Home About Six: The Complete Story

This is all 25 parts of my recent fiction serial, in a complete story.
It is a long read, at 25,020 words.

Anita watched as he tightened his tie, then grabbed the suit jacket off the bed. Even after eight years, she still loved to look at him. The broad shoulders, thick dark hair always neatly trimmed, and just that much taller than her so they fitted together perfectly. His aftershave smelt strong first thing in the morning, but she loved the way it hung around the bedroom after he left for work.

The kiss was brief, but welcome. Toothpaste-fresh, reminding her she hadn’t brushed yet. He didn’t seem to care. Picking up the car keys from the dressing table, he turned with a broad smile. “Don’t go overdoing it today, Nita. I will see you later, love. Should be home about six”.

Stretching out her legs under the duvet, she rubbed her belly, and spoke to her unborn child through the considerable bump. “Daddy’s gone to work now. It’s just you and me until he gets home”.

Three months to go, give or take a few days. As they had discussed, Anita had given up work for now. She wanted to be around for the baby, at least until she started school. At first it had seemed like a holiday, but with Mike out at work all day, the hours started to drag. Sometimes she would drive over to see her older sister, Jill. But there were only so many times she could drink tea and eat cake whilst listening to her moan about the lack of activity in her bedroom, since the divorce. At one time, she had expected Mum to get a lot more involved and excited. But after Dad had died, there had been the dancing classes, Yoga for Oldies, and tennis club too. Now she was even going on dates arranged online.

There were times when Anita felt as if she was the old fuddy-duddy in her family.

Evenings in, sat on the sofa after dinner, cuddled up with Mike watching the latest thing on Netflix. That was her idea of heaven. And now the new baby girl would be the icing on the cake, making their small family complete. It was funny how they kept arguing about a name. Mike wanted something traditional, even Victorian. His current favourite was Eleanor. Anita fancied something short, snappy, and modern. She was hoping they would come to a compromise on Zoe, as Mike didn’t object too much when she suggested it.

After making some tea and toast, she took it back up to bed. Two hours before she had to think about getting ready for the doctor’s appointment. Just a routine checkup, and so far everything was going well. She sent a text to her best friend Claudia, the girl she had asked to be her birthing partner on the day. Claude liked to know she was fine every morning, especially as she had moved a long way away with a new job.

Showered and dressed, it was time to make a shopping list. Something nice for Mike this evening, she thought, regretting not being able to add a nice bottle of wine to the list, as she had sworn off the booze as soon as she had the test confirmed as positive. It always felt good driving the yellow mini-cooper, but it would have to go soon. No way was she going to fiddle around with a two-door car, baby seat, baby bag, and whatever else. Mike had a company car, so he said they could afford to change to something practical for her. They looked online, and Mike suggested a strange-looking thing with a siding door on one side. He had smiled when her eyebrows raised. “You are going to hate driving around in something like that, Nita, but you will thank me for it later, believe me”.

They were going to the dealer to look at one on Saturday morning. That sort of car made her feel very grown up.

In and out the doctor’s in record time, and straight onto a free checkout at Waitrose. Anita was beginning to think she must be doing something right. She had been careful with the shopping, even though Mike had told her not to worry. His team were doing great, and he was in line for a huge bonus as he was nationwide top salesman this year so far. She didn’t understand much about his job. Industrial glues and fixings were a mystery to her, and one that she had no desire to learn more about. Still, he earned twice as much as she used to at customer services for the gas supply company. And even though he had to drive all over the place to see clients, he always did his best to be back home by six.

With a low backache necessitating a rest on the sofa for a while, Anita finally got around to preparing the meal. One of Mike’s favourites, Chicken Kiev with dauphinoise potatoes, and green beans. She hadn’t had any particularly unusual cravings during her pregnancy, but her love for garlic seemed to have increased tenfold, so as well as the garlic butter in the chicken, she added more to the potatoes too. Mike wouldn’t mind. I was all soon ready to go into the oven, which she would do when he got home. After laying the table at the other end of the long living room, she sat back down on the sofa, and switched on the TV to watch the six-o-clock news.

He would be home soon, and she would see the headlights of his car as it pulled into the parking space next to hers outside.

The national news finished at 6:30, and the local news programme started. Anita checked her phone. No text message, no missed calls. He must be stuck on a road somewhere, unable to use his phone. But it was hands free, so surely he could call. When the second news finished at 7 pm, she started to be a little concerned.

This wasn’t like him at all.

By quarter past seven, Anita could wait no longer. She rang Mike’s mobile. There was no ringing tone, and no answerphone message. Just a long beeping sound. She tried again, then again. Scrolling down her contact list, she found ‘Office. Mike.’ After two rings, that went to answerphone, with a message about opening hours being from nine until five-thirty. She didn’t leave a message after the tone as the voice suggested.

She was getting hungry now, but couldn’t face cooking the meal she had prepared. She covered the dish with foil, and put it in the fridge. Then she ate two bananas and half a packet of chocolate biscuits, washed down with a cup of tea. Her mind was exploring possibilities.

Maybe the car had broken down?
Maybe he had dropped his phone and broken it?
Maybe he was held up with a client, and unable to make a call?

He had definitely said he would be home about six. If there had been a late meeting, he would have known. He always knew.

Maybe one of his parents had been taken ill?
Maybe he had to rush down to where they lived?

They lived over two hundred miles away, retired to the coast. He would have called her first, and told her he had to go.

It was after nine now, and she had a bad feeling.

Maybe he had been mugged, and was lying in a back alley somewhere?
Maybe there had been a terrible car crash, and they were fighting for his life in a hospital?

Anita rang the police non-emergency number. The young woman who answered sounded friendly.
“Hello, my name is Anita Hollis. My husband Michael hasn’t come home from work. He is three hours late, and I’m getting worried. He’s a salesman you see, drives long distances in a car. His phone is dead, and I’m worried he might have been in an accident”. Even as she spoke, she knew it sounded rather pathetic. So she added something. “And I’m six months pregnant, all alone”.

The woman was kind, but unimpressed. She went through a similar list of possibilities that had occurred to Anita, then suggested ringing Mike’s family and friends, then her own family and friends. If she got no joy with that, she could ring the hospitals to see if he had been admitted. There were only three emergency hospitals in almost a sixty mile radius, so it shouldn’t take long. She concluded with the obvious. “He might just have gone out for a drink or meal after work, Mrs Hollis. Perhaps he forgot the time because he is with colleagues or friends”.

That wasn’t working for Anita. “Sorry, but you don’t know him. He would never do that without telling me. He’s not that sort of bloke. He is always home for dinner, always. I think it best if you report him missing. Then you can look for his car, trace his phone, do whatever it is you do”. There was a stiffness in the police operator’s voice as she replied. “I’m afraid I cannot do that until he has been missing for twenty-four hours, Mrs Hollis. He is an adult, and free to come and go as he pleases, even if that is upsetting for you. If nobody sees him or contacts him until tomorrow night, and he fails to come home or turn up for work, then you can call us back and we will take an official missing persons report. That’s all I can advise you to do at the moment”.

As she hung up, Anita got a bad taste in her mouth. She dropped the phone and ran upstairs to the bathroom, vomiting onto the floor before she could get the toilet seat up.

The tears had started to flow by the time she got back into the living room. She switched the TV to a rolling news channel, in case there were reports of a big accident on a motorway somewhere. But it was all about a film star dying, and some big argument in parliament. Taking her i-pad from under a sofa cushion, she checked out the numbers of the hospitals that had been suggested, and started to call them.

Close to ten forty-five, all three hospitals had confirmed that no Michael Hollis had been admitted, and no unidentified man fitting his age and description was in their departments.

Perhaps she should ring his parents anyway. They might have spoken to him at some stage. But it was getting late. They might be in bed. A call like that would worry them, and Dorothy had a bad heart.

After five hours, Anita started to consider the thing that she hadn’t wanted to think about. Could Mike be with another woman? It didn’t seem possible. He had always been so loyal and loving. He never went out alone, not even for a drink with friends, or to the various birthday drinks or office parties at work. Since the day they had become engaged, she had never had a single reason not to trust him one hundred percent.

Even though it seemed hopeless, she carried on ringing his mobile. Time after time, she just got that continuous tone, until she could bear it no longer.

It was close to one in the morning when she started to actually hope that he was with someone else. Anything would be preferable to not knowing. They could have a huge bust-up, talk it through, and sort things out. That almost made her feel calm, to consider the fact that her husband might be having an affair.

In the kitchen, she moved a few pans in a cupboard, then reached into the back with some difficulty.

With the wine open, and a glass in her hand, she started to feel much better.

The wine bottle on the coffee table was empty when Anita finally woke up, still sprawled out on the sofa. Despite the pounding in her head, and a shiver running through her joints, she jumped up and ran upstairs. Mike would be there. He would be asleep in bed. She would shout at him in a rage, then fall into his arms and be so glad he was home.

Even as she pushed open the door, she knew that the bed would be empty. In the bathroom, she splashed water over her face, and drunk some straight from the tap. Time to make some calls.

Still nothing on Mike’s mobile. Next she tried his company. Sitting through the automated options, she hit nine, to talk to a member of staff. The receptionist sounded bored, but Anita woke her up with the urgency in her voice. “I need to talk to someone about Mike Hollis. He hasn’t come home all night, and I am worried about him. This is his wife Anita speaking, so please put me through to someone, his manager, or a person in charge”. The music played as she was put on hold.

“Mrs Hollis, Ian Winkowski here, sales manager. How can I help you?” The voice was guarded, businesslike. “Mike hasn’t been home all night, Ian. That’s not like him. I’m terrified something bad has happened. He’s not answering his mobile, in fact it sounds dead. Do you have any way of getting in touch with him? I am beside myself with worry. And you may know that I am six months pregnant too”. As she waited for him to reply, she unscrewed the cap on a bottle of water, and gulped down as much as she could in one breath.

“Mike didn’t come into work yesterday, Mrs Hollis. He rang in sick quite early, left a message on the reception phone. In fact I thought you were calling to let me now how he was. If he was out all day and last night too, perhaps you should contact the police. I would be grateful if you could let me know what you find out, as I will have to reschedule his business meetings, and get someone else to contact his clients”.

Anita was angry. All this guy cared about was that Mike wouldn’t be around to make it to his appointments. “So he wasn’t at work yesterday, Ian? He left at the usual time, and drove off in his car”. Businesslike again. “As I have just told you, he rang in sick. I’m sure reception will still have the message, they have to save them for the people in HR”. That was something. “Okay, Ian, please ask them to make sure to save that for the police, and can you send me the registration number of his car so I can give that to them too?” She gave him her email address, and waited until he read it back to her before hanging up.

As the kettle boiled for some tea, it occurred to her that the news from Ian changed everything. If Mike hadn’t gone to work, then surely he had been missing since just after seven yesterday. Plucking two paracetamol from a packet in the drawer, she put her mobile on charge, and went into the living room to get the house phone. This time, she rang the police emergency number, and it was answered immediately. The man at the other end took her seriously, and said he was making a missing persons report that Mike had been missing for more than twenty-four hours. Anita checked the email from Winkowski on her i-pad, and gave him the make and colour of the car, along with the registration number. When he had repeated all the names, checked the spelling, and confirmed the contact numbers, he asked her to write down a reference number that was unique to the case.

“Someone from missing persons will contact you later today, Mrs Hollis. Meanwhile, keep trying your friends and family, and please let us know if and when your husband turns up somewhere”.

Some food would be necessary before she starting making more calls, but she only managed half a bowl of muesli before her impatience got the better of her.

Mike’s Dad answered the phone. “Hi, Jim, it’s Anita. I hope I’m not disturbing you, but I wondered if you had spoken to Mike recently?” He was very jolly. “Hello, love. How’s my granddaughter? You both doing well? Mike? No, he hasn’t phoned. I think Dotty spoke to him last weekend, but not since. Hang on, I’ll go and ask her”. Dorothy came back on the phone. “What’s wrong, Anita? Why are you asking about Mike? She sounded worried, which was to be expected. “Well Dotty, he didn’t come home last night. I can’t get him on his phone, and his boss says he wasn’t at work yesterday. I got so worried, I have reported him missing with the police, and they said to call all the relatives and friends.

Her mother-in-law was angry now. “Why did you wait so long to let us know, Anita? For God’s sake, I know we are a long way away, but we should have been told. Anything could have happened to our only son, and you wait a whole day to tell us. What’s wrong with you?” Anita wanted to explain her reasons, but she didn’t get the chance as Dorothy rambled on. “We are coming down. As soon as I can pack some things and tell Jim what’s going on, we will drive down. It’s going to take almost four hours, so make sure you are around the house when we get there. I don’t want us to be stuck outside”. Without waiting for a reply, she hung up. Anita didn’t have time to think about her angry in-laws now.

She had more calls to make.

Dreading the arrival of her fussy mother-in-law, Anita rushed around to tidy up. Then she changed the bedclothes in the spare room, did some dusting and hoovering, and finished off with a quick rub around the bath, toilet, and sink. Housework could really wear you out when you were heavily pregnant, she had discovered. Time for a sit down, and a cup of tea. She would get to the rest of the phone calls after a break.

It took a while to realise she had been asleep. A combination of last night and the exertions of the morning had worn her out. On impulse, she walked to the window to see if Mike’s car was outside, already knowing it wouldn’t be. It had been well over four hours since she had spoken to Mike’s parents, and they hadn’t turned up yet. She called Claudia’s mobile, hoping for the opportunity for a chat before the fearsome Dorothy arrived. It went to answerphone, and she decided not to leave a message. Claude lived almost one hundred and eighty miles away now, and she didn’t want to get her in a panic about Mike.

Anita thought she should tell her Mum, and Jill too. It was unlikely they would have heard from Mike, but she should at least let them know. Mum’s phone went to answerphone, so she left a message. Same with Jill, who was probably still at work, and unable to answer. Hunger kicked in, and she made herself a sandwich after checking the meal she had prepared last night. It would be useful to serve to her in-laws later. She could spread it to three people easily, with some extra vegetables.

When the house phone rang, she presumed it would be Dotty, explaining why they were late. But it was the police. “Mrs Hollis? This is Jane Dawes here. I am a detective working in the missing persons department, and I would like to come and take some more details about Mike. Would six tonight be too late?” Anita didn’t want to put her off. “That’s fine. My in-laws might be here though. Just so you know, they haven’t heard from Mike either”. She waited as the policewoman typed on a keyboard. “Very well, Mrs Hollis, I will see you at six”.

By five-thirty, there was still no sign of Dotty and Jim. Anita started to hope that they had changed their minds about coming, but knew she should phone them to check. Their house phone went to answerphone, so she tried Dotty’s mobile, knowing Jim would be driving. The number was unobtainable, with no tone or message, just a short beep, then nothing. Dotty had probably forgotten to charge it, or top up her pay as you go credit. Mike was always teasing her about that.

Ten minutes later, Mum rang back on the mobile. “Sorry darling, I was at the gym. I had a gym-date, something new for the over sixties. A very nice man, and much younger than me too. He must have been impressed, as he asked me out for dinner this evening. I had to rush to the shops to find a nice new dress to wear”. Anita explained what was happening. Mike’s disappearance, the police involved, and Dotty and Jim on their way too. She knew her Mum couldn’t stand Dotty, and was not at all surprised by her response.

“I’m sure Mike will be in touch soon. It must be a work thing. He’s such a good man, so reliable. It won’t be anything bad, I’m sure. And at least you will have his parents there to look after you. I will call you in the morning and see what’s going on. I’ll be able to tell you all about my hot date”. Anita hung up, and shook her head in resignation. Mum hadn’t really listened to what she had told her. She had never been an affectionate mother, and the girls had grown up doing what they were told, soon realising that Mum was not only selfish, but didn’t seem to like Dad very much either. When he died unexpectedly from a brain haemorrhage, she had seemed completely relieved to be shot of him.

Detective Sergeant Dawes had been in the police for all of her working life. She was worn out, and felt tired all the time. The job had cost her two marriages, and then her only daughter had committed suicide whilst at university. That had almost broken her, and she took a lot of time off, before attending counselling. Her old boss had suggested a transfer from the Crime Squad to Missing Persons. A small department, regular hours, and less stress. She could do her last years there, and then take her pension. Sitting outside the neat-looking house with its well-painted exterior, gravel forecourt, and extension over the garage, she tried to imagine the people who lived there, and get some sort of feeling about them before she went inside.

Before leaving the police station, she had received some information about Michael Hollis. Also his car details, work address, and the fact that he had no criminal record. He had never even had so much as an unpaid parking ticket. As they said in the police, he was of ‘no interest’. She rang the doorbell at exactly six.

Anita opened the door with a stressed look on her face. She could feel the tightness around her jaw, and had a strange tingling sensation in her belly. “Come in, detective. Have you heard anything? Have you found Mike? Would you like a cup of tea? Maybe you prefer coffee?” She was babbling, and she knew it, but couldn’t stop herself. Jane smiled at her. “I’m fine, Mrs Hollis. Please call me Jane. Let’s just sit down and go through a few details, shall we?”

Looking across at the pregnant woman, Jane chose her words carefully.

“There has been some progress, and I have something to tell you”.

“What? What have you found out?” Anita was leaning across the coffee table, almost tipping it over with her knees. Sergeant Dawes consulted her notes. “Your husband’s car has been traced. It was towed away at lunchtime yesterday, illegally parked close to the ferry port terminal in Portsmouth. I contacted the Immigration Service there, and they tell me that nobody used Mike’s passport to board a ship. She assured me that she will examine all CCTV records to see if anyone matching his description can be seen, but a recent photograph would obviously be helpful”.

Anita stood up. “Passport? Mike wouldn’t have his passport. We keep them in the drawer here”. She knelt down on the floor in front of the huge flat-screen television. At the bottom of the unit supporting it, she slid out a narrow drawer, and stood up holding a leather folder that looked like a large wallet. “We keep them in here, so we always know where to find them”. Unzipping the folder, her face fell. “My one is here, but Mike’s has gone. I don’t know why he would take it. I have a photo on my phone that I took the other day. Tell me your number, and I will send it to you now”.

The house phone rang, making them both jump. It was Jill, responding to her sister’s message. Anita was rather abrupt. “Jill, Mike has gone missing. I have the police here now, can I call you back?” Her sister told her not to bother, she would come round in an hour.

They sorted out the photo, and Sergeant Dawes forwarded it to her contact at Ports Immigration, Cathy Cade. As she waited for it to send, she tried to reassure Anita. “I have some of my team on this. One of them is staying on late, checking all the hospitals in southern England, and waiting to hear back from the airports side of Immigration too. She’s young but keen, Constable Soni. If anyone will make sure to cover all the bases, it’s Richa”. Something seemed to dawn on her. “Didn’t you say your in-laws were coming down? Have they gone out? I would like to talk to them”. Anita shrugged. “They didn’t show up, and they are not answering their phones. Either they changed their minds, or left a lot later than expected”.

Sitting back down on the sofa, Anita spoke in a serious tone. “Jane, what can you tell me? Do you think something bad has happened? I can take the truth you know. I would sooner be told now, than find out later”. The detective leaned back in the armchair, feeling as if she could easily drop off to sleep. Closing her notebook, she clasped her hands together. “Anita, may I call you Anita?” A nod. “In all honesty, there is usually another woman involved. The man almost always comes back with his tail between his legs, and it’s panic over. But finding Mike’s car at Portsmouth has confused me, to be honest. Why there? And why dump it somewhere it will get towed away? There were no keys in it, and no personal effects. Did he usually have a laptop, as well as his phone?”

Nodding furiously, Anita replied. “Yeah, he had a work laptop, and a work i-pad. There’s another laptop in the bedroom that he used sometimes, his own one. I just have this”. She held up her i-pad. The sergeant opened her notebook again. “I would like to take his laptop, if that’s okay with you. We have requested his mobile phone records from the provider, and if you agree, we will get your home phone records too. I would also like to have a look through any recent paperwork, you know, bills, letters, anything that he might have left around”.

Anita stood up to go and get the laptop. “You can have anything you need, Jane, with my blessing. Anything that will help to find Mike, just let me know what you want”. When she came back down with the laptop and a small stack of papers, Jane took some plastic gloves from her shoulder bag and put them on before she took them from her. “I will be requesting information from Mike’s bank too. Use of credit cards, debit cards, cash machine transactions, the usual stuff. Do you two have a joint account?” Anita shook her head. “No, Mike deals with all the finances. When I was still working, I used to transfer a set amount each month into his account from mine. He does all his banking online, I’m sure.”

Jane Dawes stood up. “That’s about all we can do for now. Keep trying his friends and relatives, and yours. You never know who he might decide to ring. I checked with his employer today, and they say they have heard nothing, so I have to believe them for now. I will send you a receipt for this laptop, we will need it for a couple of days. Here is my card, feel free to call me on the mobile number, as well as the office one. If you have a light bulb moment, and think of something, let me know”. Anita saw her to the door, and thanked her.

Jill turned up twenty minutes later. Anita was pleased to see that she was clutching two bottles of Chablis. She had held them up as the front door opened. “One each, sis. Tell me all about it”. They sat drinking wine for an hour, as Jill was filled in on everything that was known so far. Only then did they both realise that they had hardly eaten anything. Jill offered to order a takeaway, using an app on her phone. Anita shook her head. “Leave that. I have a delicious meal in the fridge. It will only take twenty-five minutes to warm through”.

After they had tucked into the chicken kiev and vegetables, Jill opened the second bottle of wine. She hovered the neck of the bottle over Anita’s glass, suggesting a top-up. “Why the hell not” she grinned, lifting the glass. When the doorbell went at well after ten, Anita almost fell over in her urgency to get to the door. It was Jane, the police sergeant. She looked exhausted, and was wearing casual clothes under her coat. Her expression was grim.

“I have to come in, Anita. Something terrible has happened”.

Sergeant Dawes nodded to Jill as she walked into the living room. Anita was wide-eyed. “This is my sister Jill, Sergeant. Jill, this is Jane Dawes. Please sit down, Jane”.

Taking a deep breath, Jane began to tell them why she was there so late. “There’s no real way to break this to you gently, Anita. I received a message tonight from Lincolnshire Police. They were responding to my missing persons alert about Michael Hollis. There was an accident this afternoon, and the car registration came back to a James Hollis. They thought it might be connected, so let me know. Two people were found dead in the car, badly burned. It appears that it had somehow run off the road, overturned, and caught fire. No other vehicle is believed to have been involved. The bodies are unrecognisable, but are those of an elderly man and woman. Dental records will be used to confirm who they are, but it is almost certain that they are your in-laws”. Anita was just staring at her, saying nothing, so she continued.

“I thought you should know, before you saw it on the News, or heard it from anyone else. I’m so sorry to have to bring you this, on top of all your worries about Mike. I will of course let you know as soon as what we fear is confirmed, but as you had been expecting them to arrive here, I thought it was only fair to come and tell you in person”.

Anita finally cracked. A combination of stress, worry, hormones, and now this terrible news was just too much to cope with. The tears came first, running down her face and off of her jaw. That was followed by a crying sound that developed into body-shaking sobs. Her sister Jill wrapped her arms around her, and made soothing sounds. Jane sat awkwardly for a while, and then felt she should do something. Catching Jill’s eye, she spoke quietly. “I will make some tea, okay?”

It was almost twenty minutes before she had calmed down enough to talk. “Thanks for coming to let me know, Jane. I appreciate it is late for you, and you have had a long day. I don’t know what to do. Mike would have sorted all this out, funerals and stuff. What about their house? Can someone get a neighbour to check on it? They have a cat, Percy. Somebody must have a key so they can go in and feed it”. Jane was reassuring. “The local police will deal with all that, Anita. Let’s not worry about the details for now. I will speak to them in the morning. You should also know that Mike didn’t travel on any passenger plane, or pass through an airport. At least not using his own passport. My team are scouring the CCTV footage to try to track the movements of his car after he left home that morning”.

Sergeant Dawes stood up to leave. “I will come and see you again once there is any new information. I will have a list of all Mike’s contacts from his laptop and phone records tomorow, and I might want to go through those with you. Try to get some rest now”. She glanced at Jill, who nodded. “I will stay here tonight, and go into work late tomorrow”.

After her sister had left the following day, Anita knew that she had to try to get on with her routine. Showered, make-up applied, she poured the last of the wine down the sink, and started to go through their address book. It hadn’t dawned on her before how few friends they had now. Other than Claudia, she hadn’t kept in touch with anyone from school, and she had never bothered to get that close to her work colleagues over the years. Mike had always been adamant that he didn’t want to do what he called ‘the couples and barbecues thing’, and they had both happily drifted into a life that was all about them, with occasional contact with family members.

When she got to the page in the book for ‘S’, she glanced at the only name on it. Micky Steeden had been Mike’s best man at the wedding. His oldest friend, they were known as ‘the two Mikes’ at the time. But Micky had been offered a very good job in the Middle East years ago, and now lived in the Emirates somewhere. She picked up the house phone, and dialled the number on the page. Expecting to leave a message, she was surprised when Micky answered. “Michael Steeden here, how can I help you?” He obviously hadn’t recognised the number that had come up on his mobile.

Anita went over the events of the past couple of days, and included the news about Mike’s parents. “Micky, I was wondering if you had heard from Mike? If he was going to talk to anyone, it would be you”. He sounded distracted, but made the right noises when it came to being concerned about Mike, and was sympathetic about his parents too. “I haven’t spoken to Mike for months, Nita. I think the last time was on his birthday last year, and he was driving, so I kept it short. He told me about the baby though, seemed so excited that you were pregnant”. Micky had to go, something to do with work. He ended the conversation on a lighter note. “Listen, I’m sure he will turn up with some wacky explanation. You can trust Mike, you know that. He will find out about his parents, and sort that out too, I’m sure. Let me know when you hear from him, and tell him to give me a call”.

She hung up feeling strange about the call. Micky had said all the right things, but he hadn’t sounded surprised, or even genuinely concerned.

In the bedroom getting dressed to go out, she suddenly thought of something else. Claudia hadn’t phoned her yesterday, or the day before.

For the first time since she had told her best friend she was pregnant, there had been no daily call.

Anita decided to postpone the shopping trip, and try to get hold of Claudia. She rang the mobile, but it went to answerphone. This time, she left a message. “Hi Claude, don’t worry, I’m not having the baby, but some bad things have happened. Mike has gone missing, and his parents got killed in a car crash on their way to stay with me. The police are dealing with it all, but I could really do with a chat. I am going to ring your office number and see if I can catch you there. Ring me back if you get this, as I am holding fire on going to the shops until I know you are okay”.

The woman who answered Claude’s office number made it clear she wasn’t her. “Claudia Hyslop’s phone, Jennie speaking”. Anita didn’t mess around. “Can I possibly speak to Claudia, Jennie? I know she is probably in a meeting, but this is urgent. I’m her best friend, Anita Hollis, she will verify that if you ask her”. The woman sounded hesitant. “Hang on, I will put you through to the production manager”. After a series of beeps, a different voice came on. “Hi, Anita. My name is Lucinda Clarke, Claudia’s boss. I have heard her talk about you. Sorry to say that she is not in today. She took some time off, something about a domestic crisis with her partner. She hasn’t been in for a couple of days now, but she did promise to let me know as soon as she could come back to work. You will have to try her mobile, I’m afraid”. Anita thanked her, and hung up.

Shopping in the supermarket for some healthy food and bottled water, Anita was distracted by what she had heard earlier. Claude hadn’t let her know about any domestic issues, and it was unlike her not to reply to a text, or get back to an answerphone message. She had hung around at home for a good hour before deciding to drive to the shops.

Claudia was probably the best-looking girl at their school, but she made it very clear from a young age that she wasn’t interested in boys. Nor was she that interested in girls her own age, she had told Anita, just in case her friend was nervous around her. By the time they were both sixteen, Claude was calling herself a ‘lipstick lesbian’ to anyone that asked. So many boys around the town were disappointed, especially as she refused to fit into any of the stereotypes about gay women that they had in their minds.

When they left school at eighteen, Claude went on to university to study journalism, but Anita was happy to settle for a marketing job at the gas supply company. It was at a university function for the graduations that Claude had introduced her to Mike. He was studying engineering at a different part of the university, but they knew each other as they had once been neighbours as children, and the families had kept in touch. He asked Claudia for her phone number, and it had all developed from there.

The BBC had been the natural place for Claudia to apply for a job, and they were keen to have her. She worked her way up from production assistant on a news programme, and then was asked to move on a promotion to the new television complex at Salford, near Manchester. By then, she was living with her lover, a much older woman named Elizabeth Pike, who Claude affectionately called Betsy. She was already retired early from her job at the BBC in London, where they had met. Betsy didn’t hesitate to put her London house on the market, and the pair bought a luxury flat at the desirable address of Salford Quays, close to the BBC studios.

A more unlikely couple, Anita had never seen. But it worked so well. They were besotted with each other, and there was even talk of a wedding next year. When Claude had been her bridesmaid, many of the guests had thought that Betsy was her Mum, as she was around the same age, But Claude had eyes for nobody but her, and Anita was really pleased for them.

Only now she couldn’t get hold of her, and all she knew was some sort of domestic situation was keeping her incommunicado. She couldn’t imagine it was a break-up with Betsy. They had only recently bought a new car, and booked a holiday for the autumn. She kicked herself for never getting Betsy’s mobile number. At least she could have spoken to her, and found out what was going on. As she was wheeling the shopping trolley to the car, Anita’s phone began to ring in her shoulder bag. In her rush to get it out, she dropped the car keys. Bending down awkwardly to pick them up, the phone fell out of her bag and slid across under a car that was reversing out of a space.

Even as she walked over to get it, she knew it was unlikely that it would have survived being crunched under the huge tyres of the Toyota pickup truck that had just driven over it. And she was right. On top of everything else, she now had to go and get a new phone. At least she had insurance, and the phone shop was just across the shopping precinct from where she was parked.

Raising her face to the sky, she yelled out loud.

“What’s next? What else have you got in store for me?”

It only took around an hour to sort out a new phone, but there was no record of the missed call that was ringing at the time it fell from her bag. Anita was concerned, and knew it could have been the police, Claudia, her Mum or Jill, perhaps even Mike. She drove home and unpacked the shopping, then sat waiting with a cup of tea.

The house phone rang first. It was Sergeant Dawes. “Anita, I would like to come and see you tomorrow. The searches on Mike’s laptop history and phone usage have thrown up a lot of names. It would help if we could go through them, and you tell me what you know about them”. It was agreed that she would come round about ten the next morning. Still very peeved that she hadn’t heard from her Mum, Anita rang her mobile, intending to leave a message. When she answered, she sounded very distracted. “Can I call you back, dear? Only David is here at the moment, and we are rather busy, if you know what I mean”. Furious, Anita shouted. “My husband is missing, his parents have been killed in a car crash, I can’t get hold of my best friend, and I am six months pregnant. But as long as you get your shag with some random bloke, that’s okay then! Just forget it, Mum, I don’t know why I bother with you, I really don’t!”

She hung up before there was time for any reply.

When her Mum rang back immediately, she dismissed the call.

Over two hours later, Claudia finally rang her mobile. “I was worried, Nita. I rang you earlier, and your phone went dead. I tried loads of times after that, and got nothing. Anita was still very pissed off, and launched into a verbal assault about how her supposed best friend in the world had left her in the lurch. She went over everything that had happened, hardly pausing for breath, or to allow her friend to speak. Then she added about finding out she was off work due to some domestic crisis, and how she couldn’t believe Claudia hadn’t told her what was going on. When she heard crying at the other end, she stopped. “Claude, sorry Claude. I didn’t mean it. I’m just so wound up I feel I might explode”.

There was some sniffing at the other end of the line, and then Claudia came back on.

“Nita, it’s Betsy. She’s in a coma. She had a heart attack and then a stroke. I have been by her bedside since it happened, but they told me to come home and rest. They can’t say if she will ever wake up, Nita. I don’t know what to do. We should never have moved up here, everything was fine in London. I’m sure it was the stress of the move that caused this, I will never forgive myself, never.”

Anita took the phone away from her face. It was shocking news indeed, and terrible for both Betsy and Claude. But at least she knew where her other half was. Mike was missing, his parents dead, that had to be worse, surely? Reluctant to play some game of ‘My news is worse than yours’, she consoled her old friend as best as she could. Sounding positive, making the right noises, and offering to be a shoulder to cry on. But in the back of her mind, she had some thoughts that made her feel guilty.

At the time she needed Claude the most, she would be stuck in Manchester, dealing with her own shit. Her own Mum was selfish and useless, and though Jill was around, she really only wanted to get drunk and complain about how useless her ex was. Urging Claudia to ring anytime of the day and night if she needed to talk, she told her to get some rest, and hung up.

She was on her own.

That night, she had a nice chicken salad, then ate two oranges. It was time to concentrate on keeping her and the baby healthy, she decided. Too much stress and heartbreak in such a short time, who knows what that could do? If everything else failed, she would get through the pregnancy, and have a healthy baby to look after. Time enough to worry about all the rest later.

Using the notepad facility on the mobile phone, Anita started to jot down things to remember, including names and phone numbers. She had started to realise just how heavily she depended on Mike. She didn’t even know what day the bins had to be put out, and hadn’t a clue about the bills that might need paying, as Mike did all that online. She made a note to ask Jane Dawes about his laptop tomorrow, and ask how she could access those accounts. As she got ready for bed, she became increasingly annoyed with herself.

How had she let so much slide? Why had she just presumed it was alright for Mike to take care of everything from the broadband contract, to the mortgage and insurances? And she was going to have to forget about going to look at that new car next weekend. That would have to be put on hold for sure. Shaking her head, it dawned on her that she didn’t even know how to adjust the central heating controls. And she had worked for the gas company that supplied their gas. After brushing her teeth, she spoke to her own reflection in the mirror.

“Nita, girl, you’ve got to shape up!”

With no idea how long she had been asleep, Anita woke with a start to the house phone ringing. Reaching over to Mike’s side of the bed, she answered the call, her voice raspy from a dry throat. It occurred to her that she must have been snoring. The voice at the other end was female, and the accent wasn’t English.

“Hello. Hello, can you hear me? I need to speak to Mike Hollis please. It’s urgent”.

With her brain still fuddled by sleep, Anita bought some time to think. “Er, can I tell Mike who is calling? It’s the middle of the night here you know” There was hesitation at the other end. “Sorry, I forgot about the time difference. Mike doesn’t know me, I got his name and number from someone else. But I would like to speak to him, it’s not something that can wait. Tell him it is Shaily Agrawal. It won’t mean anything to him though”.

Anita flicked on her mobile, and added the name to her notes. She didn’t ask how it was spelt, but got it near enough to remember.

Wondering what to say next, and not wanting to give anything away, she waited a few more seconds before speaking again. “He says can you leave your contact number, and he will call you back when he is fully awake”. For a moment, it seemed as if the woman had hung up, then she spoke quickly. “Don’t worry, I will call back another time”. The line went dead.

It took a long time for Anita to get back to sleep. The voice had been well-spoken, the English perfect, but from the discernible accent, and the name, she concluded that the woman might be Indian. The mention of time difference seemed to confirm that she was calling from somewhere in the world that was a long way East too.

By the time Sergeant Dawes arrived that morning, Anita was showered and dressed. Jane was carrying Mike’s laptop, along with a thick folder of papers.

“We have finished with the laptop now, Anita, and I want to go through some of the contact names with you, see if anything rings a bell”. Anita told her about the phone call, and that she had made some notes on her phone. Taking out a small notebook, the detective wrote everything down. “I can try to trace the call that came into your house, and see if they have a record of the number. But my guess is that whoever it was blocked their number, or used a mobile that they got rid of. Her name was probably made up too. See if you can Google it on your i-pad”.

There were quite a few people on Google with that name. Most were in India, and a couple in Kenya. Two of them were in Britain. They all had some sort of online profile, mostly Twitter accounts, or Facebook pages. Just one had a website, and she was a writer, with a few novels for sale on Amazon. Jane thought for a moment. “Could you guess her rough age from the voice do you think?” Anita thought for a moment. “Not a teenager, I’m sure. Not an old woman either. I would say thirty to forty, perfect English, and not a very heavy accent”.

Jane leaned over and tapped the screen of the i-pad. “That one looks favourite to me”. She was indicating the profile of a journalist, a reporter on the New Delhi Times. They both looked at the photo, and agreed the age was about right. Jane made some notes in her book, and pulled a sheet of paper from the folder. “I will check out that reporter later, let’s start going through these names now”.

“Pete Springer?” Anita shook her head. “Never heard Mike mention him”. Jane moved her pen down the list. “We can’t find out that much about him online, but all six we found live in America. Has Mike ever been to America? Anita nodded. “He has been there on business trips a few times. And we had a two-week holiday in Florida, but he didn’t meet anyone while we were there”.

“What about a Lorraine Lewis? There are loads of those in the UK, and America too. Without a date of birth, we can’t get an exact match. A driving licence search returned more than fifty women of that name in England alone”. Anita shook her head. “Maybe she works at his company? Jane smiled.”That was the first thing we thought of. None of the names are of people employed at his company, or any of the international subsidiaries”. She carried on with the next name.

“Audrey Driscoll? Not so many people online with that name, but the only one with a website lives in Canada”. Anita shook her head, then had a thought. “Did you tie up any of those names from his laptop to calls on his phone?” Her face was serious when she replied. “That’s something unusual, I have to say. Those names came up on his contacts on the laptop, but none of them are in his phone contacts. However, he has a lot of numbers listed with the name of the contact in some sort of code. Letters and numbers, instead of a full name or nickname. Were you aware of that?”

Anita was shaking her head. “We never looked at each other’s phones. We trusted each other, Jane. We had personal space, you know, despite being so close and together as a couple”.

The next name on the list was Ian Hope. “I know an Ian that Mike works with, but his surname is Winkowski. A Polish name, I think, but he’s English”. Jane nodded. “No it’s not him using another name. We found someone in the north of England who looks likely, as there have been calls from his house to Mike’s mobile. I have sent a request to the local police to go and talk to him. I don’t want to ring him first and tip him off, just in case”. The pen moved down to the last name.

“This one is very interesting. Have you ever heard Mike talk about a Judith Harley?” Anita shook her head. “Never heard that name mentioned”. Jane leaned forward. “She is on his laptop, and her email address is current. I tried to find out some more about her on the police systems, and didn’t get anywhere before being blocked. I was referred to my lack of authority, and have no access to look up her file. That probably means she works for Special Branch, or the S.I.S”. Anita was looking perplexed, and rubbing her face. It was a lot to take in. “What’s S.I.S?”

Jane closed her notebook, and looked serious. “It stands for Secret Intelligence Service”. Anita was wide-eyed as Jane continued.

“I reckon she is something to do with MI6”.

Anita was confused. “MI6? What, you mean like spies and stuff, James Bond? That’s crazy. Mike is just a hard-working glue salesman. Why would he ever be mixed up in anything like that?” Jane Dawes thought about her words. “I’m not saying he is mixed up in anything, but not everyone has someone like Judith Harley in their contacts list, that’s for sure. And what about Susan Judd? Have you ever heard her name mentioned? She used her home phone to call his mobile. When I checked her out, she was definitely secret squirrel, and I am talking ‘no information disclosed’ here. I can see I am going to end up being called in over my search history at work, but I guarantee they will tell me sod-all”.

Shaking her head in disbelief, Anita started to get annoyed. “Jane, I have never heard of any Susan Judd either. This is all getting too silly for words. The point is, as I see it, that it isn’t helping us find out where Mike is. Shouldn’t you do a broadcast on the TV news or something? I could put an advert in the newspapers, or speak to journalists about all this. It’s a mystery I know, but it seems to be getting too convoluted. My husband is missing, and all I am hearing is lists of names”. Jane was sympathetic, but realised Anita wasn’t considering the implications of this news.

“It’s not that simple, I’m afraid. We have all the usual missing person stuff in place, but we can’t start mentioning those contact names, not when some of them might go underground as a result. I have Constable Soni going over everything to do with the names we can trace. She’s very good, and I’m sure she will dig deep. But we have no decent CCTV images of Mike anywhere. The last confirmed sighting of his car on CCTV was at a motorway services on the way to Portsmouth. He only stopped for petrol, then nothing. Where his car was found isn’t covered on camera, and the approaches into the city don’t show up his car at all. It’s as if it was taken there by helicopter or something, and dropped into the street. My best guess is that it was taken there inside a larger vehicle, and off-loaded in plain sight. I don’t actually think Mike went to that city at all”.

Jane packed her stuff away, and stood up. “I’m sorry I can’t tell you something more positive, Anita. It is still early days as far as missing persons go, and we are doing our best for you. But we have a backlog of other cases to work on too, and not that many staff. I will be sure to let you know as soon as I have anything new. Meanwhile, you have to try to take care of your health, for the sake of you and the baby”.

When the detective had left, Anita tried Claudia’s mobile. She was going to tell her all the crazy stuff about the secret service, and see if Claude could shed any light on it. After all, she had known him at university, and might remember a name or two from his past. “Nita, great news! Betsy is awake! She came round in the early hours. Not speaking yet, but she knows who I am, and smiled at me. I’m just having a coffee in the hospital canteen. Are you alright, love?” Given the good news, Anita didn’t want to go into all that other stuff now. Best to let Claude enjoy the moment. “That’s great news, Claude. I just rang to check how she was. Please give her my love”.

Something else had occurred to her, and she rang Mike’s boss, Ian Winkowski. “Mrs Hollis, how can I help you? Do you have news of Mike?” She had thought about what to say, and repeated it as if from a script. “No, nothing new at the moment. He is still listed as missing. The reason I am phoning is to ask about his pay. I don’t know how it works, you know, when someone is missing. Will he still get paid?” He had obviously been prepared for this to be asked.

“Well, he is absent, and since he rang in sick, we ar treating it as that for one week. After that, we would usually need a medical certificate. I appreciate that the circumstances are exceptional, but we cannot continue to pay someone indefinitely, when they are not here. I would say that I will allow him paid holiday leave. That is thirty days for the year, added to one week counted as being off sick. After that, I will keep his job open for three months, in the hope he returns. But after that thirty days, I am afraid he will no longer be paid”.

After thanking him, she hung up, her mind ticking over.

Something else suddenly popped into her brain. Even if Mike got that thirty days pay, she wouldn’t be able to access his bank account, to draw it out or transfer it to hers. She knew there were some savings, but not how much. And they were in accounts in Mike’s name too. Beginning to get really worried, she got her i-pad, and logged in to her own online banking. It was no surprise to discover that she only had just over four hundred in her account. Hopefully, Mike’s arrangements would continue to pay the regular bills, but she didn’t have a clue how much was in his main account.

Once her cash ran out, she would have to depend on her credit card.

As the water from the shower head cascaded over her face and body, Anita could hardly believe that a week had passed since Mike had gone missing. Last night had been bad. Restless with indigestion, and the baby seemed to have shifted onto her bladder, so she had been up a few times to pee. Twenty-eight weeks pregnant tomorrow, only twelve more to go to the due date. And so much to take in, as well as to deal with.

Her first stop that morning was at the bank. She asked to see someone privately, and had to sit waiting for almost an hour until an adviser was free. The young woman listened patiently as everything was explained. Husband missing, the money worries, what to do about bills, how to access cash. When she was sure that the customer had stopped talking, she nodded, deliberately placing a concerned look on her face.

“I do sympathise, Mrs Hollis. However, you do not have a joint bank account, and your husband has not given you power of attorney to access his. I’m sorry to tell you that I cannot discuss his banking or finances with you. It is simply not allowed. Not only is it against bank rules, it is contrary to the Financial Services Act, so technically illegal. But you are also a customer, and have been for some time. I am sure if you experience any financial problems, we will be happy to extend your overdraft, or perhaps you could apply for a loan? What do you earn at the moment?”

Anita pointed at the large bump on her abdomen. “I gave up work on Mike’s suggestion, when I got pregnant. I am not earning anything, and depended on him completely”. She could feel the tears forming, and fought against them. The woman was wearing a name badge, ‘Joan Hall’. Anita tried another approach. “Joan, you can see the situation I am in. Isn’t there someone who can transfer some money from Mike’s account to mine? You don’t have to tell me how much is in it, or anything about it. But I can prove we are married, and I will soon need extra money for the baby stuff”.

But her face was set. “I can only repeat what I have just told you. Perhaps family members could help you out with some cash? Or maybe you should consult a solicitor?” Angry now, but feeling deflated, Anita stood up. “Well thanks for nothing, Joan. A solicitor? How am I supposed to pay for that? So much for being a loyal customer of your bloody bank!” With that, she picked up her shoulder bag and stormed out. The tears came once she had got into her car, and she waited until they stopped before driving home.

Claudia rang in the afternoon, and told her that Betsy was much improved. “She is already having some physio, Nita. Her speech is slurred, but they are sure it will improve with therapy”. Although she didn’t want to burden her friend with her own troubles, Anita couldn’t stop herself telling her about the money, and the issues at the bank that morning. “Christ, Nita, you should have said something. Come on, I’m your best friend. Text me your sort code and account number, and I will transfer a thousand today. When that runs out let me know. We made a huge profit on the London house, and Betsy doesn’t even touch her pension at the moment. You must tell me whenever you need anything, promise me. And what that woman said about a solicitor made sense. Contact the guy who did the house sale, you must remember who it was. See what advice he can give you”.

Although she was feeling guilty now, Anita didn’t refuse the offer. She knew she would need it. “Thanks so much, Claude. What would I do without you? You will get it back once this mess is all sorted, I promise you. Give my love to Betsy when you see her”. It was only a temporary reprieve if Mike didn’t reappear, but a very welcome one.

The name of the solicitor was still on her contacts, so she rang the office and made an appointment for the next morning. Still suffering with indigestion, she knew she had to eat something, so made a big bowl of porridge with honey stirred into it. That was comforting, just what she needed after the stress of the day.

It seemed impossible not to think about all that was happening. She was missing Mike badly, even though her anger against him was building. One moment she was sure something terrible had happened, as he would never have left her in this awful situation. But then she started to imagine that he had just walked out on her for someone else. Uncaring, unconcerned, leaving without a thought for her, or their unborn baby. Still, the anger was actually a positive thing. It made her stronger. If she imagined that Mike was gone, and she was on her own now, it provided the incentive to get on with trying to sort her life out.

I was getting close to six, and she got ready to watch the evening news. You never knew if something might turn up, some report of a man found somewhere, having lost his memory. As she picked up the remote control, there was a loud knocking on the front door. They weren’t using the doorbell.

Three people were outside. One of them was a woman; middle-aged, short hair, and a stern expression. The other two were men, dressed in dark suits and looking blankly at her. The woman held up a sheet of paper, and spoke in a loud voice.

“Anita Hollis? We have a warrant to search this house. Please sit down, and do not touch anything”.

Anita let them in, and turned to the woman, who seemed to be in charge. “What are you searching for? You need to contact Sergeant Dawes, she’s dealing with this case. She has already looked at Mike’s laptop, taken some papers away, and checked his phone records. Do you want me to ring her?” The woman didn’t seem to be listening. “Please sit down, madam. This is nothing to do with the local police, or about the fact that your husband is missing. It is another matter entirely, and I am not at liberty to tell you what we are looking for. Just be calm. We won’t be long, and will try not to disrupt you unduly”.

That didn’t satisfy Anita. “What’s your name please? If you aren’t with missing persons, then what the hell is all this about?” As the two men rifled through units and drawers wearing plastic gloves, the woman turned. Her mouth twitched, in what appeared to be her idea of a reassuring smile. “My name is Susan Judd, Mrs Hollis. I am with the Security Service, nothing to do with the police. Please do as I ask, sit quietly, and do not use your phone”. Anita wanted to tell her that she had heard that name before, shout out something like ‘You called Mike’s phone, tell me why’. But a bad feeling made her keep silent. Besides, she didn’t want to get Jane into anymore trouble than she was in already.

Ten minutes later, one of the men came into the room carrying Mike’s laptop, still in the bag that Jane had returned it in. The other one was going through everything in the kitchen, making enough noise to wake the dead. The woman looked at the guy with the laptop and nodded. Turning back to Anita, she did her worrying smile again. “Do you have any outbuildings, Mrs Hollis? A garden shed, storage container, something similar? And we will need the key to the garage, as it appears to be locked”.

Anita didn’t feel very cooperative, but there was no point in lying. “There’s a plastic storage thing against the back fence. I don’t know what’s in it though. The key to the garage is on a hook in the hallway. It’s full of Mike’s junk though, as well as his tools, the lawn mower, and some of his work stuff”. The taller man put down the laptop and went into the hallway to get the key. There was the sound of the garage door creaking as it was opened. Then the other man came out from the kitchen, shook his head at the woman, then opened the French windows to go out into the garden. Moments later, he came back in holding a large can. It was a shiny metal, with a number or code of some sort stencilled on it. The woman seemed pleased. “Take that out to the car, get it bagged up”.

Sensing a change in mood, Anita tried her luck. “Isn’t there anything you can tell me about what’s going on? I’m so worried about my husband, as it’s been over a week now. And as you can see, I am heavily pregnant”. Before the woman could reply, the taller man came back in and said just one word. “Nothing”. The woman turned to face Anita. “We will be taking the container that you saw, as well as the laptop. My colleague will give you a receipt for both items. As I told you, this is nothing to do with your missing husband”. Anita scoffed. “Yeah right, like I believe that. Mike goes missing, and suddenly the house is full of spooks searching for stuff and I have no idea why. Please don’t insult my intelligence by telling me it is not related, I’m not just some stupid pregnant woman who can be fobbed off”.

The man handed the woman some paper, and she passed it to Anita. “Here is your receipt. I thank you for your cooperation. When we have finished with the laptop, it may be retained as evidence, same with the container. I cannot say at this time when or if they will be returned. I bid you good evening, Mrs Hollis”.

As soon as they had left, she was on the phone to Jane Dawes. She told her everything that had happened, and that one of them was the Susan Judd who had been mentioned. “I can tell you, Jane, she was a really cold fish, that one. Not a glimmer of concern for Mike, or for me”. There was a long pause before Jane replied. “They worked fast. I thought they might show up, but had no idea they would be so public about it, and arrive with an official warrant. My guess was that they would just break into the place while you were out and get what they wanted without leaving a trace of being there. They must have been desperate to show their hand like this, Anita”.

Worried now, Anita started to wonder if Jane knew more than she was saying. So far, she was the only person dealing with this, and the only one she thought she could trust. “But what did they want, Jane? You have already been over the laptop, and they took some weed-killer or something from Mike’s box in the garden. What the bloody hell could they want with that? What’s happening, Jane. What has all this got to do with Mike?”

Her voice sounded weary as she replied.

“In all honesty, Anita, I haven’t got a sodding clue”.

The solicitor seemed to be expecting her, as he didn’t ask her why she had made the appointment. Offering her a comfortable chair, and after she had declined tea or coffee, Mr Rossis tapped a file that was already on his desk. Anita had only met him briefly on two occasions, when he had dealt with the legal conveyancing during the house purchase, but she was hoping he could give her some general advice on her situation. Before she could say anything, he started talking.

“When your husband came in to see me that day, I must confess I found his request rather strange. But it is not up to me to question the intentions of my clients, especially when they appear to be in good faith”. She raised her hand. “I have to stop you there, Nicholas. I don’t have a clue what you are talking about. I came in to ask your advice about finances. Mike has gone missing, you see, and I have no access to any money”.

Opening the file, he nodded. “Exactly. A little over six months ago, Mike came in to see me. He asked me to transfer the deeds of your house into your name, changing it from the usual joint ownership. I witnessed the change, and you also signed it. Do you remember signing anything?” Anita shrugged. “I had just found out I was pregnant, so I don’t remember any specific occasion. Mike always got me to sign things to do with accounts, bills, or the house. I never asked him why. Does that make me sound stupid? I suppose it does”. He shook his head. “Ordinarily, I would counsel you against signing anything that you haven’t read, but in this case I am happy to tell you it was a good decision”. She was confused. “Please spell it out, I have no idea what’s going on”.

The file was pushed to one side. “He told me that he might have to suddenly disappear. You were going to have a baby, and if anything happened, he wanted to make sure that you were provided for. I have letters giving you power of attorney to draw on his bank account, as well as lists of all your current suppliers and their bills, along with the payment information. In addition, there is a savings account in your name at a different bank that I have all the paperwork for. It currently has something around forty thousand pounds in it. I know that is not a huge amount in the grand scheme of things, but it will certainly tide you over for now. Bear in mind that with the house in your name now, you can always sell it if you need to, and release substantial equity if you downsize. House prices in this town have increased dramatically since you bought it”.

It was a lot to take in, and a huge shock. “So where is he? Why did he do all this? I can’t believe that he knew all about this and never told me, not even a hint. What more did he tell you?”

Nicholas leaned forward. “Please believe me, Mrs Hollis, that’s all I know. He didn’t tell me anymore, and it wasn’t my place to ask him. He paid me for a service, and I supplied it, simple as that. Oh, and there is also a life insurance policy, in addition to the one covering your mortgage. It is for five hundred thousand pounds, in the event of his death. I had wondered if that was the reason you were coming to see me today, that something bad had happened to him. But if he is just listed as missing, I do have to tell you that no insurance company will pay out for seven years, and then only once he has been declared dead, after missing for that long”.

Anita had a thought. “Surely he left a letter for me then? Something explaining why? He must have realised that I would need to know. The stuff about the house and money is all very well, and will obviously help when the baby comes. But I want to know where my husband is, and what has happened to him, Nicholas. He left the house as normal, and said he would be home about six. I don’t want to think that he knew he was never coming back that morning, and didn’t tell me. The police are dealing with this, and I am sure the sergeant will want to talk to you. I will have to give her your details”.

His tone was sympathetic. “I am more than happy to tell the police everything I have just told you. Mike told me that this might happen. He said that if his wife came to see me, I should tell her about the house, and the financial provision. Everything is completely legal, and will stand up to any scrutiny. By all means tell the sergeant to come and see me. Meanwhile, I will give you this file with copies of all the documents. In this time of trouble at least you can be reassured that you have a home, and are financially stable for now. Take the letter to the bank, and they will let you draw on his salary, as long as it is paid. Contact the companies on the list, and tell them too. They will change the name on the contracts so you can make the monthly payments. All the account numbers and contact details are on a sheet in the folder. If you need to talk to me, call anytime during business hours”.

Taking the file he held out, Anita thanked him, and walked out onto the street in a daze. So Mike knew he was going to disappear, and as long ago as the confirmation of the pregnancy?

She was too dizzy to walk across to the car, and supported herself on a lamp post.

Once she was back at home and fully recovered, Anita thought more about the implications of what Nick Rossis had told her. For Mike to have done all that, he must have known something bad might happen. It was also possible that nothing would happen, which was probably why he had said nothing. But what could it possibly be? How could she have lived with and loved someone for eight years and never had an inkling of anything so huge going on in his life? As she had said to the solicitor, she was beginning to feel very stupid for being so accepting of anything she had been told.

Leaving a message on Claudia’s phone, she transferred the money back to her friend. No point taking cash from her, when she could manage for now on what Mike had arranged. After a snack and a hot drink, she went back out to go to the bank, and show them the paperwork that would allow her to access Mike’s account. The larger amount in the separate savings account could be left alone for now. That would be needed later, if her worst fears turned out to be correct.

The dark blue van was distinctive. Definitely not a work vehicle, it had alloy wheels, and tinted side windows. She didn’t normally pay much attention to other traffic, but something about the van behind her car jogged her memory. It had been in the Market Place car park yesterday when she had come out of the solicitor’s office. And now it had appeared from a side turning close to her house, and was driving slowly behind her, keeping a reasonable distance. For all she knew, it might belong to someone living nearby, and they might just be going shopping.

Given what she had been told, the van made her nervous, so she didn’t go into the car park behind the bank as planned. Cancelling the indicator, she carried on around the one-way system, appearing to head back the way she had come. Sure enough, the van was still in her rear-view mirror, although it had dropped back two places in the town centre traffic. When she got back to the entrance to the car park, she accelerated without indicating, and turned suddenly. Checking the mirror, she watched the van go past at the end of the street.

This time, she got to see the manager of the bank, after a ten-minute wait. He looked at the paperwork, and told her it would all be in place by the end of the day’s trading. She asked him to transfer whatever was in Mike’s account to hers, and he also said he would arrange the changes for the payments to the various companies for her. Anita was wondering if the solicitor had spoken to him. But she didn’t ask.

Back at her car, she stopped dead as she opened the driver’s door. The blue van was there, only fifty feet away. Finding courage from her anger and curiosity, she closed the door and marched across to it. Taking out her phone, she intended to take a photo of the number plate, and anyone who might be sitting in it. As she raised the phone to look at the screen, the van’s engine started, and it began to drive out of the car park. She switched the camera to zoom, and left her finger on the button as it took at least a dozen shots. Scrolling through the results, there were at least three clear photos of the rear number plate. She rang Jane Dawes, and got her answerphone message.

“Hi Jane, it’s Anita Hollis. Can you possibly come and see me at my house later? There have been some strange developments, and I think I am being followed too”.

When her house phone rang, it wasn’t Jane. It was her Mum. “Anita darling, I have some exciting news. David has proposed to me. What do you think about that? I said yes of course. My head’s in a whirl, and I feel like a teenager again. We are not going to wait, and he is arranging the wedding at The Grange, you know, that gorgeous country club hotel. It is on Saturday week, at two in the afternoon. I have let Jill know, and will of course be expecting you too. Please try to find a nice dress to wear”. Anita shook her head. Her Mum’s degree of selfishness was almost inconceivable. But rather than get stressed out by telling her what she thought of her, she just hung up.

The afternoon dragged a little. The thing with the blue van had unnerved her, and she couldn’t stop herself from going to the window to see if the van was anywhere outside. For the first time, she was also beginning to wonder if the crash that had killed her in-laws was really an accident. Only able to face eating a toasted cheese sandwich, she sat down on the sofa and switched on the TV to watch the news. Flicking around all four news channels, there was nothing on any of them about a missing person being found. And nothing about finding a body either. As it finished, and the regular nighly chat show started, her doorbell rang.

Anita made Jane a cup of tea as she listened to her apologies about being busy, and not calling her back. Then she told her everything that had happened at the solicitor’s , and about the blue van. When she showed her the phone photos, Jane rang her office, and asked for a check on the number plate. She didn’t seem to be surprised by the result. “It’s Ian Hope’s van, Anita. He was one of the contacts I mentioned. The police in Yorkshire went to talk to him at my request, but there was nobody at home. If he is in town following you around, that explains why he wasn’t there”. Anita raised her eyebrows. “But why would he be following me, Jane? Should I be scared? What do you know about him?” Jane put her mug down on the coffee table.

“He is a private security consultant, a fancy name for what they used to call a private detective. He served in the SAS for twenty years, then started working for himself once he left the Army. I think I need to talk to him as a matter of urgency”.

Before her tea had even started to get cold, Jane had been on to the control room to get her colleagues organised in looking for Ian Hope’s van. She had asked for CCTV coverage of the car park and surrounding roads, and said she wanted the driver stopped and detained if found, with her to be notified immediately. Before returning to her lukewarm drink, she made the decision to tell Anita some things she had found out.

“Detective Soni has discovered something interesting. That Indian reporter, Shaily something, well she has disappeared now. Richa asked the editor what she was working on, but he claims not to know. She is an investigative journalist, and normally keeps her stories to herself, until she is ready to submit them. Now she has gone missing, along with her laptop, notebook, and camera. She tried to talk to Mike’s friend, Mick Steeden. After a lot of calls to Qatar, she discovered that he has quit his job, and gone back to his place in Australia. Richa sent a request to the New South Wales Police to call on him, and ask him to call the office to answer some questions. Guess what? His flat was empty, and nobody knows where he is”.

Anita shook her head in disbelief. “What do you think is going on, Jane? You can be honest with me”. Jane drained her tea, and put the mug down on the table. “In all honesty, I am at a loss, Anita. If you take it all as a whole, then something is definitely going on. But as well as Mike, it seems to involve this Ian Hope, Mike’s friend Steeden, and an Indian reporter too. Add the secret service into the mix, and it is getting way beyond the usual procedures of a missing persons inquiry. I think I am going to have to expand this whole investigation into something larger. But I fear if I do, then it will be taken off me, and quietly suppressed, For now, I am keeping it in my department, but I have no idea how much longer that will be possible”.

Jane was getting her stuff together to leave when her mobile rang. “Already? Oh, good. Okay, stay there, and I will come to you. Five minutes”. She smiled at Anita. “They just stopped his van and detained him. He was only two streets away from here. I am going to see what’s going on, and I will let you know as soon as I have spoken to him”.

Less than twenty minutes later, Jane was back at the door. She was accompanied by two uniformed police officers, and a rugged-looking man wearing a tracksuit. “Jane, this is Ian Hope. Can we come in?” The uniformed men stayed outside, and Jane was smiling as she walked into the living room. “Ian, this is Mike’s wife. Tell her what you just told me”. He spoke quietly, with a pronounced northern accent.

“Five months ago, a man came to see me at my house. I use it as my office too, you see. He gave me a photo of you, your home address, car details, and home and mobile phone numbers. He told me that something might happen that would mean he would have to disappear at short notice. Either that, or something bad might happen to him. He said his wife was pregnant, and he feared for her safety if he was no longer around. I couldn’t get anything specific from him about why, but he was sure that his family would be in danger, including his parents, and you. He paid me a retainer, and told me to wait for a text message. I asked him what I should do if he didn’t disappear, and he said that if I didn’t hear anything I could just forget I had ever met him. It was a strange job, but I am used to that sort of thing in my line of work”.

Anita asked him to sit down, and offered tea or coffee. He shook his head, and continued.

“He was a very genuine guy. I pride myself in knowing when someone might be pulling my chain, and he definitely wasn’t. He said that if I got the text message, I would also receive a transfer of a considerable amount of money to pay for my time, and to compensate abandoning any jobs that I had on. I was to drive down here, find somewhere to stay, and keep an eye on you. Check out anyone near your house, or who might be following you when you went out. If I saw anyone, I was to intervene”.

Anita raised a hand to stop him. “Intervene? What did he mean by that?”

Ian smiled. “Make them go away. Anyway, last week, I got the text message, from an unknown number. I tried to call it of course, but the line was already dead. Then I checked my business account, and the money had been transferred. So I packed a few things, and came down here. I have been watching out for you ever since. So far, your visitors have all been police or spooks, aside from your family. I know someone who checks the number plates for me, and they came back as government registered, or police vehicles” He paused, but when Anita had nothing to say, he carried on.

“I check on your house now and then during the night too, and I have not noted any suspicious activity. But my contact told me that your in-laws were killed in a car crash on a safe road, in good weather. I have to tell you that I am not happy about that. There is enough money to pay for my time until you have had the baby, and a few weeks after. If you want me to carry on with the job, I am happy to do so. This police sergeant has checked out my story, and she believes me. I showed her the contract, and all the stuff Mike left with me”.

Anita didn’t have to think about her reply.

“You are going to need a much less distinctive car. I will pay for you to hire one”.

After agreeing to hire a nondescript car, Ian was allowed to leave, and get back to his van. He had told them he would park it somewhere away from town for now, and get the car rental company to pick him up from a different location. Anita agreed with Jane that he seemed reliable, and looked pretty tough too. But it had amused her that he thought it was alright to use a van that was so easy to spot. Jane left shortly after, promising to keep her updated on any developments.

Settling on having a takeaway meal delivered, Anita sat eating her Pad Thai noodles, thinking about how Mike had managed all of this without so much as a hint of what was going on. Going over everything that had happened in the last six months, she had to admit to herself that she hadn’t had a clue that anything out of the ordinary was occurring. Either she needed to pay more attention to life, or Mike was a great actor. An early night wasn’t much help, as her mind wouldn’t stop whirring.

The next morning, she got a call from the Lincolnshire Police. They wanted her to contact an undertaker about what should be done with the bodies of her in-laws. Red-faced, she apologised. “I’m so sorry, there has been so much going on, I had completely forgotten about Jim and Dorothy. I will call that number now”.

Although it sounded awfully uncaring, she had no option but to tell the undertaker to go ahead with a double cremation, and that nobody would be attending any service. “I don’t want to travel that far, I am pregnant you see. And my husband is currently missing. As far as I know, there are no other relatives”. He sounded as if that was nothing unusual, so she agreed to pay the basic price for the funeral, and that the ashes would be sent to her later, delivered by a courier service. Any guilt she was feeling was assuaged by the fact that Mike had left her to sort everything out.

There was also the matter of any will they had left. There would surely be some inheritance, as well as their substantial house to be sold. She knew that Mike would be the only beneficiary, and decided to wait until she could be certain he was never coming home. The house would have to be left to the attentions of the neighbours in the meantime. The last thing she needed was to have to worry about their empty property.

In the afternoon, her Mum phoned. She saw who it was on the caller I.D. and rejected the call. All those years of indifference followed by the recent display of selfishness had been the straw that broke the camel’s back. As far as she was concerned, Mum could just do one, and clear off with the wonderful David. Claudia phoned with good news. Betsy was talking, and might be discharged next week. Claude was going back to work tomorrow, trying to get some normality back in her life. She said that Anita was more than welcome to come and stay for a while, if she wanted to get away. But they both knew she was never going to leave the house until she knew what was going on with Mike.

No sooner had Claude hung up, then Jane rang. “Hi, Anita. I have just had a meeting with Ian Hope. I went to meet him at the motorway services. He has rented a car, and wanted me to let you know that it’s a silver Ford Focus. Thousands of those around, but if you see one following you, or near your house, then it’s likely to be him. I have given him some of the names to look into. He has some good contacts, like ex-military Ministry of Defence people, and former SAS colleagues now working in the private sector. He can do some of the digging for me, so I can avoid the attention of my superiors. It’s not something I would usually ever do, but then again, this is not a usual case”.

Then Jill phoned, to talk about Mum getting married, and to ask what was happening regarding Mike. Anita was wondering if she was going to spend the whole day on the phone. “Jill, are you at work? I will call you at home this evening”. Jill told her she had taken a sick day. “I hit the voddy last night, Nita. Woke up with a mouth like a wrestler’s jockstrap. I’m a lot better now though. Shall I come round?” Anita lied. “I’m feeling really tired, Jilly, thought I might have a lie down. I will ring you after dinner, and talk about it all then. I’m not going to Mum’s wedding though, I tell you that now”.

After pretending to Jill that she was going to bed, it suddenly sounded like a good idea. But she had no sooner climbed under the duvet, than the house phone rang. Sitting up, she yelled out loud. “For Christ’s sake! What’s going on with that bloody phone!” But she answered it anyway, as there was always a chance it might be Mike. It was a man’s voice, but not Mike.

“Mrs Hollis, this is Ian Hope. Sorry to disturb you, but I have a few things I would like to talk to you about. And I have also found out some things that might interest you. Will it be alright if I come and see you early this evening, sometime after dark?” Anita was impressed, he was working fast now he was out in the open.

“That will be fine, Ian. Shall we say about six?”

Watching him as he set up, Anita couldn’t fail to be impressed by his ease of movement, and obvious confidence. Although he was perhaps fifteen years older than her, he had a presence that was undeniably attractive. In another life, she would definitely have fancied him, and wanted to get to know him. He had even brought a whiteboard. Just a small one, but still. That was unexpected. He had photos and documents too, paper printouts from websites or emails, by the look of them. Spreading those out on the coffee table, he started to write on the board with a marker pen.

“The names the sergeant gave me were interesting, Mrs Hollis. Let me show you what I have found out”. As he wrote each name, he turned and spoke about it. Anita felt as if she was in a company meeting, or back at school.

“Okay, Judith Harley. She comes up as someone important in SIS, but I have discovered that she quit her job almost nine months ago. She now works for a company called International Security Systems, based in Dublin. That’s merely a front though, and the company is almost certainly dabbling in something dark and secret.” He wrote another name.

“Pete Springer. He is recently retired from the US Air Force. He writes a blog about travelling, and flying his private plane. That’s irrelevant though, and almost certainly a diversion. I doubt he has actually retired from the Air Force. What is interesting to me is that he was a senior Colonel in charge of a base of Stealth bombers, new ones in development and testing. So new, they haven’t been made public yet”. He changed the colour of the marker from red to blue, and wrote a name on the right hand side of the board.

“Audrey Driscoll. She is a housewife in Canada. Her only claim to fame in this incident is that she is currently taking Air Canada to court over the loss of a relative in a plane crash four years ago. Then there is Lorraine Lewis. I narrowed that down to a definite connection, as she was on that same Air Canada flight, and survived the crash with life-changing injuries. Someone is trying to find out for me if they have had any email exchanges, but Mike obviously knew both of them”. He changed back to the red pen.

“Shaily Agrawal. The Indian reporter that has gone missing. My contact has found out that nobody is actually looking for her. There is no current police report active in India, and as far as we can tell, she has no relatives. The only person remotely worried about her is the editor of the New Delhi Times, and he’s not that concerned, as he suspects she is working undercover on a story”. After he had written the next name below Shaily’s, he turned with a wide smile on his face.

“This is definitely a lead worth following. Susan Judd works for the Ministry of Defence. She served in the Royal Air Force Police, then worked for the Counter Terrorism Command in the Metropolitan Police in London. For the last few years, she has been some sort of investigator with the MOD, working from the office of what is called Air Command”.

Anita sat back against the big cushion on the sofa. “You have really found out a lot, Ian. But none of it makes any sense to me. Other than the phone call I answered from that Indian reporter, I have never heard any of those names mentioned until Mike went missing. How did you manage to discover all this in such a short time?”

Sitting down opposite her, Ian looked serious. “Before I left the Army and went into business for myself, I made sure to build a network of contacts. I had served in pretty much every part of the world, either on missions, or on training exercises. I guessed it was going to be crucial to my new job to keep in touch with all of them. So far, I haven’t needed to call on many of them, but this case has proved my hunch right, as they have all delivered”.

Rubbing her face, Anita raised her legs onto the sofa. They felt heavy, and she was still tired from that earlier nap.

“Are you going to tell Jane about all this? And I am wondering why you never let me know that you were following me, keeping an eye on me. I was quite scared when I saw that blue van”. Ian shook his head.

“For now, I don’t want Jane to know much more than she already does. She is sure to write it all up on the case notes, and all sorts of people can access those. It will have to be between us, and I’m sorry if that adds more pressure to a difficult situation. As for not contacting you openly, Mike insisted that I didn’t do that. He said he didn’t want you to know that I was around. I presume that he had hoped to come back, and for you to be none the wiser about what had gone on. To be honest, I never thought you would make that connection with my van, but I see now that was a huge error on my part. Anyway, you are obviously tired, so I will make a move. I will be sure to let you know what else I find out”.

As she saw him to the door, Anita had one more question. “Tell me the truth, Ian. Do you have any idea where he is, or what has happened to him?”
He nodded, which surprised her.

“I do have one theory, but I am not going to say what that is until I have spoken to some more people”.

Jill didn’t ring that night, and Anita was pleased. Her sister was probably drinking heavily again, and she wasn’t in the mood to have a argument with her about Mum’s wedding. She checked her online banking on the i-pad, and was pleased to see that Mike’s money had been transferred as promised. After eating a decent meal, she was still hungry, so decided to have some rice pudding before bed.

As she was brushing her teeth the phone rang, and she answered it on the bedroom extension. It was Ian Hope. “Sorry it’s so late, Mrs Hollis. I have had some interesting communication about Shaily, the Indian reporter. And the same contact has found out something worth knowing about Mick Steeden too. But he needs five hundred dollars to pay an informant. Are you prepared to pay that? I cannot guarantee it will help find Mike, but it might expand a few leads”. Anita hesitated. Could Ian be trying to get money out of her? Did he know about the financial arrangements that were now in place?

“I was led to believe that Mike had paid you for your services in advance, Ian. How do I know that the money will go to your contact, let alone this mysterious informant?” He was honest with her. “You don’t know that, and neither do I. But if no real information is forthcoming, my contact knows me well enough to be aware that he will regret crossing me. As for the money Mike gave me in advance, that was for my time and expenses. I had no idea then that I might be having to pay for information as to his whereabouts”. That seemed reasonable.

“Very well, text me your account details, and I will transfer the money online tonight. It will be the British equivalent of the five hundred dollars though. I don’t want to mess around buying dollars to transfer”. Ian thanked her, and hung up.

It was the phone ringing that woke her up the next morning. Expecting it to be Jill, her hand hovered over the handset, reluctant to answer. When she did, it was Ian, sounding excited. “The time difference paid off, Mrs Hollis. I was able to speak to my contact a few times during the night, and have some really good stuff to tell you. But I am not going into details over the phone. I will come and see you later, same time as yesterday”. When she put the phone down, it suddenly occurred to Anita how her life had started to so heavily revolve around the time of six pm.

The next call was later. Jill was on her lunch break, and making apologies for not ringing last night. When she tried to get onto the subject of Mum’s wedding, Anita cut her dead. Jill tried another tactic. “Look, I will pick you up. Just come for the service, so it looks like she has some family there. Then you can say you don’t feel well, something with the baby or whatever. I will bring you back, and that way we both get out of having to wear fake smiles at the after-party”. There was no shifting Anita.

“Forget it, Jill. I’m not going, and that’s that”.

During the afternoon, Anita had to do some shopping, and also popped into the chemist to get some indigestion tablets. Eating so late at night wasn’t a good idea, it seemed. Even a short trip around town had made her back ache badly. Walking across to her car, she rubbed her back with her free hand, and smiled. It was such a cliché, a pregnant woman with backache. On the drive home, she was sure she spotted that silver Ford car. It was reassuring to think that Ian was watching out for her.

There was something inside, snagging as she tried to push the front door open. Anita was thinking that there must be a lot of post today. But it was just one large envelope, one of those long padded bags designed to just fit through a letter-box. After putting her shopping away, she sat on the sofa and looked at the package. Her name was written on the front, but there was no postage mark, and no address. It made her nervous, as it was so thick. Turning it over slowly, she was relieved to see a message on the back. ‘From Ian Hope’. She opened it by pulling the tab, and tipped the contents onto the coffee table.

As well as page after page of printouts, there were also photos. Most of it was taken from newspapers all around the world, but there were also some documents that looked very official. Anita went to get some fruit juice from the fridge, and then sat down to read. Forty-five minutes later she had some of the papers laid out in date order. The oldest one went back six years, and the latest was just over six months ago. She picked that one up again, then started to go back over the rest.

‘Tragic plane crash in India claims 240 lives’.
‘Three fatal airline crashes in 9 months cause concern in India’.
‘Emirates Airline grounds 43 aircraft after technical faults discovered’.
‘US Air Force denies fatal crash was pilot error’.
‘Second RAF air disaster in 3 months. MOD to investigate’.
‘Boeing denies responsibility after 8 fatal air crashes in one year’.
‘Kazakhstan air disaster blamed on technical fault. 108 killed’.
‘Air Canada crash. Survivors and relatives of victims to sue in class action’.

A creak from above made her drop the papers onto the sofa. Listening carefully, she heard it again. Anita grabbed her phone and walked hurriedly to the front door. Once outside, she walked away from the house, dialling Ian’s number on her mobile. He answered after three rings.

“Ian, can you come quickly please? There is someone in my house”.

When the silver car pulled up at the corner of the street, Anita handed Ian the door keys. “I closed the front door behind me, and the windows are all locked. Whoever it is should still be in there”. Ian was smiling, obviously enjoying the situation. “Leave it to me. You get in my car and lock the doors. Don’t open them for anyone except me. If I am not back in five minutes, drive to the police station and ask for Jane”.

She took the car key from him, and sat in the driver’s seat.

He was back a lot quicker than she expected, and beckoned her to get out of the car and follow him back to the house. “The place is empty, Mrs Hollis. The window lock on one of the bedroom windows has been forced. It still closes, but the lock will have to be replaced at some stage. My best guess is that they jumped down into the garden, then away over the back fence. No point me searching around, they will be long gone, and I have no idea who I am looking for”.

Inside, the house looked completely normal. Nothing was obviously disturbed, no drawers or cupboard doors open, and no sign of anything missing. Anita was puzzled. “What do you think they…”. Ian’s finger was over her lips, and he was shaking his head. He made a zip motion across his own mouth, and went back outside to his car. Moments later, he returned with something that looked like a portable radio with an extending aerial. Still motioning for her to be silent, he waved the aerial around for a few moments until a red light came on when he was close to the house phone. Reaching under the side table, he produced a small button-like device. It reminded her of the expensive hearing aid Mike’s Dad had bought a couple of years ago.

After sweeping the device around the living room and kitchen, Ian went upstairs. Shortly after, he returned, showing her three more identical devices in the palm of his hand. Unlocking the doors to the garden, he walked over to the stone bird-bath, and dropped all four into the murky water.

“One in the bedroom, under the phone extension. One in the room Mike used as an office, under the desk, and one in the toilet, behind the cistern. Whoever was in here wasn’t looking to take anything. They were planting listening devices”. Anita shook her head in amazement. “Why would they want to listen to me using the toilet?” That made Ian, chuckle, and Anita noticed that he looked very handsome when he was laughing. “When people think they might be bugged, and being overheard, they often go into the toilet and run taps or the shower, to muffle their voices. It’s not a place they ever expect to find a listening device, so it has become quite common for those in the know to start leaving one in there”.

Anita sat down on the sofa. She was still recovering from the trembling that had affected her when she heard the floor creaking. She indicated that Ian should sit. “Ian, won’t they realise that they have been found now? Surely dumping them in the bird-bath will make them stop working?” He nodded. “I want them to know. Besides, it would have made life very difficult for you, knowing someone was listening in. Your conversation wouldn’t have sounded natural, believe me”. Anita could see that he knew what he was talking about. “Won’t they just break in again though, put them somewhere else? And who do you think it was?” He was very certain of his answer. “No, once they realise that they were rumbled, there would be no point. As for who it was, it could be the Secret Service, or it might be the other interested group. They all want to try to find out where Mike is, and I’m betting that they think you know”.

Before she could ask any more questions, he nodded at the pile of papers that were still on the sofa and coffee table. “I hope some of that made sense to you?” Anita stood up. “I have no idea what it means. I will make us some tea, and you can tell me”.

By the time they had drunk their tea and Ian had finished talking, Anita had a headache. It was starting to make some sense though.

He had laid it all out for her, and although it was still mainly a theory needing to be proved, it was a good theory.

Some time ago, Mike’s company had come up with a new formula for an industrial glue. Thicker and longer lasting than even Super Glue, it was discovered to be able to bond anything together. Metals of all weights, plastics of any description, and one to the other if necessary. It also worked on wood, and even stone. More importantly, it could withstand extreme stress, and any temperatures, hot or cold. It was taken up by all the aircraft manufacturers, as they could save weight by replacing metal parts with glue. Then the military here and in the US became interested too.

Although it was bought by many companies and governments, the news of the invention was never made public. Nobody wanted to fly in a plane that they imagined might be glued together, even if it wasn’t used on huge areas like the wings and fuselage. However, they did use it in areas like landing wheels, crucial control levers, and some internal structures. Ian was adamant that all this was fact.

“As you can tell from the documents, Mrs Hollis, failure of the glue over time caused some terrible air crashes. At first, nobody associated it with the glue failing, but people at Mike’s company started to suspect it, as they knew who had bought it. When it was hushed up by the governments in various countries, Mike took it upon himself to become a whistle-blower and contacted some of the victims, as well as leaving a message for the reporter in India”. Still trying to take it all in, Anita was wondering where they would go from there. “So what do we do now, Ian? What’s our next step?” He smiled.

“We have to find Mike. And I think I know where he is”.

Ian was happy to see his comment had cheered Anita up, but felt he should add a note of caution. “Obviously I cannot be completely certain, but what I have found out is encouraging. Someone I know in Ireland looked into some things for me. He is sure that Mike arrived in Northern Ireland on a sea ferry. From there, he took a flight from Belfast to Amsterdam, then connected to a flight at Schipol leaving for Dubai. He was certainly using a fake passport, but one good enough not to attract attention. As for his car being found at Portsmouth, my guess is that someone else arranged that”.

Anita was looking confused. “Why would Mike go to Dubai? And who could have arranged the passport, and the car thing? I don’t get it”. Ian was still smiling. “Mick Steeden is my best guess. He still has contacts in the UK, and he was working for Emirates Airlines, based in Dubai. No doubt Mike warned him about the problems with the aircraft, which is why they were grounded. Mick is a senior engineer at that company, or at least he was, until he skipped to Australia. He worked for Qantas at one time, so kept his place on over there. My theory is that Mike met him in Dubai, and they travelled back to Australia together, but avoided going to Mick’s apartment. You told me he didn’t seem too concerned when you phoned him, remember?” Anita felt a lot happier.

“So you think Mike is alive, and hiding out somewhere with his best friend? I could ring Mick now, and tell him we have worked it all out”. Ian smiled at her use of ‘we’. “You mustn’t do that, Mrs Hollis. For all we know they have a trace on your mobile, and probably Steeden’s too. We will have to wait until someone contacts us, when they think it is safe. Meanwhile, you are still potentially in danger, if they think you know about the glue. But I doubt they will do anything for now, as they hope you will flush Mike out. That means I could be in danger too, as well as Mick Steeden. Let’s hope they don’t think you have told your Mum, your sister, or your friend Claudia. I am sure they caused the accident that killed your in-laws, but it was probably opportunistic, once they were on the way down here to see you”.

She finally asked the question Ian had been expecting. “Who are ‘they’, Ian? Who would go so far as to want Mike dead, and anyone he might have told?”

Looking a bit lost without his whiteboard, Ian jabbed fingers into the palm of his other hand instead. “One. Governments. Definitely the UK and US ones, and very possibly the Indian one too. Imagine if it got out that they were using military and civilian aircraft that they knew might be dangerous because of a failed glue? That would explain Pete Springer trying to contact Mike, as well as Susan Judd from Air Command becoming involved. It might also be the reason why the Indian reporter has gone missing, though my best guess is that she will eventually turn up in Australia”. He shifted his weight on the sofa, and leaned forward.

“Two. Aircraft manufacturers and Airlines. Just think about what it could cost them if their use of that glue became public knowledge. Nobody would buy their planes, or use their airlines. Compensation claims could run into the tens of millions or more, and then they would have to refund the purchase price of hundreds of aircraft. Share prices would crumble, and the whole aviation industry would start to collapse. Not only that, there would be criminal charges too; probably deliberate negligence, as well as the cover-ups”. Anita nodded. It was starting to sound completely plausible. Ian smiled again.

“And lets not forget the company Mike works for. It is only a UK subsidiary of a huge Japanese company with offices and plants all around the world. They have companies in the US, China, and also in South America. They would go bust overnight if the news got out. I imagine Mike went to Winkowski, expecting him to be shocked, and to agree to expose the scandal. But then that manager passed Mike’s information down the line, and your husband knew he was running out of time. After finding out about Judith Harley and her ISS being involved, I can only assume that she is working for the parent company, and trying to find out where Mike is. So, Mike has few friends, and at least three very large professional organisations trying to find him and silence him”.

After making them both a cup of tea, Anita had an idea. “Why don’t I go to the media? The newspapers and television would eat up a story like this. Once it was public, Mike could come out into the open, and come home. We have enough proof already, and the information from your contacts will all add to it”. Ian looked glum. “Sorry to tell you, but it will never be printed, or reported on TV. The governments will just shut it down, say it is a matter of national security. I’m guessing that Mike has already tried that, and that was what alerted everyone to him in the first place”. It seemed to her that every time she heard good news, the bad news cancelled it out.

“Then what do we do? What’s the point of even finding Mike, if all that will do is maybe draw them to him, and nothing will be published anyway?” Ian was smiling again.

“Never underestimate the power of social media, Mrs Hollis. We are about to unleash a Twitter and Facebook avalanche”.

At long last, Anita felt she had a real role to play, and was no longer a bystander. Always active on every social media platform imaginable, she had worked out a relevant message with Ian, and started to post it everywhere that morning, bumping it constantly, linking it to the names of everyone she had as contacts online, as well as names of bloggers, journalists, and websites that loved to write about conspiracies and government cover-ups. Her friendship with Claudia paid dividends, as Claude shared it with scores of people she knew from her job with the BBC.

Watching as the shares, views, and likes began to increase in number before her eyes, she could feel some movement from her baby inside. Although it seemed crazy, Anita convinced herself that the baby knew something positive was happening. She stroked the fast-growing bump and smiled. “I’m going to get your Daddy home, wait and see”.

Claudia phoned just after eleven. “I’m so sorry, Nita. What you must have been going through, I can’t believe you didn’t tell me everything. But I am with you one hundred percent, and Betsy is sharing with all of her contacts too. She says that some of the platforms might take down your posts once pressure is applied today, but it is already out there, and too late to suppress it completely. I have just created a blog for you. I have sent the blog name and account password by text, so get on that soon, and send a link to it to everyone you can think of. Is everything okay with the baby? Be careful, and try not to stress yourself out. If you need me down there, I can pay for a carer to look after Betsy and drive down, let me know”.

Feeling the best she had since all this had started, Anita made a nice lunch, and sat eating watching the shares as they added up to the thousands. The blog site that Claude had started for her was getting dozens of shares and loads of comments, and she realised that her afternoon was going to be very busy sorting out replies, and continuing to bump the tweets and posts. By the time she finished lunch and tidied away, the blog alone already had almost nine hundred followers. She sent Ian a text to his unregistered mobile, telling him how exciting it was, and thanking him for the suggestion.

The rest of the day went by in a blur. Her eyes were aching from looking at the i-pad and phone screens, but by early evening, the shares and messages were enormous. It was much more than she could ever hope to keep up with, so she stopped trying to. The house phone rang, and she didn’t recognise the voice, which was undoubtedly American. “Mrs Hollis? This is Lisa Howeler. You don’t know me, but I am a reporter with the New York Times. I wanted to interview you about what’s happening on social media. That’s one hell of a story. Do you have time to talk to me now?” Anita was happy to talk, even though she hadn’t confirmed who the woman was. After ten minutes, she had outlined everything, and received assurances that it would be on that newspaper’s website soon.

Almost as soon as she had hung up. it rang again. “This is Don Ostertag from the Chicago Tribune. Am I speaking with Mrs Hollis?” She readily gave him his requested telephone interview. Even though he sounded a lot more sceptical than the previous reporter, he promised that some people on his paper would start their own investigation into her allegations. Once the excitement of all this started to calm down, she then became worried. How had they got her number so easily? When it rang again, she was guarded. “Is that Anita Hollis? This is Jennie Fitzkee from The Boston Globe. I would like to talk to you about your blog, and the amazing story you are telling”. Anita decided to ask.

“How did you get my number, Jennie?I have had a series of reporters ringing from American newspapers in the last forty minutes, and I am starting to become suspicious, to be honest”. The woman was friendly. “Bless you, honey, it’s just the time difference. It is the morning here, that’s all. We are at work, and looking at all the trends on social media for story ideas. As for your phone number, we have lots of contacts in the UK who can get those for us. If you have already spoken to other US papers, I have lost my exclusive, but I would still like to hear what you have to say”. Anita told her everything, and she promised to do her best to get it on the front page tomorrow.

Nobody had telephoned from any British newspaper. No TV companies had come to her house to ask for interviews, and there had been nothing on the radio either. That hadn’t gone unnoticed by her, and Anita remembered what Ian had said about the story being pulled by the authorities. But the amount of views on all of her social media was by now unimaginable, and she was sure something had to break soon. Her mobile beeped. It was a text message from Claudia. ‘Just out of a meeting with the News production team. Watch the six pm bulletin. It might be featured’.

Just as the main headlines were announced by the presenter, the doorbell rang. It was Jane Dawes.

“Can I come in, Anita? I have something to tell you”. Anita was upbeat, sure it was to do with her story. She grinned. “What is it, Jane? Do you have good news for me? The policewoman’s expression didn’t look as if she did.

“Sorry, but I have some bad news. Ian Hope was found dead in his hotel room an hour ago”.

Even though she had hardly known Ian Hope, Anita felt the tears flowing down her face at Jane’s news. “How? I mean, why? Sorry. What happened?”

Jane pointed at the TV screen, and through the tears Anita could see a report about the news spread by her social media activity, now being headlined as ‘Aircraft Glue Scandal’. “That happened”, the sergeant replied, her tone cold, sounding frustrated. “What were you two thinking of, Anita? Okay, you got it on the news, and now the governments and the airlines are all red-faced and trying to make excuses. The downside is that it also meant they shut Ian up, and Mike is now in more danger than ever”.

“Wiping her face with some tissues, Anita sat up straight. “How was Ian killed, Jane?” Shaking her head, Jane still sounded pretty fed up. “The way I would have expected. No signs of forced entry, no weapon used. The Police Surgeon could only come up with natural causes so far, until the post-mortem. The best guess is that they used some drug that mimics a heart attack. If it hadn’t been for a maid going in to change the towels, the body wouldn’t have been discovered for some time, I suspect. The cheap hotel has no CCTV other than over the reception desk, and there is nobody on that except other paying guests who can be accounted for”.

Anita was still upset, but trying to keep it together. “So where do we go from here, Jane?” The policewoman raised her eyebrows, and also raised her voice.

“We? Well, ‘We’ don’t go anywhere, Anita! This is no longer a missing persons case, as according to you and Ian, Mike absconded with his secrets about the glue. He knew he was going, to the extent that he must have obtained false documents, and made provision for you financially, as well as getting Ian Hope to keep watch on you. So as far as the police is concerned, he is not missing, just gone into hiding. The case will be closed, and I will no longer be able to help you. Ian’s death will be investigated by the murder squad, and likely covered up, written off as heart trouble. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but you are on your own now. Except for the press and TV news, who will soon be all over you”.

Although inside she had to admit that she hadn’t thought about that happening, Anita was determined to at least appear to be resolute. “Well if the press arrive at my door, that’s a good thing. I will give them statements, tell them the facts. Anything that helps Mike come home. I don’t think anyone is going to chance doing anything to me in the full spotlight of press interest, don’t you agree?” Jane just smiled, waiting until she had finished talking.

“It will be all over the papers and TV, I agree. But give it a few days, and you will see another story will suddenly appear. Something like a royal engagement, an unexpected fairytale love story involving one of the young Princes or Princesses. Perhaps a scandalous royal divorce? They have ways and means of getting hold of the front pages, Anita. Likely one of the senior royals will suddenly become gravely ill, the nation waiting with bated breath to hear if they live or die. That’s how it works, I’m afraid”. Anita set her face, defiantly.

“Then I had better work faster, Jane. Thanks for letting me know about Ian. I will see you out”.

The first task was to update the blog with news of Ian’s death, and her theory that he had been killed by either interested parties, or governments trying to silence him. As she typed, Anita suddenly realised that she didn’t even know if he had left a family behind. That was something she was going to have to try to find out about. Then the phone started to ring. Now, she was wary. Rather than speak to any other reporters on the phone, she told them she would be happy for them to call on her the next morning, when she was prepared to give a small press conference in her front room. She wanted witnesses, and didn’t intend to be alone in the house with anyone.

There wasn’t much in to make a meal with, so she had a strange dinner of toast and jam, followed by some cream crackers and Camembert cheese. The phone kept ringing, but she let it go to the answer machine. There were already two TV news companies and three reporters set to arrive tomorrow, and that would be enough for now. Upstairs later, she had just got undressed ready for a nice bath, followed by bed. When the doorbell sounded, she put on a dressing gown and walked to the window in the front bedroom. No way was she going to open the door without seeing who was there.

When she saw it was Claudia standing outside, her heart skipped a beat, and she walked quickly downstairs to let her best friend in. Claude wrapped her arms around her, and kissed her warmly on the cheek. “I had to come down, Nita. As soon as I read about Ian Hope on your blog, I just couldn’t leave you on your own. I got someone in to keep an eye on Betsy, and drove down as soon as I could”. She was carrying a small weekend bag, and lifted a bottle of wine in her other hand . “Let’s open this, and you can tell me what’s going on”.

After telling Claudia everything, and answering all her numerous questions, Anita was feeling very tired. But her friend was buzzing. “Let’s put the rolling news on, Nita. See if they are still talking about your story, and Mike”. She picked up the remote, and switched on the television.

Anita thought she would faint when she saw what was on the screen

He needed a shave, and his hair was untidy, but the man being interviewed was Mike.

Both women were squealing like excited schoolgirls at the sight of Mike on TV. They were making so much noise, neither heard any of the segment. “Look! It’s Mick too! Steeden’s with him, Nita!” Claudia was hugging her friend, and Anita was crying happy tears, as well as sounding like a playful piglet at the same time. The next report was about a politician who had resigned his seat after an allegation of sexual misconduct. Claudia grabbed her laptop from the weekend bag, connected to Anita’s wi-fi, and brought up the BBC News website.

Anita was rocking back and forth, fists bunched, and looking down at her baby bump. “He’s coming home, your Daddy is coming home!”

The report had come from Sydney, Australia. Although the video clip wasn’t up on the website yet, the story was marked as ‘Breaking News’. Claudia read it out loud.
“Man who leaked aircraft glue scandal comes out of hiding. Mike Hollis left Britain for Australia, terrified for the safety of his family if he stayed. Aircraft manufacturers and Airlines around the world are rushing to refute his leaks about the use of unsafe glue that has caused numerous crashes resulting in hundreds of fatalities. He now plans to return to Britain after his wife exposed the story online, also alleging that his parents and a private investigator he hired have all been killed as part of a conspiracy to try to silence him.”

With her friend still hardly able to take it in, Claudia shook her by the shoulder. “Nita, get your phone and try Mick Steeden’s number. If he’s with Mike, you can talk to him. I’m so excited, I’m going to ring Betsy and tell her, I don’t care how late it is”.

Mick’s phone rang out, with no answering message. Anita was disappointed, but not about to let anything get her down. They left the news on, hoping that the report would be shown again. But a discussion feature started, so Claudia went into the kitchen to make them both a cup of tea. Then they sat and worked out the time difference, with Anita checking on Google. “It says that if its almost one am here, then the time in Sydney is midday”. Claudia was about to bite into a chocolate biscuit. “So by the time we wake up tomorrow, it will almost be the day after down there, or close to it. That stuff does my head in, Nita. At work, we have like six time clocks on the wall, always checking on New York Time, Moscow Time, L A time, and China too. It’s a pity there couldn’t just be one time”.

As soon as she had said that, she realised how silly it sounded, and they both began to have a fit of the giggles.

Claudia went back to her laptop, and reloaded the BBC News website. “Look, Nita, there’s a clip now. See? That’s Mike’s face!” As she watched the short video of Mike talking to some reporters in Sydney, Anita felt more joyful tears running down her cheeks. She had instantly forgiven him for all the stresses and strains of the recent events, as she was so overwhelmed with relief that he was alive. When the clip ended, she played it again, and once more after that. Mike seemed so strong, despite his appearance. And what he was saying made her heart leap.

“I now just want to get home to my wife, and make sure she and our baby are well. If she is watching this, I love you Anita, and I am so sorry for what I had to put you through”. One of the reporters pushed a big microphone in his face, and asked a question that they couldn’t hear. Mike nodded. “Absolutely. I will be seeking justice for my parents, for everything that my family has suffered because of this, and I will also be urging the police to investigate Ian Hope’s death as a murder”. Mick Steeden leaned forward, and said something close to Mike’s ear. He turned back to the reporters. “Thank you ladies and gentlemen, but I have to go now. I have a plane to catch”.

She could hear Claudia snoring in the guest room, but Anita didn’t feel as if sleep was ever going to come that night. Her mood fluctuated between sheer joy at seeing Mike alive and well, and overwhelming sadness about Ian Hope, and Mike’s parents. It had all been so pointless, and she started to convince herself that nobody would ever be held to account for any of it. That thought made her angry, and she tried hard to calm down, not wanting to transfer any stress onto her unborn baby.

