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The Former World

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The Former World

A Little Forest Novel

 

by

Jessica Grace Coleman

 

Copyright © Jessica Grace Coleman 2012

Published by Darker Times

Stafford, UK.

Ebook Edition September 2015

Distributed by Smashwords

Jessica Grace Coleman asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work. All rights reserved in all media. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author and/or publisher.

Ebook formatting by www.ebooklaunch.com

This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or events or localities is entirely coincidental.

 

To my parents,

my brother,

and the village we grew up in

 

Also Available From Jessica Grace Coleman

Little Forest Series

The Former World

Memento Mori

The Exalted

Carnival Masquerade

The Gloaming

Short Story Collections

Grown By The Wicked Moon

Non-Fiction

Creative Ways To Start Creative Writing

Volumes 1, 2 & 3

 

Table of Contents

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Epilogue

Want a Free Book?

Acknowledgements

About The Author

Also Available from Jessica Grace Coleman

[]Prologue

October 31st

Little Forest is the only place I’ve ever lived, and it’s the place where I’m going to die.

Tonight.

My life wasn’t flashing before my tear-filled eyes and no treasured childhood memories were entering my muddled, exhausted mind. There was no time to remember friends or family, no chance for bravery of any kind and absolutely no hope that I’d somehow be saved from this crushingly swift fate.

At twenty-one years old, my time was up.

Considering what had happened to me over the past couple of months, it seemed darkly poetic that everything should catch up with me at Hallowe’en.

It would make a sensational headline.

If I was ever found.

For just one second, the sheer terror of my current situation was overridden by another – more unexpected – feeling: wonder. Pure and simple wonder that the tiny village I’d lived in my whole life could harbour such sinister secrets. Wonder that the place I’d always moaned about being boring was actually anything but. Wonder that I could have ignored all the signs for so long.

My persistent tears had at last succeeded in blurring my vision and everything in front of me was now in an eerie soft focus; the ground, the grass and the trees were now just smudges in the darkness.

With my sight impaired, the sounds of the forest suddenly bombarded my ears. I could hear the cold autumn wind blowing shrilly through the leaves of the surrounding trees, the scuttling of some small, nearby animal, and the calm hooting of a distant owl.

But there was only one sound that I was waiting for; the sound that would be the last I ever heard.

At this gut wrenching thought, my trembling legs finally crumbled and I reached out to hold onto the rough bark of the tree branch in front of me, scratching my already bloodied hand in the process. I didn’t even register the pain.

I was just steadying myself when I saw something move out of the corner of my eye. Blinking frantically to remove my cloud of tears, I shifted my now slightly clearer gaze to the large hollow tree about ten feet away. I saw a silhouette of someone standing next to the bark and for one brilliant second my heart leapt in hope.

The Woman.

I blinked some more, wanting to get a better picture of my possible saviour, but felt a familiar sick feeling clawing at my stomach as my vision cleared and I realised there was no one there.

No one could help me now.

My desperate thoughts were cut off as the distressed voice next to me rasped, “I’m so sorry, Beth.”

It was the first thing either of us had said since we’d realised it was the end.

I didn’t even try to reply; the effort of talking seemed impossible. I wanted to tell him that it was alright and that it wasn’t his fault, but words – like my courage – failed me. I let the stinging tears run freely down my damp, dirty skin as I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and waited for the gunshot.

[]Chapter One

Sometimes, ‘impossible’ is just an excuse.

It is a convenient defence for the billions of people worldwide who just refuse to believe their own eyes. These people go out of their way to make sure they don’t believe. They ignore what’s right in front of them in favour of a logical explanation, they pretend to miss the unmissable, they try and rationalise even the most bizarre of occurrences.

How do I know this?

I used to be one of them.

I used to put bumps in the night down to the house settling, shadows in the corner of the room were just my imagination, wailing screams in the night were just the wind.

I played this game with myself for years, but I didn’t win.

Sometimes, impossible is just an excuse.

I say ‘sometimes’ because, more often than not, the bumps in the night will be the house settling, shadows will be your imagination, and unearthly wails will be the wind. Sometimes, though, they will be something else entirely. I learned this the hard way.

I don’t expect everyone to believe my story any more than I expect them to suddenly start trusting their own instincts and accepting what’s right in front of them. For most people, this will never happen. They won’t let it happen. But for those who find that the following pages conjure up familiar feelings, resurrect cryptic childhood memories, or make your stomach churn with reluctant acknowledgement, I urge you to open your mind up to the possibility that my tale – like many others before me – is true.

Sometimes, you need to look past the impossible and see the world as it really is.

Sometimes, you just need to believe.

***

So, when did I start believing?

I can trace that back to one Friday night around two months ago; that night was the start of everything.

Friday nights in Little Forest weren’t usually anything to write home about. Not that I had to worry about that; I’d never left mine. I still lived with my ordinary parents in our quaint house in a traditional English village. This had been fine for the past twenty-one years, but now I had to leave.

My best friend, Veronica, and I had been planning an escape to the Big City for a while. Both of us now had steady jobs and every penny we saved was one less second we’d have to be stuck in this small, claustrophobic place.

Little Forest was slowly but surely depressing the hell out of me.

 

“Come on, it’s not that bad.”

I glanced at Veronica, who was smiling widely at me but shaking her head in what I supposed was a kind of amused exasperation. She had been staring at her phone for the past five minutes and I hadn’t even realised she was listening to my ramblings about our home village. She didn’t really need to listen that closely; I often groaned about the area and I always said the same things.

My moaning was becoming as repetitive as my life.

“V, did you seriously just say Little Forest isn’t that bad?”

Veronica shook her head again and I noted (with only the tiniest hint of jealousy) her almost-perfect appearance. As usual, her barely-there make-up was immaculate and the subtle, natural shades complimented her soft features and large, brown eyes. Her soft, plump lips had been injected with a subtle pink gloss, the exact colour of candyfloss at a village fête. Her shiny dark hair had recently been cut into a sophisticated bob and the short, black dress she was wearing was simple and classic.

She looked like a Hollywood movie star from the Golden Age of cinema. She always did.

Her outfit made my chequered red skirt, black strappy top and purple Doc Martens seem clunky and outdated. It was what I felt comfortable in, though, and it showed off my most recent self-designed tattoo: a black and purple long-stemmed gothic rose on my left leg. My designer tattoos made up for my lack of designer clothes.

V linked arms with me as we made our way over to the bar. “Well, it’s Friday night, we’re at The Pit, and we have something pretty cool to celebrate, remember?” Veronica laughed – a beautiful, melodic sound that often attracted the guys (and some girls) – before gripping me in an extremely tight hug.

I hugged her back and turned to the bartender, catching my reflection in the wall-length bar mirror. I tended to style myself more with my hair and make-up rather than my clothes. Tonight I’d gone a bit crazy with the eye make-up, piling on the mascara and thick black eye liner (I never went anywhere without eye liner), while the colour of my lipstick was even brighter than my dyed red hair. When you were best friends with Veronica Summers, you did all you could to make yourself stand out – otherwise you ended up simply fading into the shadows.

I ordered two vodka and Cokes and let my mind wander to the village gossip that had been drifting through Little Forest for the past few days, gossip that was much more interesting than the usual kids going off the rails or the endless adultery rumours that constantly seemed to circulate around here.

“Do you think the new guy will be here tonight?” I tried to sound casual. It didn’t work.

Veronica smiled excitedly. “I hope so. He can’t go too much longer without anyone seeing him.”

A new family was big news in Little Forest; it was such a tight-knit community that people hardly ever moved away, leaving little room for anyone else to move in. The two new residents, an Irish man and his mother, were therefore unique, and currently the main topic of village conversations. The only information I’d heard about Connor was that he was 25, he was from Dublin, and he lived with his mum. He was made all the more mysterious by the fact that neither I nor any of my friends had seen him yet.

“Connor Maguire…” I let the name roll off my tongue in a slight Irish accent. “He sounds like a movie star.”

“Or a leprechaun.” V laughed. “Just don’t pin all your hopes on an exotic stranger, B. We won’t be here much longer…” She sang the last sentence, as she’d been doing for the past few months, and I couldn’t help but smile. She grinned back, an almost manic glint in her eye, then picked up her drink as she glanced at the clock on the wall. “Will’s late.”

I bit my lip to stop some sarcastic comment from leaving my mouth and settled for a nod as we turned to face the rest of the club.

The Pit was the only nightclub that catered for the three villages of Little Forest, Durwich and Renfield, and it was the last building on Main Street (along with the Picture House cinema opposite) before the village was swallowed up by the surrounding woods. On the way in, I’d just been able to make out the top of Little Forest Castle, a black mass in the darkness. The castle, though at the end of the village, was in many ways the centre of the community. It brought in the most tourists, was the host to endless local fairs and fêtes, and was on pretty much every postcard and promotional item that Little Forest had ever produced.

It was also incredibly creepy at night, and I’d only spared it a brief glance before I’d hurried into the warmth of the club.

Little Forest was nothing without its castle and the surrounding Great Specton Woods, something I’d find out soon enough.

***

As it was the start of the weekend, tonight was the regular Friday club night, ‘Rock Magic’. This was a hit with pretty much everyone – whether they liked rock music or not – but tonight there was something else to celebrate. It was mine and Veronica’s twenty-first birthdays. Or, more accurately, it was my birthday. Veronica had turned twenty-one the day before.

There were other places we could have gone, such as the local up-market cocktail bar (ingeniously named ‘Cocktail!’), or the Little Forest Inn where my mum worked, but The Pit was cheaper and much more my scene. Its gothic décor, reasonably-priced drinks and loud music suited me down to the ground. It was the perfect place for a birthday celebration.

I groaned inwardly as Will Wolseley entered the club. He was closely followed by Rach Williams and Max Rivers (nicknamed The Couple by Veronica), and was desperately looking around for anyone else he knew. His eyes landed on us and he ran over, relief flooding through his features.

He raised his voice slightly over the music. “Summers! Thank God you’re here. I couldn’t stand another minute alone with those two; I walked with them all up Main Street.” Veronica patted Will on the shoulder before turning back to the bar to get him his customary cider.

