learn what my mother had kept hidden from me all this time, I’d imagined that was all I had found. But now I wondered if there was something there I had missed. A detail that was important enough for someone to send me a message or a warning.
The idea of that scared me.
But I needed to take another look. And I was about to reach up to open the hatch when I saw something out of the corner of my eye. I stood very still, forcing myself to keep looking upward. The window to the side of me faced out over the backyard and the woods, and I was sure there had been a flicker of movement in the tree line there.
I glanced out, watching the woods for a few seconds and trying to catch another sight of whatever it had been.
There was nothing there.
And then there was.
I couldn’t be certain, but I had the impression of a figure crouching down in the undergrowth on the far side of the fence.
I told myself.
And then tried to keep myself calm. After a moment, I turned my back on the window and stood there a little longer, looking here and there, as though I hadn’t seen anything. As though I wasn’t sure what to do next.
In a way, that was true. Did I want to confront whoever was out there? My heart was beating with a steady message of,
No, no, no
. It was the last thing I wanted to do. But then I thought about what
Jenny had told me, and I remembered running through the boy on the rugby field that day long ago, and I decided that what you wanted to do wasn’t always the same as what you had to.
I headed downstairs.
The backyard was long. There was about a hundred fifty feet of undergrowth between the door and the woods, and if I went out that way, whoever was there would see me and disappear into the trees before I could reach them. But there were other routes into the Shadows.
Outside the front door, I locked it and then headed quickly off down the street. A little way along, an overgrown footpath led away from the road and toward the woods. I set off down it. Muffled by the hedges on either side, the world became so quiet that all I could hear was the bees buzzing softly in the brambles around me, and even that sound fell away as I reached the end of the path and stepped carefully between the trees.
The unease intensified. I hadn’t been in these woods for twenty-five years, but I remembered them all too well. You only needed to go a few feet for civilization to disappear behind you and a profound and unnerving silence to settle. To feel trapped and lost even on the bare threads of path where the undergrowth had been trampled down.
And to feel watched.
But I wasn’t a teenager anymore.
A little ways in, I turned to the left, making my way between the trees at an angle toward the back of my mother’s house. If I was careful, I would be able to sneak up on whoever I’d seen at the fence.
A minute later, I judged I was nearly there. It was punishingly hot, and I stopped to wipe sweat from my face before crouching a little and beginning to move more slowly. The distant backs of the houses began to appear gradually between the branches of the trees.
beneath my foot.
I held still for a moment. Nothing by way of response.
I continued forward, reaching the fence a few seconds later, the trees thinning out and the untidy spread of my mother’s backyard suddenly visible ahead. There was nobody here. But when I looked down, the undergrowth at my feet was clearly flattened, and I could smell something in the air.
A sickly trace of dirt and sweat.
The skin on the back of my neck started itching. I turned slowly to face the woods behind me. There had always been something wrong with this place—a soft thrum of energy to the land, the same as when you got too close to an electricity generator—but the sensation right now was worse.
Somebody was out there.
Someone hidden between the trees.
“Hello?” I called out. “Anyone there?”
There was no reply. But the quiet had an edge to it, like breath being held.
I had no idea why it was his name I called, but it got a result. After a couple of seconds of silence, I heard foliage snap gently ahead of me on the left. I stood very still, my heart pounding. The woods were so dense in that direction that I couldn’t see more than a few feet, but the sound hadn’t come from far away. Whoever was out there was still close by.
I steeled myself, then moved tentatively, edging between the rough trunks of the trees, stepping over the coils of grass, and lifting thin spreads of branches out of the way.
And then, as I emerged into a clearing, I froze in place.
A man was at the far side.
He was about thirty feet away from me, standing with his back to me and his head bowed, his body entirely still.
“Hello?” I said.
The man did not reply. I looked closer, and saw he was wearing what appeared to be an old army jacket, worn away at the back of the shoulders so that the fabric stuck out in feathery tufts. And as I listened, I could hear him breathing.
No, no, no.
Although a part of me wanted to move closer, my body wouldn’t respond. I felt as rooted in place as the trees to either side of me. I reached up and pinched my nose.
I wasn’t dreaming.
And then, just like that, the man moved away between the trees. I stared after him in horror, but he was out of sight almost immediately, foliage snapping as he disappeared deeper into the woods.
Then the world fell silent.
I stood there, my heart hammering.
And just as Charlie’s name seemed to have come from nowhere a moment ago, a thought came to me now that was similarly unbidden. That what I had just seen hadn’t been a man at all. That it was something that had dragged itself out of the depths of the Shadows to visit me, and was now returning to its home among the trees.