Positive thoughts made her feel better. A baby in a nursery, sleeping peacefully in a lovely crib, with her and Mike looking on from the doorway. Beautiful baby clothes, tiny, and so soft. A new life that they would love without hesitation, and protect until their dying day. Her first day at school, her first boyfriend. Teenage tantrums, then mother and daughter bonding when she got older.
A wedding perhaps, with her as Mother of The Bride, and Mike looking handsome as he walked his daughter down the aisle. Much better to think about all that, than the bad stuff that had been happening.

She woke up feeling the need to pee. It was still dark, with no morning light peeping through the curtains yet. Feeling sleepy still, Anita shifted in bed, and threw back the duvet. Her nightdress was wet, and she was annoyed with herself that she had already peed in her sleep. She would need to change, maybe put a towel over the mattress for now, so she switched on the bedside lamp.

The red stain sent shivers down her spine. It hadn’t been pee at all. It was blood.

Startled by Anita’s shouts for help, Claudia rushed into the bedroom in a complete daze, to find her friend white faced and trembling. “Claude, phone for an ambulance! Quick!”

Fifteen minutes later, a paramedic was attaching a drip bag to the needle he had placed in Anita’s arm. “The ambulance will be here soon. Don’t be too worried, it’s really not that much blood. Believe me, it looks worse than it is. Because you are close to seven months gone, they will take you straight to the Maternity Unit, and a doctor and midwife will be waiting”. Claudia had dressed hurriedly, and was now stuffing a change of clothes for Anita into a holdall to take with them. Her friend looked up at her from the bed.

“Sorry, Claude. You have just left Betsy recovering, and had to come down to all this. But I’m so glad you are here”. Claudia would hear none of it. “I’m glad I am here too, so don’t worry. Stop bothering about all that stuff, and think about yourself and the baby. Should I ring your Mum, or Jill? Even both of them?” Anita shook her head. “No, I don’t want to worry Jill just yet, and Mum will only be concerned about whether it might spoil her wedding arrangements”.

The staff at the hospital were surprisingly unconcerned. The midwife dealing with Anita told her not to worry. “Bleeding at this stage is normal for some women, believe me. And it seems to have stopped some time ago. We are going to keep an eye on the monitor for now, and you will see a doctor later this morning. They might send you for an ultrasound, but based on my experience, I reckon you will be home for lunch. Your observations are all completely normal, and baby’s heartbeat is fine too”.

Despite those reassuring words, Anita was still concerned. Claudia was cheerful now, but then she had never been pregnant. “Try to relax now, Nita. See if you can get some sleep”. Claudia sat in the hard armchair next to the bed, and checked her phone. “Shall I check your mobile, Nita? Just in case?” Anita had a thought. “What about the TV crews and reporters, Claude? They are going to be showing up at the house in a few hours”. Claudia shook her head. “Last thing you need to worry about, love. If you are not at home, I’m sure they will come back another time”.

There was no message on either phone, and despite the worry, Anita managed to settle down and sleep.

When she woke up later, Claudia wasn’t in the chair. But she came back soon after, holding two cups of coffee bought from the hospital cafe. “It’s not great, Nita, but at least it’s warm and wet”. An auxiliary came in and asked if she wanted breakfast, but she declined. Claudia was checking both phones, and looked up. “Still nothing, but at least no news is good news”. Anita was wondering when Claude had started to spout such old-fashioned sayings, when a breezy young female doctor came in to see her.

“Everything is fine, Mrs Hollis. According to what I have read from your observations, you have nothing to worry about. I’m just going to give you a quick internal examination to make completely certain, and then you will be able to go home”. She took some latex gloves from a box fixed to the wall. The friends shared a look, with Claudia screwing up her face in disgust, and looking away as the doctor started to move the bedclothes.

“As I thought, nothing to worry about. A nurse will be here soon to take down your drip, and you will be able to go home after that”. She dropped the gloves into a bin, operating the lid with a foot-pedal. The nurse arrived before they had finished their coffees. As she removed the needle in Anita’s arm, she chatted about baby names, and then asked “What about the Dad? Is he picking you up?” Anita shook her head, and Claudia spoke instead. “No, he’s working abroad at the moment, I will arrange for an Uber Cab now”.

On the way back in the taxi, Claudia used Anita’s phone to speak to the reporters who were supposed to be arriving at the house, and to cancel them. She managed to speak directly to two of them, and left messages for the others. “I hope they don’t just show up, Nita. You need to rest. Time enough to speak to reporters once Mike gets home”. Then she rang Betsy, and told her everything that had happened. “Betsy sends her love, Nita. She sounds really good, and said the lady that spent the night at our place was really caring and professional. One of her colleagues has just arrived to take over”.

When the taxi pulled up outside the house, there were no journalists to be seen. Claudia smiled. “Good news, Nita. They must have got the messages”.

But as she helped Anita to the front door, and the taxi drove off, a car stopped outside.

It was a marked police car.

Seeing the two police officers approaching, Anita stopped dead. “What is it? Do you have some news of my husband?” The female officer turned to her colleague, and he gestured for her to speak. “Can we all go inside, Mrs Hollis? We have something we would like to talk to you about”. Once in the living room, they didn’t keep her in suspense. “Jane Dawes asked us to come and see you, as a favour to her. She was worried about you, but I’m glad to see you have a friend with you”.

Turning to look at at Claudia, then back at the policewoman, Anita sounded confused. “Worried about me? Jane? Why?” The male officer stepped forward.
“I take it you haven’t seen or heard any news recently, madam?” Reaching forward instinctively for the remote control, Anita shook her head as she pushed the button to turn on the TV. “No, I have just come from the hospital. Why? What’s going on?” Before he could reply, the rolling news channel was on the screen.

A serious-faced female presenter was talking against the background of a live feed from Australia. The headline bar across the bottom read ‘Qantas plane crashes after taking off from Sydney. Casualties unconfirmed but first reports suggest there were no survivors’.

Anita sank to her knees on the carpet, and Claudia rushed to wrap her arms around her friend. The policewoman spoke quickly. “It happened a short time ago, and reports are coming in. Jane said to tell you that she has no idea if your husband was on the aircraft, but she knew you might fear the worst, and wanted us to come round to see if you were okay”. Claudia looked up at her. “But we saw Mike interviewed last night, and he said the that he had a plane to catch. He would have flown out much earlier than that one. “The man looked at them as if trying to decide whether or not to say something. Then he did. “Michael Steeden is listed as one of the passengers on the flight manifest. Jane thought that if you heard that, you might assume that Mike was with him”.

Still on her knees, Anita waved a hand at him. “Can you just go now, please. Tell Jane thanks for me, I have my best friend here now, and she will stay with me”. They looked relieved to be leaving, muttering sympathetic goodbyes as Claudia showed them out. When she walked back in, Anita was on her mobile, trying Mick Steeden’s number. She looked up at her friend, whose face was a mask of concern. “Nothing. The line is dead, Claude”. Helping her up to stretch out on the sofa, Claudia did her best. “Just because Mick was listed on the flight doesn’t mean he was on it. And it certainly doesn’t mean Mike was flying with him. I’m going to make us both a cup of tea. Actually, I’m going to make you a cup of tea. I need something stronger”.

It was a big enough story to keep the news focusing on it for now. The presenter kept giving updates, then chatted to someone from Australia via Skype. By the time Claudia got back with the tea, and a huge glass of wine for herself, the woman on television was setting her best face for bad news. “It is now confirmed that there are no survivors from the Qantas flight that crashed in open countryside in New South Wales not far from Dubbo, earlier today. The airline confirms that there were three hundred and three people on board, including the aircrew. The cause of the crash is so far unknown, and you can call the following number for more information”. As the news switched to a fatal shooting in Nottingham, Claudia was already dialling the number.

“It’s a recorded message, Nita. Says they are busy with calls and will update the message when they know more. They are giving out a phone number in Australia. Shall I ring that?” Anita looked overwhelmed by sadness. “Leave it, Claude. Wait until the fuss dies down, and try again later”. In an effort to break the mood, Claudia suggested making some lunch. “I can’t face food, Claude. I might just have a lie down upstairs. But you have something. You might have to drive to the supermarket though, I doubt I have got anything in worth eating”. Grabbing her car keys and Anita’s door key, Claudia picked up her bag. “I will get some more milk too. Something for tonight as well. Anything you fancy, love?” Anita looked completely disinterested. “Just get something to chuck in the microwave”.

As she was putting the shopping away an hour later, Claudia heard the house phone ringing. But before she could get to it, it was answered on the bedroom extension. The wail from upstairs made her run up to the bedroom as fast as she could. Tears were streaming down Anita’s face, but she was smiling. She turned to look at her friend. “It’s Mike. He’s on the phone. He’s alive. He wasn’t on that plane!” Claudia kissed the top of her head, and left the room. She wanted to give them some privacy to talk.

Fifteen minutes later, Anita came down, wiping her eyes and nose with some tissues. As she sat on the sofa, Claudia couldn’t stop herself. “Well? For Christ’s sake, Nita, tell me what he said”. Anita rubbed her face with the palms of both hands. “Mick Steeden was on the plane that crashed, as far as Mike knows. He was flying to Dubai, to get back to his job there. But Mike took a flight much earlier, using a different airline, and flying to Amsterdam. He’s there now, at the airport. He is boarding a flight to London soon. That Indian reporter met them in Sydney, and he told her the full story. She will get it out all over India and the Far East. Then Mike will contact people here”. Claudia wasn’t satisfied.

But what about him going missing? Ian the detective, the money, his car being in Portsmouth, all that other stuff? Does he know about his parents? Anita nodded. Yeah, he knows about that, and Ian too. He said he will tell me everything when he gets back. He was mainly worried about me and the baby, and the fact that he will have to find another job now” Claude thought for a moment. “Have you got his flight number? We could drive to the airport in my car, and meet him off the Amsterdam flight”. Anita smiled. “Thanks, Claude, but he says not to bother. He will get the train, and a taxi from the station”.

She looked down at the baby bump, and stroked it lovingly.
“He said he will be home about six”.

The End.

The River: The Complete Story

This is all 21 parts of my recent fiction serial, in one complete story.
It is a long read, at 23,940 words.

We used to lay on the grass by the bank, the sun in our faces. Most of the time, the river flowed by fast. But on really hot days it seemed reluctant to move, like liquid chocolate, or molasses.

The dragonflies hovered over the water, and every so often, we heard the plopping sound as a fish took a bug off the surface.

Close to our favourite spot, it wasn’t deep enough for swimming. But a short walk along the bank led to a place where there was enough water for a shallow dive, and a welcome swim during the hottest summers. Whenever we got out of school, or during the holidays, you would be sure to find us there as long as the sun was out.

There were always at least three of us, sometimes four or five. At weekends, we would be joined by the girls, Melanie and Donna. They were the only two girls around who didn’t hang out with the older guys, the ones who were in the sports teams, or drove their own cars. In the company of other girls, they stood out as different. But with us they were accepted, and special.

Small town life back then could be oppressive, if you let it. It could also be very dull, if you didn’t make your own amusement. There were only so many times you could go to the cafe for a milk shake, or to the old cinema that showed the same film all week.

And we walked a lot, or rode our bikes. My parents were not about to run me around in the car, and the same went for my friends. We were not poor, not like some. But we certainly were not in the same group who drove out to the country club, or holidayed at the coast. We knew who we were, and where we stood, and didn’t ask for or expect much more.

Those summers seemed to last forever, and the long hot walks to and from the river became a ritual that I welcomed. Nobody bothered us, and in that spot, we felt secure. At home.

I didn’t really notice it much then, but we were getting older. We stopped talking about what car we would like to own, or which job we would do when we we left college, and started to talk about girls. Long discussions about what we liked about girls, and which girls we liked best. Their hair, their legs, their chests, even what they wore. It was all rather pointless of course, as we only knew two girls well enough to ever think about dating, and many of those we really liked wouldn’t have looked in our direction as they walked past.

But we carried on talking about them, never tiring of the same subject, every day.

When it was cold or wet, we walked further along the bank, then up the lane to Old Man Henderson’s barn. It wasn’t really a barn anymore, as the doors had fallen off, and the roof leaked in places. Nothing was stored in there since he had given up farming, and he never came by to check on the place. It gave us some shelter, and somewhere to meet up when it wasn’t hot enough to lounge around on the grass.

The retired farmer could often be seen fishing. He would stand in the water in his big waders, the fly-rod flicking back and forth as he concentrated. It was our tradition to wave to him as we passed. But he never acknowledged us, or waved back. Old Man Henderson was an unknown quantity. If you asked anyone around town about him, they would tell you a different story. He had come back from war a changed man. Or he had never gone to war. He had lost his wife and son in an accident. Or he had never been married.

One time, I asked my parents about him, hoping for the definitive answer. My mother shrugged, and glanced at Dad. He turned away from his newspaper, and looked serious. “Clay, you keep away from Henderson. He’s nothing but trouble”. He wouldn’t say any more than that, so naturally my curiosity was piqued even more.

What I still think of as ‘the last summer’ was hotter than ever. That Sunday is fixed in my memory, yet my memory of it is blurred. It feels like I am looking at it through water. The water in the river perhaps. It wobbles, skips by fast, and then slows down. I don’t search for that memory, believe me. But I will never be able to shake it.

There were five of us that morning, stretched out on the bank, chewing long stems of grass, and drinking cokes that Freddie had brought along in a six-pack. They had got warm too quickly, but we didn’t care. The girls arrived close to midday. They took off their dresses to reveal swimming costumes underneath. Placing towels on the ground, they sat on them, talking about going swimming later.

Eddy had been bitten all over by bugs, and was scratching his arms and legs. Duke was sullen, as he usually was around the girls. Awkward, unsure of himself. Donna was smiling at Tommy. We all knew she liked him, just as we all knew that Mel liked me. But we hadn’t quite got to the stage where we would give up on our friends to go off with a girl.

Though we were very close to it.

The afternoon got to that point where it was too hot. Eddy said he was going home, and Tommy suggested to Donna that it was time for a swim. She wouldn’t go unless Mel went with them, but I wasn’t in the mood to get wet. Duke and Freddie said they were going, and I watched them walk off along the bank, shielding my eyes from the sunlight.

That was the day everything changed. For all of us.

I guessed I had been asleep for some time. The sun was getting low to the West, and my eyes took some time to adjust. It was the sound of splashing that had woken me, getting louder as whoever was splashing got closer.

Tommy was wide-eyed and crazy looking. His legs were scratched and torn by thorns and branches, as were his arms and hands. He had no shoes on, and his swim shorts were still wet around the bottom. It seemed he was going to run right past me without stopping, so I sat up and called out to him. “What’s wrong, Tommy? Where’s everyone else?” He shook his head and sat down heavy in the shallow water. I walked to the edge of the bank, and watched as he dropped his head between his knees.

He was sobbing.

He crawled out of the river on all fours, and collapsed onto his chest. “Gone. They’ve gone. The girls have gone. Mel, Donna, gone”. I couldn’t get any sense out of him. He just kept repeating the same thing over and over, despite me yelling at him to tell me what had happened. So I left him where he was, and headed along the bank to the swimming place, sure I would find the others still there.

Nobody was there, and when I got back, Tommy had gone too. I got a really bad feeling, and started back to town. As the sun got even lower, I broke into a run.

The Sheriff’s Office was at one end of Main Street. It looked much like a shop front, but went back a long way, with a parking lot behind. I burst through the door panting, out of breath from the long run on a warm evening. Deputy Tyler was sitting in a chair at the front desk, and stared at me as I started to blurt out what I knew. “Trouble at the river, Mr Tyler. Missing girls. Tommy Clinton told me, but I don’t know where he’s gone”. Tyler looked unimpressed. “Now, Clayton, calm yourself down boy. Get your breath, and tell me properly, from the beginning. Missing girls you say? Which girls? What are their names?” He opened a notebook, and sat with his pen poised.

Five minutes later, I had told him all I knew, right from us walking to the river that morning, the girls turning up, and then everyone but me going swimming. He checked his notes, his mouth moving as he silently read them to himself. Then he picked up the phone, and called Sheriff DeWalt. While we waited for the Sheriff, he got me a drink of cold water from the cooler, and I noticed he was eyeing me up, unsure whether to believe what I had said, it seemed to me.

Vince DeWalt was a big man, in every sense. Years of super-size breakfasts and a fondness for Bourbon and Buttermilk had left him with a gut hanging over his gun-belt that looked like a sack of rice, straining the stud fastenings of his uniform shirt. He loomed over me, six feet four in his heeled boots. “I know you told Deputy Tyler, Clay, but tell me again”.

When I had finished the story, he sent Tyler out to go to the houses of both girls. Then he phoned the off-duty deputy, Hoogstraten, and told him to check out the houses of my friends, and bring them in if they were home. Last of all, he phoned Milly, the woman who answered the phones and operated the radio during the day. “Milly, I’m sorry to ask you honey, but I need you to come in. I’m guessing we are going to be busy tonight”.

Almost an hour later, the small office was crammed with people. My parents were there, along with Eddy and his Dad, Duke, Freddie and his Dad, and Mel’s parents. Donna’s family were not at home, and nobody could find any trace of Tommy, or his folks. Once the Sheriff was satisfied he had all the details down, he had to telephone County Police, in White Oaks. They notified the State Police in Renton, and by the time it was dark, the search was well and truly on. My Dad drove me crazy. He just kept saying “Tell the truth, Clay. Don’t you go lying now son”. He must have said that ten times, even though I swore to him that I had.

Big Vince pulled up to his full height, and stuck out his gut like it would intimidate us even more. Despite his bulk, he was as fit as a mule, and could move fast when he had to. Many of the local bad guys had good reason to regret having misjudged him on appearance. “Last chance, boys. They have everyone out looking for those girls, even the helicopter from up in Renton. If there is anything else you want to tell me, now’s the time. Best get it off your chests”. We shook our heads in turn, and Vince turned away, nodding sagely.

It was almost midnight when they found Donna. Well, Donna’s body. It was in the river, wedged up against the railroad bridge, almost five miles north. Two policeman from County came in, and whispered the news to the Sheriff. But it was too loud a whisper, and we all heard it. After that, they took our fingerprints, and scrapings from under our fingernails. Our parents were sent home to bring us fresh clothes and shoes because they were keeping the ones we were wearing, and one of the deputies had to go to Duke’s house to collect the same. His Mom hadn’t been able to come in, as she had recently had a new baby by her second husband.

There was no chance for us to speak to each other, so I cast around the room, looking for any trace of guilt on the faces of my friends. They just looked scared, like I probably did. After all, we were now the only suspects in what might turn out to be a murder.

We had to change our clothes in the locker room, watched by both deputies. They placed them into bags as we took them off, writing names and codes on labels at the top of the bags. When that was over, they took us out to get another talking to from Big Vince. “Now, I am letting you boys go home for now. You are not to talk to each other, is that clear? I am expecting your parents to take note of that, and to watch who you speak to on the phone, and to keep you home until you hear from me tomorrow. You will all be coming back in for questioning, make no mistake about that”.

As we drove home, my Dad started again. “Anything you want to tell me now there are no cops around, Clay? The truth now, this is serious”.

I shook my head at his eyes in the rear-view mirror.

“No Dad. I don’t know anything. Honest”.

They had caught up with Tommy and his parents forty miles north of Renton, at a roadblock set up to check for the missing girls, or suspects. He was wearing the same clothes, and obviously covered in scratches from the thorns. The very fact that they had run away didn’t sit well with the authorities, and attention began to focus on him.

But that didn’t stop them hauling us all in for the trip to the County seat, at White Oaks. Things had escalated overnight, and the small town Police Department led by Sheriff DeWalt was not considered to be up to the task of a double investigation. Dad took time off from work, and drove me to White Oaks to give my deposition. He had got me a lawyer, just in case, and that guy told me to say as little as possible, but to tell the truth.

I was upset by everyone telling me to tell the truth. As I told them, that was all I had been doing up to now.

With school still out for the summer, it was hard to have to stay around the house and not be able to see my friends. Mom rang in to where she worked part-time, and they understood her need to take personal time until things calmed down. She suggested a visit to Donna’s parents, but Dad was adamant that would be a bad thing. “They have enough to worry about, losing their girl. The last thing they need is us turning up. Besides, I doubt Sheriff DeWalt would be too pleased if we did that”.

And we had to deal with reporters and TV crews too. They came from as far away as Renton, trying to get me to say something. When they set up camp outside most of our houses, one of the deputies had to move them on, as far as the edges of the properties at least. Then the phone calls started. At first, they were mostly sympathetic. Friends and neighbours asking if I was alright, and trying not to pry too much. Later, there were the disturbing calls. Unknown voices screaming that I should tell the truth about what had happened. Threats about what was going to happen to all of us who were there that Sunday.
Even someone saying they would burn the house down.

Responding to the third call from my Dad, Vince DeWalt drove out to the house to talk to us. The best he could come up with was that Dad should contact the phone company, and change our number. Mom decided to leave it off the hook instead, hoping things would calm down soon.

The search for Melanie continued, with the State Police bringing in special dog teams. Meanwhile, more facts about Donna started to get leaked. After the newspapers had spent two days speculating, County Police released an official statement. The cause of her death was drowning. They classified it as a murder though, as she was found naked, and covered in bruises. The medical examiner had found signs of sexual assault too, so they were investigating known offenders and not ruling out anyone.

The fact it could no longer be called an accident set off a spark in town. Riverdale had a small population, and it wasn’t known for being easily riled. But small crowds began to appear outside the Sheriff’s Office, and at the Town Hall too. Mayor Jenkins seemed at a loss to be able to cope, and passed everyone on to the Sheriff. When Mom went to buy groceries, people looked at her funny, and she saw them whispering about us out of the corner of her eye. At the lumber yard, Dad’s workmates were happy to believe that I had nothing to do with it, at least to his face.

Eddy Silverman’s Dad owned a small watch repair and jewellery shop. He also sold gifts for special occasions, and did engraving on trophies. They were the only Jewish family in town, perhaps in the whole county, and nobody had ever troubled them about that before. But now nobody would go into the shop, even when it was reported that Eddy had left the river before anything happened. I found out just how soon people can turn nasty, when something unexpected happens.

They were hungry for an arrest, and didn’t seem to care who got arrested.

Dad came home from work that night and told us about Tommy. When he had got home, still acting crazy and unable to make any sense of what had happened, his parents had quickly arrived at the conclusion that he was somehow involved. In a moment of madness, they decided to try to run, and make it to Canada. They must have been insane to think that they could get across two-thirds of the country without being stopped, but they tried anyway. Tommy was now in the hospital at White Oaks, undergoing evaluation for mental illness. His worried parents got off with a warning, followed by a strict telling off from Vince DeWalt. After that, they shut themselves in the house, and wouldn’t speak to anyone.

As for Freddie and Duke, nobody had seen them since we had left the Sheriff’s Office that night. We had been made to give our statements at different times, so that there was no chance of us seeing each other. Frankie’s Dad, Mr Hayes, ran the car dealership on the road leading to the Interstate. He didn’t show up there, leaving his salesman Harley to cope with all the reporters, and riled-up townsfolk. When the reporters turned up at Duke’s place, his step-dad threatened them with a shotgun, and Deputy Tyler had to drive out and calm things down.

Things were getting real tense around the town, and there was a feeling that something had to give, and soon.

Then on the third day, they found Melanie.

The dogs had been searching the riverbank for evidence of anything, when one of them took off straight up the path to Old Man Henderson’s barn. It had already been searched the night everything happened, but not with dogs. When the Police Dog stood and barked next to some wood in the corner, the handler ordered a full search.

Under the planks they found some disturbed earth, and Mel’s naked body in a shallow grave.

The State Police turned up at Old Man Henderson’s place with a search warrant. It took us all a while to find out what had gone on, but Vince DeWalt had a quiet word with my Dad later that week. He said he wanted to lay it all to rest, so everyone in town could get on with their lives. He also mentioned that Melanie had not been molested, as he put it. Her cause of death was strangling, and by hands too. Dad was sworn to secrecy about that of course, but he didn’t reckon that meant me and Mom. Not after what we had already been through,.

Behind the old farmhouse, they found a rusty oil drum containing Donna’s swimsuit, and Mel’s too. They were just dumped in there, in plain sight. Henderson denied knowing anything of course, and said he had never seen the items of clothing before. But he had a poor alibi for that Sunday, as he claimed to have been fishing west of White Oaks, but didn’t have anyone to back up his story. Besides, that was on the same river, and only twenty miles or so from Riverdale.

When they took him in for questioning, they also dug up a juvenile record, in another state. Allegations of improper conduct with women when he was younger, a long time before he moved down here and bought the land. Even though he was sixty-six years old, not as old as I had expected him to be, he was judged to still be strong enough to overpower two girls easily, and became the main suspect.

That may have taken all the pressure off of us, but I let it be known that it didn’t sit well with me. It was glaringly obvious that nobody with half a mind would just leave the dead girls’ things where they could so easily be found. And what had actually happened that Sunday? We still didn’t know. There had been three boys and two girls at the swimming spot, so if Henderson was guilty, where had the boys got to? And how had Tommy ended up in that condition?

If I could ask myself all those questions, how come professional police officers were so ready to believe the worst of Henderson? The Sheriff told my Dad that they thought Tommy had witnessed something that had made him lose it. That might have been so, but what about Duke and Freddie?

The two-faced townspeople were happy to accept that the grumpy old farmer was in the wrong. He had never been popular, and the fact he never went to church and was so anti-social had been the cause of gossip long before things got so bad in the town. I couldn’t shake the idea that something was very wrong, and resolved to go and talk to Vince DeWalt. I didn’t mention anything to my parents, and walked into town alone.

He agreed to see me in his small office at the back, next to the three cells that he used to lock up drunks or troublemakers. I repeated the concerns that I had about how Henderson could have done all that with three boys around, and that as far as I knew, his name hadn’t been mentioned by any of us. Vince listened to me very carefully. He employed his wise nodding once again, something I was sure he did to cover up when he was wrong about something, but didn’t want to let on.

“Well Clayton, you are quite the detective, I see. When you finish college, you should come work for me. I thank you for coming to talk to me about this, but the State Police are in charge now, so I guess we just have to let them go about their business in their own way. As far as your friends’ stories go, well they are part of the evidence in these two cases, and I’m not about to discuss them with you. I know you were sweet on Melanie, but you have to let us do our jobs. Just be grateful the heat is off you boys now”.

As I walked home, I thought about going to see Duke or Freddie, but I knew their parents would make a fuss, and I couldn’t handle any trouble at home.

On the next Saturday evening, Reverend Powell held a special service for the girls, and the whole town turned out. The bodies couldn’t be released from the County Morgue until any trial, so with no funerals allowed, the Reverend thought some kind of memorial would be something to heal the wounds in the town. Still, it was suggested that none of us boys went along. Despite Henderson being held in custody at White Oaks, Powell thought it was for the good of the community that the three of us stayed home.

They charged Old Man Henderson the following Monday. Two counts of murder one, and no bail, as he was deemed to be a flight risk. According to those who had turned up in court to watch, his lawyer argued about the lack of any real evidence, and the fact that the police had stopped investigating anyone else for the crimes. It had all been too quick, in their rush to close the case, and get someone under arrest. The newspapers and TV news had a high old time of it. Interviewing people who had only bad things to say about Henderson, and hinting at the juvenile stuff about him showing himself to women in a public park when he was still a teenager.

By the time it came to the trial in Renton, he was as good as guilty, as far as everyone in town was concerned.

Everyone except me.

When we went back to school, we had already been cautioned not to discuss the case. Tommy was still in hospital, and nobody knew when he was being let out. Most of the other kids continued to ignore us. We were so far out of the social circle, that even though they were bursting to ask us about what had happened, they refused to lower themselves to be seen to talk to us.

I caught up with Duke at lunchtime, but he waved me away as soon as I started to talk to him, then turned his back on me. Eddy didn’t show up for school at all. Talk was that Mr Silverman had sent him to live with relatives in Florida, and he was never coming back. Freddie was friendlier, but also flatly refused to talk about what had happened to the girls. “Clay, they’ve got Old Man Henderson now. Just let it go. Nothing good can come from going over it”. I had known those boys since I could walk, and I just knew they were both keeping something from me.

When home time came, I wrote a note, and handed it to Freddie so nobody could overhear me if I spoke. What I wrote was clear enough.
‘Meet me at the river, Saturday morning. Usual spot. Bring Duke.’

I got there at nine, in case they were early.

When they hadn’t shown up by midday, I knew they weren’t coming.

There is something about boys, and friendship. Girls can have a falling-out, then make up by the weekend. They can say and do the most hateful things, which are then forgotten in a heartbeat. But I soon learned that this doesn’t happen with boys. Or men. Once something strains long term friendships, or an issue comes between a close-knit group, the damage is done, and can never be healed.

As the leaves began to turn, the heat came back. Not the good summer heat, with the clear air and blue skies, the oppressive heat. When it feels like a storm is coming, but never arrives. The flat sky has little colour, and a short walk has you sweating through your T-shirt until it clings to your chest. The weather reflected my mood as that year drew to a close, when breathing seemed to come harder, and the future was uncertain for all of us.

I could feel the change in me, just as I felt the change in the temperature. We had all grown up that last summer, and sleepless nights in the airless heat meant long hours of reflection about how things had turned out so differently to how I had expected.

I carried on going to the river, and that same spot where it all began. As the weather cooled, I watched the birds flying south overhead, and thought about how quickly friendships can vanish. Frankie had taken to nodding at me as I passed him in the corridor, and Duke spent as much time away sick from school as he did in it. The only news about Tommy was all bad. He was being kept in hospital now that the treatment hadn’t worked. People smiled grimly as they walked past his parents in town.

Nobody really knows what to say in situations like that.

One day I got caught in a heavy shower as I sat on the bank, and decided to take shelter in Old Man Henderson’s barn, just like we used to. I ducked under the crime scene tape, and stood looking at the spot where they had dug up Melanie. People said I was sweet on her, but they got that from her. It was the other way round. She had a thing about me since we were ten years old, and always just happened to be in the same places. “What ya doing, Clay? Where you heading to, Clay?” Mel was always there.

I liked her well enough. She was heavier than all the other girls, but I didn’t mind that at all. The weight on her face made her skin look good, and her smile was cute. And she developed faster, in those places where it mattered to boys. But I was never really sweet on her, not like everyone thought.

They hadn’t filled in the dirt, and as I stared into that small space, I wondered how it must have felt for her that Sunday.

Once it got cold enough to wear my padded coat, Old Man Henderson stood trial in Renton. People in town grabbed the papers every evening, keen to read what had happened in court that day. Against the advice of his lawyer, he took the stand to deny everything. But that left him open to some awkward questions about not having an alibi, and the judge ruled they could ask him about his juvenile record too. The prosecutor suggested he was exposing himself to the girls, and it had all gone wrong. It was claimed he killed both girls so they wouldn’t tell on him.

I was no expert, but I reckoned he was railroaded on flimsy evidence.
Still, when he got ninety-nine years with no parole, it certainly put an end to the matter as far as the people of Riverdale were concerned.
But not for me. I let everyone know I didn’t believe a word of it. Folks said he was lucky we no longer had the death penalty in the State, or he would have fried for sure. They told me to let it go, to stop talking about it. Then Dad got involved, ordering me to never mention it again, and told me I was upsetting Mel’s and Donna’s parents. So I did as I was told, and got on with my life.

They had both funerals in the church at the same time, and this time we were allowed to go. I went with Mom and Dad, and Frankie showed up with his family. But Duke was nowhere to be seen. People said he might still be sick.

Dad got me a weekend job at the lumber yard. He said if I saved some money, he would match that, and I could get a car. The thought of being able to drive started to occupy every waking minute. I had hardly ever been anywhere, and I imagined myself just driving in any direction, and never stopping. We had been to South Carolina to see Grandma, before she died. But I hardly remembered anything about that trip, as I was so young. I did remember it was hot, and there was a beach where I played. And there were fancy trees that my Dad told me were Palmetto trees. I couldn’t say the word properly, and Mom laughed. Maybe when I had that car, I could go back there.

But I never did.

Working with men at the yard was a new experience for me. They expected you to work hard, and not complain. And they talked about man stuff. How their wives were no longer attractive, and how their kids talked back to them. Football and baseball, drinking bourbon and beer, and sexy film stars. They didn’t include me, but didn’t exclude me either. And nobody ever talked about that Sunday when I was around. They knew my Dad worked there, but didn’t mind speaking about him to me, taking it for granted I would keep my mouth shut. The work mostly involved stacking the cut planks onto trucks. I had to buy some really heavy-duty gloves to protect my hands from the splinters, and at times the monotony drove me crazy. I had to switch my mind to other thoughts, and those thoughts were mostly about the happier times down by the river.

It was hot early that year, and Spring felt more like Summer. I got my licence, and Dad drove me up to White Oaks where he knew someone who was selling a reliable car. I would have liked something sportier, and something that wasn’t dark green. But Dad shook on the deal on my behalf, and handed over the cash. He handed me the keys with a grin. “Be careful now son. Take it easy at first, and try not to get yourself lost”.

I drove west, to the fishing lakes outside White Oaks, and sat in the car by the picnic tables.

I tried to imagine Old Man Henderson fishing there that Sunday, with no idea about what was going to happen to him.

Having the car was great at first. I spent all my spare cash on gas, and drove all over the state in my free time. Not that I had much free time, as I was still working at the lumber yard, and that took care of my weekends. I also discovered that driving alone is not that much fun. Going out with your friends in the car is what it’s all about, and as far as I could tell, I no longer had any friends. Duke came back to school looking thin and tired, and he still wasn’t interested in talking. Freddie started dating Sally O’Connor, which was a surprise. She was one of the popular girls. Always on the sports teams, and with a big group of friends, Freddie was the last guy I expected her to like.

Dad wanted to talk to me about college, and sat me down for one of his awkward man-to-man talks. I shocked him by saying I wanted to study law, at the nearby college in White Oaks. I could drive up there, and wouldn’t need to move out. He didn’t seem to know what to say, and when I asked him what he thought, he looked really uncomfortable. “I kinda thought you might consider joining the Army, son. It can be a good career for a young man”. I looked at him across the table, and realised he didn’t know me at all. His suggestion also made me wonder if him and Mom wanted me to move out, and have some time on their own.

I had taken it for granted that they would welcome my decision. Something else I got wrong.

College was like a breath of fresh air. I hardly knew anyone, except for some of the Riverdale girls who had never spoken to me anyway. Freddie and Duke had supposedly decided not to go to White Oaks, and it took me a while to discover that Freddie had decided to skip college completely, and work with his Dad at the car dealership. His time with Sally had been short-lived, when she had moved on to someone with better teeth, and better prospects. Duke had gone to live in Renton, to work in an engineering company there. His step-dad had fixed it up, and got him a room at a relative’s place too. I drove past Mr Hayes’ car place one morning, and saw Freddie standing there in a suit and tie that seemed too big on him. He was shaking the hand of an old guy I didn’t know, and I guessed they had just agreed a deal on the pickup truck next to them.

It would be a long time before I ever saw Duke again.

Although I was happy enough at college, I still didn’t make many friends. Mainly because I was driving home every evening, and never participated in any of the sports. I had only just got a good enough diploma to allow me in to study law, and the work was harder than I had expected. The department was small, and most of the students were male back then. Only two girls went to my class, and they were pretty snooty types. Everyone seemed to grasp it faster than me too. Sometimes, I got out of the house with my books, and went down to the river to study in the fresh air. But that was too distracting, as I would always start to think about what happened.

Working at the lumber yard every weekend didn’t help. I missed most of the social events around college, and always had to study late into the night during weekdays. One day in class, the teacher asked each of us to stand up and explain why we wanted to study law, and what we hoped to get out of it. Most talked about working as a Public Defender or Prosecutor, and a couple whose Dads were lawyers mentioned going into private practice. When It got to my turn, I said I wanted to become a Police Officer, maybe a Deputy Sheriff in Riverdale. I could hear them snickering behind me at that, and the teacher looked unimpressed.

Still, the next Spring, I got myself a girlfriend. Not one of the girls from College, none of them seemed interested. No, she was a waitress at a diner in White Oaks. I sometimes went in there for breakfast, to check over my work. She used to smile at me, and never minded that I didn’t leave her a big tip. One morning, she asked me if I had seen the film playing in town, and I shook my head. “Well I haven’t seen it either, so maybe we could go together?” It had never occurred to me that she was interested, and I blushed at being more or less asked out on a date by a girl. Of course I agreed, and arranged to pick her up. She wrote down her phone number and address on a napkin, and directions to her place too. I told her I worked at weekends, so we settled on Friday night.

So Lauren Ressink became my first date. Almost two years older than me, the same height, and a heavy build, I wondered if she reminded me of Mel, and that was why I had agreed. But she was very different to Melanie. Confident to the point of being a little bossy, she told me not to be late, and to be sure to bring her some candy. I wasn’t sure if she was joking or not, but the prospect of having a real girlfriend overwhelmed any indecision on my part.

Mom told me I was wearing too much cologne, which made Dad laugh because I hardly needed to shave anyway. “The poor girl will need a gas mask, Clay. Go and wash some off”. I bought a nice box of mixed chocolates, and got to her street fifteen minutes early. I sat in the car and waited until I was just five minutes early. Dad had warned me not to appear to be too keen. “Act cool, son. Girls don’t like to have a doormat for a fella”. Lauren’s Dad answered the door, and he was a lot friendlier that I thought he might be. He shook my hand, and asked my name. “Clayton Farlowe, sir. From Riverdale. He smiled. “Riverdale eh, small town. Hmm. I understand you’re a college man? What are you planning to do with yourself, Clayton?” I felt awkward standing in the hallway clutching the box, and shuffled my feet. “Well sir, I am hoping to become a police officer”.

Before he could tell me what he thought of that, Lauren breezed down the stairs looking like a million dollars in a smart dress and heavy make-up. I thought she was done up pretty fancy for going to see a film, but wasn’t about to mention that. As we walked to the car, her Dad called from the front porch. “Make sure you have my girl back by midnight young man”.

I was left in no doubt that Lauren had dated other guys. She talked all the way to the movie house, as if it was required to tell me her life history in ten minutes. “You’re the first college man I ever dated, Clay. I’ve had enough of guys who want to take me to a bar and drink beer, and who work at the slaughterhouse or water pumping station. I may be just be a waitress, but I want something better out of life, and no mistake. I read books, and know something about the world. I don’t intend to get stuck in White Oaks for the rest of my life, I can tell you that”. As I parked the car, I couldn’t help but wonder what she would make of Riverdale. But it was only our first date, so I said nothing.

Lauren offered me a chocolate from the box, but I shook my head. “They’re for you”. She took me at my word, and ate them all before the film was halfway through. I didn’t really watch the film. Instead, I sat looking at the side of her body and her legs, occasionally illuminated by the light from the screen. I started to think about what she would look like without that dress on, and whether or not I should slip my arm around her and try to kiss her. I never did muster up the courage though, and to this day I still don’t recall a single thing about that film.

Back in the car, she checked the tiny watch she was wearing. “It’s early yet. Why don’t we go for a drive? I know somewhere quiet”. She gave me directions until we arrived at a picnic spot close to the river. It wasn’t that far from where I had sat in the car that day, thinking about Old Man Henderson. When I switched off the engine, she turned and grinned. “Let’s get in the back, more comfortable there”.

I would like to say that we made love on my back seat that night. But that would be a lie. She grabbed me and started kissing me, pressing me so close I could hardly breathe. To say she got me aroused with all the stroking and squeezing was an understatement. Then she whispered “You got a rubber, yes?” I had to admit I didn’t. The last thing I had expected on a first date was for the girl to be sprawled on the back seat of my car with her legs in the air, and her panties in her hand. I expected her to think I was a loser, and to be annoyed. But she seemed pleased. “Not done it before? That’s okay. It’s actually kinda cute. You got a handkerchief? ” I produced a clean handkerchief from my pocket, and she opened it around her hand. When she unzipped my fly and started to stoke me, it happened so fast she squealed excitedly. “Oh man, you really needed that”.

I dropped her off outside her house before eleven forty-five. She leaned over and kissed me goodbye, then whispered in my ear as I got out to open the door.

“Next time, Clay, bring some rubbers”.

Lauren and I became a habit. I suppose you could say she was my girl. Every Friday, and sometimes on a Sunday night, I would drive over to pick her up. If we didn’t go to a movie, there wasn’t much else to do. She never wanted to go for food or ice cream, because she worked in a diner all day. Inevitably, we would end up at the picnic grounds, making out in the back of my car. She had stopped talking about seeing the world, and started to talk a lot about what happened when I finished college. It had never occurred to me that she thought of us as a long-term thing, and came as something of a shock when she asked why I had never taken her to see my parents.

Meanwhile, I was doing better at my studies. It had started to fall into place for me, and although I still found some parts hard, I was getting a good enough average to graduate, if I kept on at that same level. As I had no intention of going on to do any further studies in law, it didn’t matter that I didn’t get any distinctions. I was happy to let the smart kids boast about their high grades.

As promised, I took Lauren to meet my folks one Friday evening. Mom was excited. “Well, it’s about time, after all these months”. Dad was suspicious, and took me to one side. “Tell me you haven’t got the girl in trouble son”. A big spread was laid on, and Lauren dressed up as if she was going to a fancy ball. She even brought flowers for Mom, and that went down well. Part of me hoped they wouldn’t like her. I had started to feel a little trapped in our relationship, as it always seemed she called the shots. But what young man is going to turn down an eager girl in the back of his car? Certainly not me.

Mom and Dad liked her right off. Mom stood behind her at the dinner table and gave me the thumbs up. And when Lauren insisted on helping Mom wash and dry the dishes, Dad leaned over to speak quietly in my ear. “She’s a keeper, Clay. I tell you, a good one”. They couldn’t have known then that their very approval was the last thing I wanted to hear. I liked her a lot, but I had no intention of her becoming my fiance, or wife. I left early to take her home, and she asked me to take her somewhere quiet. “You know, some nice place where we can celebrate”.

I knew what she meant by a quiet place, but her use of the word celebrate worried me a lot.

I drove off the road close to the river, and parked on some grass near our old spot. Instead of getting in the back as usual, I sat and told Lauren about what had happened that Sunday. She said she had heard about the case when Old Man Henderson stood trial, but had no idea I had been involved. “So you knew the girls, Clay? Everyone in the diner talked about that. It was horrible. That nasty old man”. I polished the story a little, making out that I was much closer to Melanie than I had been. And then I told her that I didn’t believe Henderson had anything to do with it. She shook her head. “No, Clay. They found the swimsuits at his place, and he was known for bothering girls and ladies. It was all in the papers”. I tried to explain that it had all been too easy, too obvious. But she argued against me, even though she had only heard gossip.

By the time we had finished talking, it was too late to get in the back, and she acted miffed all the way back to her place.

The following week, I didn’t go into the diner for breakfast. On Friday, I phoned and told her I was having trouble with the steering on my car, and wouldn’t be able to drive back later that night. She went and asked her Dad if he would bring her down to Riverdale instead, and I was relieved when he told her no. We talked on the phone for a while, and I promised I would get the car fixed over the weekend. When she phoned on the Sunday, I said it was too expensive to fix, and I didn’t have the money right now. I would have to get the bus into college, and that meant we would have to wait to see each other.

I left it five days before I phoned again. Her Dad answered, and said she had gone out with a friend from work. I never heard from Lauren again.

Despite thinking I had a lucky escape, I did miss her. Well, I suppose to be honest I only missed the sex. It wasn’t like we talked much. I carried on working at the lumber yard and studying hard. Mom and Dad guessed things hadn’t worked out, and to my great relief, they decided not to ask me about her. The rest of the year just slipped past, the way years tend to do when you are not really thinking about them.

At the end of Spring Break the following year, I went and sat by the river again. I watched the water bubbling around the rocks for a while, then something came over me. I pulled off my shoes and socks then rolled up my jeans. The cold water made me catch my breath as I waded in, but I soon got used to it. I walked up to the swimming place, with no real idea why. The deeper water there wet my jeans, but I carried on. I walked all the way to where the railroad bridge crossed over, and sat looking at the spot where they had found Donna. I tried to imagine her propped against the heavy wooden support. She would have been very white, and looked pretty skinny too, I reckoned. A goods train passed over the tracks above, shaking down dirt and dust. That snapped me out of my thoughts.

The next day after college, I drove over to the Sheriff’s Office and asked to see Vince DeWalt. Since the murders, the town had made more money available for policing, and there were two new deputies. One was Vince’s daughter, Olivia. She was a mean-looking woman, almost as big as her Dad. People knew she lived with Velma, a black girl who worked at the motel cleaning rooms. They said they were just room-mates, but nobody was fooled. Vince kept me waiting twenty minutes, then waved me into his office. “What can I do for you, Clay?”

I was up front. I told him I was studying law, and asked if he had a job for me when I graduated. When he hesitated, I reminded him. “Remember when I spoke to you about Old man Henderson? You said I should come work for you. So I am am taking you up on that offer, if the offer is still good”. He did that familiar nodding, as he thought about his reply. “Tell you what, Clay, you come see me after your graduation. If you still want the job, I will send you to Renton for training, and all being well, you can come work for me. But think about if you really want to. Don’t forget you know folks here. Being a cop in a small town is not for everyone, I tell you”.

I stood up, and extended a hand. He gave the handshake without standing up. As I left his office, I turned in the door.

“It’s what I want, Sheriff, I will be back after graduation”.

I worked my last shift at the lumber yard the week before graduation. The manager told me I could come back and work for him anytime. “You did well, Clay. You’re a good worker, and always welcome back here”. I thanked him, and didn’t bother to say I would never be coming back. I had saved a decent amount of money, and was thinking about getting myself a different car once I started work. Mom and Dad were none too enthusiastic about my choice of career. Mom thought it was a waste of my law studies, and Dad had the same worries as the Sheriff. “But Clay, you know so many people in town. If you want to be a cop so badly, why not join the State Police in Renton?” They didn’t understand that I wanted to stay close. I needed to.

My parents attended the graduation ceremony, and insisted on the usual photos in the gown and hat. Inside, they were proud of me, I knew that. But they had asked a lot of awkward questions about why I had so few friends, and why I never got another girlfriend after Lauren. I was evasive with my answers. I couldn’t very well say that I just didn’t need people around anymore. Those few years had made me happy enough in my own company. Involving others in my life just complicated things.

No time was wasted in going to see Vince. He congratulated me, and shook my hand. Then he handed me a stack of forms to fill out, and warned me that there would be a background check, and I had to have my fingerprints taken. “If everything checks out, I will arrange for you to go up to the training school in Renton. But you will have to buy your own uniform, and a gun too. Hoogstraten is coming up for retirement soon, so I will bring him into the office for his last year. You can take his place out on patrol”. I took the forms to fill out at home, and as I walked to my car I thought of the cost of all that uniform, and a handgun. Looked like I wouldn’t be getting that new car after all.

It took over a month to process my application, and I got a letter with a start date two weeks later. I would have to live in the dormitory at Renton, and be away for twelve weeks. The cost of the training would be paid for by the Sheriff’s Office in Riverdale, and as long as I passed with no problems, I would get a contract to sign.

After my home town, Renton seemed big and busy. It wasn’t of course, and even though it called itself a city, it was no bigger than most large towns in the state. I just wasn’t used to them. The training school taught the basic course, so there were new entrants from the State Police, County Police, and another couple of would-be Sheriff’s deputies like me. We were looked down upon, as if we were small-town hicks, but that didn’t bother me.

It was more boring than I had expected. Traffic laws, arrest procedures, warrants, and lots of paperwork. There was also some PT, as well as being taught self-defence, and how to take someone down who was resisting arrest. First Aid, and how to call for assistance or an ambulance was all covered in one short morning session.

The latter half of the course was more interesting. Giving evidence in court, some role play outside, and then we got to training with our nightsticks, pepper spray, and finally the shooting range. I was only an average shot, according to the instructor. That didn’t bother me, as I had no intention of ever firing my pistol anyway. Besides, there was a shotgun in the patrol car, and I reckoned I could hardly miss with that. We all passed, and there was a low-key parade, where we received our certificates. I didn’t tell my parents about that, as there was no need for them to go all that way to watch me take some paper from the hand of a guy I hardly knew.

The day after I got home, I took my certificate into Vince, and he gave me a big smile as he shook my hand. “Welcome to Riverdale Sheriff’s Office, Deputy Farlowe”. Then he gave me a contract to sign and a typed list of everything I had to buy before I could start. I whistled when I looked at it. Summer shirts and slacks, Winter pants and a heavy coat. Hats for both seasons, and regulation shoes and boots. Then there was the leather belt rig to hold all the equipment, and last but not least a pistol and holster. I was wondering if I still had enough cash for all that, when Vince started talking again. “It takes around two weeks for the stuff to come from the supplier. Meanwhile, read up on what you learned, and go buy yourself a handgun. I recommend one of these”. He pulled out his .45 automatic, and slapped it on the desk with a grin. “Nice and heavy, so you can use it like a club”.

Dad wanted to take me to the gun dealer, but I drove out there on my own. I was going to be a deputy, and look out for myself. The last thing I wanted was my Dad taking over things like he always did. I settled on a .38 revolver instead of an automatic. If I ever had to use it, I didn’t want it jamming on me. When I told the guy in the shop it was for police use, he gave me a discount, and let me have one hundred rounds of ammunition for the price of seventy. Then he sold me a holster with a leather safety strap that went over the hammer, so it wouldn’t fall out if I was running. When I got home, I looked at the pistol in its box for a while, then put it away until my uniform arrived.

Now it all felt very real.

With time to kill until my stuff arrived, I felt the river beckoning. Most days, I would take a sandwich and flask down there, and just sit, thinking.

When I got back from training, Dad had told me that Old Man Henderson’s appeal had been denied. It had been in the paper.

I watched a heron fly away from the bank, and guessed he would die in jail after all.

Trying on the uniform made me feel very grown up. Especially the hat. I bought myself some mirror-lens sunglasses too, to complete the look. Driving into work wearing the belt rig and the pistol in the holster felt strange that first day. Vince seemed amused to see me looking like that, and raised his hands. “Oh my Lord, look what we have here! Deputy Farlowe, all growed-up and looking for all the world like a real po-lice-man”. He opened a drawer and handed me two bright badges. One was to wear pinned to my shirt, the other to go on my hat. They looked just like the badges worn by Sheriffs or Marshals in western films, and I didn’t hesitate to get them fixed on.

I spent the morning with Hoogstraten. He showed me where all the forms and paperwork was kept, and how to lock somebody in one of the cells if I had to. He seemed pleased to be off patrol, and was exceptionally friendly. I had brought a sandwich for lunch, and Vince told me I would be riding with him that afternoon. “You can drive me around, Clay, get the feel of things. I reckon you should be good to go by next week, then you can try things on your own”.

Once we were out in the car, I saw the other side of Vince DeWalt. he talked a lot about taking no nonsense, and making sure people knew who was boss. “Anyone talks back to you, Clay, don’t be scared to give them a good whack with your stick. I’ll always back up your side of things”. He told me to drive out to the gas station on Forest Road. That was on the road to the Country Club, and he said if we sat in the car out back we would be sure to catch some speeders there, late afternoon. I asked if he kept the radar gun in the trunk, and he roared with laughter. “Radar gun, boy? We don’t need no radar gun. We say if someone was driving too fast, and that’s the end of it”. I could see that studying law had been superfluous. We operated by a different set of laws.

Vince DeWalt’s laws.

After ten minutes sitting supposedly out of sight, Vince sent me in for coffee and donuts. I poured two coffees into styrofoam cups, and went up to the counter. Bernice looked at me funny, and I realised she hadn’t recognised me. “And two donuts please, bear claws”. As she put them into a paper bag, Bernice grinned. “So it’s you, Clay. Didn’t know you were working with Big Vince now”. I offered some dollar bills in payment, and she put her hands on her hips. “Come now, you know you boys never pay”. I felt embarrassed, but had learned another lesson. Cops in Riverdale don’t pay for stuff. I hadn’t known that, but wasn’t about to argue the case with Bernice.

Forest Road was quiet, and I saw Vince check his watch a few times, shifting his weight in the seat. A convertible went past, music playing on the car radio, the driver with a big smile on his face, and a girl in the front passenger seat with her head thrown back, laughing at something the driver was saying perhaps. Vince slapped my thigh. “Get going, Clay. He’s your first speeding ticket”. The limit was forty, and I guessed the driver wasn’t doing a great deal over that. But I did as I was told, and pulled out behind the car, turning on the lights and siren. Expecting a chase, I got up a good speed, and felt the short thrill of going too fast on a road I knew well. I soon caught up to the convertible.

He stopped the car so quickly, I almost ran into the back of him. Following procedure, I called up on the radio, advising Milly I was stopping a car, and asking her to check the plates with County. She sounded surprised. “Are you still with Vince, Clay?”. I confirmed I was, and the Sheriff started to chuckle. “No need for all that, Clay. Just get up there and give him a ticket”. I put on my sunglasses, and approached the car with my hand close to my holster. We had been shown this many times during training, and it felt pretty cool to actually be doing it for real.

The guy driving the car was still smiling. He looked to be about thirty, though the girl with him was a lot younger. “Is there a problem, officer?” I stood up straight, and removed my notebook. ‘Licence and registration please, sir”. He handed them over without hesitation. I reckoned he was used to being stopped like this. “You were driving over the forty limit for this road, so I’m afraid I am going to have to give you a ticket for that”. He just shrugged.

After writing everything down, I filled out the speeding ticket, gave him a copy, then reeled off how he should pay, and how long he had to do so. The girl was staring at me as if I was something in a cage at the zoo but the guy didn’t seem at all bothered. Vince suddenly appeared at the passenger side. His booming voice made the girl jump out of he skin, and startled me too. “Out the car! Let’s see if you have been drinking. Get round the front”. The driver had stopped smiling now. From his address, and the shiny new convertible, I guessed he was pretty wealthy and had probably been at the Country Club earlier. He got out quickly, and walked to the front of the car to stand next to Vince.

What happened next was obviously for my benefit. The guy may have had a drink before, but he certainly wasn’t drunk, and didn’t even smell of alcohol. The Sheriff made him close his eyes, then touch his nose with one finger, then another. Then he made him stand on one leg, as he timed that with his wristwatch. The girl was starting to look scared now, probably wondering how she would get home if her date was arrested. Vince continued to speak loudly. “Now, walk that white line at the side of the road there. One foot in front of the other. Nice and slow now”. The driver did as he was told, and Vince walked behind, urging him on. “That’s the way, keep going just like that”. After ten paces or so, I saw the Sheriff’s cowboy boot extend, as he tripped the man. He fell to his left side, extending an arm to stop himself ending up in the scrub.

As he got up, rubbing his hands to shake off the road dirt, Vince was grinning at him. “I will put that down to you falling. I don’t reckon you’re drunk. But I don’t want to see you speeding in Riverdale again, you hear? Off you go now. Take your sweetheart straight home”. When we were back in the car, the Sheriff turned to me with a serious look on his face.

“Like I said, Clay. You have to show them who’s the boss”.

Sheriff DeWalt was true to his word, and sent me out on my own the second week. He kept me off night shift for a while though, until I was feeling confident enough. We used to operate two cars on days, one taking half of the town limits, north or south. Vince’s daughter Olivia was in the second car. Seemed she was going to run alongside the same shifts with me. Luckily, I didn’t have to see too much of her, except at changeover, when we picked up the patrol cars. I was still a bit afraid of her, mainly because I didn’t have the first idea what to say to the scary woman.

I chose the northern patrol, as it would keep me close to the river, and the Henderson farm. Driving around on a regular route only took around forty-five minutes, and I would be back where I started. Hoogstraten told me I could go up as far as the Country Club, and over onto the edge of the Interstate if I wanted. “Try not to get involved in anything outside of our jurisdiction though, Clay. It gets messy once you start dealing with County and the State Troopers”. Vince was supposedly available to back up me and Olivia, when he wasn’t getting a free breakfast from Betsy, or drinking bourbon and milk in Leroy’s Bar.

Obviously, not much happened. I had lived there all my life, so I already knew that. The murders at the river had been the most exciting thing in the history of the town. Riverdale Sheriff’s Office was mainly window-dressing, keeping people happy that they were protected, even though there was nothing to protect them from. I wrote some traffic tickets to make it look like I was earning my pay, and checked on some of the local shopkeepers to let them know I was around.

In my first month, the most exciting thing that happened was a burglary at Widow Claiborne’s place. I got the call on the radio, and rushed up there as if it was life and death. At least it was something to do. The old lady was more excited than scared. “I can’t believe I slept through it all, they broke a window and all. Will it be in the newspaper?” I took a report of what she claimed had been stolen, and looked around at the back of her house. I could see some good shoe-prints, and also fingerprints on the window glass they had smashed to get in. Before I left, she insisted I had some coffee and cake.

I went back to the office to file the report, and asked Milly to contact the County Forensic team. “There’s some good prints out there, and shoe prints too”. Milly smiled. “I will have to run that past the Sheriff, Clay. We get billed by County for all that stuff”. She took my report into Vince’s office, and he returned with her. “Good work, Clay. But that stuff she had stolen will be long gone by now. And even if we catch who did it, she won’t get it back. Likely it was kids anyway, not very professional, don’t you think? And Miss Claiborne wasn’t hurt, was she? Just file it for now, see if there are any other similar cases later on. If she has insurance, she can claim”.

No point kicking up a fuss. It was still Vince’s laws that applied there.

I started to spend more time at the river. Sitting in the patrol car by the old spot, or taking the dirt road on the other side of the bridge, to where the railroad bridge crossed. On my last day shift before Vince said I should try night duty, I saw my first official dead people.

There had been a bad crash at the junction with the Interstate. Olivia had taken the call, and asked for me to go and back her up. By the time I got there, the Fire Department had shown up with their ambulance. A small Volkswagen had been hit by a truck, as it turned onto the Interstate. There wasn’t that much left of the car, but the truck seemed to hardly be damaged. The truck driver looked shaky, but he was talking okay, and giving his version of what happened to Olivia. The bodies had been taken out the car, and were at the side of the road, covered up. I waved the traffic around for a bit, and then Olivia asked me to check the dead couple for any I.D. The man was messy, his head pretty smashed, and lots of blood all over. By contrast, the woman looked like she was asleep. One of the Fire Department guys shook his head. “Shame. Broken neck, I reckon”.

I checked her purse that had been taken from the car, then fished around inside the man’s jacket and found a wallet. They had the same name and address, probably a married couple. The address was out of state, and according to Olivia, that meant County would deal with it. She told the guys to take the bodies to the County Hospital at White Oaks, and she would go back and phone County to hand over the case. Young Clyde Morrison turned up with his Dad’s tow truck, and she told him to load the wreck, and take it back to his garage. “Who’s paying, Olivia?” She shrugged. “Better bill County, Clyde. It’s their case now”. Once the road was clear, I went back on patrol. I was starting to wonder if there was anything we did actually do. No wonder Vince hadn’t been considered capable of dealing with a double murder that day.

Night shift was a real drag. We only had the roadhouse out on Palmer Road and Leroy’s bar to worry about, and hardly anything happened in those places, except maybe at weekends. The motel was usually busy with people passing through, but we rarely got troubled with any calls to there. I checked the locks on the shops and businesses, and wrote that down on my paper log. Olivia was nowhere to be seen, and I guessed she was cuddled up at home with Velma, hardly bothering to drive around. I felt like I was the only one stupid enough to be doing my job. Tyler was supposed to be answering the phone and keeping an ear on the radio. But when I drove past the office, it was in darkness. He was probably asleep in one of the cells.

But I didn’t mind. It was easy money, and I would soon be established and accepted.

Once that happened, I could start to do what I had joined up for.

By the time Summer came around again, it felt like I had always been a deputy. I spoke to Mom and Dad about maybe getting a place closer to town later that year, and they agreed it was probably time for me to move out.The job was second nature by then, and I had slotted into the routine of the shifts. I had even made a couple of arrests. One was a drunk-driver, and the other a guy who beat someone badly in a bar fight at the Roadhouse. Then there were the regular drunks at weekends, but Vince normally let them go in the morning, once they had sobered up.

Everyone had got used to seeing me cruising around in the patrol car, and the local traders liked how I never took stuff for free, and always paid my way.

Then one hot August day, something happened in Riverdale.

I was parked out by the river, staring at the spot where I had seen Tommy sit down in the water, and suddenly Olivia’s voice came over the radio. I could tell from her tone that it was bad, and then Vince came on too, with an ‘all units’ order. Saying ‘all units’ in Riverdale was rather overstating the case. There was me and Olivia out there, and Vince as backup, with Hoogstraten as a last resort. That was it. For the Sheriff to sound so stressed, It had to be something out of the ordinary.

Someone was robbing the bank in town, and Margie had set off the alarm.

I drove faster than I ever had. The bank was a small affair, and barely managed to stay open. There was talk that the head office would close it soon, and folks would have to travel to White Oaks to do their banking. Only two tellers worked there, and they mostly operated with just one position open. Mr Lutz was the manager, an old guy who sat out back, and dealt with loans, foreclosures, and the good customers.

I stopped the car at an angle to block Main Street. Vince and Olivia had already done the same with their cars at the other end. They were both out and kneeling by the car doors, handguns ready. Vince waved me over, and I crouched next to him. My heart was racing, and I had a real tingle of excitement in my gut. Vince looked really calm, and winked at me. “We wait until he comes out, then drop him, okay?” I was wondering whether or not the Sheriff had ever dealt with anything like this before, when the door of the bank opened.

A skinny guy ran out, holding a sports bag. He looked around and didn’t seem to see the police cars, or the fact that there was nobody on the street. As he started to turn and run to his left, Vince and Olivia both started firing. The noise of the gunshots broke the silence, and made me jump out of my skin. I lost count of how many times they fired, but the robber was on the ground long before they stopped. Olivia ran across, covering him with her pistol, and Vince stood up with a big grin on his face.

It was only then that I realised my revolver was still in its holster.

People started to emerge from nearby shops, and peered along the street. Mr Lutz and Margie came out the door to the bank and Mr Lutz clapped Vince on the shoulder. Olivia called me over. “He’s dead, Clay. Check the bag”. I unzipped the bag and found a sawed-off shotgun inside. I cracked it to make it safe, and was surprised to discover it wasn’t loaded. I lifted it to show Olivia, but she shrugged. “Margie weren’t to know, was she? And neither were we”. She took the shotgun from me, as I searched the dead robber. He had nothing on him, and certainly didn’t look like a familiar face from around town.

I was expecting something to happen, but not sure what. An investigation, calling in County, maybe even the State Police. But Vince just handed the bag of money over to Mr Lutz, and smiled at Margie. “You okay honey? Not hurt or nothing?” Margie just grinned. “I’m fine thanks Sheriff”. Then she turned back to Mr Lutz. “We better get back to work”. So, no crime scene, no real investigation. The small truck came from the funeral parlor to take the body away, and the nearby shopkeepers brought out mops to clean up the sidewalk. Olivia found an unfamiliar car parked behind Leroy’s bar. That turned out to have been stolen in Renton two days earlier. Nobody took any photographs, and the only statement from a witness was given my Margie, when Olivia went to the bank close to closing time.

Vince was going back to the office to file a report to be sent to County, and the State Police. But not before he slipped into Leroy’s for a free bourbon and milk. He took the shotgun to be marked as evidence, then sat in the bar with it on the seat next to him. Even after such a startling event in quiet Riverdale, and a man gunned down on the street without so much as a shout of warning, life for Vince carried on as if nothing had happened.

Olivia walked over to where I was standing by my patrol car. “You best get back out on your route, Clay. And next time, at least draw your gun, even if you don’t want to fire it. Okay?”

After driving back across the bridge, I took the dirt road until the path to the Henderson barn. Even though it was still uncomfortably hot, I went into the barn and sat down at the back, thinking.

Things were going to have to change, whether Vince liked it or not.

On a day off, I decided to drive up to County Hospital. I wore my uniform to make it look official, and didn’t tell anyone I was going. Nobody seemed to ever talk about Tommy anymore, and I didn’t feel like bothering his parents. Even though I looked the part when I arrived at the Mental Ward, the staff were unimpressed. They made me fill out a form with my information and the reasons for my visit, and said I had to leave my pistol in a locker at the nurses’ desk. Then they kept me waiting for a long time before escorting me to a room where Tommy was sat in a chair, staring at the corner.

A big male attendant came inside with me, and stood with his arms folded, and his back to the door. I moved the only other chair in the room across next to Tommy, and sat close, speaking in a conversational tone. “Hi Tommy, it’s Clay. Look at me, I’m a deputy now, can you believe that? I work with Big Vince, and I’m still in Riverdale of course, living at my folks’ place. Been thinking about moving into town though, there’s a small apartment for rent over the hardware store, so I would be close to work”. Tommy continued to stare into the corner, not a flicker of recognition on his face.

“Tommy, did you hear they put away Old Man Henderson for Donna and Mel? Looks like the old guy will die in jail. What do you think about that?” Still nothing. I tried again. “It’s me, Clay. Why don’t you look at me, Tommy? You know me. I just wanted to talk to you about that day at the river, and to see how you are doing here. Why don’t you say something?” He suddenly stood up, and without giving me so much as a glance, walked over to the attendant. The big guy looked at me, and nodded. “Looks like your visit is over, deputy. Seems to me Tommy doesn’t want to talk to you”.

As I was waiting for the nurse to get my pistol for me, I called out to her from the small counter. “Tommy wouldn’t speak to me. Is that usual?” The woman came back and handed me the holster, her face was a picture of boredom and indifference. “Never says nothing, that boy. Never has, maybe never will”.

As I drove home, I thought about Tommy not speaking. Maybe that was a good thing for him, I couldn’t be sure. I diverted into town and went to see Mr Lucas. I said I would take the apartment over his shop, and paid a month in advance. He sure looked pleased when he handed me the papers. Having a cop living over your business was better than any insurance policy. The place was furnished, so all I needed was some bed linen, towels, and my clothes. When I told my Mom I was moving out the next day, she didn’t seem surprised.

There were times when I thought they didn’t really like me that much.

Late afternoon, still wearing my uniform, I drove out to Mr Hayes’ car dealership. Freddie was sitting in the office when I walked in, on the phone to a prospect. “I promise you sir, you won’t get a better deal than the one I offered you. Tell you what, you call around. Hell, drive up as far as Renton if you want. If you find the same car at a better price, then I will match that price. What do you say?” Whatever the customer said, Freddie hung up and turned to grin at me. “Clay, don’t tell me you’ve finally decided to get rid of that old man’s ride? Dark green? What were you thinking?”

“You got a Jeep Cherokee, third row back. The red one. Will you do me a deal on that, Freddie?” He seemed relieved that I was there to talk about cars. “Sure I will, Clay. Let’s go look at it”. He picked some keys from a rack at the back, and I followed him out to the car. I wanted something like that Jeep. Four by four, big engine, easy to fix, four doors, and plenty of room. Before Freddie could launch into his usual sales pitch, I put up my hand. “This is me, Freddie. Take my old car as the deposit, and I will fill out the papers for a loan on the rest. You know I’m good for it. And if the car is no good, I know where you are. We’re old friends, so I will trust you not to sell me a piece of junk. Besides, I’ve got a gun now.” I laughed at the way his face fell when I said that. “Come on, Freddie, can’t you take a joke anymore?”

In the office, I watched him as he did the paperwork, then made the phone call to get the loan approved. When he put the phone down, I spoke first. “Just been up to County Hospital, to see Tommy. Thinking of going to Renton soon, have me a good talk with Duke. We never did get to the bottom of what happened that Sunday, did we?” I had wrong-footed him, and it showed on his face. “Well Clay, you know the cops told us we couldn’t talk about the case. I mean, Old Man Henderson was guilty, and he’s in jail now. I don’t see what good can come of going over it again now. Things have changed, and we are all different now. Time to move on and forget that day, don’t you think?” He smiled weakly, sliding the papers across the desk. There was an ‘X’ marked where I should sign, in two places.

I signed, and handed over the keys and registration for my old car.

“No, Freddie. I don’t think that. Not at all. I will be around to see you again, you can count on it”. I grabbed the paperwork, and the two sets of keys for the Jeep, then walked out. As expected, he picked up the phone as soon as I closed the door.

I had a good idea who he was calling.

It was close to three weeks later when I got the chance to drive to Renton to talk to Duke. That wasn’t his real name of course, just something his real Dad called him. Paul Tyson was known to everybody as Duke, even the teachers at school. But when I called County to check on his address through his driver’s licence, I remembered to use Paul. I regretted not being able to get up there earlier, as I was sure Freddie had called him that day I bought the Jeep. I was worried that he had skipped town, and wouldn’t be around to talk to me.

Despite being on a busy street close to the centre of town, the house looked like some run-down shack in a country district. It was the home of Duke’s step-father’s brother, so I guess you could call him a step-uncle. I wasn’t wearing my uniform that afternoon, but I had my badge ready to flash if need be. It took a while for someone to answer my knock. The woman looked to be around fifty, and her clothes were stained. She was smoking a cigarette, and holding the pack and lighter in her hand, ready for the next one. I was very polite.

“Sorry to trouble you, ma’am. My name is Clayton Farlowe, and I’m an old friend of Duke’s from Riverdale. I was up in Renton for something, and hoped to be able to look him up. It’s been a long time since we got to have a good talk”. She didn’t reply, but turned in the doorway, yelling. “Woody! get out here! Someone to see Duke”. She stayed where she was, holding the door almost closed. I could actually smell the man before I saw him. Beer and sweat, overpowering. His clothes were stretched tight across his bulk, and his jowly face was red from the effort of walking from his armchair.

“What d’you want with Duke, boy? He owe you money or something?” I stayed polite. “No sir, nothing like that. We are old friends from school, down in Riverdale. I haven’t had much chance to see him since he moved here. Is he around? Still at work maybe?” The woman exchanged a look with Woody, as she lit a second cigarette from the stub of the previous one. She flicked the butt over my head into the front yard. Pulling up to his full height, the man shook his head. “Duke’s gone, boy. Job didn’t work out. Said something about going north, Chicago maybe. Pay’s better up there, so he said”. The woman turned and walked back inside. I heard the volume on a TV get louder.

“Would you have an address for him, sir? A phone number even?”. The fat man grinned. “Reckon if he wants to speak to you, he will call you”. He closed the door without another word.

When I got back to my apartment, I thought about my old friends. Tommy was not saying anything to anyone, and Duke was running, so he wouldn’t have to talk. I could apply some pressure on Freddie of course, but then I would never know for sure if he was telling the truth. I needed to get them all together, and thrash out the story. But that seemed unlikely to happen, anytime soon. Meanwhile, Mom told me Dad was ill. He was off work, and complaining about finding it hard to breathe. Stubborn as ever, he wouldn’t go see the doctor. I gave her some cash to make up for his lost pay, but couldn’t see any point in talking to him about it. As far as he was concerned, I would always be his kid, and someone like Dad took no advice from kids. Years of inhaling sawdust at the lumber yard, and a fondness for Chesterfields had taken their toll. He wasn’t that old, but he didn’t look too good.

I went back to my routine. For many it might have seemed boring, but it was fine for me.

The years passed. Olivia resigned as a deputy, and went into nursing. I got a new shift partner, Clyde. He looked up to me, though he was older. Vince started to slow down. I knew instinctively he didn’t have too long left in the job. so took my time until his inevitable demise. All those years of free food and bourbon had taken their toll, and I was happy to wait him out. Hoogstraten had taken his pension, and Tyler had no ambition. I was about all that was left, so I reckoned that if I stood for election for Sheriff, nobody would bother to oppose me.

My Dad died less than two years later. He ended up in County Hospital on a respirator, but he had left if too late. Died young, so everyone said. Mom sold up and went to Indiana, to be close to an elderly aunt. That pretty much convinced me she and Dad had never been that bothered about me.

I was left as the senior deputy after Vince. Tyler was looking to go when he could, and marking time. I began to canvass opinion about being elected to Sheriff, once Vince called it a day. The feedback was good, but I knew I had to wait for my time. When Vince had a mild stroke not long before my twenty-seventh birthday, I was confident of getting his job.

And I did.

Now I could start to delve into the available records.


Not long after I became Sheriff, everything started to change. It was no longer viable for a small community like Riverdale to bear the whole cost of running the office. The town was growing, and there were more people to deal with. I had a meeting with the Mayor, and it was decided we would approach County in White Oaks, to talk about becoming part of the County Police. I was keen for that to happen, as it would give us access to all their facilities and resources. Everything we did would carry on as normal, and all that would really change would be that we worked for County, and would come under the authority of the Captain of County Police in White Oaks. We kept the name of Riverdale Sheriff’s Office, just so folks wouldn’t be alarmed by any drastic changes.

I called in my deputies, and gave them what I told them was good news. All the old faces had gone except Tyler, and he was happy at my suggestion that he took care of the office and radio, now that Milly was retiring. We never saw anything of Vince since his stroke, and people said he wasn’t able to leave the house without help. I didn’t think that much about him. He was well past his time, and had enjoyed a good run. He was drawing his pension, and one day his name would fade from memory.

I had spent a long time going through the few records Vince had bothered to keep, and was not at all surprised to discover that they contained only the flimsiest details of that Sunday at the river. So I requested copies of the statements taken by County in White Oaks at the time, and a transcript of the trial of Old Man Henderson. I stayed living above Lucas Hardware, as it suited me, so I laid out all the papers in time order, and spent my evenings poring over them until my eyes hurt.

After all that hard work, I didn’t find out that much. Duke claimed to have left the swimming spot while Freddie was still there, and the girls were still in the water. He didn’t mention me at all, except to say I had stayed at the bank further down. Freddie’s statement was that he had watched the girls swimming, but had decided not to join them. When he suggested moving on, he claimed they had decided to stay in the water, and said they might see him later. He made no mention of me at all. Eddy Silverman stuck to the fact he was suffering from the bug bites, and had gone home before anyone even got into the water. As for Tommy, he was interviewed by a State Psychiatrist, but she recorded that he had refused to say anything. Before the swimsuits were found at the Henderson farm, Tommy had been considered to be the main suspect.

Once the search at Henderson’s revealed the glaringly obvious evidence, everything else had just been filed. All the documents concentrated on the old man as the killer, and mentioned his historical sex offending. During his trial, there was little mention of the rest of us that day, and he continued to claim he was fishing at White Oaks, so knew nothing about what had happened. They used Freddie’s and Duke’s statements to allege that Donna and Mel were alone at the swimming place for an unknown time, and concluded that must have been when Henderson carried out the crime. He was wrapped up and ready for roasting, before he even stepped into the court.

What I read over those weeks was pretty much as I had expected. As soon as Henderson was charged, they had all but forgotten the rest of us were ever there.

It was all boxed up, and sent back to County. I had found out everything I could, and nobody was going to thank me for raking over it after all this time. Freddie and his Dad bought into a second dealership in Fairview, and Freddie left town to run things down there. So I got on with being one of the County Sheriffs, responsible for the same territory. I changed what I could. No more free meals, coffee, or anything else. My deputies had to pay for what they had, or there would be trouble. They also had to stick to procedure, rules of evidence, and reading anyone their rights. No more fake speeding stops, or using their nightsticks for no good reason. As Riverdale grew, I like to think our office grew with it, and finally had some real respect.

That Sunday at the river stayed in my mind as I got older, but work was busy now, with a new mall, and three fast-food joints built out on the road to the Interstate. They relocated the bank to an upgraded site on the strip mall, and the shops in town started to suffer a little. The cafe was struggling, but I always ate there, and paid of course. I didn’t like to see the centre of town looking run down, and unloved. It was still my town, to my way of thinking.

Then not long before my fifty-second birthday, I got a call from the State Police up in Renton. Some detective wanted to come and see me. He was interested in the murders at the river. He told me Old Man Henderson had died of cancer in prison, years earlier. He had lived to be ninety-one, and made a deathbed statement that he was completely innocent, and had been framed. It struck me that I had never been concerned to find out about Henderson in all that time. Nobody had even bothered to tell us he had died. His place was still shut up, and no relatives had ever appeared to claim it.

The detective’s name was Liam Doherty. He told me he specialised in old cases, and unsolved crimes. I told him the Henderson case was solved, and I didn’t see what he hoped to gain from talking to me. “I have gone over that case in detail, Sheriff Farlowe, and it doesn’t ring true to me. I understand you were unhappy about Mr Henderson being a suspect at the time, and I would like to come and talk to you about that Sunday”.

I couldn’t very well say no, so I arranged for him to come on the following Friday.

Liam Doherty had always wanted to be a cop. He joined the State Police as soon as he was old enough, and excelled in the Training School, getting the award for Outstanding Student. For a few years after that, he did the regular duties. Traffic patrol, searches, breaking up fights in Renton, and arresting people wanted on warrants. He played it by the book, and earned a reputation as a straight-up guy.

But there was something about him. He didn’t make friends at work, lived alone, and had an unhealthy obsession with small details. He was often described as ‘picky’, and didn’t hesitate to criticise a colleague if he thought they were doing wrong. After some solid work on a kidnapping case, he got approval to apply to be a detective, qualifying almost three years earlier than was usual. When he moved upstairs, the old hands avoided him, embarrassed by his efficiency and success rate. He couldn’t keep a partner for too long either, as he didn’t appear to work well as part of a team.

When he approached the Captain and asked if he could work on unsolved cases, it came as a relief to the rest of the squad. They gave him his own small office, and delivered stacks of case files that soon lined the walls.

When he solved a fifteen year-old abduction and murder of a teenage girl all by himself, the Captain started to wonder if he had done the right thing. A retired cop was disgraced because of it, and there was a lot of resentment from the others who had worked on that case, and were still around. It was something nobody in the department had ever dealt with before. A detective who was just too good. It didn’t seem natural.

But Liam was oblivious to all the whispering behind his back, as well as being completely unconcerned about his own popularity. Most days he was in the office for at least twelve hours, sometimes more. Or he would be out driving around examining former crime scenes, talking to witnesses who had all but forgotten what happened, and slowly piecing together those old cases like a simple jigsaw. His mind was beyond analytical, it was as if he could look back into the past, and actually see what had happened.

Then one day some of the other cops decided to play a prank on him. They waited until he was out, and delivered almost two hundred case files to his office, stacking them in piles on top of his desk and chair. None of those cases were unsolved, they were all closed and settled. When he asked why they had been allocated to him, Sergeant Rogers smiled. “Well it’s like this, Doherty. Those files are supposedly closed, cases solved. But most of them didn’t seem right to us, so we thought you might like to run your eye over them. No rush, let us know what you think”.

If they thought that was going to upset him, they were very wrong.

Those new cases were just the sort of thing that Liam liked to get his teeth into. To the dismay of the Captain, who hadn’t been in on the supposed joke, four of the first ten cases examined by Doherty had to be re-opened. He had found serious discrepancies, everything from no written record of someone reading a perp their rights, down to some tainted evidence that should never have been presented in court. The squad received a stern warning not to do anything similar again.

But Liam had already started looking at the eleventh file.

More than a quarter of a century after the murders in Riverdale, Liam had to catch his breath at how shoddy the investigation had been. With the first suspect being one of the boys, which from the description of his condition, and the fact that his parents had fled with him to Canada seemed likely. Then they had abandoned that idea after the supposedly incontrovertible evidence had been found at the Henderson house, and focused on the old man. As far as he was concerned, Liam could see no good reason why someone who had killed two girls, and had sexually molested one of them, would be so stupid as to carry their swimsuits back to the house, leaving them in plain sight to be discovered. Especially as he would have had time to dispose of them before the cops ever showed up.

If Henderson had still been alive, Liam would have been advising him to sue his incompetent trial lawyer. And he had also lost the appeal, mainly because everyone had been concentrating too much on that one incident of exposing himself some fifty years earlier. There had been no careful scrutiny of any fingerprints, and no conclusive examination of the bodies of the girls, other than to establish a cause of death. The boys involved had been brought in to give a short statement, then allowed home without being properly interrogated. No effort had been made to substantiate any of their accounts of what had happened that day, and as soon as Henderson was charged, the reports were filed away. Shaking his head, Liam started to make some notes. This was a travesty of justice, as far as he could tell.

More detailed reading late into the night revealed something that interested him a great deal. One of the boys involved had later become a deputy sheriff in the same town, Riverdale. Now he was the actual Sheriff, part of the expanded County Police. His name was Clayton Farlowe. It was easy to get the number, so Liam called him the next day, hoping he would have his own theories on what had happened to the girls. He would arrange to drive down and see him, stop over in a local hotel if necessary.

He expected Sheriff Farlowe to be excited to get the call. But he didn’t seem that interested. Then again, he could hardly refuse to meet with a State Police detective when asked to do so.

Liam was looking forward to next Friday.

I had guessed Doherty would be on time, and he was. He was like no detective I had ever seen before. Stick-thin, and dressed in a dark suit, he looked more like an undertaker than a cop. Cropped black hair, and pale skin that didn’t seem to have ever seen sunlight. He insisted on showing me his shield to identify himself, and refused my offer of coffee. “I don’t drink coffee, Sheriff”. I started to be concerned about him right off. Who doesn’t drink coffee?

He wasn’t a man for pleasantries either. No small talk, straight down to what he had come for.

“Sheriff, I will need to speak to various people around town, and also to Frederick Hayes, who I believe has moved south. I have already contacted County Hospital with a request to go and talk to Thomas Clinton. As for Edward Silverman, I have spoken to him on the telephone, and I am happy with what he told me. I just wanted you to know that I will be around, out of respect for your position here. However, I do not need you to accompany me. I will stay at the motel for now, as I would like to speak to you once I have made my investigations”.

There was something strange about the man. It was as if he wasn’t all there. I had let him ramble on without interruption, but it seemed to me he didn’t really know how things worked outside of Renton. “Detective Doherty, I am sure you will agree that it might be better if I went along with you? People don’t take kindly to strangers in towns like Riverdale, and me being there might make things easier for you”. He carried on staring straight into my eyes as he spoke. “I’m afraid that will not be possible. You were one of the boys at the river that day, and it would not be appropriate for you to listen to what anyone tells me”.

I knew I wasn’t going to like this man. Not one bit.

“Then you do what you have to do, detective, and good luck with that. It all happened a long time ago, and memories play tricks. Besides, you won’t get anything out of Tommy. He’s been on the Mental Ward since that Sunday, and has shut down completely. I tried to get Duke to talk to me, but nobody knows where he is. Last I heard, he had gone to Chicago”. Doherty opened a leather briefcase and removed a slim folder. “Paul Tyson is still in Renton, Sheriff. He works at an engineering company. I have already spoken to him”.

So the couple had lied to me that day. I should have known better than to believe them. I hadn’t bothered to check afterwards, and now this strange guy was making me look stupid.

Removing another folder from his case, Doherty carried on. “Milly Hooper. I understand she was working that night? I have an address for her here in Riverdale, but I have been unable to contact her”. I shrugged. “Milly’s long gone, detective. She seemed like an old lady when I was sixteen. She retired when I became a deputy, and died maybe ten years later. You will only find her in the cemetery”. I was sure he already knew that, and wondered why he had mentioned her. “Pretty much all of them have gone now, Doherty, so other than me and Freddie, I don’t really know who you expect to be able to speak to”.

Sliding his files back in the case, he stood up. “That’s all for now, Sheriff. I will call you in a couple of days to arrange to speak to you. Once I have done what I need to do around here”.
He didn’t offer his hand, so I kept mine in my pocket. I walked out behind him so I could see what car he was driving. The black four-door was a typical detective car, and would be easy to spot around town. I intended to keep an eye on this guy.

Liam drove out to the motel and booked a room for two nights. He had easily spotted the new Jeep Cherokee in his rear-view mirror. Dark Red, and hanging back just far enough not to seem too obvious. When he had turned into the driveway leading to the motel, it had carried on up the road at normal speed. In the room, he unpacked some clothes and hung them up in the wardrobe. But he wasn’t about to leave any personal stuff around. And his files and notebooks would all be locked in the trunk of his car. He knew enough about small town motels to know that the manager wouldn’t hesitate to let a deputy or the Sheriff into his room when he wasn’t there.

There was still plenty of time to drive down to Fairview. Liam called from a public phone rather than use the one in his room. Best if nobody knew who he was calling. He spoke to Hayes, and told him he was on his way. When he drove out onto the road from the motel, he soon noticed the Jeep again, parked to the left of the bridge. But this time, it didn’t follow him.

Freddie Hayes was a lot heavier than he had been in his youth. Marriage and good food had filled him out, and thickened him up. Since his Dad had died, he had expanded the dealership, and was doing real good, as far as he was concerned. The last thing he needed was some pencil-neck cop asking him all kinds of questions about that Sunday. But here he was, sitting across from him at the desk.

“Like I told you detective Doherty. When I got to the deep water, I didn’t really feel like swimming. The girls were in the water for so long I got bored. When I suggested we go into town for some ice cream, they said they wanted to stay in the water. Duke had already left. He was awkward around girls, you know? So I went home. It was awful hot that day, and I went up to my room and lay on my bed. My folks gave a statement that I was home, you must have read that?” Doherty didn’t answer that question, and asked more of his own instead. “What about your friend Tommy? What was he doing all this time?” Freddie smiled. “Well we all knew he was sweet on Donna, and supposed she liked him too. But when we got down there she kind of ignored him. She was chatting and laughing with me and Mel. Tommy got in a sulk, and stomped off into the bushes. I didn’t see him again that afternoon”.

Liam was writing in a notebook, and spoke again without looking up. “And Clayton Farlowe?” Freddie smiled again. “Hell, Clay’s the Sheriff up in Riverdale, you can ask him yourself. Far as I recall, he stayed on the bank at the usual spot. Said he didn’t want to come with us to go swimming”. Still writing, Liam pressed the point. “So you didn’t see him anywhere around the swimming place? According to Paul Tyson, he thinks he saw him heading there as he walked home”. Freddie shook his head. “Nah, Duke’s got that wrong. I was there for a good while. When I left, the girls were still in the water, and Clay wasn’t around. Besides, he was still at the same spot when Tommy showed up, all crazy and cut up. He was the one that went for help”.

The detective closed his notebook and stood up.

“Thanks for your time, Mr Hayes. Be aware I may need to talk to you again”.

Detective Doherty wasn’t fazed by the attitude of the staff at County Hospital. He handed over his service pistol as requested, and filled out the required form.

Tommy was sitting at a table in a small room, flanked by a burly attendant, and the lawyer that Doherty had insisted be present. He opened his notebook and clicked the pen, but before he could say anything, Tommy spoke. The attendant almost fell off his chair. He had worked there for sixteen years, and had never heard a word out of Tommy. The voice sounded much older than the fifty-two years of the man suddenly talking. “You State Police, right? Not Riverdale Sheriff’s Office?” Doherty nodded, and flashed the I.D. in its leather pouch. Tommy didn’t really look at it. “Okay then, but I won’t say anything with these two around”.

Liam was always a stickler for procedure. “I do believe it is in your best interests for you to have a lawyer present”. Tommy shook his head, and the attendant spoke up. “He cannot be alone with you. Don’t care if you’re police or what, he don’t get left unattended. They would have my job if they knew”. The lawyer needed no second bidding to depart, grabbing his bag and leaving the room without so much as a word. He would get paid, either way. Tommy turned to the attendant. “You could stand by the door though, will that work?” The big man shrugged. “Fine with me, long as I don’t leave the room”.

Once the man was over by the door, Tommy beckoned Doherty to lean across the table. He began to whisper, close to the detective’s ear. As he listened, Liam wrote hurriedly in the notebook, worried that the man might stop talking all of a sudden. After a couple of minutes, Tommy sat back, indicating the interview was over by staring vacantly at the opaque window and its white-painted bars. Liam stood up, and the attendant let him out.

By the time it got dark that night, Doherty had also taken statements from former deputy Hoogstraten, and Tyler too. Sitting on his bed at the motel, he reflected on a productive day. Then he phoned the motel desk to extend his stay, before calling in to Renton to advise the Captain he would be there the whole week.

I knew that Doherty would have noticed my Jeep, so the next time I followed him I used a rental car, and wore sunglasses. It didn’t take too long to work out he was heading for White Oaks, and when he took the road for the County Hospital, I knew for sure he was off to see Tommy. I stopped and turned around, heading back to Riverdale. The next time I spotted his car, it was outside Tyler’s house. That guy was sure making himself busy.

When Freddie answered my call the next morning, he didn’t seem too concerned by my question. “Yes, I had a visit from that creepy guy. He was asking what I remembered about that day, Clay. He’s a scary dude, for sure. But like I told him, it was just as we all said back then. None of us were anywhere near the girls, so it must have been Old Man Henderson”. I stayed friendly and cheerful. “If you see or hear from him again, Freddie you be sure to call me, you hear?”

Just before lunch, Doherty came into the office, and asked to see me. When he sat down across from me at the desk, he seemed more affable. “Sheriff Farlowe, I thought it only fair to apprise you of my investigations so far”. I spread my hands, and he opened his notebook. “I have just come from speaking to Mrs Riley, the mother of Paul Tyson. Her recollections of that Sunday are surprisingly clear. She has just told me that her son returned quite late that afternoon. She remembers her ex-husband arguing with him about chores that were not done, and that Paul went out again after the bust-up. He didn’t return home until shortly before a deputy came to collect him to bring him here that night. This doesn’t go with what he told me in Renton, so I wonder what your thoughts are?”

It was like having a conversation with a lizard. His face was expressionless, and his mood impossible to calculate. I wasn’t even that sure if he had actually seen Duke’s mom that morning, and I was beginning to wonder if he had ever spoken to Duke in Renton, as he had claimed to. I had got him wrong. The guy knew his stuff. “Duke was always awkward around girls, detective. He didn’t know what to say to them, or how to act with them. If they fooled with him, he would take it personal. Never saw the joke, you know? But I can’t imagine for a second he would ever have hurt Donna and Mel. I never saw him so much as squash a bug”. His face didn’t move, not a feature. I wasn’t sure the guy even blinked. Was that possible? A human who didn’t blink? Maybe Doherty was a new species. I was still staring at him when he spoke again.

“Sheriff, I think it would be most beneficial to get Paul Tyson down here. Along with you, and Frederick Hayes, we could go out to the river where it happened, and perhaps attempt some reconstruction of the movements of everyone that day. You wouldn’t have a problem with that, would you?” I shook my head. “Course not, but what would be the point? Henderson is dead, and memories can play tricks after so long. Besides, who’s to say whether Freddie or Duke have ever told the truth about that Sunday, and if what they say now is to be believed?” I was waiting for him to mention his visit to Tommy, but he said nothing about that.

Before he could reply, the phone on my desk rang. It was a cop from Indiana. My mom had died. Dropped dead in a line at the Post Office in the town where she lived. They found my contact details in her purse. They wanted me to fly up there and arrange her funeral. I hung up, and looked over at Doherty.

“It will have to wait. I’ve got to go to Indiana”.

After landing at Indianapolis, I rented a car for the short drive to Shelbyville, where I had booked a room at the Hampton Inn. It was late, but I called the number I had been given for mom’s lawyer, and arranged to meet him at his office the next morning, before going to the funeral home.

Mr Hendricks had taken over the office from his late father. A serious man in his thirties, he shook my hand with a firm grip, extending his condolences. After going through some paperwork, he told me that mom had inherited the house from her sister, and also had most of the money from selling up in Riverdale. I instructed him to sell the three bedroom home just outside Shelbyville, and agreed a commission percentage for his time and trouble. He seemed happy enough, and I liked his calm efficiency. “Once the documents are all signed and sealed, you should be receiving a substantial amount, Mr Farlowe”.

The Sexton funeral home was like any you might see in a small town. I wasn’t surprised to see a dignified elderly man greeting me, his face a practiced picture of solemnity. I explained that I didn’t have a lot of time, and as I was the only living relative, there seemed little point in arranging any kind of function. I chose a mid-range casket, and paid for a plot at the cemetery, with a simple headstone to follow. Mr Sexton was understanding. “It could be arranged to bury your mother close to her late sister, if you would like that”. I nodded. “That would be good. I doubt I will ever get back up here, so I would also like you to contract someone to take care of the grave”. He nodded. “You can leave all that with me, Mr Farlowe. I assure you of our best and most respectful service”. I gave him a check for the funeral costs, and signed some papers before leaving.

Mom always liked to go to to church, so I let Sexton arrange a minister for a quiet funeral service in two day’s time. It was pretty cold up there, so I bought a padded jacket in town as I hadn’t brought anything warm. Then I kicked around the hotel for a while, and drove out to the Blue River park, watching families with kids enjoying the open space.

To be honest, the funeral didn’t affect me at all. I was the only one in attendance, unless you counted the four men from Sexton’s who stayed in the chapel to make it look good. The minister said the usual stuff about mom being a good wife and mother, as well as being a devoted younger sister to my aunt. After some handshakes outside, I drove back to the Hampton and packed my stuff.

At the motel in Riverdale, Liam was going over all his notes, and making some phone calls. He was hoping that Farlowe would be back by the weekend, as it seemed that a Sunday might be appropriate for what he had in mind. Everything was coming together, but to his way of thinking, it was important for all those men to be together when he asked his questions. He wanted to see their interaction, so as to be certain of his theories. He spent an hour drawing out a careful chart, based on the time line of that Sunday when the murders happened. No matter how he traced it, it always came down to the same result. He was sure that his suspicions were correct.

When I got back from the airport, I didn’t contact Doherty straight away. I decided to drive straight the office, and see if there were any messages for me there. At the far end of Main Street, I stopped at a light. When I saw the man and woman crossing in front of my car, I knew immediately it was Duke. Even after all this time, he was unmistakable. His hair still dark and flopped over his eyes, and that awkward gait of someone who had never really got used to being tall. I pulled the car over into a spot when the light changed, and walked quickly back to where I had seen them.

“Hey, Duke. Long time no see”. I nodded to his mom. “Ma’am”. Duke didn’t seem surprised to see me. “Hi, Clay. I had to come down, got called by that State Police guy. He says I’m not to talk to you though. Told me you would likely find me and try to talk. Said I should say nothing”. His mom looked scared, but was glaring at me. She pulled at his arm. “C’mon Duke, let’s go home”. I smiled. “Just saying hello, Duke. That’s all. Good to see you again. The detective tells me you are doing okay up in Renton”. He turned and walked away without another word.

As expected, I did have a message from Doherty. It was written on a sheet of paper left on my desk. The handwriting was so neat, it looked as if it had been typed. ‘Sheriff, if you are back by the weekend, can you please meet me at that spot by the river at one in the afternoon on Sunday. I have arranged for everyone to be there. Please call the motel to confirm’. He hadn’t signed it, but had stapled his card to the paper. I knew he would have checked the airlines, to see when I got back. No point avoiding the guy. I called the cellphone number on his card, but there was no answer. I left a message.

“Detective Doherty, this is Clay Farlowe. I got your message, and I will be there on Sunday”.

The next day was Saturday, and I went into work to help out with a new deputy. Barbara Hill was from White Oaks, and had applied for a job in Riverdale because her fiance lived there. I let her drive me around, just like Vince had, on my first day. She was keen enough, but edgy and nervous. I told her not to worry, as not much happened in town, and she would be fine. We stopped at the gas station for coffee and donuts, and I gave her the money to pay for them. It was still a good spot for catching speeders, but I didn’t make her pull over anyone that morning.

It was close to two in the morning on Sunday, and I was sleeping when my phone rang.

There had been a shooting at the motel.

By the time I got into my uniform and out to the motel, two of my deputies had already sealed off the scene. Bill Phillips was a solid guy, ex-army, and very reliable. He had already called in for the forensic team, and advised the State Police too. He met me at my car. “Sheriff, it’s that cop from Renton. Seems like a burglary in his room went wrong. Shot with his own gun, by the look of it. The room’s trashed, and I can’t find any of his personal stuff. Someone has been in his car too, you can see the trunk is still open. Night manager claims to have heard nothing, and there are only two other guests. I have them all in the lobby, waiting to take statements”.