He was wearing his usual blue Converse, black jeans and geek oriented graphic t-shirt; tonight’s was a red number with ‘They’re Coming to Get You, Barbara’ printed in large black letters on the front. His short, spiky brown hair made him look younger than he was (he was the same age as V and I), and he often acted much younger, too.

He looked me up and down and winked. “Hello, Miss Powers!”

One of his most irritating habits was calling people by their last name, and I hated mine. I’d been teased for years at school by stupid kids who took my surname literally and thought I must be some kind of witch; if only I was, then I could magic Will away from me.

I laughed his greeting off. “Mr Wolseley.”

“Happy Birthday, Beth.” He started to lean towards me, possibly going in for a hug, then thought better of it. “I’ll, er, buy you a drink later on or something.”

I nodded, smiling, and said “hi” to The Couple as they joined us at the bar, receiving a cheery “hello” back from Rach. The most anyone ever got out of her boyfriend, Max, was a quiet grunt.

Rach gave me a quick hug and a peck on the cheek before passing over a birthday card; a girly glittery thing that simply screamed Rachel Williams. Rach was definitely unique in her look, especially for around here. Tonight she was wearing another of her floral print dresses with black leggings and silver ballet pumps. Her summery light blonde hair had been styled into soft waves and she wasn’t wearing any make-up; she didn’t need it – her smooth, peachy skin was so flawless I doubted if she’d ever had any spots in her life. Her lips were full and soft like Veronica’s, and her eyelashes were so long she could easily get away with murder just by fluttering them innocently at the judge and jury. She looked the least likely person to want to hang out in a rock club, but it appeared that Max was slowly getting her into some of the alternative music that The Pit played.

I didn’t think I’d ever seen Max in any colour other than black. Tonight he was wearing black skinny jeans, black trainers and a black hoodie, despite the heat in the club. He had small, squirrelly features, but it didn’t matter too much as his long, black hair usually covered them anyway. His hair always looked greasy and unkempt to me; he was probably too lazy to bother with any kind of grooming regime. He was certainly too lazy to get a job. Max’s overall look just screamed Tim Burton.

They looked like an incredibly unlikely couple, but maybe what people said about opposites attracting was true. Then again, pickings were slim in Little Forest.

Just one of the many reasons I couldn’t wait to leave.

***

I ordered some more drinks from Fred Steiner, the always tired-looking barman, and nudged Veronica in the ribs when I saw what was behind him. She followed my gaze to a large black poster mounted on the wall. In bright red letters were the words ‘Random Violation’ with next Friday’s date written underneath.

V smiled at me and did an excited little jump; Random Violation were our favourite band and we never missed one of their Pit gigs. They were usually supported by some spotty faced teenagers from the surrounding area, and next week was no exception; the group ‘Poison Prescription’ were named after the local legend of a murderous doctor. You may think that morbid, but believe me, it was pretty normal for around here.

Will suddenly pushed past The Couple to stand next to Veronica, and I could see Rach’s look of disgust behind his back. I worked with her at the local cinema and she shared my views on Will, even though she didn’t seem to notice that Max was possibly the lamest guy in Little Forest; on top of lacking any kind of social skills, I had a sneaking suspicion he was constantly high, as half of the time he didn’t even seem to know where he was. He made Will Wolseley seem like Prince William.

I did feel slightly bad for my less-than-positive views on Max and Will, but what can I say? They brought it on themselves.

Will looked to see what Veronica and I had been geeking out about and groaned loudly when he read the poster. “Random Violation again? Why here?”

I could see the rage entering V’s face (as much as she loved Will, it didn’t stop them from arguing about absolutely everything), and I braced myself for one of their famous fights. They were incredibly frequent and – like Veronica in general – almost always over the top.

“A band like RV will always come back to places that have supported them. Like me and B, when we live in London I suppose we’ll come back to visit you.”

Will’s usual cheery expression faded; he hated the idea of us leaving the village (well, just Veronica really). “I don’t know why you need to leave anyway. You’ve both got jobs here, friends, family… what does London have that Little Forest doesn’t?”

I turned away from the bar, trying to tune their conversation out. I’d come here for some fun birthday celebrations, and maybe to see the elusive Connor Maguire, and their bickering was beginning to get on my nerves.

I scanned the rest of the club, which was slowly filling up as it got nearer to 11 p.m., looking for anyone I knew (or didn’t know in the case of the new resident). I noticed a few kids that I thought were still in high school and wondered how they’d got past the bouncers; I’d never managed to sneak into The Pit before I was legal. Apart from that, it was the usual crowd of misfits from Little Forest and the other towns and villages in Covershire County.

Veronica raised her voice from beside me. “Oh I don’t know, Will… how about excitement? Opportunity? Better jobs? Meeting new people? Not rotting away here for the next sixty years?”

I rolled my eyes at Rach, who’d looked up at the rising sound of Veronica’s indignation. She smiled at me and went back to talking to Max; she had no problem getting words out of him, at least.

I was just about to turn back to Veronica and tell her to keep it down when I noticed a bright white shape hiding behind all the shimmering colours of people on the dance floor. I couldn’t tell what it was so I shifted my position to try and see past the crowd – it seemed to be the shape of a person, but it must have been a pretty short person.

The group of under-age students suddenly moved en masse towards the DJ booth, uncovering the strange white form. It was a child.

My first reaction was to laugh; how the hell did she manage to get in here? Sixteen-year-olds were one thing, but there was no way the bouncers would have missed someone who looked under five. I was about to turn and point this out to V when the girl looked straight at me.

Her head cocked to one side and she suddenly stopped moving her tiny hand which had previously been next to her mouth, twirling her long blonde hair around her fingers. I wasn’t really a child person in general, but there was something about this girl, something about the glow of her skin and the sadness in her eyes, that made it hard to look away; no, impossible to look away. The girl was still staring at me but she seemed uncertain, and I watched as she silently raised her hand and held it up in a stationary salute.

“Beth?”

A hand suddenly appeared in front of my face and I lost my focus. It was V.

“Finished staring into space?”

I glanced at Veronica, who’d obviously got bored of fighting with Will. They were both staring at me, looking vaguely amused. “What?”

“I think someone needs another drink.” I heard Veronica talking to Fred as I looked back at the girl. She was no longer staring at me but was now looking at everyone else in front of her with the same curious, wide eyes.

I turned to the bar. “Freddie?”

He answered without looking up from pouring the vodka. “Yeah?”

“Do you realise you’ve got an extremely under-age girl in the club?”

He stopped pouring at once. “Have I served her?” His eyes flickered to everyone who was in the vicinity of the bar. “My boss will kill me!”

I laughed, deciding not to mention the high school kids. “Doubtful, she looks about four.”

Fred raised his eyebrows. “Four?”

I nodded and pointed at the dance floor. “She’s…” I turned to the space to find it empty. “Oh, well she was just over there by the speakers.”

Fred shook his head. “Will one of you mind the bar for a second?” And with that he ran towards the dance floor without finishing our drinks.

“There was a four year old in here? Never seen that before.” Veronica looked sceptical as she moved to go behind the bar.

I nodded and turned away from her, watching as Fred dashed frantically around the club. I saw a blur of white appear just outside the women’s toilet doors and then it was gone.

I thought about calling over to Fred but he was too far away. “I’ll be right back, guys.”

I walked over to the toilets before anyone could ask where I was going.

***

The toilets at The Pit were almost nicer than the actual bar; the walls were painted a deep crimson and the old-fashioned oval mirrors were draped in luxurious red and gold fabric. Each sink was an individual marble bowl with Victorian style gold taps, and at one end of the room was a dark purple chaise longue. The whole room was also large and spacious; a definite must for someone with acute claustrophobia (like me).

I couldn’t see anyone from the doorway so I moved inside and stood in front of the four cubicle doors. They were all closed but none of them were locked, and I quickly crouched down onto the black tiled floor to peer underneath. There was no sign of life under the first three doors, but as I looked at the fourth one, I could see the girl’s ankle and tiny shoe as she lifted her foot out of sight. I walked over to the last cubicle as quietly as I could and held my breath as I listened for any sign of movement inside.

After a few seconds of hearing nothing, I hesitantly spoke into the silent bathroom. “Are you OK?”

A few more seconds passed. There was no response. I looked down at the small ‘vacant’ square of green on the silver lock and slowly started to push the door open.

***

“What are you doing?”

I jumped at the sudden sound and looked round to see Emma Harris standing in the main doorway, staring at me with distaste.

I worked with Emma at the Little Forest Picture House but we’d never really been friends. She was the type of girl whom I’d been intimidated by at high school, and to tell the truth, I still was; she had gorgeous long, blonde hair, startling blue eyes, and perfect rosey skin. She was currently wearing a clingy red dress that showed off both her cleavage and her long, slim legs, but without looking cheap. She looked like she belonged on a New York catwalk.

“Oh, hi Emma.”

“Are you spying on someone?” Her speech was slightly slurred and her usual twinkly eyes were dull.

I looked at the empty cubicle in front of me again and closed the door. “No, no one here…” I trailed off, not knowing how to finish the sentence.

“Right.” Emma nodded, not seeming too suspicious of my explanation, and tottered over to the sinks.

I looked at her heels, wishing I could get away with wearing some that high, and joined her in front of the mirrors. I glanced back at the cubicle door and tried to push away the image of the lost look on the little girl’s face.

“So, how are you, Emma?”

She stopped with her lipstick halfway to her mouth and tried to focus on my reflection in the mirror. “I’m alright… John dragged me here. We usually go into Willowton on Fridays but he wanted a change.”

I smiled, nodding. Emma wasn’t exactly the type to hang around rock clubs, and she seemed to have decided to drink the night away just to get through it.

Her boyfriend, however, definitely was the type to hang out at The Pit. He looked like a full on rock star and together they looked like a famous couple waiting to happen. He worked with Veronica at the Stars & Stripes Diner and I’m pretty sure a lot of the female customers only went there to stare at him as he went about his work.

She started slurring again. “I swear to… to…”

“God?”

“Yes!”

Oh Jesus.

“I swear to God, all that boy cares about is…” she trailed off, her eyes glazing over slightly.

“Emma?”