Amanda thought as she arrived in Gritten.
The world around her seemed to have completely changed in the space of twenty minutes. Not long ago, she had been driving along tranquil country lanes, surrounded by sunny idyllic fields, thinking:
This isn’t such a bad place
. Whereas now there were just empty industrial estates and shabby houses and shops on all sides, and what she was thinking was:
This is a fucking shithole.
Which was admittedly harsh. In her experience, places were just places. What mattered most were the people who lived in them, and an upmarket zip code was no guarantee of anything; you found good and bad everywhere. And yet there was something especially beaten-down about Gritten. Despite the sunlight, the air seemed drab and gray, like an old wet cloth half wrung out. As she looked at the dilapidated neighborhoods she drove through, it was difficult to shake the sensation that the place was cursed in some way—that there was something poisonous in the ground here, rooted in the history of the place, that kept the land barren and the people dead inside.
Her phone was in a dock on the dashboard, the navigation showing her the route. About half a mile to go.
She slowed the car slightly as a tight bend approached, then passed
a series of newly built houses on the left. The folly of hope over experience right there, she thought. It was hard to imagine someone moving to Gritten who had the option of being anywhere else instead.
Of course, some people had no choice.
A few minutes later, she parked up a little way past the address registered to Billy Roberts. The house was small and stood off by itself between two stretches of bedraggled, overgrown grass. The brickwork was crumbling away below the old windowsills, and the paint on the front door was peeling so badly it looked like something had been clawing at it. The remains of an old garage were half attached to the left-hand side, with sheets of corrugated iron scattered on the ground and a few rusted struts still poking out of the house, like a body with an arm torn off and the ripped tendons hanging loose.
Amanda’s first thought was that the place had seen better days. But then she remembered the implied details she’d read about Roberts’s childhood—the neglect; the extreme poverty; the allegations of abuse—and she wondered if maybe it hadn’t.
She killed the engine and sent a curt message to Lyons, informing him she’d arrived. When she’d gone to his office yesterday, he’d turned out to be more than amenable to her suggestion of traveling to Gritten to talk to Billy Roberts. In itself, that had not been much of a surprise. With the possible involvement of a third party online, the murder of Michael Price had started to sprawl at the edges, and Lyons always had his eye on the prize. If Roberts turned out to be implicated or—even better—Charlie Crabtree really was still alive and they could find something that led to him, there would be gold stars all around.
But Lyons needed the rest of the day to clear her visit with the Gritten Police Department. What she hadn’t expected was that, in the course of tracing other individuals connected to the original crime, she would learn from the college he worked at that Paul Adams was
also back in Gritten right now. Lyons had loved that, of course: two birds with one stone. And so what she’d initially imagined as a day trip had ended with her booking a shitty local hotel and hastily packing a suitcase that was presently stuffed in the trunk of her car.
She took out her phone as she approached the house and called Roberts’s number again. The street was so deathly quiet that, after the call connected, she could hear the phone ringing inside the house. No answer, though. She killed the call and the house fell quiet until she knocked on the door.
Was there movement inside?
There was a small fish-eye lens on the door, and a few seconds later Amanda had the crawling sensation that there was someone on the other side of it staring out at her. Impatiently, she looked behind her at the run-down surroundings. The house was opposite a row of closed shops, the metal shutters daubed with simple graffiti. A little way along the road was a fenced-off yard filled with piles of old car tires, an illegible wooden sign tied to the wire mesh.
She turned back to the house and knocked again.
She took a step back.
According to the records, Billy Roberts had been unemployed for a number of years, but obviously that didn’t exclude the possibility of him being out of the house somewhere. Which was fine, of course; she could come back. But she looked at the fish-eye lens again. It had felt like someone had been there, and, given Roberts’s reluctance to answer the phone, she wasn’t entirely convinced his attitude toward the door would be any different. She knelt down on the doorstep and poked the mail slot open.
She peered in as best she could, and was rewarded by a thin view of the hallway. It led down to a door that was open onto the kitchen, the broken slat on the window at the far end hanging at an angle like a guillotine. Everything she could see looked old-fashioned: the patterned wallpaper; the dust on the picture frames hanging in the hall. It was as though Roberts had changed nothing after moving back here. The beige carpet was patchy and threadbare, and there were …
Footprints on it.
Amanda stared for a moment.