I thanked him for his efficiency, and followed him to the room, after slipping some plastic covers over my shoes. “We have all been using covers and gloves, Sheriff. Any prints or marks will not be any we have left”. Bill pushed the door open for me, and I looked in. Doherty was on the bed, wrapped up in the sheets and blanket, with two pillows to the side of his head. He was only wearing underwear, and all the blood was around his head and neck, with splatters up the wall. Bill spoke from behind me.

“One shot, I reckon. In the throat, and out the back of the neck. Looks like he was struggling with the perp on the bed, and the pillows might have deadened the noise some. Strange thing, one of the other guests only heard someone messing around with the car. He got up and checked, in case it was his car, and saw the door open to Doherty’s room. Then he went and got the night manager”. I turned and walked out. “So he was shot with his own gun, how do you come to that conclusion, Bill?” He pointed behind me. “It’s on the floor of the room, other side of the bed. A nine-millimeter automatic. I reckon if it had been the perp’s, he would have took it with him”.

I heard the sirens before I saw all the flashing lights. Three cars sped up the driveway, and two of them had State Police markings. A heavy man got out of the unmarked car, and looked around. “Where’s the Sheriff? I want to talk to him now”. It was Doherty’s Captain, from Renton. I guessed he would want to take over, and he did. I was happy to let him, and after Bill filled him in on what we knew so far, he stared at me, visibly shaken. “I haven’t lost a man from my squad in the eleven years I have been in charge. I want whoever did this, Sheriff, and I am counting on your full cooperation”.

Forensics showed up, and they set up floodlights, took lots of photographs, and did all the usual stuff those people do. The Captain told me that the Staties had roadblocks all over, and the helicopter was up too. “This time of night, can’t be that many cars driving around. I have issued orders to stop everything, wherever they see it”. He wasn’t too interested in my input, so I didn’t bother to suggest that whoever had done this might be on foot, perhaps even still hiding close by. The Captain was fixed on a car being used, so I let him get on with it. If any mistakes were going to be made, they wouldn’t be made by me or any of my guys.

Two hours later, and they had taken statements from the other guests, and the night manager. He confessed that he had been sleeping in the back, until he was woken up by the worried guest ringing the bell on the counter. More State cops had shown up from Renton, including some detectives from the same squad as Doherty. Some of them were grinning, and none seemed too bothered that their colleague was dead. A full search of the room showed that there was no wallet, no car keys, and most of his notebooks and files were gone too. The trunk of his car was empty, save for the spare wheel, and an empty gun safe. The Captain came to find me.

“Looks as if whoever did this just grabbed everything and left. The files and notes will be no use to him, so I reckon they might have been dumped. He’s sure to have blood on him, and if he was struggling with Liam, he may have injuries too. I would appreciate it if your deputies could start looking around for anything that was dumped by the roadside. I have someone checking the hospitals in case he tried to get treatment, but someone should check any doctors in Riverdale too, as well as any who have offices on the roads leading out of town, north and south”. I nodded, and instructed my guys to do as he had asked. As Bill walked to his car, I caught his arm. “Bill, get everyone in who is off duty. And get that new girl too, Barbara. I know she is green, but she can sit in the office and answer the phone”. He nodded. “Will do, Sheriff”.

It was getting light by the time the medical examiner allowed the men to take the body out of the room and put it into their small truck. The Captain looked exhausted. “We are taking Liam’s body back to Renton, Sheriff. I take it you won’t have a problem with that? Some of my men will be staying on to cover the crime scene, and I would be grateful if you and your guys helped them with whatever they need”. He extended his hand, and I shook it firmly. “Sorry to meet you in such circumstances, Captain. You can count on us to help all we can. Contact me anytime”.

I drove back to the office, where a very relieved Barbara was pleased to see me. I told her I was sorry, but she would have to stay on duty, and I walked to the back to make some calls.

Mrs Riley sounded sleepy when she answered. “Mrs Riley, it’s Clay, Sheriff Farlowe. Can you tell Duke that the afternoon meeting at the river is cancelled today please? The detective from Renton is no longer available”. I didn’t make any small talk, and hung up when I was sure she understood. Freddie answered his phone after just one ring. His voice sounded thick with sleep. “Freddie, it’s Clay. No need to show up at the river this afternoon, something has happened to that detective. I will call you tomorrow”.

Sitting back in my chair, I stretched hard. My bones felt weary.

I wasn’t going to get any rest today, that was for sure.

For the rest of that week, the State Police threw everything at the investigation. My deputies got no time off, and everyone started to get cranky and exhausted. Dozens of cars had been pulled over and searched, followed by a nationwide alert for the personal effects of Doherty turning up. His cellphone history and calls from the motel were looked into, and the Captain called me from Renton. “Sheriff, seems to me that Liam was arranging something for that Sunday. Do you know anything about that?” I told him about the reconstruction plans, and how everyone had agreed to meet him down at that spot on the riverbank. “Captain, I have no idea what he was hoping to achieve with that. Freddie and Duke already told him what they knew, as had I. Tommy is still on the Mental Ward ever since it happened, and Old Man Henderson is long dead. But I had agreed to go along with whatever detective Doherty wanted”.

He wasn’t amused to hear that. “You should have mentioned that, Sheriff. Now I have to consider Tyson and Hayes as possible suspects”. I was unapologetic. “Captain, I presumed your man had kept you up to date with his investigation here. Duke has gone back to Renton, and Freddie Hayes is down in Fairview, so it will be easy for you to talk to them. Let me know if I can be of any help”. When he hung up, it was clear to me that he had no idea what Doherty had been doing down here.

The shooting naturally attracted a lot of attention. I had given interviews to the newspapers, and to the local TV station out of White Oaks. Watching myself on the news was a strange experience. I looked old, but I came across as professional and efficient, so was happy with that. After ten days, and with no suspects or evidence to go on, I let my deputies get back to regular duties, and we began to get something of our routine back.

I drove out to a dealership the other side of White Oaks, and looked at some nice Winnebago motor homes. I had done over thirty years in the job now, and was thinking of taking my pension, and handing over to Bill. He would be a natural for the job, and could be sure of my recommendation. After spending all my life in one state, and not travelling much, I thought it might be nice to just hit the road, and see a lot more of the country. I could just pack my stuff into the RV, and go anywhere I wanted. The salesman said he would take my Cherokee in trade, and worked out some figures on a luxury model. I had plenty of money coming from my inheritance, and I wanted to make the break while I was still young enough to enjoy it. I told the guy I would be back in a few weeks. I think he was upset that I wouldn’t sign that day.

The next morning, one of the detective squad guys from Renton was waiting to see me at the office. He wanted to go over a few things, so he said.

When he had a big mug of coffee in front of him, Detective Kelly relaxed back in the chair and smiled at me. “Sheriff, the Captain asked me to come tell you what we know. Ask if you have any ideas. There was no forced entry at the motel. Seems like Doherty let in whoever shot him. The autopsy revealed he had a small skull fracture above his left ear, hit by a club or something. It would have been enough to knock him senseless, and probably before he was shot”. He opened a small notebook. “Those guys Hayes and Tyson both have pretty solid alibis provided by one guy’s mom, and the other’s wife and kids. As for Clinton, well he was under lock and key up in County Hospital. There has been no trace of Doherty’s phone, car keys, or wallet. As for the files and notebooks, same thing. We don’t have any fingerprints, shoe prints, and not one single decent suspect. You got any theory?”

“Well, Liam spoke to a lot of people around here, detective Kelly. and he wouldn’t tell me who, where, or when. Did it all in secret. Seems to me he might have upset a lot of people, raking up that old case. But as for a theory, I can only think of a burglar. If someone went out there intending to kill him, then why would they risk him jumping them, and not have their own weapon? Maybe it was just opportunist. He was a city guy, with a new car. Maybe they presumed he might have money, or something worth stealing in his car? If that’s the case, then it won’t be anyone around here. We don’t have burglars like those here in Riverdale. I would know. As for letting him into the room, I don’t see that. More likely he heard someone messing with his car, opened the door, and got jumped. The guy hit him with something so he is dazed, then searched the room for valuables. Liam comes round, grabs his service pistol, there’s a struggle, and he gets himself shot by accident. I doubt anyone went there intending to kill him”.

Kelly hadn’t bothered to take any notes. “Sheriff, between you and me, Doherty was a strange guy. Not popular on the squad, and couldn’t keep a partner. He was creepy, secretive, and not a team player. I always thought something like this would happen one day. He worked in secret, and rarely told anyone what he was up to, even the Captain. As far as I’m concerned he’s no great loss. But that said, he was one of us, like it or not, and I can’t see the Captain letting it go unsolved”. He stood up and reached into his jacket, handing me a card. “If you think of anything, give me a call. I’ve got stuck with putting it all together, and have to do a case report for the Captain”.

Six weeks later, I phoned the number on the card, and asked Kelly how he was getting on. “Thanks for your call, Sheriff. We still have nothing. Reckon the whole thing will soon be filed as unsolved, and I can get on with my normal job”.

My next call was to County, giving notice that I was taking retirement in three months. I recommended Bill as a replacement, and said I would urge him to apply for the job. Then I called the RV dealership and ordered the Winnebago.
I discussed the available options, and settled on a top of the range model.

Before leaving for the day, I contacted the supervisor at County Hospital, making arrangements to visit Tommy the next afternoon.

If I had thought Tommy wouldn’t be talking that day at the hospital, I was wrong. Although he made the attendant stand by the door, he spoke loud enough for us both to hear what he was saying.

When I got into the room he was smiling, animated, more like the old Tommy I remembered, and I had hardly sat down before he started to speak.

“So, that Renton cop finally got to you, Clay? You come to get me out of here? ‘Bout time”. I shook my head. “Don’t know what you’re going on about, Tommy. I’m just here to see how you are”.

He leaned forward in the chair, and I could see some uncertainty in his expression.

“But I told him. Told him I saw you. Told him it was you killed the girls, and I couldn’t do anything about it. Told him how you chased me through the brush, said you would kill me. Thought you’d be in jail by now”. The attendant was chuckling, as if Tommy had just told a good joke. “Me, Tommy? How do you figure that? All this time you have sat in here, never said nothing. Now you come up with the crazy idea it was me all along”. He sat back and folded his arms.

“I saw you, Clay. The girls were swimming. Donna had teased Duke, and he stomped off. Freddie tried to smooch with Donna after, and she told him to come back when he had growed up. He didn’t like that, said he was going home. I was upset the way Donna was acting, and walked over into the brush. Reckon those girls were growing up faster than us, and thought we were too young for them. That’s what I was thinking. Then you showed up. You must have crossed the river after we left, and walked along the bank on the Henderson side. Duke must have seen you, as he headed home that way.
You couldn’t see me, behind the bushes”.

The attendant was grinning now, and I grinned too.

“Tommy, I was at the usual spot. Remember you came back all crazy, and cut up by the thorns? You wouldn’t say what had happened, and I went for help”. Tommy raised his voice now, and the attendant took a step forward. “That just ain’t true, Clay, and you know it! You lay down on the bank with Donna, kissing and stuff. Mel was really pissed at you, I could tell. Then Donna pushed you away, and started shouting something. Next thing I know, you are holding her in the water, and she ain’t wearing no swimsuit. Mel screamed and ran off down the track to the barn. Then you turned and ran after her. Donna floated off down the river, and I followed you to the barn. I didn’t go inside, but when you came out all dirty and sweaty, that’s when you saw me hiding and came after me. I got all cut up running through the brush, but you didn’t catch me”.

I put a hand up to stop him talking.

“Then why didn’t you help them, Tommy? If what you say is true, you could have run back to the river to stop me hurting Donna, or gone after Mel and protected her. You were the same age and build as me back then, you could have stopped me. Why didn’t you?” He seemed to have no answer, and sat thinking a while. “Reckon I was too scared. Makes me ashamed to think about it. Then everyone thought it was me, including my folks. Nobody ever suspected you, good old Clay. Then once Henderson was arrested, my Dad told me to say nothing. That’s why I stayed here. Couldn’t face myself, ‘spose. But I told that detective, so now he knows and will get the evidence to arrest you. You better watch out, Clay”.

I leaned forward, my tone sympathetic. “That detective got himself shot dead in a robbery, Tommy. There’s not gonna be any arrests, no new evidence. Certainly not based on what you have to say after being in a Mental Ward for most of your life. You have to get over it, Tommy. It was Old Man Henderson. He got charged and convicted. I never thought he had done it, but if it wasn’t him, it must have been you. So I let it go, to protect you”. Tommy started crying, and I turned to the attendant. He raised his eyebrows at me and slowly shook his head. I waited for Tommy to get himself together.

“So you reckon I killed the girls, then took their swimsuits and left them in the old oil drum behind Henderson’s? What about Detective Doherty? I presume you think I killed him too? Maybe I knocked on his motel room door, cold-cocked him with a club, then shot him with his own gun? Then I drove home, had a shower, and went to sleep. Is that your idea too, Tommy? What else are you going to come up with, I wonder?” Tommy looked shaken. He hadn’t known about Doherty, obviously. With the detective gone, it was once again just the word of a crazy man who hadn’t spoken for decades until recently.

The attendant walked back to the table. “You want to go back to your room now, Tommy? You’re getting yourself all agitated, and we know that’s not good”. Tommy nodded, his body slumped, and his eyes looking at his shoes. The attendant turned to me. “Sorry about that, Sheriff. Since he started talking again, it’s mostly nonsense”. He opened the door for me, and I turned to Tommy as I left. “I’ll say goodbye then, Tommy. I’m retiring soon, moving away. You won’t see me again”.

Driving back to Riverdale, I wondered if plush had been the right choice for the upholstery in the Winnebago.

Corduroy would have been more hard-wearing.

The End.

Russian Sector: The Complete Story

This is all 27 parts of my recent fiction serial, in one complete story.
It is a long read, at 35,000 words.

Berlin, 1945.

Inge was crying again. I knew she was hungry, so I tried to make her forget, by pulling a funny face. It wasn’t working this time, so I just hugged her instead. I didn’t know if it made her feel better, but it muffled the sound at least. I wondered how long it would be before Mummy got home. And I was hoping she would have managed to find something to eat. When my sister finally stopped sobbing, she looked up at me expectantly.
“Manfred, will Mummy be home soon? I’m starving”.

The Russians had got to our street two days after my tenth birthday. There had been no cake of course, but Mummy had given me a scarf, wrapped in newspaper, and she had found a tiny candle to put into the large potato she had baked in the wood oven owned by Frau Winter.
The day after that, Mummy came home and told us that the war was over.

We already knew we had lost.

People put white sheets out of the windows, so they wouldn’t fire their guns into the apartment blocks. But by then we were living in the basement room, and our only window looked over the yard. Besides, it had been a long time since we had any white sheets.

Father had died so long ago, Inge didn’t remember him at all. Mummy would show her the photo of him in uniform, so she knew who he was.
I remembered him well of course, or so I imagined.
A tall man with dark hair, always smiling. He had died in a place called Tobruk, Mummy had said. But we didn’t know where that was.

Before the war, life had been good. We lived in a three bedroom apartment in a nice avenue near the Tierpark. Daddy was a floor manager in a department store, and Mummy worked as a waitress before I was born. Then came the bombing, and when news of Daddy being killed in action arrived, we had to move into two rooms with Aunt Ilse, in the eastern suburbs.

But none of that was so bad, until Auntie’s house was destroyed when we were in the shelter. She had refused to come down with us, and Mummy told us she was dead. Frau Winter let us stay in her basement room across the street, and Mummy worried it was bad for little Inge. The damp would affect her chest, she was sure.

And we were hungry, always hungry. Mummy got work when she could, any job going. I had to stop attending school to look after my sister, and questions were asked. She told them I was ill, and hoped that would be the end of it. We had to keep as quiet as we could, and not draw any attention to ourselves. When Mummy was at home, I went out to look for wood. I walked for miles, searching out broken boxes, wrecked fences, parts of damaged carts. Anything that would burn.

When my shoes were worn out, we cut up old rugs and stuffed them inside. Frau Winter let us use her kitchen, so we could cook what we had, and wash clothes. I never complained, but as Inge got older, she didn’t understand. We slept together every night, on the one old bed. Wearing our clothes in the winter, and covered in anything we could pile on top of us. Most days, Mummy would be out from first light, queuing at shops for anything she could find, or working some job to get one day’s pay to spend on us.

She became thin, and lost her looks. We never mentioned it.

Inge had one old rag doll, and a leather toy camel that Daddy had sent her from Africa. I tried my best to make games up for her, but there was only so much I could do. She cried so much, all the time. A real Mummy’s girl. Most nights, we had only a thin soup to eat, and small squares of bread that tasted like wood shavings. Mummy would give most of it to us, and say she had already eaten upstairs with Frau Winter. I knew she was lying, but I was so hungry, I ate it anyway.

We knew things were getting worse when they came for the local boys. All of them over the age of twelve were taken for training. I was tall for my age, and it took a lot of screaming from Mummy to convince the soldiers that I was only nine. Klaus and Heinrich were both taken away. Heinrich cried a bit, but Klaus was almost fourteen, and declared he would kill some of the Ivans for me.

I never saw them again.

Inge had finally gone to sleep, so I reached under the bed to find my comics and magazines. I had read them so many times that I knew them off by heart. But anything was better than sitting staring into space.

I had dropped off when I was roused by the noise of Mummy returning. I was shocked to see her accompanied by a large man. Not just any man, a Russian soldier. I wondered what had happened. Were we to be arrested? Mummy smiled at me, and spoke formally. “Manfred, this is Gregory. He carried my shopping home for me, and he has brought us some wood too. He is an under-officer, and speaks little German. Stand up, and say hello”. I stood reluctantly, wary of the huge man. He grinned, and dropped the bundle of wood. Pointing at his chest, he spoke in a loud voice. “Me, Grigiry”. Before he could shake my hand, Inge woke up. Delighted to see Mummy, she didn’t even question the presence of the soldier.

Opening his coat, Grigiry produced a large loaf of black bread, and two fat sausages that reeked of garlic. As Inge cuddled Mummy, we watched with our mouths watering as he sliced chunks of sausage onto the pieces of bread. He passed them round, and I tried not to appear greedy as I started to eat. But it was all I could do not to cram the whole thing into my mouth at once. He ate his noisily, his mouth half-open, showing big yellow teeth. When he saw me looking at the huge pistol in a holster on his hip, he took it out and pointed it at me.

“Bang-Bang!” Then he roared with laughter, crumbs of bread falling from his mouth.

The sausages and black bread were all gone, and Mummy opened her bag to show us something. “Look what else he has given you, children”. It was a small tin of jam, and Inge squealed excitedly at the sight of it, jumping up and down, clapping her hands. Grigiry opened the tin with a small pocket-knife, and handed it back to Mummy, jerking his head to one side as he did so.

“Now you two, take this jam outside, and eat it sitting on the steps while I have a talk with Gregory, alright?”

I did as she asked, as I always did. But as I watched my sister sucking the jam from her sticky fingers, I was certain of one thing.

They were not talking.

Berlin, 1945.

I had spent most of the morning taking my life in my hands by trying to rip out some old floorboards from the shell of a bombed house. Every time I got one free, it felt as if the walls were trembling, and might well collapse in on me at any moment. Further down the street, a working party was loading rubble and bricks into carts, trying to clear the street. I had seen all sorts there, from elderly ladies, to small children. They were covered in dust, passing the individual bricks to each other in long lines. People said you got paid in food for such work, but I didn’t trust the Russians to give you enough for a whole day of labouring.

Around the back of the building, I snapped the four floorboards in half, propping them on what was left of a garden wall, then jumping on them to break them. When I had the eight fairly large pieces of wood balanced on my shoulder, I set off for home.

As I turned into our street, I saw a Russian Armoured Car parked outside the house. Frau Winter was standing at the top of the front steps, arms folded. She was glaring at the driver. When I got close, I could see he was one of those Mongolian-looking men. He gave me a big smile, and saluted me as if I was a soldier.

Frau Winter called them ‘Siberian Devils’. Her oldest son had been captured at Stalingrad, and taken to a prison camp. She had heard nothing of him since, so blamed every Russian for what had happened. She hated the Americans too, as her youngest son had been killed last year, fighting with the Hitler Jugend, in the 12th SS Panzer Division. She blamed the Americans, though he might just have well been against British or Canadian troops in Normandy. She called them ‘Yankee Child Killers’.

I guessed that meant Grigiry was in our room, and I was right. I dropped the wood onto the floor, and Mummy started to tell me off about the state of my clothes. There was a terrible smell in the room, and I asked her, “Mummy, what’s that stink?”. She looked embarrassed, and said, “Don’t be rude now, Manfred”. The soldier was sitting on our bed, and he had removed his jacket and boots. The smell was coming from his feet, and was bad enough to make me catch my breath. His long collarless shirt was filthy too, with dark yellow sweat stains under the arms. He spoke to me in his usual too-loud voice, and it seemed he had been practicing his German.

“Boy. Here. For you. From Grigiry”. He reached into his trouser pocket and removed a flick-knife, pushing the catch to make the blade spring open smoothly. It did look wonderful, with a smart wooden handle. It appeared to be brand new too. But I hesitated. “Good knife. Boy take. For you. Knife for Manfred”. I hated to hear him say my name, but then I spotted Mummy nodding at something on a cloth on the floor behind her. It was two loaves of bread, the black kind. On top of them was a big half-round of cheese, and next to them a jar of pickles. Then I followed her eyes to Inge. who was sitting on the floor playing with a toy horse.

I reached forward and took the knife, recoiling from being even closer to the smell of his feet. I stood up formally, and nodded. “Thank you, sir”. Clapping his hands against his thighs, he nodded in the direction of the food. “Now eat. We eat”. In case we didn’t understand his German, he raised a hand to his mouth and mimicked eating, then rubbed his belly. “Food. Good.”

I didn’t wait to be told to sit on the steps this time. With the tangy flavour of the pickles still on my taste-buds, I picked up Inge’s horse. “Come on, Inge, let’s go outside. I will make some jumps for your horse to jump over, with my new knife. How about that?”

In the alley by the side of the house, I placed flat stones in a circle, then cut tiny slivers of wood from a piece of floorboard with the flick knife. I laid them across each pair of stones, and turned to Inge. “Your horse has to jump each one, but must not knock the wooden bar off. Got that? Let’s see how you do”. As my sister began to make the toy horse jump, a shadow appeared from behind. Frau Winter, arms still folded, looming over me as I sat on the ground.

“So you have a new Papa now, a filthy Russian? What is your Mother thinking of, to take such a pig into her bed? Wait until my Mikkel comes home from Stalingrad. Then there will be trouble, I tell you. He will throw you out of my house, and give that Russian a good thrashing too, I have no doubt boy”. I didn’t know much at that age, but I knew enough to know that her son was unlikely to ever return from captivity in Russia. I chose to ignore her nasty remarks, and turned to Inge, encouraging her to play. But she carried on talking. “Your poor father would turn in his grave, I bet. I didn’t know him, but he was a brave man I’m sure, killed fighting with the boys of The Afrika Corps. What would he think of this? I ask you, what would he say, boy?”

When I still refused to answer, she turned and walked back to the steps, still muttering. As she drew level with the Armoured Car, the driver smiled at her, and saluted. It seemed that was all he knew how to do. She stopped and turned on him. “As for you, you yellow monkey, you Siberian hound. Get back to the shit-hole you crawled out of, you slant-eyed excuse for a human being.” He must have known she was insulting him, even though he didn’t understand a word of it. But he just carried on smiling at her, and she gave up, with a final “Bah!”

Inge had knocked off all the wooden slivers in her excitement, but when she triumphantly cried out, “All done, I jumped them all, Manfred”, I didn’t have the heart to tell her otherwise.

I picked up her horse, and took her hand. “Let’s go to the end of the street by the main road, see if anything is happening”. I would have walked anywhere to get away from the shame of what was happening in our room. For a change, something was happening. A big convoy of Russian trucks was slowly moving down the street, the back of each one covered in hooped canvas.

I asked Inge what she thought was inside them. She pondered for a moment.
“Christmas Cakes, and new dolls for me”. I smiled. “Exactly right, dear Inge”.

When we got back, the Armoured Car was gone.

At least Grigiry had been quick this time.

Berlin, 1945.

Mummy sat me down one night when Inge was already asleep. “Do you remember Great Uncle Otto, Manfred?” In my mind, I saw an elderly man with a lidded pipe always in his mouth. He lived in a house, not an apartment, and had lots of books. And he wore colourful braces that held up his too-loose trousers. I nodded. “Yes, Mummy, I remember him”. She smiled, pleased at my recollection of an old man I hadn’t seen in years.

“Well, Manfred, he lived in Kreuzberg, and that was hit hard by the bombing. I haven’t been able to find out if he is alright. But if he is, I have an idea that he would let us go and live with him, if we can find a way. That area is in the American sector now, and we are not officially allowed to go there. But I am sure you could slip through, and try to find him. Do you think you could?”

I was a little confused. “Why don’t we just pack up and go to see him, Mummy?” She stroked my face. “We are in the Russian Sector, and the city is divided. People are not allowed to cross between sectors without authorisation, and the Russians will not allow us to just go and live there. Besides, I don’t even know if old Otto is alive.”

She took out some crumpled paper, and the stub of an old eyebrow pencil. It was part of a street map, torn from a bigger book. “I have written down his name and address, and I will mark on here where the street should be, if it is still standing. Most of the tram lines have been destroyed, so you will have to walk. I think it will take you more than an hour, perhaps two, with all the road closures. You will have to find a way through the guards too, and not allow yourself to be stopped by either the Russians or the Americans. Do you think you can do this for us? You are the man of the house now”.

I had never had occasion to use a map, but Mummy saying I was the man of the house overcame my fears, and imbued me with a new sense of responsibility. As well as that, I wanted to get my family out of the clutches of the Russian, Grigiry. Mummy still insisted on calling him Gregory, giving him the respect of using his name properly. But me and little Inge liked to say his name as he pronounced it, ‘Gri-gear-ree’. It was our small way of letting Mummy know we didn’t really want him around.

“I will go and find Uncle Otto, Mummy. I will leave tomorrow, at first light”.
She kissed my cheek. “You are a good boy”.

It was still dark when I got up and got dressed. I put the map page into my jacket pocket with my new knife, and started out in a south-easterly direction, toward an area I didn’t now at all. Some patrols were still around, and I hid from the soldiers behind the stacked rubble that was waiting to be removed by the work parties later. Once the sun was up, I became more confident, and was soon approaching the boundary of the district where we lived. I heard my name called from behind, and turned to see who it was.

I knew the two boys standing across the street. Rolf and Dieter were brothers, close in age, and both older than me. Rolf was rather slow. Backward, Mummy called him. Their mother had hidden them away during the last two years of the war, as she was afraid they would be taken into the army, despite their youth. I guessed that she had let them out of hiding, now it was all over. They sauntered over to talk to me. Well at least Dieter did, Rolf rarely said anything.

“Where you off to at this time of day, Kraus?” I could see no reason to lie. “I have to go through to the American sector, to visit my uncle”. Dieter looked at his brother, who shrugged. “Well then, we will come with you. Those Americans have chocolate, and cigarettes too. They might give us some”. I turned and continued walking, feeling rather glad to have the company. They were both well-built lads, and having them along made me feel protected. I took my hand away from the flick knife in my pocket, and let it swing at my side. If they knew I had such a nice knife on me, they would surely take it.

I was hot and bothered by the time we got to the sector border. Signs in many languages warned us not to leave the Russian sector. The main road was guarded by some soldiers standing around inside a wall of sandbags, but other than that we could see no physical barriers. Dieter asked to see my map again. Pointing to a road on the left, he said, “Down there, then turn right. Those Russkies won’t see us”.

Inside the American sector it seemed no different to where we had been before. If anything, the damage and desolation here was worse than where we had come from, and most of Kreuzberg appeared to have been flattened completely. Dieter spotted an old woman walking out of a shattered, roofless building. She had a bent back, and a thick scarf around her head, despite the sunshine. He ran across and spoke to her, showing her the paper.

“She couldn’t read it, bad eyes. But she told me where the street is. Follow me”.

They were on the lookout for American soldiers, bitterly disappointed that they hadn’t seen any. We almost missed the junction we needed, but the sight that greeted us was far from encouraging. I tried to remember the house I had been to when I was younger. To picture it standing on that street, next to rows of other identical well-kept houses leading to a factory at the end. But there was nothing there at all. Just an empty city block, the rubble cleared away already. And not a soul in sight to ask about Uncle Otto.

I decided to turn for home, but the brothers were not about to abandon their mission of searching for chocolate and cigarettes. They headed west, and waved as they walked off. Dieter called out to me through cupped hands. “Thanks for the wild goose-chase, Manfred”.

I retraced my steps, and all I could think about was how thirsty I was. But there were no people around to ask for a drink of water, and no house that looked as if anyone was living in it. I went through a broken door into the room beyond, nervously calling out “Hello, is anyone there? I just want a drink please”. At the back of the house, I found the remains of the kitchen, the heavy stone sink broken in pieces on the floor. Despite turning on the single tap to its full extent. all I could get was a slow drip.

I held my hands under it for a long time until I had enough to wet my mouth.

Tired and hungry when I got back to our room, I was upset to see the expectant smile on Mummy’s face. “Well, did you find him? Is the house still standing? Did you speak to him?” Inge was holding onto my leg. My little sister was also waiting to hear encouraging news. I shook my head, and mummy’s face fell.

“It was all gone, Mummy. Nothing there. Not a brick”.

Berlin, 1945.

Wood was getting harder to find, and I had to keep avoiding the work gangs too, as a strong young man like me would almost certainly find himself conscripted into one. At least the weather was still mild, so we only needed the fuel for cooking. But winter would be here soon, and there was little left to burn in the grate.

When I got home that afternoon, I was surprised to see a woman leaving our room. She was wearing a green overall, and it had a large badge on the front, not unlike one I had seen on Grigiry’s uniform. She ignored me as I walked past, slipping a large notebook into a leather satchel as she headed for the stairs to the first floor.

I could see Mummy had a bemused expression on her face, and wasn’t sure what to make of it. “Why was that woman here, Mummy? Are we in trouble of some kind?” She shook her head. “Far from it. She brought some good news. I had to register our names, and she told me we will get a food allocation, and a voucher to go and have a bath. School will start again soon, and she will let me know where you both have to go. I will have to work when you are at school, but that’s good”. Inge pulled at her dress. “Tell him the rest, Mummy, tell him”.

“She said that the three of us should not be crowded together in this room. We are to be given Frau Winter’s apartment upstairs, and she has to move down here today. I don’t know what she will make of that, I’m sure”. I grinned. “Now she will have to ask us to heat her water, or to use the wood oven to cook food. And we will have three rooms instead of one”. From the noise of the shouting coming from above, I guessed that the woman had just given Frau Winter the news.

Mummy was right, she wasn’t happy. “This is because of you whoring yourself out to that Russian, I know it!” She screamed at Mummy as we packed our few belongings. “The filthy pig got that Communist bitch to give you my lovely apartment, and after I had been so kind to you too. Mark my words, things will change when my Mikkel comes home. You wait and see”.

Nobody replied to her, and we walked slowly upstairs, hiding our smiles.

Now I had my own room again, and Inge could sleep with Mummy in a dry room, on a comfortable bed. I spent most of the evening sitting by the window. Although there was little to see, being able to look out onto the street felt like an unimaginable luxury.

On Sunday, Grigiry arrived early. He brought me a pair of new army boots, with single laces. They were at least two sizes too big, but Mummy stuffed some rags into the toes until they were comfortable. For Inge, he had found a small stuffed bear. It looked as if it had been washed one too many times, but she adored it, and said she would call it ‘Nikki’. Mummy had gifts too. He gave her a cardboard box containing some lip rouge, a pair of warm woolen stockings, and two tins of sardines.

He looked sad, despite our polite thanks for his gifts. Sitting on a wooden chair around the living-room table, he explained as best as he could, in as much German as he could manage.
“Me go. Grigiry go Leipzig. Go with soldiers. Have to go. Not want, have to”.
On his third attempt, we managed to work out that he was saying his unit was being transferred to the city of Leipzig, and we would not see him again.

Reaching into a pocket, he produced a folded, cracked photo. It showed a woman smiling in the sunshine, her arm around a girl aged seven or eight. They were surrounded by sunflowers in fields, more sunflowers than I had ever seen.

Mummy picked up the photo. “They look beautiful, Gregory. Your family?” Even though she knew that he barely understood her, she never made any allowances for that when talking to him. Pointing at the faces, he replied in a voice heavy with emotion. “Wife. Grigiry wife. Girl, my girl. Our girl. Wife, girl, both kaput. Nazis. Ukraine”. He started to cry openly, tears rolling down his cheeks. Mummy handed back the photo, and he kissed it before placing it carefully back in the pocket.

With that he stood up. “Now I go. Go Leipzig. I have say goodbye”. Mummy kissed him once on the cheek, and Inge started crying. I stood up and extended my hand. He ignored that, and wrapped his arms around me, hugging as strong as a bear. “Be good. Good children. Mummy very good lady. Best Mummy. Be good for her”. He turned quickly and left the room, almost running down the stairs. I watched him from the window as he walked away without looking back.

It was hard to admit it to myself, but we were all going to miss him.

Life started to get a little better after that. Mummy could go and queue for our food ration, and we all got something, even Inge. One day, we all walked to the old local Party Offices, where a mobile bath station had been set up. Mummy showed a lady our voucher, and she took us to a big room where lots of baths were full of steaming water, each one screened off from the next by canvas stretched over poles. She handed Mummy one large towel, and said that she should keep the voucher to use once a week. We all had to use the same water of course, and a big bar of greasy yellow soap. Inge was bathed first, then Mummy avoided her eyes when I got undressed and got in. She agreed that I was getting too old now, for her to see me naked. Then when it was her turn, I got dressed, and waited for her and Inge in the hallway.

The next Monday, we started school. It wasn’t in a school building, but in a temporary building like a warehouse. We were no longer separated between boys and girls, but divided into age groups. My class was introduced to a young woman who would be our teacher. She said her name was Fraulein Weiss, and that she had been in prison for objecting to the Nazis. I thought she was absolutely beautiful, and fell in love with her immediately. One of the boys whispered that she was a Communist, and should have been shot.
So I stamped on his foot to shut him up.

She told us that there were good Germans and bad ones too. All the good Germans now lived in the Russian Sector, so that included us. The bad Germans had stayed in the west, and we wanted nothing to do with them, as they were American lackeys. The Russian soldiers had saved us from the Nazis, and now the good Germans and their Russian friends would save us from the Americans too. When she finished talking, she ran her hands over the thick plait of hair resting on her shoulder, and smiled. I looked at her adoringly, and decided she was right.

I liked being a good German.

Berlin, 1946.

Christmas had been very quiet. Mummy explained that there would be no toys, as there was nothing to buy in the shops. She managed to get us both some knitted hats and mittens, which I suspected someone had knitted from old wool. Dinner on Christmas Eve was some roasted horse-meat and potatoes. It seemed like a banquet to us, even though there was nothing sweet later. We had started to get a coal allowance too, so we were warm at least.

Some of the soldiers had started to return. Mostly, they were the ones who had surrendered to the British and Americans. In many cases, they discovered that their wives and children had been killed, or that their former homes were no longer standing. There was little work for them to come home to, and most began to hang around on street corners. But not for long, as they were soon conscripted into labour gangs, or in some cases, allowed to join the police. On our street, many wives were upset when their men didn’t come home. Those who had been very keen Party members or had served in SS units had been detained longer, for questioning, or had already been jailed awaiting trial.

Mummy found out all this from working in her new job with the housing office. She had to help allocate accommodation to resettled families, once the availability of habitable homes had been checked by the workers in the green overalls. She would often come home very upset, because of all the arguments she had to have with people. Those who had once had some sort of power under the Nazis were now at the bottom of the pile. They could no longer continue as teachers, or government employees. Their homes were divided into rooms, and others allowed to go and live in them. There was a new scheme for training teachers who had never had experience before the war. Inge said Mummy should ask to become a teacher. “You could be my class teacher one day, Mummy, and be kind to me”.

I never knew whether or not she had thought about what Inge said, but she stayed with her job at the Housing Authority, and not long after was promoted to section manager. One day, I saw a new badge on her coat, and asked her what it meant. “I have joined the Socialist Unity Party, Manfred. They are going to be running things here now, and it will be good to get involved. It will also help with my job, and hopefully mean good things for us later as a family”.

Germany had already seen enough of what happened when political parties were running things, I thought. But I just nodded.

With the return of the soldiers, crime began to start up once more. During the war, the Black Market men had been arrested and executed, and once the Russians were patrolling, there was hardly ever any mention of crime. But now people were complaining of burglaries, theft of food, even women being grabbed on the street, and their shopping stolen. The Black Market gangs started up worse than before, with them controlling the supply of some medicines, and selling luxuries smuggled in from the American Sector. Mummy said that if I saw any of them, I was to tell her where they were, and she would inform the authorities. “When you are older, you should join the Police, Manfred. A good boy like you would make a fine policeman”.

I started to think about that a lot.

It had never occurred to me that anyone would not like Mummy because of her job, or because she hated the Black Market men. But they did. At school, older boys tried to bully me, saying that Mummy was a Communist, and working for the Russians. I got in so many fights that spring, Fraulein Weiss kept me behind one afternoon to tell me to be better behaved. “I expect more of you, Manfred. Your mother is such a good example. You should be more like her, stick to your studies, and ignore the ignorant boys”. I wanted her to like me. “I am going to join the Police, miss. As soon as I am old enough”. She nodded. “That’s an excellent idea. I will hold you to that, and remind you”.

Not long after my eleventh birthday, an idea started to grow in my head. I could keep an eye on those Black Market men. I knew where they operated, in the back alleys and ruins that I walked past on my way home from school with Inge. If I went there at the weekend, I could see what they were selling, and who was buying. Perhaps write down the names of those I knew from the neighbourhood. Mummy could pass on the information, and she would surely be pleased with me. And Fraulein Weiss would be happy too, that I was starting my job as a police detective already.

That Sunday morning, I got up early, and headed for a place where I had seen the gangsters hanging around. Many still wore their Army greatcoats, the only decent overcoats they had. But the bosses were in smart suits, and wearing wide-brimmed hats, looking like Americans. They had old suitcases open in front of them, and a long row of people stood examining the contents, often trying to exchange things for what they wanted. Money was almost useless now, and the old wartime money had no value at all. People used the Nazi notes to start fires in their houses. I sauntered past the rows of suitcases, trying to appear interested. One of them was full of chocolate bars, and in another there were bottles of spirit, maybe whisky.

“What you after, young man?” I turned to see who was talking to me. He looked almost foreign, with swarthy skin, and oily black hair. But his German was perfect, though there was a slight accent that I couldn’t place. I shrugged. “Got no money, or nothing to exchange”. He put his arm around me and I moved back, as I didn’t like that he smelled of perfume. He waved the hat he was holding, indicating the goods on display. “Why don’t you choose what you want, then I will tell you how you can work for me to pay for it? How about that? A good deal, yes?” I shrugged again, but he saw me eyeing the chocolate.

Grabbing a cardboard box, he put six bars into it, then threw in a packet I didn’t recognise. He gave me a wink. “Good quality Yankee chocolate, the best. Hershey. And a pair of the finest nylon stockings for your sister. You got a sister?” I grinned. “She’s not even seven years old yet”. He stroked the packet as if it was made of velvet. “Well, a sweetheart maybe? Or a mother? Have you still got a mother boy?” I had never seen Mummy wearing such stockings, but nodded. He reached behind and threw another pair on top. “Okay then, because I like you. Two pairs”.

Folding the flaps closed so nobody could see what was in the box, he touched the side of his nose. “Not a word about where they came from now. Come back this afternoon, same place. I will tell you what you have to do, what the work is. Others will show you. Alright?” I nodded solemnly. “And don’t think about cheating me either. I can easy find out where you live. You wouldn’t want me coming to your house to visit your mum and little sister now, would you?”

As I set off for home clutching the box, I was feeling exited, and had a tingling in my belly.

Now, I was a gangster.

Berlin, 1946.

It wasn’t easy to get the box in the house without Mummy seeing it, but I managed to do that, and hid it in my room under some books and magazines. I couldn’t let on about what I was up to until I had more information, and I guessed Mummy would be annoyed if she knew I had taken smuggled goods. I said I was going out to meet some school-friends to play football later, and I was told to be back in time for dinner.

There were two men waiting when I got back. One was young, maybe in his late teens, and the other older, certainly older than Mummy. “You the new kid?” He had an accent that was not from around there. I nodded. “Pablo says you should come with us, and we will teach you the ropes”. He turned and started walking. “I have to be back for dinner, how long will it take?” The younger one stopped and grinned. “Back with Mummy for din-dins? Ahh”. He waved his arm indicating I should follow, and we walked through some alleys clear of rubble, and clambered over piles of the stuff still blocking some streets.

Emerging into an open square, the older man walked up to a small truck parked there and opened the canvas screen covering the back. “In you go, boy”. I climbed in, followed by the young man, and we sat on piles of suitcases of all shapes and sizes. The older man got in the front, where someone else was waiting to start the engine, and drive off.

The young one told me his name was Spider, and the older man was called Leo. “What about you, what do you go by?” I didn’t think, and said my real name. “Manfred Kraus”. He rubbed his chin, then smiled. “You shall now be known as Curly. Never tell anyone your real name, got that?” I was not so happy with my new name. “But my hair is straight”. He shook his head. “That’s the point. A thin guy gets called Tubby, a fat guy is known as Slim, and a tall bloke is called Shorty. That’s why we have nicknames, to confuse people. Okay?”

We hadn’t been driving for long, when the truck stopped. I heard voices speaking in Russian, then laughter. One of the Russians was talking in German, and he spoke it well. “What you got for me, Leo? Something good in the back?” The canvas was pulled open, and I could see we were at a Russian road-block. Three soldiers with Tommy-guns were standing at the back. I didn’t know whether to put up my hands, or leap out and try to run for it. Spider just chuckled at them, and rummaged around in some of the suitcases. He produced three bottles of something, likely whisky, and a long box of American cigarettes. When he handed them over, one of the soldiers closed the canvas, and slapped his hand on the side of the truck.

So that was how they got through the patrols and checkpoints. It was as simple as bribery.

Less than ten minutes later, we pulled into a courtyard inside what would have once been a very nice apartment block complex. Most of the buildings were destroyed, but the truck reversed into a corner, and Spider jumped out. “Come on, Curly. Wait until you see this”. Leo walked around from the front, and approached a large trapdoor that looked like the entrance to a cellar. He banged on it with his foot, and moments later it opened a little, before flapping open with a loud bang. The head of the man I had spoken to earlier appeared. “So you turned up? Good lad”. Spider smiled at him. “His name is Curly now”.

I was told to help unload the truck. Leo didn’t seem to do anything except stand around and watch as Spider passed me the suitcases. They had to be stacked by the opening, and some were so heavy, I had to drag them. When they were all in a pile, we had to carry them down a wide wooden ladder into the basement. The place left me wide-eyed. It was huge down there, and well lit too. Metal racks were bulging with all sorts of goods and luxuries, and we stacked the suitcases at the bottom of the racks. It was tedious work, one case at a time, passed down the big ladder. Leo didn’t come down, and when the truck was empty, I heard it driving away.

Spider led me through the narrow gap between all the shelves, and the basement opened out into a huge bright cellar room. It resembled a luxury hotel room. Not that I had ever been in one, but I had seen pictures of them in magazines. The man called Pablo was sitting in a big old armchair next to a massive bed. He was smoking a cigarette in a fancy holder, and drinking some dark fluid from a tiny glass. “Did your mother like her stockings, Curly?” I wasn’t about to tell him I had hidden them, so just smiled. “Yes, she did, thank you”. He chuckled, and nodded at Spider. “It will be nice to have a well-spoken polite young man around, don’t you think?” Looking back at me, Pablo indicated that I should sit on a small side-table near his armchair.

“Very well, this is how it works. Every Saturday morning, you come here early, and help the guys load the truck. Then we go somewhere, somewhere different each week. While we are shifting the merchandise, you keep an eye out for the cops. Not the Russians, don’t worry about them. I mean the German cops. If you see any, you whistle. You can whistle, I take it?” He didn’t wait for my reply. “Later on. you help load the truck, come back here, and unload again. Same thing on Sundays, okay? Spider will be with you, but Leo is your boss now, so you do what he says. You will have to tell your mother that you got yourself a weekend job, but don’t mention anything about us, or any names. Clear?”

Pablo turned in the armchair and reached down low to his left. As his jacket fell open, I could see the grip of an automatic pistol that was tucked into his trousers. He dropped a canvas bag onto his lap, and rummaged through it. Taking some things out and putting them on the floor, he passed the bag over to me. “These are for you, your pay for today”. I pulled out a Leica camera, and two rolls of film. Pablo spoke in a cheery tone. “I know someone who will develop the photos for you, just bring me the rolls of film when you have used them”. The next item was a watch. It was working, and showing the proper time. Pablo leaned forward and tapped the watch. “That’s a great watch. It was owned by a brave Luftwaffe pilot of my acquaintance. Just wind it every night before you go to sleep, and it will not let you down. Then you won’t be late for work, or late home for dinner.”

Resting back in the chair, Pablo seemed to have lost interest. “Off you go now, you can take the bag. Spider will lead you back as far as a road you recognise”.

On the way back, I was told something about Pablo. Spider seemed to think he was wonderful, and was keen to tell me the story. “Pablo’s a great bloke, so many connections. He used to work at the Spanish Embassy you know. He still has a Diplomatic Passport, so can do whatever he likes. Speaks great German, doesn’t he? During the Spanish Civil War he was an interpreter for the Condor Legion. When they came home, he came to Berlin to work as a military adviser at the Embassy. I don’t think there is any bigwig he didn’t know. He still has a lot of powerful friends, believe me. You couldn’t have found a better guy to work for, Curly”.

He left me somewhere I knew, a good thirty minute walk from home. When he had disappeared back the way we came, I pulled out the watch and fastened the strap around my wrist, checking the time.

I would be home for dinner.

Berlin, 1946.

Lying to Mummy didn’t come naturally to me. I had always been a good boy, and now I was the man of the house too. I made up a story about the father of one of my school friends needing help with his deliveries, and he had asked me to help at weekends. I tried hard to think up a trade he might have, as Mummy pondered whether or not to give me permission. “You would have to do your school studies before any work, Manfred, so that will mean more effort on Fridays after school. But overall, I think it is good that you want to work. What does he do, this father?”

I thought it sounded lame at best, but she seemed to believe it. “Scrap metal, Mummy. He has returned from the war, and managed to rent a truck at weekends from an old comrade. He tours the streets looking for any metal scrap, and I suppose he gets paid for it at a metal works”. She examined her fingers. “And what will he pay you?”

I lifted my sleeve, and showed her the watch. “Not money, but things. He has given me his old Air Force watch, and a camera too, both for working today, and for next week. We could sell them, or exchange them for what we need”. I lifted the camera from the bag, and showed it to her with the rolls of film. She knew nothing about cameras, I was sure, but she appraised it is as if she was an expert. “A nice camera, and valuable too. I think you should keep the watch, but the camera should be donated to the school. They can take class photos with it, and sell copies to parents perhaps”. I nodded my agreement, thinking how pleased Fraulein Weiss would be with my gift.

After dinner, I went to my room, and made copious notes. I wrote down all the names I had heard, listing physical descriptions next to each one. Then I drew a rough map of where Pablo’s cellar was, and a list of most of the things I had seen stored down there. I had forgotten to get the number on the truck’s plate, and made a mental note to memorise that next weekend. When I had enough information, I would reveal my detective work to Mummy, and she could hand it all over to the Police. I wasn’t scared of Pablo’s threats, as they would all be in prison.

Fraulein Weiss was not as pleased about the camera as I had hoped. She eyed it suspiciously, turning it around in her hands. “So your mother suggested you donate this, Manfred? Tell me, how did you come by it?” I had no option but to lie again. After all, she knew the boy I was supposed to be working with had lost his father many years ago. He had been killed in Crete, serving with the paratroops.

“It was my father’s camera, miss. We have no developing equipment, and no money for more film, so we thought the school could make use of it”. I was trying to sound as casual as I could, but was never sure if she was convinced. She opened a drawer with a key, and placed the camera inside. As she locked it, she looked me in the eyes. “Very well. Thank your mother for me. I will give this over to the school headmaster, and he will decide how it is used”.

That afternoon as I walked home, I realised I had learned a lesson, and not one about the capital cities of Europe, or the Franco-Prussian War. I had a feeling inside, and one that proved to be right. The camera was never mentioned again, and never seen after that afternoon either. Fraulein Weiss had certainly not given it to the headmaster, I knew that in my gut. But she did come to school three days later wearing a new red overcoat.

After that, I was no longer in love with her, and started to notice someone else instead. A girl in my class, Helga. She was slightly older than most of us, but too young for the next class up. I liked her blonde hair, tied in bunches. And she blushed when I looked at her.

That night in bed, I started to wonder if Helga liked chocolate.

And how her legs might look in nylon stockings.

On Saturday morning, Spider and Leo were nowhere to be seen. I stamped on the trapdoor with my foot a few times, but it didn’t open. I then tried to lever it up with my fingers, but it didn’t budge. It was undoubtedly locked from the inside. I hung around for ages, wondering what I would tell Mummy. I concocted a story that my friend’s father could no longer get access to the truck, so my job was no more.

I had more or less decided to give up and go home, when Pablo appeared at the entrance to the courtyard. He was walking strangely, and kept stopping, as if to catch his breath. When he saw me standing by the trapdoor he seemed pleased, and beckoned me over. “Ah, Curly. I had all but forgotten you boy. Good lad for showing up. Now, help me get over to that door”. He placed his arm around my shoulders, and felt very heavy as he let me take his weight. I walked slowly over to the doorway he had shown me, barely able to stand myself.

Inside, he leaned against what was left of a wall, and fished in his pocket for a key. Pointing along the roofless hallway, he indicated a door at the end. “There. Open that padlock”. I ran down to the door, and slipped the key into the big black lock. It turned easily. Pablo was already behind me. “Now lock this behind me, and then go back to the trapdoor. I will open it from inside soon”. I did as he asked, watching him wince with pain as he descended some stone steps inside. It was a full five minutes before the trapdoor opened just enough for me to squeeze through the gap. Pablo stood at the bottom of the ladder. “The bolts, boy. Close both bolts”.

By the time I had shifted the stiff bolts into place and got back down the ladder, Pablo had taken off his overcoat, and was leaning on his side across the large bed. There was a hole in his jacket, near the pocket, and blood all over his shirt. He pointed across at a metal shelf. “The red box, the one there. And get some Vodka from the corridor. A big bottle, with a blue label, clear fluid inside”. I went to get the Vodka first. The writing was in Russian script, but I found the blue label and clear fluid. I picked up the red box, and took it over to him. “What happened, Pablo? How did you get hurt?” He waved me away, striking the neck of the bottle against the bed frame, to break off the top. “In a minute. You have to help me now”.

Pulling up his shirt, he poured some of the Vodka over his side, yelling loudly in pain as he did so. I could see a small hole at the front, and a larger one at the back. They were neat, and circular. When he had calmed down, he opened the box, and handed me a large packet. “It’s a field dressing, young Curly. Open it carefully, you have to put it on me”. He slowly removed his jacket, then his shirt. He wasn’t wearing a vest, and his chest was covered in dark hair. Around his neck he wore a gold cross on a chain. Leaning to one side, he nodded. “Wrap it round. Nice and tight now, not sloppy”. I did as he asked, and he watched carefully as I tied off the tapes. “Good job. Now pass me the Vodka”. I gave him the bottle, and he poured a lot into his mouth, taking care not to touch the jagged neck with his lips.

Smiling at my wide-eyed stare and bloodstained hands, he told me to sit on the side table. “It was another gang, Curly. That’s the problem with this job, always someone else trying to muscle in. Luckily, the bullet went straight through. I should be alright as long as it doesn’t get infected. I haven’t got a clue what happened to Leo and Spider though. I think Spider might have got off worse than me, as I saw him fall, and he didn’t get up. Reaching under his pillow, he produced a large revolver. “Here, take this. It is easy to use, just pull the trigger all the way back, and it fires. Keep it low mind, it has a tendency to lift. Now sit there and keep watch, in case they come. I have been up all night, and need rest”.

It wasn’t long before he was asleep on his back, snoring loudly. I sat looking at the heavy revolver in my lap, wondering what to do if anyone came.

It occurred to me that maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a gangster.

Berlin, 1946.

Watching Pablo sleep was so boring, I had a wander around his cellar to see what sort of things he had stashed away there. Every small sound from above made me jump in alarm, and I had visions of vicious gangsters about to smash their way in through the trapdoor. After what seemed like an eternity, I checked my watch for the hundredth time. I had been there for almost six hours, and would soon have to think about heading home. But that would mean leaving the trapdoor unlocked, and Pablo vulnerable on the bed.

I decided that I would have to wake him up.

No amount of shouting made him stir. I took to shaking his shoulder instead. He felt very hot, and though he was quite obviously still breathing, I could get no sense out of him, and his eyes remained closed. I went over to the wash-stand, and rinsed the blood off my hands with water from the jug. Then I took the revolver, and placed it in his hand, wrapping his fingers around it. At least he would have it to hand if anyone broke in. In case he could still hear me, I spoke to him, adopting a casual tone. “I have to go now. I hope you feel better soon. Sleep is obviously the best thing for you. I have left your pistol in your hand, and you have my word that I haven’t taken any of your things while you have been sleeping”.

At the top of the ladder, I opened the bolts, and peered through the trapdoor, open just enough for me to see out. There was nobody around, so I raised it higher, and slipped out. I left the courtyard hurriedly, relieved to be away from any further trouble. I also decided that I would stick with my earlier story, and tell Mummy that the job had gone because there was no truck.

No doubt about it, I was too young for a life of crime.

For the next few weeks, I was nervous. I expected Pablo or Leo to show up at our house, angry that I had left him, and annoyed that I hadn’t turned up on any other weekend. But my growing fondness for Helga took my mind off those worries. It turned out that she liked chocolate a great deal. But she refused my gift of the nylons. “Oh, Manfred, I am too young to wear those. My mother would think it scandalous”. But she blushed at the idea that I would like to see her in them. After the third bar of chocolate, she let me kiss her. Not on the lips, but on the side of her face, close to the edge of her mouth. And she held my hand as far as the corner of the street where she lived, letting go hurriedly as a neighbour passed by on the other side of the road.

There was no reason for me to go back to Pablo’s cellar, and I never heard from him or Leo again.

That was a good summer. Parts of the city began to return to normal, and there was news of new apartment blocks being built on the outskirts. People started to get regular work, and the Black Market gangs were not so evident on the streets. During the school holidays, I had to look after Inge while Mummy was at work. So I walked around with her, rather than be stuck in the apartment all day. I soon noticed that quite a lot of local people were no longer around. Familiar faces had gone, and this continued as the weather warmed up. One evening, I mentioned this to mummy, when Inge was asleep.

“Ah, you noticed, Manfred? Yes, talk is that many have left for the American and British sectors. Anyone who has relatives there has mostly gone. I think it’s a good thing. We don’t need those people in our new country. If they think life will be so much better there, let them go. They will soon find out that it is no easier over there”. I had a lot more questions, but I got the feeling that was the end of the conversation. At the end of the holidays, Mummy told us she had good news. “I am to be promoted again. I will become the head of my department. And we will soon have a better place to live. Next year, I will be eligible for one of the new apartments being built. Good news, eh children?” I smiled and nodded, but inside I knew I would miss our street, and knowing the local people.

In December, Mummy received a letter, and she waved it excitedly. “My sister is coming to visit for Christmas. Your auntie Greta is coming to stay. How about that?” Inge smiled. “I have never seen her, Mummy”. I could hardly remember her at all. I had seen photographs, and Mummy told me that she had seen me as a little boy. But she lived in Prague, married to a rich German businessman who had interests in that country. When we had taken over Czechoslovakia, he had done well, and soon became an important man. Mummy filled in more details. “Uncle Theodore has died, and as they had no children, Greta is at a loose end. The factory has been taken over by a committee, so she is thinking of coming back here to live. I will try to find her somewhere in the new year, but for now she will stay with us”.

Aunt Greta was a revelation. Although four years older than Mummy, she was so glamorous, like a film actress. She arrived in our small apartment like a perfume-scented whirlwind. Lifting Inge up, she showered her with kisses, leaving lipstick marks all over her face. Then she hugged me so tight, I could feel every curve of her body, and the soft lips planting kisses everywhere. I could tell from her expression that she was unimpressed with our accommodation, but she was too polite to say anything nasty. “Oh, little Inge, such a beauty. And Manfred, what a handsome young man you turned out to be, a real heart-breaker”. I confess that Inge and I had been expecting that she might bring us gifts. But nothing appeared. However, she did produce a lot of large sausages from her suitcase, as well as a jar of mustard, and two large tins of sauerkraut.

We ate very well that evening.

At times, it seemed to me that Mummy resented her sister. When she showed us jewels and brooches that she had kept, Mummy sniffed at her. “Nowhere to go dressed up like that, Greta. You would do better to exchange them for some sturdy shoes, and more food”. My auntie ignored her, and winked at me instead. She slept on the two armchairs, pushing them together at night. I offered her my bed, but she was adamant that she didn’t want to disturb us. Her free spirit fascinated me, and her habit of wandering around the apartment in her underwear made my eyes bulge at the sight of her.
Mummy didn’t seem to care. Maybe she was unaware that I was growing up, and noticing such things.

On Christmas Eve, we got small gifts. I received a fountain pen from Mummy, and for Inge there were new knitted gloves with small rabbits woven onto the backs. It seemed that we had nothing to give Aunt Greta, so I went into the bedroom and got the nylons. I knew Mummy would have something to say, but I resolved to present them to Greta anyway. She shrieked when I handed them over to her, quickly unwrapping one packet. Mummy gave me a quizzical look, and I hurriedly made up a story. “I found an old suitcase lying in an alley off the main square, auntie. All that was in it were those two pairs of nylons. I think a Black Market man must have run away from the police, and left them there. Mummy doesn’t wear such things, so I thought you would like them”.

Mummy walked over to the fireplace to put some more coal onto the fire. I sensed that she didn’t believe me, but wasn’t about to spoil the evening with an argument. Greta removed the wool stockings she had been wearing, and rolled the nylons up each leg in turn. When she had attached them, she lifted her dress and paraded around in circles, with Inge clapping delightedly. As I watched her, I started to feel uncomfortably hot.

And when she walked over and kissed me full on the lips, I thought I might pass out.

Berlin, 1947.

Aunt Greta stayed for a lot longer than Christmas. Mummy got her a job through one of her connections, and she became a book-keeper at the Office of Pensions. She went to work every day, and when she got back in the evenings, things cheered up a lot. She had stopped sleeping on the armchairs, when a work colleague had found her a small folding bed that she slept on in the living room. Every morning it was tidied up, and stored in my room until bed time. Other things started to appear too. A small radio came first, and then a reading lamp, given to me for my room. I suspected she was selling off her jewellery, but it was never mentioned.

My attraction to her grew out of all proportion, soon becoming an obsession.
I sat close to her whenever I could, and took every opportunity to gaze at her when I thought she wasn’t looking. I delighted in seeing her dancing around the apartment, or watching her wash at the sink. One day, she called me “My handsome shadow”, and kissed me on the lips. After that, Mummy must have said something, because she never appeared in her underwear again, and stopped lifting her dress when she was dancing. I was confused by Mummy’s attitude, and her seriousness sometimes put a damper on the evenings.
It wasn’t unknown for me to go into my room and have a sulk.

On one of those occasions, Mummy came in and sat on the edge of my bed. “Manfred, I am aware that you are growing up now. I think it is time that you stopped calling me Mummy. Mama would be better now, don’t you think? And you should call auntie Greta by her name, not just ‘dear auntie’. When she is washing, you should stay in here. You are too old to be looking at ladies in their underwear, son. Besides, I am sure we will be moving out soon, into our new place. So you will have to get used to her not being around”. I didn’t know what to say, so just nodded.

Because of the attention I had been giving Greta, I had all but forgotten about Helga. There was only one bar of chocolate left in my hiding place anyway, as I had been saving it to try to bribe her for a kiss. Then one afternoon after school, I saw her walking home with a boy called Rudi. He was fourteen, and had a bicycle. I was shocked to see him place an arm around her shoulders, and had to face the fact that I had lost her. Then later that week, Greta arrived home with a man. His name was Ernst, and he was the brother of one of her work colleagues. He was introduced to us all as her new ‘friend’, but I knew what that meant. I shook his hand, and then went into my room, fighting back tears.

It felt like my world had ended.

To ease my heavy heart, I threw myself into my studies. I continued to learn Russian, and started English classes too, staying on late after school finished. After Easter, we got a new teacher, Herr Obermann. He had a false leg that dragged when he walked, and a nasty scar down one side of his face. But he turned out to be a kind teacher, and very encouraging. When I told him of my intention to become a policeman, he agreed it was a worthwhile job. “But complete your studies first, Kraus. Then when you go into the police, you will be able to get promotion, and not just walk the streets in uniform”.
I thought about what he said, and decided it made sense.

That September, Greta moved out to live with Ernst. I was shocked to discover that they were not to get married, but nobody else seemed to care. Mama said that they would live in the northern suburbs, where Ernst had rooms. She could see that the news made me sad. “We can go and see them sometimes, and she will visit occasionally. She has to live her own life, Manfred. Ernst is a good man. He is a member of the Socialist Party, and has a good job. He will look after her”. She put her arm around me, and squeezed hard. It felt like the old days again.

Inge was growing up fast. I was surprised how tall she had become, and she excelled at sports. One afternoon, we went to see her in a gymnastics display at the school, and she got the second prize. Mama was very proud, and I felt good for my sister too. Not long after that, she stopped playing with dolls and toys, and spent most of her spare time with the sports coaches. As the year ended, it felt as if we were both putting our childhoods behind us. Inge also started to use the folding bed left behind by Greta, and no longer slept in bed with Mama. She walked to school with a group of her friends, and I was not asked to look after her anymore. I thought she was still very young to be so independent, but nobody asked my opinion.

Berlin, 1948.

The news really excited Mama. The allocation of our new apartment had come through. It was further east, but still within walking distance of school, though a long walk. We went to see it on that Saturday morning, when Mama was to be handed the key. A man from the newspaper was there, and he took photos of the first families to get the keys, as we lined up outside the building. It was on the top floor, the fourth floor. Lots of concrete steps led up to it, and it felt strange to be in a place that was so empty. It seemed huge inside. We each had a bedroom, though they were very small. There was an inside lavatory, with a shower fixed over it, and a wash-basin to one side. This was unimaginable luxury to me, after so long living at Frau Winter’s.

The living room and kitchen was combined, but it was big enough for a table and chairs, as well as our armchairs. It was heated by electricity, so we would no longer need wood or coal. Outside, there was a small communal grassed area, with swings and space to play football. It had a funny smell in the apartment though, and some of the doors didn’t seem to close properly.

The next weekend, a man came to our old apartment with a flat-back truck. He and his teenage son carried all our furniture down as Mama packed our clothes into two big suitcases. I was going to ask why we were allowed to take Frau Winter’s things, but thought better of it. Mama got in front with the man and I sat on the edge of the back of the truck with Inge and the teenager, as we drove to the new place.

Sadness overwhelmed me as we turned at the end of the street.

I was going to miss my neighbourhood.

Berlin, 1948.

For Christmas that year, Mama gave me six large journals, and some more ink for my pen. She said I could use them to take notes for my homework, but I decided to write down the story of my life so far instead.

That is how what you are now reading came to pass. If anyone should ever read it, of course. I have no way of knowing if that will happen.

Long hours in my room, or at the dining table, remembering the events at the end of the war, and what happened after that.

We got big news too. In the new year, Inge would depart for Russia, where she was to receive a scholarship to continue her schooling whilst perfecting her gymnastic skills with the best teachers in the world. Her new home would be in Moscow, where she would live with other students from around eastern Europe, all selected for their academic or sporting prowess. I felt sad to hear this, and was sure Mama would object. But she thought it was a wonderful thing, and so did Inge.

I seemed to be the only one who didn’t want my sister to go.

Berlin, 1949.

There was to be a small farewell party, before the chaperone arrived to escort Inge on the long train journey. Mama managed to get some tasty treats, and Greta arrived with Ernst. She brought Inge a vanity case, which seemed a silly present for such a young girl. I also received a gift. A metal ruler, and a set of hard pencils. Perhaps she thought I was studying Technical Drawing instead of Languages, I wasn’t sure. Ernst announced that they were moving to Dresden. The city was being slowly rebuilt after the wartime devastation, and they needed skilled draughtsmen like him. Greta would transfer with her job at the Office of Pensions. When I heard what he did for a living, I realised why I had been given such an inappropriate gift.

It was dark by the time the car arrived to take Inge. I expected tearful farewells, and her to change her mind at the last minute.

But I was the only one who cried. Alone in my room.

The apartment seemed very quiet without Inge, and I took to spending a lot of time alone in my room. One evening, Mama arrived home from work in a state of excitement, flinging open the door to my room. “Come outside and hear the news, Manfred. Quickly”. When I was sitting at the table, she reached over and grasped both my hands. “We are to be new country, officially. The German Democratic Republic will come into being this October. What do you think about that? No more Russian control, and our own country, governed by a German political party. The others will have their American puppet state in the west, controlled by the allies”. I thought for a moment. After all, Berlin would be deep inside this new territory, more than one hundred and fifty kilometres from what was to become the Federal Republic of Germany in the west.

“And what of Berlin, Mama. Will it be part of this new country?” She beamed. “Of course, it will be the capital city”. Her smile faded slightly. “But they have to let the British and Americans remain, the French too. So it will still be divided. That can’t last for long though, so let’s be positive. And to celebrate, the Socialist Party are arranging a summer camp for their loyal members. I am invited of course, so are you. We will have a holiday, Manfred. our first since you were a toddler”. I didn’t really remember that last holiday. I had only been three years old, so my only memory of it was of my father carrying me on his shoulders, on a hot day. Mama had told me the details, relishing every moment as if it had been the most fantastic holiday any family had ever taken.

Mama’s official job got her heavily involved in the preparations for the birth of our new Germany. She was on more committees than I could take in, everything from the flag-design committee, to the relocation of orphans organisation. That meant she was always home late, and sometimes stayed out overnight. I would be fourteen soon, so was expected to take care of myself. I heated up stew for my dinner, or ate bread and cheese when I couldn’t be bothered to cook. The radio broadcasts were more boring than ever, with constant interviews about how we would soon have our own powerful country, and take our rightful place on the world stage. That meant more time spent studying, and I became something of a swot.

Despite Mama’s enthusiasm, and all the excitement, I could see with my own eyes. The Russians were still everywhere, and at school we constantly learned about how they had saved us, even though we had been told this one hundred times before. By the time my birthday arrived, Mama looked exhausted with all the extra work. But she made sure to be home for dinner that night, and presented me with a book. “For your studies, darling Manfred”. My excitement at unwrapping it fell flat when I saw the title. It was a copy of ‘Das Kapital’, by Karl Marx, an edition printed in English. She looked so pleased, I tried to be enthusiastic, but I’m not at all sure I carried it off.

She had more news of the holiday to come. “It will be a camp near Altendorf, so not far. The Party has arranged coaches to take us, and we will stay in tents. It will be such fun, with organised events for both adults and children. Food is provided, and we will cook and eat communally. Open fires, singing, sports, and games. Even swimming in the lake. Perhaps you could learn to swim this year, son?” I did like the sound of getting away after so long stuck in the city. But I would have preferred to go back to the seaside; just me and Mama, with Inge too. I managed to look a little excited. “Sounds great, Mama”.

The reality of the holiday was very different from the picture painted by Mama’s words. It turned out to be full of children, most much younger than me. The adults like Mama were mainly there to supervise, and to do jobs like cooking, or organising sports. I had to share a big tent with five other boys, and I was the oldest. Washing was done in a communal tent, with boys and girls separated, naturally. The toilet facilities were horrible, just planks stretched across a big ditch inside a huge tent. All the boys had to use one, and the girls another at the other end of camp. But there was one thing that kept me from wanting to run screaming into the woods.

And her name was Hannelore.

On the second morning she came looking for me early, calling my name from the entrance to the tent. I pulled on my shorts and went through the flap, wondering who it was. It was a young woman, and I hadn’t noticed her the day before. The first day had been spent getting used to the place, and we had eaten late. I had to tell the young ones sharing my tent to stop giggling, so I could get to sleep. By the time I heard her calling my name, I wasn’t in the best of moods. But the sight of her wiped all that annoyance from my mind.

Perhaps four inches taller than me, with light brown hair tied in a pony-tail, I guessed she must be at least eighteen, maybe even twenty. She was wearing a tight white vest and equally tight shorts, both leaving little to the imagination. Her tone was businesslike. “I need you to help me organise some things for the little ones. I was supposed to have another helper, but she didn’t show up. You’re the oldest boy around, so you will have to do. You can forget messing around with the others, as you will be helping me every day, from breakfast to bedtime. Okay? My name is Hannelore. Get your shirt on and follow me”.

I would have followed her over the edge of a cliff.

Altendorf, 1949.

Hannelore was not that enthusiastic about her job at the camp. She got me to do a lot of the boring stuff, like rounding up the kids, and making them line up for the games. Whatever chance she got, she would sneak off into some trees to smoke cigarettes, something not approved of in a young woman. I was given a list of activities that the kids had to do in her absence, like passing a ball back down the line and then the last one running to the front. I had to decide which line had won, but I was constantly looking over my shoulder to see when she was coming back. That resulted in a lot of shouting from the actual winners, when I made the wrong decision.

When she was really bored, she would make them do things like frog-racing, where they had to run in a crouched position that made the majority of them fall over. That always made her laugh, and I concluded early on that she didn’t like the kids that much at all.

But she looked so lovely when she laughed.

One afternoon, a small girl fell down into the toilet ditch, slipping off the plank as she did her business. Hannelore was summoned by one of the adults, and told to deal with the screaming child. She took one look at the shit-covered kid, and smiled at me. “Your job, handsome”. I took the girl over to the female washing tent, and scrubbed her clean. Hannelore had called me ‘handsome’.
I would have shaved a tiger if she had asked me to.

When the young ones went in early to eat, we got some free time. I followed Hannelore into the woods, and watched her as she sat smoking. Her body fascinated me, but of even more fascination was the fact that she was so unashamedly hairy. She had as much hair on her legs as any adult man in the camp, and when she raised her arms, the hair in her armpits looked like two rabbits were living in them. I considered the fact that she was deliciously feminine, yet in some ways more masculine than me.

One light evening, we were sitting in the woods. I was being bothered by some sort of biting insects, as she was casually lying back on the grass blowing smoke up at the treetops. I couldn’t stop looking at her large breasts under the tight vest, unencumbered by a brassiere of any description. She caught me looking, and I quickly averted my eyes. Too late. “Like what you see, handsome? How old are you anyway?” I wasn’t about to state my real age, so gambled. “You tell me. How old do you think I am?” She ran her eyes up and down me for an uncomfortably long time. “Seventeen? No, sixteen. Sixteen I reckon”.

I smiled, wasting time as I decided what to say. “Almost sixteen”, I lied. She sat up and dug a small hole in the grass with her fingers, burying the cigarette end. The next look she gave me was one I had never seen before, but instinct told me it was a good look. “Old enough then. Come on, let’s go and eat”. On the way back through the woods, she suddenly stopped. “Hang on, I need to piss”. Before I could move, she pulled down her shorts and white panties and squatted just three feet in front of me, letting out a huge stream of urine that ran into the grass. I was transfixed by the sight of her naked behind, and not even remotely uncomfortable about this rather startling display of intimacy.

Still mesmerised, I hadn’t even noticed that she had pulled up her clothes and was standing again. “Come on, dreamer, I’m hungry. Haven’t you ever seen a girl piss before?”

The next day, there was to be a film show in the evening. Everyone was eating earlier so that the kids would be supervised as they watched it, sat in rows on the ground, shortest at the front. The Socialist Party had a film truck, and it had driven out from Berlin to set up for the camp. Some people erected a large screen in front of the truck, little more than a big white sheet supported on long poles. Then a lady stood at the front and announced that the sound was broken, but they would show the cartoons and a silent film anyway. The film about the forthcoming statehood celebrations was cancelled though.
Nobody minded that.

I saw Mama sitting at the end of the front row, her arm around a small girl. I thought she might be missing Inge, and guessed she had volunteered to sit with the young ones. Hannelore told me to sit with her, right at the back, away from the audience. After less than five minutes of the first ancient cartoon, she pushed my shoulder. “This is so lame. Come on, Freddie, I need a smoke”. I followed her into the woods, not minding that she called me Freddie, a shortening of my name I usually didn’t care for at all.

It was the start of sunset, and still quite light. Through the trees, we could see the flickering of the film projector, and hear the squealing of the children.

I was lying on my back watching her smoke, enjoying the fantasy that it was just us two, and she was my girlfriend. When she stubbed out the cigarette, the last thing I expected was for her to roll over and start to kiss me. But that’s exactly what she did. I felt her hand between my legs, and my tongue went suddenly dry. She spoke with her mouth so close to me, I could feel her lips touching mine, and the smell of tobacco on her breath. “Feels like you’re ready”. She stood up, and pulled her vest over her head, then started to unbutton her shorts. It seemed like a dream to me, and I was sure I would wake up. I watched as she slid her shorts and underwear down to her ankles, then pulled them off along with her canvas shoes. “Come on Freddie, you’ve still got your shorts on, get them off now”.

I couldn’t move, let alone manage buttons. Hannelore knelt down and undid them herself, dragging them and my underpants off over my leather sandals. Then she moved her left leg over me, straddling me with her arms supporting her on either side of my head, the heavy breasts bouncing close to my nose. As she lowered her body onto me I felt an amazing sensation, like nothing I had ever imagined. It seemed as if fireworks were going off behind my eyes, and I thought my heart would stop beating.

Ten seconds later, her voice brought me back to reality.

“Finished already? For God’s sake, was that your first time?” I was past lying now, and slowly nodded my head. When I replied, it sounded like the croak of a frog. “Sorry”. She seemed strangely pleased, not angry at all. Stroking my face fondly, she smiled sweetly too. “Doesn’t matter. We will just have to wait until you are ready again, won’t we?”

She didn’t have to wait long.

By the time we got back, the film show was coming to a close, and we managed to resume our places with nobody noticing we had been gone. I now considered myself to be an accomplished lover, and very much a man. She had been very kind, and as we got dressed, had complimented me. “Well, what you lack in technique, you make up for in enthusiasm. I hadn’t expected that third time”. I went to help her round up the kids, and get them to their tents. I gazed at her adoringly as she shouted at the children. I was totally besotted with her, and wondered if she would become my wife in time.

As things were packed away for the end of camp, I took the opportunity to talk to her alone. “Will we meet up back in Berlin, Hannelore? I can tell my mother that we are together as soon as I am old enough”. She grinned, leaning forward to kiss my cheek. “You’re a sweet boy, Freddie, but I start my training next month. I have applied to be a border guard. Got to be more exciting than working in a kindergarten”.

On the way home in the coach, Mama was chatting non-stop about how well the camp had gone. When she noticed me staring wistfully out of the window, she stroked my head. “Are you alright, Manfred? Did you have a nice time?” I nodded, and smiled at her.

“The best time ever, Mama”.

And I never did learn to swim.

Berlin, 1949.

It was all over. We now had a country that was no longer just Germany. Mama was ecstatic, and attended numerous celebrations. I found it all a bit much, and cited having to study as my reason for not accompanying her. No matter how many times she told me I would regret missing the parades and speeches, I remained unconvinced. Life was not that much easier than it had been last year, and shortages of everything was still the norm. We had issues with the new apartment too. Electrical problems, frequent power cuts, and those doors that I had suspected were hung wrong never did close properly. Mama said I shouldn’t complain. “Remember what it was like after forty-two, Manfred”.

She had a point. The last three years of the war had been horrible. At least there was no bombing, nobody was being killed, and the city was slowly returning to something like its old self. So what if some countries hated us?
We had our own allies now, and the strong backing of the Soviet Union. Mama was sure life would get much better, and I had to agree with her.

After my woodland liaison with Hannelore I calmed down a great deal, and stuck to my studies. I would be taking preliminary examinations next year, and hoped to do well enough to go to a good high school when I was sixteen. Inge was doing fine in Moscow, according to her letters, and she hoped to be able to visit us next year, when her gymnastics team was coming to do a big display. Mama was now home most evenings, and we settled down into an after-dinner routine where she would discuss things with me as an equal.

“When you are older, you should join the Party, Manfred. It will help you a lot in whatever career you decide to embark on. Of course, I have my contacts, but they only have so much influence”.

I supposed that the trauma of the war, losing her husband, and having to be used by a Russian soldier had all made her determined that such things should never happen again. She was putting her faith in this new order of things, and her trust in the Party to make life fair for all.

I wasn’t so sure. But I made the right noises, to keep her happy.

Berlin, 1951.

The year after I got back from summer camp passed by without too much change in our lives. Inge hadn’t been able to come home with the team, as she had some sort of contagious fever. Mama worried a lot of course, but one of her contacts spoke to one of his contacts, and assured her that Inge was just unwell, and receiving good treatment. He also made a vague promise about getting Mama a trip to Moscow some time soon.

Nothing came of that.

What nobody could fail to notice was that thousands of people had gone. Migration to the west was depleting the population rapidly. And the Socialist Party was losing face too, with some of the most important members expelled. Mama of course took the side of the hard-liners, and thought it had been good to inject some new blood into the membership. She was also very critical of those leaving, and one evening made a comment that I later had cause to remember very well. “They should be ashamed, Manfred. How are we to build a successful new country if so many want to go and live in the west? They should build a wall, or a high fence perhaps. Some sort of barrier. It will keep people safe here, and stop spies and suchlike”.

For someone who had spent her youth as a waitress, Mama had come on a long way indeed.

When my examination results were announced, I was very pleased. I had come in the top ten percent for English and Russian, and in History and German too. Only the science subjects let me down, but I had no intention of pursuing a career in that field. I put in my application to study languages at High School, and waited to hear if I was successful.

One afternoon when I got back from the library, there was a note pinned on the door. Mama had been taken ill at work, and was in hospital. I didn’t even delay to put my books inside, and left for the long walk to the clinic mentioned on the note. They made me wait on a chair outside the ward for almost two hours. When I was finally allowed in to see her, I was very shocked. Her face was as white as chalk, and her arm was connected by a tube to a big glass bottle containing what looked like blood. I kissed her cheek, and held her hand. “What is it, Mama? What has happened?”

She told me to sit on the small chair by the bed. “It is just a woman’s problems, Manfred. Don’t ask me too much now, as it is embarrassing to talk to you about it. Don’t fret now, I will be well very soon”. Ten minutes later, a stern-looking nurse arrived and told me I would have to leave. “They are all ladies here young man, and they don’t need you sitting here looking at them”. I wanted to say I hadn’t looked at anyone, but Mama patted my knee. “Go home now, son. There is a potato salad under a cover, and still some ham left on that joint. Come back tomorrow”. I kissed her cheek again, and left. I was already well-used to looking after myself.

She was in there for six days. When she came home, in a car provided by the Party, it took her a very long time to walk up all the stairs, even with me helping her. When I got her settled in bed, she was still reluctant to answer my questions, making what sounded like a short speech instead. “Now Manfred, you must be brave. I am still quite ill, and they cannot tell me if I will get better anytime soon. I am going to need your help more, and Marianne from downstairs has agreed to help out when she can. Leave me to rest now. By the way, I won’t be going back into work for a while, so don’t worry if I am not up early. And you must write a letter to Inge, tell her not to worry”.

With Mama almost an invalid, and in bed most of the time, life did change quite a lot. I had to ask Marianne for lots of favours, including buying our shopping, and doing some laundry. She was a good-hearted woman, but had her own life to worry about too. Mama gave her some money occasionally, and also arranged for her teenage son to get a job as a clerk in her department.

We muddled through, but she didn’t get better.

Berlin, 1953.

My mother died three weeks after my eighteenth birthday. She never heard about my final examination results, or that I had been accepted into university. She was only forty-two. Inge couldn’t get back for the funeral, which was arranged by Mama’s colleagues in the Party. I sent my sister a letter, pretending Mama had died in her sleep. I didn’t let on what the doctor had finally told me, which was that her cause of death was a tumour in her womb, and had been inoperable. I knew that she had been in terrible pain.

Less than ten days after her funeral, an official-looking lady came to the apartment. She informed me in a matter-of-fact way that I would have to move out, to make way for a family. “Your sister is resident in Moscow, I understand? A clever young man like you could easily find work, and a nice room with a good family. Or perhaps a bachelors’ hostel? And you are going to university soon are you not? Good. Then you can arrange accommodation there”.

That evening, I made up my mind.

I would abandon plans to continue my education, and join the Police instead.

Berlin, 1953.

I passed the physical and the compulsory written test, then got called in for a formal interview. I expected questions like “Why do you want to be a police officer?” But sat in the large room facing four very official-looking men, one in full uniform, it seemed that they mainly wanted to talk about my family.

“Your mother is a loyal Party member. Your sister is part of the gymnastics team. Your father was killed serving with the Afrika Corps, and neither of your parents ever joined the Nazi Party. Is that correct, Kraus?” I sat up straight as I replied. “All correct, sir”. The man tapped the paperwork containing my application form.”And you speak English and Russian, as well as being able to write in both too, yes?” I was glad that they had actually read it. “Yes, sir. Correct again”. He exchanged a look with the man in uniform, and they both nodded. “Thank you, please take a seat outside. We will be calling you back soon”.

All that build up, and just those few questions. I was sure they were going to reject me.

Almost one hour later, the door opened, and I was asked to go back in. Other than the man who had asked the questions, the people inside had changed. A stern-looking woman sat at one side of the desk, and a heavily-scarred man was in the central chair. As I sat down, he spoke to me without looking up from the paperwork in front of him. “Tell me, are you prepared to become a Party member?” I answered quickly, remembering what my mother had told me. “Yes sir, I am happy to do that”. He looked across at the woman, and she turned sideways, staring me straight in the eyes. “Tell us what you know of the State Security Service”.

I had heard talk of the Stasi, which had been founded a few years earlier. Mother spoke about them in glowing terms. “They will safeguard us against western spies, Manfred. Help root out the undesirables, and those who seek to undermine our new republic. They will also deal with those ex-Nazis who hope to take back power”. I repeated what she had told me, word-for-word, making it sound like my own conclusions. The woman nodded, and wrote down a lot of words in a large book on her lap. Then the man finally looked up at me. “How would you feel about being offered a job with us, instead of becoming a policeman?” It only took me seconds to realise that him and the woman were something to do with the Stasi, and only one more second to reply.

“I would be honoured to accept, sir”.

The woman nodded to the man, and he smiled. It was a rather scary smile, given that his face was covered in scars. “You are prepared to undertake investigations into people from all walks of life, some of whom you might know? To listen to taped recordings of conversations and telephone calls, and to translate them from other languages if necessary? You would agree to become part of an interrogation team, and participate in arrests of individuals when ordered to do so?” I gathered he had stopped talking, and was awaiting a reply.

“Of course, sir. Whatever duties were required of me”.

The woman closed the book on her lap. “Welcome to the State Security Service, Herr Kraus”.

The training was a lot more basic than I had expected. Based in an old army barracks outside of the city, it involved being taught to use a pistol and assault rifle. There was a bit of physical exercise too, but no marching or drilling. Most of the time was spent in a classroom, with the eleven others in my induction group. They ranged in age from eighteen to almost forty, and there was only one woman. Lots of lectures about borders, foreign spies and agitators, and working alongside the Russian military and MGB. We were told that this would soon be known as the KGB, and already had a vast network of agents and informers. It was going to be the model that the Stasi would base itself on.

I was surprised to hear how much information they already had about so many people still living in East Germany. They referred to them as ‘dissidents’, ‘trouble-makers’, sometimes even ‘Nazi-lovers’. I also learned about the everyday dilemma for ordinary people who had chosen to remain in our new country. If they had done that, why had they done that? They could have emigrated to the west, but chose to continue living in the east. That very loyalty made them suspect, and their motives questioned. Unless they were long-standing Socialist Party members, served in the current armed forces, or had joined the Stasi like me, it seemed everyone was to be considered ‘dubious’.

Early on, I realised that this was going to be a very busy job.

The suspicious nature that was the culture there extended to our colleagues, the other recruits. We ate together in large groups, up to sixty at a time. I found myself scanning the rows of diners, wondering ‘what’s her story?’ or ‘he doesn’t look the type for this job’. I shared a two-bunk room with three others. Other than our names and places of origin, we didn’t have a lot to say about our lives before joining up. After a relatively short time, paranoia had well and truly set in.

Upon completion of some practical assessments and written tests, I was interviewed to be told that I had passed the course, and was now a Stasi officer. In another part of the barracks, they kitted out those of us who had been successful. We got two suits, not new, but clean and serviceable. Two pairs of shoes, and shirts and ties too. Some also got uniforms, but I wasn’t told to go to that queue. The final issue was a lined raincoat, and a wide-brimmed trilby hat that made me feel very grown up when I put it on. There was also a suitcase to put the spare clothes in, but nobody got socks, or underwear. They were up to us to supply.

I was sent to wait outside an office with around a dozen others. One by one, we went in to sign a document that we would not divulge anything about our training or our job, and I was given a Walther PP .32 pistol in a small holster that fitted in the waistband of my trousers. I was told it was loaded, and more ammunition would be available wherever I was going. Then I got my identity documents and badge in a leather holder, and was advised to guard them with my life. Everyone had to go back to their rooms to wait for the postings notice to be put up in the canteen.

The rest would all be learned ‘on the job’.

Stendal, 1954.

I was left hanging around in the training school for the few weeks before the new year. Along with a few others, I did a bit more training on using radio receivers and tape recorders, and they kept us apart from other groups of trainees that arrived. Then my posting came through, and I was told to report to the office.

My destination was to the west, Stendal. That was much closer to the new border, and there was a lot of American activity less than sixty kilometres from there. The Russians had stationed almost a complete army group in the area, with a large presence at the old Stendal barracks. At the time, things were increasingly tense between the Soviets and the Allies, with the other side building up a large number of troops based around Hanover. My job was to work at one of the listening stations, and hope to pick up information from the Allies’ radio transmissions. I was to be taken there by coach with others being dropped off at their postings on the way.

Any excitement I was feeling at being let out to do my job was soon diminished when I arrived. We had a small Stasi office at the barracks, and I was told I would be sharing a room with another surveillance operative. The place was packed with Russian soldiers, many of whom were reminiscent of those I had seen around my old district in forty-five. Quite a few of their senior officers were openly drunk at all times of the day and night, and most were also convinced that the next war would be starting very soon.

That evening, I met Walter. He was to be my room-mate and mentor, the one I would sit next to, as he showed me the ropes. A serious man, perhaps forty years old or slightly less, he quickly told me a little of his background. A member of the Communist Party before the war, he had been arrested on trumped-up charges, and sent to a labour camp. He survived the rough treatment there, but when he returned home after liberation, there was no trace of his family. As he was fluent in English, he had applied to join the Security Service at the earliest opportunity, and applied himself to the job like a man with a mission.

After two shifts with Walter watching me, and pointing out small errors, I was incredibly bored. The equipment we were using was just not up to the job, and most of our time was spent listening to the stronger signals of the various Allies’ entertainment stations. When they interviewed soldiers sending messages home to loved ones, I diligently wrote down the names and ranks of those mentioned, which might at least give some idea of the troop deployments over the border. But if I had been expecting the frisson of discovering some great secret, I soon realised that nothing like that was going to happen.

After more than a month of this, I was seriously considering my future, and contemplating applying for a transfer. We were stuck on the Russian base with no time off, and the routine was mind-numbing. I hardly saw daylight, except when I sometimes wandered around the camp grounds, being eyed suspiciously by the Russian troops on guard duty.

Then something happened.

We were called in before our shift, and the whole group was crowded into a small meeting room. Major Becker looked flushed and excited as he addressed us.
“We have picked up a local signal, just outside Stendal. It appears that someone nearby is using a radio to communicate with some ex-Nazis in the west. This seems to be connected to the Werewolf guerrilla group that operated at the end of the war. Our best guess is that an ex-SS man is living under an assumed identity, and attempting to pass information about Soviet troop movements to his conspirators over the border. We have tracked the signal to an exact location, and will be mounting a raid tomorrow at first light”.

He went on to show us maps, and tell us how some of us would be in an arrest team, backed up by some Russian soldiers who would seal off the area. Then he read a list of the names of those who would be going. When I heard him say “Kraus”, I took a deep breath. Walter was not on the list, and when we talked about it later in the room, he seemed relieved. “My health is not so good, Manfred. I doubt I would have been accepted if not for my knowledge of English. Be careful tomorrow, and make sure the Russians don’t shoot you by mistake”. I hardly slept that night, and when someone banged on the door to tell me it was time, I was heavy-headed and sleepy-eyed.

Four of us were going in a car, with twelve Russian soldiers following in one of their trucks. Major Becker was in the front passenger seat. He turned to look at me. “I know it’s your first time, Kraus. Just stick behind me with your pistol ready, and whatever you do, don’t shoot me in the back”. The driver laughed, as it was supposed to be funny. But I wasn’t laughing.

The house stood on its own up a short driveway. The Russians deployed into the woodland area on both sides, with two remaining at the front. I followed the Major to the front door, and he nodded to the other two to check around the back. I was imagining that we would force the door, or perhaps even have some kind of device to use on the lock. So when the Major simply walked up and hammered on the door with his fist, it made me jump. “Open up! State Security Police! Open up!” A light showed inside, but nobody came to the door. Becker kicked it repeatedly. “Don’t make me have to break the door down, or it will be the worse for you!”

After that outburst, the door opened a crack, and the Major pushed on it, walking inside. A middle-aged woman stood there, wearing a nightgown with a shawl around her shoulders. She looked absolutely terrified. “Who else is in the house, lady? Come on, speak up!” Becker’s voice was loud and intimidating, and she seemed transfixed by him. “Kraus, check upstairs. Quickly now”. I pushed past them and went up the wide wooden stairs, pistol in hand, and safety catch off. The light on the landing showed four doors, all closed. I was shaking as I tried the first door handle, but it opened to an empty bathroom. I could hear the Major still shouting at the woman as he searched downstairs. As I tried the second door, there was the sound of a shot from outside, and some yelling in Russian.

The man had climbed out of a window, and made a run for it through the woods before my two colleagues had got around the back. He hadn’t counted on the soldiers being there, and was soon spotted. They had fired the warning shot, so they said, and he had stopped. I thought it more likely that they had been trying to hit him, and missed. But I kept that to myself. The Stasi officers appeared in the hallway with a tall man held tight between them. He was barefoot, and wearing only pyjamas. Despite his circumstances, the man looked remarkably calm. He stood erect, and his manner struck me as imperious. The Major smiled, and gave the woman a small push toward the door. “Take these two to the Russian truck and tell them to guard them while we search”.

When they came back, the four of us began a methodical search. Nothing was obvious of course, but a lot of stamping on the floor soon revealed a hollow sound, and a trapdoor concealed under a heavy sideboard. I was sent down to investigate, using my hand torch. In the small space below, I easily found a radio in an old suitcase, along with annotated maps, and some radio code books. A long wire aerial was concealed behind some pipes, and that led all the way up into the roof space. I passed everything up to the others, and emerged to find a delighted Becker with a beaming smile across his face.
“Good job, boys. Now, let’s get them back for questioning”.

On the way back to the base in the car, the Major turned to me.

“You did well, Kraus. It will not go unnoticed”.

Berlin, 1955.

Despite a glowing report from Major Becker, and his recommendation that I be transferred to a plain clothes active unit, the wheels turned slowly. I was stuck at Stendal for the rest of the year, still listening to poor quality radio messages, and watching Walter get excited about nothing. During that time, it became glaringly obvious that we were little more than a branch of the Russian KGB, and that they were ultimately in charge of most of our operations.

My only diversion came from being allowed to go on trips into Stendal with Erich, the car driver. I was rather taken with the daughter of one of the town’s bakers, but with no decent transport, it was pointless asking her out on a date. Erich took pity on me, and put my name forward for an official driving course. That took place on the base, and was an intensive course for six days. I was pleased to pass it, but by the time my licence and permission to drive our allocated car came through, my transfer had also arrived.

Back to Berlin, to work at Stasi headquarters. I wasn’t complaining.

I was no longer stuck on surveillance. They put me on one of the arrest teams, led by Captain Teller. He was the golden boy of the Stasi at the time, and he had served in the Wehrmacht, as an infantry officer. But he embraced the new regime immediately, and had an uncanny knack of sniffing out Black Market operations, and dissidents. My sergeant was called Gunther, and when he found out I could drive, he made me one of the team drivers.

This was more like it. I felt like a policeman, going out on raids and arrests, threatening bad guys with my pistol, and slapping on handcuffs. We were usually accompanied by some others in uniform, which made it seem very official. I heard about interrogations lasting days, and some of the team talked about being involved in beatings too. But for some reason, I wasn’t asked to do that. My job seemed to end once they were handed over, and taken to the cells.

Back in the capital, the benefits of my new job became very apparent. I was allocated a small apartment within walking distance of headquarters, and I didn’t have to share it. There was access to extra food, and decent clothes too.
I also earned enough to pay a woman to clean my place and do my washing and ironing. She always seemed afraid of me, despite my youth, and was almost reluctant to accept her small salary when I paid her. My identity card and badge could open any door without the slightest argument, and for the first time in years, I felt relaxed. Perhaps I had found my niche, after all.

When I turned up for work one morning, the sergeant told me we were off to arrest a woman for ‘seditious utterances’. A female uniformed officer would accompany us, and it should be an easy job, as the accused was quite elderly. He showed me the name and address on the paperwork. It was Frau Winter, still living at our old place. I thought it best to tell him I knew her, and suggested it might be better if he took someone else to drive him. He shook his head. “Less trouble if you know the old cow. You can get her out without too much drama”.

On the way, he told me that Frau Winter had been reported for complaining about the government. She repeatedly said that life had been better under the Nazis, and didn’t mind who heard her. I mentioned that she had lost both sons in the war, and had been forced to move into her own basement room. Gunther shrugged. “Not so bad. She should have tried surviving time in a labour camp for being a Communist”.

I was sent in, accompanied by the sour-faced woman in uniform. I showed Frau Winter my badge and the arrest warrant, and realised she didn’t recognise me. “It’s me, Manfred. I used to live here”. She shrugged. “I had to move down here because of you three, and when you went they put a rough family into my nice apartment. Now you are working for them. What would your mother think of you arresting a woman who was kind to you”. She shocked me by suddenly spitting at my feet. “My mother is dead, Frau Winter”. She shrugged again. “And so are my sons”. My uniformed colleague grabbed her arm, and led her to the door. There was no need for handcuffs. She stayed silent all the way back to headquarters, but as she was led off to the cells, she stopped and turned, snarling at me.

“Think you’re a big man now, Manfred Kraus. You are no better than the Gestapo, boy. Your time will come, mark my words”.

Later that evening, I thought about what she had said. She had a point.

Fortunately, life wasn’t only about work. I caught the eye of an attractive barmaid one night when I stopped for beer and sausage on the way home. I stayed for an extra beer, and asked her name. It was Mona. I remembered my training, and asked more questions. Her surname, age, and where she lived. I didn’t just rattle off a list, but slowly worked them into the conversation. As I left, I casually said, “Might see you again soon”. She smiled rather coyly. “That would be nice”.

The next day, I checked her out. Mona Friedrich. We had nothing on her, and she wasn’t on any of our lists. A general check showed that she had told me her correct age and address, where she was shown renting a room in a large old house. Next chance I got, I popped into the bar again, and there she was behind the counter. I chatted normally at first, steering the conversation round to her working hours. But before I could suggest a date, she asked me a question. “So what do you do for a living, Manfred?” It wasn’t so much that we were not allowed to tell people what we did, more that it was often the kiss of death when it came to dating and romance. I saw no point trying to deceive her, so showed her my badge. “I’m with the SSD”. She smiled. “That’s a good job to have these days”.