She looked at me suddenly, as if remembering I was there. “Beth!” Her glazed eyes slipped down to look at my chest, and it took me a moment to realise why; V had made me wear a tacky ‘21st’ badge. It was huge and bright pink.

“Oh, it’s your birthday? I thought John said Veronica…”

I cut off her slow drawl, worried I’d be stuck talking to her all night. “Yeah, it was hers yesterday. Mine today.” I’d had to explain this a lot over the years.

“Wow, that’s… weird. Really?”

I groaned inwardly. I was done being nice to someone that drunk. “Well I’ll see you later, have a good one!”

Emma nodded and waved vaguely. I turned to leave the toilets as she was staring at herself in the mirror, obviously trying to focus on her own reflection.

“Beth?”

I stopped walking towards the door, sighed, and turned round reluctantly. “Yep?”

She was staring at me, either trying to think of the right words to say, or trying to decide on something.

Instead she smiled vaguely, shaking her head. “No matter, see you at work.”

I smiled back as convincingly as I could. “Sure. Be grateful you’re not in tomorrow, if Hannah appears she’s going to kill me for being hung over.”

Emma laughed. It was a loud, raucous, drunken laugh that completely detracted from her attractiveness. “I’ve got a plan for dealing with Hannah.” She pressed her finger to her nose and winked conspiratorially. “Tell you Monday.”

I nodded, smiling again. Our boss, Hannah Green, was pretty much completely evil, and I couldn’t think of any plan that would ‘deal’ with her without it resulting in her spectacularly kicking our arses. I knew as soon as Emma got sober she’d either forget our conversation, or pretend she had. “I’ll see you next week.”

I turned back to the mirror and saw in the reflection that Emma was still staring at me, squinting slightly. I could feel my flesh crawl as she tried to focus on my back; my scar wouldn’t have been visible in the darkness of the club, but in here, with these unflattering lights, I hated to think how much of it was on show.

After a couple of seconds, Emma shook her head and headed out of the bathroom, leaving me sighing in relief and trying not to think back to a certain trip to Edinburgh.

When I got back into the main club I searched the dance floor for the girl again, just in case, but of course she wasn’t there. I looked over at Freddie behind the bar as he caught my eye, shrugged, and went back to serving drinks.

Another drink was exactly what I needed.

***

The night continued like any other; there were the same old tunes, the same old stories, the same old faces. There weren’t, however, any more new ones. As far as the child in white went, I was glad she hadn’t appeared again. The lack of the young Irish man, though, was disappointing, and I started to think I may never meet the new Little Forest resident.

At one point I realised I had a headache from the loud music and started feeling officially old. I said this to Veronica but she just laughed at me for being ridiculous and handed me another drink. Well, it was my birthday…

We left around one o’clock, and in an attempt to sober up, headed to the Diner. It was also located on Main Street, the other side of the street to The Pit but the same side as the Little Forest Picture House where I earned my much-needed cash.

I was following V and the others across the road when I heard a faint noise coming from round the corner of The Pit; it sounded like someone crying. The others were all talking and laughing together and I slipped away down the side of the building unnoticed.

There was a woman curled against the rough brick, crying with her hand over her mouth. I gradually moved nearer, not wanting to scare her, and asked hesitantly, for the second time that night, “Are you OK?”

There was no response from the woman, who continued sobbing into her hand. I walked closer to her, and from the slight glow coming off one of the street lamps on Main Street, I caught a glimpse of red in the darkness. “Emma?”

Again there was no response and I wondered if I was talking too quietly for her to hear me.

V was now calling my name from around the corner, but the sound was faint and unimportant in my mind.

All I could focus on was Emma. She was shaking badly, but whether this was from fear or just the cold, I couldn’t tell. Her crying sobs were shrill but stunted, like she was desperately trying to stop making so much noise.

I started walking nearer, slowly at first, not wanting to scare her away. Then I kneeled down until I was at a similar height to her hunched over form. “Emma?”

This time she looked up, but not at my face. She was staring just to the side of me and I wondered how many more drinks she’d knocked back since I’d seen her in the bathroom. She had a smear of dirt along one cheek and her hair was matted and frizzy; not her usual sleek self at all. Where on earth had the dirt on her face come from?

I was just about to ask her where John was when she backed away abruptly, clinging onto the wall for support. “What are you doing?” The same question as earlier, but this one was full of shock, worry, fear.

Her shout was so piercing that I instinctively stood up and stepped back myself, vaguely wondering if the rumours of her doing drugs were true. I stood there in silence, not knowing what to say. Not knowing where to look.

I lowered my gaze from her face and stared at her dress; the vibrant red was now dull and I realised that the previously bright fabric was also covered in dirt. The side seam had split and some of the scarlet material had been torn away, as if she’d snagged it on something. I was trying to make sense of this when she suddenly screamed, “Get away from me, you freak!” and ran off into the darkness, away from the bright lights of Main Street.

I stood frozen to the spot, shocked by her behaviour and sudden movement, and torn between running after her and minding my own business.

I decided I’d had enough weirdness for one night.

***

“Beth, where were you?”

I’d walked back to Main Street to find Veronica and everyone else waiting for me, huddled under a street lamp on the pavement. “Sorry guys, I just heard someone crying round the corner. It was Emma, she was really messed up.”

Will started walking towards the Diner. “Messed up?”

“Yeah, like really out of it. I don’t know if she was on drugs or what, but she ran away from me.”

V laughed, following Will. “Wouldn’t surprise me; no one’s that perfect.”

Veronica had never hidden her dislike of Emma. I secretly thought she was in love with John and just jealous of Emma, but she’d never admit it to me. She told me pretty much everything, but Veronica loved maintaining the illusion that she was totally independent and that nothing, and no one, could touch her. I’d never completely believed that.

The Couple walked past and Rach smiled at me, gesturing to the Diner. “I’m sure she’ll be fine. Can we go inside now?”

I nodded, needing to get into the warmth.

The bright fluorescent lights of the Diner brought my headache back in an instant. There were only a couple of customers in there, including serial dater Sally Smith and her latest squeeze, who were sitting at the bar area drinking beers. I smiled at her to be friendly and then went to sit at our usual booth next to the jukebox in the corner. The others followed.

The Diner had been a complete novelty when it opened in the village a few years ago; it had appeared at the same time as The Pit and the Picture House, and had pretty much made Little Forest ‘cool’ overnight. Most of our pubs and cafés were old-fashioned, country bumpkin type places where the older generations felt safe and comfortable. The Stars & Stripes was new, modern, and more importantly, American. It was themed like all those Diners we saw on movies and US TV shows, and it was about the most exotic place to appear in Little Forest and any of the surrounding villages. I realise how pathetic that sounds, but people around here really don’t get out much.

The colour scheme of the Diner consisted of black and white tiled floors, red seats, stainless steel tables, and multi-coloured walls that were crammed full of 1950s and ‘60s American road signs, photos and posters. I usually found the décor in here fascinating (especially compared to the dark blue walls of my place of work), but now it just made my head pound even more.

Justin Hanks, a tall, gangly guy with lots of spots and a dodgy haircut – which was threatening to become a mullet – came over to serve us, but Veronica stopped him before he’d even handed out the menus. “We’ll just have the usual coffees, thanks Just.”

He smiled his tolerant end-of-the-night smile and nodded, possibly grating his teeth behind his forced grin. “Sure thing.”

My body shuddered at the thought of the coffee; I usually hated the stuff and only drank it in an attempt to sober up. When it came to hot drinks I was English through and through – give me a nice cup of tea any day.

I was staring at the jukebox and trying to decide what to put on when Rach poked me in the arm. “Are you OK? Are you worried about Emma?”

V spoke for me before I could open my mouth; she had an extremely annoying habit of doing that. “She’s probably disappointed that Mr Maguire wasn’t at The Pit tonight.” She winked at Rach and delivered her throaty giggle that I always thought of as her unnecessarily dirty laugh.

Rach furrowed her eyebrows, twisting up her angelic face. “Connor? Of course he wouldn’t be there, he works Friday nights.”

I looked at Veronica in surprise before turning back to Rach. “How do you know that?” I demanded, a little more loudly than I’d intended.

She just shrugged her shoulders. “He told me.”

“Rach!” V yelled, waking up Max who’d been slumped against Will, much to Will’s discomfort. “You’ve met him?”

Justin came over with our coffees and handed them out while V literally bounced in her seat in anticipation of Rach’s answer. He frowned at Veronica and left without saying a word.

“Of course,” Rach answered, looking smug. “He’s signed up to my book club.”

I exchanged a disbelieving look with V and tried to stop myself from laughing. Rach was extremely proud of her ‘book club’, which before now had consisted solely of her and the local primary school head teacher, Daniel Fields.

Will laughed, shirking Max off at the same time. “Well, that’s good. People were beginning to talk, what with you just hanging out with a middle aged man all the time.”

Rach ignored him. “Connor saw my notice in the post office and turned up at my house on Tuesday for our weekly meeting. He just got a job at Cocktail, tonight was his first night-”

Veronica jumped in before Rach had even finished her sentence. “What’s he like? Is he nice?” Then she shook her head almost violently. “More importantly, what does he look like?”

Will shook his head too and mumbled under his breath. I think I caught something about ‘typical woman’.

Rach seemed to really think about this, and although I wouldn’t admit it, I was just as impatient as Veronica to hear what she had to say. “He’s… nice, yeah. Quiet, I didn’t get much out of him, he seems a bit of a loner. But not in a lame way.”

V leaned over the table, staring directly at Rach. She delivered the words slowly, as if she were talking to a child. Or Will. “What… does… he… look… like?” Then she sat back in her chair expectantly, arms crossed over her chest.

Rach gave me a meaningful look; she and I often discussed Veronica’s eccentricities whilst at work. V would kill me if she knew. “He’s tall… he has dark hair, kind of long but not hippy long, I think he straightens it… kind of indie. He’d fit in well at The Pit.”

A smile spread involuntarily across my face; he sounded exactly my type. I looked at V excitedly, before turning back to Rach. “Is he single?” I saw Will shake his head again out the corner of my eye. I ignored him; I usually do.

“I’m not sure…” she said, slowly, obviously thinking back to her latest book club meeting. “He didn’t mention anyone, but then he didn’t really mention much. He doesn’t know anyone around here though, apart from his mum, obviously; he left all his friends back in Dublin. He told me his dad died and Ireland held too many memories for his mum.”