Her heart began to beat a little faster. She allowed the mail slot to close slowly, then stood up and tried the door handle. It turned easily, the door opening slowly inward on creaking hinges.
She took a step inside.
The house was completely silent.
Check your exits.
She scanned her surroundings. There was a door directly to her left, secured by a rusty padlock; presumably that had once led into the garage. Stairs led up, but there was nobody in the gloomy hallway above. The old hallway directly ahead of her was empty, and narrow enough for only one person at a time. Nobody was visible in what she could see of the kitchen—although she guessed there was probably a back door out of sight there.
She looked to her right. The open doorway there led into what appeared to be a front room. She couldn’t see any furniture, and the bases of the walls were lined with empty cans and bottles. Nobody visible there. But that was her immediate flash point. The place she wouldn’t see anyone coming from.
She stepped away from it for a moment.
Now that she was inside, the footprints leading away down the hall looked even more like blood than before. From what she could
discern from the pattern, it looked like someone had walked out of the front room to the door, and then headed off down the hallway into the kitchen.
She slipped her phone out of her pocket and keyed in the number for the police, her thumb poised over the CALL icon as she steadied herself. Then she stepped sideways into the front room.
Immediately she pressed CALL.
It was out of instinct more than anything else, because it took a second for her mind to process what she was seeing. Her attention was drawn to the dark red couch to her left, its back against the wall to the hallway. And then the still figure sitting on it. She didn’t immediately recognize it as a person, only as something that was close to human but also horrifically
. The head had no discernible features and was far too large, and it was only after staring at it that she realized the man’s face had been rendered unrecognizable, the skin swollen to almost impossible proportions by the bruises and cuts that had been inflicted upon it.
Amanda held the ringing phone to her ear.
Answer, answer, answer.
“Gritten Police Department, how—”
“Officer requesting assistance. Eighteen Gable Street. I need police and ambulance on scene as a matter of urgency. A man appears to be dead. Suspicious circumstances. Whereabouts of perpetrator unknown.”
She stepped carefully toward the body as she was speaking, taking in the details. The man’s hands were in his lap, every finger broken into a twisted nest. Another step, and her foot squelched slightly. She looked down. The couch wasn’t red at all, she realized. It was just drenched with blood that had soaked into the carpet below it.
She looked up.
A little way past the couch, a door hung open. From the length of the room, it could only lead into the kitchen.
Whereabouts of perpetrator unknown
“Ma’am, can I take your name, please?”
“Detective Amanda Beck,” she said. “Just
get here now
The man on the other end of the phone said something else, but Amanda lowered her phone, her heart thudding in her ears and her attention entirely focused on the open door a little way in front of her. She was thinking about the footprints in the hall. They disappeared into the kitchen, but the most obvious route there from here was this door at the far end of the room. And yet whoever had made them had gone out into the hall to the front door instead.
She remembered the sensation she’d had after knocking. The feeling that someone had been staring out at her.
With her gaze locked on the door into the kitchen, Amanda slipped her phone into her jacket pocket and took out her keys, bunching them between her knuckles. Then she moved carefully across to the far side of the room, giving her more distance, more time, a better angle. Not that, armed as poorly as this, she would stand a chance against anyone capable of the ferocious violence that sat motionless across the room from her.
The kitchen revealed itself by increments. She could see the end of the counter, loaded with dirty plates, and then the edge of the sink. The window.
She hesitated, caught between the fear of what she might encounter in the kitchen and of the ruined, crimson thing sitting behind her now.
Panic was setting in.
I can’t do this.
And for a few seconds, she was eight years old again. Terrified,
and yet too frightened to call out because she knew there was nobody in the house who would come.
she imagined her father saying.
I raised you better.
She took another step sideways.
The kitchen was empty. She could see the length of it now, all the way to the alcove at the far end, where the black eye of an old washing machine was staring back at her, and she saw the pebbled glass of the back door that was hanging open against the boiler on the wall, desultory sunlight streaming in beside it.
Relief flooded through her, and she moved more quickly now, treading around the bloodstained footprints leading in from the hall. Despite the heat of the day, when she reached the door and breathed in the air, it was somehow cooler and fresher than the tortured atmosphere throbbing behind her. Out back, there was a disheveled paved area, grass springing up in the cracks between the dirty slabs, and then an expanse of trees at the far end.
Nobody in sight.
She looked down.
The bloody footprints headed across the paving stones toward the trees at the end of the yard. But they faded as they went, as though the person who had left them were disappearing as they ran. And by the time they reached the tree line, they had vanished entirely.