And that was how I got myself a girlfriend.

More good news arrived. Inge was coming home for a holiday, after all this time. I said she could stay at my place, and I would sleep on the floor. Captain Teller approved my request for time off, allowing me five full days to spend with my sister. On my first date with Mona, I told her about my Inge, and how she was a leading gymnast in the national team.

I was looking forward to them meeting.

Berlin, 1955.

On the day Inge arrived, I was at the main station before her train got in. I expected her to be tired after a long journey, but I had managed to get hold of some nice chocolates and a small bunch of flowers, as a welcome home gift. Surprisingly, not that many got off the train. Most were Russian of course, and many were in uniform. When there was no sign of my sister, I walked further along the platform, looking into the compartments. Almost at the last carriage, I suddenly heard a voice behind me. “Manfred”.

As I turned with a growing smile, it stopped dead on my face. I was unable to hide my shock. There was little Inge, now sixteen years old but not much bigger than when I had last seen her. Dark circles ran around both her eyes, and her skin was pasty-looking. Walking forward, I wrapped my arms around her, and kissed both her cheeks. I was alarmed to feel how tiny and frail she was, with her ribs obvious, even through her coat. I forced a happy face. “Shall we go and have some hot chocolate and cake, Inge? I know a good place that will have the best”. She shook her head, her expression joyless. “I am not hungry, Manfred. Can we just go back to your place, so I can rest?” I reached down and took her small suitcase. It was the same one she had left with, all those years ago.

The walk to my apartment wasn’t far, but Inge stopped numerous times on the way. After the fourth time, when she leaned on a lamp-post for support, I could hold my tongue no longer. “What’s going on, dear sister? Are you ill? You must tell me”. Taking a deep breath, she tried to smile, but failed. “It’s okay, Manfred. Let’s get to your place. We can talk later, when I am rested. It was such a long journey”. Inside my apartment, I took her coat, and caught my breath when I saw how thin she was. The small dress was so loose on her, it twisted around her body as she walked over to sit on my one armchair. Her wool stockings had fallen down around her shins, and she made no effort to pull them up. Her legs were so skinny, I could make out the bones of her knee joints quite clearly. She was far from being a healthy gymnast, that was for sure.

There was so much I wanted to ask, but I respected the fact that she was no longer a child. I had to give her the chance to speak when she was ready. As I made some coffee, she removed her shoes. “Can I go to bed, Manfred? I will feel better after a sleep”. I waited until she was settled in my bed, and quickly checked on her. But she was already asleep, still wearing her dress.

The plan for that evening had been to take her to the bar, to meet Mona. I thought we could have beer and sausages, and chat to my new girlfriend when she got a break between customers. But by the time it was dark, Inge was still asleep. I decided to wake her, and took a cup of coffee through. “Inge, wake up darling. I have brought you coffee. It even has sugar in it. Sit up, and drink it while it’s hot”. She was reluctant to stir, but eventually sat up. Trying to sound very cheerful, I stroked her lank hair. “How about we go and get some food? We can meet Mona at the bar, she is so looking forward to seeing you”. After one small sip of the coffee, she shook her head. “I’m not hungry, Manfred. You go, go and meet her. I will be alright here”.

Now I was losing my patience. “Nonsense. I haven’t seen you in all these years, and I am not about to just go out and leave you sleeping. Come on, get out of bed. You must eat something”. She swung her legs out of the covers so slowly, it reminded me of when my mother was desperately ill. “I will drink the coffee, Manfred, but I really don’t want to eat”. I decided to try to tempt her. “We don’t have to go out, Inge. I have your favourites, right here. Fresh bread, smoked cheese, even some delicious plum jam. You know how much you love plum jam”. There was no lightness in her voice. “Like the jam Grigiry used to bring? The Russian jam?”. I nodded. “That’s the one, the very same”. She shook her head. “Not for me, thank you”.

As she sat back in the armchair staring at her coffee, I made myself a snack with the cheese and bread. I was hungry, and it looked like the planned trip to the bar was not going to happen. Inge wasn’t saying anything. The visit I had anticipated with such delight was already turning into something that gave me grave concern. After almost an hour of silence, I just had to say something. “You are not well, I can see that. You are too thin, even for a gymnast. I am worried about you, have you seen a doctor? Don’t just sit silent, you have to talk to me. We only have each other, and I am not going to sit here like this for five days, until you go back to Moscow.”

When she replied, her voice sounded much older, as if there was something heavy in her throat. Still holding the cup with both hands, she turned her head to talk to me, and I saw something dark behind her eyes.

“I am no longer a gymnast, Manfred. I wasn’t good enough, never stayed in the top three. They said I was too tall, then I was too heavy. For the past year I have been helping the coaches, mainly arranging the kit for the travelling to events.
I don’t even get to share the dormitory with the young girls anymore. I sleep in a store-room at the training school, surrounded by floor mats and drying washing. They say I am too old now anyway. So that’s it. My so-called career is over. I am not on holiday, I have come home. I will need to find work, and I didn’t even finish my studies”.

The tears were forming in my eyes as I walked over and knelt on the floor in front of her. I took the cold coffee away, and wrapped my arms around her, kissing her head. She was trembling, but had no tears. I suspected she had cried them all out, long ago. After a long time sitting like that, she pulled away. “Manfred, there is more. I don’t know how to tell you, and I am ashamed to talk about it. But with Mummy gone, I have nobody else to tell. Auntie Greta is too far away, and I have no friends”. I stood up, and stroked her face. “You can tell me anything, Inge. You must know that”.

She swallowed hard, and began to talk.

Berlin, 1955.

The story that Inge related to me made me angry and desperately sad at the same time. At least when it was over, I was able to get her to eat something, and to drink some warm milk. But when she went back to bed that night, I couldn’t sleep, and sat for most of the night at the table, writing a report.

She told me that at first, the abuse had been verbal. Constantly being told she would never be good enough. Coaches screaming at her when she was still just a child, telling her she was too fat, and was eating too much. When she cried, they sat her facing the corner, leaving her there until she apologised. It wasn’t long before the physical abuse began. Slaps, pushes, being left in uncomfortable positions for long periods, and having her wrists twisted, or hair pulled. And it wasn’t the Russians doing this, but the East German coaches, and the chaperones that were supposed to be caring for her.

Eventually, lack of good food, nights without sleep, and constant humiliation broke her spirit. When they told Mama that she was too ill to come home for the contest, that was a lie. They left her there to punish her for her supposed lack of effort. Then when she was just eleven years old, the sexual abuse began. I was appalled at her revelations. The first to latch onto her was a woman, someone who was tasked with making her take extra practice in the evenings. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the woman used her for her own pleasure, and poor Inge was too depressed to care or complain. “Who would I have complained to, Manfred? It was common knowledge that many of the girls, and even some of the boys, were being targeted like me”. She tried to smuggle out a letter home, outlining what was happening, but it was discovered, and she was cruelly punished for that.

Later on, she was ‘noticed’ by the deputy head coach, and he decided to give her ‘special lessons’ to improve her skills. But most of those supposed lessons took place in his room. At first, he had to put his hand over her mouth, to suppress her cries and screams. But as time went on, she went to him willingly rather than face any other punishments, like being passed around to some of the Team Officials. But at the start of last year, he had got her pregnant, and an abortion had been arranged in Moscow. When she got back from the hospital, she was taken off the team, and told she was now helping with the kit and routine jobs around the gym. She slept in the store room, and nobody spoke to her unless they had to.

Three weeks ago, she was called into the team office, told she was being sent home to Berlin, and had been officially ‘retired’ from the team.

Of course, as well as the rage I was feeling, I felt I had let my little sister down, even though I had known nothing about what had been happening. I resolved to expose those criminals who were supposed to be nurturing sporting talent, and taking care of our child athletes. My poor sister was only sixteen, and her life had already been ruined.

I got into work early, despite officially being on leave. When Captain Teller arrived, I asked to see him. My handwritten report was perused for a while, and then he looked across his desk at me. “Just tell me, Kraus, I don’t have time to wade through all this”. I quickly summarised everything Inge had told me, adding the names of the people most responsible. When I had finished, I sat up and looked him in the eye. “I want them arrested, and brought back to face trial, Captain. As soon as it can be arranged”.

The Captain gave me a weary look. “Think about this as if it was not your sister. Take a step back, and consider it as a criminal case. Where is the evidence? It is just your sister’s accusations against people who will undoubtedly have solid alibis. Witnesses? Will any of the other supposed victims come forward to corroborate her story? Will they make statements, or appear in court? And this abortion business. Do you think there will be any record of that happening? You are young, but sensible. You know that will be denied. And what if there was evidence of the hospital treatment? Who’s to say who the father of the child was? They will probably say that your sister was promiscuous, and may even manage to get some young men to come forward, admitting they had sex with her. But if you think that any of the officials or team coaches will ever be implicated, then I am sorry to say you are deluded”.

Before I could say a word, he carried on.

“And you must think about your career. Not only that, but your sister’s future too. If you go ahead with this official complaint, nothing will come of it, but both of your lives will be ruined. You will be filing papers in the basement for the rest of your working life, and she will be lucky to get a job cleaning the toilets in a hotel. Believe me, Kraus, you are going to have to put this down to experience, and you will both just have to let it go. It is the way of things, like it or not. Perhaps your mother should not have been so keen to send her daughter away to Russia at such a young age? Either way, all you will do is stir up a hornets’ nest that will come back to sting you both”.

I stopped myself shouting, but my reply was bitter. “So is there to be no justice in our new Germany, Captain? Is life for victims of crime to be no better than it was before the war? If so, then what are we doing here? What is the Stasi for, if not to ensure equal treatment for all, and the rooting out of undesirable elements? What am I to tell Inge when I go home?” I was close to tears, but fought them back.

Interlacing his fingers, he considered his reply.

“You tell her that you will look after her. We will get her a decent job, somewhere to live, and access to good medical care if she needs it. Your position will guarantee her safety here in Germany, and I swear that nobody will ever touch her again, you have my word. You are a good officer, with a bright future. Throw that away, and you throw away Inge’s future too. In a short time, all that will be just a bad memory, I promise you. Now trust me, and forget this report, okay?”

I waited too long to reply, obviously. He put my file into a drawer, and looked away as he spoke to me.

“You are dismissed. Make the most of your time off”.

Berlin, 1956.

Captain Teller had been as good as his word. Inge was employed as a trainee teacher, without having to sit any tests or attend an interview. Mona had come up with a plan too. She would move in with me, and Inge could take over her room in the nice shared house. I was quite surprised at Mona’s modern attitude. When she said she would move into my apartment, I said, “Are we to marry then?” She had laughed. “Why? There is no need. We don’t have to be married, and it’s not as if we are intending on having children. We are both too young still”.

I went to see the man who owned the bar where Mona worked, and suggested that he might like to change her to a day shift, where she could serve breakfast and lunch. She would then be home in the evenings. He must have known who I was, as he agreed immediately.

I hadn’t mentioned my report or the conversation with Captain Teller to Inge. We never spoke about what she told me again. She started to get back to something of a normal life, and enjoyed the idea of teaching the small children. She also settled in well in Mona’s old room, and liked being able to close the door when she got home, to shut out the world.

That Spring, I celebrated my 21st birthday with Mona and Inge, enjoying a meal and drinks at the bar where Mona worked. Her boss waived the bill, telling me he was pleased to offer his hospitality. Another perk of the job.

But we soon had other things to worry about.

There was trouble in Hungary. Armed insurrection against the government had escalated into an all-out war on the streets. The Soviets had become involved, and had sent in troops to put down the uprising. Nothing was reported publicly here, but we knew that people would get to hear about it.
Work became incredibly busy. We started to round up everyone who had any connection to or communication with Hungarians, as well as some of the well-known trouble makers who we believed would try to jump on the bandwagon. When I returned with two suspects one afternoon, the Sergeant in charge of custody told me that the cells were full, and we had to take them to a small police station in the suburbs.

That was a tense time indeed, and carried on until order was restored in Hungary in late November.

Berlin, 1957.

Not long after new year’s day, Mona surprised me by announcing she was going to visit a cousin. She had never mentioned her before, but suddenly this cousin was a great friend, as well as a relative. She would travel by train to Freiberg, not far from the Czech border, and be gone for a week. My job made me suspicious of everything now, so I immediately checked Mona’s file at headquarters. I noted with some amusement that she was now shown as living at my address, which left me wondering who was keeping tabs on me. Page two of her unremarkable file did indeed show a cousin living in Freiberg. Surprisingly though, there was no name or address for that cousin, just a one-line entry.

While she was away, I was summoned to Captain Teller’s office. “Good news, Kraus. You are to be promoted to sergeant, and I am going to make you my driver. How do you feel about that then?” I guessed this was a reward for keeping quiet about the report I had written about Inge. But it was a good job to have, and the promotion would do me no harm. I smiled at the Captain. “I feel very pleased. Thank you, Captain Teller”.

The new job was so much better. I was finally included in lots of things that I hadn’t previously been allowed to know. I went to meetings with the Captain, and overheard top-secret conversations in the back of the car. Whenever anyone was hesitant, the Captain would say, “It’s alright, Sergeant Kraus is my driver, and you can say anything in front of him”. Whatever his motives, Teller had drawn me into an inner circle that I hadn’t known existed. Mona had been delighted at the news of my promotion. But I could get little or nothing out of her about her trip to see the cousin. “Oh, she has been unwell, she just wanted to see a familiar face, and chat about old times. I was bored, to be honest”.

It said a lot about the new me that I didn’t believe a word of it.

Being the Captain’s driver was such an easy job, I soon became bored. The action of the arrest teams faded into memory, as I spent my time driving to meetings at various buildings around the city, then sometimes having to wait in the car for hours. I was also at Teller’s beck and call, never knowing what time I might finish for the day, or if I would even get home at all, when meetings ran on long into the night. One thing I did learn from that job was that everyone still residing in the new East Germany had a file on them. And almost all of them were suspected of something or another. Stasi recruitment kept on increasing, and yet we never seemed to have enough officers to deal with the workload.

Outside on the streets, life went on much as normal. The rebuilding of the war-damaged areas continued, as well as the construction of new apartment blocks and public buildings. People did their jobs, ate their food, and acted much as they had before. But the sense of fear and dread was palpable at times. Say the wrong thing, listen to the wrong radio station or pass on some rumour or gossip, and you could be sure someone would denounce you.

One evening as I drove him home, Captain Teller informed me that we had stopped recruiting anyone else to serve in the SSD. He laughed as he told me the reason. “We just realised that we don’t need them, Manfred. The people are prepared to work for us for free, by informing on their neighbours, colleagues, even members of their own family. All we have to do is sit back, take the reports, and decide which ones we want to follow up on”.

When he got out of the car, I realised the implication of what he had told me. From a policeman’s point of view, we had achieved utopia.

An entire nation, policing itself.

Berlin, 1958.

Mona announced another trip to see her cousin. It was coming up at the weekend, and she would only be gone until Monday. “She’s still poorly, Manfred. I said I would go and help her, get her shopping, clean her house, that sort of thing”. I nodded. “That’s fine, give her my regards”.

When Mona was asleep that night, I did something I had never done before.
I crept into the living room, and picked up her handbag. Taking it into the bathroom so I could switch on the light, I searched through it carefully, making sure to leave everything in the same place. There was nothing remarkable, and I was just about to close it when I noticed a bulge in the leather at the back. I found a small zip along the side seam, and slid it open. Inside the small pouch was a flat leather holder of some sort, and I managed to slide it out, despite the very tight fit.

When I opened it, I almost dropped the bag.

In front of my eyes was a Stasi identity card, and a smaller version of the same badge I had. The name on the card was Lieutenant Hannah Ziegler.

It took a while until I had calmed down enough to carefully replace it in the zipped compartment. Then I switched out the light, and returned the bag to where I had found it. I went back to bed, but didn’t even try to sleep.
Something was very wrong.

She had left for work before I got up, and as soon as I was at headquarters, I hung around to see if Captain Teller needed me. He saw me hovering. “What’s up, Kraus? You waiting for me? I will be at least an hour, so you can go and get some breakfast if that’s what you want”. I waved my thanks, then headed straight down to the records office downstairs. The records clerks didn’t bother about me. They had seen me there plenty of times, and knew very well that I worked on the arrest squad with Teller, so my presence didn’t raise an eyebrow.

I checked out some old names I knew well, then turned to the staff records, casually sliding open the drawer marked ‘Z’. It didn’t contain many files, so I easily found one with the heading ‘Ziegler, H’. My suspicions were confirmed when I opened it to find a head shot photo of Mona, wearing the uniform of a Stasi lieutenant. Reading down the form, I was shocked to discover that she was shown as being married to a Heinrich Ziegler, who resided in Freiberg. Everything started to make sense, and I replaced the file slowly, showing little sign of being interested in it. As I hadn’t asked to remove it, I didn’t have to sign anything, and I nodded to the clerks as I left.

Sitting in the canteen with my hands wrapped around a coffee cup, I faced the truth.

It had all been a setup, right from the first time I noticed Mona in the bar. I had been there a few times before and never noticed her, but that night she had been right at the front, and very friendly and approachable. They had arranged for us to meet. Sure of my attraction to a pretty waitress, who would be amenable to being chatted up, asked out, and becoming my girlfriend. Then she could watch me, report on me, remember anything I said about my job, or something I might say that wasn’t in keeping with my position. Then there was my sudden and surprising promotion. In the know, as Captain Teller’s driver. What might I talk about? What secrets about the Captain might I divulge?

It had all been so easy. Mona had agreed very quickly to becoming my girlfriend, and she had been the one who suggested moving in too. Then the trips to Freiberg, no doubt to visit her husband. What sort of man lets his wife live with another man, just so she can spy on him? My problem was how to deal with what I knew. I would have to give that some thought. Meanwhile, I would have to go home to Mona that evening, and act as if all was normal. It didn’t surprise me that they would be watching me, even though I had done nothing wrong. It was just the lengths they had gone to that seemed excessive.

Early the next morning, I arrived outside the Captain’s apartment as usual. I had no end of trouble starting the car that morning, so left the engine running. The twenty year-old Mercedes was past its best, and the mechanics kept it running as well as they could, often having to make parts from scratch. When Teller didn’t appear, I went to the row of bells, and buzzed his name. A few moments later, his wife appeared. Her make-up from last night was still on her face, and smeared from where she had obviously been crying. With her lip quivering, she spoke quietly, almost as if she couldn’t breathe. “He isn’t here, sergeant. He went out late last night, and hasn’t returned. I am worried sick, as I am sure he wasn’t at work”. I replied politely. “Don’t worry, Frau Teller. I am sure there is nothing to concern yourself with. I will head into headquarters and check on him. Someone will telephone you”.

When I got into the office, I was very surprised to see Colonel Nagel siting in Teller’s chair. When he saw me, he beckoned me in. He looked intimidating in full uniform, with his rimless glasses, and slicked-back hair.

I stood to attention as he spoke.

“Ah, Sergeant Kraus, isn’t it? You can leave the car keys on the desk. It seems that Captain Teller no longer has any need of a driver. You speak fluent English, I understand? Good. Report to the translation office on the fourth floor. You are reassigned”. He waved his hand at me as if I was no more than an annoying fly.

I spent the rest of the day translating letters and documents from English into German. Sat next to me was a bored-looking woman in her fifties who typed on an old heavy machine as I spoke. Most of the papers I had to translate were personal. Insurance documents, old family letters from relatives, and recently intercepted letters, or those that had been found on detained suspects. It was dry stuff indeed, and I was left thinking how I would cope with years of doing this as a job.

When I got home that night, Mona was gone. Her things had all gone, and her side of the wardrobe was empty. The spare key was nowhere to be seen, and it was as if she had never been there. I sat down heavily in the armchair. First Teller, now Mona, and my crappy new job into the bargain. I wondered what the hell was going on, and if the day could possibly get any worse.

Then there was a knock at the door.

Berlin, 1958.

I answered the door with my heart in my mouth, and was relieved to find it was Inge. But the news she brought was far from welcome.

“Manfred, Aunt Greta and Ernst have left. They have gone to the west. I wrote to her recently, and when I got no reply, I telephoned her work. They tell me she has gone to Stuttgart, where Ernst has a new job. Now there is only us, no more family”. She didn’t cry, but was obviously upset. I didn’t know what to say. The day had been bad enough, and now my relative had apparently left for West Germany. I couldn’t imagine how they got permission, but I wasn’t about to go into work and ask any questions.

I calmed my sister down, and later walked her back to her room. I knew full well that my superiors would know all about Greta, and feared it would not go down very well at all.

Sure enough, when I arrived at the translation office the next morning, there was a note on my desk telling me to report to the office of Captain Graf, an officer in Internal Affairs. I walked up the stairs with a sense of dread. Many people summoned to see Graf had never been seen back at work. A heavy-set, cheerful man, his appearance belied his fierce reputation. In an organisation that worked in an atmosphere of suspicion, he was probably the most suspicious of all.

His secretary showed me in, and he indicated that I should sit opposite him as he continued to read through some papers in a file. Slapping it down with a loud crack he spoke in a friendly tone, his voice unnecessarily loud. “What are we to do with you, Sergeant? It seems you have been in some bad company. Captain Teller has fled to Austria, and I suspect he may have been working for the Americans all this time. Now your aunt and her husband have decided to live in the West. Your sister couldn’t manage to stay on the gymnastics team, and your former girlfriend and her husband vanished last night, location unknown. Do you have anything to tell me, Kraus?”

My mind was working overtime. So Mona had been working for Teller, keeping an eye on me. Or had she? Maybe she was working on surveillance of Teller, and he had arranged for her mysterious disappearance to cover his escape? In such a short time, my world had turned upside-down, and I had no idea what was going on. Mainly, I felt foolish, for not being aware of anything.
Graf tapped his fingers on the desk, and I quickly answered. “I only found out about my aunt and her husband last night, Captain. As for Captain Teller, I had no idea that he was anything other than the officer in charge of my arrest team. When I got home last night, my girlfriend had left, but I presumed she was visiting her cousin in Freiberg”.

I hadn’t even convinced myself, so though it unlikely that Graf would believe a word of it.

But to my relief, it seemed that he had. “I’m sorry to say that your aunt and her man are no loss to this country, Kraus. We are better off without the likes of them. And don’t be worrying too much about not knowing about Teller.
To be honest, he surprised us all. But I would be interested to know why your girlfriend disappeared. Did you know she was married? You must have suspected she was a Stasi officer, surely?” I wanted to act as surprised and outraged as I could, without overdoing it. But I went for a sad realisation instead.

“A Stasi officer, Captain? Mona? Of course I had no idea, I met her in the bar where she worked as a waitress. And as for her being married, I would never have lived with her had I known that”.

Because he was so affable, I was wary of being lured in to saying something I would regret. So I left it at that.

Graf threw me completely, by changing the subject. “You got sent to a new job, I understand. What do you think of working in document translation? Be truthful now”. I shrugged, and decided to be honest. “Well, it’s rather dull, Captain, but I suppose it has to be done, and I am able to translate from English quite well”. He leaned back in his chair, and lit a cigarette.

“Don’t look so worried, young man. If I suspected you were involved in anything, you would be in a cell, not sitting in my office. I count myself a good judge of people, and I judge that you were just used by others without your knowledge. My belief is that your ‘Mona’ has gone to wherever Teller has, and they were in it together all along. Can you believe he has left his poor wife behind to face interrogation? Not to mention his teenage son at university.
He was arrested in Leipzig, and will be brought here for questioning”.

Thinking it best to say nothing, that was precisely what I did.

In a very short time, everything I knew had changed. Teller was probably a spy, my Aunt had left the country, and I had no idea whether Mona had been spying on me, or on Captain Teller. I had fallen from grace, in every way possible. The bright future I had imagined had vanished as quickly as morning mist burned off by the sun.

Halfway through his cigarette, Graf leaned across the desk. “So, now you are supposedly guilty by association, and likely to spend your career pushing paper around on the lower floors. Well, I don’t think that’s right, and I am sure it is not what you want. How would you like to come and work for me instead? You wouldn’t credit how many Stasi officers are bad apples, and as for the paid informers, most are the scum of the Earth. You could help me to root out those who are supposed to be rooting out others, and not doing that. What do you say?”

What was I going to say? “No” was hardly an option.

“Thank you very much, Captain Graf, I would be very happy to accept”. He seemed inordinately pleased. “Good, very good. You will be my driver. Forget the translation office, and take the rest of the day off”. He slid a piece of paper across the desk. “Take this to the motor transport office, and they will give you the keys to a car. Pick me up at seven tomorrow at the address written there”.

As I was walking to arrange the car, I had a worrying sense of deja-vu.
But at least I wasn’t in a cell.

I had just joined the ranks of the most unpopular people in East Germany. It had been bad enough being just Stasi, but now I was one of the most hated and feared, the Stasi who policed the Stasi.

For some reason, it was strangely comforting.

Berlin, 1961.

Working for Graf had been a real eye-opener. I learned that more than three million people had already left East Germany, simply by crossing to the Allied Sector, then disappearing into western countries, or applying for official papers to emigrate. Unsurprisingly, that figure included many Stasi officers, eager to get away in case the border was closed for good. There had been lots of gossip about tougher restrictions, and the rumours were spreading like wildfire.

We rounded up their friends and families, and made life difficult for relatives left behind. They were watched, monitored, and their chances of getting better jobs or promotion were non-existent. One thing that did come as a shock was that Graf was remarkably agreeable, even to officers arrested on suspicion of planning to leave the country. My image of beatings and fierce interrogations was not happening at all. My boss was a man who valued information above all things. Any prisoner happy to give such information was treated fairly, though others simply disappeared into prison somewhere.

The new job made me feel as if I was walking on water. Our arrival at a Stasi office was treated like a Papal visit, with even very senior officers deferential to Graf and myself. Nobody wanted to fall foul of Internal Affairs, and they were happy to co-operate with any of Graf’s demands. Operating like a separate force with the organisation, we could more or less do what we wanted. Arrests were frequent, and never challenged. We could request to see any documents or files too, nothing was beyond our remit.

More good news came for me, in the Spring of 1960. I was to be promoted to Lieutenant, not long after my twenty-fifth birthday. Inge was teaching full time in a junior school, and now had her own studio flat in the eastern suburbs. She was still painfully thin, and reclusive socially, but she was as settled as she was going to be. I managed to see her at least once a month, though irregular hours in the new job meant I never knew what my working hours would be.

Despite my new rank, I stayed as Graf’s driver. Though he now treated me more as a colleague, than a subordinate. I was happy to stay in my apartment, as I only ever seemed to get back to sleep there. Something else changed though. I started to feel very grown up. I had made career choices that tied me to the administration, and realised there was no going back. That summer, everyone was told to attend an important meeting. Graf had drafted in a lot of help, as we were going to detain a large number of suspect officers, as well as many members of the civilian police too. After the briefing, I was called in for a talk with him.

“I trust you to keep this to yourself, Manfred. The government is about to start construction of a wall, a physical barrier that will divide Berlin. Once it is built, nobody will be allowed to leave the country anymore. It is obviously going to cause a lot of consternation, and we expect hundreds to try to get across before it is finished, if not thousands. No doubt many of those will be Stasi and police, as they will be the first to know. So we are embarking on a series of preventative arrests, the detention of anyone we suspect of planning to leave. We will round them up before construction starts, and they will be one less problem to worry about”.

As we walked to the car, I took in the enormity of what he had just told me. We were building a wall to keep the people in.

I doubted that was going to be very popular. And I was right.

It hadn’t been thought through, that was obvious from the start. Many East Germans had relatives in the western sector, often just a few streets away. Some still worked in the west, and they would no longer be able to go to work. As soon as it became obvious what was happening, scores of people tried to get through before the city was sealed off. That included some police officers, soldiers, and the occasional Stasi operative too. Those caught and brought in for questioning could count on a rather bleak future, that was for sure.

Any thoughts I had that the new wall would make my job easier were soon banished by a noticeable increase in our workload. Once physically trapped inside the old Russian Sector, underground groups formed almost overnight, planning escapes, and organising opposition to the government. Although we were supposed to only be dealing with internal Stasi matters, we were soon roped in to help deal with the sheer volume of increased surveillance, and higher numbers of arrests. Some days, I fell asleep at my desk, and hardly ever seemed to get home. Captain Graf appeared to thrive on the pressure, and I watched him, intent on learning the secrets of how he did his job so well.

When I had worked for Teller, I heard a lot about ‘instinct’, and having a ‘nose for the job’. Graf was the complete opposite. He favoured detail. Meticulous records, thorough investigations, and covering every angle. He was not influenced by gossip, or tale-telling. I wasn’t at all surprised to discover that he had been a police inspector before the war, and had determined to stick to his old methods.

Nonetheless, we lived in what I started to think of as the ‘Stasi Bubble’. Life outside went on for ordinary people, and dramatic world events made the news in western countries. But we never concerned ourselves with the world scene, or wider issues. For us, it was all about keeping it together, and not going backwards. To make that happen, we happily cracked down on any dissent, and freedom of speech was non-existent. That was nothing unusual to me, as I had been born into a country ruled by the Nazis and the Gestapo.
I was brought up in the same repressive atmosphere, and didn’t know any different.

The politics, and even the name of the country had changed.
The uniforms and flags were different too.

But for me, it was all perfectly normal.

Berlin, 1965.

As I approached my thirtieth birthday, I was wondering where the last years had gone. Inge would soon be twenty-six, and was firmly established as a teacher. But she had never had a boyfriend, and when I spoke to her of loneliness and marriage, she told me that she could never trust a man as long as she lived. I felt sad for her, but she assured me that her life was good. I used my position to get her a few luxuries, but she would often refuse them, telling me to pass them on to someone more deserving.

My own love-life was non-existent too. The situation with Mona had made me too wary, too paranoid to embark on a relationship with another woman. I had to sadly reflect that the job I had chosen had made me distrust everyone I met. Other than Inge, I didn’t really have a friend in the world. Of course, I did have access to women, when I wanted or needed that. We had records on every prostitute working in the city, as well as the scores of women who were working for us by informing on their clients.

I found myself a decent widow, Maria. Short of money, she had attempted to work from her apartment, but had been informed on before she had managed to bring home a single client. It was a coincidence that her younger brother happened to be a policeman, so she was referred to our office for questioning.
I was supposed to talk about setting her up as an informer, someone who would chat to her clients, and report back to us if they said anything that could get them arrested.

Although she was considerably older than me, I took to her, and even felt sorry for her. So I made her a good offer. I would set her up in a different flat, pay the bills, and supply her with what she needed to get by. In return, I could go and see her anytime I wanted to, and my job would protect her from any prying neighbours. I expected her to hesitate, maybe ask for time to consider. But she accepted immediately. We couldn’t become a conventional couple of course, but she was happy with my infrequent visits to her, and liked the fact that we often just talked.

But I only ever spoke to her about the past, never about what I did, or what was going on. And I didn’t allow myself to become overly fond of her.

Just in case.

During those years, the new wall had caused a lot of work. It had become condemned internationally of course, and even those who had willingly stayed in the old Russian Sector were not convinced by the official explanation that it was an ‘Anti-Fascist Wall’, to keep our people safe from infiltrators or spies. Many would-be escapees were killed by soldiers or border guards trying to cross over. We had discovered elaborate tunnels that had been constructed to facilitate escapes, and had an increasing number of defectors in our own ranks, as well as from the Army and Police. Graf relished the challenge, seeing each new discovery as an opportunity to round up scores of people, and get more information about their networks.

Some days, I still felt as if I was drowning in paperwork and files.

At work, I spent more and more time with my boss. I had come to really like Graf, and to consider him a friend. He didn’t consciously use his position to intimidate anyone for no reason, and working alongside him made me feel more like a police detective, than a Secret Service Officer. And after all this time, I was also becoming well-known in our circles. Many considered me to be an important figure, an experienced Lieutenant in the company of those who wielded power. I didn’t see that at all. To me, I was just Manfred, a victim of circumstance who had gone along for the ride, with no realistic option to do otherwise.

But I was happy enough to use this new influence in my favour.

One decision I made was to get Inge somewhere better to live. Her tiny studio was depressing, at least to me. I got her name down for a one-bedroom flat only five minutes from where she was living, and she no longer had to share a bathroom. And for Maria I managed to obtain some decent lingerie and nylons, as well as some excellent make-up and hair products. All of this stuff had been confiscated from smugglers who had been arrested, and it was supposed to be destroyed. But I knew where to go, and who to talk to, and I could wander around the storeroom where it was kept, choosing my goods free of charge as if in a department store. Cigarettes, chocolate, wine and liquor, I could just turn up and select anything I wanted, no questions asked.

The one thing I didn’t do was to change my own apartment. I liked how central it was, and that it was in an old building, not one of the fast-appearing high rise blocks. I got to use the car too, if I wanted, but I generally left that at headquarters, and walked home. I would walk in the next morning, and collect it to go and pick up the boss. For me, the walking around gave a connection to the city, and also enabled me to keep an eye on the district. It didn’t hurt that local people knew full well who I was, and where I worked.

Berlin, 1966.

There was to be an important meeting, and Graf asked me to drive him there. “You should come in too, Manfred, listen to what is going on”. As we walked down the stairs, he stopped and rubbed his arm. “I feel sick, Manfred. Too much cognac last night, I suspect”. He started to smile, then suddenly sat down heavily, slipping down four of the stairs on his back. I was shocked. “What’s wrong boss? Shall I get help?” He didn’t respond, and his mouth was opening and closing like a fish taken out of water. I ran down to reception, and told them to call a doctor. By the time I got back, Graf’s face had turned blue, and I knew he was dead.

Two days later, I was told that I was now the Acting Captain, in charge of Graf’s department.

As I walked home, I felt cold.

I was going to have to step up, no mistake.

Berlin, 1972.

The new job as Captain was confirmed after less than a month. I took my cue from Graf, and adopted his style. I had more people under surveillance than during his time, and listening to the secret microphones and phone taps was bringing in lots of names that were new to us. Rather than keep rounding everyone up, I advocated the use of informers and infiltrators. Remembering my own experience with Mona, we made good use of attractive women, often using them to have affairs with married officers we suspected of being disloyal. In a few cases, some of our agents even married the suspects, finding that once they were trusted as a wife, the real secrets began to be divulged.

Very soon, we were able to have a good idea just who was involved in any suspicious activity, as well as knowing all their contacts. This led to quite a few shocks. Very senior officers, important local government officials, even senior Party organisers. Some evenings I would sit alone in my office wondering if anyone was actually who we thought they were. There were occasional high-profile defectors too. Sports stars, famous writers or actors, all seemed to be taking any opportunity of travelling abroad to suddenly disappear.

After a high-profile meeting, we changed our policy. Rather than wait for these individuals to appear on western television celebrating supposed escapes, we started to expel them from East Germany. They were labelled undesirables, and it wasn’t unknown for some trumped-up charges to precede their expulsion. For most of them, life in the West was far from what they had expected. The fame or reputation they had enjoyed in their home country rarely followed them into their new life, and some became disillusioned very rapidly.

Some of those expelled were our own agents, who went to the West with a cover story, but were actually going to spy for us voluntarily. This proved very useful, resulting in the downfall of some senior West German politicians, and many other officials being implicated in scandals and disgraced.

Yet even after all those years, and all that work, escapes were still commonplace, and every so often someone would still be killed by the guards as they tried to cross the border. So we tightened the screws more than ever, letting people know just how closely they were monitored. At one meeting, it was proposed to put an informant into every apartment block and shared house, and the cost of paying these people was approved. It wasn’t long before I read the staggering statistic that we had one agent or paid informant for every six people in the republic. We had exceeded the control exerted by the Nazis, and made them look like amateurs.

Naturally, my bosses were very proud of this fact, and news that dissent was on the rise in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary was scoffed at. It was never once imagined that we could have such problems. Despite the popular uprising in Prague in 1968, there was nothing remotely similar here, and life went on much as normal. But unknown to us in our Stasi bubble, the economy of the country was collapsing; crippled by debts, bad management, and lack of exports earning foreign currency. Finance was never on our minds. We did our job, and it cost what it cost. No request for resources was ever denied, and we continued to grow our numbers of double agents and other operatives with never a question asked.

Home life for me had not changed at all. The same apartment, regular visits to Maria, and checking in on Inge when I could. It never even occurred to me that I had no social life to speak of, as work took up too much of my time to worry about that. I was thirty-seven years old, relatively secure in my job, as much as any of us could be, and the war seemed like a memory. I wouldn’t say it out loud, but I was lonely.

I was also feared.

I guessed that my position would come with that, but I wasn’t really ready for the daily implications of it, once I became in charge of the department. I now had a driver, one I had chosen myself, after much investigation. Sergeant Bauer had served in the Army in 1946, and entered the Stasi after five years as a soldier. He was a little older than me, and was married to a woman who worked for the youth programme, the Free German Youth. Their credentials were impeccable, but I never opened up to him.

After all this time, I still trusted nobody except Inge.

It was obvious that he was afraid of me. He rarely spoke unless to reply, and jumped whenever I entered a room. He didn’t speak about his wife, or her job, and never mentioned doing anything outside of work. I was rather torn. Like most people, I wanted to be liked. After all, I had never tortured anyone, had only ever shot anyone in the line of duty, and I didn’t even participate in any of the tougher interrogations that went on. That was covered by another department. In many ways, I couldn’t understand why anyone could be afraid of Manfred, who had once been a schoolboy who looked after his mother and sister.

The other side of me rather relished that fear. It came with the job, and had to be maintained. Weakness was not allowed, and with any show of weakness came suspicion. Once a suspect, however small the suspicion, life could change in a heartbeat. I worked for the Stasi who policed the Stasi. But it was well-known in our circles that there was another department whose job was to police us. And probably yet another that policed them. Our organised paranoia was on an industrial scale, unheard of in the history of mankind.

I wasn’t about to let myself get entangled by doing anything that could be construed as weak or ineffective, that was for sure.

Just when I thought things had calmed down into a manageable routine, I was ordered to report to Colonel Nagel’s office.

Although I was now a Captain, and a relatively important figure, Nagel still treated me as if I was Teller’s driver. I would dearly have loved to have got something on him, but he had resisted all my attempts to plant an informer into his social life, and the secret recordings in his office and of telephone conversations had yielded nothing of interest. It seemed the man was whiter than white. He sat with his arms folded, and nodded at a file on his desk.

“Have a look at that, Kraus, and tell me what you have to say about it”.

I flipped open the file, and the colour drained from my face. It contained photos of Inge, with another woman. Nothing explicit, but they were holding hands in the park, then sitting on a bench, with Inge’s head on the older woman’s shoulder. More photos showed her walking into her apartment with the woman, then leaving the next morning together. It could all have been so innocent, if it wasn’t for the look on both their faces. I wasn’t about to let Nagel see I was bothered.

“So my sister has a friend. So what? She’s allowed to have a friend, isn’t she? Nagel grinned, and I knew he had something up his sleeve.

“Her name is Anna Pressler. She is the senior teacher at your sister’s school. Last month, she left her husband and moved into your sister’s apartment. She is forty-four years old, Kraus, and her husband has made a complaint that your sister has seduced his wife into an unnatural relationship. It doesn’t look good”. I shrugged, trying to appear nonchalant. “No doubt she was unhappy with her husband, Colonel. My sister is a kind girl, she probably offered to let her stay while she sorts out her problems”. Nagel bit his lip, and I realised that was all he had. I closed the file.

“Leave it with me, Colonel. I will go and speak to her”.

Berlin, 1972.

I left it until the following weekend to go and see Inge. No point visiting her and Anna when they were both at work, and I certainly didn’t want to set tongues wagging by turning up in my car with Bauer.

To her credit, Inge made no attempt to conceal what was going on. She sat on the tiny sofa with Anna standing next to her, holding her hand. They were both still in their dressing gowns, and from the look on Anna’s face when I arrived, I guessed that I had interrupted something. I didn’t mince my words.

“They have a file on you, Inge. Photos, a complaint from Herr Pressler, and for all I know there could well be a microphone hidden in this flat. Even me coming here to discuss it with you will probably be monitored, so you have to tell me what you want to do”. I hadn’t seen Inge for a few weeks. She had filled out, and had some colour in her face. She looked something like the little girl I once knew. There was no mistaking that Anna was good for her. I put a finger to my lips to silence her as she started to speak. Adopting a cheerful tone, I spoke with a smile.

“Why don’t we go out for coffee and cake? That would be nice”. I nodded as I spoke, leaving her in no doubt that we had to get out of her apartment.

They went into the bedroom and dressed hurriedly, not bothering with any make-up or smart clothes. I walked between them not saying a word until we got to the small park nearby. I knew that the Stasi used lip readers, and often filmed conversations. I chose an outside table away from the counter, and at the side of the building. Anyone watching us would have had to show themselves to see our faces. When I had finished looking around, I nodded to my sister that it was safe to speak.

“Manfred, Anna and I are in love. It just happened over time, at work. Neither of us planned it, or even realised it was happening. She is not happy with her husband. He drinks too much, and is mean to her. She won’t go back to him, no matter how many times he complains. We are going to be together, whatever anyone says or does”. I looked across at Anna. She looked terrified, but her plain features softened when I spoke.

“You can stay living together, but you must try not to be so obvious. No hand-holding, or public affection. If anyone asks, you are giving Anna a place to stay. She should be registered at your address, and you must get a separate bed in the living room, so there can be no allegation that you share the same one in your bedroom. If you are interviewed by anyone else, you stick to the story that you are just friendly work colleagues. I will go and see Anna’s husband and warn him off. But you must promise me not to give anyone cause for gossip or suspicion in public. Can you do that?” Inge nodded, obviously unhappy about it, but with little choice in the matter. I carried on, looking at Anna this time.

“You do realise that your career is over, Anna? You will be lucky to keep the job you have now, and promotion will never happen. The same applies to Inge. You have both made a decision from which there is no going back. Are you certain? I need to know, because my sister’s happiness is important to me. Without sounding harsh, I don’t care what happens to you, but now you have involved my sister, and that has involved me. So you cannot suddenly change your mind. That is no longer a luxury”. She kept my gaze, and straightened up. “I love your sister, Herr Kraus. As long as we can be together, I don’t care what happens with my job. I am sorry if this has got you in trouble, I really am”.

I took a small notebook and pen from my coat pocket, and slid it across the table. “Too late for sorry, I’m afraid. My job now is to try to salvage something, and hope that you stop being of interest to the authorities. Write down your previous address, your husband’s full name and place of work. I will do my best to get him to withdraw the complaint, but I cannot promise to be successful. I put some money on the table and stood up. Inge jumped up and hugged me, whispering in my ear. “Thank you, darling Manfred”.

My decision was to tackle Wilhelm Pressler at his place of work, so I waited until Monday. Before leaving the office, I went down to check on the microphone authorisations in the records office, and was relieved to find that Inge’s name and address were not listed. Then I checked on Wilhelm Pressler. He was a Party member, and had never been in trouble. But he was noted by survelliance for frequently visiting prostitutes, many of whom were in our employ. That was something, but I would have liked more.

Bauer drove East across the city, to an industrial area in the suburbs. Pressler worked as an office manager for a small company making metal objects like buckets and pans. It was very noisy inside, and as I walked along the production line followed by Bauer, the people working on the machines eyed us nervously. In his small office, I flashed my badge quickly, not wanting him to see my name. He seemed happy to see me, and offered me a chair. I casually turned to Bauer. “You can wait in the car, Sergeant. I will deal with this”,

Once Bauer was out of earshot, I sat down and took a look at this man. I often wondered how some couples got together, and when I saw them on the street, I found it hard to believe that they had settled for each other. Pressler was no exception. Slim, smart, with thick hair slicked back, he looked nothing at all like the husband of someone so plain and dowdy like Anna. I knew he was the same age as his wife, but he looked at least ten years younger. He offered me a cigarette, and I shook my head. “So, I presume you have come about my complaint? The lesbian bitch who has stolen my wife.” He was beyond confident, even cocky.

I disliked him immediately, and let him know from my tone.

“Your wife has been interviewed. She tells us you have been unfaithful, and that you drink too much. You are also unkind to her. If this is the case, then may I ask why you are so concerned that she has left you?” He leaned across the desk, lowering his voice in a conspiratorial tone. “You know how it is, I’m sure. I couldn’t care less about the dumpy cow. I only married her because she was pregnant, then she lost the baby. But I’ll be damned if I will let myself be humiliated by her going off with a woman, and a younger one at that. If she wants to go, she can go with my blessing. But not to go and cuddle up to another woman. I’m not having that”.

When he leaned back, I opened my notebook. The page was blank, but he couldn’t see that. “Our report states that the young colleague is merely giving her a place to stay. They are good friends perhaps, but we have no evidence of anything inappropriate. Your wife has a bed in the living room, and they live together as friends until your marital situation is resolved one way or the other. It seems straightforward to me”. He was shaking his head before I finished speaking. “No, that’s not it. They are lovers. I have seen them walking hand in hand in the park, staring into each other’s eyes. believe me sir, I know what’s going on”. I looked blankly at him. “Your suspicions are one thing, but evidence is another matter. And we have none”. I flicked onto the second blank page in the notebook, and shook my head slowly.

“However, we do have evidence that you regularly visit prostitutes. Some of those women are believed to be agents of the West, or associated with conspirators here. What do you have to say about that?” His cockiness vanished in a heartbeat. “Sir, a man has needs. Have you seen my wife? I can tell you she doesn’t satisfy me. I can’t even get excited by looking at her, let alone the thought of doing anything with her. The girls I visit are not spies, I assure you. I’m a Party member, I would know”.

I closed the notebook. “I assure you you wouldn’t know which girls were doing what. If you continue with this complaint, then the evidence of your associations will have to be considered, and further investigations will be forthcoming. Why don’t you just accept that your wife has left you, and move on? You can get divorced in time, and start a new life with no black mark against your character. I can arrange for your records to disappear. As a loyal Party member, that’s the least I can do for you”.

He lit another cigarette, and I was trying to look unconcerned, though I was worried that my bluff might be called. He suddenly stood up, and extended his hand. “You’re a good man for doing that, put it there”. As I shook his hand, he smiled. “Let’s forget the complaint. Tell them I withdraw it. Tear it up. Anna can do what she wants, for all I care”. I wasn’t gloating as I left his office and walked back to the car.

I had managed to save my sister for now, but I knew it wouldn’t go away.

Berlin, 1977.

For the next five years, I became obsessed with getting my sister and Anna out of the country. As I suspected, life was made increasingly difficult for them. First of all, Anna was transferred to another school some distance away. That involved her taking various buses and trams to get to and from work, arriving home to Inge tired, stressed, and exhausted. Then Anna applied for promotion, and was turned down flat. Even worse, she was advised not to apply in future, though no reason was given.

Nagel had not been amused when I had gone to see him and told him that Pressler had withdrawn the complaint. I knew full well he would keep it on file, in the same way as I had no intention of disposing of the man’s record of visiting prostitutes. We didn’t ever do things like that in the Stasi. Once it went down on paper, it stayed there forever. Wilhelm Pressler didn’t escape Nagel’s revenge either. I found out later that he had been demoted at work, and was now making the buckets, instead of supervising others. His Party membership had counted for nothing once he had crossed Nagel.

Inge never wavered though. If anything, the problems made her all the more determined to stay with Anna. And she never once asked for my help, but I knew I had to do something.

My position was no longer so secure. I had a determined enemy in my own organisation, and I was already forty-two years old. And my domestic situation took a downward turn when Maria was diagnosed with breast cancer. I also found out that she was fifty-eight years old. I had always known she was older, perhaps fifty, but I was rather shocked to learn her real age. She had to go into hospital and have a breast removed. I did what I could for her afterwards, but I went to see her less. Even now, I am ashamed of myself for that, but not only did the surgery make me feel uncomfortable, I was consumed with plotting to help my sister.

By the autumn, I concluded that I had little to lose. Inge had to come first.

The meeting was arranged in a cinema. The three of us entered separately, and left through a side exit not long after the film started. I stood in the alley behind, outlining my plan to them. They both agreed immediately, even Anna, who was normally so fearful. I warned them to be ready to move at a moment’s notice, and left to start work on what needed to be done.

One good thing about my job was that I knew every possible way to get out of the country, and into the West. I was actually tasked with placing agents in foreign countries, and had access to forgers, photographers, and both suspects and collaborators in the underground networks. I could look at any file, no matter how secret, and interview anyone with no questions asked.

At work that Monday, I began to set up a new network of infiltrators. Taking some from a list we already had, I added the photos of Inge and Anna from their files, and gave them both false names. They would be part of the new team to be planted in the West, and it would all appear to be completely official. Naturally, I knew that once they both disappeared, it would all come down on my head, but I was past caring as long as Inge had some sort of future.

I went to see one of the forgers on our payroll, and got him to make identity cards and new passports for the seven names I gave him. Included in that seven were Inge and Anna of course. To avoid suspicion, I set up a new file for the group, and assigned Bauer various tasks supposedly connected to it. I could keep it away from Nagel, as he had no remit for operations outside of East Germany. And I tried to put the potential repercussions out of my mind, so I was able to concentrate.

Making a simple mistake wasn’t an option.

Two weeks later, I met my sister in the park, supposedly having an innocent coffee together. I slipped her the documents, and warned her to have small suitcases ready. I would only be able to get them one hundred West German marks each, and once away, they would have to throw themselves on the mercy of their new country. I told Inge to readily claim to be a defector, and Anna too. I also told her to use the fact that her brother was a Captain in the Stasi. “They will like that, Inge. It should help you. But it will also mean some suspicion. Better to tell them straight away, rather than have them find out later”.

She was tearful, and squeezed my hand. “But Manfred, when will we ever see each other again?” I told her not to worry about that, and made her promise not to change her mind. “I have already set the wheels in motion, Inge. You cannot back out now, you know that”. She nodded, and as I walked her home, we said no more.

One good thing about my decision was that it made me feel calm, for the first time in years. I called in some suspects, and offered them a deal. if they would get my women out through their network, I would turn a blind eye to any others who escaped at the same time. I might also conveniently forget a few names I had heard. They were remarkably unimpressed, and reluctant to cooperate at first. I knew they suspected a trap, and had to make the irrevocable choice of telling them the truth. “Two of those women are my relatives. This is personal, so I can assure you that this is not a trap”. I was still not sure they believed me, but they agreed. After all, I could just as easily have thrown them in jail to rot, with no evidence of what they were up to save for being denounced by someone I had invented.

The whole thing gave me the shivers. If any of them were caught before Inge got out, I would be named, and everything would fall apart.

On a freezing cold evening close to the end of the year, some of my operatives took a van containing the seven women to the agreed place. I had arranged to be somewhere else, with some witnesses. I had invited myself to Bauer’s house, to have dinner with him and his wife. They would be able to vouch for my whereabouts the whole evening. But my heart was heavy. I had no chance to bid farewell to my beloved sister, and I knew that by tomorrow morning, she would be in a place where I would never be able to contact her again, let alone see her.

I got home before midnight, but I was unable to sleep.

Berlin, 1978.

The short school holiday meant that Inge and Anna were not missed until the first week of the new year, when they should have both reported for work. The school authorities at both locations followed the usual procedure after they did not turn up the second day. Someone went to Inge’s apartment and could get no answer, so reported her missing. Entry was forced, and when nobody was discovered inside, Anna was reported missing too. The civilian police submitted a report, which was flagged up for the attention of the Stasi. Anna was on their radar for the allegation made by her husband, and Inge because she was my sister. Very soon, the report landed on the desk of Colonel Nagel.

When I was called to see him, I still didn’t know for sure that they had both got away safely. I had checked the arrest reports regularly, and saw no sign of either their real names, or the ones on the fake papers I had supplied. As I sat outside Nagel’s office, I was calm and collected. He either had something on me, or he didn’t. I was ready for whatever happened.

He didn’t beat around the bush. “I take it you know your sister and her girlfriend have disappeared, Kraus? Tell me, what do you have to say about that?” I raised an eyebrow. “Disappeared, Colonel? I had no idea. Just lately, I have been too busy with work to contact Inge. I spent a lot of time at the end of last year setting up a new circle of agents to infiltrate the West, and there was no time for any family meetings”. He sat back and sighed. “Just tell me where they have gone. It will help you, I promise”. As I didn’t have a clue where they had gone, I didn’t have to lie. Perhaps that made my reply convincing. “I have no idea where she is, Colonel. My sister is a grown woman, and doesn’t account to me for her actions, or her whereabouts”.

Nagel looked as if he was about to bite through his lip, he was so furious. But he kept his temper. After all, he could hardly have me arrested because my adult sister had fled the country, no matter how much he would have liked to. I had never feared arrest. He would get his revenge by other means, I knew that. And he wouldn’t wait too long before doing so. “Very well, Captain. I suspected you would play dumb. To be honest, I don’t blame you. But however your sister managed to travel, and whoever helped her do that, you are still here. You are the one who must face the repercussions of her actions. I am sure you know that all too well. You do, don’t you?” I shrugged. “You have to do whatever you have to do, Colonel. It’s beyond my control”.

The waiting was the worst thing. I carried on with my job, wondering when the hammer would fall. Still unable to hear anything about Inge and Anna, or to make any contact with them, or those who had organised the escape, I went through the motions. It seemed unbelievable that I was just allowed to carry on regardless, and when it ran into months, I began to really wonder what was going on.

Then one day, Inge appeared on television in the West. She was being interviewed in Hamburg, and asked questions about her defection. She stuck to what we had discussed. Her brother was a Stasi Captain, and she was being persecuted in her job. We had access to the Western broadcasts, and I was soon told about it. I was happy. At least she was safe, though there was no sign of Anna, and no mention of her name. But I also knew that I was finished now, and waited for the call that would come any day.

It came the same day.

As I was leaving work, I was approached by a man I didn’t know. “You have to come with me, Captain. I have to take you to see Colonel Meyer. Are you going to come voluntarily?” I smiled at the man. “Of course, I have always wanted to meet him”. Colonel Meyer was almost a mythical figure. His name was mentioned in the same way that children are told about monsters under the bed, or the bogeyman. I had never met anyone who had seen him, though everyone seemed to fear him. In theory, he was the head of a department that nobody knew existed. The secret police who went beyond the remit of the Stasi. They really were secret. So much so, that I didn’t know anyone who had ever met one. For most of my career, I had considered that they might not exist, a mere invention to make sure we did our jobs.

It seemed that now I was about to find out I had been wrong.

He drove me in silence, a short distance across the city. When the car stopped outside a modest-looking house, he left the engine running. Turning to me in the back, he nodded at the door. “They’re waiting for you inside”. I walked the few steps from the car wondering if this would be the last walk I might ever take, and the door opened before I could knock on it. A bored-looking man in plain clothes pointed to a door at the end of the short hallway, and jerked his head. From the attitude of both of them, I had already gathered that they had no concern for my own rank or reputation.

Inside the door was a normal family kitchen. Colonel Meyer was a surprisingly old man, sitting at the dining table like a well-dressed grandpa. I guessed he was at least seventy, probably older. But when he spoke, it was with the voice of someone much younger; forceful, polite, and with perfect diction. “Please sit down, Captain. And don’t look so worried. There is no firing squad in the back yard”. He chuckled softly at his own remark as I slid out a chair, then he reached down and removed a thick file from a briefcase resting against the table leg. I saw my name on the front of it. Tapping the file with the arm of his spectacles, he shook his head. “I have to say I’m surprised. I read your file carefully. You have done exceedingly well, never put a foot wrong. You had a great career ahead, and would easily have made the rank of Colonel within the next few years”. I sat still, and said nothing.

“No doubt you are going to say that you had no idea your sister intended to leave our wonderful country. You didn’t see that much of her, and she was not about to tell you about her escape plans. She must have been a resourceful woman indeed. My information is that her and her friend were smuggled out posing as agents. Agents arranged by you, and your department. But you are going to say you know nothing about that, aren’t you?” I kept silent, and stared into his small blue eyes. I wanted him to keep talking, to find out what he knew before I made any reply. He was right about one thing though, I wasn’t about to confess.

The next thing he said made me want to fall out of the chair, but I kept quiet.

“I am sure that your mother must have told you about me. You can thank my fondness for her that you are not sitting in an interrogation room now, with a couple of heavies rolling up their sleeves about to beat the truth out of you”.
I swallowed hard, and tried to think fast. Of course, my mother had never mentioned his name. She had never mentioned any man’s name in that sense. But now those late meetings and overnight visits were beginning to make sense. I played the only hand I was holding, and secretly thanked him for dealing it.

“My mother may have mentioned someone, Colonel Meyer. But I could easily forget the name of that person. It was a long time ago, after all”. I sat back, considering his reaction. No wonder Mama had done so well. She had risen up the ranks in the Party, and appeared on more organising committees than you could shake a stick at. She had jumped the queue to get our new apartment, and Inge had been chosen to train in Russia. It was all falling into place.

She had been looking out for us, all that time ago, and Meyer had been the man who had made it all happen.

He placed the file back in the briefcase, and turned to me with a smile. “This is what is going to happen, Manfred. You are finished in Internal Affairs, I can do nothing about that. Nagel is after you, so I would be wary of him. I can let you keep your rank, but you can have no influence, no active role, and certainly no access to any important decisions, including foreign agents, or who to arrest. Your reputation has been tarnished by your sister’s actions, and it can never recover. Do you see that? I sincerely hope you do”. I nodded.

“So I have had to intervene, and find you a job. It is going to be a very boring job, I warn you now. But if I were you, I would just go and do it, say nothing, and keep your head down. You will be the Captain in charge of closed files. The staff will deal with the filing, all you have to do is sign the file to confirm that it is closed, and just turn up for work from Monday to Friday, between eight and four. And this is the last thing I will ever be able to do for you, is that clear”.

He closed his briefcase, and put his spectacles back on. I guessed the meeting was over, so I stood up. “Thank you, Colonel Meyer”.

Outside, the car had gone.

I didn’t mind the long walk home. I was still alive.

Berlin, 1987.

For eight years, I sat in the basement office of Closed Files. I was reminded about the warning that I would end up pushing papers around in a basement, and that was what I was doing. I settled for knowing that Inge was alive and well in Hamburg, although we could never get in touch. I was fifty-two years old, and tired.

To my credit, I did help Maria during her last year before the cancer came back and took her. I helped where I could and even though my influence had diminished beyond recognition, I was still able to get access to good food and some luxuries for her. I felt older than my years, lonely, and depressed. The evenings in my apartment seemed too long, and I was going to bed earlier and earlier, trying to forget as much as I could.

As advised, I kept my head down and mouth shut, and never heard from Colonel Meyer again.
And then I heard that Nagel was dead.

It was one of those things that you couldn’t imagine. He had been hit by a truck as he left his own car and ran across to his house. Apparently, his wife had been standing in the doorway and had seen him knocked down. The driver involved was terrified, but it was judged to be an accident. Colonel Nagel, the man so feared in the Stasi, had been a victim of his own impatience to get home for his dinner.

As you might imagine, I saw that as very good news indeed.

I didn’t wait long before I tried to get out of Closed Files, and back to something that might be remotely stimulating. But my disappointment was immediate, when I was advised to apply for nothing, and to continue to sit quietly in the basement. Inge’s defection had not been forgotten, and my age was also against me. I went to a bar after work that night, and had far too much vodka to drink. At least six years to go until retirement, no prospect of transfer or promotion, and having to spend my days sitting with a bunch of prune-faced middle-aged women who had no conversation about anything.

I was beginning to wish I had left with Inge that night.

Berlin, 1989.

By the time of my fifty-fourth birthday, I was so bored, I thought I might go insane.

But things were changing.

Poland had changed. Hungary had changed. The Soviets had lost their hold over the Eastern Bloc allies, and events were spiralling out of control. By the autumn, there had been so many demonstrations in Berlin, that the government tried to calm things down by allowing people to visit the West once again. Naturally, I was no longer involved in policing or investigating any of this unrest. By the end of November, we had already received instructions to begin shredding the Closed Files. That was a huge task, and one that I suspected would take many years.

Walking home from work, I was amazed to see people on The Wall. Some were painting slogans on it, others chipping away pieces as souvenirs. The guards did nothing to intervene, and there was a strange party atmosphere on many streets. By the end of the year, it was obvious that the change was coming. I carried on going to work, and watched as my staff shredded files. As there were so many, trucks arrived to take them away for incineration too.

Familiar faces began to disappear. As the spread of peaceful protest widened, those who had seen the writing on the wall began to bail out. Like rats leaving a sinking ship, they did what they could to get out of the country during the time that restrictions were relaxed.

The mood in the city was different too. I wandered around warily, expecting to be recognised and denounced at any moment. The balance of power had shifted, and ordinary people were no longer afraid. Being a Stasi officer was soon going to put me at a distinct disadvantage, after all these years of privilege. The circle had undoubtedly turned. I knew instinctively that I would not be able to count on my colleagues. Many uniformed officers had already started to wear plain clothes, and the tension was visible in the faces of everyone at headquarters.

Berlin, 1990.

When I turned up for work that morning, there were crowds of civilians outside. Many were scattering our secret files around, and congratulating themselves on having gained access to the building the previous night. I stopped short of going in, and realised that it was all over. I no longer had a job to go to, or others to work alongside. I had spent my working life in an institution that to all intents and purposes no longer existed.

I walked back to my apartment, wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life.

In the bedroom, I had a few hundred West German marks, acquired from my previous job. There was very little that I had any attraction to in my apartment, save for some clothes, and my journals. Maria was gone, and I had no connection to anyone left in the East. I hadn’t turned up for work, but nobody seemed to care anymore. Time to face facts. My pension was gone. All those years counted for nothing. I had thousands of potential enemies, and not a friend in the world.

The Wall was as good as gone, and the Brandenburg Gate open to anyone who wanted to drive or walk through it. The German Democratic Republic was no more.

I thought of Mama. Her hard struggle to make things work. Her legacy that had eventually saved both Inge and myself. Memories of Grigiry, and the surprising news that Colonel Meyer had been her secret lover. She had worked so hard to secure a future for us in the DDR, and I imagined that she would be turning in her grave to see how readily the population had embraced the opportunity to become part of the West again.

I feared for our people, imagining that they would be marginalised in the West, and find life far more difficult than they might imagine. But it was too late. History had caught up with us, and our system was no more. I accepted that, and faced the change with a sense of foreboding.

I have enough western money to get to Hamburg, and find Inge. I am hoping that she will still be happy with Anna, and have a good life.
I will soon find out.

So, I leave these journals on the table in my apartment. I hope that someone will read them one day.

And I hope that they will understand how things were.

The End.

Little Annie: The Complete Story

This is all nineteen parts of my recent fiction serial, in one complete story.
It is a long read, in 28,870 words.

***Note for new readers. The first sixteen parts of this serial are written in ‘backward progression’. The second part precedes the first part, and so on. This may tempt some readers to skip to part seventeen, and read it in the conventional order. I ask you not to do that, as most of the plot is revealed near ‘the end’, so that will spoil the serial for you. ***

February 2019. Anne gets a birthday present.

Anne received the doll as a present for her tenth birthday. Most girls of that age are too old for dolls, but she wasn’t. Mum said it was over one hundred years old, so she had to be careful with it. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. When her Mum asked her what she was going to call it, she replied without hesitation. “Little Annie”.

Not that it looked anything like her, the opposite in fact. She had dark brown hair, lank and greasy. Her lips were fleshy and wet, and her narrow eyes a strange caramel colour, like those you might see on a feral cat.

Little Annie was blonde, with lovely huge round eyes, and a mouth like a cupid’s bow. Just divine.

When Mum told her she couldn’t take her to school the next day, Anne kicked up an almighty fuss. That fuss turned into a tantrum, which became a screaming fit. By the time it was over, Anne had had to stay off school, and her Mum had also had to take the day off work. After just one day, that doll was proving to be more trouble than she had expected. Jane Boyd had to spend most of the morning calming her daughter down, explaining her reasons for banning Little Annie from accompanying her daughter to school.

She was relieved that Roger had already left for work, and had been spared the screams.

“It’s a Victorian doll, luvvy. Do you know what that means?” Anne gave a truculent shake of her head, eyes still red from crying. “Well that means it was made before the year nineteen-o-one. It’s an antique, and very valuable. Your Dad and me could never afford to replace it, if it got broken or stolen. Besides, I don’t think your teachers are going to allow you to sit in class holding a doll, do you?” Anne shrugged, sensible enough to know she wasn’t going to win this one. She also knew that if Mum took time off work, she didn’t get paid. Dad would be unhappy about that. She reached up one arm and draped it over her Mum’s shoulder.

“Sorry Mum”.

For the rest of the afternoon, Anne spent a long time talking to Little Annie. She filled her in on the home setup, and told her the history of the family that she was now part of.

“You see, my Mum and Dad had another little girl before me. She would have been my older sister, but she died of something horrible. When they got over that, they decided to have me, to make up for it, I suppose. So they are much older than the parents of the others at school, and all my grandparents are dead too. I don’t remember them, but Mum told me I went to Granny Boyd’s funeral. I don’t remember that either. It’s going to be nice to have someone to talk to, I’m so happy that you have come to live with us”.

Standing in the doorway of the kitchen, Jane blew the smoke from her cigarette into the garden, away from the house. She was supposed to have given up, but had never managed to quit completely. Roger hated her smoking, and had forbidden it inside, or around Anne. She knew her daughter was different, even if Roger refused to discuss it. Not that she was slow or anything, as her school work was good, and the teachers always had nothing but praise for her. But there was something about her. Something Jane couldn’t find the right word for.

The word in her mind was ‘strange’. But she didn’t want to admit to herself out loud that her daughter was strange, so never voiced it.

It was probably all her fault. Having a child at the age of thirty-nine was not a great idea. Extra tests, worries about syndromes or complications, and by the time she was born by cesarean section, Jane was already forty. Anne would be eleven next birthday, so she would soon be fifty-one. It didn’t seem right to be the same age as the other kid’s grandparents. Roger was only two years off sixty, and looked older. It was so embarrassing when people asked him about his ‘granddaughter’. She knew he secretly hated that, deep inside. And it didn’t help that Anne looked nothing like either of them. She didn’t have any resemblance to any of her family, and she had not been born with Roger’s red hair, unlike poor Phoebe. Sometimes, Jane caught him looking at her, with an unusually cold expression. She wondered if he thought he wasn’t the father.

And she hoped he didn’t know that was true.

Throwing the cigarette butt into the kitchen drain, she lit another one. Roger wouldn’t be home for a couple of hours yet.

That evening at dinner, Anne insisted that Little Annie sit next to her at the table. She pretended to be able to hear the doll talking, and voiced her supposed remarks, much to the silent annoyance of her father. “Little Annie says she remembers eating steak pie. She liked it, but not the cabbage that it was served with”. “Little Annie doesn’t know what strawberry yoghurt is. She says she has never seen anything like that, and it looks too sloppy to eat”. Roger Boyd was glad when dinner was over. He had wanted to tell his daughter to shut up and grow up, but his wife pandered to her, and allowed her to still act like a baby. No wonder the girl had no friends.

As she settled in bed that night, Anne looked up at her Mum, who was tidying away her clothes. “Little Annie doesn’t have a nightdress or pyjamas, Mum. It doesn’t seem right that she has to sleep in her day dress”. Jane looked down at her daughter, the doll next to her in bed, with the covers up to its chin. “I don’t think I can get a nightdress in her size, luvvy. I might ask Margaret at work to make me one. What about that?” She kissed her daughter goodnight, and walked slowly back downstairs.

She knew full well that Roger would start moaning at her about the dinner-table conversation, so she went straight out into the garden to have a cigarette first.

With her eyes feeling heavy, Anne settled down in bed, cuddling the doll. “Goodnight Little Annie, sleep tight”.

As she turned over, she heard her reply. A wheezy-sounding voice, but speaking clearly.

“But my name is Phoebe”.

November 2018. Maurice Silverman gets a bargain.

It paid to specialise, and Maurice was a specialist. Ever since he had sold his old train set at a profit, toys were his game. Not just any toys though, collectible dolls, and stuffed toys. He occasionally dabbled in automata too, but he wasn’t technically inclined, so resented paying someone else to fix them. Trouble was, all the antique programmes on television were making people wise. Every armchair expert knew about Steiff bears now, and Internet auction sites were so full of fakes, hardly any buyers trusted the real thing.
So he mainly dealt with the trade. Genuine auctions where those in the know went to get what they knew they could sell on.

Nonetheless, junk shops and charity shops were always worth a look, even though they were packed with people trying to get their hands on some genuine Clarice Cliff pottery for under a quid. It had become his habit to go further afield, scouting the second-hand shops in the depressed towns, those where factories had closed, and unemployment was high. And it was in one such small town that he found it, sitting at the back of an animal sanctuary charity shop, run by volunteers.

The dark red hood, the scarlet ribbon, and the hand-crafted lace. It couldn’t be, but it was. He tried to hide his excitement as he casually examined it, pretending to be browsing. It was definitely by Bru et Cie. French, from around 1895. He had seen a photo of it once in a catalogue. ‘Claudine’, a copy of a doll made for unnamed royalty, and very rare. The condition was remarkable, even though the fine stitching and lacework told him it was undoubtedly original. It had a price tag tied to it. Five pounds.

Maurice carried it to the till, smiling at the very large woman in a stained polo shirt that was covered in dog hair. “Would you take three pounds for this? I think my niece might like it”. He didn’t have a niece of course, but decades in the antique game had made lying come easy. The woman was thinking about all the cats and dogs that needed neutering, and feeding too. She stood her ground. “It’s a lovely doll, mister. I think five is fair”. He smiled back, unable to make it look even remotely sincere as he fingered the loose change in his pocket. He produced four one pound coins, and placed them on the counter. “Four for cash then?”

In the four hours since they had been open, the takings had amounted to less than two pounds, and a donation of some out of date packets of dog food. She slid the doll into a plastic carrier bag, and scooped the four coins off of the counter. “You got a bargain there mister”.

At home that evening, Maurice did some research in his numerous books, and online too. Before retiring for bed, he was sure the doll was a Claudine, and that only three others had ever been sold. Someone somewhere would pay a pretty penny for that. He would wait though. The market was always fluctuating, and the recent auction figures were not as high as he would have liked. As a middleman, he always had to take a hit. But wait for the right moment, and that hit would be less. For now, the doll could wait. He placed it on a corner shelf next to two tatty Steiff bears, and switched off the light.

Two days later, he was sitting in the room surrounded by dolls and stuffed animals wondering if the forthcoming Christmas rush was going to help him shift some stock. Since his mother had died six years earlier, he had the run of the large house, and was now using her former bedroom as a workshop-cum-stockroom. She had always nagged him about his business. ‘Playing with dolls’ she had called it. She liked to humiliate him in company too. “Maurice could have got a proper job, become an accountant, maybe even started a nice jewellery business. But instead he prefers to play with dolls”.
He had never risen to it. Some Jewish mothers thrived on that, and she was one of them.

Trying to decide on which few unsold naked baby dolls to put together as a job lot, he discarded one with a crack on its porcelain face, and was wondering whether or not to include a black doll instead. It sounded like a whisper at first, and Maurice thought he was hearing things. It might be people outside, talking on the street. Then it was slightly louder, coming from behind him, and above. “Still playing with dolls I see. When are you going to get a real job?” He almost tipped his chair over as he stood up to look, spinning around, unable to believe his ears.

It was his mother’s voice. The long-dead Rosa Silverman.

There was nothing there except for the two shabby bears, and the Claudine doll. He felt cold right down to his feet, and stared at the corner for a long time without moving a muscle. Then the voice spoke again, and he sensed a quivering as the hair around his ears stood on end. “So this is what you have done to my bedroom, Maurice. Shame on you, boy”. He literally ran out the room, slamming the door behind him. On the landing outside, it felt as if his belly was full of ice, and he had to rush into the bathroom to use the toilet before he soiled himself.

It was four full days before he could bring himself to enter the room again. He was carrying a large cardboard box, and quickly placed the baby dolls into it, before grabbing the two bears from the shelf. He avoided the face of the Claudine doll, turning quickly to leave the room. Placing the box on the landing and reaching inside his waistcoat pocket, he took the old key he had found in a drawer, and inserted it into the lock. As he turned it, he could hear his mother’s voice from inside the room. It was laughing softly.


His contact at the Doll’s Hospital gave him a good price to tidy up the two bears, and he shifted them easily enough at the next auction, along with the three baby dolls. Prices were down by at least twenty percent, but he didn’t want to have any reason to go back into his mother’s old room anytime soon. As he didn’t celebrate Christmas, he spent the holiday doing some research on the Claudine dolls. It was fairly fruitless though, other than turning up some original sales advertisements from the nineteenth century, and more press clippings about a supposed association with Russian royalty at the time of the Czars.

On the first of January, Maurice decided to start the new year by being brave enough to get rid of the doll. He had considered that he might be going insane, hearing his mother’s voice coming from the closed lips of the Claudine. But in the absence of any other symptoms, he came to the conclusion that this was something beyond his control, a manifestation of something he would never understand. Getting his digital camera from the cupboard, he walked slowly upstairs, determined to face his fears. Inside the room, he took the doll down from the shelf and placed it on the cleared surface of the workbench. Six photos were enough. Front, back, full head, and close ups of the lace, the hood, and the dress. He picked up a new box from under the table, and laid some bubble-wrap in the bottom of it. Then he hurriedly wrapped the doll in tissue paper, before placing it inside, with more bubble wrap on top of it. As he stuck the box down with parcel tape, he heard a muffled voice from inside it.

“I hope you got my best side, Maurice”.

He uploaded the photos to Ebay, and offered it for sale by auction with a starting price of five hundred pounds. There was also a ‘buy-it-now’ option, of fifteen hundred. It might have fetched more at a specialist sale, but he wanted it out of the house. In that week, there were no bids. So Maurice relisted the doll at half the previous price. Still nothing. When it got to the end of the month, he saw that one person was watching the item, so he changed the listing to a straight auction with no starting price. That created some interest, and two bidders began to battle for the doll. But on the sixth day, it was still only up to one seventy-two, and he finally had to let it go at that, plus his postal costs.

Using a marker pen, he wrote the buyer’s name on the address label.

Mrs Jane Boyd.

September 2018. Orla Reilly is in intensive care.

Shawn met Orla when they were both just fifteen. They knew from the start that there would be nobody else for either of them, and they married at eighteen. Shawn found work in England, and told her they should leave the quiet town in Ireland to make a life for themselves. She naturally agreed, and they set off to the grimy industrial town that they would now have to call home. The money was good, and Orla managed to find work too. Things were looking up, and then she got pregnant with Noel. But Shawn was happy to be a father, and he put in for overtime at the car factory where he fitted the front bumpers onto delivery vans, day in, day out. Six days a week, every week. On Sundays, he was exhausted, and refused to help out with the baby. They started to argue for the first time, and that drove Shawn out of the house, defusing his temper on long walks.

Then he started drinking.

A few beers at first. Then he started to play pool with the regulars, and a few beers turned into ten. Very soon he began to meet the lads after work, missing his dinner, and rolling in drunk around eleven. He hardly noticed little Noel, and never played with his son. Orla started to sleep on the sofa, and by the time they were twenty-five, they were like strangers in the same house. Then Orla got another job. School hours, working as a cleaner for the bus company. The extra money meant that Shawn could drop some of the overtime, and Orla’s improved mood started to help thaw things out between them. Shawn took Noel to junior football on Saturday afternoons, and before too long they were back in the same bed.

That got her pregnant with Roisin, and they took a trip back to Ireland to show off the new baby to their families, and to let them see how big Noel was getting.

By the time Roisin was approaching her sixth birthday, the bad times were forgotten. Shawn came home every night, played with the kids before their bedtime, and contented himself with a couple of beers after dinner. They had moved into a three-bed, and started talking about maybe buying a place the following year, if they could scrape together a big enough deposit. A week later, it was on the TV news. The company was cutting back. Car sales were falling, and nobody was buying the vans either. There was talk of cutbacks and lay-offs, perhaps even compulsory redundancies. Shawn raged at the fact that he had to find out his possible fate from the TV, as nothing at all had been mentioned at his work.

The next few weeks were hard. Less hours at the car plant, and the fear that the company would sell out to some outfit from Korea, who would move all the jobs south, to the existing factory there. Shawn became withdrawn, and started drinking more. There was no money for luxuries, and when the car broke down, no money to repair it. Shawn got the bus to work, and Orla walked to her job after seeing Roisin into school. Noel was grumpy and argumentative, as there was no money for his promised football trip, or the new football boots he coveted.

Little Roisin had seen a lovely doll in an old-fashioned toy shop, and Orla knew how much she wanted it for her birthday. But it was one hundred pounds all but a penny, and there was no way they could afford that.

One day at work in the bus company, Orla was telling her manager how tight things were financially, about the shop where her daughter had seen the cherished doll, and how much she would love to be able to buy Roisin that doll for her birthday. She was wondering if there were any extra hours she could do at weekends, when Shawn could mind the kids. Mr Bennett was a kind man. He had a large build, and a bald head. He was probably over fifty, with grown-up kids of his own, and a wife who was big and fat, and always smiling whenever she popped in to see him. He shook his head. “Sorry, Orla love. No extra hours at all. In fact, the company is thinking of bringing in an outside company to do the cleaning on contract. It works out cheaper than using our own staff. Tell you what, why don’t I lend you the money for the doll? You can pay me back bit by bit, no pressure”. Orla shook her head. “That’s lovely of you, Mr Bennett, but I couldn’t do that. I would never be able to repay you”.

Her boss looked her up and down. Not yet thirty-three years old, Orla was still a very attractive woman. She had thick auburn hair, cut short, and just enough freckles to look cute. Two pregnancies had left her with some nice curves, if you liked that sort of thing. And Mr Bennett liked that sort of thing. He smiled, sucking in his belly as he spoke, like that would make any difference. “Listen, Orla. You’re a good-looking woman, and I am a man with needs. I’m sure we could come to some arrangement that could easily pay for that doll”. Orla was shocked, too shocked to reply. She just turned and left his office, her face turning bright red.

Shawn arrived home from work drunk that night. Roisin was crying, Noel sulking in his room, and Orla was at her wit’s end. Her husband mumbled something about the company closing down, then staggered up to bed, collapsing on top of the covers fully dressed.

As she was finishing up the next afternoon, Mr Bennett called her into the office. Sitting on his desk was the doll. The same one, with its dark red hood, and scarlet ribbon. The lace on its outfit looked so delicate. He leered at her, and tapped the doll’s head. “Lovely, isn’t she? It’s up to you, Orla. I’m sure my wife would like to display her in our cabinet otherwise. Taking a deep breath, Orla turned and locked the door. As she unbuttoned her overall, she spoke with a determined voice. “Just this once mind, and from behind. And no kissing” Then she leaned over the desk as the man she had once thought was so kind stood up and unzipped his trousers.

There was no money for a party, as the car plant was closing for sure, and any redundancy payments still had to be sorted out. But Roisin loved that doll, and hugged it close all day. Orla had lied to Shawn, told him it was reduced to twenty-five pounds because it had no box. He might well have been angry with her, but the face on his delighted daughter melted his heart. Noel was in a foul mood, complaining that he couldn’t have any football boots but his sister got a doll. Shawn calmed him down. “Wait until Christmas, son. See what you get then. He was banking on a decent payout, but nobody had a clue how much it might be yet.

Orla settled both the kids, then came down to do the washing up. Shawn waited a while, then went up to kiss them goodnight. Little Roisin was a picture, tucked up fast asleep, cuddling her new doll. As he leaned over to plant a kiss on her head, a strange voice spoke in a hoarse whisper.
“Ask her how she got the money for the doll. Ask her how much it really cost. Oh, and ask her how she liked it, bent over Mr Bennett’s desk, with him grunting away at her like a hog at a trough”.
He jumped away from the bed, looking around the room illuminated by the glow of the night-light. He thought for a moment that it was the doll speaking, but that couldn’t be. He shook his head, and leaned forward once again.

“She said ‘no kissing’”.

Shawn reeled back so fast, he stumbled into the half-open door. The voice had come from the doll, and that wasn’t possible. He closed the door and stood motionless on the landing, slowly taking in what the doll had said. He had never met that Bennett, but Orla had talked about him, said he was kind, and an easy guy to work for. He stood and thought some more, then slowly walked down the stairs. Orla was drying a mug on a tea-towel as he walked into the kitchen. His voice was surprisingly calm. “So what’s the story about you and Bennett then? Is that how you got the money for the doll? You shagged him for it, right?”

She put down the mug as the colour drained from her face. It would be best to lie. Say he was crazy, ask him what he was talking about. Get angry, tell him he must be imagining things. But eighteen years of Catholic priests talking about confession and truth was hard to overcome. Best get it over with.

“It was just the once, and it didn’t mean anything. I don’t even like him that…”.

He hadn’t meant to hit her that hard, he really hadn’t. The punch stopped her in mid-sentence, and he felt her nose break under his fist. Her head flew back as her legs gave way, and she hit her head with such force on the mixer tap spout that it bent into the sink.

He left her in a heap on the floor, and walked back into the living room. Reaching into the back of the unit, he took out the bottle of Jameson he had been saving for Christmas. Then he flopped down on the sofa in front of the television and drunk it all, straight from the neck of the bottle.

When Shawn woke up early the next morning, he went into the kitchen, to see if Orla was dead. Head clouded by the booze, he knelt on the floor in the blood, and put his ear to her mouth. She was still breathing, but only just. He walked upstairs and woke the kids, carrying his daughter and pulling his complaining son by the hand. Still in their nightclothes, he walked them around to Mrs Oliver, next door. The old lady peeped around the door when she answered, wearing a quilted dressing gown. “Could you mind the kids for me please missus? Me wife’s taken poorly so she has, and I have to get her to the doctor”. As the door opened wider, he put Roisin down on the mat, and pushed Noel inside. “Be good now, kids”.

Back in the house, he went up to Roisin’s bedroom and grabbed the doll from her bed. Stuffing it onto the bag he normally used for work, he took his mobile out and phoned the ambulance. As he walked out of the house, he left the front door open, so they wouldn’t have to break it down. He needed a walk, and time to think.

The shops in town weren’t open at that time of the morning, and there were few people on the streets. Shawn knew he would have to hand himself into the police. No point trying to run. He had no money anyway. He walked in the direction of the main police station, and paused on the corner opposite, next to a charity shop. He was building up the courage to walk in there, and confess what he had done to his wife.

He left the bag in the shop doorway as he crossed the road.

December 1991. Fiona buys herself a Christmas gift.

She had walked past the department store window many times before. This time, Fiona went in through the doors, and took the escalator to the third floor, where the toy department was situated. Ten days before Christmas the place was heaving with customers, and she had to wait at the serving counter for some time before a black-uniformed salesgirl approached her.

“Are you being attended to, madam?” Fiona looked at her fake smile, and recoiled from her obsequious manner. “In the window, there’s a doll. Red hood, blonde hair. Not a child’s doll really, more of a collector’s item. Could I see it please?” The shop-girl smiled her false smile again. “Of course madam, please excuse me while I go to look in the stockroom”. Fiona replied quickly, before she could leave the counter. “No, not one from stock. It has to be the one in the window. That very one”.

The smile was replaced with a weary look. “But madam, I will have to get the manager’s permission to remove items from the window display. I am sure we must have another in the stockroom. It won’t be any different, I promise you”. Fiona set her jaw. “Get the manager then. I don’t want any other one, I want the one that is currently in the window”. Remembering that the customer is always right, the girl turned and walked off in the direction of the manager’s office on the floor above.

Fiona looked with distaste at the back view of her. One shoe trodden down at the heel, and the black uniform skirt shiny and greasy-looking, worn for too many days without being washed or cleaned. There had been a smell about the girl too, one of cheap body spray covering up poor personal hygiene and unwashed feet.

The manager returned with the girl, who seemed relieved to hand over the problem to him, and rushed off to deal with another waiting customer. Fiona eyed the approaching man. Smart-looking, in a three-piece suit and very white shirt. The striped tie looked military, but the overall effect was ruined by him wearing a large metal badge on his lapel, bearing the name and logo of the company. He had a speech prepared, and launched into it. “Madam, about the doll in the window. It is not actually for sale. It is part of the window display, and very special. Unique in fact. It is old and very valuable, the price would be excessive I’m sure. If it was for sale that is. Can I interest you in a similar doll? We have a lot to choose from”.

Raising her voice loud enough to attract the attention of the other shoppers, Fiona replied in her haughtiest tone. “Did I ask the price? The price is of no concern to me. I want the doll from the window. It is in your window, so must be for sale”. Noticing that a small audience had gathered to listen, she waved her arm expansively. “Are you telling us, your customers, that the things displayed in your window are not for sale? I have never heard anything more ridiculous”. Faced with the tall determined woman, and a group of busybody customers mumbling in agreement with her, the manager lost his nerve. “Please wait while I make a phone call, madam. I will be as quick as I can”. As he walked away, Fiona nodded to her unknown helpers, giving the impression that a small revolution was about to take place in the toy department.

He returned soon after and asked if Fiona would accompany him to his office. She sniffily agreed, and followed him up to the fourth floor. Accepting a seat opposite his desk, she placed her handbag on her lap, and stared him out. “I have spoken to someone senior on your behalf. They tell me that the doll is a rare antique, obtained for window displays, and used every year. If it was for sale, it would retail at three thousand pounds. I hope that explains it, madam”. Fiona opened her bag, and removed her credit card from a slot inside. “No need to gift wrap it, a plain box will suffice”. She flipped the card onto the desk, and sat back, feeling very pleased with herself. After two more phone calls, and then waiting for a window display person to retrieve the doll, it was almost another hour before she left the shop, holding a large carrier bag containing the plain white box.

She could hardly have told him the truth. The doll had begged her to buy it. The first time she had walked past the window and heard a plaintive “Please buy me”, she had instinctively known it was the doll talking to her. She went back a few times to check, and sure enough it said the same thing every time. There was no question, she had to buy it. The fact that a doll couldn’t speak never even entered her head.

At home in her smart apartment, the doll was unpacked and given pride of place on the dressing table in the bedroom. Fiona was a woman of means, living on a substantial inheritance left by her parents. She had no need to work, and enjoyed a solitary life of leisure. But despite a good education, and possession of a well-balanced mind, she sat on the edge of her bed, and waited for the doll to say something.

She had to wait a very long time.

For the first year, she found herself speaking to the doll now and then. She started with things like “You could at least say thank you to me for buying you”. Later on, much later in fact, her frustration made her sneer at the doll, and her remarks to it became less polite. “I could easily get rid of you, you know. The money you cost is of no consequence to me. How would you like it if I threw you out in the rubbish? You wouldn’t look so pretty then, would you?” The doll stayed mute, her expression never changing.

Fiona didn’t really have friends. Her only company was an occasional visit from a niece. The girl only came from a sense of duty, she was sure of that. And avarice of course. Hoping to keep in with her auntie, to get an inheritance. When she spotted the doll, the first thing she had asked was how much it cost. Fiona didn’t tell her the figure, waving a hand airily. “Oh, it was quite expensive”.

It was rare for her to get drunk. But on the eve of the year 2000, she was alone in her apartment as revellers frolicked in the surrounding streets. Feeling sorry for herself, she opened a fine Cognac, and drank far too much of it. Feeling woozy, she went into the bedroom to lie down.

The voice wasn’t plaintive this time, and Fiona sat bolt upright as the doll spoke to her for the first time in more than eight years.

“Get rid of me, and I will make you sorry. You have to keep me forever”.

Fiona was made of stern stuff. She staggered over to the dressing table and grabbed the doll, taking it out into the hallway, and flinging it into a store-cupboard. She had intended to just dump it in the kitchen bin, but something at the back of her mind stopped her doing that.

The next few years passed quickly, as Fiona grew older. She still went about her life much as before, though she got out less, and her superior airs meant that she rarely connected with anyone socially. She had all but forgotten about the doll, as she rarely had occasion to look in the cupboard where she had flung it so carelessly. Then she received an unexpected invitation to a school reunion. Keen to attend, to show her old classmates just how comfortable her life was, she booked a room in a hotel overnight, and arranged for a car and driver to take her.

But that meant she needed her smart overnight case, which was stored in the same cupboard as the doll.

As she reached over to the back to grab the case by the handle, she could see the doll out of the corner of her eye. Slightly dusty by now of course, but still bright-eyed. She had long since convinced herself that the doll had never spoken, and she had just imagined it that drunken night. But as she pulled the case across into the hallway, she could not deny what she heard at that moment.

“You’re going to die. It’s inside you. It’s between your legs. There’s nothing you can do. Hahaha”.

Closing the door, she went into the bedroom to pack her case. It must be her imagination, she was sure of it. Everyone knows that dolls cannot talk. She kept herself busy that evening, and went to the reunion as arranged, the following day. But she was unable to shake the sound of the voice, and the implication of what it had said. She made an appointment with her expensive private doctor for the next Tuesday. He sent her downstairs in the clinic for scans and blood tests, and said he would come and talk to her when the results came back.

“I am sorry to say that it is cervical cancer, madam. It appears to be very advanced, and I am afraid that it is inoperable. We can of course give you palliative treatment and care, but I fear you have less than a few months”. Fiona thanked him, made arrangements for her next appointments, and left the clinic in a haze. The doll had been right. Could it be that it had somehow wished the cancer on her? That couldn’t be possible, could it?

The young woman arrived with her boyfriend to clear out the flat. She had been struggling for some weeks to prove that she should inherit, as the only living relative, and had finally managed to convince Auntie Fiona’s solicitors the week before. She would get the luxury flat, and a fair chunk of money too. So much in fact, she could hardly be bothered to sift through all the items her aunt had accumulated over the years. Looking in the store cupboard, she saw the doll, barely remembered from the last time she had seen it. But she did recall her aunt had claimed it had been expensive. She picked it up, and threw it into the box being held by her boyfriend.

“Take this, Scott. I reckon a toy shop will buy it at a decent price”.

May 1975. Baby Emily receives a doll.

It was a difficult birth. Labour went on for so long, they considered the risks to the mother. But Sandy was determined to deliver naturally, and after hanging over the side of the bed for another thirty minutes, baby Emily was born into the waiting grasp of a midwife. They took her away immediately, unhappy with her colour, and the fact that she wasn’t crying. Ian and Sandy spent anxious hours sitting next to an incubator, and their tears flowed as they feared the worst. But she pulled through, and they took her home after ten days.

Sandy’s Mum Phyllis arrived on the Sunday, delighted to be able to hold her first grandchild. And a girl too, one who looked exactly like her beloved daughter. She had brought a gift. A beautiful blonde-haired doll. Little baby Emily was too young to appreciate it, but it was placed on a shelf in the nursery, waiting for the time when she would be old enough to play with it. Phyllis didn’t mention that she had found the doll by chance, propped up inside a telephone box that she had been walking past.

Over the next few years, it talked to the baby all the time, even though Emily didn’t appear to understand, and was unable to respond of course. By the time Emily started school, she seemed to Sandy and Ian to be unusually bright. Her conversation flowed at a level well beyond her years, and the junior school teacher mentioned that she appeared to be incredibly intelligent. Emily showed an early talent for languages, and a remarkable knowledge of modern history. At Parent-Teacher night, her class teacher took Sandy and Ian to one side, a look of concern on her face.

“Are you teaching her at home as well? She often speaks in French, which is not taught yet in her year. And she seems to be aware of historical events like World War One, and the Russian Revolution, right up to the outbreak of World War two, and beyond. This is quite astounding, to be honest. I have never seen anything like it, during my teaching career”. They assured her that they were not home-schooling her, and Sandy was rather annoyed that the spark of genius apparent in their daughter should be a matter of concern for the teacher. At home that night, she spoke to Ian, and then phoned her mother. They decided to send her to a private school, a place which would nurture her unusual talents, instead of wanting her to be like everyone else. It would be a strain financially, but Phyllis agreed to help with the cost.

Emily had never spoken to anyone about being educated by the doll. It had told her not to, told her bad things would happen to her if she did.
“They will take you away if you tell them, Emily. Lock you up in a madhouse, and you would never see me or your family again. You wouldn’t like that now, would you?” Emily had agreed. No, she wouldn’t like that at all.

The new school was indeed a great help to Emily. But even there she felt held back, and attracted suspicious looks from her classmates for her strange grasp of so many things at such a young age. They arranged for her to take her examinations early, and her astounding success attracted the attentions of newspapers and TV news channels, alerted by the owners of the school, keen to obtain publicity. By the time it came for her to apply to universities, Emily was treading water, already at the level where she would easily obtain a degree. The best colleges in the country were after her, and she chose to accept an offer from Cambridge University, so as not to be too far away from home.

When she packed her things to leave for her new life at the college, she was sure to take the doll, now known as Abigail.

It was after she had been there a month that someone mentioned the doll. A boy who was interested in her, Mark. They were kissing and cuddling on the bed, when he turned over and felt something in his back. Holding the doll aloft with a a huge grin, he spoke in a mocking tone. “What’s this? Did Emmypoos have to bring her dolly to Cambridge? Do you cuddle it at night? Ah, diddums”. Embarrassed, Emily made something up. “Oh, that’s Abigail. My grandmother bought her for me when I was born, and insisted I bring her with me to Uni”. Mark was still scoffing. “Insisted you brought a doll? What are you, nine? Emily slid the doll under the bed, and went back to the kissing and cuddling.

When she came home for the holidays, Emily brought the doll with her. It hadn’t worked out with Mark, but she wasn’t going to chance another boyfriend thinking she was too childish for a relationship. Sandy and Ian were glowing, so pleased that their daughter was exceeding all expectations. There was even talk of her finishing her degree six months early, and staying on for more advanced studies. Up in the bedroom, Emily turned her back on Abigail as she got into bed. The doll was back on a shelf, and that’s where it would stay.

“You put me under your bed. That wasn’t nice. You had better take me back with you, or you will be sorry”.

Emily ignored the doll, and managed to get to sleep without difficulty.

By the end of the first year, Emily wasn’t coping so well. Although her studies were going very well, her social life was at an all-time low. She found it hard to make friends, and the men who had once shown an interest in her now seemed to be put off by her academic prowess. She had discovered that her nickname was The Clever Girl, and it wasn’t spoken in a friendly way. That Christmas, she found it hard to get into the spirit of the festivities. Visiting relatives felt like a chore, and even the comparative excitement of the gift of a new bicycle to use around Cambridge didn’t lift her mood.

And Abigail was on her case too. Big time.

“Oh, poor Emily. Can’t get a boyfriend? Perhaps it’s because you are too ugly? Or too much like your mother, too old-fashioned? Maybe it’s because everyone there hates you? You know they do, Miss Clever Clogs. If it wasn’t for me you wouldn’t know anything, don’t forget that. You are nothing. Everything you have achieved is because of me, don’t ever forget that. If you don’t take me back with you next time, it will get a lot worse”.

Abigail continued like that every time Emily went into her room. But she couldn’t very well put her somewhere else, as it was impossible to explain why she no longer wanted her. It would offend her grandmother for sure, and she resolved to just put up with it until she got back to Uni.

Not long after the start of the second year, Emily started to lose concentration. She forgot important dates, fluffed a few essay projects, and even forgot to attend a few lectures. She felt lonely, listless, and had no appetite. A chat with her tutor that was supposed to buck her up ended with her dissolving in tears, and running out of the room. As the summer break was looming, she was back to the level of everyone else at the college, and enduring the vocal disappointment of her lecturers. Back at home, she declined the chance of a summer job at her Dad’s company, and sat around all day with a long face. Sandy spoke to Ian, and they wrongly concluded that she was upset about being jilted by some boy. They decided to leave her alone, and not add to any pressures.

Abigail was less kind.

“Why don’t you just kill yourself? If I was in your shoes, I would do just that. You are never going to be happy you know, never find that handsome boyfriend you seek. Your parents are going to be bitterly disappointed when you don’t do as well as they expected. That will break their hearts. All that money spent too. Oh dear, what a failure you are”.