My heart fluttered, and not just because I was imagining a tall, handsome Irish man wandering down Main Street. Connor was an outsider here, he’d left his entire life behind in another country and now he was starting out again. I’d never been an outsider anywhere; I’d been born here and had never left apart from the occasional holiday. To leave everything behind and start over somewhere new was exactly what I wanted to do, something I’d been planning with Veronica since the start of high school. I felt a little jealous of Connor Maguire.

Then again, he had only ended up in Little Forest.

All of a sudden I got an overwhelming urge to see this person for myself. I glanced at the novelty Elvis clock on the wall: it was half past one. Cocktail was usually open until two on Fridays and Saturdays, but it often closed earlier if there weren’t any customers (or if the only customers left were so drunk they had to be ordered out of the bar, which happened quite often).

I looked at Veronica until I caught her eye, and she stared at me quizzically. “V, I’m not feeling too good. Walk me home?”

I thought I was being pretty convincing – after all, I did have a pretty big headache – but V instantly caught my drift. I swear, sometimes it was like we could read each other’s minds, or that we had some kind of psychic link. Or maybe we just spent way too much time together.

Either way, Veronica didn’t hesitate in her answer. “Absolutely, see you soon guys!”

Rach looked at me with genuine concern, and I felt a slight pang of guilt for lying. “Feel better Beth! And Happy Birthday again, girls! Maybe a few less drinks next time?”

Yes, Mother. I smiled at her as I slid out of the booth and towards the door, Veronica walking beside me.

As soon as we were outside, V grabbed my hand. “Cocktail?”

I nodded, smiling drunkenly. I was excited at the prospect of finally meeting Connor Maguire, and yet something was niggling at the back of my mind; I thought back to the girl in the club and Emma running off into the darkness. It had definitely been a strange night, and now that we were outside in the cold and the dark, I wondered if I shouldn’t just go home and go to bed instead.

Veronica was looking at me with concern. “Are you OK, Beth? I thought you were joking when you said you didn’t feel well.”

“I’m fine, it’s nothing. Why, do I look ill or something?”

“You look… pale.”

I managed a laugh. “What’s new?”

V threw me a suspicious glance. Nothing ever got past Veronica, but I smiled at her until she nodded and started walking off at her usual fast, determined pace.

We continued down a more or less deserted Main Street before turning onto Forest Way, where I could see the glowing neon ‘Cocktail!’ sign at the end of the road. As I was looking at it, the bright pink letters suddenly turned black and I became aware of a slightly sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I took a deep breath, inhaling the cold, wintry air. I’d obviously had far too much to drink.

Veronica saw the sign too. “Crap!” She dragged me onto the other side of the road where we walked slowly past the art gallery, stopping outside the Village Hall opposite the bar. Kneeling down behind the small hedge, we waited, holding our breath and trying not to laugh at the same time. My sick feeling was gone and my heart was beating rapidly; Little Forest didn’t offer much in the way of exciting new things to do and I found myself enjoying this different Friday night activity.

Don’t judge me – if nothing else, it was taking my mind off the earlier events of the night, and that was definitely a good thing.

The front door of the bar opened and a tall man with dark, incredibly straight hair – as Rach had said – emerged from the darkness into the bright glow of the old-fashioned street lamp. I only saw his face for a second before he turned back to lock the door, but what I saw looked nice. Very nice.

He had smooth-looking skin, prominent cheekbones, and deep, dark eyes which were only partially covered by his brown hair. He was wearing all black (not surprising as it was Cocktail’s dress code), with a dark brown leather jacket over the top. His clothes – the leather jacket in particular – somehow made him seem even more mysterious. I didn’t know many people who could pull off that kind of coat; Will had tried one on in a shop once and Veronica and I had laughed so hard that tears had actually sprung to our eyes. Unsurprisingly, that was the last time Will ever came shopping with us.

Connor checked the door before turning round on the spot. It was such a sudden movement that it caught me off guard and I jumped a little, making the hedge rustle. V shot me a warning glance, but she was obviously trying to stop herself from laughing; she’d clamped her lips shut in an apparent attempt to stop any sound escaping from her mouth.

I watched as Connor meticulously scanned the area in front of him. He looked down Forest Way, he stared at the parked cars, and he seemed to search every inch of the buildings on our side of the road. I held my breath as his dark eyes wandered over the hedge we were hiding behind, but the light must have been too dim for him to make us out. After a couple more seconds, Connor checked the door of Cocktail again, peered in the windows of the now deserted bar, and walked a few steps so he could stare down the alley that wound round to the back of the building.

After his search he walked off towards Main Street, looking around him as he went.

V started laughing quietly. “What was that about? That is one paranoid guy.”

I stared back at her. “Quite rightly paranoid, I’d say. We are hiding in the bushes spying on him…”

Veronica threw her head back and laughed.

“Shh!” I peered over the hedge again to see Connor further down the street, apparently too far away to hear the racket Veronica was making.

He still looked like he was on the lookout for someone – or something – and I got the feeling it wasn’t us he was worried about.

***

It did feel slightly wrong to follow him home, but I have to admit I was intrigued, both by Connor and by his behaviour.

We were halfway along Forest Way when we had to dive behind a parked car to avoid The Couple coming towards us from the direction of the Diner; I couldn’t even begin to describe how embarrassed I’d be if Rach saw what we were doing. Even though she was eighteen – three years younger than V and I – she was older than her years and I knew she’d only lecture me on being childish. We waited for them to walk off towards Max’s house (Max lived next to the cemetery of all places, where he sponged off his too-nice brother), and then ran to catch up with Connor, who was now quite far ahead and had missed bumping into Rach by a good thirty feet or so.

We followed him over the cross roads, along Coley Road, and continued as he turned right onto Pine Street. It looked like he was heading for Castle Road – which would take him out of the village – but he stopped at the very last house on the street and let himself in. Before he closed the door he looked out, combing the dark with his eyes. I was sure we’d be busted that time but he didn’t seem to notice our silhouettes in the blackness, and he shut the door to his house quickly and quietly.

I turned to look at Veronica and it seemed to hit her at the same time that it hit me: we were officially stalkers. As if my life couldn’t get any more pathetic.

We turned round quickly and ran back down Pine Street in the direction of the housing estate. After a few minutes of full on running, we stopped and gave in to all the laughter we’d been bottling up inside us. A light turned on in an upstairs window of a nearby cottage and we started running again, the laughing only receding when we reached Veronica’s house.

V tried to catch her breath while she fished her key out of her bag. “I really hope no one saw us; we might have to leave Little Forest sooner than we thought.”

I laughed, the thought pleasing me. “That might not be such a bad idea. See you in the Diner after my shift tomorrow?”

Veronica nodded. “We can discuss our escape!”

I hugged my partner in crime, still laughing. “Happy Birthday, V.”

“Right back at you.”

We both smiled and I turned to walk the short distance home. We lived in adjoining streets on the housing estate and it took me approximately two minutes to walk back to my house.

As it turned out, we wouldn’t discuss our escape the next day.

In fact, I wouldn’t speak properly with Veronica again for the next two months.

That night was the start of everything, alright.

[]Chapter Two

The next day started normally enough.

I woke up to a bright, sunny room and a dark, splitting headache. Cursing the drink, I dragged myself out of bed and walked over to the window to let in some much needed fresh air. Saturday mornings were usually quiet in Little Forest; the fact that most of the residents liked a drink or two on weekends resulted in a lot of closed curtains in the surrounding houses, even at 11 a.m.

The only life I could see were a couple of kids playing on the grass outside the primary school.

I always thought the school seemed creepy on weekends; without the multitudes of parents dropping off their children, kids running and screaming, and lollipop ladies hovering at the side of the road, the vacant car park and empty playground seemed sad and lonely. My mind briefly flickered to the little girl from last night, but I pushed the thought away.

I didn’t want to think about that now, especially not with my current hangover headache.

After letting the breeze in, I sat down on my bed and surveyed the bombsite that was my room. I usually loved my bedroom – it was spacious with two large windows, there was a nice big double bed in the middle of the back wall, and it was painted my favourite colour: purple. Whenever V came over, though, it miraculously changed into a complete dive within thirty minutes; clothes and CDs were strewn everywhere, not to mention the wine bottles, glasses, and remains of our quick dinner. I made a mental note to get ready at Veronica’s house next Friday.

Keaton – my black and white cat – emerged from under a pile of laundry and meowed at me expectantly, making me groan at the high-pitched sound, and a second later, without any warning, a piercing pain shattered through my upper body. I instinctively threw my right hand against my chest and tried to breathe in deeply.

I couldn’t.

I couldn’t breathe.

I’d never felt anything like it, and I vaguely wondered if I should be seeing my boring life flash in front of my eyes.

I gasped frantically for air as I grabbed my phone off my bed, with no idea as to who would be best to call. As soon as I’d touched it, however, it started ringing and I saw Veronica’s name on the display. Thank God.

I’d just pressed ‘answer’ when the phone stopped ringing. The pain stopped too.

I realised I was breathing easily.

I was fine.

The pain had gone as swiftly as it had arrived. I took a deep breath to be sure, and was amazed to find that nothing was wrong. Absolutely everything seemed normal again.

I took some more breaths as I registered the time display on my phone. Even with my mind preoccupied, I realised I was late.

I tried to push my weird episode to the back of my mind. That’s what I usually did with things like this, so I knew it wouldn’t exactly be lonely there. The back of my mind was a dark and murky place, filled with memories and thoughts that I either couldn’t explain, or didn’t want to.

I sat up slowly, still bewildered, and reluctantly headed to the bathroom to get ready for work.

***

I heard his voice two hours into my shift; I was stacking popcorn boxes at the end of the counter and I looked up to see Connor, third from the front in the line for tickets.

Without really thinking, I ran to the other end of the long, black counter top and almost knocked Rach off her chair in my eagerness. She looked up in shock, probably wondering if she’d done anything wrong. As I was slightly senior, I was technically allowed to boss Rach around, which of course I didn’t. Usually.