Emily sought some sanctuary in the garden on sunny days. Sometimes she stayed downstairs at night, dozing on the sofa. But that set her Mum off, nagging and worrying. When it could no longer be avoided, she reluctantly went up to bed in her room. Where Abigail was waiting.

“Tell them you are having trouble sleeping. Go to see your doctor and get some sleeping pills, you know she will give them to you. Then you can take them all while your parents are out at work. There will be no pain, it will just be like drifting off to sleep. Except you won’t ever wake up, and then you will never have to face all your worries again”.

As Emily tried to drop off to sleep that night, the doll began chanting, its voice low and insistent.

“Do it, do it, do it, do it, do it, do it, do it…”

It was still saying that as she finally cried herself to sleep at dawn.

One evening when Ian arrived home from work, he asked his wife where Emily was. “Oh, she’s still sleeping I think. It must be those new pills. I didn’t have the heart to wake her, but I am going to have to soon, so she can come down for dinner”. She put down her book, and walked up the stairs to the bedrooms. Ian poured himself a nice large whisky, drinking half of it while he was still standing by the kitchen worktop.

When he heard the terrible scream from upstairs, he dropped the glass.

After the funeral, Sandy packed up everything of her daughter’s and donated it to a mental health charity. They put the doll into a group of items to be auctioned, and it was spotted by Polly Johnstone. Her bids were unenthusiastic, it didn’t pay to appear to be too keen. She soon outbid some tweed-clad matron, and snapped it up for sixty-five pounds.

She knew someone who would pay a lot more than that for it, to use in their shop window displays.

June 1969. Robert buys Edna a doll.

The second hand shop in the village was always worth a look. Robert liked to collect things, all sorts of things, and he never passed the shop called Aladdin’s Cave without stopping to browse.

His wife Edna complained bitterly about what she referred to as his ‘junk’ cluttering up her house. But deep down, she didn’t really mind. He was a good husband, and had never blamed her for not being able to have children. They made the best of it, took lots of camping holidays, and spent weekends making their garden look nice too. After twenty-seven years of marriage, she had become used to his ways, and he had learned to tolerate her good-natured complaints.

He had moved the collection of model soldiers into the shed, out of her way. Then he promised to sort out all the toy cars, and store them outside too. But when he started to collect antique garden tools, she had firmly stated that he was taking his obsession a little too far for comfort. He picked up the old garden fork propped outside the shop. The metal parts were rusty, and the wooden handle wrapped in old bandages. Still, he reckoned it had some age, and walked inside with it to ask Ted how much he wanted for it.

The owner put down his newspaper as Robert walked in. He was Ted’s best customer, as well as his most regular. “What about this old fork, Ted. What are you asking for it?” He rubbed his chin as he looked at Robert, casting his eyes down to the battered fork. It had cost him nothing, as he had found it by the side of the road last week. But he was a salesman by nature.

“That fork is around a hundred years old, you know. It came from Lord Elmsley’s estate, from that grand house. They sold off all the contents last month”. Ted found lying easy. He had been doing it for the best part of his sixty-two years. “I couldn’t let it go for less than twelve, Robert”. As he waited for Ted to finish his usual sales pitch, Robert looked around. At the back of the shop, he saw a doll on a shelf. He hadn’t spotted it previously, and it’s blonde hair and wide eyes attracted him immediately. Edna would love that doll.

Ignoring Ted’s suggested price for the fork, he walked further inside, and picked up the doll. The outfit was lovely, with delicate lace, and it was in fabulous condition too. The owner spotted his interest and pounced, continuing the lie as if reading from a script. “That doll was from Lord Elmsley’s too. A rare find, Robert. It’s a real antique that one, I reckon it’s before nineteen double-o. In fact, I’m sure of it”. He wasn’t about to tell his customer that he had bought it for next to nothing from some crazy woman who had stopped outside in a car, and said she would take anything for it, as long as it was cash.

Fascinated by the doll, Robert didn’t hear a word of the continuing sales patter. When he finally turned around, Ted went for the close. “Tell you what, call if forty-five quid, and I will throw in the fork too. Can’t say fairer than that, can I?” Robert tucked the doll under his arm as he took the notes from his wallet. That was a lot of money, but he handed it over without a murmur. He smiled at Ted’s farewells as he walked out of the shop, and didn’t even remember to pick up the garden fork.

Edna adored the doll. Well at least she adored the sentiment behind Robert buying if for her. She wasn’t that keen on its fixed stare, but placed it on a chest of drawers in the bedroom, next to the door leading through to the ensuite bathroom. Her husband seemed pleased with himself, and went outside to the shed to catalogue some more of his model soldiers. When they went to bed that night, she couldn’t shake the feeling that the doll was staring at her, even when the lights were off. She turned over to face Robert’s back. Out of sight, hopefully out of mind.

That Sunday, Robert was leaving early to go to an antique fair almost fifty miles away. He believed that some soldiers he was after would be offered for sale, and he wanted to get there when the traders were still setting up. Although he tried to be quiet as he got ready, Edna was disturbed, and wide awake by the time he left at five-thirty. She was restless in the bed, trying to get back to sleep, stretching and turning. When she heard the voice, she thought at first that Robert had returned for some reason.

“Why don’t you do what you normally do? You know, what you do when Robert is out of the house, or when you are in the bath every night as he watches the news on television? Why don’t you do that? I want to watch you do it. Do it for me. Now.”

But it wasn’t Robert’s voice. It was a male voice, but not his. Syrupy, soothing, and undeniably mellifluous. Edna was a little afraid. Could someone be in the house? Despite her fears, she had to check. But her nervous sweep of the few rooms showed nothing amiss. The front and back doors were both locked, Robert had left her safe and secure. As she walked back into the bedroom to get her dressing gown, her face suddenly flushed as she realised what the voice was talking about. Her only secret.

Despite being a loyal and caring man, Robert had never satisfied Edna in the bedroom. He was inexperienced when they met, and didn’t seem that keen to learn more than he already knew. For a good number of years, he had stopped paying her any romantic attention at all, and rather than cause friction in the marriage, she had let it go, and satisfied herself instead. Always in private, usually in the bath, and sometimes when Robert was off on one of his buying trips. It kept things stable, and stopped her becoming frustrated. But how could that voice have known, and where was it coming from? Edna thought she must be imagining it, and resolved to laugh it off as a waking dream. But as she picked up her dressing gown, she heard it again, more insistent this time.

“If you don’t do what I ask, I will tell Robert. I can make him hear me, if I want to. I can tell him all sorts of things. Some of them will be lies, but not all. You know he will believe me. Just lie down on the bed and do it while I watch. You know you want to”. Edna felt the chills run up her back as she identified the location of the sound. It was coming from the doll. That didn’t seem possible, but it was happening. Despite all her senses telling her to just open the window and throw the doll outside, she felt entranced by the voice. It was still soothing, and strangely enticing. And it was right, she did want to do what it asked. Staring at the doll on the chest of drawers, she lay back onto the bed, and lifted her nightdress.

But her red-faced display didn’t satisfy her tormentor. “Again” it had insisted. And after that second time, “Again”.

By the time Robert returned that evening, excited to show her his purchases, Edna was exhausted. It had taken ages to escape the demands of the doll, and part of her was ridden with guilt for not only acceding to its demands but enjoying it too. She hadn’t even got washed and dressed, let alone started on any preparations for dinner. Robert just wanted to be reassured that she wasn’t ill, and once he was happy with her explanation of being woken up early and not being able to get off again, he guiltily agreed to prepare some sausages, eggs, and bacon. As he put the plates down, he cheerily announced, “Breakfast for dinner, and why not?”

During the weeks that followed, the demands of the doll carried on increasing. It spoke about things in the deepest, darkest recesses of Edna’s mind, revealing knowledge of her most intimate fantasies. Filled with revulsion, she nonetheless became addicted to complying with its filthy and degrading demands, as it released something inside her that she had suppressed since her teens.

The weeks became years, and they started to take their toll. At first, Robert hadn’t noticed any change in his wife. She seemed happier about his collecting trips, urging him to go on more of them, even an overnight stay to one exhibition in Scotland. There were no more complaints about his accumulation of models, or anything else he bought.

But she was looking thinner, and had dark circles around her eyes. He started to worry about her health.

Her job suffered too. Many days skipped, with flimsy excuses about headaches, or emergency trips to the dentist. She began to resent being away from the doll, eager to listen to its next demand, and ready to willingly comply. Eventually, she lost her job. When she told Robert, he was so understanding, she burst into tears. He patted her shoulder, and spoke softly. “Never mind, Edna love. We will manage. I have a bit put by, and I will stop buying things for my collections. That’s a promise”.

At home all day, things began to descend to a new level. The doll instructed her to do things that she had never heard of, let alone imagine herself being happy to carry out. But she was, as she soon discovered. Then one balmy afternoon, she found herself drawn into the bedroom, as Robert was out at work. She had never actually spoken to the doll in all this time, but today she did. “So what have you got for me today? Robert will not be home until at least six”. Her eyes were wide with anticipation, her skin tingling.

The voice washed over her like the warm waters of a tropical sea. But as it laid out its demands, Edna’s eyes widened at the sheer enormity of what it was suggesting. Despite the years of willing debauchery that she had happily carried out at the behest of the doll, this was too much, Just unspeakable. She couldn’t even reply, just shaking her head in a ‘No’. As she walked out of the room still shuddering at the thought, the voice called after her. “Very well then. I will tell Robert. I will tell him as soon as he gets home, and comes in here to change his clothes”.

As he pulled his car into the driveway, Robert was surprised to see Edna standing in front of the garage. As he got out, she walked up to him and grabbed his arm. “I need to talk to you about something, Robert, come with me into the garden for a moment”. He smiled weakly, hoping it wasn’t anything serious. They sat on two metal chairs around the patio table as a white-faced Edna blurted out the whole story, her voice a hoarse whisper. At first, Robert was smiling, sure his wife was playing a trick on him. Twenty minutes later, and he was fearing for her sanity, as he had not believed a single word of the bizarre story she had just related. He decided to be reasonable, at least until he could have a word with their doctor. “Well then, let’s just get rid of the doll. I could burn it in the garden incinerator, or just throw it away somewhere.

Edna panicked. “No, you mustn’t let it speak to you. I will do it. You stay here while I get rid of it”.

Fifteen minutes later, she stood the doll in the village phone box, just at the side of The Green.

Turning for home, she was relieved it hadn’t said a single word.

October 1958. Daddy’s little princess.

Helen watched as Keith bounced little Susan on his knee. He was such a great Dad, and adored his daughter. Lifting her up to look into her face, he smiled at her lovingly. “Who’s my little princess then? Who’s Daddy’s little princess? You, that’s who”. He tickled her ribs, and she chuckled happily. Helen picked up her knitting again, smiling contentedly. They were the perfect family. Nothing was too much trouble for Keith. He washed the nappies, fed their little girl, gave her a bath, and tucked her up in her cot too. Even though he was exhausted when he got in from a long day at work, he played with her until her bedtime, never complaining.

As they watched the constantly flickering television later, not really concentrating on the stuffy quiz programme, Keith waited for the right time to tell his wife something. “One of the blokes at work has got his hands on a beautiful doll, just right for our Susan. You know him, Don, the crane operator. You want to see it, love. Blonde hair, big eyes, and lovely clothes. Really classy it is, not like that tat they sell in Woolworth’s”. Helen raised her eyebrows. She had been thinking about buying Susan a monkey from Woolworth’s in the High Street, for her first birthday. It was big, with hands that grabbed and held on, and it was dressed in a striped shirt and blue trousers. “How much does he want for this classy doll then, love?” She had heard talk about Don, but had never met him.

Keith took a deep breath before replying. “Well, it’s an antique, see, so valuable. Perfect condition though. He’s asking for twelve quid, but he will let me pay it at a pound a week, for three months. No interest”. Helen sat up, and put down the knitting. Twelve pounds was what Keith earned on a good week, with extra hours on Saturday, at time and a half. It sounded like a fortune to her, but she knew her husband well enough not to argue. Once he had something in his head, it was all but impossible to talk him out of it. He was a lovely bloke, but a bit of a dreamer. Besides, she didn’t work now. Not until Susan started school, anyway.

“It’s up to you then love, if you’re sure it’s a fair price”.

Keith was happy, and lit a cigarette, as if to celebrate. “Wait until you see it, Hel. It’s just fabulous”.

Two weeks later, they held a little birthday party. Just them and both sets of grandparents, with a one-candle sponge cake made by Helen. Susan received gifts from both grannies. A wooden Xylophone from Helen’s Mum and Dad, and a new set of winter clothes from Keith’s parents. Then he revealed the doll, wrapped in some really expensive gold paper. Everyone gasped at the luxury of it, and little Susan grabbed it, clutching it to her body, and planting kisses on it. Nobody asked how much it had cost. They all knew it was too much. But the child’s face lit up, and was a delight to see. Keith picked up his daughter, and put her on his lap. She was still clutching the doll, not about to part with it. He beamed at Susan, and raised his voice. “A Princess for my own little princess. Perfect!”

The doll was paid off, with never a question about why Don was so keen to sell it. As Susan grew, it remained a firm favourite. When asked to give it a name, Susan replied “Sarah”. They smiled, as they knew that was the name of the class teacher at her new school. But Sarah it was. Keith seemed a little put out that his suggestion of Princess wan’t acceptable, but he soon forgot it. Helen looked around for a job with the appropriate hours, and was very pleased to find one in a nearby factory canteen. She didn’t mind dishing up breakfasts and lunches for the employees. She revelled in the banter, and the outside contact, and she was always finished in time to collect her daughter from school.

With the extra income from that job, Keith bought them their first family car. It was ten years old, but it gave them a freedom they could never have imagined. Days out at the seaside, picnics in the woods, and a one week holiday at the coast, the following summer. Keith even taught her to drive, and she was thrilled at passing her Driving Test first time. Helen had never been happier. But she agreed with Keith to wait until having more children, and he continued to use protection. As Susan got older, her bond with Keith grew more solid. He did as much as he could with her, even taking her out some weekends, to give Helen a break. As her daughter was approaching her tenth birthday, Helen was remarkably content. Perhaps they would have another child, next year.

Then one day, she was dusting in Susan’s bedroom. It was a Saturday afternoon, and Keith had taken Susan to the park.

She heard a voice coming from behind her and turned in panic, thinking someone was in the house. The voice was clear and steady, and sounded a lot like one of the newsreaders on television. Authoritative, and calm.
“Have you ever asked yourself why your husband does so much with your daughter? Do you never wonder why he spends such a long time getting her off to sleep at night? And what about her baths? Why does he always insist on being the one to help her get undressed, and to wash her in the bath? You are not a stupid woman. You know Susan is getting too old for such attention now. Ask him just how much he adores his little princess. Ask him what he has been doing to her ever since she was old enough to walk. Ask him how far that has progressed since her body has started to develop. Go on, ask him”.

Helen walked back, and rested against the wall. She was scared and confused, but the words she had heard made her think of some things that she had asked herself, and then dismissed from her mind. The voice had been loud, and the origin unclear. But the only thing of note in the room was the doll, Sarah, and she couldn’t deny that the sound had seemed to come from that.

Helen walked downstairs, away from the doll. She needed time to think.

When they got back, she told Susan to go upstairs to her room. “Read a book, or play. I need to talk to your Dad”. Keith was smiling, unaware what it was Helen wanted to say. She asked him the questions. Every fibre of her being was hoping that he would laugh. He would wonder what she was going on about. He would tell her she had a screw loose. Susan was his daughter, his little princess. He would never contemplate dong anything like that with his own daughter. But none of that happened. His face flushed, but amazingly, he tried to justify himself.

“It’s her, Helen. She loves me. Too much maybe, but I love her too. She’s always been my princess. It just happened, then it carried on. I have never hurt her. She always wanted it too. If you want, we can stop, but Susan won’t want to, I can tell you that now”.

Helen was very calm. She turned to face the sofa, and slid the knitting needles out of the ball of wall. As she turned back, she let out a cry that sounded like an animal in pain, before plunging both the thick needles into Keith’s neck. he staggered backwards, and fell onto the floor making a gurgling noise. Without waiting to see what she had done, she strode upstairs, and grabbed her daughter. “We are going out, Susan. A nice ride somewhere”. Taking the keys from the hall stand, she went out to the car with her daughter, and started to drive.

The had gone over ninety miles before Helen noticed that Susan was clutching the doll.

As they passed through a village, she saw a junk shop called Aladdin’s Cave. Grabbing the doll from Susan, she walked into the shop, leaving the car engine running. As the man approached her she held out her arm stiffly. “How much for this? But it has to be cash. I just need money for petrol. It’s an antique, so don’t take the piss”. Ted looked at her warily. She looked insane, and he was sure that was blood on her sleeve. He took a five-pound note from his wallet, and passed it over in silence. She grabbed the money and ran back to her waiting car.

Helen just had to keep driving.

February 1957. Maureen Hall adds to her collection.

Don Hall had an easy war, compared to many. Including his older brother, who had been killed at El Alamein. He had been conscripted late on, and ended up being trained to operate a crane at Plymouth docks. The flap was on for a big invasion, and boats needed to be loaded. His poor military aptitude had not really improved during basic training and he ended up in the Pioneers; loading trucks, and digging ditches or trenches. But they had taught him to operate digger machinery and cranes, and that stood him in good stead when it was all over.

His brother Frank had got engaged to Maureen in late nineteen-forty, not long after he joined up, and before he left for service overseas. After Frank got killed, she was always around the house. She would pop in for a cup of tea, or come over for lunch on a Sunday. Don got used to her, and though she was four years older, she had a rather childish way about her. Once he was established at the works, he talked to her about their future, and she readily agreed to marry him. It was a small affair, as it usually was for working people back then. They moved into a small house, and Maureen carried on working as a typist at the Town Hall. Nobody thought it was strange that he had married his brother’s girlfriend. Most considered it to be a good deed.

When little Reggie came along, Maureen turned out to be a natural mother. Don liked to see her so happy with the baby, and reassured himself that he had made a good choice. Then one night, Maureen looked worried. She came downstairs to tell him that the baby was very hot. “He’s too hot, Don. I think he should see a doctor, love”. Don walked up to Mr Wilkins’ house. He had a phone, and was happy to let Don use it to ring the doctor. They had an anxious wait, with little Reggie screaming the place down, and a tearful Maureen sponging her son’s body with cold water. Old Doctor Baxter was a dour Scot, but he knew his business. As he drove off to arrange an ambulance, and emergency admission to the city’s Children’s Hospital, his face was grim. “Scarlet Fever, I’m afraid, Mr Hall. He’s critically ill, that’s the truth of it”.

Reggie didn’t even make it through the weekend.

Maureen cried for almost a month, and it was five weeks before she could face returning to work. Don had given up trying to console her, and kept up a manly resolve with his workmates. Someone had to keep earning, and he would let his wife recover in her own time.

She had been back at work for three weeks when she brought home the first doll. Maureen asked Don to make a shelf, and to fit it across one end of the living room, just high enough for her to be able to reach. After that, she generally bought one a month, often sending off advertisement coupons that she saw in women’s magazines. When Sandra up the street started to run a mail-order catalogue, Maureen ordered some much more expensive dolls, as she was able to pay it off in small weekly amounts over the whole year. After a couple of years had passed, the shelf was full, and she was on at him to build another one just underneath it. He had tried to talk to her about maybe having another baby, but she refused to discuss it. Doctor Baxter had put her on pills for her nerves, and she didn’t cope well with any confrontation.

It wasn’t the money that annoyed him. He earned well, and Maureen had enough from her Town Hall job to buy what she liked. He just thought it was childish for a grown woman to have a collection of dressed-up dolls, and to give them all names. He often wondered if she talked to them, when he wasn’t around. Still, he knew what she was like when he married her. As his Dad would have said, ‘you made your bed, now you have to lie in it’.

He started to save up for a car instead. He had his eye on a used Ford Anglia, in a local dealership. It was a bit pricey at close to three hundred, but once he had the deposit, he would be sure to qualify for a loan for the rest. He was fed up cycling to work, and having to get a train for any short holiday they managed to take. He put away some of his wages every week, hiding the ten-shilling notes in an old cigar box where he kept an assortment of nails.

He talked to Maureen about the car, and she agreed to cut back on her spending on dolls. Christmas was quiet, and Don was content enough, anticipating that car in the new year. By the middle of February, he counted up the contents of the box. He needed twenty-five for the deposit, and luckily the car was still for sale. All the ten-shilling notes were spilled out onto the candlewick bedspread, and he counted them excitedly. Twenty-three pounds and ten shillings. By the beginning of March he would have enough. The next day, he went and had another chat with the car salesman, asking him to let him know if anyone else showed interest. “I will be back with the deposit, first week of March. That’s guaranteed”.

It took a few days before Don noticed the new doll on the top shelf. It was in pride of place in the centre, resplendent in a red hood with blonde hair cascading out of it. It was certainly better-looking than most of the other dolls that his wife had collected, but he didn’t much like the way it seemed to stare at him. When Maureen got back from the shops, he didn’t mention it to her, reluctant to start an argument. He did think it was unusual that she hadn’t spoken to him about the doll though. She usually made a big deal out of what she called, ‘introducing her husband’.

On payday, he hurried home to add the two ten-shilling notes to his box. Retrieving it from the hiding place on top of a kitchen cupboard, he pulled the notes from the brown pay envelope, keen to get them tucked away before Maureen got in from work. Opening the box, he gasped at what he saw. A few assorted tacks and nails, but no money. He reached up and ran his hand around the dust on top of the cupboard, a sinking feeling already telling him that the money could not have just fallen out of a closed box. He picked it up, and walked through to the living room. Sitting stone-faced in his armchair, he stared at the hallway, waiting to hear her key in the door.

The voice made him jump, and he looked around the room. It was his brother Frank’s voice, no mistaking that.

“Don old mate, she really took you for a mug. She knew about your box all along, and was just waiting until you had enough. Enough for her to buy me”. Don turned in the direction of the voice, and stood up, walking over to the shelf. “I always new she was a bit simple, but I never thought she would splash out over twenty-three quid of your cash on a stupid doll. I reckon that Jerry did me a favour, when he shot me in Egypt”. The voice was definitely coming from the doll. And it was undeniably Frank’s voice. Don put his face close to the cupid lips, and Frank’s voice grew quieter. “I hope you’re not going to let the silly cow get away with it, I really do”.

The sound of the door closing snapped him out of it, and as his wife walked into the room, he turned, the box falling from his hands onto the carpet. Maureen’s face turned bright red. “Er, hello, love. I meant to talk to you about that. It was an absolute bargain, it’s an antique you see”. His hands were around her throat before she could say any more. Behind him, he could hear Frank chuckling. “That’s it, Don old mate. Give her what for”. Maureen’s hands opened, and she dropped her string shopping bag and handbag as she reached up to try to pull Don’s hands from around her neck. But he was too strong for her, and he soon felt her body slump in his grasp.

It was already dark, but Don could see well enough to dig the trench in his back garden. He was good at digging trenches, and had dug many in pitch darkness in the past. When it was deep enough, he went back inside and lifted Maureen’s body in his strong arms. By the time she was covered up, he was getting hungry, and went back in to wash his hands, and make himself a fried egg sandwich. As he ate that, he looked up at the now silent doll, and allowed himself a satisfied grin.

He knew a bloke at work who would buy that.

August 1947. Captain De Vere receives an inheritance.

Henry De Vere came from a military family. He could trace back the long line of soldiers in his ancestors to an officer who had served in the army of Queen Elizabeth the first. As a teenager at boarding school, he had joined the Officer Training Corps, and it was accepted that he would enter a good regiment with a commission. Young Henry was not considered aristocratic enough for the elite troops, such as the various regiments of Foot Guards. He found himself posted to the Warwickshire Regiment, a nervous subaltern having to get used to the routine of life on the camp.

Applying himself well to administrative duties, and managing to get in with the senior officers at the Officer’s Mess, it wasn’t long before he found himself promoted to Captain, in command of a company. At the Regimental Ball of 1938, he was introduced to Penelope Henderson, the daughter of the town’s Lord Mayor. They got on well, and there was talk of an engagement. Penelope met his few elderly surviving relatives, and was deemed suitable. The wedding was planned for the following spring, and Henry wore his dress uniform for the occasion. Life for the young couple started off very well indeed.

Then Germany invaded Poland.

By the time his regiment left for France as part of The British Expeditionary Force, a tearful Penelope was already pregnant. He kissed her goodbye at the railway station, little knowing he would not see her again for many years.

The retreat to Dunkirk was a shambles. Henry’s company had seen little of the fighting, and he paled at the news that they were to be left behind, as part of the rearguard. The soldiers crowded around him as he gave them their orders. Grim-faced, they went up to their hastily-fortified positions, and awaited the arrival of the enemy. There was little they could do except delay the inevitable, buying time for the evacuation at the coast. The Germans facing them were well-organised, and well-equipped. After a desperate but all too short defence, the Colonel told Henry that they would surrender as planned, to reduce casualties.

Henry and the survivors of his company were marched off, to face the long journey to a prisoner of war camp deep inside Germany.

When the camp was liberated in 1945, a thinner, slightly nervous Captain Henry De Vere had his hand shaken by some noisy American soldiers. They pressed cigarettes and chocolate bars into his hands, and one produced a looted bottle of Moselle, which was joyfully passed around. It was weeks before they got back to England.

Henry arranged to meet his wife, and the son he had never seen, at the home of his in-laws. The boy was shy, but managed a formal handshake with his father. Penelope burst into tears, and wouldn’t let go of Henry’s arm. Over the next few weeks, they got used to each other again, and Henry returned to his duties as a regular soldier. He rented a smart apartment off the camp, and went home as often as he could. His son, named Henry after him, went back to boarding school, which had been arranged in his absence by Penelope’s father. A second pregnancy was confirmed, and they were delighted to be expecting a second child. And they managed quite well, given the post-war shortages. Not long after Lily was born, Henry received an official-looking letter.

He read it twice, before going through to the nursery to show it to Penelope. “My Great Aunt Agatha has died. I hardly knew her, barley remember her at all. But she has left me everything”. With Penelope busy with the baby, Henry travelled down to London alone for the meeting with the solicitor. It was more than he had dreamed. Enough to live a life of luxury indeed, as well as the twelve-bedroom manor house, extensive grounds and land, with tenant farmers providing even more income. It came with a housekeeper and daily staff, a gardener, even a limousine and chauffeur. As soon as he got home, Henry made the arrangements to put in his papers, and resigned his commission in the army.

They were collected at the station, with the rest of their things and more luggage following later. The car was rather ancient, but also very grand, and well-maintained. Henry didn’t remember the house at all, and he joined in with his wife’s gasp as they saw it at the end of a long driveway. A lovely old house in the Palladian style, it continued to impress once they got inside.
Mrs Fry met them in the hallway. She was the housekeeper, and lived in a small cottage in the old mews at the rear of the house. She wasn’t married, but housekeepers were traditionally known as Mrs. She explained that the other staff lived out, mostly in the nearby village. Including the Estate Manager, who looked after all the business and financial affairs. Rooms had been prepared for them and baby Lily, and lunch would be served in one hour.

After the first few days getting to know their house and surroundings, and Henry meeting with the Estate Manager to get an overview of his land and responsibilities, this new life began to become exceedingly dull. Penelope didn’t seem to notice, fussing over Lily, and eagerly anticipating their son returning from school for the holidays. But for Henry, it seemed pointless. Once he had walked the length of his estates, had stilted conversations with his tenant farmers, gardener, and gamekeeper, he soon lost interest. Everyone still called him ‘Captain De Vere’, a tradition that former rank stayed with you, once you had left the army. He spent more time alone in his study, deep in both thought, and the expensive Cognac he had been pleased to discover in the wine cellars.

Wandering around the house in a daze one afternoon, he spotted a large domed glass case on a console table in the drawing room. Inside it was a dressed doll. It had blonde hair, and very large, staring eyes. When Mrs Fry appeared, carrying some cushions that needed darning, he asked her about the doll. “Oh that was your great aunt’s favourite, Captain Sir. French it is, so she said. Valuable too, an antique likely as not. I wasn’t ever allowed to touch it, so just dusted the case. Still do. She called it Marguerite. Without telling tales, I can tell you she used to talk to it too. Had regular little chats, them two”. She smiled, and carried on about her business.

Life went on much the same for the next few years. Henry bought a new car, much to the dismay of the chauffeur, who dearly loved the old one. He shook his head as he complained to Mrs Fry. “It’s not as if they even go anywhere”. All the time spent in his study caused a rift with Penelope, and they ended up sleeping in separate rooms. And when young Henry was home from school, his father’s complete failure to interact with him made her quietly furious. She spent her time playing with Lily, and when it was time for her to start school, she engaged a private tutor, so her daughter didn’t have to leave the house.

Late one night, Henry’s nocturnal wandering took him back into the drawing room, and he stared at the doll under its dome. Swilling the large measure of Cognac around in the glass, he wondered what his old aunt used to say to the stupid-looking thing.

The voice was that of Sergeant Tanner, Even after all these years, he would have recognised it anywhere. His company sergeant major had been shot and killed, trying to escape from the prisoner of war camp, in 1943.

“We know it was you, Captain. All of us do. You filthy coward and collaborator. You told the krauts about the escape attempt. No idea why, but we know it was you. You never had any guts, we all knew that as soon as we got to France. You got good men killed to keep yourself safe. We all know that, and pretty soon everyone else will know that too”. Henry managed to hold on to the glass, but his hand was shaking. Tanner’s voice was coming from the doll, he knew there was no doubt about that. He must have had too much to drink, and allowed his conscience to create an illusion. He turned and headed up to his room, leaving the unfinished brandy on a side table.

Perhaps he could arrange for the doll to be removed, and stored in the loft? But how would he explain that? Lily always loved to look at it, and it was a feature of the drawing room. Besides, it had almost certainly been his imagination, even though it was undeniably his former sergeant who had spoken to him. He would just keep away from the drawing room, and it would never happen again. One sunny afternoon as he sat shuffling papers aimlessly in his study, Mrs Fry knocked on the door and walked in. “It’s Mr Lee, the Estate Manager, Captain Sir. He wants to see you about something. I have shown him into the drawing room”.

Henry sat with his back to the glass dome as Lee droned on about minor roof repairs that would be necessary, and how Tom the gardener needed a new motor mower to manage the lawns effectively. As he reached into his briefcase for some mower catalogues, Henry heard Tanner’s voice from behind him. “Shall I tell him, Captain? Shall I make him hear me, and tell him how you squealed to the krauts about out secret radio? How you got Corporal Tomlinson put in solitary for stealing potatoes, and how he died of pneumonia because of that? Or shall I let him know how you told them about the escape, and got good men shot, including me? Where shall I start, you filthy coward?”.

Mr Lee showed no sign of hearing anything. He just opened one of the glossy catalogues, and tapped his finger on it. “I recommend one of these, Captain. They are expensive to buy new, but should be more reliable in the long term”. Henry opened his mouth to reply, and the voice spoke up again. “Maybe I will tell the local newspaper instead. What do you think about that? Imagine the shame, the man from the famous military family turning out a coward and collaborator. So much for the war hero, the poor prisoner who came home to his wife, and a good inheritance. Yeah, maybe I’ll do that”. Henry stood up. “Whatever you think best, Mr Lee. I will leave all that in your capable hands”. Lee picked up his case and catalogues, shook the Captain’s hand, and walked out. As Henry followed him, Tanner’s voice became more threatening.

“Or you could do the right thing. You know, the decent thing. It’s either that, or face the shame, I’m warning you”.

Three days later, and Henry hadn’t slept at all. Tanner’s voice repeated over and over in his head, and he could see the faces of all those he had betrayed, appearing in his mind. After drinking almost a full bottle of Cognac, he opened the drawer of his desk, and took out the service revolver he had kept when he left the army. Nobody had ever got around to asking for its return. Checking it was loaded, he walked slowly upstairs.

Penelope woke up in hysterics as the first shot through the bedclothes hit her in the thigh. Henry walked closer for the second shot, which went straight through her exposed throat. Lily hadn’t even been awakened by the loud noises by the time he went into her room, and he shot her in the back of the head as she slept. Once was enough. It hardly seemed worth going anywhere else, so Henry put the warm barrel of the pistol into his open mouth, and pulled the trigger.

Young Master Henry had no intention of returning to the house. It would all be sold, including its contents, the farms and adjoining lands. He had decided to try his luck in Australia. A new life, far from the painful memories. The small things were packed up by a tearful Mrs Fry, to be sent to auction. A canny auctioneer decided to sell the glass dome separately to fetch more money, and the doll attracted some reasonable interest on its own.

The excitable woman who bought it gave her name as Mrs Maureen Hall.

April 1912. Agatha De Vere Finds a doll in the water.

A holiday would be nice, she decided. Agatha wrote to the shipping agent, enclosing a cheque for two first class tickets. Bea would love it, she had always wanted to see America. She allowed herself a warm smile. Wait until the tickets arrive, how delighted she will be.

Agatha De Vere had never married. She didn’t actually care for men that much, and had been relieved when her father hadn’t returned from military service in India. Fever, they said, but the diagnosis wasn’t specific. Buried quickly, given the heat. Then her brother Alfred went into the army, and she was left alone in the house with mother and the servants. Mother rarely left her bedroom, living her life in a laudanum haze. It seemed that she had never recovered from the shock of her wedding night, and the terrible realisation of just what her wifely duties would involve.

It wasn’t long before she expired, drifting off to sleep one night, and never waking up. Alfred had married in India, where he was serving with the cavalry. A plain girl, by all accounts. Dumpy, and unprepossessing. The daughter of some clerk with the Civil Service. Just like Alfred to take the easy option. Agatha relished being the Mistress of the house in his absence, and brightened the interior considerably. The family had plenty of money, and she thought it was high time that some of it was spent. Her next plan was to find herself a companion, and she wrote to a recruitment agency in London, that specialised in such things.

The first to arrive was Anna. A tall girl from Germany, she spoke passable English, played the piano, and her needlework was exemplary. A natural blonde with a slim figure, Agatha took to her immediately. But her attempts to become closer than just employer and companion were not reciprocated. Anna made it quite clear that she was not welcome in her room. She valued her privacy, apparently. And the occasional straying of a hand onto her shoulder or long neck always resulted in a flinch. It wasn’t going to work. Anna had to go.

Felicity arrived next. An attractive young woman from a formerly influential family that had fallen upon hard times after bad investments. Agatha thought she might be promising indeed, but once she was settled in, she talked constantly of her love of men. She drooled over their moustaches, and their fine figures in dress suits. One day she went so far as to comment that the new coachman was ‘built like a young stallion’. Not suitable at all.
Felicity had to go.

She decided to try again, six months later. Beatrice was far from what she expected in a companion. Barely middle class, from humble origins in a forgettable mill town, she was short and buxom, and spoke no languages.
She had read very little of note, and could not sew above darning her father’s socks. But her eyes were large and enticing, and she could sing. Oh, how she could sing. She loved the modern songs of the day, and Agatha ordered the sheet music for them, so she could accompany her singing on the piano in the music room. More importantly, she doted on her new employer, and expressed a desire that they should become great friends. After dinner, they would sit quietly in front of the fire, and Agatha would feel the excitement of knowing Bea’s eyes were upon her.

When she had waited long enough with trembling anticipation, she went to Bea’s room late one night, dressed only in her nightgown. The two women exchanged a knowing look, and Bea moved across the bed, turning back the covers in invitation.

Beatrice would stay.

The following years were the best in Agatha’s life, and in Beatrice’s too. They kept up a veneer of respectability around the house, and had to accept that they could never openly declare their love. Instead, foreign travel provided an escape, and a chance to avoid gossiping servants, or busybody villagers.
The delights of Rome and Florence, and exotic bazaars in Cairo and Marrakesh. Beatrice expanded her knowledge along with her horizons, and Agatha joyously welcomed her devoted attentions, as well as her loving embraces.

Now they would see America. Well, New York to start with, then perhaps travel to the emerging west. And they would do it in style, on board the most luxurious ship afloat. RMS Titanic certainly lived up to its name. As they boarded the ship in Southampton, Bea was wide-eyed at the sheer scale and grandeur of it. They were to share a beautiful stateroom too, one of the best and most expensive on the vessel. When they closed the door to the huge cabin, Bea turned and kissed Agatha passionately. “Thank you, my dearest love. Oh, thank you so”, she whispered breathlessly.

The first days on board were simply marvellous. Their status as first class passengers had them hobnobbing with famous people of the day, and the conversation at the dinner table was refined and most interesting. Wonderful food and unlimited drinks added to the feel of decadence, leading the pair to retire early most evenings, to make the most of their time alone.

As they slept soundly together one night, satiated, and blissfully happy in their dreams, they were awoken by a sound of general disturbance, and a steward rapping hard against their door. Bea quickly wrapped a shawl around her nightgown, and opened the door just a little. The man didn’t seem too desperate, but his tone was urgent. “Begging your pardon Miss, but the First Officer says that everyone is to get dressed, and come up on deck. We are going to have to abandon ship, I’m afraid. Something has gone wrong. Bring no luggage mind, and wrap up warm”. Bea turned and looked at the bed. Agatha was sitting up, and had heard him. As she swung her legs out of bed, she smiled at her lover. “I hope this is not some sort of stupid drill, Bea. It’s cold out there”.

They were handed life-jackets, and sailors showed them how to tie them on. The ship wasn’t moving at all, but seemed stable in the water. Perhaps it was a drill after all, Agatha thought. A polite officer helped Agatha into a seat next to a rather brash American woman, who was encouraging everyone not to panic. Nobody was panicking, so why was she going on about it? The officer stepped back onto the deck to offer a hand to Beatrice. As she walked forward, the bows of the ship dipped slightly, and the lifeboat swung away from the side of the ship.

Bea stepped into thin air, and plummeted silently down the side of the ship, straight into the freezing cold sea. Two sailors heaved a lifebelt over the side, a huge circular thing, with the name of the ship printed on it. The crew of the lifeboat began to lower it down hurriedly, hoping to be able to get to the woman who had gone over the side.

Agatha’s eyes searched the black ocean until they grew raw from the salt spray. She was never to see her beloved Beatrice again. As they pulled away from the sinking ship, she saw something floating on the surface, attracted to it by a flash of yellow shown up in the rocket flares being fired from the deck. It was hair. Blonde hair.

Reaching over the side, she plucked the waterlogged doll from the waves, and clutched it to her breast.

January 1906. Lisette’s new doll.

Claude Fenelon adored his little girl. When he saw the doll in the shop window, he knew he just had to get it for her. Little Lisette was the apple of his eye, and as her mother had died in childbirth, he spent as much time with her as he could. When he had to work, she was cared for by his spinster sister, Violette. But she was an unhappy woman, and he regretted having to rely on her.

His printing business was doing well, so the high price asked for the doll was of no concern to Claude. He took it home, and hid it behind his back as he walked into the house. As the three year-old ran to him excitedly, he produced the doll, and she stopped in her tracks, mouth wide open. “Papa, Papa”. He scooped her into his arms, delighted at the expression on her face. Violette brought the plates in from the kitchen, a sour look on her pinched features. “You spoil that girl, brother. Mark my words, it will make her bad”. Claude continued smiling. “Bad? My Lisette? Look at her. How could such a little angel ever be bad?”

Work was busier than ever. New orders for pamphlets were coming in thick and fast, so Claude and his employees had to work long hours. Arriving home tired at night, he had no time to play with his beloved daughter, as she was already asleep. One night as he was eating his reheated soup, Violette came and sat next to him at the table. That was unusual, as she generally retired to her own room, once Lisette was in bed. “I have to talk to you brother, something important”. He put down his spoon.

“I am worried about Lisette. Ever since she got that doll, she has been acting strangely. She sits and whispers to it, and laughs as if it is replying. Her speaking is coming on beyond her years, and she has started to talk back to me too, becoming defiant at times. On Monday, she called me an old witch. How does she even know about witches? And she told me its name is Mirabelle. She claims that the doll told her that. I sent her to her room, and took the doll from her. She cried all afternoon”. Claude had to pacify his sister, he needed her. But he hated any criticism of his wonderful child. “It might be a phase, Violette. I will talk to her at the weekend, when I have time on Sunday. And if her talking and words is coming on well, then so much the better I say”. He returned to his soup, indicating that he wanted to hear no more of it.

The winter was a bad one. Paris was shrouded in mist and fog, and the air tasted bad in the mouths of the people. Violette developed a nasty cough, and the best efforts of Doctor Boudet failed to cure her. He came to speak to Claude one evening, after examining her in her room. “Her lungs are shot, my friend. She has to go into hospital. I fear the worst, I am sorry to say.” Claude was forced to employ a woman from an agency to look after Lisette whilst he worked. She was professional and efficient, but lacking in warmth. At least he knew that his daughter was safe while he was at work. His sister continued to deteriorate, and he paid for her to go to a sanitarium in the Alps. Just six weeks later, she was dead. Claude made an arrangement with the woman, a widow named Madame Doucet. She would move into Violette’s old room, and act as both housekeeper and carer for the child.

Surprisingly, the arrangement worked. Lisette adapted well to the new situation. And it wasn’t long before familiarity, and her shapely figure, made Claude become interested too. Six months later, they married. Marianne, his new wife, had relatives in Canada. They lived in the province of Quebec, and wrote to her about the marvellous opportunities in that country. Waving the latest letter at him over breakfast, Marianne was full of enthusiasm. “Montreal is the place to be, Claude. The world would be our oyster over there, I tell you”. He found himself thinking a lot about what she had said. Quebec was a French-speaking part of Canada, and he could continue his business in his own language, without too much difficulty. Marianne’s family there would help, and getting out of Paris might be good for them all, including his daughter.

In bed that night, Lisette spoke to the doll, telling Mirabelle what she had overheard. “Papa and Mama Marianne are thinking of going to live in Canada. What do you think about that? Should we go?” She raised the doll’s head to her ear, and nodded, breaking into a wide smile. “Of course you will come with us, Mirabelle. I would never leave you behind”.

It took some time to make all the arrangements. The printing machinery was sold, with different companies bidding for it guaranteeing a good price. Claude even arranged for some of his workers to find jobs at other printers, and the house and contents would be auctioned later. They would stay with Marianne’s uncle and aunt at first, then once the rest of the money arrived from France, he would set up a business with accommodation above. Start small at first. His new wife was beside herself with excitement, even flinging her arms around Lisette, and kissing her head. “You will love your new life in Canada my dear, I promise you”.

By the time the financial situation was in hand, it was proving difficult to get tickets on any ship sailing for Canada. Claude contacted an agent at Cherbourg, and the man made alternative arrangements for the following week. They would travel by ship to England, then get a train to Southampton. Then a ship to New York, and from there another train across the border to Montreal. It would be a long and complicated journey, but the excitement of that new life made them forget any concerns. Lisette seemed very grown up to Claude now, taking care of her own packing, and making sure to include her cherished doll. To save money, Claude had purchased third class tickets, one-way of course. They would have their own small cabin with four bunks, and eat in the canteen with all the others. Marianne didn’t mind at all. Her head was full of Canada.

As they boarded the huge liner, Lisette stared at the name painted on it. She spelled out the letters in her head, then tried to pronounce them.


People were screaming, and Claude woke with a start. The only natural light in their cramped quarters came from the small porthole window. But there was no light, because it was the middle of the night. As he opened the door, water was already coming in, lapping around his feet. The corridor outside was jammed solid with people. Women were screaming, men shouting, everyone pushing against the crush of bodies in the small space. Lisette lay on the top bunk, eyes drooping, still half-asleep. She was clutching Mirabelle tightly to her neck, when the doll suddenly spoke to her, an unusual urgency in its voice.

“Save me, Lisette. You must save me. Open the window and throw me out. Someone will find me”.

Tears streaming down her face, the girl wrestled with the stiff catch on the window. As it opened freezing air rushed in, making her gasp. With one last kiss on its cupid lips, she dropped Mirabelle through the opening.

The Fenelon family would never see Canada after all.

June 1901. Marcel buys a doll.

He wasn’t certain if it was the blonde hair or the cupid lips that first caught his attention, but Marcel knew immediately that he had to have her. He fixed a smile as he entered the small shop, his story prepared. As usual, he had never shopped there before. It had to be a different shop every time, or they might get to know him too well. The female assistant returned his smile as he spoke. “The doll in the window, with the blonde hair and red hood. Can I see it please?” Her eyebrows raised, and she tilted her head. “Oh I see that Monsieur has excellent taste. That is by one of the finest doll makers in the country”.

When she handed it over, the feel of the material and the sight of the delicate lace almost took his breath away. After a few seconds, he handed it back. “Thank you, I will take it”. The assistant hesitated, as she hadn’t mentioned the price. The customer looked respectable enough, but his shoes were worn, and the cuffs of his shirt had been turned. “Did you see the small label with the price, Monsieur? Dolls of this quality don’t come cheap, I’m afraid”. What she said was true enough. It would eat up almost half of his savings, but would be worth it. Opening his wallet, he spoke in a cheery tone. “Please gift wrap the doll. It is a present for my niece for her birthday next week”. As he counted out the notes, his fingers were trembling.

Marcel Vannier had no living relatives.

After leaving with the doll, he stopped at a shabby-looking haberdashery shop on the next corner. Haggling with the almost-toothless owner got him some red velvet and a scarlet ribbon for a reasonable price. But he would have to make do without the lace, which was too expensive. Clutching both parcels, he hurried home to his three-room apartment in a run down area of Paris. Saturday afternoons and Sundays were his only free time, and he knew how to make the best of them. He had left his home in a village near Dijon to find work in Paris as a legal clerk, and these Parisians knew how to work you. Ten hours a day, and a half-day on Saturdays too. But at least it gave him the freedom and anonymity he sought.

In the spare room, he started work on the outfit without even taking off his jacket. With the new doll perched on the edge of his work table, he studied it carefully as he cut the material into shape. If he worked fast into the night, it might be ready tomorrow. In the early hours, eyes red and sore from the close work, he took one last look at the completed outfit, wrapped around the dressmaker’s mannequin. The shelves behind were lined with dressed dolls of all shapes and sizes, and the walls covered in sewing patterns, or pages cut from magazines. Bending to pick up the large oil lamp, he walked through into his living room,, and the small bed in the corner. He was in need of sleep.

Awake early on Sunday, Marcel walked through to the workroom excitedly. He was soon looking through his cupboards and drawers, selecting the best hosiery and underwear. Once he had applied the rouge and make up, he tried on the latest outfit. When topped off with a blonde wig from his extensive collection, he looked exactly like the new doll. At least he told himself that. Prancing around the small room in a pair of specially-made side-button half-boots, he spoke to the rows of assembled, silent dolls. “What do you think, girls? Do I look divine? Better than any woman, I am sure you will agree?” He sat on the stool by his work bench, ruffling his skirts and petticoats, smiling coquettishly into his reflection in the small mirror. Today was going to be a wonderful day, he was sure of it. Later on, he might even wear his favourite black dress with the veil, over the front-lacing corset he had commissioned. He looked wonderful as a widow.

As he set off on a tour around his three rooms, the sharp heels clicking on the bare boards, he thought he heard something. Standing still, he listened again.

“You should try a white dress, a bridal gown. You would indeed be a beautiful bride”.

The voice was that of a young woman; soft, and rather seductive. Could someone be in the apartment? But there were just three rooms, and the door was locked. As he hesitated, he heard it again. “More fetching than any woman I have ever seen. Dress for me, and I will adore you”. His head turned with a snap. The voice was coming from the row of dolls near the work-table. He edged closer, despite feeling a little afraid. “I will tell you what suits you best. What goes with your colouring, how to do your make-up, and how to entrance anyone”. There was no doubt it was the new doll, the one with the scarlet ribbon that matched the one he was also wearing. Marcel was no longer afraid. In fact, he was flattered.

“A bride you say? Yes, I would make a delightful blushing bride indeed”. That evening, he wore the black dress. He had never felt better in his life.

As soon as he could get out of work the next Saturday, he went to the garment district. A long walk, but worth it. The white silk material was terribly expensive, as were the white silk stockings, and white underwear. Unable to get any soft white shoes in his size, he settled for a pair that would be too small. He would just have to force his feet into them. At least the material for the veil was cheap, and he could wear his late grandmother’s jewellery to set off the ensemble. It took all night to make, and he had no time to sleep before trying it on late the next morning. Tottering painfully into the workroom in the ill-fitting shoes, he curtsied before the doll. The voice he heard was still soft.

“Oh, how wonderful. You truly are the most lovely bride I have ever seen. From now on, I shall call you Marcella”.

The next few years were some of the best Marcel had ever known. With the help of the doll, he transformed himself into a beautiful woman, every weekend. Her tips on style were perfect, and she had ideas he would never have thought of. But the satisfaction came at a price. Buying new material every weekend had wiped out his savings. The doll insisted he get new underwear and shoes for each new outfit too. He had to use the same shops more than once, and his constant search for female shoes in the largest possible sizes was beginning to attract unwelcome remarks. He had also missed some Mondays at work due to being so tired. His employer was irritated by his feeble excuses, and gave him a warning that the next time he didn’t turn up, he would lose his job.

Struggling to get by on his wages alone, his savings gone, he started to sell off many of the dolls in his extensive collection. Eventually, only two remained. The small Widow Doll dressed in black, and the one that spoke to him. She would not tell him if she had a name, so he called her ‘Red Ribbon’. As he reached for the Widow Doll late one evening, Red Ribbon suddenly spoke. This time, the voice was not soft. It was sharp, and strident. “So you are going to sell her, are you?” I thought it would come to this. Well I warn you now, if you ever think of selling me, I will tell everyone about Marcella, and what you do every weekend. Don’t think I can’t do that. Your employer will know, your landlord will now. You will have no job, and be cast out onto the streets, laughed at everywhere you go”. Marcel snatched the Widow Doll, and ran out of the room.

On the following Saturday, he used the last of his cash to buy the claret coloured material to make the dress Red Ribbon had demanded to see him in. It was a complex design, and not finished until Sunday afternoon. Exhausted, he dressed as he had been told to, and presented himself to the doll for inspection. The comment was less than flattering this time. “I suppose it will have to do”. Marcel didn’t wake up until almost ten that Monday, and he was still wearing the dress, and full make-up. By the time he got cleaned up and changed, he didn’t get to work until after eleven. His employer looked at him with dead eyes. “Don’t even bother to sit down, Vannier. You are finished here, and will get no reference”. As Marcel tried a flimsy excuse, the man held up his hand, and turned his back.

There was no money for food, or for coal. As he sat shivering in his living room, Marcel pondered his bleak future. Eviction, wandering around looking for work, the possible indignity of labouring for a living. Existing on handouts as a beggar perhaps, in a city full of beggars. He could sell the dresses, but who would they fit? Then what would he wear, for his only diversion and obsession? And now that he no longer had anything to lose, he could sell Red Ribbon. But what he could get for her would only last a few days at the most. He gave a deep sigh, and made a decision.

Two stockings would be enough. They will stretch nicely, he thought to himself as he tied them together to fashion a noose. The only thing strong enough to hold his weight was the large bracket supporting the highest shelf on the wall of his workroom. He walked through with a sense of purpose, and dragged the stool over from the table. Kneeling on the seat, he tied the stocking around the cold metal, then pulled on it with all his might. It was good. It would hold. Before he could slip the loop around his neck and climb up to stand on the stool, Red Ribbon shouted from across the room.

“Wait!” He stopped and turned, looking directly at the doll. “You should wear your black dress, the widow ensemble. It is definitely your best look, and you will want to be looking your best when they find you, won’t you?” Marcel smiled. The doll was absolutely right.

When no rent had been forthcoming for two weeks, the landlord let himself in. The smell was overpowering, and the sight that greeted him almost too much to take in. He closed the door, and went out into the street to summon a policeman.

Constable Leclerc had been a policeman for almost twenty years, and nothing surprised him any longer. As he waited in the room for the men to come and remove the body, he glanced around. The doll on a shelf looked expensive. He sauntered over, and picked it up. Opening some buttons on his tunic, he stuffed it deep inside.

There was a shop he knew. They would buy it, he was sure.

March 1898. Patricia Froment is unwell.

Patrice Froment loved his daughter dearly. He had even named her after himself. She was such a lovely girl, and a great help to his wife, Adele. Almost fourteen, she would soon be leaving school, and he had plans to get her a job where he worked as a toy maker. Her sewing skills were excellent, and he was sure she would do well as an apprentice to their chief seamstress, Madame Paquet. When he got home from work that night, he was concerned to discover that Patricia had taken to her bed. Adele was looking worried. “She said she met a strange woman on the way home from school, close to the street market. The woman looked at her with a mad smile, and touched her face. After that, her head began to hurt, and her vision changed. She feels dizzy, and doesn’t want anything to eat”.

He went straight to his daughter’s room, and was distressed to see her threshing around in the bed, holding her head. She was talking in a language he didn’t understand, but he recognised some words as German. Although her eyes were open, she didn’t appear to see him, or if she did, she certainly didn’t recognise her father. He rushed out of the house, to run and fetch a doctor, leaving his wife crying in the kitchen.

Doctor Monteil was the son of their old doctor, and had recently taken over the practice. He followed Patrice home, urging him to calm down as they walked quickly along the crowded street. Watched over by the Froments, he examined Patricia, a look of concern spreading across his face. “I can find nothing physically wrong with her. In every respect she is a healthy young woman, with strong lungs, and a good pulse. Her bones are good, and her heart seems to be sound. Has anything like this happened before?” The glum couple shook their heads. Adele spoke up. “Never. Not once. She is a calm girl. A good girl, Doctor”. The young man bit his lip. “I imagine it is her nerves. Perhaps an effect of puberty, now she has become a woman”. Patrice blushed. He didn’t like to imagine his daughter in that way. Standing up, the doctor opened his case. “I will give you this powder. Mix it in some water or milk, and make her drink it. It will calm her nerves this evening, and hopefully you will be able to get through to her. I will call tomorrow, at the same time, and see how she is”.

Patrice showed him out, nodding his thanks, and shaking his hand. Adele was already in the kitchen, mixing the powder into a glass.

They could not get her to drink it. She spat it over them, retched uncontrollably, and fought like a Tiger when Patrice tried to hold her head still. Adele tried to force open her mouth with her fingers, and Patricia bit two of them so badly, she drew blood. After numerous attempts, there was almost nothing left of the potion, except some undissolved white powder at the bottom of the glass. Adele was crying, and sucking her torn fingers. Patrice put his arm around his wife. “Come, let’s leave her to rest. She might be her old self after a good sleep”. They both hoped he was right, but both somehow knew he was wrong.

During the night, they were awakened by the sound of screams. Rushing into the bedroom, they saw Patricia sitting bolt upright. An awful smell pervaded the room, indicating that she had messed herself. But there was something else that caught their noses. Sulphur. Their daughter spoke in her normal voice. “Mama, Papa, please help me”. As Patrice lunged forward to comfort her, she spoke again. A man’s voice in a foreign language. He knew immediately that it was German. “Geh weg, Dummkopf. Beginnen Sie von hier”. When they stepped back but failed to leave the room, the same voice spoke in French, adding a chuckle. “Oh, I forgot. Get away you fool, begone from here”. Adele screamed to hear this voice coming from her daughter’s mouth, then fainted.

He had dragged her from the fetid bedroom, and splashed water on her face. As she came round, Adele looked up at him, wide-eyed. “My God, Patrice, what is to be done? Our lovely girl is possessed”. He stroked her face, fighting back his own tears. “Please don’t say that, my love. She is unwell, that’s all. I will make sure she gets the best treatment”. Even to his own ears, his assurances sounded hollow.

When the young doctor returned the following evening, he was shocked to see the state of the couple. Patrice had been forced to go to his work, or he would not have been paid. Adele was wearing the same clothes as yesterday, her breath sour with stomach acid, where she had not eaten a thing. Dark circles surrounded the eyes of the attractive woman, and her husband was visibly trembling. They had told him that they had been unable to give her the nerve medicine, and recounted some of the events of last night. But not the voices. Nor the speaking in German. He went into the bedroom to examine Patricia, her parents standing nervously by the door. Their daughter was still. Eyes open, breathing steadily. She gave no response to the doctor’s questions, and didn’t seem to notice that he was holding his handkerchief over his face, to ward off the unpleasant stench in the room.

Less than two minutes later, he turned and walked out. “This is a definite case of mental disorder, Monsieur Froment. My recommendation is that your daughter be admitted to the asylum of Sainte Anne”. Adele screamed. “Never! Not there. I will care for her. Thank you doctor, my husband will pay your account”.

After three exhausting months, Adele was looking drained and gaunt. Patrice told her to get out of the house. “Go to the park, my love. Perhaps walk by the Seine. You need a break from this, and some fresh air. I will watch dear Patricia”. She was gone for almost four hours. Upon her return, she ushered Patrice into their bedroom, speaking in a whisper. “I have been talking to my old friend, Madame Rosa. You know her, the Spanish lady. She has told me about some women she knows who could help Patricia. But it must be done in secret, and it will cost a lot of money”. She handed her husband a scrap of paper with an address written on it. As he read it, a terrible cry came from Patricia’s bedroom. A man’s voice, swearing in German.

He folded the paper and put it into his jacket pocket, then leaned over and kissed Adele softly on her cheek.

“Leave it to me, I will go there tomorrow”.

June 1898. Madame Enecsu becomes involved.

The June sun was hot that Sunday morning, and Patrice was flustered by the time he found the address in that unfamiliar district. The house was respectable, not at all what he had expected. The door was opened by a young woman wearing a white shirt, and a pair of man’s trousers. Her nose was sharp, and her eyes cold. Patrice took off his hat. “Madame Enescu? You are not expecting me, but I was given your name by Madame Rosa, the Spanish lady”. Pulling the door wider, the young woman spoke in heavily-accented French. “Come in and wait. I will see if she is free to see you”. She showed him into a small parlour, and he stood respectfully, rolling the hat in his hands.

When she arrived she was also nothing like he had expected. He had imagined a crone, someone toothless and wrinkled. But the woman was strikingly beautiful, with olive skin, and shining black hair drawn tightly back over her head. She gave the appearance of a Flamenco dancer, with her voluminous skirts, and carefully-applied cosmetics. “Please sit, Monsieur. I take it you have need of my talents?” Patrice leaned forward on the small wooden chair. “Madame, I do not know who else to turn to. My daughter has a sickness of the mind, and is uncontrollable. The doctor suggested an asylum, but my wife and I will not hear of it”. The woman snapped open a black and red fan, and began to flap it rapidly around her neck. “Tell me all, Monsieur”.

Patrice related the whole series of events, then sat back on the chair, his eyes moistening. “So do you think you can help us?” She looked at him over the fan, and spoke through it too, her words precise. “I am originally from Romania, Monsieur. But I have lived in Paris a long time. Such a wicked place has need of the skills taught to me as a young woman in my country. I will have to come and look at your daughter, with my assistant. If you wait for us to prepare, then we can go today. Time is of the essence. But I warn you now, my services do not come cheap. Are you a man of means?” He swallowed, unsure just how much she was talking about, but not wanting to ask her price. “I am but a humble toy-maker, Madame. But my wife and I have savings, and she has some of her mother’s jewellery that can be sold”.

He stood up as she did, and she turned as she left the parlour. “Then go and secure a cab, Monsieur. Tell the driver to wait, and I will be out soon”.

It took less than five minutes to flag down a cab, but they did not emerge for a further fifteen. He had already had to promise the driver a generous tip, to get him to wait. Despite the heat, Madame Enescu was wearing a heavy black cloak and bonnet, and the young woman who followed carrying a leather bag was dressed in a belted man’s raincoat, and wearing a large cap. The journey back to his home was awkward. The women remained silent, and any attempt he made at conversation was stopped by the younger one, with a wave of her hand.

Inside his house, they virtually ignored Adele, simply nodding at her greeting, and effusive thanks. Taking off her cloak, Madame Enescu sniffed the air, and turned to her assistant with a knowing look. “You must leave us to our examination of the girl. You understand that? No interfering, whatever you hear from her room”. They both nodded, and watched as she walked off to Patricia’s room, without asking where it was.

For two hours, Patrice held on to his sobbing wife as they listened to the sounds coming from behind the door of their daughter’s room. Madame Enescu’s voice could be heard speaking in German, another language that they presumed was her native Romanian, and French too. Other voices were heard. Patricia’s plaintive tone, the voice of a man, laughter, and swearing in German and French. Foul swearing, obscenities, and blasphemy as well. Adele flinched at every word. She had never heard such things voiced out loud. Then there was the sound of hammering, like nails being driven into wood and plaster. When the door opened, the masculine-looking assistant emerged, holding her cap and the leather bag. She nodded for them to go in.

Patricia lay on the bed. She was calm, and her eyes were open. The foul smell had gone, and Madame Enescu stood at the side of her, red-faced and looking overheated. All around the room, crosses had been fixed to the walls. They were Orthodox crosses, like those Patrice had seen on Russian Icons. She waved them back out of the room, and followed them to the kitchen table. Her assistant remained in the hallway, looking bored. “You have some water perhaps. Or wine, for preference?” Adele took down one of the best glasses, and Patrice opened a bottle of Bordeaux he had been saving for Sunday lunch.

As she sat at the table gulping the wine, she looked up at them with a matter-of-fact gaze. “The girl is undoubtedly possessed. I have managed to calm her for now, but I doubt things will stay quiet for long. You must on no account let her touch your face or head, do you hear me? Take great care as you wash her, and feed her. The evil is warned now, and will try to leave her”.

Patrice stared wide-eyed at this confirmation of his greatest fear. “There is a demon inside her, Madame?” The woman smiled, and shook her head. “Bless you Monsieur, but no. Demons do not inhabit the living. This will be a rogue spirit. A thrill-seeker. Someone trying to live on in the bodies of others. It seems your daughter was chosen by chance. She was likely in the right place at the wrong time”. Adele swallowed hard. “Is she lost then? Can you help her?” Finishing her wine with a slurping noise, she smiled again. “Not lost. Well not totally, I can help her, but I will have to come back another time.
Now, some jewellery was mentioned?”

The inheritance from Adele’s mother was inspected with an experienced eye. Much of it was discarded onto the table, and when she had finished, five items remained in the simple wooden box. A necklace, three brooches, and a gold ring set with precious stones. “I will take these five things for now. But when I come back on Monday evening, I will require one thousand francs in cash. You have that amount?” Patrice nodded gravely. It was almost all they had in the world.

“Of course, Madame. I will have the money waiting for you”.

June 1898. Madame Enescu returns.

On the Monday evening, Madame Enescu and her assistant returned as arranged. Patrice had not long got home from work, and his expression was glum as he handed over the notes. She passed them to her assistant, who leaned forward and counted them at the kitchen table. The young woman flicked through them with the professional skill of a bank-teller, and in no time seemed satisfied. She placed the bundle into the leather bag, and turned to the older woman. ” O mie. Tot acolo.” That seemed to please her employer and she nodded, turning to Patrice and his wife.

“So, one thousand, and all there. Thank you. Now we have to have a serious talk. This roaming spirit inside your daughter may have been around for centuries, or only since last month. From the way he speaks, and the things he says through her, I suggest he is experienced, and will now be wary too.
We will need a familiar, something to tempt him out of Patricia. And your daughter must be tied down. We cannot allow her to touch our heads or faces during the procedure. I have brought leather straps for that purpose”.

Adele looked at her. “A familiar, Madame? You mean like a black cat, or another such animal favoured by witches?” Madame Enescu appeared to be suppressing a smile as she replied. “No, nothing like that, Adele. May I call you Adele? I mean another girl, preferably a child. One with blonde hair like your daughter’s, and those perfect lips. We will bring her here, and this German will leave your daughter, and enter her instead. Then my assistant will wrap the girl in a sack, and leave her outside an asylum. I have been unable to find anyone suitable today, so wondered if you knew of any local children who would suffice? If not, there will be a delay until we find one, I’m sorry to say”.

Patrice jumped back as his wife stood up, her face bright red. “This is your solution? These are your skills? How dare you think that we would save our Patricia by enslaving another innocent! No, Madame, that will never happen. Perhaps you should leave now. In fact, get out! I want you out now!” She turned and ran into their bedroom, tears streaming down her face. The woman looked up at Patrice, her face heavy with powder, and her eyes wrinkled in annoyance. “And you, Monsieur? Do you agree with your wife?
Did you think it would be as easy as saying a few prayers, and it would all be over? Even if we get the girl back, it may only be the start of a long recovery for her. She will remember it all. That’s the pity”.

He had an idea. A fleeting thought that became something solid in his troubled mind. “Please stay, madame. I have a plan. I will have to go out, but I will be back in no more than thirty minutes. Meanwhile, you and your assistant can secure Patricia as you suggest”. She tapped her perfect fingernails on the table-top. “I will give you that time, but no more. I am not happy with your wife’s attitude, I confess. And there will be no refund if your plan fails, you understand that I hope?” Patrice turned to leave. “You can keep the money either way. Without our Patricia, it means nothing”.

There were no cabs outside, so he had to run to the corner to wave one down on the main boulevard. He gave the cabby the address, adding quickly, “As fast as your horse can trot, and I will double your fare”. When they arrived outside the workshops of his employer, Patrice handed him some coins.
“I need you to wait, I will be very quick. As I said, double the fare if you get me home as fast as you got here”. The driver looked at him from under the low brim of his waterproof beaver-fur bowler hat. “Very well, Monsieur. But don’t think to cheat me later”. Using the key provided to him as chief toy-maker, Patrice opened the heavy door and ran inside, leaving it open. He knew exactly where to go, and what he wanted. And at the back of his small office, it was there, waiting.

The company had recently completed a commission for the Russian royal family. A special doll, designed to order. Patrice had overseen the manufacture of the prototype, quietly suggesting some minor alterations, until it resembled his own daughter as a small child. Then they had made the doll to send to Russia, and he had kept the first one in his office, with an idea to pitch it to the sales manager as part of the Christmas range. He had even thought of a name for it. ‘Claudine’. The suggestion had been well-received, and they had decided to make it a limited edition, for the very wealthy clients only. Plans for that were still being arranged, when Patricia had been struck down.

Grabbing the doll, he emptied a calico sack full of wound ribbons, and stuffed it inside. He was back in the cab in less than three minutes.

The woman rubbed her chin in thought. “It might work, it just might. The doll looks enough like your daughter, and he will not realise it is not a person until he is inside. By then it will be too late”. The young assistant shook her head, a scornful look on her face. Madame Enescu rounded on her, her respectable veneer disappearing fast. “What do you know, foolish girl? You are just an apprentice. Look and learn, and keep your scorn to yourself. Many times in the dark past spirits were charmed into dolls and animals. I know it is easier to use a child, or some brainless woman, but this could work, I tell you”.

Patrice followed them to his daughter’s bedroom. Adele had not left their room, and he could hear her sobbing behind the door. Patricia was strapped to the bed, her arms above her head, buckled to the iron bedhead. Her legs were wide open, and her ankles secured to a chain running under the mattress. But as he saw she was naked, he looked away, distressed to observe Patricia in that way. The assistant spoke to him in her heavy accent, her tone soft, and suddenly kind. “Do not think of her as your daughter at this moment, Monsieur. We had to cut away her nightdress so we can get about our work. Wait over there, and be ready when I ask for the doll”. Madame Enescu took a pot from the leather bag, and a fine artist’s brush. She began to paint strange designs on Patricia’s naked body, singing a haunting melody that reminded him of a Gregorian Chant he had once heard at a concert.

Patricia’s eyes opened wide, and her head began to move from side to side. Then her body strained against the restraints, and seemed to be trying to lift itself up from the bed. The foul smell returned as the singing continued, louder this time, and more repetitive. His daughter’s mouth opened wide, and the hair stood up on his neck as the voice came from inside her. “Tu dein schlimmstes, Roma-hure”. Seconds later, he heard his Patricia’s own gentle voice. “Papa, oh dear Papa”. Madame Enescu nodded at her helper, who turned to Patrice. “Now, Monsieur, be quick!” He passed over the doll, and the young woman pressed it hard against the face of the girl on the bed.

The singing stopped, and the woman reeled back from the bed, sitting down heavily on the floor with a bump. The assistant thrust the doll into the bag, and tied the top tightly. Patricia slumped back against the pillows, her eyes closed, and her expression finally serene. As his head turned from his daughter to the woman on the floor and back again, Patrice raised his voice. “Is it over? In the name of God will someone tell me what has happened?”

Madame Enescu struggled to her feet. Rivulets of perspiration had left small channels in the powder covering her cheeks. “It has left her, Monsieur. At least as far as I can judge. You have her back, but perhaps not all of her. There is a long struggle ahead for your family, but I can do no more. Now go and tell your wife while we unfasten the straps. She can come in and kiss her daughter”.

As they sat in the cab on the way home, Madame sounded pleased. “You did well tonight, my dear. Tomorrow, I will give you the address of a toy shop I know. They will surely buy it from us, and a doll as pretty as that will not stay long in the window, I would guess. Some customer will buy it, and then who knows? Maybe we will get more lucrative business charming out the evil once again”.

Inside the bag, Rudolf looked through the large glass eyes into the darkness surrounding him. He had been charmed indeed, and now no longer had a voice.

No matter. Someone would suffer for that.

May 1631. Magdeburg is burning.

His horse was tired, and he stopped on the track to let it rest. Stretching his shoulders, Rudolf looked back at the ruined city, smoke and flames reaching up to the sky. After weeks of siege, Count Tilly’s army had finally broken through the defences. And in the hours that followed, the slaughter and pillage had been terrible to behold. Rudolf had his own reasons for getting into the city, and on this occasion, he had eschewed rape and plunder for something else. He was searching for the sign of The Seven Stars. To find it had taken him most of the day, but when he stepped over the pile of bodies blocking the entrance, he faced disappointment. There was no sign of the man known as the Grey Wizard.

Stamping around the floor in his heavy boots, he eventually detected a hollow sound below. The outline of the trapdoor was concealed under a filthy rug, and easily prised open with his dagger.

At the back of the tiny cellar, he could hear sobbing, and he leaned forward to grab the young man hidden under a pile of rags. “Good sir, I beg you, please don’t kill me. I will convert, I will convert”. Rudolf dragged the boy up the short ladder, to see him in the light. “I have no interest in your conversion, boy. Religion means nothing to me. I have my own quest. What do you know of the Grey Wizard? Tell me true, and I will spare you”. With relief flooding over him, the teenager was happy to talk. “The man you seek is my master, sir. He escaped the city last week, and left me to take charge of his shop.
But I know where he has gone, and can show you”.

Now he was tied to a long rope behind the horse. When Rudolf had recovered the animal from the man he had paid to look after it during the battle, he had grabbed some old rope from the stables, and wrapped it around the boy’s hands. If he thought he would ride behind the fierce-looking soldier, he was sadly wrong.

Rudolf Starck was the third son of a wealthy Hamburg merchant. By the age of twenty, he had already been expelled from university, got two girls with child, and killed a man during a brawl. His antics were costing his father money, and he called his son into his study, to have a serious talk with him.

“I can take no more of your behaviour. My decision is that I will equip you with the necessary means to serve as a soldier. That should suit you well, as you already act in a base and lowly manner. I will write a letter of introduction to a nobleman of my acquaintance in Bohemia. There are rumours of war brewing there, as the Emperor has had his fill of the Protestant League, and the French are also keen to get their hands on land in the Palatinate. I will grant you an allowance, which you can draw with letters of credit from merchants I know. Once you leave here, stay away”.

Father had been generous. A fine black charger, a new breastplate and lobster-tail helmet. A wheel-lock pistol of the finest Austrian manufacture, and a heavy sword that would do good service. With a padded leather suit to wear under the armour, and an oiled canvas cape for bad weather, Rudolf cut an impressive figure as he rode out of the city. It was a long way to Prague, but the excitement of the new life ahead would ease the journey.

Weeks later, he was shown into a room to meet a Captain of Horse. The man looked up at him, then sat back in his chair. “So, you are Starck? You want to join my regiment, young man? See some action? The fighting will start soon, I know it. Buy some provisions for yourself and your horse, and get your clothes washed. Report back here in two days”. With a wave of his hand, he dismissed Rudolf, who had not spoken a word. As he walked out into the crowded street, he had no idea that he was about to participate in one of the longest and bloodiest wars Europe had seen up to then. It would go down in history as The Thirty Years War, but his role in it would never be remembered.

In November of the year 1620, he fought in his first battle, at a place called White Mountain. He was on the losing side, even though he had managed to kill three men, one with a pistol shot, and two more with his sword. In such confusion, he couldn’t even be sure if those men had been on his own side or not. The Protestant Army was in full retreat, and men were dying all around. Survival had overwhelmed any idea of victory, and he kept going until he was on his own.

For the next few years, he wandered around countries stricken by war and disease. Corpses dangled from trees at the side of the road, and bodies of plague victims still smouldered in the pits where they had been burned. There was little chance of plunder, so Rudolf eked out his allowance, and demanded food from terrified villagers he encountered. If they had a comely wife, or fetching daughter, he would pleasure himself with them too, before killing the whole family. He killed them because he could. He would never face arrest, in a land where society had collapsed, and madness ruled. Besides, he had discovered that he enjoyed killing.

Sometimes, he would throw in his lot with one of the wandering bands of mercenaries. They didn’t care what religion he was, as they sold their skills to the side most likely to win, and offer plunder. When there was no fighting to be had, they would just install themselves in a village or small town, demanding food and women in return for not massacring everyone in sight. As the year turned to 1626, Rudolf was settled in the war. He had found his calling. Raping and killing with the best of them, and noticeably better than most. That April, he heard that the King of Denmark had brought his Protestant Army to fight the Catholic League, so he left the weary band, and travelled to try his luck with the Danes. They were attempting to get to Magdeburg, and had to cross the bridge at Dessau, where their opponents were ready to stop them.

The army that Rudolf had joined walked into a trap, and lost half their number. He was wounded by fragments from a cannonball, and was lucky to escape with his life. Tired of serving with defeated armies, he sought refuge in the countryside, and found an old woman to sew his wounds. As he recovered from a fever in her stinking hut, she regaled him with lurid tales of magic and evil, claiming to know many secrets. He gave her some silver coins to encourage her disclosures, and she spoke of someone in Magdeburg. “They say he has the secret of eternal life, young lord. A true wizard, it is said. The master of an ancient order, and leader of a cult. The Grey Wizard. His disguise is as a herbalist, at the shop of the sign of The Seven Stars. It’s surely true, young lord. Magic is as old as life on this Earth, so I swear”.

When he had recovered, Rudolf slit the throat of the old hag with his dagger, and searched the hut until he found the coins he had given her.
Since arriving in Bohemia, he had seen much, and was more than ready to believe her stories. He would go to Magdeburg and find this wizard, make him tell the secret of eternal life.

But there was a war in the way of his plans, and it took him almost five years to get there.

June 1631. The Wizard is found in Ackendorf.

Just outside the municipality of Ackendorf, the boy stopped by a stand of trees. A thicker forested area lay beyond them, and he pointed his tied arms together. “There, sir. In those trees. A hunting lodge. You cannot see it from the road”. His feet were torn and bleeding, and he was breathless from having to almost run behind the horse all afternoon. The sun was setting to their left, and he shielded his eyes from the sudden glare.

That meant he didn’t see the blade of the heavy sword as it swished down. It cut through his neck so easily, his head was almost severed. Rudolf swung the blade back through the rope to cut his saddle free of the corpse, and turned his horse in the direction of the woodland.

Seeing no need for subterfuge, he rode up to the low-roofed timber lodge, and slipped out of the saddle holding his cocked pistol ready. His horse wandered off to munch on some dry-looking grass, and he carried on up the few steps to the heavy door. As he raised a hand to knock, it opened. The girl in the doorway was striking indeed. Wearing a simple cotton shift that didn’t reach her knees, her pure white hair matched white eyebrows. With a mouth that looked like a lip-less gash, and a nose that was so small, it didn’t seem real. Her eyes were pink. Rudolf stared in fascination.
In all these years, he had never seen an albino.

“Your pistol will not be needed here, soldier. There is nothing of value inside”. Her voice was little more than a whisper, but it shook Rudolf from his reverie. Aged no more than twelve years he guessed, her confidence and complete lack of fear was impressive. He did not holster his pistol though. Experience had made him ever wary. “I seek the Grey Wizard, girl. Is he inside?” She opened the door fully, and he walked in, his spurs jingling loudly in the silence. The interior was unadorned, and sparsely furnished. It bore the hallmarks of having been ransacked before, by one army or the other.
Sitting at a table on the far side, the space illuminated by an expensive pillar-candle, he saw a thin man who was much younger than he had imagined.

His head and face were shaved, so there was no grey hair or beard to suggest his name. But as he walked closer, Rudolf immediately knew he had the right man. His skin was grey. Like the skin of a corpse. Before he could say anything, the man spoke, his voice sounding deep, almost like an echo from a well. “You come searching for immortality, soldier. But are you aware of the price?” Rudolf pushed the pistol into the blue sash tied around his waist.
“I have money, and some pearls too. Then there is my horse, and this armour.”. When the wizard smiled he showed small teeth, each separated by a distinct gap. They were unusually pointed and sharp, as if they had been filed deliberately. “Your valuables mean little to me. The price for what you desire is far greater. Not only the body you stand in, but the eternal soul it contains. Think on that for a moment”.

He had always been impulsive, and the long years of war had done little to change that.


As he spoke, the girl closed the door with a loud bang, and he jumped at the noise. The wizard turned to her. “You know what to do, Greta. Fetch this man some ale, and then summon two brothers of The Order”. The beer she brought tasted like water from a ditch, but he was thirsty enough to drink it. The grey man studied him from across the table. “You are still young. Tell me, why do you seek immortality? Are you aware that it means the end of your earthly life, probably within the hour?” Rudolf shrugged. I am but thirty-one, almost thirty-two years. But I have lived a life worth twice that, since I came to this war. I am tired of the dirt, the hypocrisy, the lies of the priests and ministers. I want out of this body, and to live on in spirit. I seek not Heaven, nor Hell, but something I do not know the name of”.

The wizard leaned over, a nasty grin on his lips. “Soldier, know now that there is no Heaven. There is only Hell for everybody. Nobody is innocent. But that Hell means something different for everyone. For a man like you who has killed for no reason, violated girls little older than children, even thrown new born babies into the flames, there is a special place. A life as a wandering evil spirit, with no soul. Destined to live vicariously through the living, drinking in their evil along with their banality. Your only nourishment will be to keep that cycle of wickedness going until the end of time itself”. Rudolf realised that this man knew about his own atrocities, though they had never met.
Perhaps he could see his thoughts too, and it suddenly dawned on him why that was.

“You speak from experience, I believe. You are such a spirit, and you speak to me through this grey man seated across the table. And the girl? She has chosen to appear using a freak of nature. Is she of your breed too? She may not even be female, I suspect”. The man clapped his hands silently, in mock applause. “You catch on quickly, soldier. You should do well in the world beyond this. Oh the things you will see. The price is small compared to the wonders of the future, don’t you think? I could tell you of the glory of Babylon, and the beauty of Cleopatra. But there is no time.”

A door opened behind him, and Rudolf turned to see the girl, accompanied by two men dressed as monks. They removed their robes, displaying fine clothes beneath. A design of seven silver stars was embroidered on their waistcoats. One carried two large buckets, the other a long knife, sharpened like a razor. The wizard stood, and threw the leather beer mug onto the floor. “Remove your clothes and weapons then lie on your back cross this table”. When he had done as requested, the girl came closer, and began to chant a beautiful melody, like the singing of monks in church. She took a quill pen and pot of ink from behind her back, and carefully drew strange patterns and numbers over his body. One of the men placed the buckets on either side, and the other walked forward, lifting the long knife. The wizard chuckled. “Last chance now. You can get dressed and leave if you have changed your mind. But once it begins, there is no going back”.

Rudolf nodded. “Go to it. Get it done”.

The blade hardly hurt as it cut deep and long from his wrist to inside his elbow. By the time the man was doing the same with the other wrist, blood was flowing freely into the bucket by his side. The four of them walked back a few paces, watching. When the girl began to chant again, Rudolf was already feeling cold and drowsy, and beginning to feel the sting of the long wounds. As he felt his vision began to fade into darkness, he called out to them.
“One question. What do you do with my body?”

The girl leaned over him, her whispering voice speaking close to his ear.

“Our bodies must be fed”.

June 1631. Rudolf wakes up dead.

It was nothing at all like he had imagined. There was no substance as such. Just a knowledge of being, and of others being there too.

Realisation flooded in. Awareness of so many things at long last, filling his mind as if it had previously been empty. Language was no barrier. There was but one language, just spoken differently. In this spiritual condition, he understood anything, whatever language it was being spoken in.

Nothing was actually being spoken. Nobody had a voice as he had previously understood that concept. The thoughts were simply there, the sounds just there too. No faces, no physical beings. Neither light nor dark. More like a shimmer just ahead of him, a light that he seemed to be constantly walking toward, but never arriving at.

Surrounded by the murmuring voices, male and female. All asking, as he was, where they had to go next. What were they supposed to do now? No separation of religion, nor colour, race, or creed.

Lost souls with no apparent purpose, but one common understanding.
It would be like this for eternity.

He sensed a thought, it was close to him. In life, he might well have looked around to see who it was. But here that would have served no purpose.
It was a quiet thought, with the voice of a mature woman.
“Find a host. We must find a host. Inside a living being we will live once more. Forever”.
She must have been like him, not just someone who had died, but one destined for greater evil.

Rudolf wondered how to do that. How would he move? And how would he re-enter the world of the conscious living? There were no instructions, no mentor or guide. Then he heard her again.
“Don’t try thinking about how, just imagine it is”.

He was looking through eyes that struggled to focus. Shapes moved around him, and he suddenly sensed warmth, as arms reached down to grasp him. He was held up to the face of a tired-looking woman, her hair plastered to her head with sweat. It appeared he was moving, as he had the sensation of wriggling. As she clasped him to her body, and stroked his face, he was immediately looking through other eyes, at a sticky, squirming, new-born baby. A man walked over, and leaned forward. His thick red beard felt soft as he kissed the cheek. The view changed again. From above, looking down on the now-smiling woman as she held the infant, wrapping it in a white shawl.

It didn’t take long for Rudolf to work it out. He had been transferred from the spirit world into a baby being born. Then into the baby’s mother by her touch, next the father by his kiss. And he knew everything about them. Their past, their thoughts, their hopes and dreams, as well as their misdeeds, and darkest secrets. He was joined by their dead relatives, and the spirits of those who had ever borne them a grudge.

But it was crowded in there, and he knew he must learn how to manage the situation. Filter out what was no longer needed, file away other thoughts for later use. They were speaking Dutch, and he understood that perfectly. So he was no longer in Germany, but that mattered not. It had begun, as the wizard had promised.

Immortality, through the life of anyone he chose to inhabit.

There were other lessons to learn. When they ate, he tasted nothing. When they had sex, he felt no sensation. It didn’t affect him if they were cold, thirsty, or tired. When they slept, he was still awake, and if they died he remained inside them waiting for them to be touched, so he could shift into the next one. If it was a child, he retained his adult senses, and when he was inside a woman, he still knew he was male.

Learning to use just enough of his new power was the hardest part. If he dominated their mind totally, others thought them insane. He worked out how to lurk in the background, let them go about their lives as he decided how long to stay around, looking for a more interesting opportunity. Rudolf no longer saw them as people, not even as humans. Just objects that were available for his enjoyment. Manipulating their thoughts, and their pathetic earthly lives, was not unlike playing with his toys when he was a child.

He could speak through them too. Not just in their voice, but in his own, or in any of those that he could find in their thoughts. That was most enjoyable.

Oh, he had found his destiny indeed.

He supposed it had never occurred to him that such an existence could have a major drawback, but he discovered it did.
He still existed in real time. Even after changing hosts more times than he cared to remember, only one hundred years had passed, though he was still thirty-one as far as he was aware. He realised that immortality could be rather dull. He had seen other wars, inhabited famous artists, and courtesans who were lovers of Kings. By moving into sea captains, he had travelled the globe, living moments as a slave in the West Indies, or staying a while with a wealthy spice merchant in Java.

Of course, he practiced nothing but evil. Suggesting marital infidelities, proposing murder and rape, fraud and deception. He ruined lives, countless lives.

Others, he made wealthy or successful. A young opera singer became the talk of Europe, a penniless artist had his work purchased by a nobleman, at Rudolf’s suggestion. Then he would bring them down. He was the fall that came after their pride. When this seemed tame, he would burn down a city, by changing some mild-mannered workman into a crazy arsonist. Bored one afternoon, he managed to get a respectable businessman to murder his entire family on a picnic, before hanging himself from the tree they had been sitting under. When they took away his body, Rudolf slipped into one of the mortuary attendants until someone more interesting turned up.

That was more like it.

His new existence continued along those lines as he learned to be patient. Time had no more meaning for him, after all. By the year 1898, he had been in Paris for more than fifty years. He had seen the revolution of the Paris Commune, and led many to untimely deaths during that. For a while, he was living the life of the most expensive prostitute in that city, learning the secrets of her wealthy clients, then casually ruining their lives. Sensing something inhabited her mind, she was slowly going insane. So one afternoon in a deserted market place, he chose a young girl as she walked toward him. He wanted to see what her ordinary life might be like.

That didn’t turn out so well.

Now he was trapped inside a doll, and had to try to work out how to free himself.

March 2019. Phoebe tells all.

For the first year, he had lived inside the doll at the front of the window. Many came in to ask how much the beautiful doll cost. Most were unable to afford it, though some seemed to sense there was something unpleasant about it. The shopkeeper moved it inside, above the counter. He was worried that the clothes would fade. Besides, more people might see it, as they browsed the interior.

Rudolf spent the time well. Without having to try too hard, he discovered that having a voice didn’t matter in the least. He could make anyone he chose hear the doll. And they heard whatever voice he decided to use, whether his own, or one from their past memories. And he didn’t need real eyes to see.
It was all still there, visible though his spirit consciousness, and focused through the wide glass eyes of the doll.

He enjoyed driving the first shop assistant insane. He would whisper to her with the voice of her husband. He said the vilest things, and delivered home truths she herself had suspected. The first time she turned and engaged the doll in conversation, Rudolf had a revelation. He didn’t need to move out of the doll. It was the perfect host, and would provide him with centuries of amusement.

When the new shop girl came to work there, she put the doll back in the window. One summery day, Rudolf spotted a man eyeing him through the square panes of glass. He knew immediately that he would come in and buy the doll, and he knew the dark secret as to why he would too.

Over the next one hundred and eighteen years, Rudolf developed his powers to perfection. The doll changed hands many times, and he was able to make many suffer for the ownership of Claudine. There were calm periods too, times when he wanted to stay with an owner, and bide his time. He liked Agatha, and spent many happy years talking to the interesting woman. He would tell her what he had seen over the centuries, and regale her with gossip about the lives of famous people, and ordinary ones too.
And all in the voice of her beloved Beatrice.

But when she had died, and the doll had been bought once again, the old Rudolf resurfaced. Time to have fun, after that long rest.

England was a good hunting ground. Less fear of the unknown, and lacking people who believed in the old ways and superstitions. But mainly because behind their respectable exteriors, dark things lurked in the memories of the families the doll went to live with.

And now he was owned by Anne. The girl was surely innocent thus far, but her parents both kept terrible secrets close. Jane Boyd was guarding the destructive secret that her husband was not the father of her daughter. As for Roger, his suppressed secret was much worse. Rudolf was delighted to be there, as he could wreak havoc through this child.

Although young Anne could never have met her late sister, Phoebe was easily found inside her mind. She had chosen to inhabit a space there, waiting for the right time. Now was that time, and she was happy to let Rudolf carry out her revenge. He used her voice to talk to Anne, and even though she had never heard it before, she was happy and ready to believe that it was the voice of the sister who had died years before she was born. He told her the shocking truths behind both secrets, and made her understand the implications of revealing them.

They took their time, waiting until they were sure that Anne could sound convincing, once she knew all the facts. Every night when her bedroom light went out, she would cuddle her doll, and listen to the voice of her sister telling her what had happened before Anne was born. For many girls of her age, it might have been a forbidding prospect, revealing such things and facing her future afterwards. But she was made of strong stuff, and agreed that Phoebe should have justice.

They chose a Sunday, the one day when the family always ate together. Anne was told to leave the doll in her bedroom, so as not to antagonise her father before she got a chance to speak her revelations. Just before two in the afternoon, Jane called out to her husband and daughter. “It’s on the table”.
It was roast beef, with all the trimmings. Anne always found it too chewy, but it was Roger’s favourite.

Except that today, he would get no chance to enjoy it.

As soon as they were all sat down, Anne started to ask her questions.
“Mum, how did Phoebe die?” Jane raised her eyebrows at the strange dinner-table conversation.
“We have told you, luvvy. She was born with lung problems, and spent a lot of her life in hospital. Her breathing never got any better, and one day when I was out with my friends from work and Dad was looking after her, she just stopped breathing. He called the ambulance, but it was too late”.

Anne nodded, then turned to her father.
“Dad, why do you think I am not your child?” Roger’s fork stopped in mid-air, a spot of yellow mustard dripping from the slice of beef speared on it.
“I don’t think that. That’s a stupid thing to say. Why are you talking such rubbish? Eat your dinner”.

Jane’s face was getting red, blushing from the neck up. Roger avoided her eyes, and stuffed the beef into his mouth, chewing silently.

Anne left a nice pause, like when they waited to announce the winner in the talent shows on TV.

“So Dad doesn’t know that you used to have sex with Alan from your work, even when Phoebe was alive? And he doesn’t know that’s who you were with when she died, lying on your back in his car?
And he doesn’t know that you kept on seeing him after that, then got pregnant with me? And he doesn’t know that you only had sex with him the day you found out, so you could try to fool him into thinking I was his?”

Roger dropped his fork onto the floor, and for the first time since she had given birth to her, Jane slapped her daughter across the face. Before either of them could move, Anne turned to her father.

“And Mum doesn’t know how much you hated the fact that Phoebe was ill? How you resented having to care for her, the nights when you got no sleep, the constant trips to the hospital? And she doesn’t know that you finally had enough that day, and put your hand over her mouth and nose, to put an end to all that?”

When her Mum started screaming, Anne left the table and ran upstairs, to where Phoebe was waiting for her inside Little Annie. She had never found out it was really Rudolf.

The big carving knife used to slice the beef had still been on the serving dish, in case Roger had wanted more meat. Jane plunged it into the belly of her startled husband before he had time to realise what had happened. As his wife raised the knife a second time, he punched her as hard as he could. She fell to her right, her head connecting with the sharp corner of their heavy washing machine. Roger tried to stand up straight, but his legs gave way, and he sank to his knees next to Jane. The knife had severed the artery supplying blood to his liver, and he faded fast. As for Jane, her skull was fractured, and blood was pouring from the jagged wound on her head.

The Children’s Home was actually quite a bright and welcoming place. Anne had of course been allowed to take her doll, and she clutched Little Annie tightly as they walked along the corridor to the room she would share with another girl. Rudolf was very happy with their new home too. He had been able to see into the staff as they talked to the girl, or walked past in the waiting area. Oh, the things they had done to these children. Such secrets to be revealed.

He was going to enjoy it here.

The End

Decision Time For Jenny: The Complete Story

This is all 24 parts of my recent fiction serial, in one complete story.
It is a long read, in 31,455 words.

The letter was unambiguous. The consultant wanted to see her urgently, to discuss the results of the last mammogram. Jenny had no doubt that the news would be bad. After all, she could feel the lumps easily, and one of them was becoming noticeable on her left breast. She had long thought about the outcome. Surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy.
Months recovering, numerous stays in hospital, visits to clinics.

And the pain of course. No getting away from that.

So Jenny made a decision, and put the letter away in a drawer.

Facebook would be good. She would find them on there. All the hateful bullies and bitches who had made her life a misery. She had enough time, and now their time had come.

It was much easier than she had ever expected. They put everything out there, even using their maiden names, and old school photographs. Not that Jenny would ever have appeared in any they had taken. Photos of their houses, and the streets where they lived. Groups of friends, their kids’ schools, and where they worked. If they had to work of course. A lot of them had married well, evidenced by photos of them sitting in smart convertibles, or by their swimming pools in obscenely large houses. Not all though. A few looked like they had drawn the short straw. Numerous divorces, struggling to get by. Even asking for handouts online.

No time to feel sorry for any of them though. The cuts had been too deep for sympathy.

Later that evening, she checked off her list. She had been looking for nine, and had found seven. The other two didn’t seem to be on Facebook, and would require more investigation. She phoned her boss at home, and told her the bad news. She would be off sick for the foreseeable future, and a medical certificate would arrive eventually. Meanwhile, she would use all her accrued holiday time. Pat had been sympathetic, but couldn’t disguise the coldness in her tone. Jenny knew that she would be thinking about getting cover for the Stoneman project, and that wouldn’t be easy.

Tough luck, Pat. Swivel on this, for all I care.

Online banking meant she could transfer all her savings into the current account. She would need cash to buy a car. One that she wouldn’t bother to register in her name. Then there would be the travelling money. Cheap hotels that took cash, and no need for credit cards. After that, Jenny threw away all the drugs she had been taking. They only made her feel sick anyway, and she was no longer going to prolong the inevitable.

A bath was more soothing than a shower, and she sat back into the fragrant hot water, thinking about her plans. She thought of the old fable of The Tortoise and The Hare.

Slow and steady wins the race.

Careful planning. Lots of preparation, and no stupid mistakes. Fortunately, she was bright enough for all that, and her mind was still sharp.

Sleep came easy that night. Something about making such a huge decision was actually comforting, and the worries of those last months seemed to all be behind her now. Not that there weren’t a few doubts swirling around in her mind as she drifted off. She wasn’t that young anymore, and her fitness level was poor. That would have to be factored in. But thanks to the wonders of the Internet, most things could be accomplished.

The next morning she put her hair up, slipped on a sweatshirt and jogging pants, then got busy. Maps to explore, directions to write down. Landmarks in new towns and villages she had never visited, nearby hotels and guest houses where nobody would take any notice of a woman alone. She smiled as she thought of all those books she had read during her life, the key to solving any crime.
Method, Motive, and Opportunity.

Well she certainly had a motive, but would it be that obvious to an outsider? A police detective trying to solve random cases might hit on such a motive as revenge, that was obvious. But how far back would they go? The opportunity would have to be created given any appropriate circumstances, and the method would be dictated by those.

Being caught was not a problem, not when you had nothing to lose. But being caught before she completed her task was the worry. It had to be all of them, or none of them.

Jenny didn’t feel up to eating any lunch.

Instead, she had a chocolate milkshake, and then went for an afternoon nap.

Phillipa Kennedy

Jenny drove the nondescript car into a space at the side of the Premier Inn. Small, and definitely non-trendy, it was only three years old, and had very low mileage. It should last the course, and do what she needed it for. The overweight young man at the desk gave her a form to fill out, and she lied on every line. He didn’t care, as she was paying cash up front. He slid the room key across the counter with not even a glance. Perfect. There would be CCTV in the foyer of course, but by the time anyone bothered to check that, it wouldn’t matter.

Phillipa had been chosen as number one for the simple reason that she lived the closest to home. Jenny had decided to work in an outward semicircle, and hers was the nearest address she had found. She wasn’t called Kennedy anymore, but that was how she would always be remembered. Tall, awkward, red hair. The sort of girl who might usually have been picked on, had she not had influential friends. The netball team was a big deal at the school, and the girls picked for it were legends in their own classrooms. The tallest girl was known as Phil, and nobody ever crossed her.

Despite the change of surname to Watson, Phil was no longer married, according to her profile. Twenty five years had not been kind to her, and the photos Jenny had seen suggested some surgical interference in her appearance. Strangely pert boobs, and swollen lips that had consumed too much Botox. The addition of extreme dieting had left her resembling a baby giraffe, with her stick-thin legs, long neck, and protruding knees. She was a forty-three year old woman trying to look twenty-five, and failing miserably.
She didn’t have any children either, which was a huge bonus.

After much study, Jenny had concluded that the gym would be the perfect spot. It seemed that Phil was there every night after work, and at weekends too. It was easy to find, as the website provided the postcode, and also had lots of nice photos. Using Google Maps Streetview, she had even been able to tour around the building, choosing some good spots. On the way to her cheap hotel she had passed it, noticing that there were lots of visible CCTV cameras covering the car park. That might mean a change of venue, perhaps follow Phil home. Time would tell.

Phil was on the list for a very good reason. Most of the girls who had bullied and teased Jenny until she was suicidal were just following the lead of a few in their group. Philipa Kennedy was one of the few, and one of the cruelest. Perhaps because she feared them turning on her for being too tall, too skinny, and having ginger hair, she made sure they kept their attention on Jenny as much as possible. Everything from wearing glasses, to starting her periods late, and having what they decided were arms that were ‘too hairy’. She coined the name ‘The Four-Eyed Chimp’ that became widely used throughout the school. Then when she didn’t get her period, she started the rumour that Jenny was really a boy.

She definitely had it coming.

After drinking some mineral water and eating a few dry crackers, Jenny dressed in what she jokingly referred to as her ‘action outfit’. A one-piece workman’s overall, black wool cap, and heavy boots. With her hair up under the cap, and no make-up on, she could pass for a man at a quick glance. Ironic really, as Phil had never stopped alleging she was really a male. No point getting to the gym too early, as according to her numerous statuses on Facebook, Phil rarely left there before eight. Jenny already knew what car to look out for, as that was on many of the photos posted on Instagram. A pink Fiat 500, with stupid stick-on eyelashes over the headlights. She had tutted upon seeing those photos, shaking her head. “Come on Phil, you’re forty-three for Christ’s sake”.

It was easy to find that silly car in the car park, and Jenny parked in sight of it, but not too close. On her passenger seat rested a huge Monkey Wrench, tightly wrapped in a plastic carrier bag. The giant adjustable spanner was bought second-hand from a street market, and paid for in cash. The bloke on the stall had made a joke when she bought it, something about her plumbing in a new toilet. She hadn’t said a word, and looked down as she handed over the money. It seemed appropriate that Phil should meet her end at the hand of that four-eyed monkey, wielding a monkey wrench.

She came out at just after eight-thirty, later than expected. The grey and pink leotard and leggings matched of course, and the red hair was tied back tightly in a pony tail. The gym bag was pink too, what the hell was she thinking? Oh no! The trainers were grey and pink too. Too much, Phil! Jenny followed her out of the car park. When she indicated left, it was a fair guess that she was heading for home, and not for some bar in the town centre. Maybe her age was beginning to tell. All day at work, followed by two hours at the gym. Phil must be feeling it, she was sure.

Sure enough, the rest of the journey was nicely predictable. Homeward-bound, to the small two-bed terrace that she had rented since her divorce. Jenny waited until the silly little car swept up onto the space outside the house, then parked in a nearby side street. Two minutes later, and she was at the front door, ringing the ‘ding-dong’ bell. Phil opened the door with a smile. Perhaps she was expecting someone?

She wasn’t expecting a huge wrench to smack her between the eyes, that was for sure.

Jenny had surprised herself by how hard she had managed to strike the hated woman. No hesitation, a full swing, with her wrist jarring at the force of the contact. Phil went down like a puppet with her strings cut, and Jenny walked in quickly, closing the door behind her. Despite the stupid woman being unresponsive, Jenny knew instinctively that it wasn’t enough. Raising her arm as far as it would reach, she brought down the heavy spanner again and again, until she was too weary for more blows.

Phil’s head was like a squashed melon. She wasn’t coming back from that. Time to make it look like a burglary gone wrong. Motive.

Jenny ransacked the house, overturning drawers, and spilling out the contents of cupboards. She took Phil’s handbag, with all the cash and cards in her purse. Under her arms, she stashed a laptop, DVD player, and an Alexa speaker. In the kitchen, she found a black plastic bin bag, and dropped everything inside. Up in the bedroom, she emptied the jewellery box into that, even though most of the stuff was costume crap. As an afterthought, she went back and pulled the rings off Phil’s fingers, and the gold necklace from around her neck.

No need for gloves, or worrying about prints. She had never been in trouble, so had never had them taken.

It was rather hollow, when all was said and done. She hadn’t had a chance to say who she was. That would have been the icing on the cake.

Back in her car, she put the overalls, hat, and boots into a big holdall. Then she added everything she had stolen from Phil, and the house, as well as the spanner, still inside the bloodied carrier bag. She didn’t want anything to do with any of it, it was all about motive. She was left wearing a sweatshirt and jeans, with some flip-flops already left in the car.

There was no chance she was going to use the restaurant attached to the hotel. So in the town centre, she bought fish and chips for cash, eating them in her car outside. Back in her room later, she lay in the bath, feeling a little deflated. Perhaps it had been too easy?

Anyway. One down.

Tabitha Khan and Mrs Wilkinson

Jenny slept late the next morning, leaving only twenty minutes to get packed and out before checkout time. No matter, as the long drive to where Tabitha lived would allow time for breakfast at the motorway service station. As she ate the all-day breakfast, surprised at her hunger, Jenny thought about her destination. A plush commuter suburb, known for its expensive property, and exclusive districts. It wasn’t going to be so easy this time. Tabitha had two kids, both at expensive schools nearby. She didn’t work, but had many interests. It was going to be hard to work out where it was best to do the deed.

As the prettiest girl on the netball team, Tabs exuded the confidence of someone who was always being told she was beautiful. The perfect combination of a handsome and rich Pakistani father, and a former glamour model English mother, she could easily have become a film star. But her temperament let her down. Bitchy, catty, and downright nasty, the only reason she was allowed into the top group was because her beauty attracted every hot boy in the town.

She despised anyone she thought was ugly, and barely tolerated any of the other girls in her set, including the late Phillipa.

Jenny had been a natural target for her spite. Frizzy hair, and a snub nose, that was all that was needed for Tabs to let herself give full rein. She called Jenny ‘The Pug’, ‘The Toy Dog’, and ‘The Hairy Bitch-Dog’. It seemed like every Monday, there was a new hateful name. The others always roared with laughter, terrified that Tabs would desert them, and start up her own set with the pretty girls. Jenny knew better. Tabs was a big fish in a small pond. If she started trying to hang around with the beauty queens, she would be average at best. With the netball gang, her foreign heritage was never mentioned, and nobody ever talked about her race or religion being different.

She was now called Tabitha Holloway, married to the leading estate agent in the region, a man who owned five successful branches around the area. Older than her, but not too old. And she had the kids quite late, apparently. At least going by their ages of six and eight, she hadn’t had the first one until she was thirty-five. An older mum, they called them. Career and marriage before children. Get the big house and money first, then have the sprogs.

The nearby accommodation was a run-down guest house that had seen better days. Days before the motorway had by-passed the sleepy town and adjacent villages, giving few people any reason to want to stay over. It seemed that she was the only guest, which was good. But the owner, Mrs Wilkinson, was a rather nosy woman who asked lots of questions, which was a shame. There was every chance that she would remember her, and even her nondescript car. She was that sort of woman. Jenny had to think seriously about the possibility of adding her to the list. A random kill wouldn’t hurt. Might throw them off the scent. The idea grew in her mind, and she smiled as she thought of what to do.

The afternoon was spent planning how to get to Tabs, without her noticing. She didn’t bother to go out to eat, settling for two sandwiches and a soft drink, bought at the motorway service station after breakfast. Deciding on her Plan A, she had a bath, and got an early night.

The next morning, after eating an average breakfast served by the snooty owner, Jenny drove a few miles to an industrial estate on the outskirts of the nearest town. In a large warehouse selling anything to do with home improvements, she bought two one-litre bottles of a well-known drain cleaner. Research had told her that it contained sulphuric acid, potentially lethal if ingested, and liable to cause terrible burns and scarring if applied to the skin. Adding some industrial safety gloves, two rolls of strong duct tape, some large scissors, and a small hammer, she took her basket to the checkout. The operator hardly looked at her as she bagged the goods, and took the cash payment without a word. There was CCTV in the shop of course, and in the car park. But she had parked out on the street, and was wearing cheap reading glasses over her contact lenses and a long blonde wig, bought well in advance.

It wouldn’t be a great idea to park so close to Tabitha’s house, but she had little choice. This was an area where any unusual activity in the village was likely to be noticed by everyone, so the privacy of the house was the only option. Jenny knew she drove a red Range Rover, so she would have to stay somewhere she could see it when Tabs returned home. With all her purchases stored in a small sports bag, she secreted her car in the lane next to the small mansion, where she could easily watch the entrance. Hopefully, she would not have either of the children with her, or Plan B would have to be used instead.

Just after two, the big red car arrived. It was too early for the school run, and Jenny was glad to see that the kids were not in the car. She got out quickly, grabbing the sports bag and unzipping it as she walked around the corner onto the gravel driveway. Tabs was standing behind the car, leaning into the back to get something from inside. Elegantly dressed in a designer raincoat, tightly belted around her slim frame. The noise of Jenny’s shoes crunching on the gravel made her turn to see who was coming. But she turned a fraction too late to make any difference. There wasn’t the slightest hint of recognition on her face as she spotted Jenny, just the start of a bemused smile at the sight of someone wearing enormous industrial gloves in that situation.

It was the last time the corners of her mouth would ever turn up in the formation of a sneer.

Squeezing the bottle as hard as she could with her small hands, Jenny drenched Tabitha’s head and face with sprays of the corrosive fluid. Tabs screamed at first, then made bubbling sounds. Smoke of some kind seemed to be coming off her skin, and there was a fizzing sound, like you hear when you drop some Alka-Seltzer into a glass of water. She fell onto her back, and Jenny stood over her, emptying the contents of the container over Tabitha’s rapidly disappearing face.

So much for beauty.

Taking the second litre out of the bag, Jenny forced the spout through what was left of Tabitha’s lips, and squeezed hard. Squirming on the ground, the now unrecognisable woman could only stare through bulging eyes as the fluid destroyed her airways, and entered her stomach too. Before it was too late, Jenny leaned forward, meeting the terrified gaze. She wanted her to know, before she died. “Call me a pug now. Go on, try”. Tabs didn’t seem to register the twenty-five year old insult, which was disappointing.

She waited until Tabs was no longer moving before putting the empty containers back into the bag. With no intention of trying to disguise this as anything but a vicious attack, she turned around and walked back to the car. As she started the drive back to the guest house, she started to feel a little queasy. Not taking the medication was already beginning to show.

When she walked through the door of the guest house, Mrs Wilkinson looked up, surprised. “Oh, did you want another night?” She opened a leather bound journal on the small counter, pretending to check if she had a room available.

Jenny hit her once with the hammer, and her face rebounded off the woodwork as she slipped under the counter with a low groan.

Working fast, it was easy to secure the stout woman with the heavy duty tape. She made sure to wrap it around her mouth and nose in a haphazard fashion, which would leave her unable to breathe. Then she took the old-fashioned cash box from under the counter, and the journal with all the bookings written in it, including hers.

Placing them both in the sports bag with the hammer and tape, Jenny sat on the stairs for a while. Besides waiting for Mrs Wilkinson to stop breathing, she needed a rest.

Murder could actually be quite tiring.

Rest and Reflection

The traffic was bad on the way home, and Jenny was feeling overwhelmingly tired. But she had things to do first.

The stuff she had used and taken had to be dumped. All separated into unrelated piles, she had placed it into black rubbish bags, and tied them up securely. Various spots on the way back served as dumps for them. Council waste bins, the communal containers behind some flats at the edge of town, and even on top of some other rubbish dumped in a lay-by on the ring road. It would all be removed in dustcarts, and taken away for destinations in landfill or incinerators.

Jenny had reason to thank at least three local authorities for their lacklustre provision of recycling.

One last stop, at the corner shop near her flat. The strongest non-prescription painkillers she could buy over the counter, and a sad-looking Cornish pastie to heat up for dinner. The car was left in the space allocated to her flat in the underground car park, and she dragged herself into the lift feeling exhausted.

The pain under her left arm was more of a nagging ache. The tablets would sort that out after a bath and dinner, but it was the extreme tiredness that really worried her. She felt like someone in their seventies, and it was hard to still believe that she was only forty-three.

Feeling better after a bath, and having to admit that the pastie had been very tasty, she thought back on the events of the past few days. It hadn’t really dawned on her until that moment that she had killed three people. That was a big deal, even for someone who had spent a life obsessed with hatred and revenge.

The light was flashing on the house phone, indicating a message. Pressing ‘play’ she listened to the voice of the hospital consultant’s secretary. “We haven’t heard back from you about our letter, Miss Pettifer. Can you please call me back on the usual number? Mr Abdullah would like you to come in for a talk”.

Jenny deleted the message. It would be good to know how much time she had left, but she couldn’t spare the time to find out. Opening her laptop, she checked out the news.

Phil’s death wasn’t even reported nationally. Too many murders, so only the really interesting ones made the headlines. She checked the local paper’s website for where Phil lived. The police there had described it as an ‘Aggravated Burglary’. No forced entry, and a suspicion that the woman was only killed because she might have been able to identify her attacker. The murder was described as ‘frantic, and unusually brutal’ by the detective in charge. He concluded by saying that ‘investigations are ongoing’.

Tabs had made the national news though. The ‘horrific acid attack’ was described by the lead detective there as ‘racially motivated’. Jenny smiled at that. It hadn’t occurred to her that they might think that. That was an unexpected perk. She spoke out loud. “Thanks for that, Mr Detective”. There were the usual appeals for anyone who had seen anything to call a hotline number, and a sombre police chief stating that ‘suspects were being interviewed’.

Mrs Wilkinson didn’t feature anywhere, national or local. They probably hadn’t found her yet.

Jenny wasn’t stupid. She knew it wouldn’t be too long before they started to trawl CCTV. To find out who might have been in the area, what cars were seen more than once, and who had been buying drain cleaner in every shop that sold it. But so far, all they had was her unregistered car, and some footage of a blonde woman wearing heavy black-framed glasses. They might get to the seedy car salesman who had done her a deal for cash, but she had been wearing a disguise that day too, and hadn’t given him her real name.

With any luck, she could keep one step ahead of the investigation. After all, she had driven well over one hundred miles away to carry out all the killings, and there was no connection to her that was glaringly obvious.

She went to bed after closing the laptop.
Lying in the dark, she was hoping her body would last as long as her resolve.

The following morning, Jenny went through her notes. The victims were being chosen as much for the potential ease of getting to them, as well as their geographical locations. But this one was a very long way away, though suitably vulnerable. Nobody had expected her to turn out the way she had, that was for sure. She would have put money on her becoming the best of all of them, with a glowing academic career.

Instead, a bad choice of boyfriend had led her into a very sleazy lifestyle, and she was enjoying boasting about how she was ‘recovering’ from that on her social media profiles. Why anyone would list a catalogue of being a porn star, prostitute, and drug addict so that they could bore everyone by telling them that she had ‘turned her life around’, was beyond Jenny’s comprehension.
So now she was born again, and had found Jesus. So what?
Was he going to forgive her for making a schoolgirl’s life a misery twenty-five years ago?

Well he had better, because Jenny certainly wasn’t going to. She closed the notebook.

There was a long drive to make.

Tanya Birch

It was the longest drive Jenny had taken in years. She stopped at a roadside restaurant halfway, and sat staring out of the window at the crowded car park.

Tanya liked to be called Tanny, for some reason. Though not conventionally attractive, there was something about her that oozed sexuality, even from the age of twelve. Other girls noticed her, and boys looked back at her as they walked past. By the time she was fifteen, rumours were going around that she had already done it, and from her supremely confident manner, Jenny suspected that they were correct.

There was every chance that she would never have been accepted into the group. For one thing, she wasn’t any good at netball, and she was also very clever. Always top in most subjects, academic prowess seemed to come easy for her. No fear of exams, and not much need to study either. ‘Naturally bright’ was what most teachers called her. For other girls, this would leave them isolated and alone, derided for being a swot. But Tanny was sought after, with that elusive appeal that nobody could quite put their finger on.

At the time, Jenny was also obsessed with her. More than a crush, an unspoken desire. Of course, she didn’t have a hope in Hell of even talking to her, let alone hanging out with her. Once she became part of the netball gang, Jenny was never going to feature on her radar.

But despite this, Tanny was responsible for an awful cruelty. One of the worst.

The rest of the drive was dull. Boring scenery sweeping past the window, and too many big trucks to have to keep overtaking. By the time she got to the pub called The Blue Boar where she had booked a room, it was dark and chilly. A room above a pub seemed like a good idea. The owners too busy to pay her much attention, and a crowded bar keeping them distracted. A false name, and the blonde wig. Good enough to go unnoticed for now. Cash paid over in advance, and just handed a key by the harassed barmaid. No breakfast included, so easy to slip out through a side entrance the next morning. And it was almost forty miles from her destination too, so nothing too close to where Tanny was to be found.

There was no bath in the room, so Jenny stood in the shower letting the hot water soothe her aches and pains. That pulling feeling under her left breast was getting worse. She rubbed at the spot, but that didn’t help. How she hated her boobs. They had blighted her life, and now it appeared they were going to end it too soon as well. Having a large chest at the age of thirteen might have been something some girls yearned for. But for her, the prominent bulges had only served to attract unwanted attention. When you had the biggest pair in the school by the age of fourteen, even bigger than any of the female teachers, they could make your life a waking nightmare.

First came the nicknames. ‘Headlamps’, ‘Boobylicious’, ‘Jenny Jugs’, and so many more. Then came the other jibes. “Are they real?” “Have you stuffed your bra?” “Are you pregnant?” “Don’t be late for milking time, the farmer’s calling”. Outside school she had to run the gauntlet of stares. Boys stared, old men stared, even old ladies stared. People serving in shops stared, bus drivers stared, and there was no chance she would ever go to a swimming pool, fearful of becoming the main attraction. It would have been nice to have been able to talk to mum about it, but as she also had huge boobs, Jenny was afraid to bring up the subject.

Then Tanya started to pay attention to her. Slinking away from the rest of the group, she found reasons to chat to her. Asking about a difficult Maths problem, or mentioning that there were some good school shoes on offer at the local shoe shop. Jenny instinctively knew it was all fake. Why would the girl suddenly appear to befriend her, after all this time? But her need for friendship and her attraction to Tanny overcame her inner worries. She took her eye off the ball, with terrible consequences.

One afternoon when school was turning out for the day, Tanny found her. Grabbing her hand she smiled, and whispered “Come on, I want to tell you something”. She led her behind some storage sheds away from the main building, and pushed her back against the wall. “Do you like me? I mean, really like me?” Jenny nodded enthusiastically. With that, Tanny started to kiss her, and began to unbutton her blouse at the same time. Overwhelmed, face flushed, Jenny returned the passion, throwing caution to the winds. Moments later, Tanny stepped back, a horrible grin across her face. Shrieks of laughter were suddenly heard all around, and the netball gang appeared, shouting and hooting, bent double with hilarity.

Tanny pointed at her, extending a long manicured finger. “Told you, girls. The Pug is a lezza, look at the state of her”. More raucous laughter as the group pointed at her unbuttoned blouse, and the heavy breasts straining the straps of the cheap bra. Jenny grabbed her school bag and started running. She ran across the playing fields to the back gate, pausing to catch her breath and do up some buttons. Then she started running again, and didn’t stop until she got home.

That night, she took her first overdose. But there was only aspirin in the house, and just seven tablets. All it did was to make her feel a bit sick.

And now Tanny was running a Spiritualist Church. Not a formal affair, just one of those places where people went to try to contact their long-lost loved ones, and no doubt pay for the privilege. Her sloppy website promised contact from beyond, and also offered personal one-to-one sittings. Perfect. Jenny had booked one online, using a mobile broadband dongle and a false name and email address. The so-called church was easy to find. Looking like a converted car repair garage, at the end of a lane in a remote country district. Jenny had rarely seen anything that looked less like a church, despite the badly-painted signs promising ‘Spiritual Help Ahead’.

There were no cars in the car park, and no sign of any CCTV cameras either. She parked away from the door, turning the car to face out of the entrance before getting out. Dark glasses with the blonde wig, and a cheap puffa jacket over some grey leggings. She looked like what she was pretending to be. She had something in her shoulder bag, all she would need.

Tanny was barely recognisable as she answered the door. Long grey hair extended almost to her elbows, and a heavily lined face made her look older than her years. She might have survived all that sex and addictions, but her body was advertising the effects of it. The voice was the same though. Slightly superior. No, condescending. That was better. She showed her through the small room with its rows of chairs in front of a small lectern. A tiny stuffy room at the back seemed to serve as both consulting room, and bedsit. It was tidy, but felt airless, and smelled musty.

There was not a hint of recognition in her tone, or on her face. “I think we agreed forty pounds?” Jenny handed over the two twenties, and Tanny slipped them inside a mystical-looking box on the table. Adopting a serene pose, she looked up from the box. “Now, how can I help you?” Jenny spoke with a slightly gruff voice, as if she had a sore throat. “I am trying to contact an old friend, someone I was at school with. I haven’t seen her for twenty-five years, and I was worried that she might have died. Can you tell me if she is in the spirit world?”

Tanny reached across, taking her left hand. She rolled her eyes upward before closing the lids over them. Jenny had to stifle a snort of laughter at the theatricals. “What is her name, my dear?” Wrapping her right hand around the handle of the kitchen knife in her bag, she replied. “Jenny Pettifer. A troubled girl, badly bullied. I fear that she may have taken her own life”. A definite flicker of the closed eyelids showed that Tanny had recognsised the name. That was something. With her eyes still closed, she spoke with great solemnity. “You can rest easy my dear. Your good friend is alive, and no longer troubled”. Jenny was impressed, maybe Tanny knew her stuff after all.

As the other woman’s eyes opened and she began to smile, Jenny brought her hand out of the bag and stabbed Tanny once in the neck. She jumped up, pushing the small table to one side, then walked back a few paces, clutching her neck with both hands. Using her left hand, Jenny removed the sunglasses, and pulled off the wig. “Hi Tanny. It’s been a long time”. With that, she rushed forward and plunged the six-inch blade between the clasped hands, straight into Tanny’s throat.

There was a lot of blood, more than she had expected.

It didn’t take long for Tanny to bleed out. Whether it was the wounds, the shock, or just the surprise, she had made no attempt to get around Jenny and make for the door, or to defend herself.

A quick rummage was all it took to find an ancient laptop. That and a mobile phone were placed in the shoulder bag, which would hopefully remove any record of the appointment. In the mystical box she found just the two twenties, but took the box anyway. Robbery. A decent enough motive.
The puffa jacket had taken most of the blood, but the wig had some splashes on it, and would need to be washed. Wrapping the knife in the jacket, she hefted the bag onto her shoulder, and walked out to her car.

Some baby wipes in the back cleaned the blood off of her hands, and they were placed in a rubbish bag with the jacket, knife, and box.

As she turned on the engine, Jenny was buzzing, hyped up. It was better when they knew, that was for sure. She decided to do the three hundred mile drive home in one hit.

It wouldn’t matter if she felt tired later.

Police Involvement

DS Baker wasn’t having any of it. “I don’t get the boss with his racially motivated thing”. She stopped to bite into the bacon roll, and some sauce trickled down her chin. DC Willoughby smiled at her, pointing at his own chin to indicate what had happened. “Why not, sarge? Seems about right. Rich woman, Pakistani background. Bound to cause resentment, especially with her living in that beautiful house, and swanning around dressed like a fashion model”. Izzy Baker swallowed the lump of roll, and pointed across the desk. “That’s just it. She is one of them, married to a local rich guy, and living like a country lady. Racially motivated attacks are usually against obvious Muslims, you know, burkas and that. I have my own theory, and I will work on it in my own time if need be”.

Sammy wasn’t about to ask her what that theory was, knowing full well she was about to tell him. She put down what was left of the roll, and wiped her face with the back of her hand. She was a good copper, but she definitely had no class.

“It’s got to be another woman. Rich guy, probably got a few on the go. Made promises to leave the wife and kids, then didn’t follow through. Jealous woman decides to splash some acid over her rival to get things moving, then she takes it too far. Mark my words, it will be a woman. Any progress with that CCTV, Sammy?” He inclined his head back, indicating the corridor behind him. “Donna’s on it, she’s using room six”. The sergeant stood up, and pulled her skirt down and straight, adjusting where it had ridden up from too long in the chair. “I’ll go and see how she’s getting on”.

Over sixty miles away, in the incident room of a different police force, Inspector John Meacham was going through the interrogation tapes. Phillipa Watson had let in her attacker, he was certain of that. She had to have known who it was. Early investigations had revealed that she had been with a lot of men recently, most of them met at her local gym. She wasn’t shy about putting herself on offer, and younger fit men were her companions of choice. One of the personal trainers who worked there had come up as interesting. Mario Pelosi’s prints had been found in her house, and he had form. He had been acquitted of two sexual assaults when he lived in Nottingham, and a former girlfriend had accused him of hitting her with a bread board, breaking some bones in her face. She had dropped the charges before it got to court though.

Pelosi had moved south for a fresh start, and worked at the gym on a self-employed basis, being paid by members for one-to-one training. They had got him in for questioning, and he had declined a solicitor. Readily admitting he had numerous sexual encounters with female gym members, he was also happy to agree that he had been to Phillipa’s house on many occasions, at her invitation. He claimed to have nothing to hide, and denied any involvement with her murder. Yes, he had seen her at the gym that night, but he had been busy with a new customer and hadn’t spoken to her. Trouble was, his alibi was useless. He claimed to have left work just after nine, gone straight home, and hadn’t spoken to anyone.

Meacham shook his head. That would tie in with the time that Mrs Watson was killed, and CCTV had Pelosi’s car nearby at close to nine-fifteen. But he only lived a few minutes from her, so that was easily explained. The Inspector didn’t feel it. He relied a lot on instinct, and something was telling him that it wasn’t Mario.

Izzy walked back into the main office waving a printout from some CCTV footage. She beamed at Sammy, shouting loud enough for the whole room to hear. “I told you! A Woman! Look at this! Buying two bottles of drain cleaner in the same area that Mrs Holloway lived. Well, not that far, anyway. That blonde hair looks like a wig to me, and the black spectacles are probably fake too”. She plonked down into the swivel chair, holding the printout close to his face. “Look at her, Sammy. She’s the one. I’m certain”.

She made a phone call to the boss, sounding very confident. After explaining all the details of her theory, she took a deep breath, and made her play. “We should have the husband in, sir. He will know the woman, I’m sure of it. He might even be involved, you know, put her up to it”. She nodded a few times, and turned to Sammy giving him a thumbs-up. “Thank you sir, I will get a warrant and get straight on it”.

It was after ten when Jenny got home that night. The long drive had been very tiring, once the adrenaline wore off. She hadn’t bothered to stop to dump anything, that would have to be done tomorrow. Checking the news on her laptop, she saw that a man was ‘helping police with inquiries’ about Phil’s murder, but when she clicked on the latest report about Tabitha’s case, she slumped in her chair. They had a photo of her from the big warehouse shop, and were asking the public to come forward if they knew the woman in the photo. She thought hard about her arrival at The Blue Boar. She had tied the wig in a pony tail, and wasn’t wearing any glasses. The barmaid had hardly looked at her. That might be alright. As for Mrs Wilkinson, she wouldn’t be describing anyone, but the tape bought at the same time would be discovered wrapped around her head.

Jenny was angry at herself, but she could never have guessed that the police would be onto the blonde woman as a suspect so quickly.

But she should have, she knew that now. There was no doubt about it, she would have to work faster. Starting tomorrow.

Or they might just catch her before she could finish what she had started.

The Twins

Something needed to be done before disposing of the things she had brought back from Tanya’s church. She wanted to delete the mobile phone contact number she had provided, and was sure it would be on Tanny’s phone which was stashed in the car. Even though the phone Jenny was using was a cheap pay and go phone with no contract reference, it would be useful to be able to hang onto it, and not have to worry if it was traced later. As she went through the call list and contacts on the phone menu, something she saw made her stop scrolling.

Katie Bell.

Katie and her twin sister Karen had been the muscle, as far as the gang of bullies was concerned. Once they tired of the name-calling and general teasing on a daily basis, they decided to make Jenny’s life even more miserable by setting the twins on her. It started with pushes, made to look accidental. Tripping her up as she walked along the school corridors came next, usually with the addition of tipping out her school bag, and kicking the books around.

They were the two names that Jenny hadn’t been able to find any trace of.

Then one day, they pushed her hard from behind as she was walking down stairs, and she fell and broke two fingers on her left hand. As bad luck would have it, this was spotted by a classroom assistant, and she reported it. But the twins would only believe that Jenny had done it to get them in trouble, and set out to exact real revenge. They waited for her on the way home, and ambushed her close to a walk-through alley near the house. Karen held her tight, as Katie waved a disposable lighter around in her face. She singed off some hair, and chuckled as Jenny screamed for help.

Before letting her go, Karen pulled up the sleeve of her coat, and the sisters laughed as Katie used the lighter to burn Jenny’s arm. It was a large burn, and very painful, and she had to tell her Mum that it was done at school, in the science lab. Then she had to stop Mum rushing off down to the school to complain about negligence, swearing it was her own fault. Although they never waited for her again after that, Katie took every opportunity to wave the lighter at her, flicking on the flame when nobody was watching.

Under the name was a mobile phone number, and a postcode. No address, but that was good enough for now. Scrolling up and down the address book on a hunch, she found the name Karen Tobias. It was a good chance that might be the twin sister, with a married name. Under that name was the same postcode, pretty much confirming it was her. Jenny opened her laptop and entered the postcode. It came back to an industrial estate in a town over eighty miles north. Perhaps they worked there?

That would be her next destination.

Waking up the next morning, Jenny felt as if she had been hit by a car while she was asleep. Her shoulders ached terribly, and she could feel acute pain as she tried to lift her left arm. The pulling sensation had got so bad, she actually looked at the side of her breast to try to see if she could see something. As she started to brush her teeth, nausea overwhelmed her, and she vomited into the sink. There was no time to wonder though. Things to do, and a drive to make. She carried on getting ready, this time using the short black wig bought as a spare. When everything was done, she felt as if she was shivering, despite a pleasant temperature that day. Not that she was cold as such, but the trembling was visible.

After fifty miles, she stopped for a coffee, parking behind the service station. Unable to face eating anything at the time, she sat and finished the hot drink before continuing. The satnav in her car took her to the industrial estate about fifty minutes later, and she slowed down, wondering what to do next. Numerous companies had premises there, everything from a tyre fitting firm, to a plumbing supply warehouse. But now she was there, Jenny felt stupid. She couldn’t just park there all day, hoping to recognise one of the twins. They might not even be at work that day. Away from all the businesses, at the end of the street, she spotted a large mobile cafe, situated in what looked like a permanent spot. That made her feel hungry, so she left the car where it was, and walked down to buy something to eat.

There were some small metal tables and chairs dotted around outside, and one of them had a table umbrella open above it. Jenny stopped dead when she read the name on it, printed in pink letters. ‘Katie’s Kafe’. A few steps later, and she could see two women working in the large drop-down opening. One of them was unmistakably Karen, but the other one was a lot heavier than Katie had ever been. Huge in fact. Maybe Katie had been eating all the profits? So that was why Tanya had the postcode as a contact for the twins. They were running a tea and sandwich business.

Up close, it was definitely them. The dark hair and deep brown eyes, thin lips on small mouths. Jenny opened her handbag, and took our her purse. “Can I have a tea please, milk no sugar? And I will have a bacon sandwich too”. They hadn’t developed any better temperaments in their forties, that was obvious. Karen extended a hand. “That will be three-forty luv”. Katie had already turned to begin frying some bacon in an old blackened pan. Jenny sat at the table nearest the serving counter and smiled at Karen. She didn’t smile back, and started to rub down the counter with a grungy-looking cloth. Moments later, she slapped a plate holding the sandwich onto the counter, followed by a big white mug of tea. “Tea and bacon sandwich!” She bellowed as if trying to be heard over a crowd, though Jenny was the only other person there. Standing up to collect her order, she smiled at Karen again. Still no trace of recognition.

After eating most of the sandwich, and drinking all of the tea, Jenny went back to the hatch. “What time do you close please? I might come back for something else later”. This time it was Katie who turned and spoke, hesitating slightly as she looked at Jenny’s eyes. “Normally around four, luv. Depends how busy we are”. With a nod, Jenny walked away, hoping that she had jogged Katie’s memory. Even a little bit.

By six that night, the area was deserted. The businesses were closed up for the day, and so was the snack bar. It had been a very long and dull wait for Jenny, parked in a nearby playing fields car park, trying not to succumb to sleep. Luckily, hardly anyone had been around those playing fields during the afternoon, and she had even been able to crouch behind her car to have a pee.

She parked right behind the shuttered snack bar, the overhang covering up her car completely. Under the steps at the side that led the twins up to their place of work there was a large gas bottle. Rubber tubing ran from the valve at the top into a hole in the floor of the mobile building, then presumably into the cooking range at the back. Jenny pulled on it, delighted to find a lot of slack on the pipe. When she was sure she had pulled enough through, she cut a small hole in the tubing with some nail scissors she kept in her handbag, then fed it all back in carefully. With a quick glance to make sure it looked exactly the same as it had before, she turned the wheel around the valve, which had a small window indicating that the bottle was three-quarters full.

Now for a tiresome drive home, in rush-hour traffic. One stop required, to dump the stuff from Tanya’s place, then home for a rest.

Sleep was reluctant to come that night, and Jenny tossed and turned, despite the painkillers. So she woke late the next morning, and it was almost eleven before she checked the website of the local paper where the twins had their cafe. There was a photo of some firemen spraying water from their hoses over what was left of the burned-out mobile building. A small headline below said everything Jenny had been hoping to hear. ‘Tragic accident claims the lives of local sisters’. That was followed by ‘Gas leak believed to have caused fatal fire. Women died from burns’.

She closed the laptop without bothering to read any more.

Tanny and Mrs Wilkinson are found

Izzy Baker was in a foul mood, so Sammy was keeping out of her way. Julian Holloway had come in with his solicitor, and was being cooperative. He didn’t know the woman in the photo, denied ever having an affair, and provided solid alibis for the time his wife had been killed, as well as the time the blonde-wig suspect was buying the drain cleaner. His solicitor read out a statement condemning his questioning at a time when he was grieving the horrific murder of his wife, and trying to console his small children. There were also hints that any further detention in the police station might result in legal action later.

DS Baker had let him sweat for a while, hoping that the detailed search of his house and grounds might disclose something useful. Then she had pulled up her tights too fast after having a pee, and ripped them. Not only was she going to have to go back in and let him go soon, she would have to do it wearing tights that looked like something a Goth would be proud of. When they were still waiting for the search team’s results after four hours, she finally sent Donna down the supermarket to get her some new ones. “Get me a multi-pack, Donna. I’m keeping spares at work in future”.

Two hours later, she got the dismal news that there was nothing obvious. His laptop and phone were being examined, but they wouldn’t have those details back for at least twelve hours. Izzy was so pissed off, that when Donna got back, she didn’t even bother to go into the Ladies to change her tights. Sammy politely turned his chair as the sarge hiked up her skirt. He liked her well-enough, but not in that way.

A long way off, in a different police force, Inspector John Meacham had already let Mario go. Despite the pleas of some of his team that he was their best bet for the murder of Phillipa, he wasn’t feeling it. And when he wasn’t feeling it, his heart wasn’t in it. Instinct had served him well so far, and he would rely on it once again.

On the other side of England, close enough to the border with Wales to throw a stone into that other country, Sergeant Pam Hayter was watching a man in a protective suit taking photos of a dead woman. Tanya Birch was well-known to police, not only for being a potentially fraudulent spiritual priest, but also for a lifelong record of prostitution, brothel-keeping, drug-dealing, and petty theft. As far as Pam was concerned, she was no loss to the district, or to society either. A few items were missing, believed stolen, and it seemed to be an open-and-shut case of a robbery that went wrong, and turned into murder.

There were no obvious suspects, and the nearest CCTV camera was almost forty miles away. Forensics had taken some footprints, a smallish size in shoes that had no tread, or other distinguishing features. They had scores of fingerprints to work on too, as you might expect in a place frequented by many members of the public. But the woman lived alone, and had been last seen almost thirty-two hours earlier than her estimated time of death, by the postman. A delivery courier had discovered her body today when he needed a signature for a parcel, and had gone inside looking for her. Without anything to go on, Pam had a feeling in her water. A feeling that this would very soon be written off as an unsolved murder of someone the world was better off without.

As Izzy was contemplating getting out early to avoid the boss, and then drink at least two bottles of cheap white wine, Sammy took a phone call. He scribbled furiously on some scrap paper, and as she got up to leave, he grabbed his sergeant’s arm to stop her. “Thanks, yes, that’s of interest to us. Don’t touch anything, and we will be there as soon as possible”. He turned to her with a smile. “Sarge, remember what else was sold to the blonde woman that day, along with the two bottles of drain cleaner?” It was imprinted on her mind. “Yeah, scissors, a hammer, and rolls of tape. The sort of tape plumbers use for leaks”. Sammy’s face looked triumphant.

“Well, uniform have just found a body in a guest house not that far from the Holloway house. She’s been dead a while, and it looks like she was hit with something, perhaps a hammer, and then wrapped up in tape. Maybe the blonde used the scissors to cut the tape? They have asked for crime scene investigation to attend, and an ambulance. I told them we would take the job”. Izzy raised her eyebrows. “An ambulance, surely it’s too late for that?” As Sammy stood up and retrieved his coat from the back of his chair, he shook his head. “Not for her, Sarge, it’s for the bloke who found her. Some travelling salesman who had booked a room, apparently. He passed out when he saw her body, and cut his head open”. DS Baker grabbed her handbag and some other things from the desk. “Get the car round the front, Sammy, I’ll be straight down as soon as I let the boss know”.

Jenny was in bed early. The ache under her arm and the pain in her shoulder joints was beginning to take its toll. In the bath earlier, she also had to admit to herself that the biggest lump on the left breast had grown considerably in just over a week, and her bra was beginning to rub it all the time. She was also beginning to regret throwing away her stronger medication, knowing she wouldn’t get anything that powerful without seeing a doctor. And if she did that, they would almost certainly refer her back to the breast clinic, and it would start all over again. The phone had rung earlier, but she had ignored it, then listened to the message recorded. It was Pat from work, wondering when and if she might be returning. Looks like they had nobody good enough for the Stoneman project.

Tough luck, Pat.

When the incidents at school had reached a peak, Jenny had confided in a teacher. That had been a big mistake, and she tried to never think about the repercussions of talking to the woman. What had happened next led to her taking another overdose. A real one, this time. Mum found her unconscious, and she ended up in hospital with a stomach washout, followed by referrals to a psychiatrist, and not going back to school. Instead, she went to study at the Sixth Form College, which proved to be what saved her life. Nobody there bothered about her, and she soon did well with her studies, as well as making a few casual friends.

Law was considered to be boring, and Contractual Law even more so. But Jenny took to it like a fish to water. She enjoyed the details, and the way that it wasn’t open to interpretation. Three years at the local university, one where she could travel to and from home, and she left with a decent degree and speciality, one sought after by a legal firm that dealt with building companies, new homes, and the issues of planning permission and local regulations. She was still there, since just after her twenty-first birthday, and she had made herself more or less irreplaceable. It had meant a move a long way from home, and she had been afraid at first. But she didn’t venture out much except to travel in and out of the office, and she kept herself to herself socially too. When her Mum died of breast cancer just after Jenny’s thirtieth birthday, she had worried that it might be hereditary. And it now seemed that it was.

As she tried to get to sleep, Jenny thought about the teacher who had driven her to attempt suicide.

Her name was on the list. She was one of the nine.

Memories of Melissa

After getting up to make some tea and toast, Jenny took it back to bed. She had to have a day of rest, even if it meant not being able to continue with her plans. Swallowing more painkillers with the tea, she turned over and snuggled under the duvet. They said that sleep was nature’s way of healing. She hoped they were right.

In the incident room, officers were busy taking down the photos and information concerning Phillipa’s murder. There had been a gang-related shooting in the town last night, one dead, four injured. The press and TV were all over it, and John Meacham had received orders to add his team to the investigation. He didn’t like letting go of a case so early, but orders were orders, and they had no suspect. He took the files through to the general office, and approached one of the older detective constables. “Ronnie, do me a favour and give the CCTV another look, will you? There has to be a suspect vehicle of some kind, I’m convinced the killer didn’t walk to and from Mrs Watson’s”. The tired-looking man just about managed a smile.
“Okay sir, just leave it on the pile, and I will get on it as soon as I can”.

Mrs Wilkinson’s guest house was a nightmare for the forensic teams. Five rooms, plus the old woman’s own small apartment on the ground floor. Endless sinks and baths to search for hair samples and DNA, as well as decades of fingerprints, mostly smudged or partials. The owner hadn’t been that fastidious about cleaning, and the place was firmly at the cheap end of the hospitality market. Izzy watched as officers bagged up sheets and pillowcases, the sound of small vacuum cleaners being run across mattresses for samples. She was bone tired, hungry, and thirsty. Sammy looked to be dead on his feet too.

The dead woman had been removed to the mortuary after the photos had been taken, and the news was that they would have to wait until late tomorrow for the results, and the official cause and time of death. There was nothing in the large house to give any indication of who might have stayed there recently. Either she didn’t keep any records, or the killer had most likely taken away any evidence. Any hope of footprints or tyre matches had been ruined by the arrival of the guest who had found her, followed by the two police cars and the tramping feet of four uniformed coppers. Izzy turned to her colleague, and rubbed his arm lightly.

“Come on Sammy, I’ll buy you breakfast”.

After four hour’s sleep and a quick shower, DS Baker was back at work. The case had now been officially enlarged to include both murders, and Chief Inspector Alistair Tennant had taken over. A sharp-suited Scotsman with an eye for the ladies, he had a good reputation for no-nonsense policing, and Izzy was happy that he had caught the case. She quite fancied him too, truth be told. However, her good mood was deflated when she and Sammy were allocated to the guest house murder only, and told to hand over any notes about the Holloway investigation. C.I. Tennant was trying out a new method, splitting the team into two, with each half working on one part of the case. Two officers, including Donna, had been tasked with sifting through everything, and trying to find a definite connection. Tennant made a quick speech, before dismissing them to get on with their work.

“This country has more CCTV per head of the population than anywhere else in the world. What we need will be on a camera, somewhere. Get around all the shops, motorway and traffic cameras, and any private home that has one facing the roads we are interested in. I can’t believe Holloway didn’t have one showing his driveway. That’s a shame, as it would have solved that crime much faster. Find me a car, find me the woman walking around in her blonde wig. Find me something we can use. Okay, off you go, get on it”.

It was getting dark when Jenny woke up. She convinced herself she felt better, despite the awful dragging sensation under her left arm. Wrapping herself up in a fleece dressing-gown, she went out to the living room and opened her laptop.

Nothing about Phil’s case, but the west country news website reported the murder of Tanny. It said that police were treating the case as a burglary, adding the usual old chestnut, ‘investigations are ongoing’. As far as the twins’ cafe was concerned, that seemed to be old news already, apparently still considered to be an accident. There was no statement from the police on that incident. But they had found Mrs Wilkinson, and reporters were already linking the case to Tabs. An update confirmed that a new man was now in charge of the case, quoting him as saying “We are only looking for one suspect in both murders”. That was bound to have happened.
She should never have bought everything in the same shop.

Pulling the dressing-gown off her left shoulder, she inspected the thin skin covering the biggest lump. It looked like a boil that could easily burst. She would have to be careful. Typing quickly onto the laptop keyboard, she did some more investigating about such lumps. It seemed they were called ‘Fungating’, as they took on a mushroom-like appearance. According to what she was reading, it would eventually break through the skin, and become ulcerated. Jenny didn’t like the sound of that, and it made her feel a bit sick when one web page had a medical photo of one. She closed the laptop and went to make a cup of tea, trying not to think about the image she had just seen.

Sipping the hot tea, she thought about something else, to take her mind off what was growing on her breast. Opening a smart notebook, she flicked it onto a clean page, and wrote a name at the top. ‘Melissa Silletoe’.

Miss Silletoe was the teacher that Jenny had gone to, to talk about her worries over the bullying. As was often the case with teachers, it was hard to guess her age. Younger than Mum perhaps, but older than most of the other female teachers for sure. She had a kindly way about her, like an Aunt who treated you more like an equal than a kid. She was a Maths teacher, and she was very good with computers too. The machines back then were quite primitive, but she managed to explain how they worked. Jenny was good at Maths, and it didn’t go unnoticed. She had mentioned the benefits of extra private tuition on a parent-teacher night, but there was no way a woman on her own like Mum could afford that.

When Jenny had confided in her, she had been overwhelmingly sympathetic. And when she broke down in tears, the friendly woman had stroked her hair, and cuddled her close as a shoulder to cry on. She had even agreed that there was little point taking her complaints to the head teacher, as that was likely to make her isolation much worse, and possibly increase the bullying too. Jenny had felt better after talking to her, and thanked her profusely. She noticed Miss Silletoe was breathing heavily though, and hoped she hadn’t been too upset by the revelations. The teacher stroked her face, telling her not to worry.

“You are in good hands now. Leave it to me, I will look after you”.

Closing her eyes, she could see her now. All care and concern.

Well she had certainly looked after her. And she had looked after herself too.

Disgruntled cops, and Melissa is found

Ronnie Knight took all the stuff into the CCTV viewing room, and closed the door behind him. He had been a good copper, as far as he was concerned, but he was no good at exams and studying. Despite trying a few times, and securing recommendations from various superior officers, he had never made sergeant. For the last eight years, he had settled into remaining a constable for the rest of his career, and his job of being the dogsbody in the General Office of the detective branch. But that didn’t mean he was happy about it.

He could remember when John Meacham had been a new boy in uniform. Now he was in charge of cases, and ordering him around. The fast-track entrants with their university degrees looked down on him, and spoke to him in a patronising way. Yes, he was old-school. In his day, all that mattered was that you knew your ground, and could handle yourself in a scrap. Now it was all about protecting the offender, playing by the rules. Everyone ignored the fact that nine out of ten crimes reported in the country resulted in nobody being charged, and that the conviction rate was getting lower every year. Forget the victims, they were little more than collateral damage.

Opening the paperwork that had arrived with the memory sticks containing the CCTV footage, Ronnie sat back and shook his head. Ten cameras, over a twenty-four hour period. Two hundred and forty hours of footage to examine would take him more than two weeks, and leave time for nothing else at all. Even if he watched it at double speed, it would still take too long. He walked back along the corridor, and tapped on the Inspector’s open door.
Meacham waved him in.

Trying to sound positive, Ronnie spoke in a matter-of-fact way. “Sir, this CCTV stuff. There’s a lot of it, and it might take weeks to go through. Should I concentrate on anything in particular?” Ronnie knew that everyone was already working on the shooting. The murder of Mrs Watson had quickly been slid well onto the back burner. But Meacham was a stickler, one of those instinct blokes who thought they knew better. “Do your best, Ronnie. We are looking for a car that will keep popping up around the area. If you find anything possible, zoom in to see who is driving it. I know it’s a mission mate, but it has to be done. Fast-forward the footage by all means, but make sure you watch it all”. With that, he went back to his files, and Ronnie considered himself dismissed. A car that kept popping up around the area? Christ on a bike, there would be hundreds of those. What was the boss thinking?

In the canteen, Ronnie bought two sausage rolls and a big mug of tea. Finding a daily paper left on one of the tables he tucked it under his arm. Back in the airless CCTV room, he plugged in the first stick. As it started to play, he hit the fast forward button three times. Eight times speed should be about right. He opened the newspaper, and reached for the first sausage roll. As a gesture of ultimate defiance, he turned his chair, and sat with his back to the screen. If nothing else, it would buy him at least three days of rest.

He might even bring a book in tomorrow.

After the tearful chat in the empty Maths classroom, things got a little easier for Jenny at school. The gang of bullies still glared at her, but that was all. She was convinced that Miss Silletoe had said something to the ringleader, though that worried her even more. When they weren’t doing anything, they might be planning something worse.

Then there was the surprising phone call one evening. Mum answered, and from her tone, Jenny guessed it wasn’t a friend she was talking to. After a few moments, she gave out the address, then said “Thank you, thank you very much”, before hanging up. Smiling across at her daughter, she looked happy about something. “That was your Maths teacher, Melissa Silletoe. She says that you have a real talent for the subject, and she is prepared to give you extra tuition here, free of charge. Isn’t that great? It will be on the quiet though, as she doesn’t want other families to find out, and claim that you are getting preferential treatment.”

Jenny wasn’t sure what to think, but she wasn’t about to turn it down. Miss Silletoe was very good at her job, and those extra lessons might help get her an A in the exam. She was nice too. Kind as well, and affectionate. Mum was checking her diary. “She’s going to come round on the Tuesday of half-term to start with. With you both being on holiday it will give her a lot of time to concentrate. I will be out at work, so you won’t be disturbed. Nine days time, Jenny worked it out in her head. Mum was really on it. “I will get some nice cakes and biscuits in, and some stuff so you can make her a sandwich for lunch too. We will have to have a good clean up on the Monday. I want the place looking spotless”.

When Melissa arrived on the Tuesday, Mum had already left for work. She looked very different out of school. More normal, younger, and much prettier. She was relaxed too. “When I am here, I think you should call me Mel. After all, this isn’t the school environment, and I am here as a good friend”. Jenny wanted to ask her if she had said anything to the bullies, but decided to wait and see if it was mentioned. Mel just chatted, and didn’t mention Maths at all. She accepted a cup of tea, served in one of the best cups, as Mum had instructed. The general chit-chat felt weird. When someone you only know as a teacher comes on like a best mate, it takes some getting used to.

Lunch was declined, and by then she had started to talk about the bullying, and how cruel kids could be to each other. She wanted to know why Jenny thought they were doing it, and refused to accept the shrug she received in reply. Eventually, despite feeling incredibly self-conscious about it, Jenny opened up. “Well, they say I am ugly. My nose is snubby, my arms are too hairy, and my hair is frizzy. Plus, I wear glasses that are cheap, because it’s all Mum can afford. The other girls who wear glasses have designer ones. Some even have contact lenses”. Mel nodded, and patted Jenny’s leg gently. “Anything else?” Jenny took a deep breath before continuing.

“My boobs of course. They are too big, and they say they are like a cow’s udders”. Suppressing a smile at that, Mel shook her head. “Don’t you believe a word of all that, Jenny. You are a lovely young woman, and your breasts are magnificent. You have to learn to be proud of your assets, and ignore their cruelty”. She edged closer on the sofa, and stroked Jenny’s face, looking straight into her eyes. Jenny felt a tingle in her belly. Mel was wonderful.

Shaking her head to remove the next train of thought, Jenny checked a bookmark on her laptop. It had been so easy to find her. Still teaching Maths, but no longer at any school. She worked from home, and even had a website. ‘Miss M. Silletoe. Private Tuition In Mathematics and Computing’. There was a photo of her, hardly aged, and even one of her house. There was the address, postcode, two telephone numbers, a list of available appointment times, and a breakdown of her fees. Jenny whistled. She charged fifty pounds an hour, and claimed to deliver ‘guaranteed exam results’.

Ignoring the ache under her arm, Jenny straightened up, jotting down some notes on the paper.

Mel was definitely next on the list.

Developments in the investigation

Donna was talking to both teams. There had been what she called ‘significant developments’. Blonde hairs found in one of the guest rooms at Mrs Wilkinson’s were confirmed as being high-quality artificial hair, and would likely be a match for the blonde wig, if it was ever found. Meanwhile, it had been confirmed beyond doubt that the woman was the chief suspect in both murders, and they were definitely not looking for anyone else. They had also ruled out any connection between Mrs Holloway and the guest house owner, and had to conclude that Mrs Wilkinson had been killed in case she recognised the murderer.

As she turned over the next page in her notebook, Donna smiled before continuing. “The big news is that we have a suspect car now”. She held up a photo captured from CCTV. “This car was seen on cameras in the area around the Holloway house, and then in the general vicinity of the guest house. It was later picked up on a motorway camera, southbound”. Holding up more photos, Donna showed the group it was the same car. “Sadly, we cannot get a good look at the head or face of the driver, but it is our closest lead so far”.

Izzy called out. “Have we got the reg number at least?” Donna nodded. “It was sold by the previous owner, and we have no current keeper shown on the records. Someone is going down to see the company that it was sold to through an auction. It might take some time to get more details though”. Chief Inspector Tennant stood up. “Thanks for that Donna. I would like the best images of that car released to the press and TV. Someone somewhere knows who’s driving it, and if we find the car, we find the killer”. He clapped his hands. “Everyone back to work, no time to waste”.

In a different police station, Sergeant Pam Hayter was typing up her interim report. It looked a bit sparse, and she was trying to flesh it out, in the hope of making it look like she was earning her pay. No suspects. Cause of death. Blood loss from stab wounds. Local burglars and known villains all alibied up. Nothing whatsoever to go on. She had no charging recommendations, and as far as the investigation went, her well had run dry. With any luck her boss would file it for now, and wait to see if any stolen property turned up. There was no signal from the missing mobile phone. Probably smashed, and the battery and sim card removed too. No matter how many extra words of padding she typed, it still didn’t amount to much.

It had been a better day for Jenny. She had recovered her appetite, and been down to the local Zizzi for a nice lunch, after picking up a few things in the shops. Her plans for dealing with the next job were coming on, and all being well, she would be able to get started tomorrow. But thinking about Melissa again sent her mood low. She decided that a vodka and tonic would be in order, even thought it was still early.

That Tuesday in the house had been memorable for so many reasons. After a couple of hours chatting, she had started to regard Mel as a close friend, instead of just one of the better teachers. And nothing had been mentioned about the studying, not so much as one Maths book had been removed from the heavy shoulder bag she had arrived with. After so long being isolated and picked on, it felt good to be able to engage in friendly idle chatter, and she even managed an occasional laugh. Mel noticed her laughing too.

“You should laugh more, honey. You are very pretty when you are happy”. She stroked Jenny’s face again as she spoke, looking straight into her eyes. “I bet you have some nice outfits, too. I have only ever seen you in your school uniform”. Jenny shook her head. “Nothing special, just one decent dress that Mum bought me when we went to her friend’s wedding. It was only the evening part of the reception, but Mum said she wanted me to look smart”. Mel was nodding, then he reached out and took Jenny’s hand. “Tell you what, why don’t we go up to your room, and you can put it on and show me how nice you look?” She stood up, still holding her hand, and Jenny followed her upstairs. It seemed the most natural thing in the world.

The dress didn’t even come out of the wardrobe. Mel was all over her as soon as they got into the bedroom and closed the door. The passionate kissing, squeezing, stroking, and fondling completely overwhelmed her, and she didn’t hesitate to reciprocate. The pent-up urges of a sixteen year-old girl overflowed, and Mel took full advantage of her inexperience and naivete. As they lay close together on the single bed later, Mel spoke quietly, directly into her ear. “You know you can never tell anyone, don’t you? I would lose my job, and my career would be ruined. Your Mum would be horrified, and as for the school kids, I can only imagine what they would do to you”. Jenny sat up, a very serious expression on her face. “I swear I won’t ever tell anyone, Mel. I promise you. I would sooner die first”. As far as Jenny was concerned, Mel was the love of her life, and would be forever.

There were many more days like that to come, and they were always amazing. The venue for the lessons was changed to Mel’s smart apartment, and once there they could do what they liked, with no fear of Mum ever coming home and finding them together. They actually did some Maths, laughing about having to at least show some improvement in her studies. It was the best time in Jenny’s life. The bullies still left her alone, and she adored the secret glances shared with Mel during school hours. They even managed a weekend away, telling Mum it was a Maths seminar, with other bright kids. Mel booked a wooden cabin on a holiday park, and they didn’t leave it for almost three days. Jenny was lost in a fantasy of spending the rest of her life with Mel. After all, she was only seventeen years older than her, so still young.

Then just before the October half term, after that sublime summer, everything changed. Mel told her she couldn’t continue with the tuition, or their relationship. She reassured Jenny that her Maths was good enough to get her an A, but as for what Mel euphemistically referred to as their ‘closeness’, that had to stop. Jenny sobbed so hard, she almost retched. Clinging onto Mel like a limpet, refusing to let go. The worst part was that she wouldn’t give a reason for ending it, so Jenny naturally assumed it was all her fault, and that she had done something wrong. When she had finally calmed down enough to go home, and washed her blotchy face, Mel seemed cold, like a teacher again. “You had better go home now. And don’t come around here again”.

Back at the house before Mum was in from work, she found a packet of Tramadol in a drawer. Mum had been prescribed them for backache, but they made her queasy, so she hadn’t taken them. Jenny took them all, washed down with most of a two-litre bottle of Diet Coke.
She didn’t bother to leave a note.

Closing her mind to more of that stuff, Jenny turned on the TV, and switched it to the rolling news channel. Ten minutes in, and she saw a photo of her car, driving along the motorway. She turned up the volume and listened, catching the end of the report. “And police are asking that anyone who recognises the car, knows who drives it, or even if they have seen it parked somewhere, should get in touch with them through their local police force, or by dialling the freephone number on the screen now”. She switched off the set, and shook her head.

She was going to have to buy another car.

Another car, and a visit to Melissa

First stop was the local car spares shop, to buy one of those elasticated covers for the car. She wasn’t about to risk moving it, and didn’t want to leave it visible in the car park now that the registration number had been circulated by the police. She would cover it up completely, make it look like it just wasn’t being used at the moment. Jenny knew that they would be searching all the CCTV everywhere, and she didn’t want to trigger any of the automatic number plate recognition cameras.

In the local newspaper, she found a decent car for sale privately. Seven years old, with all the paperwork, and less than sixty thousand miles on the clock. It was up for five and a half grand, but she would offer five for cash, take it or leave it. Wearing the black wig and her contact lenses, she walked to the address after making an appointment to see the car. Suitably dull, and in a ubiquitous silver colour, it was parked outside, nicely washed and polished. A young woman answered the door, carrying a baby. She looked scruffy and harassed. “It’s my boyfriend’s car, love. He’s on his way back to see you. You’re a bit early”. Declining her invitation to enter the rather smelly terraced house, Jenny waited outside, pretending to examine the vehicle in some detail.

Fifteen minutes later, a van pulled up across the street. From the look of it, it seemed that the boyfriend was a telephone engineer. He walked across the road, dangling the car keys, and holding a folder containing some papers. “What do you think, love? It’s a beauty, isn’t it?” He only looked to be about twenty-five, and luckily paid no attention to the older woman with her drab clothes and rather miserable expression. “Tell you what, jump in, and I will take you for a spin around the block”. After the five-minute drive, he stopped outside his house again. Jenny asked to see the papers. It had nine months left on the ministry of transport test, and service bills for the last three years. The young man tried to do some selling. “We just need to get something bigger, you know. There’s another baby on the way. I really like this car, and I will be sorry to let it go”.

Opening her shoulder bag, Jenny produced an envelope containing five thousand in new notes that she had drawn out from the bank on her way there. Avoiding his enthusiastic gaze, she put the envelope on the dashboard. “Five grand for cash, I can’t be bothered to haggle. Okay?” He beamed. “Deal”. As he started counting the cash, Jenny checked the papers again. He spoke without turning away from the money. “Don’t forget to send off the registration, love. I don’t want to be getting your parking tickets”. Placing the paperwork in the glove compartment, she got out and walked around to the driver’s side. The man tucked the envelope into his work overalls and got out, handing her the key. She nodded, and drove off without another word.

As she only had one parking space, she parked the car in a nearby side street where it would hardly be noticed. The seat belt was narrow and tight, and it had rubbed the biggest lump on her breast. Never mind, she wouldn’t need the car for much longer. She made a mental note to fill it up with petrol before going very far. The warning light had come on as she was parking.

Using the unregistered mobile, she rang Mel’s mobile number, the one given on the website. The idea seemed sound. No pretence, no subterfuge, she would just say who she was, and see what happened. If Mel put her off, she would go to Plan B.

The voice that answered was still so familiar that hearing it sent a chill down Jenny’s back. She was sitting on her sofa, relaxed and composed, and hoping that would transfer to her tone. “Hi, Mel. It’s Jenny. Jenny Pettifer. I was thinking about you the other day, so I looked you up and found your website. I hope you don’t mind me calling?” The voice at the other end changed from school teacher to seductive vamp in a heartbeat. “Why Jenny, how lovely to hear from you. Whatever made you think of your old friend?” She would be sixty now, or close to that age. But the voice hadn’t changed in twenty-five years. It made her feel a bit sick to hear it, but she managed to keep her tone upbeat and casual. “I have never stopped thinking about you Mel, as I’m sure you can guess. But I regretted that we never met again after I left school, and thought it would be lovely to come and see you, catch up after all these years. I’m on holiday from work at the moment, so could drive up whenever you are free. Later today, if that suits you, or tomorrow, if not”.

There was no chance that Mel was going to apologise for what happened, or take responsibility for anything. Her manner was as exactly the same as it had been then; entitled, taking control, exercising power. “Later today would be lovely. I could make something for us to eat this evening. It would be good to see you all grown up, and to hear about your life. Shall we say about five? I don’t have any students this afternoon. Do you need directions?” Mel raised her eyebrows. It would happen today. “No, I will use a satnav, and I got your postcode from the website. See you around five, traffic permitting. Bye”.

In her bedroom, Jenny picked out the old dress she intended to wear. Not too low at the front, but open enough to reveal lots of bulging cleavage. It would cover her bra nicely, so the lump wouldn’t show. A little short above the knee for her age now, but that wouldn’t hurt. She reckoned it would take almost three hours to get to Mel’s house, so she would be sure to leave just before two. Still lots of time to prepare. Her best underwear, in case it got to that, heavier make up, and no need for the wig. She got the things she had bought in town that morning, placing them carefully in the shoulder bag. Then she added a bottle of wine from her fridge, so as to not turn up empty handed after the offer of a meal later.

Mel answered the door dressed as if she was heading out to a cocktail party. Despite the years, she looked almost exactly the same. Hair dyed the same colour, figure still good. Only some wrinkles around her neck and the start of a double chin gave some indication that she was sixty. They went into the spacious living room after a brief kiss on each cheek at the door. Mel was unbelievably confident, treating the situation as if they had seen each other just last week, not twenty-five years ago. She gave Jenny an appreciative look up and down, as she handed her a sherry. “Jenny darling, you look so well. The years have been very kind to you. How old are you now, forty? Forty-one?” Jenny smiled, “Forty-three now, Mel. And looking it, I suspect”. As expected, Mel’s eyes were glued to the visible bulges of skin appearing over the dress. “Nonsense, my darling, you still look fabulous”. She reinforced that by placing a hand on the exposed section of Jenny’s thigh, letting it linger long enough to convey the intended message. Jenny had to admit to herself that even after all that had happened, she still found the older woman overwhelmingly attractive.

She had to get that thought out of her head though.

They chatted casually for an hour or so, with Mel edging closer all the time, and speaking with that familiar husky voice that Jenny had found so exciting at one time. Then she went into her kitchen, and began to prepare an easy meal that she had bought from her local supermarket. Jenny looked around the room in her absence. There was a laptop on a desk by the window, and a large smartphone on the mahogany coffee table. There was no indication that she used this room for her tutorials, and Jenny wondered if she had an office in another part of the house. But other than one phone call from the unregistered mobile, there should be nothing to indicate that Mel had been expecting her.

The meal was a cosy affair, in a nice dining room across the corridor. Not much food, but Jenny wasn’t feeling like eating too much anyway. Mel kept the wine flowing, and Jenny had to keep her wits about her to make sure she didn’t drink too much. By ten, they had both shared their stories of the past twenty-five years, Mel probably telling as many half-truths as Jenny had. But she had to know one thing, and plucked up the courage to ask, fearful of spoiling the mood. “I have always wanted to know, Mel. Why did you just finish things between us like that? Was it something I said or did?” Leaning across the table, Mel took both her hands, and squeezed them fondly. “Bless you, darling. It was nothing you did. I just got bored, that’s the plain truth of it. I felt the need to move on to someone new, but I confess I did regret that decision. By then it was too late though, and you had left the school”.

Jenny was furious, but managed to hide it. Bored. All that she went through, because Mel got bored. Unbelievable. Mel slid her hands gently up Jenny’s arms, and leaned even further forward. “No reason why we can’t take up where we left off though, is there? I was hoping you would stay the night, save you a long drive home in the dark. I don’t have any students until after lunch tomorrow”. She added a rather lascivious wink, then moistened her lips with her tongue. Jenny was triumphant. It had worked. In what felt like a replay of that Tuesday in her old house, Mel stood up, and took her hand. “Shall we go upstairs then?” Jenny feigned enthusiasm. “I thought you would never ask. I just need my bag from the living room. You go up, I’ll follow you”.

By the time she got to the open door of the main bedroom, Mel was already out of her dress, and reaching behind to unfasten her bra. It looked like she didn’t intend to waste any time on foreplay. Jenny leaned back against the wall, adopting what she hoped was a sexy look and pose. “I have something in my bag here that might make things more exciting, if you are happy to give it a try”. She reached in and removed two sets of metal handcuffs, with fluffy pink wristbands attached. Then a soft pink mask, with frilly edging. Mel dropped her bra onto the bedroom floor, and reached down to remove her matching panties. Her face was flushed with excitement. “My, you have acquired some unusual tastes over the years my darling”. She flicked away the panties with her toe, and stretched out naked on top of her bed. With her voice little more than a gasp, she raised her arms, and smiled. “Okay, I’m all yours”.

With both wrists firmly secured to the metal bed posts, and the mask in place over her face, Mel was almost panting with anticipation. As she lay there expectantly, Jenny removed a plastic bag from inside the shoulder bag. With no hesitation, she suddenly pulled it over Mel’s head, wrapping the excess tightly around her neck, and holding it firmly. At first, Mel obviously though it was part of the game.

But when her legs started to thrash around, Jenny knew that she had realised the truth.

The one that got away

The big sofa they had been sitting on made a comfortable enough bed. Jenny had no intention of driving home that late, especially after three large glasses of wine. Mel had died surprisingly quickly, but it had been great to watch the fear and panic contorting her face through the clear plastic, before her legs stopped waving around, and her skin turned a funny colour. Shame about the mask though. She hadn’t been able to see her eyes.

Early the next morning, she loaded everything used last night into the dishwasher, and turned it on. Then she found a new duster under the sink, and walked around the house rubbing every surface she could remember touching. Before cleaning it, she turned on Mel’s phone, scrolled to the call list, and deleted the one from her mobile number. No point making things too easy for the police. With no students arriving until after lunchtime, she waited out the heavier morning traffic. One last look upstairs confirmed that Mel was still very much dead. She decided to leave her exactly like that. Handcuffed and blindfolded, with a plastic bag over her head.
A sex game gone wrong.

Making sure to shut the door firmly behind her as she left, hopefully giving her a few days grace before the body was discovered, she slid into her car and started the long drive home.

Despite having a photo of Jenny’s previous car, and the registration number, no progress was being made in finding it. One of the team had interviewed the man who had sold the car, but his recollection was unreliable. Yes, it was a woman who bought the car. Yes, she might have had blonde hair, and been wearing glasses. Yes, he had given her a receipt, but didn’t have a copy of it. No, he didn’t remember any distinguishing features. Not even her height, or if she had a local accent. He sold a lot of cars, couldn’t be expected to remember everyone who bought them. So she hadn’t registered the car? Not his fault, take it up with her. The weary copper knew it was pointless. The salesman was also the owner of the shabby car lot, and he didn’t want to get asked too much about a deal that had involved a fair bit of cash. Cash he had no intention of declaring as income, then having to pay tax on it.

By the time she arrived home, Jenny was feeling rather strange. The pain under her arm had migrated to her shoulder blade, and all the gear changes had left her arm feeling as if it was made of lead. As she got out of the seatbelt, there was a tiny damp patch visible on the top she was wearing. Not much bigger than a small coin, but definitely wet. It must have leaked through her bra too. Before going up to her flat, she walked around the corner to the chemist shop and bought some gauze dressing pads and a roll of surgical tape. In her bathroom, a quick examination showed that the biggest lump was indeed leaking some fluid. No doubt agitated by the seat belt on the long journey home, it was inflamed, rather like an angry spot. She decided to apply the dressing later, after her bath, and walked into the kitchen to make some cheese on toast and a hot drink.

Keith Liu had been angry when there was no answer at the home of his Mathematics tutor. He decided to wait outside her house for her, and in the meantime rang her number and left a message when it wasn’t answered. After less than an hour, he turned and began the long walk back to the railway station. It was very inconsiderate of Miss Silletoe to cancel his tutorial without any notice. She could at least have phoned him. She had his number. Not for the first time since arriving from Hong Kong, he thought that British people had bad manners, and were not at all polite. That evening, he rang again, and when she still didn’t answer he left a message cancelling all his other appointments, and telling her he would find someone else.

The cheese on toast had made her feel better, and after a quick bath, Jenny applied the dressing, even though the area was dry now. It must have been the seat belt, she told herself. There was nothing on the national news about any of the cases. An M.P. had resigned over some scandal or other, and a succession of talking heads were giving their opinions on whether or not he had made the right decision. She checked the local websites on the laptop, and all she could find was a repeat of the request for information about her car. The one that was carefully covered up in the garage. It surprised her just how quickly a series of murders could become old news.

When the pain came back around the shoulder blade and collar bone, it was more insistent than before, sharp enough to make her wince. She decided to take three strong pain killers and have a lie down in bed. With any luck she would get of to sleep early.

She did sleep undisturbed, but the early night meant she was awake when it was still dark. Feeling too stiff to stay in bed, she pushed though the aches and pains, and got up to make a cup of tea. A look at the dressing showed it had stayed dry. But she would change it later, as the tape had got twisted while she slept. Taking the hot tea through to the living room, Jenny opened her notebook, and picked up a pen from the side table.

Agata Kowalski came from a Polish family, but looked more like a Swedish film star. Honey blonde hair, ice blue eyes, and standing five feet ten in her bare feet. At that height, she had been a natural choice for the netball team, and despite acting superior to the others, she had soon been part of the gang. Her hard-working parents had come over from Poland before her and her younger brother were born, and they had tried hard to fit into the community. As far as school work was concerned, Agata wasn’t the brightest coin in the purse, but she had natural athletic talent, and ambitions to become a supermodel. Academic results were fairly low down her list, that was certain.

She was also the only one who wouldn’t tolerate a nickname. The other girls had tried a few; Aggie, Gata, even AK, but she wouldn’t hear of it, and insisted on being called Agata. Although her parents had apparently never lost their heavy accents, she spoke like all the other girls at school, and didn’t make much of her Polish background, except where food was concerned. She never ate anything her Mum hadn’t cooked, avoiding all fast food and junk food, as well as the cakes and sandwiches favoured by most of the others. At first, she thought that bullying Jenny was a childish waste of time, and didn’t bother to get involved. But then Tanny had told her that she had heard Jenny call her parents filthy Polacks, and even though it was a lie, she chose to believe it. After that, she was free with her punches and kicks as long as no teachers were around, and Jenny tried to avoid her whenever possible.

There was no trace of her online. It seemed that supermodel fame had eluded her, and she most definitely didn’t have a Facebook profile or Instagram account. But Jenny had managed to find her parents on the electoral register, still living in the same street. Getting a contact number hadn’t been so easy though. She was going to have to go to the house, if she wanted to ask them about Agata. No need to make too big a deal about it. No disguise needed, and just another drive to make. After getting dressed, she headed out early, sharing the road with delivery vans and other dawn patrol traffic.

Her former home town was a lot bigger now. New estates sprawled around the outskirts where once there had been open countryside. Lots of new roundabouts directed traffic away from the town centre onto a new ring road and by-pass, but as she got closer to the address, she saw that little had changed in the old part of town. She found the right house number, drove past it, and parked in the first available side turning. It wasn’t even eight o’clock, and she thought it best to give it at least thirty minutes before approaching the house. She was hoping that the Kowalskis hadn’t already left for work. Though they would be in their sixties by now, they could well still have jobs.

The small woman who answered the door had the same blue eyes as Agata, but her hair was short, and grey. Jenny had a pleasant smile fixed on her face. “Mrs Kowalski? You don’t know me, but I used to go to school with your daughter, Agata. I am back in the town on business, and thought I would look her up”. She was gambling that Agata wasn’t still living at home. At forty-three it was unlikely, but not impossible. The older woman opened the door wider, and smiled. “Come in dear, she doesn’t live here any more of course, but I can give you her address. I have her phone number and email too. Can I get you a cup of tea?” The accent was still heavy, but her English was perfect. Jenny declined the tea, and stood politely in the hallway until Mrs Kowalski returned. She had a piece of paper in one hand, and a framed photo in the other.

“Here she is, with my two grandchildren. She married well you know, an American. We have been out to see her there, such a lovely house. Do you know California?” Jenny felt her whole body slump with disappointment. She briefly admired the photo. There she was, looking twenty-five, not forty three. A dazzling white smile, and two perfect kids, a boy and girl. Taking the paper from the woman, she stuffed it into the pocket of her jacket, and turned to go. As Agata’s Mum closed the door, she added, “I will tell her you called here. What name is it?” Without looking back, Jenny called over her shoulder.

“Tanya. Tanya Birch”.

There was no way Jenny could even contemplate air travel to America.
Agata would have to be the one that got away.

Leonora Quigley and Ivor Jones

For the two days it took to discover Mel’s body, Jenny rested at home and did some more research. Leonora Quigley had been the captain of the netball team, and though she had hardly ever spoken to her, let alone touched her, she had also been the ringleader and chief instigator of the bullying. As far as Jenny was concerned, the reason was clear enough. Leonora, who liked to be called Leo, had an Irish mother, and a decidedly absent Jamaican father. Obviously mixed race, she had made sure to bully someone else, rather than face the prospect of being bullied herself.

Her role had been to whisper instructions or suggestions, then stand back and look on, with a self-satisfied smirk.

Over the years, it had been easy enough to follow what had happened to Leo. She was supremely talented at Netball, making the junior team, then the senior squad. She could have gone on to become a star, perhaps even a coach, and much lauded in her country. But like Tanny, she made a bad choice of boyfriend. Errol was a gangster of the highest order. Armed robbery, dealing drugs and guns, even dabbling in people trafficking. He had become one of the most notorious characters in the town, but Leo loved him, and stayed unswervingly loyal, despite what that connection did to her sporting career.

Then one day, she had been stopped in her car, and an automatic pistol had been found under her seat, with her prints all over it. Not just any pistol, one proved to have been used in a robbery, and fired too. Refusing to implicate Errol, Leo had been given seven years in prison, completely destroying her life. Finding her now was going to be difficult.

Unknown to Jenny, Leonora had come out of prison, and walked straight into a life of organised crime. Errol had been killed in a revenge shooting while she was inside, and she looked up and reorganised his old gang, taking up where he had left off. She no longer had any contact with her mother or her siblings, and lived in a state of complete paranoia, fuelled by large amounts of cocaine, and a cannabis habit that was on a par with smoking cigarettes. She resided in a house that was as good as fortified, spending most of her time indoors with her new boyfriend, Tarr.

She had never got around to asking him why he had that name.

Mel’s body had finally been found after she had failed to keep five more tutoring appointments over two days. Five calls to the police expressing concern for her welfare had resulted in a forced entry by two uniformed police officers. They made up their own minds about the discovery, and just as Jenny had hoped, they wrote it off as a sex game gone wrong.

But when the detectives became involved, Sergeant Ivor Jones took the case. He was a Welshman, a little isolated in that large town’s police force, a long way from his rural home. But he had a knack for crime. His colleagues called him ‘The Welsh Ferret’. He had an obsession for detail, and it took him no time at all to make the connection to the school. After all, it was all there, in black and white, with Mel’s website testimonials, and her previous experience as a teacher for anyone to see.

As soon as Sergeant Jones circulated the details of the crime, he started to get a lot of attention. Many women who had once gone to the same school had recently been killed, in suspicious circumstances. There was no avoiding the fact. They had a serial killer targeting former pupils and staff at a girl’s school.

It was time to start sharing information between a few police forces. Mel’s killing had opened a Pandora’s Box, and it wasn’t about to be closed anytime soon.

Izzy Baker rushed into her boss’s office after taking the call. She had tidied her hair and touched her make-up first. After all, she still had the hots for him. “Sir, great news! We might have a connection to our outstanding cases. We have just had a request from an officer down south. He wants to know if we have any unsolved murders relating to a particular school. This guy is really on the ball. That acid attack killing, the victim comes back to having attended that school. Do you think we should drive down there, ask a few pertinent questions?”

His reply deflated her. “Leave it to him for now. It might be a stab in the dark. If it comes to nothing, let him show himself up, not us”. Izzy nodded. She couldn’t disguise how pissed off she was. “Okay, boss. It’s your call”.

Sensing a big case, Ivor Jones’ superior quickly moved in to take over everything. He would keep Ivor doing the donkey work, then claim all the credit. Detective Superintendent Steve Upshaw had a reputation for doing little or nothing, and claiming all the glory. It never bothered him in the least, and he was quite happy to do it all again now. He made an appointment with the Assistant Chief Constable, and laid out his plans to her. They would combine all the investigations into one, and lead the hunt for the female suspect. It would cost money, and a lot of resources in terms of manpower, but how often did you get a female serial killer operating? He couldn’t remember any, in his long career. The media would love this case, and their force would get all the glory when they caught her.

Catherine Harris hadn’t got as far as she had in her career by being impulsive. Not many women made the rank of Assistant Chief Constable, even in this day and age. She had managed to buck the trend, and even her very public sexuality, going so far as to marry another woman, had not harmed her prospects. She had even adopted her wife’s name, Harris.

But she didn’t like Steve’s proposal, not one bit. He just didn’t understand her reluctance, and could not hide his frustration at her reply. “There are numerous forces involved here, Steve. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We should allow them to carry on with their investigations, and be happy to share information about the Silletoe case. If they reciprocate with their own information, so much the better. Meanwhile, I don’t want a word of this released to the press. Not a word, you hear me? The killer will run, and we will never find her.”

Back in his office, Steve kicked his chair around, and punched the desk. The ACC had shot him down in flames, that bitch. He walked down the back stairs to the car park, and took his phone out of the inside pocket of his jacket. An old contact on The Daily Mail was discreet and reliable, he would slip him some information about that Ivor Jones and let him do the hassling.

Two hours later, and speculation about a serial killer connected to a school was on the newspaper’s website.

By six that night, it was also on the BBC TV News.

Jenny moves house

Stirring from a late afternoon nap on the sofa, Jenny felt something wet on her chest, and noticed the stain on her dressing gown. A quick look at the dressing showed it was damp, and she went into the bathroom to examine her breast. The inside of the dressing contained a pinkish fluid, still damp to the touch. The top of the lump had a small crusty residue on it, so she decided to leave well enough alone, and applied a clean dressing with fresh tape. Taking two painkillers to combat the dull ache that ran from under her armpit around to her back, she made a cup of tea, and took it back into the living room.

The rolling news channel on TV had some stuff about fires in the Amazon jungle, followed by a few interviews with people who knew a famous singer who had just died. As she thought about switching over, the scene changed to an outside broadcast. Almost dropping her mug of tea, Jenny stared at the screen, gripping the mug with both hands. A young woman was standing outside her old school, a very serious expression set on her face.

If she hadn’t been involved, Jenny would have thought it was a boring report, rather routine. A series of apparently unrelated murder victims had been found to all have been staff and pupils from that school. But other than that apparent connection, there was little concrete information. The current head teacher had declined to comment, and there was no mention of the time period they were interested in. As the reporter reeled off the names, the twins were absent from her short list. It seemed their death was still being treated as an accident then. So far.

The girl finished by saying that police sources would only say that investigations were ongoing into all the crimes, and would neither confirm nor deny that they were looking for one killer.

Opening her laptop, Jenny began to surf around sites offering holiday accommodation for rent. She was going to have to move, and sooner rather than later.

Catherine Harris was furious. She had even contemplated asking Steve Upshaw to surrender his phone, so she could check on any calls he had made. But she couldn’t afford to start sowing seeds of dissent in the team now that it was out in the open. Her admin assistant had been fending off calls from the media all day, telling them to contact the Press Officer on her usual number. The Press Officer had finally switched off her phone, tired of constantly arguing about their flat ‘no comment’ response to every question.

Police emergency call centres were receiving calls from parents of children still attending the school, as well as from dozens of former pupils of all ages, fearful that they would be next on the list of the serial killer. In his incident room, Ivor Jones continued to join the dots, seemingly unconcerned about the chaos going on around him. But he was also furious, as he realised that whoever had leaked that information had done little more than disturb a wasp’s nest. They would now be inundated with unrelated inquiries that would consume inordinate amounts of police time and resources. Meanwhile, the killer would also be alerted, and likely go to ground.

In another meeting room in a different police station, Izzy baker was listening to Chief Inspector Tennant go over the news. With the story going public, he had been forced to get involved. The trouble was that the victims were the only ones who might have known the killer, and they were all dead. They had to find someone who was at the school during that time who was still alive, and willing to speak about why they thought this might be happening. He proposed that they release the dates they were interested in, and make a public appeal for ex-pupils to contact them, if they were there during the same period as the victims. Izzy blew out her cheeks. That could involve hundreds of girls, and mean a huge amount of work. But as her boss rambled on, she decided to keep her mouth shut.

In her house just over the Welsh border, Pam Hayter watched the news with a sinking feeling in her belly. She had just about got Tanya Birch’s case sidelined, and now she had to try to find out for sure if she had ever gone to that school hundreds of miles away. She had been given Sergeant Jones’ number, and had put off calling him all day. She didn’t even know if he had that information anyway, and she had her fingers crossed that another force would take the whole thing on as one investigation, so she could return to her quiet life.

The woman had sounded very friendly on the phone. Jenny had given her a false name, a story about wanting peace and quiet to finish a novel she was writing, and agreed to pay cash in advance for a three-month rental. The cottage was suitably remote, though there were some local shops a reasonable drive away. It had good Wi-Fi, according to the woman who owned it, and the sheets and towels would be changed every week. There was a dry barn where she could park the car, and the nearest neighbour was over three miles away. Even better, it was almost two hundred miles from where Jenny lived at the moment, and she could get the key the day after tomorrow. As she started to sort out what she would have to take from her flat, Jenny felt a bit wobbly, and had to sit down.

From his office chair, Inspector Meacham was listening to Ronnie tell him that there was nothing worth following up from all those hours of CCTV. He nodded when the detective finished speaking.

“Thanks for trying, Ronnie. Now you are going to have to go through everything taken from the house, and maybe even instigate a second search”. Ronnie’s face fell, as the Inspector continued.

“I want to know for certain if Mrs Watson ever went to that school”.

The National Crime Agency gets involved

Using the wheeled case that had sat on top of her wardrobe for the last seven years, Jenny packed enough clothes for a couple of weeks. There was a washer/drier at the rented cottage, so no need to take too much stuff. Various chargers went in next, along with her laptop and small tablet. Then any papers and notebooks detailing what she had been up to. She would buy a new SIM card for the mobile phone at the local shop, in case they found any trace of her calls, and get plenty of dressings and tape for the increasingly open wound too. All her personal papers went in last, and she added just one sentimental item; a framed photo of her Mum, in happier times.

As she locked the door of her flat for what would probably be the last time, she could feel an unusual thrill tingling all over her body.

She was on the run, and it felt strangely exciting.

By the time Jenny had finished buying her various bits of shopping and had put almost one hundred motorway miles behind her, Ivor Jones was looking at a photograph of some members of a school netball team, taken over twenty-five years earlier. Seven teenage girls, and an older woman, the games teacher who trained them. Five of those girls were now dead, presumed killed by one person. One of them was married and living in America, according to her family. The worried old lady he had spoken to had completely forgotten to mention the recent visitor who had come to inquire about Agata, but had promised to contact her daughter and get her to call him.

That left one other member of the team still alive, as far as he knew. That person was of great interest to the police, Leonora Quigley. She was under investigation for everything from selling firearms, to loan-sharking, according to reports he had read. But she was big-time, organised crime stuff, and her case was being handled by the National Crime Agency. Sergeant Jones was a very conscientious man, and followed the instructions to notify them that he was interested in Leonora as a suspect for no less than six murders.

Gemma Fox was a happy, bubbly sort of woman. She looked like someone who had lived their life in the open air, with her red cheeks, and padded jacket. Maybe late fifties, she didn’t bother too much with make-up, or smart clothes. She met Jenny outside the property as arranged, giving her a quick tour, and accepting the wad of cash handed over for three months rent. Despite her pleasant demeanour, Jenny was hoping that she wouldn’t hang around too long. The drive had been exhausting, and given her reason to scold herself for buying a car with a manual gear change. By the time she arrived, her left arm hurt so badly, she had needed to lean over and apply the handbrake with her right hand. Gemma had written down the code for the Internet access, and explained how to turn on the hot water and heating. After giving her directions to the local shops, she turned to leave.

“You have my number if there are any questions. I will be back in a week to change the towels and sheets, and do a bit of housework for you. If you get lonely or bored, drive up and have a cup of tea with me. My postcode is on my website, it’s not far. The Old Hill Farm, before you get to the village. Can’t miss it”. Jenny thanked her, and watched as she walked back to her battered Land-Rover. She had talked about being a farmer’s widow, their only daughter away at university. The farm land had been sold off, sold as Gemma couldn’t be bothered with all that work on her own.

She was probably lonely, but Jenny didn’t need a friend right now.

As soon as Quigley’s name was flagged up by Ivor Jones, everything changed. Officers from The National Crime Agency arrived in three different police stations, and took charge of all the unsolved murders. They had invested a lot of time and money in building a case against Leonora, and they were not about to have their hard work undone by any mistakes made by local officers, in various jurisdictions. Sergeant Jones had been the only one to make the connection with the death of the twins in that fire, so that was now being treated as murder too. As the weekend arrived, John Meacham, Alistair Tennant, and Steve Upshaw were all pulling long faces, as their high-profile cases disappeared like the morning mist. Only Pam Hayter was happy, very pleased to have sent everything she had concerning Tanya Birch to some chinless wonder at the NCA.

When she had unpacked, Jenny connected her laptop to the Internet, and checked the signal on her phone. The Wi-Fi was good, as promised, but the phone network had almost no signal at all in this area. Not to worry, she hoped she wouldn’t have to use it anyway. She had brought enough groceries to last at least a week, as her appetite was up and down anyway, and she mainly ate just to keep her strength up. A tedious round of visits to four different chemist shops had ensured that she had enough painkillers for a while, and the cottage felt very homely, just as she had hoped it would. She switched on the small television in the corner, and flicked around the channels until she found some news. There was nothing at all about the cases, which was a relief.

She was not to know that the National Crime Agency had put a lid on everything. They operated at a different level.

When she arrived at her office that Monday morning, Catherine Harris was aware that something felt different. People were looking at her strangely as she walked past, and her admin assistant looked as if she was about to faint. In the outer office was her boss, the Chief Constable. He was flanked by a stern-looking woman in a business suit, and a smart young man similarly dressed. Richard Kenwright smiled at her, but his eyes were cold. “Good morning, Catherine. These officers would like to have a word with you. Shall we go through to your office?” He turned to the pale-faced assistant. “No calls. None at all”. She nodded.

All three declined Catherine’s offer of tea or coffee, and sat down in the chairs opposite her large desk. The woman introduced herself as Commander McDonald. A Scottish name, but a London accent. The younger man was writing notes on a pad. Sensing the worst was about to happen, Catherine tried to carry off a brave face. “How can I help you, Commander?” She replied without bothering to defer to Catherine’s higher rank. “Well you can start by telling me why you chose not to tell anyone that you went to the same school that the victims of the recent murders attended. Then you might go on to explain why you kept that fact a secret from the investigating team, thereby obstructing that investigation”.

Catherine swallowed the water filling her mouth, glad that she had skipped breakfast earlier.

The end of a career

It was obvious that the woman wearing the blonde wig and glasses was not Leonora. The new investigative team could see that. But they were so focused on the idea that she was the prime suspect, they came to the conclusion that the blonde woman must be part of the Quigley crime empire. Under some pressure to act quickly, they allowed a photo-fit image of the suspect to be released to the press. Not the CCTV image, which they decided to keep quiet about for now, but a generic description. Shoulder length blonde hair, probably a wig. Large black-framed spectacles, and aged between thirty-five and forty. Stocky build, and height under five feet five.

Knowing that such a general description would generate a huge amount of calls, they issued the usual police public contact number, and decided to let the local forces collate the information. Everyone knew it was as good as useless anyway, with tens of thousands of women fitting that description, and the suspect likely to have dumped the wig and glasses. But they were seen to be doing something, and left alone to continue to concentrate on Quigley.

When she had bought the car from him, Jenny hadn’t looked anything like that. So Kenny Farrell had no reason to think anything about the short news item, and checked the time to make sure the football match was coming on soon. He was supposed to be fixing a telephone junction box five miles away, but had called in to say there was something wrong with the van.

Although he was no longer officially on the case, Ivor Jones took the call from America. Agata Scultz had been contacted by her mother, and wanted to know what was going on. Ivor outlined the case, and asked of she knew any reason why someone might be targeting members of the netball team from twenty-five years ago. It was so long ago, it never even occurred to her to remember Jenny Pettifer. But her Mum had finally remembered the name of someone who had called at the house recently, asking about her daughter. “My Mum told me that Tanya Birch came to her house recently, asking about me. Not that long ago, no more than a few days. Perhaps she has got something to do with it?” Ivor usually hesitated to give out too many details, but they had taken the case off him, after all.

“It could not have been Tanya Birch, Mrs Shultz. She was one of the first three to be killed”. After a few moments of silence from the other end, the woman came back on the line. “Right, I am flying over. I will be there late tomorrow night, you can contact me at my parents’ house”.

The open wound felt hot, and Jenny was worried that it might be getting infected. There was no question of being able to obtain any antibiotics, so she had to make do with the painful option of cleaning it with an over the counter surgical fluid that she had brought with her. And there was no denying that the stuff leaking from it was giving off an unpleasant smell, one that she could detect every time she changed the dressing. She made a mental note to use more perfume if she had to go out, then took two paracetamol tablets to bring down her overall body temperature. The last couple of days had been quite arduous, and she knew her body needed rest.

But if she rested too long, it might become an eternal rest.

Richard Kenwright didn’t step in to help Catherine, as the Commander became more insistent. “Well, I’m waiting. What’s your explanation?” She tried to catch her boss’s eye again before speaking, but he was looking at his shoes. Nothing to do but to come clean.

“I didn’t have anything to do with the girls on the netball team. I was in the year above them, and already planning to leave to join the force. So I don’t know of any reason why someone might be trying to kill them all, or have the faintest idea about who might be doing it.
But I did know Melissa Silletoe. She and I were lovers for just over a year, until I left school. In fact, she was the first woman I ever truly loved, and we were devoted to each other for that time. We even used to go away for weekends to a cabin she rented in a holiday park. I used to tell my parents I was going on organised school trips”. The young detective was scribbling away on his pad, and Catherine waited before continuing, wondering if this cold Commander was actually going to arrest her.

“I haven’t seen her since. No doubt she moved on to another impressionable girl once I left school. I am sure I wasn’t her first conquest. I didn’t mention any of this to my team, as I could not see any relevance to the investigation. Besides, nobody at the school ever knew about us. I didn’t tell anyone, and I know that Melissa never would have, as she would have been fired from her job”.

What Catherine couldn’t have known was that someone had discovered her relationship with the teacher. Someone had followed Melissa, watched as she met her new lover, and watched as they kissed passionately in the front of her car, parked in a deserted side street. Jenny knew the older girl by sight, and knew her name too. Cathy Neal.

It was the ninth name on her list.

Commander McDonald exchanged a look with the Chief Constable, then reached across to stop her young colleague writing. “I thank you for being so candid, and I can assure you that none of this will be passed on to any of the officers involved in the investigation”. She stood up, as did the young man. “But I caution you to be careful. If this killer did know about you and Miss Silletoe, your life may well be in danger”. She nodded to the Chief Constable. “We will show ourselves out, sir”. Her boss sat back in his chair, shaking his head slowly. “Catherine, I feel let down, I really do. I recommended you for this promotion, and this is how you repay my trust”.

Catherine went to speak, but he held up both hands, stopping her dead. “You have over twenty-six years in the job, I believe. Here is what is going to happen. You will go off sick with stress, anyone will understand that.
The demands of the job, and so on. In six month’s time, I will call you in for an interview, and suggest that you are retired on full pension. Nothing about your relationship with the dead woman is to be divulged, to anyone. And as far as myself and Commander McDonald are concerned, this conversation never happened. Is that clear?” Catherine nodded, barely fighting back the tears forming in her eyes as he continued.

“Go home now, then phone in to the personnel department tomorrow, reporting sick with work-related stress. Go to see your doctor, and start the ball rolling with treatment for that. You will be paid of course, but you are not to attempt to enter any police station, or to contact any serving officer.
Do I make myself clear?”

No longer able to stop the tears, Catherine reached for a tissue from the box on her desk.

Jenny gets a gun

Ten days into her self-imposed exile, Jenny couldn’t understand why the news reports were so quiet. The electronic photo-fit shown briefly looked nothing like her, which was some relief. She had phoned into work, and agreed that her continued absence would be covered by unpaid holiday leave. That would keep Pat off her back, and stop anyone reporting her missing.
Of more concern was her high temperature, and the annoying fact that she couldn’t find out anything about Leo after the time she had been sent to prison.

She hadn’t been having any luck with Cathy Neal either, until she stumbled across an entry well down the pages on Google. It was in the name of Verity Harris, who appeared to be a famous name in feminist literature. Dating back a few years, it highlighted the name Catherine Neal, next to a link that went to an article in a feminist magazine long since defunct. It was about one of their chief writers getting married to another woman. The other woman had taken the unusual step of adopting the married name of her partner, and was to be known as Catherine Harris.

Armed with the correct surname, Jenny’s eyes widened once she hit ‘search’. But her delight at finding the girl who had stolen Mel away from her was tempered by the reality that she had been promoted to the rank of Assistant Chief Constable on the very force investigating Mel’s murder. She poured herself a large vodka, and spoke out loud into the room. “You couldn’t make it up, you really couldn’t”.

Gemma Fox had come round a couple of days ago with clean sheets and towels. But even though she was feeling like death warmed up, Jenny couldn’t let her do housework, and change the bed. “Leave it there, Gemma, I will do it. Honestly, it will take my mind off things. I will wash the sheets and towels too. I only have to put them in the machine”. The older woman had looked a little disappointed. Maybe she just wanted some company. But Jenny deliberately didn’t offer her tea or coffee, hoping she would get the message. She didn’t. “How’s the book coming on? Would I have read any of your other stuff? Not invited to sit, she perched on the arm of a small sofa under the window.

Jenny stroked the closed laptop. “It’s all in here, a work in progress. It’s about a serial killer on the run from the police. My first book though, so you won’t have read anything else”. Gemma grinned. “Murder mystery eh? That’s right up my street. I would love to read it when it’s finished”. Jenny stood up, indicating it was time for her to go. “You will have a signed copy, with my thanks. I will post it to you”. As she walked to the old car, Gemma turned. “I’ll hold you to that. My famous tenant. I will tell everyone I knew you before you started writing best sellers”.

Commander McDonald had deployed some of her team to keep a watch on the Kowalski house. When her daughter arrived, there was a chance that the whole family could be in danger. But most of the resources were still targeted on Leonora Quigley, and her small army of criminal associates. If they were ever going to connect her to the murders, they would eventually have to raid the house, and look for evidence. The best way to do that was to request that her and her boyfriend come in for questioning, then get a Section 18 warrant to search and seize while they were languishing in an interview room. Her fingerprints hadn’t shown up at any crime scene, so they were going to have to go with her connection to the school to justify applying for the warrant.