“Rach, can we switch?” I asked hurriedly but quietly, not wanting to attract Connor’s attention to my irrational behaviour.

Rach was about to question me but one glance at the queue told her the reason for my weirdness. As she stood up, she glared at me in a confused kind of way (which I supposed was normal as she had no idea I knew what Connor looked like other than from her vague description) before stalking off to take up the less-desirable position on the food counter; being in charge of tickets didn’t result in you being covered in sticky popcorn, slushie overflow and ketchup.

I sat down quickly and served two couples, all the while trying to think of something witty or interesting to say to Connor. All too soon he was at the front of the queue, saying “Afternoon” and smiling at me in a polite but disinterested way. He was wearing the same brown leather jacket as last night but this time without the Tom Cruise uniform. In its place, he had on a dark green V-neck jumper and from what I could tell, dark blue jeans. Of course, I didn’t want to stare too hard in that direction, so I decided to embarrass myself in a different way instead. This happens more frequently than I’d like.

Before he could open his mouth, I opened mine. My big, fat mouth. “Hi Connor!” I almost shouted, beaming at him in a way that I could tell was idiotic, but with no way of stopping it.

He did a double take and laughed in surprise before answering in a smooth, gentle Irish accent. “I’m sorry… have we met?”

My face started burning uncontrollably as I realised that, drunken stalking activities aside, we hadn’t actually met. There was an awkward pause while he waited for my explanation, and I was incredibly aware of how red my cheeks must be. I smiled again, more shyly this time, and tried to deliver my lie as convincingly as possible. “No, not exactly. But this is a small village, you’re kind of big news. I… heard your accent.” A cough from near the slushie machine made me turn round to see Rach smiling at us expectantly. “Oh, and Rach is one of my best friends.”

Connor looked over at Rach and waved. “Ah, didn’t see you there!”

Rach waved back before giving me another annoyed glare.

Connor smiled at me again, this time in a more friendly way. “Well it’s nice to meet you, sure…” he trailed off as his deep brown eyes wandered down to read my Picture House name tag, “Beth…?”

I smiled back, a bit more relaxed. “Powers. And same here.”

“Powers, like the whiskey!”

I nodded enthusiastically, not knowing what he was talking about. I wasn’t a big whiskey fan.

Connor placed a twenty in my hand. “Right, so. I’d like two tickets for Night Watcher 3D please.”

I smiled and started getting his ticket, my brain racing. Going by how edgy he’d been walking home alone last night I hadn’t pegged him for a horror fan, and yet here he was asking for tickets to the goriest, most explicit slasher film that had come out in a long time.

Realising that he’d asked for two tickets, I looked up quickly, noticing the woman standing next to him for the first time.

Connor saw my reaction. “Oh! Sorry, Beth. This is me mam.” My stomach did a stupid mini leap when I heard how casually he used my name.

Now that I looked at her, I could see the family resemblance. She seemed older than my parents – in her fifties maybe – and she had exactly the same colour eyes and hair (although I guessed dye might have had something to do with the latter) as her son. She had a friendly but tired face, and she smiled quickly while she introduced herself. “Jackie.”

“Hi Jackie,” I answered politely, and gave the tickets and change to Connor. I didn’t know any twenty-something guy who’d take his mother to the cinema, let alone to see a gory 3D horror flick, and I couldn’t decide if it was really sweet or just a bit weird. Jackie definitely didn’t seem the type to enjoy something like Night Watcher 3D, although there was a slight haunted look about her that I supposed fitted with the subject matter.

“Right, you’re in Screen Two which is upstairs on the right, and here are your 3D glasses.” I handed the glasses to Connor and couldn’t help but beam stupidly at him again. “Welcome to Little Forest.”

They both thanked me before walking off towards the stairs, and I stared after them for a good few seconds before I heard an irritated cough and realised there were other customers waiting.

Turning to see Ralph Cooper and his annoying group of friends waiting to be served, I immediately stood up. “Rach!” I yelled, highly unprofessionally. “Switch.” She glared at me again as she took her seat back and I couldn’t help but smile as I turned towards the stairs. “I’m just going to check Screen Two.”

***

After a couple of hours spent in and around the biggest screening room, double checking everything from the cleanliness of the toilets to the amount of popcorn left on the floor, the film ended and I waited outside to take everyone’s 3D glasses back.

Everybody seemed enthusiastic about the film, particularly the gruesome ending which involved five full minutes of 3D blood bursting out of the screen, and they filed out of the room quickly.

Too quickly for my liking. I only managed to squeak a quiet, “Gory enough for you?” to Connor as he passed, and to my delight, he winked at me in response. Yes, my life was so boring that a wink could be the highlight of my day.

I watched him walk off with his mum, wondering again if she’d enjoyed the film or if instead a psychotic Night Watcher would be visiting her dreams tonight.

I nearly fell over when Ralph and his band of idiots raced past me, 3D glasses held high in the air in a victory pose. I ignored them; they stole them every time.

I hadn’t yet had chance to return Veronica’s call but I figured I’d be seeing her at the Diner soon enough.

I couldn’t wait to tell her all about Connor Maguire.

***

Rach was being understandably standoffish with me when I got back to the counter – having been left on her own to deal with all the customers – and I smiled at her sheepishly.

We usually had only three people working on the counter in the day; it was a small cinema and we didn’t regularly get great hordes of people. Still, today there was just the two of us working front of house and leaving Rach on her own downstairs had been pretty harsh. I was trying to apologise when the main doors opened again.

I braced myself to deal with more customers and looked up to see two policemen approaching the counter. They weren’t our local PCs from the Little Forest Police Station, which immediately put me on edge. They were Rick Wood (who actually lived in Little Forest but worked at the HQ in Willowton) and his sidekick Paul.

Rick was well known and respected in the area. I remembered him from when I was younger as being insanely tall and thin, with jet-black hair and a friendly smile. His nose was crooked from some fight he’d had when he was an officer, but it didn’t look weird to me; I’d always known him to look like that. Nowadays he was plumper and his black hair was in danger of becoming completely overrun with greys. He still had a friendly smile, but these days it seemed to be constantly underlined with a grimace, something which I supposed came from being in his line of work for so long.

I only recognised Paul through knowing Rick. Paul lived in Birston, the nearest big city to Little Forest, and therefore wasn’t often seen around the village. He looked about ten years younger than Rick, and was at least a foot shorter. His blonde hair and blue eyes were a striking contrast to Rick’s harsher appearance and he looked far too sweet to be a policeman.

He obviously knew his place; he stood just behind Rick and let his boss do all the talking.

I exchanged a glance with Rach, who looked just as worried as me. I briefly thought it might be to do with mine and V’s little peace-disturbing stalking adventure of the night before but then realised how ridiculous that would be; they wouldn’t send an Inspector for something like that.

“I’m Detective Chief Inspector Rick Wood and this is my colleague, Detective Sergeant Paul Lawrence. Is the manager in?”

I cleared my throat, feeling extremely self-conscious. I always felt nervous around policemen, even if I knew them. I usually felt so nervous, in fact, that I often ended up saying something stupid and looking guilty, and so my voice shook as I answered, “I’m afraid she’s not in today, but you can try her at home.”

DCI Wood nodded and then looked at the stairs leading up to the screens. “I know where Hannah lives, thank you. We need to ask you both some questions.” He turned to me. “We’ll start with you if that’s OK,” his eyes drifted to my tag and he nodded to himself, “Beth. Is there somewhere we can go to talk?”

I grabbed onto my chair to steady myself, wondering what they were going to ask us. Was Hannah in some kind of trouble? She was an awful boss and a deeply horrible person but I didn’t want anyone to be in trouble with the DCI.

I cleared my throat. “Sure. We can talk in the staff room.” I hesitated, not wanting to piss off a policeman but not wanting to be questioned on my own. I smiled at Rick, hoping that he’d waive the rules as he knew me and my family. “Please could you just ask us both at the same time? We can close the cinema for a few minutes.” I checked the time; there weren’t any showings at the moment and it was an hour until the next film was scheduled to start.

Rick glanced at Paul and then nodded. “That would be fine.”

Rach put the sign up that we kept for emergencies while I showed the police to the back room. It was called the staff room but it only really contained a table, a few chairs, and some lockers. I felt like I should offer them a drink but I didn’t think an orange Super Slushie would be appropriate, and I never trusted the staff room kettle – it looked like it had lived there for decades.

Rach joined us and we sat down at the table. I was absent-mindedly wringing my hands but stopped when I realised Rick had noticed my nervous movements. “So, how can we help?”

Rick looked extremely stern – his features all scrunched up and tight – and his formal way of speaking to us was making me uncomfortable. His professional demeanour seemed a far cry from the usual smiling, jovial man everyone knew from around the village.

“I’m afraid we have some bad news.”

Oh God.

“Emma Harris was found dead in the woods this morning.”

Silence.

I didn’t think I’d heard him right, and I instinctively responded with a stupid sounding, “What?”

“Her body was found near the castle around seven a.m. She worked here at the Picture House, is this correct?”

I couldn’t believe what he was telling us, and in such a heartless way. “She’s dead?” I must have heard wrong, surely? There’s no way she could be dead!

Rick nodded. “Yes, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but we need to ask you some questions. Was she at work yesterday?”

I looked at Rach; she had tears collecting in her eyes and was starting to shake slightly. I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach and I wondered, rather selfishly, how I’d feel if I’d been told someone close to me had died; I didn’t know Emma well, but even this news was impossible to digest.

Rick repeated his last question, louder this time, and I couldn’t believe how insensitive he was being.

I stared at his tie rather than focusing on his face, which I currently wanted to punch, and tried to think. My brain had apparently ceased to work. “No, she wasn’t. I worked yesterday, the early shift, and… she wasn’t here.” I didn’t seem to be able to string a simple sentence together and I cringed at how stupid I sounded.

“When was the last time you saw her?”

I thought again of her cowering against the wall and felt a single tear run down my cheek. I’d let her run away. Had I let her run away to her death? Eventually I exhaled and answered, trying to make my voice sound level, “I saw her last night.”

Both Rick and Paul Lawrence sat forward. Rick leaned in closer and looked me dead in the eye. “Where?”