She dictated a list of what they would be looking for to the young man writing on his pad.
“The knife used in the murder of Tanya Birch.
Laptops and mobile phones owned by any of the victims.
A blonde wig, and black spectacles.
A hammer, and plumber’s tape.
Any papers relating to the suspect’s car.
Any shopping receipts pertaining to any items used in any of the crimes.
The paperwork relating to any guests booked in by Mrs Wilkinson.
Plus any computers or phones owned or used by Quigley and her gang that might show contact with any of the victims, either by email, or relevant Internet searches.
And I want the mobile phone mast search extended to cover all phone activity in the vicinity of every victim for at least twenty-four hours surrounding each crime”.

Her subordinate nodded, then stood up and left the office to get on with his tasks.

Jenny had run out of milk and bread, so a drive to the shops would be necessary. She still had a high temperature, and the open wound on her left breast was getting larger. She could no longer tolerate wearing a bra, and was now using two dressings to soak up the oozing fluid. The shops that Gemma had mentioned were a fifteen minute drive away. A general store of the type only seen in such country districts, selling pretty much everything. There was a chemist shop that dealt with all the local drug prescriptions as well as selling toiletries and baby stuff, and a butcher selling local meat of high quality, at greatly inflated prices. At the end of the small row of shops was a petrol station that looked like it hadn’t changed since the 1950s. Just two pumps, a general car repair workshop, and the attendant had to come out and fill up your car.

The two elderly women in the general store were very nosy. They asked her a lot of questions, excited to be serving a stranger. One of them was behind the glass of a small sub-Post Office at the back, and called out to Jenny as she browsed the few shelves. “If you need any cash dear, you can draw it out from me”. Dropping a sliced loaf into the wire basket, Jenny smiled back. “I’m fine thanks”. When she had bought all she needed, she wandered next door to the butcher, and treated herself to a stupidly expensive fillet steak. She hadn’t had one of those in years, and it would be good to get more protein. With the shopping put away in the car, she drove the few yards to the petrol station, and paid at least twenty percent too much to have her car filled to the brim. Unsure whether or not she should tip the very old man who operated the pump, she thanked him and gave him some notes, adding “Keep the change”.

Heading back to the cottage, she noticed the sign for Old Hill Farm, and turned into the driveway on a whim.

Gemma Fox was standing outside the front door of the farmhouse as Jenny arrived, shooing two excitable Jack Russells back inside. She beamed a big smile at the sight of Jenny’s car, and walked over to her. “I was just popping down to the chemist to get my thyroid tablets. Go on in, I will be back in ten minutes. The dogs are friendly, I keep them for the rats”. Wrapping her jacket around tighter, to cover up the fact that she wasn’t wearing a bra, Jenny accepted the invitation. The inside of the farm house was incredibly untidy, with stuff piled everywhere. Both the dogs seemed pleased to see her, and settled down after she had stroked them.

When Gemma hadn’t returned after the promised ten minutes, Jenny walked outside, and had a look around. Although most of the sold-off land was now fenced by the new owner, the property was still substantial, with a kitchen garden, and four outbuildings. In one of the dilapidated large sheds, there were lots of ancient farm implements, including a rusty tractor that looked like it had been there since world war two. A row of metal lockers ran down one side, and they looked like they hadn’t been used in years as well. The door of one of them was hanging open, and she automatically reached out to close it.

There was something inside, wrapped in a waxy brown cloth. It was long, and propped up in the corner, covered in dust. Gently unwrapping the top, Jenny could see that it was a shotgun. One of those with two barrels, side by side. Behind it at the bottom of the locker was a crumpled cardboard box, containing shells for the gun. Without hesitating, Jenny bent down and picked up the box. Then she grabbed the cloth, wrapped it tight around the barrels, and walked to her car with both items. Placing them in the boot behind her shopping, she closed the hatch just as Gemma’s battered Land-Rover came wheezing up the driveway.

The cheerful-looking woman waved a paper bag containing her tablets. “I got chatting in the chemist’s, sorry about that. Been having a look around? The old place is not what it was, I’m afraid.

Come on in, and I will make us some tea”.

Agata in the spotlight

After exchanging some pleasantries and looking at a few photos of Gemma’s daughter, Jenny made her excuses, and drove back to the cottage. She had no fears that the stolen shotgun would be missed, as the rusty locker didn’t appear to have been used in decades. Unwrapping the long weapon, it looked to be in very good condition. The waxy cloth covering it had an oily residue inside, so Jenny used a duster from under the sink to wipe that off before it got all over her clothes. She had never held any gun before, and it felt surprisingly heavy. The printing on the box stated that it contained twenty five shells, but there were only fifteen inside it. They were made from a firm wax by the feel of them, with metal lids around one end. She had no idea how to load it, let alone fire it.

But she knew someone who did. They were called You Tube.

Less than ten minutes on the laptop, and she was past the beginner stage in using a side-by-side, double barrelled shotgun. She knew it was called a ‘twelve gauge’, and the shells in the box were made from plastic, not wax, with something called a ‘fibre wad’ inside. A lever on the top opened the gun, which showed the ends of the barrels where the shells went in. The metal part of the shells stayed on top, and when it was closed, it was fired by pulling the right hand trigger first, then the left. To load it again after firing, you used the lever to open it up, and repeated the process. She tried it a few times, making sure to keep her fingers away from the triggers. Another You Tube tip was to open the gun and tip it gun backwards after firing. If you did that with some force, the fired shells would just fall out, leaving you free to reload.

Deciding on an early vodka, Jenny sat looking at the gun laid out on the kitchen table. She was wondering if she ought to try firing it first, before using it for real. There were some woods at the back of the cottage that might be worth exploring.

Agata Schultz was turning into a walking nightmare for the police. Steve Upshaw was still determined to interfere, and had passed on the information he had bullied out of Ivor Jones about her arrival to his pals on the newspapers. They descended on her parents’ house, clamouring for quotes, and firing off their cameras on motordrive. The surveillance team were enraged that the news was out. Worse still, Agata was desperate for her fifteen minutes of fame, and happy to answer any question, however irrelevant. As well as that, she was preening and posing for endless photos. Her California tan and dazzling smile made her headline material, and the Crime Agency officers knew full well she would be on all the front pages, as well as the television news. Using her as bait for the killer wasn’t turning out like they had hoped.

As if it couldn’t get any worse, Agata decided that her humble family home was below her station in life, and booked herself in to the only classy hotel in town. She gave interviews from the lavish foyer, even being shown talking to her husband and kids on Skype, gushing about how much she missed them, and squeezing out a few crocodile tears. Never one to miss a trick, her wealthy husband had even contacted some agents in Britain. He could sense a book deal or television mini-series coming, and he wanted his wife to get in on that before anyone else jumped on the bandwagon. Within twenty-four hours, Agata had become one of the best-known faces in the country, interviewed on breakfast shows about how she was terrified for the safety of her family. Not her own of course, she was willing to help find the killer, even though that would put her life in danger.

But during all of this, it never occurred to her, or the police officers involved, to ask her Mum for a description of the woman who had called at the house. Agata just presumed it had been Tanny Birch, and that Mum had muddled up the dates. She said as much to the police, and they agreed. And not once did it enter her head to remember the dowdy mouse of a girl who her and her now mostly dead friends had bullied for over four years. Commander McDonald was already pissed off with the surgically-enhanced publicity hound, and now they had to keep observation on the hotel, as well as the house. She split the team, and made sure they all had current photos of Leonora Quigley, and her American-born boyfriend, Louis Tarryton.

Her left arm was now hurting so much, Jenny could hardly use it as she stood in the shower, fighting back some tears caused by that pain. She was avoiding looking at the horrible wound on her breast as much as possible, but she couldn’t fail to notice that there was a significant lump appearing under her right arm too. It felt like something was stuck under her armpit, and she had stopped attempting to shave under either arm.

Agata was all over the news, and Jenny had been both surprised and pleased to see that she had come over from California. She was going to make sure that she never used her return ticket.

There was no way she could even think about using the silver car to drive back to the town where she had grown up. As she could just about support the weight of a plate with a sandwich on it, two hundred and fifty miles of changing gear with her left hand was never going to happen. Jenny had reached the inevitable conclusion that she would have to be herself again, if only for a short while. No car hire company was going to let her rent an automatic car for cash. She would have to show her driving licence too, as well as giving credit card details.

But as no mention of her name had appeared anywhere, it was a chance she was willing to take.

The booking was made online, with her real name and credit card details entered. She also had to give her genuine address, as that was the billing address for the card. They would deliver the car to the cottage as requested, for an additional fee. The delivery driver would need to see her driving licence before handing over the keys. She had treated herself to one of the company’s executive car range. Why not? She had never driven a top of the range car, let alone a Mercedes.

Once it was all sorted, Jenny packed a few things into a shopping bag, then began to write a note to leave behind for Gemma.

Leonora gets raided

The car was huge, much bigger than she had expected. After scribbling her name on some paperwork a few times, the smart young man handed over her copies, along with the car key, which wasn’t actually a key, more like a small remote control. He ran through a few basics, like where the important switches were, and showed her the number to call if she had any breakdowns or accidents. The car had a full tank of petrol, and he advised her to return it with a full tank, or she would be charged for filling it up later. Then he walked back along the short driveway to where his colleague was waiting to drive him back to the rental company.

Sitting inside it was lovely. The driver’s seat was like an armchair, and so comfortable after she had fiddled with the electronic adjustments. There wasn’t even a gear-stick or handbrake to worry about, as both were dealt with using electronic knobs. The built-in satnav had a huge screen, and she chose a calm male voice to direct her on her journey later. Before going back into the cottage, she walked over to the barn where the other car was parked, and closed the double doors.

Back inside, she read through the note to Gemma, then slid it into a padded postal bag that already contained a flash drive. On that flash drive, she had typed out what amounted to a confession, telling the whole series of events from the time she had received the hospital letter, and recording every killing so far in great detail, along with all her reasons why she had done what she had. In the note, she had asked Gemma to hand it over to the police when she received it, and apologised for all the disturbance that would surely happen once they arrived to search the cottage, and seize the silver car. Then she added a lot of stamps to the front, and sealed it before placing it in her shoulder bag. It would be posted once she had completed her task.

She hadn’t mentioned stealing the shotgun.

Leonora and Tarr were not about to just walk out and hand themselves over. The police had arrived while it was still dark, hammering on the door and shouting, using spreader bars and battering rams to get through the heavy outer door, before coming up against the internal steel barrier door. Police dogs were barking at the back of the house, and a helicopter was clattering low overhead, shining a light as bright as day down onto the detached house and garden. Inside, they casually got dressed, and Tarr dumped a huge bag of coke down the toilet, sucking his lips in frustration at the waste. A woman’s voice was calling through a loud-hailer, the usual stuff about armed police, and coming out with their hands up. Most of what she was shouting about was drowned out by the noise of the helicopter.

Looking very relaxed in the bathroom, Leonora put up her mane of hair, and wrapped a scrunchy around it to keep it off her face. She lit a cigarette, and went back into the bedroom where Tarr was wiping down a huge forty-five pistol using a dirty t-shirt. She jerked her head up in the direction of the ceiling. “What about the stuff in the loft, Tarr?” He shrugged. “No prints on that, but no time to get rid of it either”. She shook her head, blowing out a huge cloud of cigarette smoke. “Doesn’t look good then, does it?”

Commander McDonald had decided against asking them to come in for questioning. It would give them too much notice to prepare, concoct stories, and dispose of evidence. She got a full warrant to search for firearms that had been used in robberies instead, and mounted a tremendously expensive and high profile dawn raid on Leonora’s house.

It took a group of sweating officers another sixteen minutes to finally get inside. They had to use an angle grinder to get through the internal bolts. Armed officers led the charge into the house, two of them holding ballistic shields in front of the group; everyone edgy and nervous, anticipating a possible exchange of gunfire. When they found the couple sitting casually on a bed upstairs, they dragged them to the floor and wrapped their hands behind them using cable ties.

Leonora looked up at the cold-faced woman who had entered the room. She leaned down and stared straight into her eyes. “Why didn’t you just let us in? Save all this grief?” Leonora grinned. “We was sleeping, innit? Didn’t hear youse.” As four officers pulled them onto their feet, Commander McDonald gave them a formal caution, and then advised them that they were under arrest, suspected of firearms offences. After declining to say anything, they were led down to two waiting police vans which would take them into custody separately. Then the search teams entered the house, dressed in their protective suits and gloves.

They had a long day ahead of them.

The Mercedes was so smooth and powerful, Jenny had to be careful not to trigger any speed cameras, or get stopped by an unmarked police traffic car. She settled into the middle lane of the motorway, and stayed at the legal limit. It used a terrible amount of petrol though. A quarter of the tank had already gone, and the needle was nudging the half mark by the time she pulled into the long lay-by and parked behind a foreign-registered lorry.

Even though the car was supremely comfortable, she needed to rest, and she was also feeling sick. She swallowed some tablets washed down with bottled water, and ate six biscuits from a packet propped up between the seats. Then she sat back against the headrest and closed her eyes, fighting off the nausea.

In two different interrogation rooms, Leonora and Tarr were not cooperating. Not long after they had arrived in the police station, two sleazy solicitors had turned up to represent them, and had advised them to say nothing. The officers assigned to question them went over the same old stuff, but couldn’t get anything out of either of them. The solicitors were playing from the same deck, spouting out the same two statements about their clients. They didn’t own the house, they were just crashing there. It was a friend’s place, and he rented it from someone they didn’t know. Their friend’s name was Clyde, but they didn’t know his surname, or where he could be found.

The pair could be detained for twenty-four hours. Maybe more, if anything significant was found.

Commander McDonald called the interviewing detectives away after two hours. “Let them have a break, see if we can make them nervous”.

The Inspector looked at her with a wry grin.

“Good luck with that, boss”.

Lack of evidence

The banging on the window woke her up with a start. For a second, Jenny was confused, wondering where she was. A scruffy man was standing by the driver’s window, and when she opened her eyes, he shouted through the glass. “You alright, lady? You look bad. You sick?” His accent was heavy, east European by the sound of it. It dawned on her that he was probably the driver of the big lorry parked in front of her, as they were the only two vehicles in the tree-screened lay-by.

She operated the electric window, allowing just enough space to just speak to him. “I’m fine, thank you. Just tired. Long journey, you know”. The smile she attempted was weak, and he shook his head, unconvinced. “You sure, lady? You look bad. You want I call doctor?” Jenny pressed the start button to fire up the engine. “Honestly, I’m fine. But thank you for being concerned”. He shrugged, and walked slowly back to his lorry, looking back twice before climbing into the cab. Jenny checked the time. She had been asleep for almost an hour, and felt awful. There was nothing for it, she was going to have to go back to her flat and sort herself out.

The search team found lots of things in Leonora’s loft, but nothing at all relevant to any of the cases under investigation. Hidden in the eaves in a large wooden box, they discovered two AK-47 assault rifles, four handguns, and almost six hundred rounds of ammunition. There was also an assortment of vicious-looking knives, two Samurai swords, and a machete. Added to that was the .45 pistol that Tarr had wiped clean, found slipped under the bed That was enough to extend the detention order for the suspects.

As Commander McDonald looked at the list from the search teams, her initial excitement faded away. None of the items listed had any fingerprints on them. Ballistic tests would be carried out, but she had a bad feeling that none of the firearms would come back as being used in a reported crime, and tests on the knives and swords had shown negative for blood traces already. Leonora and Tarr could not be linked to the house, nor to any of the weapons found inside it. Computers and phones were also clean, with nothing incriminating. Those people knew their job too well, and didn’t incriminate themselves with phone calls and Internet searches these days.

Unless either of their stories could be challenged, she was worried that the prosecutors were not going to go ahead with any charges, and she might well have to let both of them go. Confronted with the evidence found in the house, Leonora and Tarr stuck to the same story, with the solicitors speaking for them. They were just crashing at a friend’s house. They had no idea that the weapons were in the loft, and were unaware that a pistol was under the bed they had been sleeping in. The officers interrogating them became increasingly frustrated at their casual demeanour, and fought hard to keep their tempers as they repeated the same questions over and over, with nothing concrete to tie either of them to anything.

Jenny had to drive the last forty miles to her flat quite slowly. Her body was feeling incredibly hot, and at times she was having trouble fighting off the dizziness. She decided to chance parking the rental car in the block’s car park, taking a space of one of the ground floor flat occupants; an elderly woman who didn’t own a car, but was rather precious about anyone parking there. Inside, her flat felt airless, as the opening door swept away the few days of junk mail that had accumulated behind it. She didn’t bother to bend down and pick it up, just pushed it out of the way with her foot, as she took off her shoes. Staggering into the bathroom, she vomited into the toilet bowl, mostly watery bile.

Her reflection in the mirror was alarming. The lorry driver had been right. She looked bad. Her skin was a nasty grey colour, and dark circles had appeared around sunken eyes. The wound was weeping steadily through the two dressings over it, and she felt so hot that she pulled off her clothes, standing in just her panties as she splashed water over her face and head. Both her body and her instinct were telling her she didn’t have much longer.

Steve Upshaw had gone from being annoyed, to seeing an opportunity. Using an untraceable pay and go phone, he was contacting his pals on the newspapers offering lots more information. But this time, he wanted money for it. Quite a lot of money, paid in old notes, and delivered to him under his seat in a local pub. By the time he was back home and counting his cash, the media knew about Leo and Tarr, the weapons found at the house, and the fact that neither of them would probably be charged. They had mugshots of the pair, a decent back-story, and the assumption that the police were treating Leonora Quigley as the main suspect in the series of murders of her old school friends.
Steve knew a lot of people, and had called in favours owed after his many years in the detective branch.

Despite feeling so bad, Jenny knew she needed food. She ordered a pizza delivery, and had a shower while she waited for it to arrive. Washing down three tablets with a large vodka and tonic, she switched around the different news channels on the television. It was all there, everything she needed. Agata being interviewed outside the office of her publicity agent, telling the reporter that she would be attending interviews, and where they would be. Speculation that Leonora Quigley would be released from custody with no charges, based on the old chestnut, ‘insufficient evidence’. The news girl was even standing outside the very police station where Leo was being detained, and gave a very accurate estimate of the time she would be allowed to walk free. Jenny took down a few notes, and consulted some online maps. It was possible. Tight, but it could feasibly be done.

The pizza was just a four-cheese with no extra toppings, but she was surprised how ravenously she devoured it, not even leaving a crust as normal. It actually made her feel a lot better. Or maybe that was the second large vodka, she couldn’t tell. Everything was coming to a head now, and knowing it would soon end one way or the other had settled her mind, if not her body.

Deciding that a third drink would do no harm, she pondered the fate of Catherine Harris. She had seen a short report of her being taken off the investigation, as she was off sick. Jenny had wrongly concluded that meant she might well be in a protected safe house somewhere. Time to face facts. She hadn’t done bad for a beginner, better than she had hoped.

But it would only be eight of the nine, after all.

Jenny has a busy morning

After a restless night, Jenny decided on a bath instead of a shower. As the water was running, she carelessly chopped off most of her hair with a pair of kitchen scissors. The end result made her smile at how masculine she looked, especially with no make up on. The sight of her hairy legs in the bath also made her grin. She certainly wasn’t going to bother to shave them, or under her arms. All that twisting and stretching would hurt, and when today was over, she wasn’t going to care about what she looked like.

Something ugly and sinister was now protruding from her left breast. It made her feel sick to look at the strange internal flesh that had broken through the skin during the night, but it was no longer bleeding, and her high temperature seemed to have subsided too. In fact, it was the best she had felt in a long while.

After drying off, she covered her breast with two dressings, wincing at the pulling sensation from under her right arm as she fiddled with the tape. The pains across her shoulder blades hadn’t been helped by the hot water, so she took four tablets to deal with that for now. From the wardrobe, she took out an old black hoody, one she hadn’t worn in years. She slipped that on over a baggy T-shirt, then pulled on a pair of denim jeans that felt a little loose around the waist. Using her mobile phone to check the time, she set a countdown on it. By the time the alarm went off, it would all be over.

One way, or another.

Her outfit was finished off with a pair of black leather gloves, and a black woolly hat. On her feet she had some old Adidas tennis shoes that would be comfortable, and make them look a little bigger too. Looking at the reflection in the bedroom mirror, she reckoned she could pass for a man. If nobody looked too closely at her chest of course. Last but not least, she took a long overcoat from its hanger in the wardrobe, and draped it over her arm. Jenny put the flat keys back through her letterbox after closing the door, and walked down to the car park. Tucked into the back of her jeans was the envelope containing the note to Gemma, along with the memory stick. She would stop and post that on the way.

Agata Schulz was already waiting outside the hotel for the taxi, checking her designer wristwatch. The cab would take her to the office of her new publicity agent, and he would drive her to the small television company that was in negotiation to make a documentary about her. Across the hotel car park, the two surveillance officers checked some paperwork. They had Agata’s itinerary, and two of their colleagues would take over at the TV station. After a long night, they could both go home to bed, once she was in the taxi.

There had been no time to practice firing the shotgun before leaving the cottage. Jenny had been worrying about being overheard anyway, and decided to trust to luck, and You Tube. But she had loaded the gun before leaving, rather than chance being seen loading it in a public place. Checking that there was nobody around in the car park, Jenny took the shotgun from the boot, and wrapped it in the long overcoat. Then she picked two more shells out of the box, and put them in a pocket of the hoody. It seemed like belt and braces, as she probably wouldn’t get time to reload. But better to be prepared.

The second surveillance team was parked outside the front of the agent’s office. They had watched Agata go in after the taxi dropped her off, and they knew what car to look for, once the agent drove out of the car park behind the small office building. The driver had already entered the postcode of the television company into the satnav, just in case they were separated in traffic, and he turned as his colleague passed him a paper cup containing the coffee she had just bought for them both. “Thanks. Did you remember two sugars?” She nodded.

The painkillers had worked, and Jenny felt pretty good as she parked the big car carefully in a meter bay at the rear of the office building. No point attracting the attention of any passing traffic warden, but she didn’t bother ringing the number on the signpost, to pay the fee. A parking fine was going to be the least of her worries, by the time today was over. Walking round to the passenger side, she removed the shotgun from where it was propped up against the seat, wrapped in the long cashmere overcoat. It was a shame to lose that cherished coat, but it wasn’t as if she was ever going to need to wear it again.

Gritting her teeth as she hung up the phone, Commander McDonald turned to the Inspector who was waiting expectantly at the end of her desk. “Nope. They won’t wear it. Insufficient evidence, and the case corrupted by the leaking of the names and details. No charges, as no hope of a fair and unbiased trial. The Inspector’s face fell. “Really? Nothing? Not even the gun charges?” She shook her head. “Nothing. They are free to go. Leave them until our time expires, then give them their personal stuff and kick them out. We will have to find another way to make a case against them. I tell you, when I find out who the bastard was that leaked all that information, heads will roll!”

Agata was checking her lipstick in a small mirror, as the agent tapped the face of his wristwatch. She gave him her whitest smile. “Alright, Mark. I’m ready”. They walked down the back stairs to where his now unfashionable convertible was parked behind the building. At the other end of the car park, Jenny was walking through the arch leading to the street behind, holding the shotgun pressed firmly against her hip, her index finger already on one of the triggers. Mark Goldman opened the door for his new client, and as he walked around to the driver’s side, he saw a squat, stocky looking person walking toward the car, carrying what looked like an overcoat. As he opened the door, that person suddenly started to walk faster, and the coat they were carrying dropped away to reveal the barrels of what was unmistakably a shotgun. Without hesitation, he turned and ran back into the door they had just used to exit the building.

Mrs Goldman hadn’t raised a hero.

Agata watched him run past and raised her eyebrows. He must have forgotten something. She hadn’t noticed the person with the gun, not until someone appeared at the passenger window, pointing it directly at her face.

Jenny had hoped to confront the woman, make some speech like “Remember me? It’s Jenny Pettifer, you bitch”. But there was no time for theatricals. She pulled the trigger, feeling the end of the gun smack hard against her hip as the barrels lifted on discharge. And the noise, It was so noisy. Acting on instinct, she dropped the shotgun, and turned to walk quickly back to her parked car. The second barrel would not be needed.

At close range, the blast had smashed the window, and taken off a good third of the top of Agata’s head, spraying skull, hair, and brains all over the inside of the convertible’s roof. But Agata still had that dazzling white smile, even in death. At least the shot had missed her teeth.
Trembling with excitement and adrenaline, Jenny was back in the car with the engine running long before both the cops on surveillance had even got out of their car, sure they had heard a gunshot. She selected ‘drive’, and spun the wheel of the car as she accelerated out of the meter bay.

By the time the cops were standing by Mark’s car, shaking their heads at the sight that greeted them, Jenny was approaching a roundabout over one mile away. Caught in traffic, she pulled off the hat, and checked the timer on her phone.

There was still plenty of time to drive to the police station.

The afternoon of the same day

Ten minutes before their allotted time ran out, two police officers unlocked the cells in the corridor, and told Leonora and Tarr to follow them to the front desk. They were to be allowed to leave, after checking their possessions, and signing for them. There was a flap on around the area, and most of the officers on response were heading to a shooting incident. Leo and Tarr said very little as their stuff was handed over to them, then scribbled something illegible on the forms they were given to sign. Outside in the front car park of the police station, Leo lit a cigarette as Tarr used his mobile to call Bulldog to come and pick them up. He pulled a face as he hung up. “The boy’s across town, it’s gonna take him at least ten, twelve minutes to get here”. Leonora shrugged.

Along the street, Jenny sat in the big Mercedes. She was illegally parked, and had the engine running in case she got moved on. She watched as Leo and her boyfriend walked to the edge of the street, and looked up and down casually. Jenny had watched the police cars rushing in the other direction, no doubt heading for the car park of Agata’s agent. Her respectable two-month old luxury car had not attracted the attention of any of them, but she had crouched low in the seat as they drove past at speed, just in case. In the middle of all that had happened, she couldn’t get over just how much petrol this car used, as it was now showing just a quarter of a tank remaining. She hoped that leaving it running didn’t cause it to run out of fuel before she did what she had to do.

Jenny didn’t know that much about cars, and had no idea how big and powerful the car she was driving really was. She also had no idea that it weighed two tons. But she did know that it went very fast, very quickly, and that was all she needed to know.

So many officers had turned up, Commander McDonald started to give them all things to do, before their presence corrupted the crime scene.
A supposedly traumatised Mark Goldman tried to play down his lack of heroism as they took his statement, claiming he had to rush back inside the building to get something he had forgotten. He said that he ran out when he heard the shot, and saw a short man dressed in black, wearing denim jeans. “He was walking away, in the direction of the back street. Not running, just walking fast. But what could I have done?”. He went on to add that the man was wearing a wooly hat, and no, he hadn’t seen nor heard a car.
The Commander was shouting at everyone to touch nothing until scene of crime officers arrived to take photos. She had already convinced herself that it was a contract killing, set up by Leonora, who had the perfect alibi. Locked up in a police cell miles away, at the time of the shooting.

But the cashmere overcoat was confusing her.

As Bulldog turned into the road leading to the police station, he slowed the speed of the Range Rover. No point getting stopped before he picked up his boss, Leonora. He had already made sure to leave his gun with Otto, before coming to pick them up. He wouldn’t put it past the police to pull them over as soon as they drove away. There was nowhere to stop outside the police station, so he looked for a spot opposite, choosing a bus bay next to a busy bus stop. Leo and Tarr would just have to cross the street to jump into the car. Tarr spotted the car as Bulldog slowed down, and raised a hand to wave to him. With no traffic coming, they started to walk across the road as he pulled across the bus stop.

The huge engine of Jenny’s hired Mercedes 450 went from zero to sixty miles an hour in just under four seconds. Neither Tarr nor Leonora heard it coming, and Tarr was already reaching for the door handle of the Range Rover as the huge black car swept over his girlfriend, dragging her along the street without hardly losing any speed. The impact had not even set off the airbag, but Jenny struggled with the steering as the car continued down the street, failing to notice that a bus further ahead was indicating to pull out. She collided with the bus sideways on, ramming what was left of Leo into the engine compartment at the back of the number 301.

That time the airbag did inflate. Many airbags in fact, all around her.

People rushed to see what had happened. Passengers got off the bus to look, and the bus driver climbed out of his seat too. The commotion in the street attracted the attention of the police officer on reception duty in the police station opposite, and he rushed out, calling up on his radio for assistance, and an ambulance. Tarr looked round at Bulldog, his face grim. “Just drive, man. Get us out of here”.

The young policeman pulled open the door of the Mercedes and looked to see if the driver was hurt. It was a woman, with cropped hair, and she looked terrible, though had no visible injuries. As the airbags drooped, he caught her gaze, and noticed she seemed to be smiling. There was an alarm signal going off on the mobile phone on the seat next to her. “Help’s on the way, stay where you are. Are you in pain? Does it hurt anywhere?” Her mouth was moving, but he couldn’t hear what she was saying. He leaned into the car, pressing his ear against her mouth. “Is she dead? Did I get her?”

With that, Jenny vomited over his neck, then passed out.

The investigation concludes

Jenny woke up in the unfamiliar hospital bed in the early hours of the following morning. She had a terrible thirst, and an awful taste in her mouth. There was something over her face, which she soon realised was an oxygen mask, and a tube was connected to a needle in her wrist, leading up to a sagging bag of fluid. She managed to move her head off the pillows, craning her neck around the small room.

The sleepy policewoman sitting on a chair by the door spotted the woman moving and stood up, dropping the crossword book off her lap. She opened the door, and spoke softly to her colleague standing outside. “She’s awake. Can you tell the nurse in charge, and let the Inspector know?” He nodded, shifting the heavy sub-machine gun around his body on its thick strap as he walked down the corridor.

A nurse came in and checked the machines around the bed, as well as the contents of the bag of fluid. Gently lifting the mask from Jenny’s face, she offered her some water through a straw. “Gently now. Just sip it. No gulping”. Refreshed by even that small drink, Jenny spoke to the blue-uniformed young woman. “I need to pee”. The nurse nodded, replaced the mask on Jenny’s face, and walked over to a rack in the corner to pick up a cardboard disposable bedpan.

Two hours later, far to the north, Gemma Fox exchanged idle chatter with her friendly postman, standing next to his red van. Among the usual pile of brown envelopes and charity donation requests he had handed over was a padded post-bag, her name and address handwritten on the front. Alan the postman had drawn her attention to it. “You must have a rich friend, Gemma. That’s got three times the necessary postage on it that has”. Back inside the cluttered farmhouse, Gemma opened the unusual item, and shook the small flash drive out onto the kitchen table. After reading the short note, she took it through to the old dining room once used as the farm’s office, and plugged it into a port on the PC. The dogs were jumping around her feet, expecting their morning walk.

They would have to wait.

Commander McDonald looked around the briefing room at the tired faces of her team. Nobody had been home since the shooting, and the incident with the car that had run over and killed Leonora. They had a name from the driving licence and car hire papers, and fingerprints taken from the unconscious woman had confirmed they could place her at almost every crime scene, except the cafe fire, and Mrs Holloway’s. Added to that was the statement from the officer who had spoken to her in the car. But he hadn’t cautioned her, and nobody had overheard what she said to him. That was likely to be inadmissible in court. Jennifer Ann Pettifer. No record, not so much as a fine. Unmarried, a successful contracts lawyer who had a good reputation. The list previously provided by the school did name her as attending at the same time as all the victims. But there was nothing remarkable about the woman.

Other than the fact that she had managed to commit nine murders, including the guest house owner, and never once become a suspect.

A search of her flat had revealed nothing incriminating, though the search history on her laptop was enough to have charges brought, along with the fingerprints of course. And they had found the first suspect car, covered up in the car park space belonging to her flat. It was going to be wrapped up now, no question about that. Someone had gone to speak to Catherine Harris, waking her up during the night. She didn’t remember any Jenny Pettifer from school, and couldn’t recall anyone else who might have. The police surveillance was removed from Catherine, and she was told she could relax now, with the killer in custody.

Gemma Fox had read the contents of the flash drive twice, before taking her dogs for a long walk. That gave her time to think. She wasn’t about to carry out Jenny’s wishes just yet, that was for certain. There had to be some money in this, lots of it. She should contact the newspapers, perhaps a TV station too. See how much they would offer her for the exclusive rights to the confessions of a serial killer. There had to be a book deal in there as well. She would worry about what the police might say later. Gemma hurried home to research some contact numbers, a broad smile on her face.

Jenny had been counting on her to do exactly that.

The different police forces that had been involved received the information from the National Crime Agency with surprise and confusion. The killer was a whiter-than-white forty-something woman with no record, and no apparent motive. Small wonder they hadn’t made any progress. They had no idea that they were looking for someone like that. As they closed all their outstanding files on the various cases, Commander McDonald’s huge task of preparing the case against Jenny was just starting. But everyone needed some sleep first, including her.

Various doctors came and went, with Jenny drifting in and out of sleep between their visits. The pain relief coming through the drip bag was wonderful, and she felt like she had polished off a whole bottle of vodka. The local breast cancer specialist had examined her, then turned away with a discernible shake of his head. A search on the hospital computer system had discovered her records at a different hospital some distance away, and they had spoken to her consultant surgeon, Mr Abdullah. ” I tried to get her in, to suggest an elective mastectomy for the left breast. But she ignored my letters and messages. Even so, I doubt it would have changed the outcome. It had quite obviously spread into her bones. The lady had declined all treatment, you see”.

Just before six that evening, a refreshed Commander McDonald arrived at the hospital with two colleagues. She wanted to see whether confronted with the fingerprint evidence, Jenny would be prepared to make a confession statement without the presence of a solicitor. The head nurse stopped the three police officers at the desk, and rang the on-call doctor taking the oncology patients. When he arrived, the three plain clothes police officers were standing outside Jenny’s room, speaking to the armed officer on guard. The doctor was busy, and not in the mood to bandy words with stone-faced cops.

“You absolutely cannot interview her. She is on a very strong dose of morphine, and would hardly be responsible for any answers she gave you, or able to understand any caution before questioning. You have to realise that the woman is seriously ill. Terminally ill, do you understand that?” The conversation was loud, voices raised. In her bed, Jenny opened her eyes and moved her head to one side. She could hear every word.

Commander McDonald attempted to reason with the doctor, trying not to look at his mop of unkempt hair, which was distracting her. “Of course I understand, doctor. But I have a case to prepare, and it will take weeks to get all the charges sorted. I need to make a start now. If she confesses, it will save countless hours of police work. Surely you realise that?” The doctor started to chuckle. “Weeks? She has two days, three at the most. Forget your weeks, that woman is never going to stand trial. She will be dead by the weekend”.

Behind the oxygen mask, Jenny started to chuckle too.

The End.

Moving Day: The Complete Story

This is the whole of my recent twenty-five part fiction serial, in one post. It is a long read, at 29,445 words.

I do this for the benefit of those readers who prefer to read everything at once, and others who like to go back and see something they might have missed during twenty-five days of reading.

It was the first time they had moved, as far as Becky was concerned anyway. Mum said that they needed to live in a smaller house, as Dad couldn’t afford to keep paying for the big one, now he had that new family. Becky didn’t really care, as she had never liked her room that much, and the house just had bad memories for her, with all the arguments. And it wasn’t such a wrench to change schools, as she would have been going to a new one anyway, after her eleventh birthday at the start of the summer.

She kept out of the way as the men removed all the boxes, and some of the furniture. Dad was keeping some of it, Mum had told her, and he would be picking it up later. She had seen photos of the new house. It was quite small, and very old. Mum said it was part of an old watermill, converted into one two-bedroom house, and some flats. Mum had been so excited that the big wheel of the old mill was still attached, though of course it didn’t work anymore.

By the time they were ready to leave, it was getting late. They stopped halfway, to have dinner at a McDonald’s. Becky wasn’t usually allowed what Mum called ‘junk food’, but this was an exception, as it would be too late to cook before bedtime. When they got to the house, it wasn’t quite dark. The men had put all their stuff in the rooms, reading all the details Mum had written on the boxes in marker pen. Then they had put the spare key back through the letterbox. Mum got busy with making the beds, and she told Becky to have a look around.

The courtyard where residents parked their cars was the only outside space, and she thought she might miss her garden. But the riverbank alongside the house stretched a long way into the distance, and a lovely weeping willow draped its branches close to the small, fast-flowing stream. Becky thought she was going to like it here, and she had two days to explore, before school started. When she went back in, Mum had made the beds, and was already on the computer. She worked from home, so had arranged for the Internet connection well before they moved. She looked up as Becky appeared. “Clean your teeth and get ready for bed, Becks. I will be up in a minute”.

Her room was one floor above Mum’s, and reached by a closed-in staircase that felt very steep to walk up. It was in what had once been the attic, she guessed, and had a huge dormer window on one side, overlooking the stream. Most of her stuff was still stacked in boxes, but she got her nightdress out of an overnight bag, and her i-pad too. When Mum came up, she asked for the wi-fi password, and connected her pad. Mum smiled. “Not too long on that now, love. I know there’s no school tomorrow, but it’s been a long day”. She kissed her daughter on the cheek, and headed back down to catch up on her work.

Despite being so far up in the house, the connection was good. Becky was soon logged on to Facebook, and also looking up some facts about the area that she lived in now. She changed her status to show she had moved, but nobody commented. Her few friends were too far away now, so she supposed they would soon forget her. But Dad sent her a message, hoping she would like living in such an unusual new house. He was supposed to have had her that weekend, but it had all got changed because of the move. Now he said he couldn’t take her until the end of the month, as the distance made things more difficult.

It was strangely quiet in the room. Mum had told her that two of the flats were still for sale, and the third was only being used as a weekend place. So there were no neighbours to disturb them yet. Mum had been right about the long day, and Becky was feeling tired much sooner than she had expected. But in the unfamiliar room, she left the small bedside lamp on as she snuggled down in bed, just for reassurance.

As she was drifting off to sleep, it was the smell she noticed first. Like clothes that are damp, and haven’t dried properly. Or maybe a wet dog, when it has been in some water. Her uncle’s dog Biffo used to smell like that, when they went to visit him. Biffo was always in the nearby lake, and never dried off properly.

The sudden sound of someone talking to her would usually have frightened the wits out of her, but for some reason it didn’t.

“Can I see your picture?” It was a girl’s voice, at normal volume. Becky opened her eyes and saw a girl kneeling by the bed, her hand outstretched close to the i-pad.
“It’s not a picture, it’s an i-pad”, she replied. The girl was dressed strangely, with a shabby cotton dress, and a white cap on her head. Her skin was very pale, and there were some wisps of blonde hair visible under the cap. “Can I see it anyway”, she asked again. Becky picked it up, and handed it to the girl. She noticed her teeth were uneven, and some of them looked black too. The damp clothes smell was coming from her, and got stronger as the girl leaned forward.

“Is it a mirror?” Becky grinned. She must be teasing her, everyone knew what an i-pad was.
The girl put it back on the bed. “What’s your name? Mine is Charity Oliphant, and I am ten”.
“I’m Becky, well Rebecca really. Rebecca Webster. And I am eleven. Do you live here?”
“Of course I do, I live at Wright’s mill”. That was the right address, Becky knew that. Their house number was number one, Wright’s Mill. The i-pad suddenly started to slip off the bed, and Becky lurched forward to catch it.

When she looked up again, the girl was gone.

Eating a bowl of muesli the next morning, Becky was pondering on whether to say anything to her Mum. She decided to approach the conversation in a roundabout way.
“Mum, is it right that nobody else is living here yet?” Mum didn’t even look up from her i-pad.
“I told you, we are alone here. At least until the flats are sold, or someone comes to use the weekend place”. Becky acted surprised.
“Oh, it’s just that I saw a girl last night, and she said she lives here”. Mum put the pad down. “Where did you see her then?”
“She was in my room when I went to bed. I think there must be a connecting door or something. She said her name was Charity”. Mum’s reaction was a grin.
“Oh really? In your room? I think you must have had a vivid dream, love. That’s understandable, in a strange new house. At least it was a nice dream”.

Becky decided not to argue about it. “I think I will get dressed and have a look along the riverbank while you’re working”. Mum nodded, engrossed in what she was reading. “That’s OK, but be careful of the river. I know you’re a good swimmer, but that water flows fast. And don’t go too far from the house”.

The water was flowing fast. Becky threw a small stick into it, and watched as it was whipped away across the bubbling surface. It would have been nice to have got a dog, but Mum had said no to that. “You will be at school all day, love, and I have to work. I simply can’t cope with a puppy at the moment”. She was still imagining a small dog running at her side when she got to the weeping willow.

Charity was sitting underneath the overhanging canopy of branches, her back against the trunk, and her legs stretched out. She had nothing on her feet, and they were filthy too. Worse than just dirty, literally black with ingrained dirt. She smiled as Becky appeared. “This is my tree, this is. It tells me things, this tree does”. Becky knelt down near her, not too close, to avoid the smell coming from the girl. “What does it tell you, Charity?” The girl reached an arm around the trunk, stroking it with stubby fingers. “Anything I need to know, Rebecca”.

Ignoring the comment about the tree, Becky decided to ask her something. “You said you lived here, but me and my Mum are the only people here at the moment. So where do you live?” Charity smiled, showing those black teeth. She pointed to the buildings behind. “There, I live there. Wright’s Mill. So you are not the only ones”. Becky’s eyebrows raised, but she decided that now wasn’t the time to start falling out with the only other child around. “Oh, alright then. I suppose my Mum must have got it wrong”. The girl’s face looked serious as she replied. “Yes she has. She gets lots of things wrong. The tree tells me what she gets wrong. It will tell you, if you ask it properly”.

Standing up, Becky carried on walking. She thought the conversation was getting silly now, and Charity was being rude. “I’m going for a walk. See you later, Charity”. She marched off without waiting for a reply. When she looked back moments later to see if the girl was following her, there was no sign of her under the tree.

Mum drove them into the village to eat that night. She had booked a table at the only restaurant there. It was in a nice big conservatory, attached to the local pub. The waitress was an elderly lady, dressed all in black, with a white apron around her waist. They were the only diners in there, at six-thirty. Some local people were already sitting drinking in the bar area, and they all seemed to be glancing at them, interested in the newcomers. As the waitress wrote down their order, Mum tried to appear friendly. “We have just moved in to the old mill. You know, Wright’s Mill. I wanted to try this restaurant tonight, it’s good to get to know the local area”. The older woman just grinned. “I will bring your drinks, madam”. Mum ignored her rudeness, and smiled at Becky, shrugging her shoulders. “Looks like it is not so easy to get accepted round here, Becks. Oh well, give it time.”

The food was very good, and cheap too, so Mum said. When the waitress brought the bill, Mum tried again. “We are the only ones that have moved into the mill so far. I am looking forward to meeting the others, once the rest of the flats have been sold. Do you know anyone who is moving there?” The woman checked the cash that Mum had given her, and replied without meeting her gaze. “Nobody from here will ever buy a flat at Wright’s Mill. Only outsiders like you would want to live there”. Before Mum could ask what she meant, the waitress turned, and quickly disappeared through a door marked ‘Staff Only’.

Back at the house, Mum was on the computer again as soon as she sat down. Becky put the TV on, and watched an episode of a teen soap opera. When it finished, Mum reminded her that she had to sort out her new school uniform for Monday. “We will have to be up and about early, Becks. It’s a forty minute drive into town to get to the school. Remember?” Becky nodded, but she hardly remembered their visit to the school. A sixties built low-level group of buildings, spread around a large sports field in the centre. The uniform was dark green, with a yellow badge and a green and yellow striped tie. “The colour suits you, love.” Mum had said.

When she got upstairs to look though the new uniform items, Becky could smell that distinctive odour.

Charity was sitting on her bed.

Charity didn’t look very friendly. “You told your Mum about me. You shouldn’t have done that, Rebecca. She won’t believe you, and if you carry on, then she will have you locked away. You should be more careful”. The girl’s expression made Becky feel uneasy, but she wasn’t about to let this scruffy kid scare her. “She said you were a dream. Maybe you are, for all know. I could be imagining you”. Charity picked up the green and yellow tie, from where it was draped over the headboard. She wrapped it around her hand, then with a deep chuckle, threw it across at Becky. “Can a dream do that? Tell me if a dream can do that?”

Going on the offensive, Becky raised her voice. Perhaps Mum would hear, then she would come up and see for herself “So what do you want? How do you get into my room? Charity was unfazed. “What do I want? I want nothing. You have come to live in my house, and sleep in my room. I want nothing from you, just to help you. You should know the secrets of the tree, and what wisdom it can bring you. You will find life hard in this village, believe me”. Becky turned and left the room, hoping to get Mum to come up and see the girl, so she would know it wasn’t her imagination. As she ran downstairs, she could hear that she was on the phone. “Yes, it’s Cathy Webster. I have just sent you the revised designs, and I am waiting to hear back from you before proceeding with the cost estimates”.

Mum was sitting at the tiny desk set up under the front window, her big PC screen lit up with an intricate architectural design. Charity was standing next to her, smiling. She pointed at the screen. “Your Mum is drawing on glass with her finger. She’s either very clever, or a witch. And she’s talking to herself too, that’s a sign of possession”. Watching from the foot of the stairs, it was clear to Becky that Mum had no idea that Charity was standing right next to her. And she obviously couldn’t smell the strange musty odour that pervaded the small living room. Speaking in a low whisper, she beckoned the girl over. “Leave my Mum alone. Let’s go back upstairs, Charity”. Becky tried to make her tone chatty and friendly, covering up the fear that her voice was beginning to betray. She turned and started up the stairs, but Charity didn’t follow her. When she looked back to see where she was, the girl had gone.

Although she was only eleven, Becky was a bright girl, and not usually scared of anything. There was no point upsetting Mum by discussing what was going on, so she resolved to try to investigate the mystery herself. She got onto her i-pad and looked up Wrights Mill. There was a lot of stuff about the renovation, and estate agent sites offering the flats for sale. Ignoring all that she kept going until she found a local history website. It hadn’t been active since 1986, and information about the mill was sparse. But even those few lines started to give her a taste of what she might be able to find out.

‘The mill was first recorded in the parish in 1590, with the miller named as one Josiah Oliphant. It is believed to have passed to his son, Thomas Oliphant, and Civil War records show it as a source of flour for the Parliamentary Army, in 1646. The last record of the mill in use is mentioned in 1664, with the miller named as Christian Oliphant. The building fell into disrepair after that, and the ownership was the subject of some legal disputes between members of the Wright family, in the 1770s.’

That was about it, except for some sketches and watercolours of the uninhabited mill done by some famous local artist, in 1895. Becky took out a new notebook, and wrote down the names and dates. She had a whole day free tomorrow, and she already had some ideas. After that, she got a full uniform ready for Monday, and hung it in the wardrobe. Then she put some notebooks and pens into her school bag, placing that by the bed. If Mum checked, she had done as she was asked.

After breakfast the next day, Becky walked around the far side of the building, and headed along the riverbank in the other direction, away from the weeping willow. In places, it was too overgrown, and she had to walk along the country lane for a while. She eventually reached the village after fifteen minutes, and headed past the pub where they had eaten dinner, in the direction of the church spire in the distance. She had looked up St Margaret’s and was pleased to find out that it had been rebuilt in the 1400s, so was suitably old enough for her purpose. Being a Sunday morning, some worshipers were already heading inside for the service. But what she wanted wasn’t inside. The graveyard was on three sides of the church grounds. Judging by a small mound of fresh earth with a bunch of flowers propped up on it, it was still in use. She took out her notebook, and began to search around the oldest looking gravestones, close to the back, and against the fence.

Although they were badly weathered, and the names faded, her young eyes were good. She found the grave of Josiah Oliphant easily, and noted down the names under his. Jane Oliphant, shown as his spouse, then Timothy Oliphant, and Matilda Oliphant. From the dates, it was clear that the last two had died as children. She could find no trace of Thomas, but in a different part of the cemetery, she did find the grave of Christian. Under his name was listed Mercy Oliphant as his spouse, and the names of three children. Faith Oliphant, Percy Oliphant, and Jeremiah Oliphant.

But after inspecting every other headstone there, she could find no trace of any grave containing Charity.

As planned, Becky had left the churchyard before the people came out of the service. She didn’t want to be seen lurking around the old graves, and headed home without lingering in the village.

Mum was on the phone. She was arguing about a contract or something, and using her free hand to drag her hair up, as it it had been electrified. Never a good sign. Avoiding the possibility of being accused of doing something wrong, she hurried up into her room, and started to look through her notes.

It was fairly obvious that her best chance of connecting Charity to one of the deceased Oliphants was through Thomas. He was the only one without a grave, well at least a headstone. She felt sure that if he had been buried there, then the marker would have stayed put. After all, the earlier and later ones were still there. It was only a guess of course, but it seemed to her that the children of Christian might all have died. So she had to go with her instinct, that Charity was a child of Thomas, who had owned the mill during the English Civil War. The next time Charity showed up, she would try to get her to tell her more about herself.

By the time Becky started to feel really hungry, Mum had calmed down. Two large glasses of white wine had helped her mood, and she was humming a song as she cooked spaghetti bolognese for the evening meal. Becky joined in the chorus, and they both fell about laughing when they couldn’t hit the high note. Over dinner, Mum chatted about the new school the next day. How she thought her daughter should do really well, she was so bright, and so on. Becky nodded at the right moments, happy that no more had been said about her ‘dream’. One good thing about Mum always being so preoccupied with work, she had a short memory when it came to such things.

Forced to go to bed early, and with no i-pad, Becky had trouble getting off to sleep. In her mind, she tried to picture the Oliphant family over the years, recalling the appearance of seventeenth century people she had seen in school books, and on TV dramas or films. When Mum was in her room early the next morning, she felt as if she had only just dropped off moments earlier. The journey to the new school was going to be too much for Mum, they already knew that. Forty minutes each way in the morning, then again in the afternoon to pick her up. That was not only going to mean a lot of petrol, but also take a big chunk out of Mum’s day. Then once winter arrived, she presumed the country roads would be bad too. There was a bus that picked up the local kids, but only from the village. Mum had already mentioned that she intended Becky should get that bus, once she was settled in at the school. She would have to walk to the village along the riverbank.

Being the new intake at a big school was never much fun. It was even worse when you didn’t know anyone else. Becky saw the other girls and boys walking in in groups, some chatting and laughing, others messing around. Most of them had gone to the same junior school, and already knew each other. It soon dawned on her that she was the only stranger. The older girls laughed at her in the pristine uniform. Their skirts were too short, their ties undone, and they were wearing make-up, and carrying mobile phones openly. She kept her head down, and followed a sign that read ‘First Years go to the Assembly Hall’. The big arrow underneath showed her the way.

A group of teachers stood on the stage, and a fat woman shouted for everyone to be quiet. A scruffy young man stood up, and read out a list of names, including Becky’s. He had told everyone whose name was read out to stand up, and when around twenty five boys and girls were on their feet, he called out “I am Mr Duncan, and you are all in my class. You are now in 1D. Follow the corridor to room seventeen, and wait for me outside. And quietly please”. He arrived a few minutes later, and unlocked the door. Groups of children who knew each other rushed inside to choose the best seats. The ones next to the windows, or right at the back. But before they could get comfortable, Mr Duncan came in, holding a sheet of paper. “Right, listen for your names, then sit where I tell you. They will be your seats every morning for registration, and you are also to sit in those same seats in every subject class. is that clear?” Nobody answered. “This is so that all the teachers will know your names, from where you are sitting. So I don’t want to hear any moans or complaints. Is that clear?” Again, nobody answered.

When Becky’s name was called, she was shown to a seat one row back from the front, in the middle. The next name called out was Drew Tyler, and he was told to sit next to her. There was some sniggering from the back, and a low whistle. Mr Duncan banged the desk with the flat of his hand, and shouted. “Enough!” We have a lot to get through today, so no fooling around. I tell you now, I won’t stand for it”. The boy Drew was taller than most his age, and had his hair cut so short, he looked bald. He had a long neck, and it was red around where his shirt collar was rubbing. He slumped down next to Becky without turning to look at her. Her heart sank at the thought of having to sit next to this boy in every class for the next school year.

The rest of the day was a blur. Timetables, being shown around the school buildings, an endless list of rules and regulations. A mock fire drill, health and safety around the school premises, and a presentation on school trips, both in England, and abroad. Mum had given her money to buy lunch, so she got a wrap and a drink, then sat outside on her own, away from the others. By the time the bell rang for the end of the day, she was really pleased to see her Mum’s car close to the gate. Becky ran up to the car smiling, and opened the passenger door as the car started up. Turning to fling her school bag into the back, she froze.

Charity was sitting on the back seat, smiling.

Twisting round, Becky sat down in the front passenger seat, and wedged the school bag between her legs. Mum pulled the car out into the traffic stream, and said “Seat belt!” in a loud voice. The smell inside the car was overwhelming. In fact every time Charity appeared, it seemed to get worse. Becky was amazed that her Mum couldn’t smell it, or see the girl smirking behind her. It was going to be an awful journey home, suffering that stench, and not being able to let on that she could see something.

“That Drew Tyler is going to give you trouble, Rebecca. You mark my words”. Her local accent was all Becky had heard all day, even from the teachers. Her own lack of any regional accent was something else that marked her out as different from the others. Dad used to say that country accents like that made intelligent people sound stupid, and him and Mum had worked hard to make sure she had never picked up the one where they used to live. Charity had the same accent as all those kids at school, but she spoke with some care, not using any abbreviated words. She would dearly have loved to ask the girl about her family, and why Drew Tyler was going to give her trouble. But Mum would think she was talking to her.

“The tree has told me all about him and his family. If you want, it can tell you too, and you will be ready once the trouble starts”. Her tone was serious, almost caring. She seemed to be genuinely concerned. Mum suddenly indicated left, and drove into the car park of a supermarket. “I can get most of what we need here. Might as well pick up all the shopping while we are driving past. Have you got any homework?” Becky shook her head. “Not today, it was all about getting to know the school and stuff”. Mum slotted the car into a space near the shop marked ‘Disabled’. She was unlikely to abandon her old city habits, just yet. Becky was hoping she could stay in the car and talk to Charity, but that wasn’t going to happen. “Come on, Becks. You can wheel my trolley. Put your bag in the boot”. She flicked a lever that opened the hatch at the back.

By the time Becky had got behind the car to drop off her bag, Charity had gone.

After dinner, Mum had a Skype call, so Becky went up to her room, and got busy on her tablet. She was searching Parish Records, something she had once seen on a TV detective show. But it wasn’t so easy. Some sites required payment, and her tablet had a parental lock, to stop her spending any money from her small savings account. And she didn’t have access to a credit card anyway. A lot of the pages didn’t scan well on the i-pad either, and she was thinking she might have to ask to use Mum’s PC, say it was a school project. Trouble was, she was always on it herself.

She tried the websites of some local newspapers. They were all defunct now, but some old articles were still online. However, she couldn’t get back any further than some flooding in 1953, which was apparently a big deal in that area then. One blog she read suggested trying Church Records, and mentioned using the local library too. But the nearest library was in the town, right on the other side from the school. Feeling frustrated, she got her clean shirt and underwear ready for the next day, and had an early night.

The second day at school wasn’t going to be as easy as the first. It started with a double maths lesson, and the teacher was the fat woman who had shouted from the stage. Her name was Mrs Waring, and like Mr Duncan, she was far from friendly. Although she wasn’t that old, she acted like she was, and her appearance fascinated Becky. Her boobs were so huge, they seemed to stretch from her chin to her thighs. It was incredible that her short tree-trunk legs could keep her upright, with that weight threatening to pull her forward. And it didn’t help that she was wearing a polo-neck dress that was so tight, it clung to every lump and bump. She came around each desk handing out some test papers, and Becky noticed that she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. “Right, I want to see what level you are at. You have thirty minutes to complete the questions, starting now”.

Next to her, Drew Tyler blew out his cheeks, and shook his head. Then he stretched out his long legs under the desk, and started to tap his ballpoint pen against the paper. Becky turned over her sheet, and quickly looked at all the problems. She couldn’t believe how easy they were. She could have done all of those a couple of years ago. The rest of the class didn’t seem to agree. There were moans and groans, and a girl at the back called out. “Please Miss, these are too hard. I can’t do any of them”. The school operated a policy of ‘mixed ability’, and it was obvious to Becky that she was definitely going to be held back in such a system. Mrs Waring answered the girl. “You put your hand up to ask permission to speak, not just shout. And I want you to try your best, just do the ones you can”. Under her breath, the girl muttered “Can’t do any then”, but left it at that.

Becky finished her paper in less than ten minutes, then glanced to her left at Drew’s efforts. The first five answers were wrong, and he hadn’t even attempted the next five. He was just sitting grinning, tapping the pen against his front teeth. Becky could see that his neck was still red, and the shirt collar had a grey ring around the top, suggesting he was wearing the same shirt as he had on yesterday. Mrs Waring noticed the girl sitting with her arms folded, looking around. She studied the sheet of paper with the names on, and suddenly called out. “Rebecca Webster, have you finished already?” Becky sat up straight. “Yes miss, I have”. Holding out a hand, the teacher flapped the pudgy fingers into her palm. “Bring it here then”. Standing awkwardly by the desk, she watched as the woman looked at her answers. Sounding almost disappointed, she couldn’t manage a smile. “Ten out of ten young lady. All correct. Sit down”.

As she turned to sit back at the desk, every eye in the room was on her, and Drew was shaking his head as he stared angrily at her.

Perhaps it had been a bad idea to get them all right.

As she hurried to sit back down, Becky failed to notice that Drew had pulled her chair away. That left her sitting back into an empty space, causing her to tip backward, and land heavily on her back. Her legs flew up in the air, and her skirt flapped up around her waist. The whole class roared with laughter at the sight, and the girl who couldn’t do the sums roared “Look at her cute little knickers!” Becky struggled back to her feet and grabbed the chair back from Drew. She was cursing herself for wearing some old knickers with a pattern of small teddy bears. Mrs Waring looked over, shaking her head. “Stop messing around, Rebecca Webster. And the rest of you can shut up too”.

After the morning break, the class had History, with Miss Franzetti. She was very nice, a slim young woman with shiny black hair, and an amazing mouth. She explained that they would be studying the Industrial Revolution; how machines, steam power, and new inventions changed the industrial face of Britain. Becky liked the sound of that, and it gave her an idea too. Then Drew put his hand up. Miss Franzetti looked at the sheet of names. “Drew Tyler, you have a question?” She was smiling, and sounded friendly. Drew grinned. “Can’t we do the Nazis, miss? They were cool”. The teacher didn’t rise to it. “No, I’m afraid Nazis are not in the syllabus this year, Drew. Perhaps in third year, but I make no promises”.

The lesson went well. Miss Franzetti was not bothered by the occasional giggling and obvious lack of attention from some pupils. She got on with the subject, and was quick to answer any questions, explaining things such as how Cotton Mills did away with the need for spinning by hand. As they got to the end of the lesson, she stood up from her desk. “There’s no homework this week, to allow you all to settle in. Does anyone have any questions before you go to lunch?”

Becky’s hand was up before she had time to consider her actions. “Miss, I live in an old watermill. It’s obviously very historical, and I wondered if I can use a school computer to research it. It would be a personal project, and would not affect my other work”. As the teacher thought about her request, a girl called Jessie sitting right at the back muttered. “Ooh, I have a project. Ooh, I live in a watermill. Ooh, I’m so posh. Ooh, and I wear teddy bear panties…”. Everyone else roared with laughter, and Becky sat red-faced, wishing she had kept her mouth shut.

Lunch was eaten alone again, ignoring the jibes about teddy bear panties made by everyone who walked past. Becky was learning when to be quiet.

The afternoon started with science, and they had to go to the big laboratory, in building three. Mr Houghton was a serious-looking young man, and he insisted that they all put on some uncomfortable rubber aprons and plastic safety glasses before he even started the lesson. Becky didn’t care that much for science, but like most things, she found it fairly easy to do. The recent experiences in the school had made her think hard though. She would act dumb for a while, especially in subjects she didn’t care much about.

Mr Houghton made a big speech about dangerous chemicals, before allocating everyone to places around the benches in the laboratory. He stuck pretty much to the arranged seating plan, having to make it more of a standing plan of course. That also meant she was paired with Drew, for the experiment. They had to do something with funnel-shaped jars, adding an acid of some kind to the clear chemical inside, to see if it turned blue. Then the teacher would tell them why that happened, and they would have to write is all down as a record of the experiment. Becky was almost tempted to join in with the groans and head-shaking done by the rest of the class. She really couldn’t see the point of any of this, unless you were set on a career in some boring test lab in the future. Mr Houghton was talking loudly, to make himself heard above the mumbling of the schoolkids. “Be careful with the smallest jar now. That’s acid, and can burn you at that concentration. It should only be handled with the gloves provided”.

Drew slid the big rubbery gloves over to Becky. “You do it, I can’t be arsed with this crap”. He held the larger funnel jar steady, as Becky dripped some of the acid into it. Shaking his head and smirking, Drew shouted. “Oh what a surprise, it’s turned blue! Who would have thought that?” The others laughed, and even Becky had to admit she found it amusing. When every pair had finished, the teacher called out again. “OK class, stand away from the benches, and watch the screen. This will show you what just happened and why it happened”. He turned to switch on the powerpoint projector, and Becky suddenly felt a pain on her foot. Jumping to the side, she saw that the small acid bottle had been tipped over on the bench, and some had run down onto her instep. It had already burned a hole in her tights, and was starting to really hurt her foot. She turned to look at Drew, who was smiling. He spoke very quietly. “Oops”.

At least it got her out of the lesson. She was sent to see Miss Franzetti, who it turned out was also the first aid expert. She took her to the toilets, and made Becky take off her tights, and run her foot under cold water for a long time. When it had stopped hurting, the teacher put a clean adhesive dressing on it, covering the red mark. “It’s not going to scar, don’t worry. I will give you some of the dressings so you can change it, but that acid isn’t as bad as Mr Houghton says it is. I will ring your Mum, and get her to pick you up early. You won’t miss much today now”. Becky smiled at her. “But it burned through my tights miss”. Miss Franzetti just nodded, as if it was nothing at all. “Come with me to the office, and we can call your Mum”.

Mum made a big deal about it when she turned up, and Becky had to plead with her not to go into the school and make an official complaint. Back at home, Mum soon forgot about it, when someone called her from Scotland, asking about a hunting lodge she was designing. Becky decided to go for a walk, and see if she could find Charity. She had a good idea where to look for the girl.

Under the weeping willow, Charity was sitting with her back to the trunk. She pointed at the injured foot as Becky walked up to her. “I warned you about that Drew, I warned you, didn’t I?”

Becky nodded.

“Show me how the tree tells you things. I want to know all about Drew Tyler”.

Charity smiled at what Becky had said. She shuffled over to her left, creating a space next to her against the tree trunk. “Come sit by me, Rebecca, and I will teach you how to ask the tree. Your thoughts must be open to it, mind”. In the open air, the girl didn’t smell quite so bad, and Becky crawled into the space under the low-hanging branches. Once inside that canopy, she immediately felt cold, though it was a pleasant enough afternoon. The small hairs on Becky’s arm stood up, and a chill ran over her as she placed her back against the trunk. Charity began her instructions. “Now stretch out your arm, and place your hand on the side of the tree. Push it hard, so you can feel the ridges of the bark on your palm”.

As Becky did as she was told, a strange feeling came over her, and she looked round at Charity, her eyes wide with apprehension. The girl chuckled, showing those black teeth, and expelling unbelievably foul breath. “I knew it! I knew you would commune. Now ask what you will of the tree, just as you want”. Despite the strange atmosphere, and the presence of a child who was undoubtedly a ghost that only she could see, Becky felt more than a little silly. Was she really about to ask a tree to divulge secrets? Everything she knew and believed in so far in her short life told her it was ridiculous.
But she did it anyway.

“Tell me about Drew Tyler, and all his secrets”. She spoke in a formal tone, with appropriate solemnity, just like they did in the few horror films she had ever managed to watch.

Then nothing happened.

She was just about to turn to Charity and tell her it was all nonsense, when an overwhelming force seemed to pin her body back against the tree, and her hand felt as if it had become part of the ancient trunk. Charity was giggling now, obviously delighted. Images rushed into Becky’s mind, clearing away every thought, and opening a window onto something she was unfamiliar with.

Drew Tyler was in his house. She instinctively knew it was his house, and she appeared to be seeing it through his eyes. It was untidy, almost unkempt. Washing in piles placed on chairs, a carpet that had not been cleaned in years, and an obese woman lying on a stained sofa, eating sweets from a plastic bowl. The scene changed to another downstairs room, once a dining room, now used as a bedroom. Under the window was a bed like those used in hospitals, and in that bed was a girl, aged perhaps eighteen. Becky knew that it was Drew’s sister, and there was something badly wrong with her. The girl in that bed seemed to have little idea of her surroundings. Although fully grown, with the apperance of a young woman, her head rolled constantly from side to side, and the sounds coming from her mouth made no sense.

Through Drew’s eyes, Becky approached the bed. The girl was twitching, and her eyes seemed to see nothing. Then he was hitting her. Slaps at first, accompanied by low chuckles from him. He slapped her through the bedding, before hitting her legs hard with his fists, and the chuckles became laughter, suppressed laughter. The bedding was pulled away, revealing the girl dressed only in something resembling a baby’s nappy. He began to stroke her body, still laughing. Then there was more, things Becky could hardly believe, or understand. But at eleven years old, she knew enough to know that it was horrible, and she pulled her hand away from the tree with a violent jerk.

Becky was shivering from the cold under the tree, and the strange experience left her leaning forward, vomiting uncontrollably. Charity looked content. “I told you, didn’t I tell you?” Becky spat bile, and sucked in her breath. “But how did you know, Charity?”. The girl spoke softly, kinder in tone. “Rebecca, the tree tells me everything, and it always has done. All I ever wanted was for you to know the truth, and to be free of Drew and his botherings. And so you can. You know what to do now”.

Becky crawled out from under the canopy of branches, relishing the return to the warmth of that nice evening. When she turned back to look, Charity was gone.

Back home, Becky drunk a whole bottle of mineral water. Her Mum seemed worried. “Are you alright, Becks? You look very pale, darling. What do you want for dinner tonight, love?” With those images still fixed in her mind, there was no chance she would even consider eating. “I did feel a bit sick earlier, Mum. Perhaps it was the shock of that acid burn. I might just have a hot chocolate, and some biscuits. Will that be OK?” Cathy was worried about her daughter. “Of course, Becks, you have whatever you want. You know you can talk to me about anything, don’t you?” Mum’s concern lasted about ten seconds, until the phone rang again. It was about the Scottish hunting lodge once more.

Up in her bedroom and finally settled, Becky thought about what had happened at the tree. Everything she had ever known told her it was a fantasy, an illusion. But what she felt inside could not be denied, no matter how hard she tried. So she typed out something on a word document on her rarely used old laptop, and hit ‘Print’ for wireless printing. Luckily, she got back downstairs in time to grab the paper, before her Mum saw it. “Just something for school, Mum. I am having an early night. Good night, love you.” Mum replied with little more than a grunt.

She was busy.

Back upstairs, Becky checked what she had printed.

She folded the piece of A4 paper, and placed it in her school bag.

Tomorrow, she would make sure Drew saw it.

Becky was quiet in the car as Mum drove her into town. She was still wondering what to do about the note she had written to Drew, to warn him off. There was no guarantee it would stop him hurting his sister, and it might well backfire on her if he made a big deal about it. After all, what proof did she have? She could hardly tell anyone that a willow tree had given her the information. As Charity had said, that sort of thing might well get her locked up in a hospital. Maybe she would wait, ask the tree again. And who was to say the tree was showing her the truth?

With all this on her mind, she got out at the school and walked off without even saying goodbye to her Mum. Then as soon as she got into class, she realised that it had made her forget something else. They were supposed to be doing Gym class that morning, and she had forgotten to pack her sports kit last night. Mr Duncan said she would have to explain herself to Miss Addington, the gym teacher. The boys were already in the changing rooms, apparently. They would be playing football on the centre field. Miss Addington was having none of it. “I don’t care if you forgot your gear, young lady. You can use some of the donated stuff in the box in the changing room, and I will get you a towel when you have had your shower. Hurry up, I’m going to start without you”. Becky didn’t like the look of anything in the box. But she found some shorts and a top that fitted her, and went back in. She had declined to put any of the old gym shoes on her feet though, so was barefoot.

The rest of the girls were running around in circles, with the teacher blowing on a whistle when they were supposed to speed up, or slow down. Becky tagged on the end of the line, and decided to just do the minimum. Then there was a game where they had to stand in lines. The girl at the front had a ball, and she had to run to the back, and pass the ball over the girls in the line until it got to the front again. This was to carry on until the teacher declared that one line or another had won. But when Becky got to the front with the ball and turned to run back, all the others stamped on her bare feet as she passed them. So that was how it was going to be, Becky thought. No point complaining, she would deal with it later, if it carried on.

Back in class before lunch, everyone laughed as she walked in. Drew had drawn a stupid-looking pair of panties with a teddy bear on them, and sellotaped it to her desk. Mr Duncan didn’t seem to notice. Becky sat down without any indication that she cared about it. But it had made her up her mind. She took the sheet of paper out of her bag, and passed it to Drew. “This is for you”.

He smirked as he opened it, and then his jaw dropped. The colour drained from his face and even his usually inflamed red neck turned white. Without a word to the teacher, he stood up, scraping his chair back. Crumpling the paper into a ball in his hand, he walked straight out of the classroom, not even bothering to take his school bag and sports kit.

That lunchtime, Becky was already feeling better, as she ate a roll and some crisps, alone as usual. When they went into French for the first period of the afternoon, the seat next to her was empty, and nobody knew where Drew was.

She smiled to herself. The tree had been right.

There was something liberating about having no friends at school. She didn’t have to listen to anyone drone on about who was the best looking one in the latest boy band, or which character made them swoon in Game of Thrones. No need to discuss make up, or arrange to meet at some shopping centre on Saturday to look at clothes that none of them could afford. No pressure to go to a burger bar after school to sit with one milk shake and three straws while they pretended to flirt with the older boys, secretly terrified that one of them might actually come over and speak to them. As she waited for her mum to turn up after school that day, she concluded that being a loner suited her very nicely. She was going to work on developing that.

Mum was forty minutes late, and in a shitty mood. Her hair was all over the place, and she was driving the car wearing flip-flops. As soon as Becky’s behind touched the seat, she started raving. “This is not working for me, not working at all. I simply have to get you on that bus, and as soon as, Becks. I cannot be dealing with this crappy journey four times a day. I tell you, I can’t. I had to literally hang up on a very important client who was discussing a really big job. That’s just not acceptable, not professional. I mean, my job pays for everything. Your Dad’s useless with money, and now he’s pissing away what he has got on his precious new family, and not bothering to send what he promised to contribute for you. Oh, and by the way, he’s not taking you as promised. Seems his stupid baby has got a fever, something contagious, and he’s using that as an excuse to get out of taking you for his weekend”. When she paused for breath, Becky said nothing. Then she started again.

“I’m sorry, Becks, but I mean it. he really is useless. Do you think he cares about you anymore? Well I can tell you he doesn’t. He hasn’t even phoned to ask you how you are getting on at school, just sent a text cancelling the weekend. I mean, what sort of father is that? I can tell you now, he wasn’t much of a husband to start with, let alone a good Dad”. She shut up after that, and they drove the next thirty minutes in silence. Becky sensed an edge to her Mum that day, and she didn’t really believe it was about having to reschedule a business call. When they got home, Mum was straight back on her computer, checking emails, so Becky got out of her school uniform and decided to go for a walk.

Charity wasn’t sitting under the tree that afternoon. But when Becky crawled under the overhanging branches and placed her back against the trunk, she could smell the stale odour that indicated the girl had been there earlier. She extended her arm until her hand felt the rough bark. Closing her eyes, she spoke out loud.

“Tell me about Cathy Webster, and all her secrets”.

The feeling was slightly different this time. By asking about her Mum, Becky had expected to see something through her eyes, just like what had happened with Drew. But it didn’t feel like that this time, and she had no sense of being inside Cathy Webster. But she was approaching their old house, that was obvious. As she entered the familiar hallway, she could hear laughter and squealing coming from upstairs. The scene changed to the staircase, moving fast, two stairs at a time. The bedroom door was thrown open, and she could see her Mum on the bed, naked. She was sitting astride a man. He had grey hair, and was very tanned. He wasn’t her Dad.

Then she turned, running back down the same stairs, almost stumbling. From behind, she heard her Mum’s voice calling out. “Robbie, Robbie. I’m sorry!”

Pulling her hand off the tree, Becky shivered, her teeth chattering. It was all clear to her now. All the arguments. Mum had sat her down one evening, telling her that Dad was moving out, because he had a new girlfriend and didn’t love her anymore. But she had lied. It was her with someone else, not Dad. It had all been because of her, not him. Everything that had happened over those past three years was her fault. Mum was a liar, and not to be trusted.

For a moment, she thought about asking the tree something else. She wanted to know about Charity, and if her father was Thomas Oliphant. But the experience with the tree was draining, and she decided to leave it for another time. Once out in the comparative warmth on the path, she soon felt better. And she had a lot to think about.

Mum was still distracted, talking over her shoulder as she sat at the computer. “Just pizzas tonight, Becks. I have already put them in the oven. I have to try to get this hunting lodge job finished by midnight. The ideas and costings all have to be in by tomorrow morning. Sorry I snapped earlier. I’m really stressed at the moment”. Becky chose to ignore her, refusing to give her the satisfaction of making out everything was OK after her outburst in the car. When dinner was ready, she ate in silence. Once they had both finished, she looked across at her Mum. “I will get the bus to and from school, starting on Monday”. Before she could reply, Becky went upstairs to her room.

Charity was sitting on the floor, next to the bed. She was flicking through a book she had taken down from the unit behind her.

“What does it say in this book, Rebecca?” Becky looked at the spine. It was Jane Eyre. “It’s about a young woman who is a teacher, and an older man. It starts as a sad story, but ends as a love story”. The girl dropped the book and looked up. “I told you about your Mum. You asked the tree, didn’t you?” Becky nodded. Charity spoke again. “And you won’t have to worry about Drew anymore. He’s moved away, gone to live with his Dad. His sister will be alright now. You did well. The tree will be pleased. It will grow even bigger”. Taking the opportunity, Becky adopted a friendly tone, and asked the girl a question. “Was your father called Thomas Oliphant, Charity?” Her reply started with a chuckle, and a flash of the black teeth. “You’ve been snooping around the churchyard. I saw you. You won’t find what you want to know there, believe me, Rebecca”.

Trying another angle, Becky smiled. “What if I asked the tree?”

Suddenly, she was on her back, surprised at the weight of Charity on top of her. The foul breath made her wince, and the look in the girl’s eyes was terrifying. Her voice was like a growl, menacing, and terrible. “You never ask it about me or mine, do you hear me? If you ever do I swear things will get very bad for you, worse than you can ever imagine, Rebeca Webster”.

Before Becky could regain her wits, Charity was gone.

She had to admit that had scared her. Charity had gone from sitting on the floor to knocking her down in the blink of an eye. There was obviously something very bad in her family history that she didn’t want anyone to know, but how serious was the threat about not using the tree to find it out? Becky had a thought, and turned on her i-pad. She started to search about willow trees and ghosts, and found a lot of stuff about tree spirits. It turned out it was one of the oldest supposed superstitions, especially in the British Isles. At one time, some trees were actually worshiped, and had signs and faces carved on them too. But there was nothing specific about weeping willows, and it was mostly about oak trees. Then there was a lot more modern stuff, hugging trees, talking to trees, and dancing around trees. Around the time her Mum was a baby, it had been all the rage with the alternative sort of people.

Then she had another idea. She searched the name Oliphant. When that came back with too many hits, she added ‘Lincolnshire’, for local information. One post was about the mill, the one she had already seen. But she found the Facebook page of a woman called Sara Oliphant. She claimed to be a clairvoyant, and offered Tarot readings, healing crystals, and other mystical stuff. There was a link to a website, so she clicked on it. You could make an appointment to see her, and she only lived four miles away, in the opposite direction to the town road. Becky filled in her contact form, and said she was a school girl doing a project, wondering if Sara was prepared to help her with something. She pressed ‘Send’, then bookmarked the page.

As she put the i-pad down, the familiar smell overwhelmed the room. She felt the breath on her neck, realising Charity was right behind her.

But the voice that started speaking wasn’t Charity’s.

“Why are you asking about me, girl? What mischief are you planning?” The voice was deep, the accent local, and strong. Becky was too terrified to turn around, and swallowed hard before answering. Her voice wouldn’t seem to work properly, and came out faint and weak. “No mischief, I promise you. I am just trying to find out what happened here”. From what he had said, she felt sure that it must be Thomas Oliphant, Charity’s father. He had that same awful smell about him, and from the feel of him behind her, Becky guessed that he was not a tall man. “You’ve been warned you have, so take heed. Don’t go messing with things you don’t understand, you hear me?” Still too frightened to turn, Becky just nodded.

Then he was gone, and the smell with him.

That had really scared her. It had never occurred to her that there might be others like Charity here. Perhaps the whole family was lurking in and around the house. She rubbed both arms vigourously, to try to get them warm. He seemed to have brought a chill with him, like the one that was always under the tree.

Despite that experience, it made her all the more determined. She had to contact the clairvoyant, Sara Oliphant, and arrange to see her soon. But when she checked her emails, there had been no reply. She looked at the website again, in case the woman had replied there. Nothing. Becky sent another contact form message. This time she added her address, hoping it would prompt Sara into action. With not much more she could do, she decided to go to bed early again, and hope that there were no other visitors to her room that night.

At school the next day, Mr Duncan called her to one side and told her about the bus that picked up from her village, handing her a timetable. It seemed that Mum had phoned the school earlier, asked for Becky’s name to be put on the list, and had paid in advance for this term. “It’s not a very big bus, ten or twelve seats I believe. And it isn’t marked. But it is yellow, and parks next to the village green. You can’t fail to see it”. She thanked the teacher, and sat down. Then he turned to face the class. “It seems that Drew Tyler will not be returning to us. That leaves a seat next to Rebecca Webster. If any of you want to change seats to sit next to her, put your hand up”.

She wasn’t in the least surprised when no hands were raised, and that suited her very well.

Becky’s new attitude started that day. She showed her talent during English class, and completed the Science experiment on her own in record time. In fact, she had written it up before everyone else had finished messing around with the small piles of dirt they had been given to test. In Geography, she startled Mrs Kennington with her grasp of climate change, and knowing the difference between low pressure weather patterns and high pressure ones. Drew’s sudden disappearance was being talked about all over, but not to her. She was being blamed for it though, that was obvious from the stares, and the openly hostile way the others ignored her. But nothing else was done. No name-calling, no notes stuck on her desk, nobody trying to stamp on her feet, or barge past her in the corridors.

Enjoying a wrap and a yoghurt for lunch, she grinned at the others as they walked past. They looked away, whispering to each other. Becky was very pleased.

They were scared of her now.

Mum was trying to sound upbeat and cheerful when she arrived to collect her. She was on time too. “The bus is all sorted for Monday, Becks, did they tell you?” Becky nodded, and turned to stare out of the car window. Mum was going to have to work a lot harder than that, to overcome all the lies. “I’m doing your favourite tonight, love. Chicken and broccoli pasta bake, with Parmesan cheese. I’ve got some of that nice garlic flatbread you like too”.

Up in her room as Mum fussed with the dinner, she was excited to see she had a reply from Sara Oliphant. It was suitably mysterious too.

‘So you live in Wright’s Mill? I knew they were converting that, but had no idea anyone had actually moved in yet. Don’t do anything until you have spoken to me. You are too young to get involved in anything to do with that building, or my family. I will come to your house at two o’clock on Saturday afternoon. Tell your parents I am helping you with a project. Sara.’

She clicked on the ‘Reply’ option. ‘Okay. Thanks for responding. I will see you on Saturday’.

With two hours at least before dinner, Becky decided to see if Charity was under the tree. There was no sign of her anywhere, so she crawled under the branches, and went through the usual routine. Once she could feel the bark under her palm, she spoke out loud.

“Tell me about Sara Oliphant, and all her secrets”.

Bracing herself for the familiar strange feeling, Becky was startled when nothing happened. She was still under the tree, it wasn’t unduly cold, and her hand hadn’t seemed to become part of the trunk. Perhaps the tree knew nothing about the mystical Sara? She tried something else.

“Tell me about Drew Tyler, and all his secrets”.

This time it happened, and was worse than before.

Things flashed past in her mind like watching a DVD on fast-forward. There was Drew, younger, but still recognisable. He was crouched down, with his hands protecting his face as a belt of some kind repeatedly struck him around the head and body. On a sofa nearby, an overweight woman sat watching television as a man Becky couldn’t see roared abuse at Drew as he slapped the belt across the boy. At the other end of the sofa, Drew’s sister was propped up on some cushions. She was rolling her head from side to side, and dribbling onto a towel wrapped around her neck. That scene lasted just seconds, before moving on. It was certainly more recent, as she could see a current model smartphone lying on a low coffee table. A man was asleep in a chair, and judging from the empty bottle lying across his lap, he was drunk too.

The events slowed back to normal speed, and she was sure she was looking through Drew’s eyes like before. Looking around the room slowly, she suddenly turned, and headed upstairs in the small house. The stairwell was narrow, and the treads steep. Going though the door opposite the top of the stairs, she entered a tiny bedroom, with space for little more than a single bed, and a small wardrobe. Hands stretched out in front of her, Drew’s hands. They picked up a long belt from off the bedspread. It was identical to the belt she had seen hitting Drew earlier in the vision.

The belt was being secured around her neck, pulled tight. She watched as Drew’s bare feet stepped onto the mattress, and his fingers hooked the buckle over a large square nail protruding from a beam running across the corner of the room. Then he stepped off the end of the bed, into the space behind the door.

Everything went black.

It seemed that she had been under the tree for a long time. Feeling freezing cold, the impact of what she had seen left Becky trembling on top of the shivering. Her legs were wobbly as she walked back to the house, and the smell of the cheese pasta bake made her feel ill as she went though the door. Mum turned from the worktop, where she was dishing up the food. “You’ve been gone ages, love. Dinner’s ready, sit down and I’ll bring it over”.

The last thing she felt like doing was eating, but that was preferable to having to come up with a story about why she didn’t want any. After spooning in a few mouthfuls and fumbling with a crusty end-piece of the garlic bread, Becky broached the subject of Sara. “Mum, a lady is coming to see me on Saturday. She is helping with a school project, local history”. Her tone was matter-of-fact. A statement, not asking permission. Mum put down her fork. “That sounds interesting. Will I get to meet her too?” Becky shrugged. “If you’re not too busy working, I suppose”. Mum’s hand hovered over the pile of bread, as if unsure which chunk to select. “I don’t remember you being that interested in History when we lived in Exeter, Becks. English was always your thing. And you were good at Maths too of course”.

Not really in the mood for chatting, and still feeling unwell after what she had seen in Drew’s bedroom, it was all she could do to keep up the conversation. “Well, we have moved all this way to live in a really old house, so I thought I would do some research about the area, and write it up for school”. Hoping that was an end to it, she started to rapidly spoon food into her mouth, looking down at the plate. Sure enough, Mum had already lost interest, and was checking her phone for messages.

Mum had never fully explained why she felt it was necessary for them to move so far away. All she went on about was that house prices were cheaper up there, and it didn’t matter where they lived, as she could work from home. It didn’t concern her that Dad had to stay on in his job at the Science Park, so had to buy a small flat with his share of the money. More than four hours away by car, it was also obvious that it made it very difficult for him to take her at weekends, as arranged. He said he would have to rent a room at a guest house in Lincoln or Louth when he came up to spend time with her. Otherwise, they would waste too much time driving back and forth. Becky had always assumed that Mum had done that on purpose, just to get back at him.

After managing half of the meal, Becky went up to her room leaving Mum to her messages and emails about work. Her mind was troubled, and not just by what had happened under the tree. Sitting on the bed, she started to consider what she could remember about her short life. As well as being an only child, Becky had no cousins. Both Mum and dad were only children too, so they said. And there were no grandparents, on either side. Given her parents’ ages, that was most unusual. Becky had soon latched onto that, and had been told that Mum had been raised by foster parents, and Dad’s parents were both dead. Becky asked if they had any old photos of them she could look at, and was told they had been lost.

When her friends in Devon had asked her about her family, they had all thought it was strange too. She had been young though, and you accepted what you were told when you were young. But Becky didn’t feel so young anymore, and she couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right.

Then there was that story about houses being cheaper. A few months ago Becky had looked online, and discovered that Mum could easily have bought a house in Devon for what she had paid for this one at the old mill. So her decision to move up here was deliberate, that was undeniable. Was it just to make things hard for Dad? That was possible, but not completely convincing. Becky stretched out, and rested her head on the pillow. There was so much going on inside her head, it was beginning to give her a headache.

When the smell woke her up, she sat up in a panic, fearful it might not be Charity. Seeing the girl standing at the end of the bed was a relief, as mad as that seemed.

“So you found out about Drew? Been under that tree again, eh?” Charity was walking a few steps, and turning to walk back. Becky’s eyes followed her like someone watching a tennis match. The girl was smiling as she continued. “You have so much more to find out about, Miss Rebecca Webster. But you should think on, and decide if you really want to know what you think you do. The best thing you could do is to persuade your mother to sell this house, and move somewhere else. Somewhere a very long way away. There’s nothing here for you but heartbreak and fear, believe me. I am only trying to help you, Rebecca”.

Becky tried to sound casual. “Oh really, do tell me more, Charity.”

The girl stopped walking, and suddenly she was closer, her filthy hands clutching the sides of Becky’s head as she moved her face up against it. Recoiling from the breath that seemed like some foul wind, she suddenly saw Mum’s room in her mind. She hadn’t actually been in Mum’s room since they moved here, although she had stood at the open door to ask things a few times. Like the zoom lens on a camera, her gaze moved, magnifying a small chest of drawers standing in the corner.

Then Charity was gone.

Becky jumped up, knowing what she had to do. Walking quietly down the stairs, she peered into the living room, happy to see Mum beavering away on the big computer. She turned and crept back upstairs, opening the door to Mum’s room, and tiptoeing inside. The three-drawer chest wasn’t one she remembered ever seeing before. It was cheap-looking, made with that white stuff that is not real wood. She slid the top drawer open. It was full of underwear; rolled up tights, panties, and bras. The second drawer contained scarves, gloves, woolly hats, and belts. Sitting on the floor to see into the third drawer, she was upset to find that it only contained an old box file. But it might be worth looking inside.

Lifting the big spring clip, Becky found old papers. Stuff from Mum’s university days, like her degree certificate. Then there was her own birth certificate, Mum’s paper driving licence, and some car documents. Right at the bottom, she found an envelope with ‘Certificate of Marriage’ printed on it. Sliding out the folded document, she glanced at it, the names and details written by the registrar in beautiful italic handwriting. Then her stomach turned, and she had to struggle not to bring up the pasta meal she had eaten earlier.

In the boxes marked ‘Name and Surname’, she couldn’t believe what she saw written there. She read it again, just to make sure.

‘Robert Charles Webster’

‘Catherine Oliphant’.

After putting the envelope back into the box file, and returning that to the drawer, Becky walked across to her room. She had a lot to think about.

So her Mum was an Oliphant? That had shocked her even more than when Charity had appeared to her. More lies. It had never even occurred to her to ask what her Mum’s maiden name had been. Not something a child concerns themselves with, as a rule. And she couldn’t recall it ever being mentioned at home before either. She resisted the temptation to run downstairs and confront Mum with the truth. Something deep was going on, and she wanted to get to the bottom of it, without revealing that she knew anything. If Mum found out that she knew, no doubt more lies and deceit would follow. Time to just act normal, and carry on as usual.

On Saturday afternoon, Becky went outside to wait for Sara. She wanted to get to her before Mum, just in case anything was said.

She saw the woman cycling along the lane in the direction of the mill. It was obviously her, someone trying too hard to look like a mystical clairvoyant. A huge mane of crinkly grey hair flowed behind her as she rode up to the house. It was too long for a woman of her age, Becky thought. She looked to be in her fifties, a hard face without make-up, and a prominent nose. She propped the bike on its stand and walked over, a sudden broad smile softening her features. Her clothes were a mash-up of many styles. A long embroidered coat, like something from a fantasy film, over a flowing long blouse with a pattern of the moon and stars all over it, finished off with a pair of bright yellow leggings that had seen better days. On her feet were something like army boots, with no laces. Not really suitable wear for cycling, Becky thought.

Before either of them spoke, the door opened, and Mum walked out. She strode up to Sara, extending a hand. “I’m Cathy Webster, Becky’s Mum. Pleased to meet you”. Sara took the hand, and held it for too long. “I’m Sara. I’m here to help your daughter with a project. I thought we could take a walk along the riverside, if that’s alright with you, Mrs Webster?” Mum had to finally pull her hand away. “Of course. But please come in for a drink before you leave”. Sara turned to Becky, hefting a large canvas shoulder bag from a rack on her bike. “Shall we?”

They walked in the direction of the willow tree. Sara was short and rather chubby, and when they were out of sight of the house, she suddenly put her arm around Becky, pulling her closer. The woman smelled strongly of Lavender, mixed with some other aroma that Becky couldn’t identify. “You have been under the tree, haven’t you, Becky? I can tell. And what else do you know? Have you found out anything about your mother yet?” Becky was impressed. Sara knew a lot. “Yes, I found out her name was Oliphant, before she married my Dad. That’s the same name as yours, and the family that used to own the mill. I have been visited by Charity, and a man too. I think it was her father, Thomas”.

Sara grinned. “Let’s sit down here, on the grass”.

Close-up, the woman’s face wasn’t so unattractive, and you could see the traces of a once pretty girl. “What did Charity and Thomas tell you?” Becky related the recent events, the warnings, and the visions under the willow tree. Sara listened without interrupting, her pale blue eyes hardly blinking as she kept her gaze fixed on the ground. “You are only a girl, not much older than Charity was. This mill holds some dark secrets, and I can tell that your mother knows what they are. She didn’t recognise me, I think, but I cannot be sure. If she did, she won’t tell, I do know that. You should stop asking things of the tree. It will use your youth and strength to grow, and as it grows, its power increases. But be careful of your mother. She has a reason for coming back here, and I fear I know what that reason is”.

Becky was wide-eyed. Sara seemed to know a great deal, and she was keen to ask her more. Perhaps she was genuinely clairvoyant after all.

“Why is it only me that sees Charity? I smell her too, it’s awful. And Thomas had that same smell, but he was scary as well”. Sara stroked her shoulder. “Beware of Charity. She will pretend to be helping you, but she only wants to help herself. She probably summoned her father to scare you, so that you would turn to her for help. She needs you to trust her, Becky. But you must not. Never trust her at all. She appears to you from choice. She can probably choose to appear to your mother too, should she wish to. But it is your trust she seeks at the moment”.

Becky had so much to ask. “So you and Mum are related? And you are both related to Thomas and Charity too? All the Oliphants? That cannot be a coincidence”. Sara nodded. Yes, we are all related, but it would take me all afternoon to explain how and why. I never married, so have the name. Your mother changed hers with marriage, and kept it a secret from you. There is a reason why she did that. A reason why she waited until you were of a certain age, to come back to the mill. That was why she ruined her marriage, a deliberate act to fabricate an excuse to move here at a given time. Everything is connected, Becky, and I fear that destiny and fate have caught up with you, young lady”.

Becky thought about that for a while, then asked another question. “Why can’t I find any graves for Charity and Thomas in the churchyard?” Sara patted her on the leg. “You have worked very hard, in such a short time. Already you have discovered that the graves of Thomas and Charity are not to be seen in the village. That is because their bodies were never found at the time.” Becky enjoyed hearing this confirmation of something she had started to suspect. “And why would the tree not show me your secrets?” The woman tipped her head back, and laughed out loud, the mop of hair swirling around her face. “So you asked the tree about me? That’s amusing. The tree cannot enter my thoughts, Becky. I have spent my life learning how to stop such spirits from trying to control me. And I will pass on that knowledge to you, so listen carefully”.

The sound of splashing from the river made them both turn and look. Before either of them had a chance to move, a short figure emerged from the water and ran up the bank. It was a man who looked to be around forty, wearing a waistcoat over a filthy white shirt, and loose trousers flapping around his legs. His hair was long and lank, and his eyes dark and terrifying. He grabbed Sara as if she weighed nothing, and dragged her back into the water. They both disappeared under the surface, as the fast flowing river continued to rush past.

Becky didn’t waste time going to look in the river. She turned and ran as fast as she could back to the house. Bursting through the door, she screamed at her Mum. “Sara is in the river, I think she’s drowning. Quick, get help!”

Cathy didn’t get up from her chair in front of the computer. She slowly picked up her phone, and dialled 999. “Yes, police please, and an ambulance too. My name is Cathy Webster, and I’m at Wrights Mill. A woman has fallen into the river”. Becky was breathing heavily after the running. Mum turned to face her. “They are on their way.”

She went back to her computer, as if nothing had happened.

Becky ran back out of the house, heading for the spot where Sara had been taken into the water. She found the large shoulder bag, and placed it around her body. There must surely be something inside it that made Sara bring it along, and she would check that later. The police car took almost fifteen minutes to arrive. Long before the officers appeared, she had given up all hope of ever finding Sara alive. The man who snatched her was obviously Thomas Oliphant, and he had taken the clairvoyant before she could reveal any secrets.

There was no ambulance available just yet, in this rural part of the county. But soon after two police officers had arrived, a solo paramedic turned up in a car. It was all rather pointless of course, as Sara’s body was nowhere to be seen, and the emergency services were unable to enter the river without the assistance of trained divers. A serious young policewoman asked for the divers on her radio, and requested a helicopter to search downstream too. But Becky knew it was all a waste of time. Sara would never be found. Mum was still in the house. She hadn’t even bothered to follow her distraught daughter back to the riverbank. They took Sara’s bike away in a police van, saying they would try to trace her next-of-kin.

Becky was escorted back to the house, as the search gathered momentum. The policewoman took her statement, and Becky stuck to the story that she had contacted Sara online, and asked for help with a history project. They were walking by the river, when Sara stumbled, and fell in. She wasn’t about to mention her being dragged under by a ghostly apparition, that was for sure. There was also no talk of the surname connection with her Mum. Best left unsaid, until she could find out more. With the police in the house, Mum acted concerned. She was cuddling her daughter, offering her everything from drinks to food, even sweets. Mum gave a statement too, a very short one. She had met the woman, who had taken her daughter for a walk. Then the woman had fallen into the river. That was all she knew.

After dark, they were still looking, miles away downstream. The sound of the helicopter could be heard in the distance, and the light it shone down onto the countryside illuminated the surrounding darkness. Becky instinctively knew Sara would not be found. Something had conspired to make her disappear, and she was convinced her Mum was involved. She went to her room early, unable to eat anything. Mum left her alone. She seemed to know how her daughter was feeling.

Sunday was spent in a haze. No visits from any long-dead Oliphants, and a small meal eaten at teatime. Becky stayed in her room for most of the day. The canvas bag was still hidden under her bed, but she was almost afraid to look at what was inside. The police had phoned the house at ten o’clock, with an update.

As expected, there was no trace of Sara.

Mum was acting cool. She didn’t know the woman, and that was that. She asked Becky three times if she wanted anything else to eat, then gave up. Later, she said she didn’t have to go to school on Monday. But Becky was adamant that she should go. “What can I do around here, Mum? I might as well go in. I don’t want to lose any course time”. Mum agreed, and went so far as to get her daughter’s clothes ready for the next morning. Sara’s bag was left undisturbed that night.