I took a deep breath. “At The Pit over the road. I saw her in the toilets; she said that her boyfriend had dragged her there instead of going to Willowton.”

Rick freed me from his unnerving gaze and started writing in his notebook. “And what time was this?”

I thought back. “I’m not sure, it was soon after I got there, which was around ten or ten thirty I think… she was already pretty drunk.”

Rick nodded to himself. “How drunk?”

I tried to focus on the immediate questions rather than the reason for them. At least if I did that, I seemed to make some kind of sense. “Her speech was slurred, she kept forgetting what she was saying, and she seemed to have trouble focusing on me.” I thought back to her leaning against the wall, unable to concentrate on my face. “I saw her again later, outside.” I hesitated, not wanting to admit that I’d let her go when she was clearly troubled, but knowing I couldn’t exactly lie to a Detective Chief Inspector. “She wasn’t in a good way.”

Rick stopped writing and looked up at me. “How do you mean?”

I looked over at Rach who smiled at me encouragingly, or as encouragingly as she could with the tears still running down her face.

“She was bent over, crying, and she couldn’t concentrate on me at all. She didn’t respond to me for ages and then she started yelling. She ran away, but I could hear my friends calling for me, wondering where I was. I… I didn’t follow her.” More tears were threatening to run down my face too and Rach moved her chair over to me. She put her hand on my arm and I nodded at her. I couldn’t manage a smile.

Rick gave me a minute before asking his next question. “What did she say?”

I shook my head, trying to recall. “I don’t know, something like I should stay away from her. I can’t really remember.” She’d called me a freak, I remembered that much, but I didn’t think the police needed to know that.

“And what time was this?”

I tried to think but my brain seemed to be shutting down. Rach jumped in to answer for me. “We left The Pit around ten past one.”

Rick started writing this down but then looked up, his brow furrowed. “Are you sure?”

Rach nodded. “I checked my watch when we left.” This didn’t surprise me, Rach was very organised and methodical, and never stayed out later than two a.m. She always kept an eye on the time.

Rick and Paul exchanged a glance, one which looked like a mix of disappointment and annoyance. “From what we can tell at the moment, Emma died between eleven and midnight. Half past twelve at the very latest. I’m afraid you must be mistaken.”

My stomach lurched, and my mind flickered back to the night before. The empty bathroom, Emma accusing me of spying on someone, opening the cubicle door to find it empty. I took another deep breath. “Are you sure of the time?”

Rick nodded, putting his notepad away. “We have a witness who can confirm this time frame as well. She could not have been outside The Pit after half past twelve.” He looked very annoyed now, like I’d been deliberately wasting his time. “Could this woman have been someone else? I imagine it would have been pretty dark at that time.”

I thought back to the red dress and blonde hair; even with the dishevelled muddy face I knew it was her. I thought it was her… surely no one else could have been wearing that dress? No one else would have been able to pull it off.

My shock at hearing of her death had subsided and I was now filled with a terrifying feeling of self-doubt. “It was dark, but I could still see, the light from Main Street…”

Rick interrupted me. “Did anyone else see her at that time?”

I slowly shook my head.

“And had you been drinking?”

I looked at Rach, defeated. “Yes.” Here we go.

“How much, would you say?”

I slumped into my chair; I knew how this would look. “I have no idea, I was drinking vodka and my best friend kept buying them for me. We were both celebrating our birthdays.” Our twenty-firsts. Emma would never reach that age now. I shuddered.

Rick nodded, seeming satisfied. “So you may not have been in the best state to see who the girl actually was? Maybe you thought it was Emma because you’d seen her previously, in a drunken state herself?”

I wondered if he’d been hitting the psychology books. “I suppose…”

The DCI stared at me for almost a full minute. If he was trying to unnerve me it was definitely working. “So you agree that you didn’t see Emma after one a.m.?”

I gave in. “If you say so.”

Rick nodded before turning his attention to Rach, dismissing me completely. “And did you see Emma last night?”

I could only guess what Rach was thinking. She wasn’t a big drinker and she thought that I drank too much; this would just be a confirmation of that. “I only saw her briefly in the club; she was at the bar with John.”

“So you can confirm she was in an intoxicated state?”

Rach nodded. “Definitely.”

“And what about her boyfriend, John Rogers? Was he intoxicated too?”

Rach shrugged. “He might have been. I think he probably just handles his drink better than Emma.”

Rick leaned forward again, completely ignoring me. Apparently I wasn’t worth talking to after my mistake about seeing Emma outside. “Why do you say that?”

Rach shrugged again, clearly uncomfortable with Rick’s questioning. “It’s quite well known that Emma is a bit of a light weight. I mean, she’s pretty tiny.” Rach stopped herself. “Was tiny…”

Paul joined in the questioning for the first time, and the sound of his voice made me jump; I’d almost forgotten he was there. “Do either of you know John well?”

I thought of John and felt like crying again. I couldn’t believe this had happened; things like this just didn’t happen in Little Forest. “Not well, we know him to say hi to.” I paused, not knowing if I should really be letting my mouth run after what just happened. “Our friend Veronica knows him pretty well, she works at the Diner.”

Rick waved my response away. “We’ve already spoken with her.”

I looked at Rach in surprise; I hadn’t heard anything from V. She sent me texts from work all the time, and this was a big piece of news not to tell me about. Maybe I’d put my phone on silent and forgotten.

“Is there anything else you can tell us about Emma? About her recent behaviour or her circle of friends? Did she have any enemies?”

“Enemies?” It suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t asked the most obvious question, and neither had Rach. It must have been the shock. “How did she die?”

Rick stared at me for a few moments. “We are not at liberty to divulge that information.”

I nearly laughed. I’d never heard Rick say anything remotely like that, and I wondered if he’d heard it on the TV.

Rach found her voice again, but it was a scared and defensive voice. “Well, was she killed? If there’s a killer on the loose I think we should know!” She sounded on the verge of hysteria, a far cry from her usual calm and collected self.

Rick cleared his throat and nodded. “It looks like it was an accident. She choked on her own vomit.”

I tried to take that in. “In the woods?”

Rick nodded again, looking ever more annoyed. “It appears she fell over and knocked herself out on a rock.”

Good God. I tried not to but my mind immediately pictured Emma, lying on the floor in the darkness of the woods, sick resting on her face and the bright red dress. I was extremely glad my hangover meant I hadn’t eaten today.

Rach looked like she was about to throw up too. “God… it must have been awful for whoever found her.” She looked up again. “Who did find her?” She glanced at me warily, possibly thinking the same thing that had just occurred to me; that if it had been anywhere near the castle, it could have been my dad who’d discovered the body. He worked there, after all. I shuddered.

DS Lawrence leaned forward, smiling at me. “Don’t worry. It wasn’t your father, though he knows all about it now, of course.” He gestured to his boss with a nod. “Rick found her.”

I looked at DCI Wood in surprise as he glared at Paul. “Thank you, Lawrence. In future interviews, though, please keep such information to yourself.”

Paul’s face burned red as he nodded and looked down at the table. My heart went out to him; I’d been humiliated by my boss in front of customers more times than I could count, and even Hannah Green wasn’t anywhere near as scary as Rick Wood was being today.

I changed the subject quickly to try and get Paul out of the firing line. “So… why are you asking about enemies?” I paused, thinking. “What did you mean by it looks like it was an accident?”

Rick shifted in his chair. “It’s our job to cover all bases, as I’m sure you can understand. We’ll know more once the autopsy results come back. It seems to be just a drunken accident.” He seemed irritated at my questioning and his voice became louder as he stared at me. “Now, do you know anything? Other than an absurd lie about seeing the victim after she’d died?”

Rick’s previously pale skin had become inflamed and his eyebrows were furrowed so much he looked like he was in pain. I vaguely noticed Paul look up at his boss in surprise; he’d obviously not heard him use that tone of voice before when interviewing witnesses.

“I’m sorry… I’m just telling you what I saw.”

He shook his head and stood up, putting his notebook back into his suit pocket. “What you saw was impossible.”

No arguing with that.

He motioned for Paul to stand up and then walked over to the door. “Remember that, and we’ll have no problems.”

Something suddenly occurred to me, and I addressed Rick as he was turning to leave. “Emma’s dress…was there a bit of the fabric missing?”

DCI Wood stopped mid-turn and stared at me from his sideways position. “Why do you ask?”

I took a deep breath. “I just thought, I noticed it last night.”

Rick’s eyes flickered briefly to Paul, then back to me. “And this was… in the toilets? When you first got to The Pit?”

I nodded; it’s not like I could tell the truth now.

Rick’s mouth curled up in a twisted grin. “No, you must be mistaken.” He paused. “Again.”

With that he opened the door quickly and left, leaving Paul behind, who dithered on the spot and looked at us apologetically. “I’m sorry about that, DCI Wood has… erm…” he stopped mid-sentence and shrugged. “Well, thank you for your time. We’ll be in touch if we have any further questions.” Paul smiled and went after Rick.

Neither Rach nor I could speak for a good minute or so, and I just sat there, half hugging her with one arm.

“I can’t believe it.”

I blinked, letting yet more tears run down my face. “Me neither.”

Rach’s curiosity soon got the better of her. “Who do you think you saw then, if it wasn’t Emma?”

I avoided looking at her. “I don’t know.”

“What was all the ‘we’ll have no problems’ thing about?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know.”

Rach pulled me into a hug and I hugged her back, not knowing what else to say. After a second or so I got my phone out my pocket with my other hand and checked the display.

Veronica hadn’t even tried to contact me.

***

A few hours later I left the gloom of the Picture House and walked out into an even gloomier September evening. Main Street was gearing up for Saturday night and a lot of the residents were out and about despite the cold. I nodded to a nearby couple who lived two houses away from me, pulling my jacket tighter around my body as I ran the few short steps to the Diner.

The outside tables and chairs were stacked up next to one of the windows; no one was using them in this awful weather. I hurried up the path to the main doors and threw myself into the glowing warmth of the eatery.

The jukebox was playing a Beach Boys song and the animated chatter of the customers immediately brightened my mood. That is, until I realised what they were all chatting about. Gossiping about. News sure does travel fast around here; news of a dead body apparently travelled at light speed. I said hi to a few people who were sitting at some of the tables – mainly friends of my parents – and then went to sit at one of the only empty booths, near the back. At least there I could detach myself from some of the distasteful conversations going on around me.

There was no sign of Veronica yet so I just sat and fiddled with the cardboard Marilyn Monroe picture that was always placed in the middle of this table.

Each seating area had its own Hollywood or Rock ‘n’ Roll star instead of a table number, so you’d often hear sentences such as “Three double cheeseburgers and curly fries for Marilyn,” or “Four ice cream sodas for Buddy.”

I put Marilyn down again, looking for something else to fidget with, when I spotted V walking out of the kitchen with two giant stacks of pancakes on her tray. I let her take them over to Cary Grant before trying to get her attention. I knew she’d seen my mad waving because she turned in my direction, but her eyes moved over me and she walked back towards the busy bar without saying a word.

I hesitated, not knowing if she’d seen me. I assumed she must be having a tough day; how often did I space out in front of customers at the cinema? So I stood up and walked over to the bar, sliding myself in between everyone else and just managing to get a seat on one of the high stools. Veronica was busy making a cocktail of some kind, and I watched in fascination as she poured in measures of spirits without having to look them up, like I’d have to. I was glad the only drinks I had to pour at the cinema were Cokes or slushies.

I tried to catch her eye but either her mind was somewhere else entirely or she was avoiding me. “V?”

She didn’t look up. “Be with you in a minute.” Her usual sing-song voice was cold and professional. She never spoke to me like that, even when the Diner was really busy, and I’d seen it much, much busier than this before.

I watched as she stuck a strawberry onto a cocktail stick, and I thought about how she’d addressed me. As far as I knew, I was the only person who ever referred to her as V. Well, apart from Will, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t sound anything like him

A thought suddenly occurred to me. I didn’t see John anywhere in the Diner, but of course he wouldn’t be working after the events of last night. Veronica was close to John, and despite her dislike for his girlfriend, she must have been gutted for him. She was obviously taking it pretty badly if she didn’t even look up to say hi to me.

She finally finished the cocktail and handed it to a tall, blonde woman whom I didn’t recognise. As soon as she opened her mouth, however, I understood why; she had the thickest Southern American accent I’d ever heard (and the only one I’d ever heard in real life).

Little Forest and the surrounding areas received lots of tourists during the summer – mainly non-British travellers who wanted to find that authentic slice of traditional country living – but some visited out of season too.

I found it ironic that this woman had come so far from home and had just ended up in an American themed Diner.

As soon as Veronica had put the money for the drink in the till, she turned to walk off back towards the kitchen, a small tower of dirty glasses in one hand. Exasperated, I followed her and grabbed her arm, perhaps a little too roughly, stopping her in her tracks. “V, are you OK? Is it Emma?”

She turned round and finally looked at me, but her gaze was aimed at my mouth, as if she couldn’t bear to look me in the eyes. I vaguely noticed my stomach churning as she whispered the words I thought would never come out of her mouth. “We can’t be friends anymore.”

Her voice was so low I thought I must have misheard her. “What?”

She looked a little irritated now. “Beth, don’t make this harder than it has to be. I can’t hang out with you anymore.”

I could feel my throat getting drier with every prolonged second that passed and my morning hangover headache was returning with a vengeance. “Why? What are you talking about?”

She finally looked me in the eyes just as tears sprung to hers. “We just can’t. Believe me. I wish…” Tears ran down her cheek, cutting her off mid-sentence. She wiped them off her face and looked down at the floor. “I think you should leave.”

I felt like I’d been slapped. Never in my entire life had Veronica spoken to me like that, and it wasn’t just the words themselves that caused a shiver to ripple through my body. The way she’d said that simple sentence… it was as if she’d had to force herself to speak to me, like I wasn’t even worth acknowledging.

I opened my mouth to respond but realised I had no idea what to say. My mind raced; what could have happened between last night (or, technically, this morning) and now? “But…” I tried to think of a way to keep Veronica talking to me. “Aren’t you upset about Emma? Did you find out this morning? Is that why you were calling me?” I looked round at the customers, some of whom were eyeing us with interest. I wished we were anywhere other than in the middle of the Diner; even with the music playing, the people sitting nearest to us could hear everything we were saying. Or, in V’s case, not saying.

Veronica laughed bitterly, seemingly oblivious to our growing audience. “Some people have more important things to think about than a stupid drunk girl who went off and died.”

I could hear a clattering of cutlery from some shocked eavesdropper but I paid it no attention. I was too busy staring at V, stunned that she could be so cold and heartless about someone’s death. And besides, when did Veronica ever have important things to think about? Apart from work and planning London, she didn’t have anything else going on in her life that I knew about. And if anyone knew, I’d be the one. Wouldn’t I?

V stared back at me, her face burning red. Was she angry? Embarrassed? Upset? For the first time in my life, I had no idea what she was thinking.

“V… I know you didn’t like Emma but don’t you think you’re being a bit insensitive? Where’s John? Have you seen him?”

She shook her head impatiently, almost violently. “No, I haven’t. And I don’t care if he comes in or not. I’m not in the mood, just…” she broke off, as if unsure of what to say next. She took a deep breath before she started talking again, this time louder and with more force. “I don’t want to talk to you. Just go!” She raised her voice even more on the word ‘go’ and the last remaining background noise in the Diner abruptly stopped. There wasn’t even any music playing now, and I vaguely wondered when the Beach Boys track had ended.

“Come on, V.” I tried to keep my voice down but knew it was useless; everyone in the Diner was listening so hard they may as well have all been leaning towards us with their hand cupped around one ear. “I’m not going anywhere until you explain what the hell’s going on!”

Veronica looked stumped, as if she’d expected me to just burst into tears and run out of the Diner like a child. To tell the truth, the thought had occurred to me.

“Just go!”

I stood my ground. “No.”

Her shoulders slumped and her eyes started darting about the room frantically. In the end she just said, “Fine, I’ll go,” and headed towards the door.

I caught up with her just before she got outside and she whipped round in a fast, violent motion, throwing the stack of glasses at me.

I ducked just in time for them to go flying over my head, and I winced as I heard them smash spectacularly on the tiled floor. People at the nearest tables flinched away from the glass, and from what I could tell, none of it had found its way to any of the patrons.

I looked at V, shocked and furious. Her lovely pale skin was rapidly blotching out in a dirty red colour and her eyes were wide, staring at me in surprise. Her actions had obviously shocked even herself. She looked round the Diner again, taking in the broken glass and stunned expressions.

“If you value your life, stay away from me.”

Without another word, Veronica pushed open the main doors and disappeared into the dark night.

It was a good twenty seconds or so before the silence was swept away with hushed, gossiping voices. I tried to ignore the fascinated glances as I walked over to the broken glass in a daze. If I valued my life? I knew Veronica was melodramatic, but that was taking it a bit too far.

“Um, hey Beth. I’ll clean that up.”

I looked up to see Justin Hanks smiling at me nervously.

“Oh, thanks.”

He bent down and started using a dustpan and brush to gather up the fragments. “Been a bit of a dramatic day, huh?”

I nodded automatically before turning and walking out of the Diner. I needed some fresh air.

The night seemed to be colder and darker than just a few minutes ago and the icy wind hit me in the face as the Diner door slammed shut behind me. I looked back at the warm, cosy-looking light coming through the windows and retreated to the pavement of Main Street. The road was illuminated by numerous street lamps, but it still looked dingy and uninviting in comparison. Veronica was nowhere to be seen.

I turned my attention towards Little Forest Castle, which was standing tall over the village, its ragged form barely visible against the pitch-black night sky. In the daylight it was a celebrated cultural landmark that looked protectively down over Little Forest, but at night it cut a formidable shape in the landscape, looming over the village with only the dense tangle of trees to separate it from the usual hustle and bustle of Main Street.

I took one last look at the Diner and headed towards the castle.

***

My dad had worked at the Castle Tourist Centre (and by Tourist Centre, I meant a little wooden hut at the bottom of the hill) for as long as I’d been alive, and he felt very protective of the whole place, so I knew I could count on him to still be there even after closing time.

I walked through the little entryway (that housed all of the tourist brochures detailing exciting things to do in the county of Covershire) and into the main ‘exhibition room’.

This room involved one corner from which he sold tacky tourist souvenirs such as neon pencils and plastic rulers, a counter that served as my dad’s desk, and various mini exhibitions of some of the local legends and folk tales.

As expected, my dad was hunched over one of the displays, cleaning the gold plaque entitled, ‘Little Forest Castle: A Tale of Murder and Revenge’. He was in his own little world – one I wished I could join him in – and he hadn’t heard me walk over.

I cleared my throat, unconsciously imitating his most annoying habit, and said shakily, “Hi, Dad.”

He turned round in surprise – obviously registering the pathetic tone in my voice – and rushed over to me, dropping his feather duster in the process.

He studied my face while I peered back at him, noticing how tired he looked. His dark hair had been greying for a while now, and was seemingly out of place on his youthful, smiley face, but tonight it seemed to match his features perfectly. The skin on his chin had broken out into a blotchy rash, his usually warm brown eyes seemed distant, and there were dark circles etched underneath, ageing him by at least five years.

“Elizabeth, what’s wrong?” His use of my full name – reserved solely for either when I was in trouble or upset – interrupted my thoughts and finally made me break down. I shook my head, trying to hold the tears in, and my dad pulled me in for a giant hug. His fleece jacket smelled of damp foliage and I wondered if he’d been walking through the forest that day. After a few seconds I pulled away from him, wiping the tears off my face with the sleeve of my coat.

“Did you hear about Emma?”

Understanding flooded into his face, but there was a split second when I thought I caught a ripple of something else; could it have been relief? What else did he think I’d been up to?

My dad nodded solemnly. “Terrible business, the police were hovering around all morning. I didn’t think you two were close?”

“We weren’t…”

“Then why are you so upset?”

I tried to avoid thinking about Veronica. “I worked with her, Dad! I only saw her last night,” I tried to block the image of her leaning against the wall of The Pit, “and now she’s dead. Of course I’m upset.”

He pulled me in for another hug. “I’m sorry, Beth. I wasn’t thinking, it’s been a… a tough day.”