The next morning, Becky had to get up almost one hour earlier. Besides the walk into the village, she had to allow for the bus picking up other kids on its way into school. There were two or three other stops in villages on the way, so it took much longer than just driving straight in with Mum. After a brisk walk along the lane, she saw the yellow bus, where she had been told it would be parked. It was small, more or less a big van with windows. As the first there, Becky walked up to the door, and the driver asked for her name, checking on a clipboard. She was a woman about forty, but she looked like a man. Other than obvious boobs, everything about her was masculine; from the short hair, to the cigarette dangling from her lips. She managed an early morning effort at a smile. ” Rebecca Webster? Okay girly, on you get”. A few minutes later two older boys appeared. The driver called to them. “Come on, lads, you’re running late!” They got in the side door, glancing around to where Becky was sitting right at the back. She got the impression that she was in their preferred seat.

They set off to the next village, where they picked up two girls in the year above Becky. Both kept looking back at her, whispering in each other’s ears. The driver called out, “Ralph is sick today, apparently, so just one more stop”. At the end of a driveway leading to a rather grand house, the bus pulled up. Becky watched as a beautiful girl got on. It was Tilly Vosper, the head girl. She was at least seventeen, and looked older. A sensual mouth, lovely blonde hair, and a stunning figure. Tilly climbed aboard, and headed for the seat next to her at the back. Her smile made Becky swoon. “You’re Becky Webster, I’ve heard about you. Mind if I sit next to you?” Becky nodded, unable to speak. She had seen this girl at school, and already had an overwhelming crush on her.

Tilly crossed her long, wonderful legs. She smelled like something unbelievably desirable but impossible to name. And her make-up and gleaming teeth were flawless. “You’ve had some excitement at your house I hear? It was all over the local news. Would you like to meet me in the Senior Common Room at lunchtime, and tell me all about it?” Becky was inhaling the girl’s breath. It was like a cross between honey and fresh spearmint. She nodded, annoyed at her stupid inability to reply. Tilly placed a hand on Becky’s knee, and that made her tingle all over. “Shall we say twelve-thirty? Becky finally managed to reply, but it sounded like the croak of a toad. “Yes, twelve-thirty”.

When they got out of the bus at the school, Tilly went off ahead, catching up with some older girls she knew. Still in a dream state, Becky carried on into her class.

She didn’t see Tilly’s self-satisfied smirk.

Becky hovered outside the Senior’s Room until Tilly caught sight of her, and waved her in. Looking around, she could see they had it good in there. Comfy chairs, a TV with an X-Box, and a couple of laptops on a desk under the windows. At the back, in a small kitchen area, she could even see a coffee machine, and a microwave. All the stuff was donated by parents and local businesses, apparently. Tilly pointed to a seat opposite hers, and smiled. “Sit down, I got you a cappuccino. I hope you take sugar?” Although she didn’t usually drink coffee, Becky nodded. She sipped the creamy liquid, and thought it was delicious. Two older boys were shouting at each other as they played on the X-Box, and three girls sitting nearby studiously ignored Becky, as if she didn’t exist.

“So, tell me all about it. A woman drowned near your house, and you were with her? How exciting! What happened?” Tilly leaned forward as she spoke, flicking her hair to one side. Becky had already thought about what to say. She had decided on a series of half-truths that would outline the events without giving away any secrets. “Well I wrote to a local woman to ask for help with a history project. She arranged to meet me on Saturday, and we went for a walk along the river to talk about it. Then she stumbled, and fell in. I ran home and got my Mum to ring for help, but they couldn’t find her. They said the river was flowing too fast, and was too deep at that point. Maybe they won’t even find her body”.

Tilly looked disappointed, and Becky couldn’t blame her. Reeling it off like that hadn’t made it sound very interesting or unusual. She gulped down some more of the lukewarm coffee as Tilly seemed to be pondering her reply. The older girl smiled, her attitude changing as she sat back against the cushion.

“So what’s the project about? Maybe I could help you with it?” Becky wasn’t about to mention the name Oliphant, but was happy to talk in generalisations. “Well, the old mill we live in has been around for centuries, and I thought it might be interesting to research its history, and the families that used to live there. I have seen some old paintings and drawings of it online, and I think it would be something good for my school-work”. Tilly didn’t look genuinely interested, but after nodding for a while, she acted as if she had suddenly thought of something. “It’s called Wright’s Mill, isn’t it? You should try to talk to Bessie Wright. She’s like a hundred and five or something, a bit of a celebrity around here. She lives in Woodlands, that big house behind the church. It’s an expensive care home now”. Before Becky could reply, Tilly stood up. “Well, thanks for coming to see me. Let me know how you get on with the project. I’ll see you on the bus I expect”.

That was the signal for her to leave, Becky understood that. “Okay, I will see you on the bus, on the way home”. If she had been hoping for anything else from her contact with Tilly, it was very apparent that no more was on offer.

After school, Becky was once again first at the bus. The woman driver smiled at her. “You sat next to the Vosper girl. Tell me, are you two friends?” Becky was taken aback at the comment. “Well, not really. Sort of, I suppose. I hardly know her”. Throwing away the stub of her cigarette, the driver looked around, to make sure she was out of earshot. “Be careful girly. You’ve got to watch that family, especially Matilda. Take my advice and keep away from her”. The others started to arrive, and she stopped talking and climbed into her driver’s seat. Tilly didn’t appear for the return journey, so they left without her.

When she got off the bus at the village stop, Becky walked straight across the green, and then up the lane behind the church. She saw the big house with a large name-plate fixed to the wall, and went up the driveway into the impressive entrance. A foreign-looking woman about sixty years old was standing behind the reception desk. She was wearing a pale blue polo shirt with ‘Woodlands’ embroidered on it. “What can I do for you, young lady?” Becky couldn’t place the accent, possibly Spanish or Greek. “I would like to know if I can talk to Bessie Wright, please. It’s about a school history project I am doing”. The woman smiled. “I know you are not family, and it’s Miss Elizabeth Wright. She’s very particular, I should warn you. Stay here, and I will go and find out if she will see you”.

She came back quite quickly. “Miss Wright will see you on Saturday morning, after breakfast. She said ten o’clock would be suitable. I wouldn’t be late if I were you”. Becky thanked her, and made her way home. As usual, Mum was busy on the computer. “Something easy for dinner later, Becks. I might just hot up some soup, if that’s okay with you?”

Up in her room, she got changed out of her uniform, and slowly slid the canvas bag from its hiding place under the bed. It was full of stuff, and heavy. Becky tipped the contents out onto the bed. Two large notebooks came out first, followed by lots of loose papers, and a few crumpled photographs. There was a big purse, a bunch of keys, and even a D-lock for the bicycle. Some sort of ancient-looking amulet attached to a leather cord, a mobile phone, and a copy of a book about being a clairvoyant. The author, unsurprisingly, was Sara Hope Oliphant. Unsure where to begin, Becky started by unfolding some of the loose papers. There was a copy of a will, in the name of Tobias Wright. That might be interesting, she thought. Next were some pages of notes, presumably written by Sara herself. The handwriting was small, and the lines close together. They might require more careful reading another time.

At the bottom of the pile was a large document. The edges were sharply folded, and the paper a brilliant white. Becky slid it out and unfolded it carefully. As large as a map, it covered most of the bed, with the bottom half riding up to touch her waist. She had seen enough similar things on Mum’s computer to know what it was. A copy of an architect’s drawing of a proposed development. And it was obviously the mill conversion, with the old original wheel prominent at one side of the drawing. At the bottom left was a box full of writing, in neat lines.

‘The conversion of the existing mill into a house and three apartments at Wright’s Mill, Lincolnshire.’
‘Developer: Samuel Vosper and Sons.’
‘Planning Officer: Mr T. Hargreaves, Lincolnshire County Council.’
But it was the last line that caught Becky’s attention.

‘Architect: Catherine Webster’.

Mum was shouting from downstairs. “Soup’s ready!” Becky quickly slid everything back into the canvas bag, and stashed it back under the bed. She was going to have to find somewhere better to hide it soon. Over dinner, she watched her Mum spooning in soup absentmindedly, as she constantly scanned her phone for messages. She didn’t know who she was anymore. Over the course of a couple of weeks, so much had come out, she was beginning to seriously wonder whether she was even her real daughter. When they had eaten, she went back up to her room, declining the offer of watching a rom-com on DVD. “Got some project work to do, then going to sleep early”. Mum just nodded, and took the bowls through to the kitchen.

Lying on her bed, Becky opened a new notebook. She had written ‘SCIENCE’ on the cover in big letters, to disguise what she was going to write about inside it. There had been so much to think about over the last few days, she needed to get it down on paper, before it all became too confused in her mind.

On the first page, she wrote a date, ‘1646’. Then she continued neatly below that, with double-spaced lines.

‘Thomas Oliphant owned the mill, in 1646.’

‘Was Charity his daughter? Probably.’

‘Did Thomas take Sara into the river? Probably.’

‘(Both their clothes look about right for the 1640s)’

‘What happened to his wife?’

‘Mum was an Oliphant. She lied about her maiden name, and the split with Dad. Lied about having to buy the house here, and lied about being the architect.’

‘Sara was an Oliphant’.

‘1664 Christian Oliphant owned the mill. Son of Thomas?’

‘What happened to Christian?’

After that, it was owned by the Wright family. Bessie is a Wright.’

‘The mill was developed by the building firm of Samuel Vosper.’

‘Tilly is Matilda Vosper. Is she Samuel’s daughter? Not sure.’

Becky stopped writing, and looked at all the question marks on the page. There was so much still to be answered, not least what her Mum had to do with whatever happened in the 1640s, and why it was all such a secret. Not being able to trust her own Mum anymore was deeply confusing for her. She wanted to contact Dad in Exeter, and ask him to pick her up, let her live with him now. But how could she ever explain her reasons, without appearing to be mad? For the first time since the move, Becky felt the tears flowing, as so much emotion and upset overwhelmed her.

She cried herself to sleep.

Next morning, Tilly didn’t appear at the bus, and neither did the two girls. The boys had already got on, grabbing the seats at the back, so Becky sat just behind the driver. As they set off, the woman turned and winked at her. As they were stopping close to the school gates, the driver had to brake hard because a black Range Rover had pulled across in front of it. Becky watched as the door opened and Tilly jumped out, slamming it hard behind her. The car turned around, and drove off fast, with the engine making a growling sound. She saw the registration number, as it was disappearing into the distance. 1 VOS. Dad had often said that personal number plates were vain and tacky. “A sign of no class”, he would snort.

The school day was slow, and her heart wasn’t in it. Nobody spoke to her, and when she passed Tilly in the corridor, the girl turned around to talk to her friend, as if she hadn’t even noticed her presence. At lunchtime, the weather had turned cloudy and breezy, but she sat outside as usual. From her school bag, she slid out one of Sara’s large journals, and began to read it. It felt like the start of a novel. Perhaps that’s what Sara had intended it to be.

‘1641. Thomas Oliphant was an unpopular mill owner. He was frequently accused of giving short weight, and of adulterating the flour. Many villagers complained that the bread they made with it was poor in taste, and too crumbly in texture. Goody Vosper was his chief critic, and went so far as to involve the county magistrate in her complaints. But a year later, the Civil War broke out, and the armies needed food. Nobody is recorded as making any further complaints until 1646. A Parliamentary cavalry officer, one Captain Alexander Mallet, wrote in the army records that, ‘The flour purchased from the local mill of Master Oliphant is poor, and not fit for purpose. In my opinion, the man is a rogue. I have told him to improve the quality, or face the wrath of both the Army and the Magistrate, Mr Septimus Wright’.

Becky raised her eyebrows. So the complaining woman was a Vosper, and the magistrate was a Wright. Sara had done her research well, and she wished she knew where she had managed to find such records. She turned the page, and carried on reading.

‘1646 was a tough time for the Oliphants. Goody Vosper died from an unknown fever, and Captain Mallet was killed at the Battle of Stow-on-The Wold, serving under Sir William Brereton. For now though, the war was as good as over, and Parliament could claim victory. But the villagers saw their chance to take revenge on the Oliphant family. Abraham Vosper accused them outright of being responsible for the deaths of his wife, and Captain Mallet too. He claimed that Goody was poisoned by his bread, to punish her for complaining, and that the unfortunate officer was cursed by the daughter, Charity. The girl had been seen often under the willow tree, and it was believed she was in a trance, communing with The Devil himself. The magistrate didn’t hesitate to arrange a trial for them both, and they were guarded by soldiers in the village hall until it was convened.

Fearful of further retribution, Mistress Anne Oliphant fled with her sons, Christian and Oliver. It was believed she went to live with relatives in Cambridge.

The trial was a farce of course. Thomas and Charity had nobody to defend them, and had to listen as a stream of interested witnesses came forth to accuse them both of all kinds of nefarious acts. Thomas was found guilty of poisoning, and sentenced to hang at the Maltby Gibbet. Charity was to be tested as a witch, with the Ordeal by Water. She would be thrown into the river near the mill.

If she floated, she was indeed a witch, protected by The Devil.

But if she sank to the bottom and drowned, she was innocent. And her soul would be with God.’

Becky made sure that she arrived early to see Miss Wright. She was shown into a surprisingly large and comfortable room, where the old lady was sitting in a huge armchair that dwarfed her tiny frame. Miss Wright pointed a bony finger at a footstool just in front of her. “Sit here, girl. I can still just about see, but you have to be close for me to hear you”. Despite her grand age, Elizabeth Wright hardly looked older than any woman in her late seventies. Only her milky, wet eyes gave some indication that she was lucky to wake up every morning. Becky perched on the stool, and opened her notebook.

“I live at Wright’s Mill, and I am writing a school project about its history. I thought as your name was Wright, you might know something about it”. Elizabeth scowled. “That mill has been nothing but trouble since it was built. The Oliphants claimed to be millers, but the local people never trusted that they knew what they were doing. Their flour was always bad, so the stories go. And there was jealousy too. My family were keen to get their hands on the land, and the Vospers were enlisted to help them. But it never did anyone any good, and my ancestors ending up squabbling over the place without ever sorting it out. Until my father of course. He ended up inheriting all of it. Then he became ill, and sold it to old man Vosper. I got the money from the sale, and that has enabled me to live comfortably ever since”. She looked around. “It pays for this place now, until the cash runs out”.

Becky was writing notes, but was ready with her question when the old lady stopped talking. “What do you know about the Oliphants? I mean not just the ones who had the mill, but the rest of them too?” With a groan, and an audible clicking of some bones, Elizabeth shifted her weight and moved forward. “They tried to get rid of them all, the people around here. The miller and his daughter were killed, accused of some sort of witchcraft, crimes that carried the death penalty. But his wife escaped with the two sons, and the family carried on away from here. Then one day, Christian returned out of the blue, and claimed the mill as his inheritance. That put the cat among the pigeons I can tell you, girl. But he was no miller, and couldn’t make a go of it. Eventually it was bought by one of my family, and they argued about who it should be left to until the day my father sold it”. Good riddance, if you ask me. It was said to be cursed, and I believe it was”.

Scribbling away in the book, Becky was annoyed that she didn’t have time to write neatly. She looked up at Elizabeth, her next question ready. But the old lady had settled back in the chair, her eyes closed. She sat watching her for a while, until a woman arrived dressed in what looked like a nurse’s uniform. “You had best go now, I think Miss Wright is sleeping. She will have tired herself out, with all her chatting”. Becky nodded, and stood up. There was so much more she would have liked to know. Maybe she could come back another day.

Back at home, Becky wrote up her notes neatly, then tore out the scribbled pages she had used at the care home. Bessie had not been the complete fountain of knowledge that she had hoped for, but her few recollections had helped to harden up some of the facts. Mum suddenly appeared at the bedroom door. “Becky, I have to go out for a while. I am going to get some shopping, and do some other stuff in town. Will you be alright on your own?” Mum looked worried, an expression rarely seen on her face. “I’ll be fine, Mum. Do whatever you need”. A few minutes after Mum’s car had pulled out into the lane, there was a knock at the door. Before opening it, Becky looked through the living-room window. It was the driver of the school bus.

The woman smiled, which did nothing to soften her masculine features. “Can I come in and talk to you girly? I waited until I saw your Mum leave. I’ve been hanging around for ages”. She came in and sat on the sofa, declining the polite offer of something to drink. “I wanted to talk to you away from the others on the bus. There are things you need to know. I’m worried that you are getting involved in things you should be careful of. Dark things, things from years ago that have ruined this village”. Becky moved Mum’s computer chair, and sat opposite her as she continued.

“That Vosper girl. Well all her family really, but Matilda’s the worst of them. They have been greedy and devious as long as anyone around here can remember. Them and the Wrights grabbed all the land around here, made themselves a fortune. And they mean to hang onto it, I tell you. Some say there’s a curse on both their families, but it doesn’t seem to have affected them. I reckon the Vospers are just waiting for old Bessie Wright to die, then they will be in control of everything. She’s the last of the Wrights, never married. And their secrets will die with her. They have Town Councillors under their control, planning officers, all sorts. Even some senior policemen. People say they can do what they want, as they know all the secrets. Some say that Matilda has been with many powerful men, then blackmails them in the interests of her family. I have no proof of course, but you’ve seen her. She’s hard to resist, isn’t she? I need a cigarette, shall we stand outside?”

Becky followed the woman as she walked away from the house, and stood beside one of the empty apartments. She rolled a cigarette, and blew out smoke as she carried on talking. “You should find out who owns these flats on the mill land, next to your house. You will be surprised, girly, I bet. For hundreds of years now, just a few families have fought to take control of the village, and everything around it. They will stop at nothing, and I reckon the Vospers are set to come out on top. So if I was you, I would keep away from that Tilly, for your own good.”

Becky finally asked her a question? “But what is this all about? They have their land and money, and a good business. The Wrights sold out to them a long time ago, and now my Mum owns the mill house. What more could they want?” The woman took a deep drag on the cigarette before answering. “Bless you, girly, it’s not really about the money, they already have that. It’s the curse. They have to settle the curse on their families, or they will never profit in the long term. Why do you think Bessie never married? You should ask her. And there is no son in the Vosper house, despite the name of the company. Nobody to carry on their name, whether Wright, or Vosper. It was because of the curse. They must have a plan to do something about that, and I am guessing almost everyone around these parts is involved in some way”.

The woman suddenly turned, and started to walk off. She stopped for a moment, her face looking genuinely concerned. “I’ve said enough. I have to keep away from those people, and I suggest you do the same”. Becky walked a little of the way with her, until she turned right, and entered the country lane. She called out to her. “Thanks for your help. By the way, what’s your name?” She called back, without turning her head. “It’s Bridget. But I’m called Bridie”.

As Becky turned back to her house, she could see Charity standing outside the door.

Charity didn’t seem to smell so bad that afternoon. Becky thought she might just be getting used to her stink by now.

“You won’t get any sense out of her”. The girl nodded in the direction of the departing bus driver. “She’s on the hook, she is, can’t say nothing. She likes the girls, you see. Likes ’em young as well. Tilly gave her a nice time once, then she got her good. Underage, you see. Now Bridie is as good as finished, and she knows it”. Becky was remembering Sara’s advice not to trust anything Charity said. But she had to confess that sounded about right. Even as young as she was, she knew all too well about women who liked other women, not that it bothered her at all.

She went on the offensive again. “Why did your father take Sara? Why drown her, when she meant you both no harm? And I’m sure you know she was an Oliphant. She was related to you, for God’s sake!” Charity emitted a low chuckle. “God don’t have nothing to do with it, Rebecca. Sara was a wrong Oliphant, she was. She come down from my brother Christian’s side of the family, she did. All those on his side were wrong. They didn’t do the right thing. The only good Oliphants come from Oliver’s side. The others like Sara were hand in glove with the Vospers, and still are. Becky was confused. “But Sara was writing the history, she was going to tell everyone what happened to you and Thomas. And now she’s gone, the last remaining Oliphants are me and my Mum, and we aren’t helping the Vospers”. Charity placed a hand under her chin, and rubbed it. “Maybe you’re not, Rebecca, but what about your Mum?”

Becky didn’t answer that question, she had more of her own. “And what’s this about a curse? What sort of curse? And how does that affect me, in the twenty-first century?” Charity straightened up, and her smile disappeared. “You have Sara’s books. You can read about it in them. And read it soon, for you are in great danger. I’m betting Sara told you not to trust me? But the truth is I am your only hope, young Rebecca. I can only tell so much, the rest you have to discover for yourself. But I can tell you this. Bessie Wright is dead. They found her gone in her bed this morning. Seems she didn’t talk to anyone after your meeting. You were the last one to ever speak to her. Now that just leaves Tilly. And you too”.

Becky wanted to ask her so much more, but the sound of a car approaching made her turn and look.

As she approached the mill on the country road, Cathy Webster could see her daughter outside the door of the house. She appeared to be engaged in an animated conversation with herself. Her mouth was certainly moving, and she was gesticulating too. Perhaps the strain of the move and the new school was finally getting to her. As she drove onto the driveway, and could hear the gravel crunching under the car tyres, Becky suddenly turned. Opening the door, she walked into the house. Aiming the car at the usual parking spot, Cathy jumped as a young girl appeared a few feet in front of it. She just had time to see that she was barefoot, and wearing a filthy cotton smock, a cap on her head, and she was smiling. The girl lifted her right arm, and pointed a finger directly at the front of the car.

The car stopped dead, with a tremendous force, like the impact of hitting a wall at speed. The airbag inside the steering wheel inflated, and billowed into her face. Her head was thrown backwards, and then dropped forward again, connecting with the side window with a dull thud. Cathy took a moment to gather her senses, and was then startled by a scream from outside the car. As she turned, the girl’s face was close to the window, her teeth showed black as she yelled. “Bad Oliphant! I know you, Cathy Oliphant! You’re a bad Oliphant!” And then she was gone.

A chill ran up Cathy’s spine. She knew who the girl was. It was all too much for her to take in, and she fainted.

When her Mum didn’t come inside the house, Becky looked out of the window, and saw her slumped at the wheel. She ran outside, and pulled open the door of the car. “Mum, Mum! Are you alright? What happened?” She could see the airbag debris around the steering wheel, but the car was undamaged, just stopped there. The engine wasn’t running, but the ignition lights were on. It must have stalled. Her daughter’s words made Cathy come round. She quickly made up a story. “I’m alright, love. The airbag just exploded for no reason. It must have been faulty. It just gave me a shock, that’s all. Everything’s, fine, don’t worry, Becks”. Her voice was shaky, and she seemed to be trembling too.

Becky stood near her as she got out of the car. “Can you take that shopping bag off the seat please, Becks? I just got a few bits”. She walked inside, supporting herself against the frame of the front door as she went in. Becky followed her in with the bag. She had turned off the ignition, and brought the car keys in too. Mum looked pale. “I’m a bit shaken up, love. I might just have a lie down for a while. Can you do yourself something to eat? There’s pizza in the freezer, or you could just have beans on toast. Will that be okay?” Becky nodded, and watched as her Mum walked up the stairs like a woman three times her age. Something bad had happened, and Mum wasn’t about to tell her what.

More lies.

Becky had the beans on toast as suggested, and watched a documentary on TV about sea animals being killed by plastic in the oceans. Two hours later, Mum was walking around upstairs, and she eventually heard her footsteps on the stairs. She seemed to be putting on a cheerful voice, as she appeared in the living room. “Oh, you had something to eat. Good. I’m much better now”. Becky stared at her, open-mouthed.

Her hair had turned pure white.

As she pointed across the room, Becky’s voice was little more than a whisper. “Mum. Your hair”. It was obvious Mum had already seen it, and she tried to make light of it, smiling. “I know. Must have been the shock or something. I quite like it, truth be told. Some women pay a lot of money to have their hair dyed this colour”. Becky knew she was still lying, and that made her angry. As soon as Mum sat down at the computer, she went up to her room, and pulled the canvas bag from under the bed.

The photos meant nothing. Most were of children, and from their clothes, probably taken at least twenty years ago, if not more. Becky slid out the heavy journals again, and flicked through them quickly. In the second one, she noticed a heading, ‘THE CURSE’. Stopping at that page, she started to read Sara’s writing.

‘The villagers all walked behind the magistrate, and the troopers who were carrying Charity. She had been bound hand and foot, and continued to struggle all the way to the riverbank. As she was laid on the grass close to the edge, some people pushed to the front, eager to see the drowning. One of those was Abraham Vosper, who came to stand beside Magistrate Wright Charity rolled onto her back, staring at the men with a cold hard gaze. Two troopers bent down to roll her into the water, and the girl suddenly spoke. Her voice was calm, but her words sent a chill through the assembled crowd. “I curse you, all you here. You shall have no son to carry on your name as long as an Oliphant lives. Even with all your wealth, your names will die with you, or your descendants, one day”. The magistrate nodded to the soldiers. “In with her”.

As Charity disappeared under the water, Abraham Vosper led a chant of “Witch, witch. See, she’s a witch”. But she didn’t float. Pastor Drake walked forward, a sad expression on his face. He was against such barbarity, and had made that clear. But he had little influence in this closed community. The Pastor turned to face those remaining. At least half the number had already scuttled away, upset by the scene they had witnessed. Drake grasped his Bible, and turned his eyes to the sky. “The girl did not float, she is innocent. Dear God take this soul into your kingdom”. When he looked back, everyone had gone.

At first, it seemed the curse had failed. Sons were born, and the Wrights and the Vospers continued to flourish, becoming even richer once the war had ended. But things began to change for the Wright family, and by 1930, Bessie was the only remaining heir to their wealth, once her father died. Five years later, she met an army colonel when he was home on leave, and they were engaged to be married. It was decided that they would wait until her fiance returned from service in India, and would coincide with her twenty-fifth birthday, in August 1939. The night before the wedding, the colonel went to the local inn, for a traditional drink on the eve of the nuptials. He didn’t stay long, and witnesses stated that he had only two drinks, before setting off to walk home, on that hot, humid night.

The next morning, his body was found wedged against the sluice gate, next to the old mill wheel. He had drowned, and nobody had seen or heard anything. Bessie was distraught. She withdrew to her room, and stayed there for many years. Some said her father was secretly pleased. At least his daughter would inherit, and continue the name. If she had married, her name would have changed, and no children would have had the name of Wright.’

As she went to turn the page, Charity appeared at the bottom of the bed. “Don’t turn that page yet, Rebecca. I want to test you. Now, think hard. Show me how clever you are. Remember all you have discovered, everything you have read. Without turning the page, tell me the name of the Colonel who drowned”. Becky was surprised to realise she didn’t have to think about the answer at all. The name came straight into her head, it was obvious. She smiled at Charity.

“Colonel Mallet. A descendant of the cavalry officer who complained about the flour”.

Charity clapped her filthy hands together with glee. “I knew it. I knew you had the gift. You are a good Oliphant indeed”.
And then she was gone.

Going back to the pile of things from the canvas bag, Becky found some more documents. They looked fairly new, and were all inside a clear plastic wallet. The various logos and seals were all in black and white, so she guessed they were photocopies. It was easy enough to work out that they were copies of deeds, and they were in some sort of order. One was for the house, and the others for the apartments next door. The person selling all the properties was named as Samuel Vosper. And the person named on each one as the buyer was Catherine Webster. Becky shook her head. More lies. Her Mum owned them all. No wonder nobody else had come to view them, or the people who owned the supposed weekend holiday flat had never appeared. Between her Mum and the Vospers, they had made sure that there would never be any neighbours around, to bear witness to any happenings.

Placing the journals and photos back in the bag, Becky kept the deeds and papers on top of the bed, along with the large architect’s drawing. Then she took out her notebook, and added some lines to what she had written previously.

‘No boy children to inherit, or carry on the name’.
‘The curse is finally working, and this year is important’.
‘Everyone involved with the deaths of Thomas and Charity to be punished’.
‘Bessie was the last of the Wright family. They are all gone now’.
‘Something going on with Mum and Samuel Vosper?’
‘Charity says there are good and bad people in the Oliphant family’.
‘Why did Mum’s hair turn white?’

Placing the notebook on top of the other papers and the folded drawing, Becky stood up, and slid everything under one arm. She headed for the door, a determined look on her face. Enough was enough.

It was time to confront Mum.

Cathy looked around as her daughter walked into the room. Nodding at the papers under her arm, she smiled. “What have you got there, Becks? Is it your school project you talked about?” Becky sat on the sofa, dropping everything onto the rug. “Come away from the computer and sit down, Mum, I need to talk to you”. She rose slowly from the chair and came over, her face all concern and worry. “Of course, love. You can always talk to me, you know that”. Not about to let Mum take charge of the conversation, Becky started as she meant to go on. “Please listen to what I have to say, and don’t interrupt me. Alright?” Cathy sat down, a half-smile on her face. She nodded her acceptance.

Becky kept her temper, and her nerve. She spoke with a maturity that belied her eleven years.

“First, I know that you are an Oliphant. The girl I told you I saw is a ghost, and her name is Charity Oliphant. Or at least it was. She was drowned as a witch in the old days, and her father was hanged for something he didn’t do. Now they haunt this mill, and even dragged Sara into the river to stop her talking. Sara was an Oliphant, but I think you know that. I have found out about the good and bad Oliphants, and the Vospers and Wrights. In fact I know everything from the time of the English Civil War, right up to now. I know that you designed this mill for Mr Vosper, and bought the flats, as well as this house. I know that you made the split with Dad happen, and came here for a reason that has nothing to do with house prices. And I think that you have seen Charity, or Thomas, which is why your hair turned white”. Mum was swallowing a lot, and her face had turned as pale as her new hair colour. Becky continued.

“But what I don’t know is why, and what I have to do with it”. You need to tell me. You need to stop lying to me”.

Cathy sat quiet for what seemed like a long time. To say she was shocked by how much her daughter had found out was an understatement. As she opened her mouth to say something, Becky spoke first. “And don’t even think about lying to me, or I will go and ask the tree. I have the power, Charity showed me”. Cathy took a deep breath, and reached out to hold both of her daughter’s hands.

“When I was quite young, both my parents drowned in a boating accident. It happened near here, between the village and the mill. Nobody could understand what they were doing out in a boat at the time, and I was too young to know anything about the family rivalries in this village. I was taken in by Reginald Vosper, Samuel’s father, and he arranged to foster me until I was old enough to leave school. Over the years, he told me about the curse, but I never believed anything like that could be real.
Just a minute, I need a drink”.

She went into the kitchen, returning with a glass of white wine, full to the brim. After sipping some, she carried on. “I was descended from Christian Oliphant, they told me. And so was Sara, who was a cousin. But we had nothing to do with her part of the family. Apparently, Christian was a weak man. He gambled, liked to drink too much, and borrowed money from many people. Eventually, he lost the mill and the land, having to sell it to pay his debts. After that he did odd jobs, and the family lived in little more than a shack, on the outskirts of the village.

The Vospers were kind to me, especially Marjorie, Reginald’s wife. She couldn’t have any more children after Samuel, so treated me like her own daughter. When I was old enough to leave and go to university, they talked to me again about the curse. This time, it didn’t sound so much like a fairy tale. Reginald was really concerned that one day his name would die out, and everything would be inherited by a girl child. He told me that I could help, and that one day I would be told what to do. In return for that future help, I was given the money for my education, and everything I ever needed. I would also be successful in my chosen career, as Reginald or his son would see that I always had work as an architect. I went off to Exeter, and more or less forgot about the old legend. I met your Dad, and did well with my business too. Then I had you, and life was going beautifully, just as I had always hoped.

Some time later, I was contacted by Samuel Vosper. He told me that ‘the time had come’. I had to repay the debt I owed the family. He had no sons, just a daughter, Matilda. She was a wayward girl, but he had put her promiscuity to good use, and now controlled more or less everything in this area. I told your Dad I had to travel for business, and stayed the weekend at the Vosper house. Samuel really scared me. He had been in touch with Sara, and she had told him how to reverse the curse. His wife Andrea was still young enough to have more children, and he yearned for a son to leave everything to. But it had to be done soon, while Andrea could still bear children. I was to create a situation where your Dad would leave me, or I would leave him. They would give me this mill house and the apartments, and also pay for the hunting lodge in Scotland I have been designing. I would never want for anything again, he assured me.

But if I didn’t agree, he would make it his business to ruin me, and get involved in your life too. He said he was prepared to go to any lengths.

So I pretended to go along with his plan. I split with your Dad, moved here, and started to design the hunting lodge. Oliphant is an old Scottish name, and we have distant relatives up there. Once everything had been concluded here, I could live up there away from it all, and be comfortable for the rest of my life. I managed to convince Samuel that I was seriously going to go ahead with it, and that is what I have been arranging since we moved here. And yes, I did see Charity. She stopped my car, and then shouted at me. She was terrifying. But you have to know that I was never going to see it through. I had no intention of doing what Samuel had demanded of me. I never would. I have just been trying to buy time, to find another way”.

Cathy sat back, and swallowed a huge gulp of the wine.

Becky had listened intently. But even though Mum had sounded sincere, all the lies and deceit had made her distrustful of her mother now. She thought long and hard before asking her next question. “But Mum, how does that involve me?” Cathy hesitated, as if unsure how to reply.

“You are to be drowned in the river by the mill, to lift the curse.
It will be made to look like an accident”.

Mum’s answer made Becky’s eyebrows move up so far, she imagined them disappearing under her hairline. She kept her cool though, still finding it hard to credit any of this story. And she had more questions to ask now. “How did they imagine that drowning me would lift the curse? And why did they ever think you would agree to it? We could just pack up and move back to Exeter, or I could phone Dad, and get him to pick me up. It doesn’t make sense, Mum”.

Cathy leaned forward to take her daughter’s hands again as she spoke, but Becky pulled back.

“You have to understand a few things about the people around here, Becks. Not just Samuel, but the Wrights, and Sara too. This goes all the way back to long before the time of the Civil War, and those old beliefs and superstitions are still adhered to by many. As you have seen, vengeful spirits are still operating. Charity and Thomas have their own agenda, Samuel Vosper was ready to believe anything, and Sara was a bitter spinster, ready to exploit the old legends to become a famous writer. And they all believed that I would go along with it, to be rich and privileged”.

She stopped to quaff down the last of the wine, then headed into the kitchen for a refill before coming back to continue.

“Sara wanted to be famous and recognised. Her ambition was to publish a best-seller about the curse and everything associated with it, right up to modern times. She believed it would be made into a film or TV serial, and got over-excited about the potential for fame and fortune that might come with that. She told Samuel as much, and pretended that the willow tree had revealed what he had to do. She told him that if his firstborn was to drown my firstborn, the curse would change, and become a curse on our family, instead of his. It would also mean that not all the Oliphants had to die, before he could have sons. His wife would be able to have more children, and hopefully one of them would be a boy”.

She stopped to drink more wine, as Becky pondered what she had heard. “So Tilly has to be the one to drown me?” Cathy’s mouth was still on the rim of the glass, so she nodded. “Why don’t we just leave then? Or I could go to live with Dad, and that’s so far away, they would never get to me. It still doesn’t make sense why you would even agree to bring me here, Mum”. Cathy finally put the glass down. Her face was flushed from drinking on an empty stomach, but her voice was clear as she carried on. “I firmly believe that they would get to you wherever you are, love. You don’t realise just how much money and influence these people have, as well as the contacts they can call on, all over the country. I thought it best to seem to go along with the plan, come back here, and put an end to it. Now all I have to do is to work out how”.

Becky was completely unconvinced. She couldn’t shake the feeling that Mum was still lying. She was too smooth, too prepared with her answers. She looked her Mum directly in the eyes as she replied. “So you are telling me that this is all about ancestry? Nothing to do with money, power, or influence. A successful businessman like Mr Vosper is prepared to let his daughter drown me, just to carry on his name. Presumably Tilly is happy to do that too, even though I can see nothing in it for her. And you are supposed to stand by and watch, maybe even help? This is 2019, Mum. It sounds like a lot of nonsense to me”.

Cathy was ready with her reply. “If it’s nonsense, then what about Charity and Thomas? How do you explain talking to a girl who has been dead for hundreds of years, or seeing her father too? Long before the Catholics and the Puritans existed around here, the people had their own beliefs, their own gods. They worshiped trees, or the sun and the moon. They believed that carrying on their lineage was the most important thing in life, the reason they were put here in the first place. It’s all in books, or online. Knowing you, Becks, I am sure that you have looked it up. Despite appearing to live normal lives, families like the Wrights and the Vospers never changed on the inside. They continued to believe in the old ways, to crave power and influence, and to pass that on down the generations. Charity knew that, as long ago as the 1640s. That’s why she chose that curse. You can ask her if you don’t believe me. I expect you get to see her all the time. And why do you think so many other people have drowned in almost the same spot? That couldn’t be a coincidence. The river is the key to all of this, because that’s where Charity met her end”.

There was a lot to think about. Becky stood up. “I have school tomorrow, and all this is whirring around in my head. I need to try to get to sleep, so I’m going up to my room now, Mum”. Cathy stood up too, spreading her arms, a nervous smile on her lips. “Do I get a hug, Becks?” Her daughter ignored her, and walked upstairs without a backward glance.

Charity was sitting on the floor, at the end of the bed. “Now you know, young Rebecca. You have heard the web of lies from your mother’s own mouth. I have told you all along that you were in danger here, and I am the only one who can help you. Do you believe me now?” Becky put the papers down on the floor, and turned to the girl. “Yes, I do”.

Fearful of being overheard, Becky knelt on the floor next to the girl. She tolerated the smell of her, placing her mouth close to the small ear protruding from under the cotton cap. Then she whispered for a long time, Charity nodding and smiling as she listened. Then Becky moved her own ear next to Charity’s mouth, and listened as the girl whispered to her. Satisfied, Becky stood up, finally speaking out loud.

“Good. That is exactly what we will do, Charity”.

When Becky opened her bedroom door the next morning, Cathy was already awake, and sitting up in bed. Her daughter’s tone was flat, more like a statement than conversation. “You have to ring the school Mum. Tell them I am ill or something. I won’t be going in today”. Before she could reply, Becky had closed the door, and was walking downstairs. Cathy picked up her mobile and rang as requested, making up something about a high temperature. No point arguing about it. Becky had changed, and she had to admit to being a little afraid of her now.

When she got to the willow tree, Charity was waiting for her.

“Don’t forget what I told you, Rebecca. For the tree to show the future, you sit facing the other way. Put both arms around the trunk, and your head against the bark”. Becky nodded, her mouth a little dry with apprehension. Kneeling against the tree, she wrapped her arms around it and lowered her head until her forehead was pressing hard against it. With her eyes closed, she spoke out loud. “Show me my future, and all my secrets”.

It was different than before, much scarier. She experienced the strange feeling of melting into the wood, as if she had become part of the living tree. Fighting to overcome the desire to pull away and break the bond, she allowed it to happen, ignoring the icy cold that seeped into every part of her body. She could sense the branches as extensions of her fingers, and imagined the leaves pulsing as they took nutrition into their veins. It was as if the tree was feeding on her energy, like she was being sucked dry.

The rush of images made her catch her breath. She saw things she expected to see, and many things she wished she had never seen. She discovered secrets about herself, and saw herself in the future, older. First in her twenties, and then with grey hair. As the vision slowed gradually, she could see something very clearly. Something about Mum. Her and her Mum.

Breaking the connection, and rocking back on her knees, Becky blacked out, unconscious under the branches.

A long time passed before she woke up. Crawling out from under the canopy seeking escape from the bitter cold there, it was obvious that Charity had gone. The tree had showed her future, and confirmed some of her worst fears too. But one truth was comforting. She would get old. That must surely mean she would not die in the river, by the hand of Tilly. But could she trust the tree? Charity had said she could, but she still wasn’t sure she trusted her. She did believe her, but trust was a long way from that.

As she walked back to the house, Becky felt stronger, wiser, more mature. She could see how you could become addicted to asking the tree. It offered solutions, and also gave you back some of the power it had taken from so many people over the centuries. Mum’s car was gone, so she went up to her room, and did some research on the old laptop. She needed to know more about willow trees. Wikipedia gave some interesting facts, and she copied them down in her notebook.

‘In China, some people carry willow branches with them on the day of their Tomb Sweeping or Qingming Festival. Willow branches are also put up on gates and/or front doors, which they believe help ward off the evil spirits that wander on Qingming. Legend states that on Qingming Festival, the ruler of the underworld allows the spirits of the dead to return to earth. Since their presence may not always be welcome, willow branches keep them away. In traditional pictures of the Goddess of Mercy Guanyin, she is often shown seated on a rock with a willow branch in a vase of water at her side. The Goddess employs this mysterious water and the branch for putting demons to flight. Taoist witches also use a small carving made from willow wood for communicating with the spirits of the dead. The image is sent to the nether world, where the disembodied spirit is deemed to enter it, and give the desired information to surviving relatives on its return.’

‘In Japanese tradition, the willow is associated with ghosts. It is popularly supposed that a ghost will appear where a willow grows. Willow trees are also quite prevalent in folklore and myths’.

‘In English folklore, a willow tree is believed to be quite sinister, capable of uprooting itself and stalking travellers.’

‘Hans Christian Andersen wrote a story called Under the Willow Tree in which children ask questions of a tree they call ‘willow-father’, paired with another entity called ‘elder-mother’.’

‘In Central Europe a “hollow willow” is a common figure of speech, alluding to a person one can confide secrets in.’

‘”Green Willow” is a Japanese ghost story in which a young samurai falls in love with a woman called Green Willow who has a close spiritual connection with a willow tree. “The Willow Wife” is another, not dissimilar tale. “Wisdom of the Willow Tree” is an Osage Nation story in which a young man seeks answers from a willow tree, addressing the tree in conversation as ‘Grandfather’.’

Reading back over her notes, Becky gave a low whistle. From Japan and China to North America; in England, Denmark, and many other European countries, the willow trees were associated with ghosts, knowledge, wisdom, legends, and fables. Maybe Charity was right all along. Perhaps she could be trusted after all.

When her Mum got home, Becky was waiting for her in the living room. “I want you to arrange whatever it is Mr Vosper has planned, Mum. Stop trying to find a way around it, and let’s just see what happens. I will be going back to school tomorrow, one day off was enough for what I needed to do”.

Cathy watched her walk up the stairs, and a chill passed through her, reminding her of the old saying.

“Someone is walking over your grave”.

The next day at school, Becky was brimming with renewed confidence. The session at the tree had given her a new outlook on life, and all her previous worries about the new school had faded away overnight. By lunchtime, the weather had improved, and she went to sit on a wall outside to eat her sandwich. Before she could bite into it, Tilly appeared. She sat down on the wall next to her, smelling of perfume and clean clothes. As she crossed her legs, Becky heard the swish of nylon from her expensive sheer tights. The older girl edged closer, until their bodies were touching. Despite what she knew about Tilly, Becky couldn’t help but admit to herself that she was definitely attracted to her.

Lowering the sandwich, Becky looked up at her, raising her eyebrows. She wanted it to seem that she had not forgotten that she had been snubbing her for days. Tilly tossed her head to move her perfect hair from out of her face, and licked her pouting lips. “I was thinking, Becky. How would you like if it I came over to your place at the weekend? If the weather stays like this, we could go for a swim in the river. I’ve just got an amazing new one-piece swimsuit, or if nobody else is around, we could just go skinny-dipping”. She looked down at Becky with a wide smile, her eyelashes fluttering slowly, heavy with mascara. Leaning further in, so that Becky could smell her sweet spearmint breath, she added, “I could stop over the night too, if you would like that. We could have a nice sleepover, a pyjama party sort-of thing. Though I don’t wear any pyjamas, I should warn you”.

Becky felt like a cobra in a basket, being charmed by an expert flute-player. She had to confess that Tilly was very good at this sort of thing. But the blatant sexuality of her words made her blush. That was something she wasn’t used to at her age; a girlish crush was one thing, but what Tilly was implying was something else altogether. Keeping her cool, and not wanting to give away what she knew already, Becky did her best to sound excited and impressed. She responded to the older girl’s attentions in the way she was sure was expected of her. “Oh wow! Really? Go swimming and hang out, and you would sleep over too? That would be great, Tilly. I have been so lonely since we moved here”. Tilly seemed to be convinced, and had taken the bait. She lightly placed an arm around Becky, and put her full lips right against the younger girl’s ear. “Well you won’t be lonely anymore, I guarantee that”. Then she stood up, and started to walk away. Without turning, she called back. “Shall we say Saturday, around midday?” She didn’t wait for a reply.

Biting into the sandwich, Becky watched as Tilly walked in the direction of the playing field. By the corner of the netball cage, she stopped and pulled a phone out of her bag. She had a brief conversation, smiling all the time. That far away, Becky couldn’t hear what was being said, but it was a safe bet that she was either ringing her father, or speaking to Cathy. She had only been at school for less than four hours, and the plan had already been discussed.

The wheels were in motion.

When she went to get the bus home that night, Tilly was there too. All smiles, and pulling Becky to the seats at the back. She sat close, whispering about how much fun they would have at the weekend, taking every opportunity to touch Becky’s leg, or push herself softly against the younger girl. Now she could see through all this, Becky enjoyed the charade. Let her carry on with her idea of seduction and flirting, she thought. I know her real character now, and I will just play along until the right time. But part of the impressionable young girl still inside her did enjoy the attention, and the convincing show of affection. She had to really struggle not to surrender to that.

When they got to the village, Becky stayed on the bus until the others were off. She guessed Bridie would have something to say, and she was right. Turning in her seat, Bridie shook her head. “I thought I had warned you about Tilly, girly. You mustn’t let yourself get taken in by her. She may look wonderful, but she’s rotten inside. Don’t believe anything she says, and most of all don’t let yourself get involved with her. I promise you will regret it”. Becky didn’t trust Bridie anymore than anyone else around the village. And she wanted her to know it, and to stop interfering. She walked to the side door, and then leaned forward, speaking quietly. “From what I have heard, you didn’t take your own advice, Bridie. Just because you can’t have her anymore, you want to poison her for anyone else. Just stay out of my business, and don’t come to my house again”.

Bridie’s face turned bright red, and she sat back heavily into her seat. She would like to have said something, but decided to shut up. This new girl knew her secret already, and it looked like she would never escape the Vospers.

In the house, Mum was standing in the hallway as she walked in. Her expression was serious. “I did as you asked, love. I phoned Reginald Vosper, and he said he will start things moving. I expect you will be approached by Tilly soon”. Becky looked at her Mum for some time, trying to read either truth or deceit in her face. “I have already. Tilly couldn’t wait, and spoke to me at lunchtime. She’s coming for the weekend, so she said. A sleepover, then swimming. Or swimming then a sleepover. She didn’t make that clear”. Her tone was deliberately sarcastic, but Mum hadn’t noticed. “I can make myself scarce, if you want to be alone with her, Becks. Leave you some food, and think of a reason not to be around. Whatever you think best”.

Becky started straight into her Mum’s eyes, her gaze was intense.

“Oh no, Mum. You have to be here”.

For the rest of that week at school, Tilly stuck to Becky’s side whenever she had the opportunity. She started to use the bus each way again, and always sat next to Becky at the back, ignoring the moans of the two younger boys she had displaced. They seemed to instinctively know not to push it, and acted rather wary of Tilly. Lunch breaks were spent together, with the older girl cuddling Becky at every opportunity, and chatting to her as if they were the same age. Bridie ignored them both when they were on the bus, staring straight ahead, and not saying anything to either of them.

By Friday afternoon, Becky was feeling rather sad. Even though she knew it was all an act, this new-found relationship with the gorgeous Tilly was making her feel so good. She was ready early every day, and excited when the bus stopped outside Tilly’s house, and she rushed in to snuggle up close on the usual seats. Part of her wished that all the other stuff was just a dream, and that life could go on just like this for her and Tilly. She found herself dreaming about her at night, and having difficulty getting off to sleep, as she pictured her in her thoughts. It was a constant emotional battle to keep grounded, and to remind herself that it was just fake.

There had been no sign of Charity at all. Since they had talked in the bedroom, she hadn’t appeared. Becky had gone looking for her at the tree, but there was no trace of her, not even the lingering smell that indicated she had been there. But one thing was glaringly obvious. The tree was getting bigger. Much bigger. In the few weeks since she had come to live there, the trunk seemed thicker, and many more branches drooped down to touch the water too. Even when she didn’t crawl under the canopy, Becky could feel something by just standing close. An energy, almost like electricity. If she stood still and closed her eyes, she could have sworn she heard something too. A low humming, reverberating along the ground.

Around the house, Mum wasn’t mentioning the weekend. Irritatingly, she carried on as if nothing unusual was happening. Acting somewhat bright and breezy, making her favourite meals, and turning up with special treats, like the Belgian Buns that she knew Becky loved so much. But she wasn’t about to be fooled, or lulled into a false sense of security by all that. Although she could never be one hundred percent certain, she still didn’t trust Mum. And this out of character behaviour just made her all the more suspicious.

On the way home in the bus, Tilly was chatting constantly about what fun they would have when she came round the next day. As they got close to her house, she suddenly asked Becky for her mobile phone number. In all that time, she had never asked for it before, and Becky wondered why. “Is it so you can let me know if you are going to be late? Or perhaps you are going to cancel at the last minute?” Tilly grinned, and gently stroked the side of Becky’s face. “Nothing like that, I promise. I just want to phone you later, when you’re alone. We never really get the chance for a proper chat at school now, do we?” Becky told her the number, and watched as Tilly entered her as a contact at lightning speed. Then she turned the phone round, so Becky could see that she had the number, and could read the contact name she had added.
‘Beautiful Becky’.

Her face flushed as she read that, and she didn’t know what to say. Luckily, the bus stopped outside Tilly’s driveway, and she got off quickly, calling out “See you tomorrow” as she slid the door closed.

That night, Mum still didn’t say anything about Tilly coming round the next day. Becky went up and did her homework, and when she came down for dinner, she saw that there were more Belgian Buns as a treat. Mum had even taken the cherry from the top of her one, and placed it onto Becky’s bun so she would have two. After eating, they watched a film on DVD. Becky couldn’t concentrate on it, her mind was racing. Just before ten, her mobile rang. Mum jumped with surprise. Nobody ever rang Becky’s mobile. Grabbing her phone, she headed for the stairs. “I’ll take it up in my room, Mum”, she called out as she ran up them two at a time, swiping the screen to accept the call.

Closing the door tight, Becky went over and flopped onto the bed. “Hi Tilly”, She was going to try to sound excited, but realised she didn’t have to try. The voice at the other end sounded like an older version of Tilly. Slightly croaky, and breaking with emotion. A hint of breathlessness made it seem like a secret that they were even talking. “I’ve been thinking about you all night, Becky. Have you been thinking about me? Are you alone, maybe up in your room? Or is your Mum around? Can you talk privately?” The questions came slowly; measured, deliberate. “Yeah, I’m alone in my room, Mum’s downstairs”. Tilly purred like a cat. “Oh, that’s good, because I want to talk to to you about when I sleep over tomorrow”. Becky stretched out properly. She was still wearing her school uniform, not having bothered to get changed as she hadn’t planned on going anywhere. She pulled the tie from around her neck with one hand, and threw it on the floor.

Tilly started to say things. They were things that Becky hadn’t expected at all. Sensual things, outright rude things, using words that Becky had never heard before, and lurid descriptions that made her imagination go crazy. Even though she was alone in the room, Becky felt the heat as she blushed from her face all down her neck. Tilly’s growling voice and the things she was saying made her tingle all over, until she was visibly quivering. Her toes felt as if they were being tickled, and she wiggled them around so violently inside her thick tights that they started to feel sore. It was as if she was being dipped in warm honey, and she was beginning to give in to Tilly’s skillful seduction. Then she heard the voice grow louder, asking something. “Becky, are you still there? Can you hear me?” She snapped out of the reverie, and replied. “Yes, I was just listening”.

“Did you like what you heard?” The voice was back to sounding like a soft growl. Becky sat up, fighting to come to her senses. Something about the way Tilly was speaking made her feel hypnotised, and she realised what was happening just in time. “Er, yeah. It sounded great. But I don’t know anything about all that, you do know that?” A soft laugh came in reply. “Don’t worry, my beautiful Becky. Leave everything to me. Night, night, sweetheart”. With that, the call ended, a long buzzing tone indicating that Tilly had hung up.

She dropped the phone onto the bed, and walked quickly across to the bathroom on the landing. In the mirror, she could see the redness was still there. Her cheeks were still hot, and the colouring extended down below the open neck of her school shirt. Still trembling, she ran the cold tap, and splashed water onto her face, and the back of her neck. The shock of the water calmed her down, and gave her back her full senses. It had been close, very close indeed. She had almost succumbed totally, she knew that. Now she knew why Tilly had insisted on phoning her tonight. She was going to have to try very hard not to keep thinking about all the things she had said.

Back in her room, she jumped to see Charity sitting at the end of the bed. The girl had a grim expression, and was shaking her head.

“You have to be more careful, Rebecca. Keep alert, or it will be the worse for you”.

Tilly was fashionably late. By the time it got to 1 pm, Becky had made up her mind that she wasn’t going to turn up at all. She had checked her phone twice, but there were no messages. Mum had been acting very strange since breakfast. As soon as they had both finished their toast, Mum was running around like a whirlwind. She was cleaning everything in the house, in every room. That was something she had hardly bothered with, since the day after they had moved in. After that, she changed the beds, loaded the washing machine, and started cooking.

It was hard to remember when Mum had ever done so much cooking. Becky had certainly never seen her bake a cake, but she had two on the go by nine that morning. Once they were ready to go into the oven, she began to make all sorts of things that had never been seen in the house before, even her own small loaf of garlic bread. Becky had been tasked with taking out the rubbish, and tidying up her room before it was thoroughly cleaned. But mostly, she had been told to keep out of the way, and to let Mum get on with things. Retreating to her now immaculate room, Becky put everything back into the canvas bag, and crept into her Mum’s room. She tipped up the small armchair in the corner, and hid the bag behind it. Mum would never think to look for it in her own room. At least she hoped she wouldn’t.

By ten-thirty, there was a delicious-looking chicken and mozzarella pasta bake made and ready to cook later, various expensive nibbles arranged in bowls, and two bottles of Prosecco cooling in the fridge. Mum ordered her not to touch anything, then disappeared upstairs to have a bath, and get ready. Before jumping into the tub, she shouted downstairs. “I hope you’re going to change into something nice, Becks. And put some make-up on too. Give your hair a brush while you’re at it, it wouldn’t hurt to make an effort!”

Bemused by her Mum’s attitude to the arrival of Tilly, Becky nevertheless tidied her hair, applied some very basic make-up, and changed into what counted as a ‘little black dress’, for an 11 year-old. Viewing the result in her wardrobe mirror, she decided she looked not unlike a schoolgirl version of Audrey Hepburn. But if they really were going swimming, then what was the point?

It was past two when the Range Rover appeared in the driveway. Tilly stepped out wearing ripped jeans, and a figure-hugging cashmere top. Mum was acting as if the Queen of England had turned up. “Do I look alright, Becks? Is the house clean and tidy? Do you think I have done enough food?” Becky replied with an undisguised sneer. “Just the red carpet, Mum. You forgot that”. Tilly walked in, carrying her Louis Vitton overnight bag. She smelled as wonderful as a night in Xanadu, and looked like a very casual one million dollars, or much more. Mum fawned over her, kissing both cheeks as if greeting the president of an emerging oil state. Becky looked on with interest. It was quite obvious to her that they knew each other. Very well.

But Tilly slid past Mum, and made a bee-line for her. “Why, Becks, you look wonderful! I hope that you didn’t go to any trouble for me?” Behind her, the Range Rover was executing a noisy turn, before speeding off back in the direction of the country lane. Mum was so weird. Almost simpering at the presence of Tilly. And what was she wearing? Nothing appropriate for a Mum, that was for sure. A midnight blue cocktail dress, in the daytime. Too low at the front, and far too short for a woman of her age. Then there was the hair and make-up. Rollers had obviously been applied, giving a Hollywood curl. Her eyes were crazily black, and the blusher on her cheeks made her look like someone in drag act. Even with that shock of unnaturally white hair, Mum looked like a high-class tramp. Tilly more or less ignored Mum, despite her blatant effort. “Becks babe, let’s go up to your room”.

Dumping her expensive bag on the bed, Tilly turned with a smile that could launch those proverbial one thousand ships. “So sorry I’m late, darling. Let’s give the swimming a miss until tomorrow morning. We can have a great time catching up, and spend some quality time together later. What do you say?” Becky was calmer now, and wise to all her flattery. “Yeah, that’s great, Tilly. We can chill out, have a nice meal later. Mum has cooked enough for ten”. The older girl oozed confidence. Leaning forward, she planted a soft warm kiss directly on Becky’s mouth. Smiling, she breathed the words. “Oh, we are going to have such a wonderful time, my beauty”. Inside, Becky was calm. A difficult night’s sleep had made her sharp, and hardened her young heart. She beamed at her supposed friend, in a pretence of adoration. “I’m sure we are, Tilly”.

Not much happened at all, leaving Becky wondering if something had changed. They spent the late afternoon in the living room. Tilly was talking nonsense, and Mum was flirting with her as if she was Brad Pitt. Becky found it plainly embarrassing, and felt out of it, as if she was in the way of the other two. Dinner was no better, Mum roaring with laughter at Tilly’s often crude comments. When it came to bedtime, Becky was beginning to lose her nerve. What if Tilly held her to all that stuff she had spoken about? Mum tried to drag it out, as if she didn’t want the girls to leave her, and go upstairs. She poured Tilly a large glass of the white wine, schmoozing up next to her on the sofa. Despite Cathy’s attentions, Tilly kept her gaze on Becky. Winking at her and grinning, rolling her eyes in mockery at Cathy making a show of herself. When she had finished her wine, her voice adopted a commanding tone.

“Time we were going up to bed. We don’t want to end up sleeping in late tomorrow”.

Up in the bedroom. Tilly turned up her nose at the relatively small bed, though she hadn’t mentioned it earlier. “I suppose it will be cosy enough for two, but it’s going to be a tight squeeze later, for sleeping”. Becky perched on the edge at the end of the bed, looking down at her feet. Tilly had already peeled off her top and jeans, and was wandering around in her scanty underwear. Becky stayed resolute; still fully dressed for now, and refusing to look at the amazing figure of the older girl. Tilly was rather tipsy. She planted her hands on her hips, and raised her voice. “Something’s wrong, I can tell. This is not working out like we talked about, Becks. That bed is pathetic, you don’t seem at all interested, and I am left wondering why I bothered to come. I might just as well go and climb in with your Mum. At least she’s got a king-sized bed”. Becky shrugged, a sense of relief washing over her. “Please yourself, if you feel like that”.
It hadn’t escaped her notice that Tilly knew how big Mum’s bed was.

Tilly straightened up. “Well you might not be interested, but I can tell you that Cathy is. At least she was the last time, and the time before that”.

With an unpleasant leer on her face, she turned on her heel and left the room. Seconds later, she could clearly be heard next door, though the voices were muted at first. Then there was laughter, then quiet. Later, there were other noises. Even Becky knew what they were.

But she didn’t care.

Becky woke up the next morning when the brightness of the light from the window made her wince. Tilly was in the room, pulling the curtains open, and calling out in a very cheery voice. “Come on Becks! Time to get out of bed, and down to the river. It’s a beautiful day, and we can shower after swimming”. Becky forced her eyes open reluctantly, then looked away quickly, as she was greeted by the sight of Tilly’s completely naked, spray-tanned body. Sitting up, she rubbed her eyes, then watched from behind as the older girl bent down and rummaged through her overnight bag. She watched her slip on a pink swimming costume, then as Tilly turned, she had to wonder why she had bothered to wear it at all. It was so revealing, she might just as well have left it in the bag.

Nothing was said by either of them about last night. Tilly acted as if everything was totally normal. “I’ll let you get sorted, and see you downstairs. Bring some towels, Becky love”. Walking over to a chest of drawers, Becky found her one-piece modest black swimsuit, bought to wear for swimming class at school. She took off her pyjamas, and dropped them on the floor, before pulling the swimsuit on. Out on the landing, the door to Mum’s room was still closed. Becky opened the linen cupboard, and took out two large bath towels, draping them over her arm. Then she stood there for a full two minutes, until she was fully awake, and had composed her thoughts. Except for Charity, she was on her own. She had to stay focused, think straight.

Tilly was already on the grassy bank next to the river. She looked stunning, even with yesterday’s make-up, and her hair all over the place. Becky handed her a towel, and she spread it out before arranging herself carefully on it, posing like a glamour model. The sun was climbing still, and it looked like it was going to be a nice day. The silence was awkward. Becky tried not to look sideways at the older girl, unwilling to experience the seduction provided by her easy posturing. Instead, she suggested they get on with it. “Shall we go in then? Might as well get wet, and start swimming”. Tilly turned over on her front, her gaze reminding Becky of Kaa, the snake in the Disney film The Jungle Book. “No rush, honey. Let’s get some sun first, let the water warm up”. Becky knew enough about English rivers to know that the water was unlikely to warm up that much, no matter how sunny the day.

She was was wasting time, probably waiting for something. Or someone.

Wrapping her arms around her bent knees, Becky tried to sound completely normal as she replied. “Yeah, okay. I’m fine here”. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched as Tilly stretched both arms up, extending her legs, and wiggling her almost completely-exposed bum cheeks. Becky smiled to herself. Tilly could try as hard as she liked. She was immune to that now. Last night had taught her something about both her, and Mum. Most of all, Becky was now completely unimpressed with the older girl. The assumption that she could treat her as she had, and believe that she was too dull and needy to be affected by that. And not least the fact that she had no idea that Becky knew exactly what she was up to.

As the time dragged on, it seemed that Tilly was in no rush to go swimming at all. Instead, she continued to squirm around on the towel, with one arm in front of her face. Becky gave up, and stretched out herself, feeling the warmth from the sun making her relax. It was impossible not to keep glancing to her right though. Being so close to Tilly’s curves and soft, fake-tanned skin was becoming irresistible, the longer she tried to resist it. She was only an inch or two away. Becky knew that she simply had to flex her fingers, and she would be touching her. It was as if someone had opened the door to the world’s best sweet shop, and invited her to walk in and have her fill, free of charge. She watched in complete fascination, as the fingers of her right hand seemed to move of their own accord, until they hovered over the top of Tilly’s thigh, close enough to feel the heat rising from it.

“Time to get in the water!”

The loud voice made Becky jump, and she pulled her hand back as if it had been stung. Charity was standing on her left, her arms folded, and her expression severe. Obviously, Tilly hadn’t heard her, as she hadn’t moved or looked up. “If you stay lying here like this, you know what will happen. She will own you, just as she owns your mother, and you will be lost. Just get up, and into the river. She will have no option but to follow”. Charity wasn’t in the mood for suggestions. It sounded like an order. She waited until Becky stood up, then disappeared. Walking down to the river’s edge, Becky called back. “I’m going in for a swim now. You can stay there if you want, but I’m bored”. Once she was in up to her waist, Tilly stood up and ran to join her. She didn’t mess around, and jumped straight in with a childish squeal. Becky eyed her with suspicion, wondering when the trouble would start.

Floating serenely on her back, swimming gently against the current, Tilly looked for all the world like a beautiful young mermaid. Becky slid down into the deeper water, and started a slow breast stroke, swimming in circles around the older girl. She looked back at the bank, but there was no sign of Charity. Suddenly, Tilly turned, and began to swim away from the house, changing to a fast front crawl. A little further on, she stopped, treading water. With her wet hair plastered across her face, she shouted to Becky. “Come up here, next to me. Then we can race back to the mill. I bet I beat you!” Becky reached her in no time, and Tilly wrapped her arms around her in the water, her face pressing close. “I know you’re a strong swimmer, but I’m older, and taller. I’m bound to win. Start on the count of three, okay?”

Before any count was started, the water began to churn around them, as the current doubled in seconds. The sound of rushing water could clearly be heard from the mill, something like a small waterfall Becky remembered from a foreign holiday years ago. She fought against the water, trying to stay in the same spot. But it was hopeless, and she was swept away, just managing to stay on the surface as she was propelled along at speed in the bubbling river. Glancing behind, she could see that Tilly was close, keeping in her wake. Her face was grim and determined now, the seductive smile just a memory.

Approaching the mill, Becky had time to notice just two things. Her Mum was standing on top of the sluice gates, the huge metal lever held open by both her hands. And the mill wheel was turning, for the first time in hundreds of years. There were no longer any gears inside to spin millstones to make flour, but still the wheel moved slowly around, turning on the huge coupling that went through into the wall of the house. Both the gate lever and mill machinery must have been restored and repaired when she had been at school. How had she failed to notice that?

As she felt herself being sucked under the wheel by the rushing water, she finally spotted Charity, standing just behind Mum on the flimsy platform. She smiled as the water covered her completely, and the large wooden slats of the mill wheel passed over her head. Charity had come to save her. Everything would be alright.

It was moving day again. The large hire van was parked outside the house, and Becky looked down at it from the window on the landing. From her Mum’s room, she could hear the sound of Mum and Tilly chatting as they packed away the last items of clothing. Everything else was already in the back of the van. Moments later, they emerged from the bedroom, each struggling with a large suitcase. Becky watched as they bumped them down the stairs, then walked out to heave them into the last space at the back of the van. Mum pulled the shutter closed, and jingled the keys in her right hand. Tilly smiled fondly at her, and reached out to squeeze her free hand. Without a backward glance, they got into the front of the van, and it drove off slowly across the gravel.

Charity was standing behind her, but Becky refused to turn and look at her. She watched as the van went out of sight along the country lane before she spoke. “I’ll never forgive you, Charity, you do know that, don’t you? You were supposed to save me, it was the plan”. She turned to face the girl, who was looking awkward, a half-smile turning up the corners of her mouth as she replied. “Never is a long time, Rebecca. I should know”.

Becky felt like crying, but refused to let any tears come. “And the tree. What about the tree? It showed me my future”. Charity looked down at her feet, which never seemed to get any dirtier than they were that first day. “That was me, sorry. It was always me. The tree is just a tree”. Becky wanted to punch her, but couldn’t see the point. “But why, Charity? Why did you let them drown me? Tilly was the one who was supposed to die”.
The girl shrugged.

“I was lonely”.

The End.

Connect For Love: The Complete Story

This is all ten parts of my recent fiction serial, in one post of 9,600 words.

Kevin had never had a girlfriend. Unless you counted chubby Sandra, who let him have a snog and a feel if he bought her some sweets. He thought she was his girlfriend for a while, at least until he found out that she had the same arrangement with Darren, and that bloke who delivered the pizzas on a moped.

Then there was Helen, the office girl at work. She acted like she might want to be his girlfriend, but she was five years older, and he didn’t want to look stupid by asking her out and getting a knock-back. When she left, Mr Reynolds told him he had missed his chance. He reckoned she had really liked him. “You need to spot the signals son”, he had said, tapping the side of his nose.

By the time his twenty-first approached, Kevin had to admit that he might be the only virgin of that age in the town. Everywhere he looked there were couples. Walking arm-in-arm, sitting together at bus stops, or in the back row at the cinema. All his mates were sorted. Even Darren had finally settled for chubby Sandra, and they had got engaged. She was even chubbier now that she was expecting his baby of course.

There was nothing for it but to accept his fate. Living with Mum and Dad was fine. They were easy going, and it was cheap too. He worked overtime at the factory, and soon had a lot of money put by. If ever he found his Miss Right, there would be enough for a deposit on their own place, that was certain. He talked to Mr Reynolds about it sometimes, as they sat eating their sandwiches at lunchtime. Although he was older than Dad, he seemed more like an older brother, and always had something positive to say. “It’s not that you are ugly, Kevin. You are much like anyone your age, and very presentable. But you have to push yourself more, son. You know, get out there. These days, the dating game isn’t all about meeting girls in pubs, or at parties. Get online, it’s all out there. Someone’s waiting, just for you”.

In his room that night, Kevin checked out some dating sites. The old laptop he had used at school might have seen better days, but it worked well enough for what he needed. He didn’t like many of the modern sites he had seen on his phone. The ones where you just swipe away who you don’t like, or save those you do. They would probably keep coming back as ‘No Match’ anyway, so he soon didn’t bother with them. On the fourth page of the Google Search, he found something more his style. A proper dating company, with the chance to see real profiles, lots of photos, and the opportunity to send a request to ‘Connect’. He liked the name of the company too. ‘Connect For Love’. He paid the registration fee with his bank card, selected a six-month membership, and began to list his options.

When his search parameters were done, he had the chance to review them.

Looking for: Female 18-24.
Children: No.
Likes: Films, TV, Quiet nights in, Pets.
Build: No preference.
Height: Under six feet.
Hair colour: No preference.
Eye colour: No preference
Race: Caucasian.
Religion: No preference.
Employment: No preference.

Now the site was prompting him to set up his own profile, and to add some photos. He went with the basics.

Single, age 21
Children: No
Six feet tall.
Brown hair.
Green eyes.
Average build.
Likes: TV, Films, Pets, Nights In, Pizza.
Driver: No
Race: Caucasian.
Religion: Protestant.
Employment: Mechanical Engineer.

He took a few selfies with his phone, just head and shoulders. Choosing what seemed to be the best one, he put it on the laptop, and added it as his profile picture.

With a deep breath, he hit the ‘Save Profile’ tab, and waited. The screen refreshed, and there it was. He was online, for anyone on that site to see. Moving the cursor to the top again, he clicked on the ‘Find Matches’ tab. Deep down, he expected it to come back with ‘No results’, or something similar. But he was amazed to see a huge list appear within moments. It kept loading, until it declared, ‘Found. 96 matches’. Giving a low whistle, Kevin decided to pop downstairs and get a bottle of Dr Pepper from the fridge. This could take some time.

Although he normally liked to be in bed before twelve, it was close to two before he finally closed the laptop. So many choices, and all within the chosen twenty mile radius too. The majority of them were in the town itself, and he had been surprised to actually recognise some of the women from his old school on the site. Despite the age range he had selected, many had already been married, and listed themselves as separated or divorced. After a head-spinning night of scrolling back and forth, he had saved eight profiles to his ‘Favourites’.

Turning out the bedside lamp, he hoped he wouldn’t oversleep. He was never late.

Sleep was hard to come by for once. The faces in the photos kept popping into his mind, and he was already excited about getting home from work later, and sending the selected women his ‘Introductory Message’. And although he had whittled down the list to just the eight he really liked the look of, one face and name kept rising to the top in his head.


Although he didn’t get much sleep, Kevin got to work on time. As soon as the morning tea-break arrived, he was on his phone, checking his profile on the dating site. Eleven more matches to think about. He was excited, but still had another look at Alice’s profile, wondering if he would summon up the courage to send her a direct message later. He decided to tell Mr Reynolds that he had taken his advice. The older man smiled at Kevin’s excitement. “Be careful now, son. There are so many to choose from, so don’t go rushing into anything too soon now”.

The afternoon was a blur as he bolted together the machines in for repair, his actions done almost unconsciously, as if he was on auto-pilot. On the way home he bought pie and chips, yelling to his Mum as he went through the door. “No dinner for me tonight, Mum, I bought something. I’ll be up in my room”. He only ate half of the meal before he could stand the waiting no longer. Gulping down a can of Pepsi, he logged on to his account, and started to examine those new matches.

Some of them were very impressive. But Kevin thought at least ten of them might be out of his league, as they were a bit flashy, and almost too good-looking. The last one had a lot of facial piercings, so he deleted her immediately. Sitting back for a moment, he thought about what he would write to the chosen eight women. He would start with Alice, as she was the one that appealed to him the most. If she wasn’t interested, he would move down the list. He liked to have a plan, and thought this was a good one. But he hoped that Alice would respond, as he hadn’t been able to stop thinking about her all day.

Bringing up her profile, Kevin opened the ‘Send Message’ link, and stared at the three photos. She was almost fragile to look at. Slim, short, and with a rather haunted expression. Her short hair suited her, and the big round eyes seemed to be looking right at him. Her skin was so pale it was almost translucent, and the smile seemed to come with some effort. There was nothing brash or confident about her gaze. He thought that was a face he could fall in love with. But what would he say to her? That would need more thought, and another can of Pepsi.

After deleting his first three attempts, he sat and read the fourth try. It would have to do. One last read, before he pressed ‘Send Message’.
‘Dear Alice. I have never been on any dating site before, but I have to say that I was really impressed by your profile, and your photos. You look like the type of young woman I would really like, and I hope that you feel the same about me when you get this, and see my own profile. I haven’t had a lot of experience with women, I admit that. But I am a nice person, at least I think so, and would be kind and caring too. I hope that you will message me back, so we can get to know each other better.
Kind regards, Kevin. x

He had thought long and hard about adding the kiss. Other messages he had seen on the site, public messages, had all been full of emoticons, beating hearts, even quite rude things. He settled for that one small kiss. More his style.

While he waited, he checked her profile again. She was 22, loved pets, liked reading books, and lived alone. Her location wasn’t specified, but he presumed it must be within his chosen area. Nothing much else about her, except her height of five feet three, dress size eight, and brown hair and brown eyes. Non-smoker, non-driver, and no religion preferred. Kevin worried about the reading books. He rarely read any books since leaving school, and hoped she wouldn’t be too mad on books and writers, as he knew next to nothing about literature. But he would be happy to listen to her talk about it, as he was a good listener. At least he thought he was.

The screen suddenly refreshed, and the website showed a dialogue box.
‘You have a new message! (1)’

Kevin’s stomach flipped as he saw it, but disappointment followed, when it wasn’t from Alice. It was a girl called Hayley, one of his eight choices. He opened the private message, and his face fell. She had added a photo of herself wearing a very low-cut vest, and there were massive tattoos all across her chest. They were dark and swirling, some sort of pattern, looking harsh against the white skin of her cleavage. He didn’t like that, not his thing at all. But he decided to read the message anyway.
‘Hi Kevin I C U added me as a match. That’s fab. Perhaps we could get together soon? U look nice. Lurve Hayley. XXXXXX’

He shook his head. The way she had written that, like a text message. And six big kisses, as well as writing ‘Lurve’ instead of ‘love’. He pressed ‘Discard’, not even giving her the courtesy of a reply. Kevin now realised that the profile wasn’t always to be trusted. He hadn’t expected that at all.

When he refreshed the screen, he had a new message. He felt the smile spread across his face as he clicked on it.

It was from Alice.

Alice’s message was long, and included another photo of her. It looked to have been taken on a foreign holiday, full-length, and she was wearing a one-piece swimsuit. She had added a caption above it.
‘Me, in better times’.
It felt strange to see a young woman with such a tiny body, which made her head look unusually large. But the bright smile on her face made Kevin’s heart leap, and he settled down to read the message.

‘Dear Kevin,
I was very pleased to receive your personal message. This is also my first time on a dating site, and I am not at all confident. After being treated quite badly in a previous relationship, I am unsure if I even want to pursue another romance, but I decided to try. You do sound honest, and that is important to me. So many men on this site are brash and crude. You wouldn’t believe some of the messages that are sent to me, or the awful photos that some men think it acceptable to send in a private contact.
You say you like pets, and I have a cat, called Cleopatra. I think you would like her.
Kevin, I would have to take things very slowly, you understand. It is not in my nature to be forward or suggestive, and I was uncertain about sending my swimsuit photo, but thought you should be aware that I am very small, and a little frail too.
I no longer communicate with anyone else on this site, but will be happy to continue our connection, if you wish to do so.
I send you greetings from my small home, and hope that you find all this to be acceptable
Alice. x

Kevin read the message a dozen times. He had been right about Alice, he was sure of that now. A beautifully-written reply, and a little extra information. As well as the swimsuit photo, which was the icing on the cake. He didn’t want to rush off a reply, so he thought about what to say as he finished a can of Sprite. Best to follow her lead. Take his time, and be respectful. No need to take things too far, too quickly. He clicked the cursor into the ‘Reply’ box, and took a deep breath.

‘Dear Alice. I was so pleased to get such a nice reply from you. You are everything I might have imagined, and I think you being small is very attractive. Your face is also very pretty. I don’t mind at all that you want to take things slowly. I am not a pushy person, I promise. We have a dog and cat. They are called Wilbur and Blackie. Both are pretty old now, as we got them when I was still at junior school. I am sorry to hear that you were treated badly before. I cannot understand why anyone would do that to you. I know I wouldn’t. And I will never send you any rude photos. I still live at home with my parents, that’s something you should know. But I have a good job, and will one day get a place of my own. I will not contact anyone else on this site, as long as you are happy to be my friend. I hope to hear more from you soon. Kevin. x

He felt really good as he pressed to send the message. His instincts had been right, and he wouldn’t be contacting any of the others on the list. Alice would suit him very well. She was perfect.

Just moments after sending his message, he regretted not spacing it properly, and hoped it didn’t look clumsy. He sat waiting a while, in the hope that she would message back, but three cans of drink were going through him, and he had to rush off to use the toilet. Back in the bedroom, he wondered how Alice had managed to get into a relationship with someone who treated her badly. She was only twenty-two now, so must have been young at the time. What sort of man could treat such a small young woman like that? It made him angry.

Thinking about that had made him stop looking at the laptop, and when he glanced at it again, he was thrilled to see she had replied on the same thread.

‘Dear Kevin,
I hope that you will forgive my reservation. You do seem to be a very nice man indeed, but I have to be so careful. I am not that well, and being so small makes me feel defenceless too. I have to be wary, and not trust too much in what people tell me. It is nothing personal. I will be happy to be your friend on this site, and I must say that I am pleased to hear that you are not in contact with other girls here. Hopefully we can get to know each other much better in time, then who knows where that might lead? It doesn’t matter to me that you live with your parents, but thank you for letting me know you have a good job, as I could not consider anyone who was lazy, and didn’t work.
I am sure that you are a kind and dependable man, but I do need time to get to know you better.
Affectionately, Alice. x

He found himself nodding as he read the reply. She was right. He was dependable, and not lazy at all. And she had talked about what might happen between them, signing off with ‘Affectionately’ too. He decided to reply immediately. ‘Strike while the iron is hot’, as Mr Reynolds would say.

‘Dear Alice. Take all the time you need. I am in no rush. So sorry to hear that you are not well, can I ask what it is that’s wrong? I also wonder what you do for a job, but if you are not well at the moment, maybe you are off sick? You are right to say that I am not lazy. I have always had a job, and I am qualified in my trade. I think that’s important in life.
I will definitely not be contacting anyone else, and will only be in touch with you, for as long as you want. Kevin x

He looked at the laptop for another hour, before getting ready for bed.

But there was no further message from Alice.

Kevin woke up earlier than usual, still worried that Alice hadn’t replied to his last message. He checked the site, but there was nothing. Work was busy that day, and he sneaked into the staff room to check his phone a couple of times. Still no message. At the lunch break, he considered sending her a new message, using his phone. But he had promised not to be pushy, so had to let that thought go.

At the end of the working day, he almost ran home, eager to get onto the laptop. Mum called out “Dinner at six-thirty love” as he rushed up the stairs. Food was the last thing on his mind.

Logging on to the site, he was almost irritated to find five new matches had been notified. He didn’t bother to open any of the profiles, and went straight to his private messages instead.
The first was from Hayley.
‘not 2 nice to ignore me, K-man. Whasup wiv U? Lurve Hayley XXXXXX’

It was the second message he really wanted to read. The relief that Alice had finally replied overwhelmed him. He pulled off his work boots, and rested back against the pillows to read it.

Dear Kevin,
I don’t really know you well enough yet to discuss what is wrong with me. It is rather personal, and not something I want to reveal at this stage. You are right to presume that I am not working at the moment, due to illness. However, I assure you that I had a very good job, and will no doubt return to it in the future. One of the reasons why I stopped contacting many others on this site is because they wanted to know everything about me from the start. That may be the way things work here, but as far as I am concerned, good relationships need to be built up slowly, and not hurried along.
You obviously want to know more about me, so I will tell you that I no longer live in the same town as you. In fact, I moved away after the problems I suffered with my previous partner, and now live almost two hundred miles from you. But I kept my profile local, as I decided that anyone who really liked me would not be concerned about distance. It also makes me feel safer, as nobody would recognise me in the town from my profile photos. I have a fear of being stalked, or followed. I hope that you will understand that.
If this is still acceptable to you, please continue to message me.
Affectionately, Alice. x

That made Kevin do a double-take. Two hundred miles! How was he supposed to have a relationship with a girlfriend who lived that far away? She didn’t drive, and neither did he. That left coaches or trains, and maybe having to stay in a hotel too. But he really liked her honesty, and another look at the photos confirmed that he thought she was gorgeous too. He replied quickly, hoping that she might be still online.

Dear Alice. I’m sorry if I was rude to ask about personal stuff. I won’t do it again, promise. You tell me what you want, when you feel ready. The distance doesn’t matter to me, though it might take some planning to meet up. But I have enough money for trains and hotels, so let me know when you feel ready for that to happen. I am very interested in you, and not messing around. You seem to be exactly the sort of woman I am searching for, with your honesty and nice manners. I will stop asking you any more questions, until you tell me that you are ready to answer them.
Kind regards, Kevin. x

Mum was shouting up the stairs. “Dinner!” He yanked the door open, and called back. “Keep it warm, Mum. I will have it later thanks”.

Alice had already replied.

Dear Kevin,
It was very flattering of you to say such nice things to me. I am unsure about when we could meet up, as I do not really have the spare funds to pay for tickets and hotels back in your town, and you naturally wouldn’t expect to stay here in my flat, would you? I suppose you could travel up here and stay locally. We could arrange to meet in a public place at first, just so I feel safe. But I have to say that you seem to have very nice manners too, and that is rare on sites like this one. When we eventually meet, I will happily answer your questions face to face. But until then, I need to keep some things personal, as I don’t really know you.
Don’t doubt that I do like you very much though, dear Kevin.
Affectionately, Alice. x

He ignored his rumbling stomach, and wondered how far he dared to push it.

Dear Alice, I would happily pay to travel to where you live, and of course stay in a hotel when I was there. And you wouldn’t need to answer any questions, as I would just be happy to sit with you, and chat about anything. If you preferred to come back here, I could send you the money for tickets and book you into a guest house locally. You could meet my parents, and get to see Wilbur and Blackie too, then you would know I was genuine. Of course, I know that cannot happen yet, but it’s just a thought for the future. You really are the type of woman I want to be with, and I don’t want to say or do anything to spoil the chance of getting to know you better. But I think you might agree that it would be lovely to meet up soon. Let me know what you think.
Kind regards, Kevin. x

After pressing send, he was afraid that he might have been too forward, so started to read his message again. But Mum was shouting from downstairs. “Come and eat this, before it is ruined!”

He had to go down for dinner.

Mum was nagging him, as he quickly ate the rather dried-out meal. “I don’t know what’s up with you these days, Kevin, I really don’t. You have been sitting in your room all night, and there are dark circles under your eyes. Are you feeling alright, love? Is something wrong at work? You can talk to me and your Dad you know”. He glanced over from the table, to where his Dad was watching the semi-finals of the World Snooker on TV. It was likely that Dad wouldn’t ever know whether anything was happening with his family, but he was harmless, and kind.

“It’s nothing, Mum. Just some things I have been doing on the computer. You know, games and stuff”. He wasn’t about to say anything about Alice. Mum would start on about him not getting ‘caught by a girl’. She had already said enough about Darren and chubby Sandra. As she cleared away his plate, she shook her head. “I don’t know, you young people and those games. Don’t go staying up so late now”. By the time she was standing at the kitchen sink, Kevin was back up on his bed, refreshing the screen on the laptop.

Dear Kevin,
I have no doubt it would be very nice to see your home, to meet your family, and Wilbur and Blackie too. But I couldn’t possibly let you send me money to do that. I am sorry that I mentioned money now, as you might think that’s why I contacted you. I have enough to get by, but it is not something I want to discuss on these messages. It would be appropriate to meet you soon, I agree. You do seem to be very kind, and your offer of seeing your home situation has definitely increased my estimation of you. Though I worry that your parents might think I am such a tiny and sickly thing, and would have wanted you to find someone stronger, and more confident.
Perhaps we can work out how that might happen, dear Kevin?
Affectionately, Alice. x

Kevin had an idea, and replied immediately.

Dear Alice, perhaps I could come and collect you? That way I wouldn’t have to send any money. I could bring you back here on the train, and you could stay in our spare room. No funny stuff, I promise. Mum and Dad would be around anyway, so nothing like that would ever happen here. I don’t care what sort of woman they want me to end up with, as I like you, so that’s all that matters. Besides, Mum never really talks about me having a girlfriend, so I don’t think she has any thoughts on the subject. You wouldn’t have to stay longer than one night of course, and maybe you could get someone to feed Cleopatra, or leave her out enough food. I’m sure that once you meet me, you will see that I am nice, and just what I claim to be.
Love, Kevin. x

He had signed off with ‘Love, Kevin’. Not too much, he hoped. The reply was a long time coming, so he went and had a bath. Sitting in the hot water, he imagined Alice at the dinner table. Mum fussing around her, Dad not allowed to slump in front of the TV. He was sure they would like her too. Why wouldn’t they?

Her reply was a mixed message, disappointing, yet exciting too.

Dear Kevin,
Oh that does sound like a nice idea. Maybe one day when I feel well enough, that is exactly what we could do. I could leave Cleopatra enough food for one night, as I don’t trust anyone around here to come in and feed her. I can’t imagine ever giving anyone a key, as I keep away from the neighbours, and live a very quiet life.
I am already sure that you are genuine, and a nice man. Perhaps you can send me another photo? It would be nice to have some other images of you to look at.
I hope that you won’t get tired of me, while you are waiting to meet up. That seems to be something that happens on these sites. If you have patience, I think you will be pleased with me, and happy that you waited. I am a very loyal person, and not at all fickle, I assure you.
Love from me, back to you. Alice. x

He was disappointed that she was putting off meeting up until she was well enough. She gave no indication of when that might be, and the thing with her cat was going to be an issue, he could tell. But the last half of her message had his heart pumping. She was loyal, and she had sent her love to him. Good enough for now. He typed quickly, wanting his message to come from the heart.

Dear Alice, I will have patience. I don’t want anyone else, I really don’t. You seem to me like a woman worth waiting for, and I am prepared to wait for as long as it takes. That’s not the sort of person I am. I am already pleased with you, just from the way you write to me, and looking at your photos. I will get someone to take a proper photo of me, and send it to you soon. I think a lot of you, Alice. I think you are lovely, and all that I want. I will be here for as long as you want me to, and will not get tired of waiting until you feel ready to meet up. Love, Kevin. xx

He had added that extra kiss. Why not? Best to be up front about his feelings for her. It was time to get ready for bed, another busy day to face tomorrow.
One last check on the site, before putting out the light.

Dear Kevin,
You are such a sweet man. I believe that you are someone I could fall in love with.
Love from me, to you. Alice. xx’

He almost dropped the laptop. There was no chance he would sleep tonight.

Kevin couldn’t remember a day in his life when he had felt better. He went to see Mr Reynolds before work started. He wanted a photo taken before he got his overalls dirty. After telling the older man all about what was going on with Alice, he handed him the phone, posing awkwardly outside the main entrance to the workshops. The rest of the day was good too, and he found himself working at great speed, with everything going smoothly. Smiling to himself, he had to wonder if coping at work was more about mood, as he had never enjoyed himself that much before.

At home that night, he ate dinner with his parents, to save Mum nagging again. By the time he got upstairs to sort out adding the new photo to send to Alice, he felt more relaxed than he had done in years. Once he had attached the photo to the message, he thought carefully about what to type.

Dear Alice, your last message was wonderful. To think I am the sort of person you could fall in love with is the best thing anyone has ever said to me. I am sending another photo, as you asked. It was taken outside where I work, so I’m sorry that I am only wearing work clothes. I am still looking forward to arranging that meeting. Did you think anymore about me coming to collect you? Or as you don’t want me to send money, I could arrange to send a ticket instead. But then I would have to know your address.
I hope you won’t mind me saying this, but I’m sure I am already in love with you. If the feelings I have inside are anything to go by, I am certain of that. I hope that isn’t too much to say at this stage, but I can tell you I have never been happier.
Love, Kevin. xx

Alice smiled as she scanned over the message and studied the photo. He looked much better, full-length. Well-built, and probably strong too. He had taken the bait about the love thing, just as she suspected he might. Perhaps she should give him some encouragement. He did indeed seem to be genuine, unlike all of the others.

Oh dear Kevin, that’s such a lovely thing to say to me, I am rather overwhelmed. To imagine that you love me without even meeting me is very exciting. I liked your photo, and think you are tall and handsome. The work clothes don’t matter at all. I will think about your suggestion of sending me a ticket. I am sure you are a nice man, but I am very concerned about sending my address to anyone. If we think about it, no doubt we can work out a way. I really wouldn’t want you to have to travel all that distance, just to turn around and go back again. That wouldn’t be fair.
I hope it will not be too long before I feel strong enough to travel to meet you. I am looking forward to seeing you, and Wilbur and Blackie too. But I have to be sure that your parents will be happy for me to stay, as they know nothing about me. Perhaps you should tell them about your little Alice? Let me know what they say. I couldn’t bear to visit in a bad atmosphere.
Love, Alice. xx

Kevin read her message with his heart beating fast. Yes, it was time to tell Mum. Dad wouldn’t care either way. And he had a thought about the tickets too. If she didn’t want to send her address, he completely understood that. He could buy the ticket online, in her name. Then it could be collected from the coach station where she lived. All he would need was her surname, and she could show some ID at the other end. He replied immediately.

My dear little Alice, I am going to go downstairs and talk to my Mum about you now. I will show her your photos, so she can see how lovely you are, and tell her how I feel about you. If you stay online, I will tell you all about it soon.
Love, Kevin. xx

To say his Mum was surprised was an understatement. She came up with all the expected objections. “You don’t know hardly anything about her, love”. “How can you feel so strongly about someone you have not even spoken to, let alone met?” “Are you sure she hasn’t asked you to send her money? You can tell me if she has”. Kevin kept his cool. It would have been easy to argue, but then it would just end up in a shouting match, and then it would be impossible for Alice to stay. He waited until Mum had gone through the photos, watching her shake her head as she did so. “There’s nothing of her”. “She doesn’t look very strong love”. “Are you sure she really is twenty-two? She has the body of a little girl”. When he was sure that she had run out of negatives, he spoke quietly to her.

“Mum, why is it so hard to believe that someone like Alice could love me? Don’t you want me to be happy? Surely you don’t just expect me to live here forever with you and Dad? If you are not interested in me having my own life, then maybe it’s best if I move out, and rent a flat on my own”. His Mum looked as if she was about to start crying, and then his Dad suddenly turned around in the armchair, interrupting his watching of the late news. “Tell her to come, Kevin. We will be pleased to welcome her, won’t we, Cheryl?” Mum chewed her lip, nodding slowly.

“Of course we will love”.

Surprised but very pleased by his Dad’s intervention, Kevin rushed upstairs to send Alice a happy message.

Dear Alice, I have just spoken to Mum and Dad, and they will be delighted for you to stay here. They are looking forward to meeting you, and I am too, of course. I had an idea that I could buy you a coach ticket online, and you could collect it from your nearest coach station. You would only have to take some ID along. All it would take is for you to send me your surname, and where you wanted to collect the ticket. I will meet you at the coach station at this end, naturally. I hope that we can do this soon, at least as soon as you are feeling well enough.
Love to my little Alice, Kevin. xx

Alice had to admit that this one was really trying hard. He had told his parents, as promised, and even come up with a plan for her to be able to travel without asking for her home address, or any other details except her surname. Perhaps he was genuine, after all? Time would tell. She decided to put him out of his misery, imagining him staring at a computer screen, desperate for her reply.

My dear Kevin,
Well you do work fast! I am very happy to hear that your parents are prepared to welcome me to their home. I also like your idea of being able to collect a ticket at my local coach station, on the day I travel. Perhaps we could make it next Saturday? I hope that’s not too soon for you, but I am sure I will be well enough to travel by then. And it would be good to make use of the current decent weather, before it changes. We could take Wilbur out for a walk, somewhere nice. What do you think?
Love from your little Alice. xx

Kevin was beside himself. Next Saturday! Only a few days to wait. He had to calm down, before he started typing.

Dear Alice, yes Saturday would be perfect. I know a nice place near a lake where we can take Wilbur, and we could get to know each other before coming back for dinner with my parents. I will get onto the coach company website now, and sort out times. I just need your place of travel, and surname. Oh Alice, I am so excited, and I really do love you. Kevin. xx

The reply was rather short. Kevin had been hoping for more.

Dear Kevin,
Alice Millward
Gloucester Coach Station.
Love, Alice. xx

So it was Gloucester. That was indeed almost a couple of hundred miles away. And it wasn’t a direct journey either. She might need to change coaches in London, and it was going to take hours. The website took ages to load, and was very frustrating. As he suspected, Alice would have to travel to London first, which took over three hours. Then another coach from there to his town, which was at least another two hours. He could buy just one ticket for the whole journey though, and if she was happy to get the 7:05 early coach, she would be there at close to 1:30 in the afternoon. He made the booking in her name, and received a confirmation email almost immediately. Then he went back on Connect For Love, and sent Alice a message.

Dear little Alice, I have made the booking for next Saturday. The ticket confirmation has been sent by email. I will forward that to you if you send me a personal email address. You don’t have to print it out, as you can just show the drivers the ticket and bar-code on your phone. You need to change at the coach station in central London. All the details are on the email. I hope you don’t mind taking such an early coach? The one I have booked is just after seven in the morning. It is such a long way, that it won’t leave you a lot of time otherwise. I will get your ticket at the coach station here, for your return trip on Sunday. Once you decide what time you want to leave. I am so pleased you have agreed to visit, I can’t tell you how happy that makes me.
All my love, Kevin. xx

Alice was annoyed with herself. It was so unlike her, but she had not thought fast enough, and had stupidly sent Kevin her real surname. And now he wanted a working contact email address too. Oh well, it was too late now. She would send him one that was never used anymore.

Dear Kevin,
Thank you so much for getting me the ticket. I don’t mind getting up early at all, as I can always sleep for a while on the coach. You can send me the details to the following email.
Love from your little Alice. xx

Kevin was really happy now. Not only was she coming to stay, he knew her surname, and had a contact email address too. Perhaps she would give him her address and phone number, once they finally met up. He opened a new email, and attached the ticket document. In the title line, he wrote, ‘Your ticket, as promised’. Then he thought to add a very long email, telling her how sincere he was in his affections, but decided to leave that for the dating site. After all, she had to show the email to the coach drivers. So he just wrote, ‘Love Kevin. xx’ after the attachment box. He pressed to send it , and smiled as he got the ‘Message sent successfully’ confirmation.

Time to start making plans for next weekend.

The week seemed to go by in a blur for Kevin. He had a haircut after work on Tuesday, and on Thursday, the late shopping night, he went into town and bought some new clothes and shoes. Mum had cleaned every inch of the spare room, and opened some new bedding she said she had been saving for ‘guests’. She was worried about what to offer Alice for dinner. “She might be a vegetarian, Kevin. Even a vegan. You should ask her, you know. I want to be sure what to buy, when I go to the supermarket on Saturday morning”.

He had sent Alice more messages of course, but her replies had been short, and a little formal. He put that down to the fact that she might be nervous about Sunday, and decided to stop reading between the lines too much. When he got home from work on the Friday, he went straight up before dinner, to send her a message about what Mum had asked.

Dear little Alice, Mum is worried about what to give you for dinner, and wants to know if you are a vegetarian, or there is something particular that you don’t like. She is also worried that you might be allergic to something. Can you let me know tonight please, as she has to go to the shops in the morning. I would also like to ask if I can have your mobile number, just in case of any delays, or if some emergency crops up. I have already sent you my number of course, so you can ring me if you miss the coach, or don’t feel well enough to come. I’m so excited to see you, and I am so sure that I really do love you. Kevin. xx

Rather than set Mum off again, he went straight down to eat his dinner. When he got back up to the room, she had replied.

My dear Kevin,
I will eat whatever your Mum wants to prepare for dinner. I am not vegetarian, and have no allergies. I won’t be able to eat a very big portion of anything though, so please tell her not to go to too much trouble. I am sorry to tell