I looked down at the floor to avoid his gaze and took a deep breath. I’d come here to see a friendly face, but what I really wanted to do was tell someone about V. “OK, you’re right, that’s not all. I was just at the Diner and…”

My dad looked suddenly anxious, and I realised my embarrassing blubbering must have scared him more than I thought. “Yes?”

I took another deep breath, picturing V, red faced and angry, shouting at me to leave. “Veronica threw me out. She said she didn’t want to talk to me and that I had to leave. She yelled at me! Everyone in there was staring at us. She said horrible things about Emma as well, it was so heartless. I don’t understand, the last time I saw her we were laughing and discussing leaving, and now… she’s never been like that with me, Dad. Ever.”

All of this came out in a quick rush of stunted sentences, and after I’d finished there was a moment of silence. I looked up at my dad. He seemed deep in thought, brow furrowed, mouth open slightly. I waited for him to say something.

“Why did Veronica throw you out?” He asked it casually, but I could hear the anticipation in his voice.

I shrugged. “No idea, she wouldn’t tell me.”

I could have sworn my dad exhaled slowly, letting himself relax again.

“Well, technically she didn’t throw me out. She ran out instead, but not before she threw some glasses at me.” Just saying it out loud sounded stupid and unbelievable.

My dad suddenly looked concerned, but a bit disbelieving too.

“She missed.”

His previous worry seemed to melt right off his face. “Oh, good.”

Great. So people could throw whatever they wanted at me, as long as I had the good sense to dodge them. Parents were weird.

“Why would she do that to me?”

I was asking myself more than anything, but as soon as I uttered those words, my dad snapped out of his contemplation and looked at me, surprise etched on his exhausted features. “Why would I know anything?” His tone was sharp and defensive.

“I just meant… what could make her act like that?” I said quietly, wondering why my dad seemed to be acting in a similar way.

He relaxed again. “Darling, I don’t think I’m the best person to be asking about what goes on in young women’s minds.” He chuckled to himself, but it sounded higher and louder than his usual laugh.

He turned back to the plaque he’d been polishing. “And besides, maybe it’s for the best. You and Veronica do spend an awful lot of time together, it might be good to start… hanging out with other people.”

I stood looking at the back of his head, speechless. My parents loved Veronica, so why on earth would he say something like that? “What’s that supposed to mean?”

He still seemed to be intently examining the plaque. “Oh, nothing. Just a thought. Look, why don’t you go home while I finish up here, and when I get back I’ll cook you whatever you want.”

I agreed absent-mindedly, trying to figure out what was going on in his head. “Dad?”

“Yes?” He was still staring at the display, and I waited in silence to see if he’d turn round. He didn’t.

I was about to say ‘never mind’ when a thought occurred to me. “How come Rick Wood was in the forest at seven a.m. this morning?”

This time he did turn round. “He was?”

I nodded, knowing I shouldn’t be ‘divulging the information’ as Rick had put it but not really caring. “He’s the one who found Emma.”

My dad narrowed his eyes at me. “How did you know that? He never mentioned anything to me…”

“Paul Lawrence kind of let it slip out when he was questioning me.”

He rushed over to me again. “They questioned you? Why?”

I rolled my eyes. “Well, I did work with her, and I saw her last night.” The less said about that the better. “Didn’t they question you? For working here?”

He nodded. “Not that I could help, really; I didn’t get here until eight. I suppose if Rick hadn’t have been here it could have been me finding her…” His eyes glazed over, and I mentally thanked Rick Wood, idiot or not, for sparing my dad that horror.

“What a way to go.”

My dad nodded. “Let’s hope they catch whoever did this.”

I nodded too, before his words sunk in. “What? She knocked herself out and choked… didn’t she? What do you know?”

He shifted uncomfortably. “Oh… yes, she probably did. It’s just I overheard Rick and… what’s his name?”

“Paul?”

“Yes, Paul. They seemed to think there was someone else with her… I’m not sure I should be telling you this, Beth.”

I gave him the most innocent smile I could. “Dad, she was my friend…”

He hesitated, then nodded. “They said her dress had been torn, as if someone had ripped it off… but they couldn’t find the missing fabric anywhere.”

I laughed involuntarily, causing more concern to flood my dad’s face. I knew it. I knew it!

I tried to control myself and decided to change the subject to something less brain-achy. “Does Rick usually go for walks that early in the morning?”

He seemed to think for a bit, then shrugged. “I wouldn’t know, I never get here that early.”

I nodded, giving him a quick smile. “Never mind, I’ll see you later.”

I plodded outside and looked around the Tourist Centre car park, empty except for my dad’s new hybrid car, a little burst of modernity amongst the ancient forest surroundings. I wanted to put off going home for a bit; I didn’t think I could handle my mum’s inevitable gossiping about Emma yet.

So instead of turning back to Main Street, I headed up the wet, muddy path towards the old, decaying fortress.

***

Little Forest Castle was built in the Norman period by Henry de Beauchamp and had been home to many Lords and noblemen since then. It now belonged to the National Trust, whom my dad worked for.

The castle had been the target of extensive repairs and rebuilds over the years, and the ruins that remained were a sorry shell of its former self. I knew all this because it had been embedded in my brain by my dad pretty much since I was born.

Still, on a night like tonight, set against the black sky with nothing but the moonlight shining on its jagged remains, it was a pretty imposing sight.

The location of the castle also added to its powerful presence; it was situated on a prominent vantage point, giving a rather breathtaking view of the surrounding area. Its position on top of the hill set it apart from the surrounding grass and woodland, and I imagined it would stand proudly on that mound for centuries more to come, even if it did have to rely on constant rebuilds by loyal locals.

The adjacent forest was officially part of the Great Specton Woods, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty that ran from the traditional town of Great Specton through Willowton, Durwich, Renfield and Little Forest, but due to our own village’s name, the area nearest us was often referred to as ‘the forest’ or even just ‘the woods’. You’d occasionally hear some of the older residents referring to the Great Specton Woods or the Great Woods, but that was getting rarer these days.

The woods were a beautiful place and I always thought the endless mass of trees added a little hint of magic to the area. Not that I could really appreciate it at the moment.

I sat down on one of the old wooden benches and stared at the large stone structure for a while, trying to organise my conflicting thoughts. My mind was torn between images of Emma in the bathroom, Emma outside The Pit, Emma strewn on the ground in the woods, and Veronica. Veronica throwing glasses at me.

I wondered exactly where Emma’s body had been found. Thinking back to what my dad had said about the police, it couldn’t have been far from the castle if they’d been hanging around the Tourist Centre all morning.

I cast my gaze over to the thick veil of darkness on the other side of the grassy area. It took a while for my eyes to adjust to the shadows, and when they did, I could only make out the vague outlines of the nearest trees. I thought back to Rick Wood and his bizarre threat, and to my dad and his odd suggestion that maybe I should stay away from Veronica. I had a fleeting thought that maybe it was all linked; maybe Veronica had something to do with Emma and she couldn’t bear to tell me.

I shook my head, laughing to myself in the darkness. The thought that Veronica could be involved in someone’s death was the most idiotic idea to ever pop into my head. And anyway, I’d spent most of that night drinking and stalking Connor with her.

I got my phone out of my pocket to try and distract myself.

No messages.

I decided to send V a text (I was too scared to try phoning her, which in itself was ridiculous), and I quickly typed out “Whatever I’ve done, I’m sorry” before pressing send.

I stayed there for a few more minutes, staring at the castle and waiting for a reply that I knew would never come. Just then, a strong gust of wind suddenly whipped round my face and I realised how cold I was; my muddled thoughts had obviously taken precedence in my brain, leaving no room for feelings about the weather.

I put my phone back in my jacket and turned to go home.

***

I could see the lights coming from my kitchen window as I got to the garden gate, and I couldn’t wait to be inside in the warm, despite the bombardment of questions I’d surely get from my mum. And my dad – he’d probably have come back home while I was wasting time at the castle.

I was starving as well, having skipped the meal I’d planned on having at the Diner, and I couldn’t wait to sit down and eat.

I shut the creaky gate behind me and headed up the path towards the front door. I was only about halfway when I started hearing angry voices coming from within.

I instinctively ducked down behind one of the apple trees in the garden; it wasn’t much of a cover but in the darkness I didn’t think anyone would see me. I tried to concentrate on the sounds coming from the house, but the persistent wind was making it increasingly difficult to hear anything. From my position crouched on the ground, I could still see the light glowing from the large kitchen window but I couldn’t see inside.

My right leg was beginning to cramp up and I was about to move when I heard a voice shout, “You have to tell her!”

It was Veronica’s voice.

I froze. She was in there arguing with my parents? Was she mad at my entire family now? I thought back to my dad’s reaction when I told him about V and a shiver ran down my entire body. Something here was wrong. Very wrong.

I tried to separate the tangle of voices I could hear coming from inside to see if I could discern any other words or phrases, but everyone seemed to be talking at once. Shouting at once.

I eventually heard one screeched sentence right before Veronica stormed out the door, slammed it shut behind her and rushed towards the gate, too distraught to notice me crouching silently on the wet ground.

I stared after her in shock as she disappeared into the darkness, her last words ringing in my ears: “You’ve ruined my life! Don’t ruin hers too!”

***

After a few minutes of being deep in thought, I realised my right leg had gone numb and I stood up, shaking it to try and make it come back to life. It had been deadly silent in the house since Veronica left and I wondered if my parents had gone upstairs.

I walked slowly towards the front door and put my key in the lock, and as I turned it, I listened for any sounds coming from the kitchen; there was nothing.

I let myself in, and when I walked into the kitchen I was surprised to see them both sitting at the table in silence. My mum looked up as I entered, immediately plastering a big, fake smile onto her tired-looking face.

My mum had the same mousy brown hair as my natural colour and I’d often been told I was the spitting image of her, but looking at her now, I sincerely hoped I wasn’t. Her usually long, wavy hair was tied up in a messy ponytail, and she didn’t have on her usual layers of make-up. She was wearing an old white t-shirt with a coffee stain down the front, and she had bags under her eyes to match my dad’s.

It was as if something had aged them both in the last twenty-four hours, something I wasn’t sure I wanted to know about.

“Beth! Where’ve you been? We were worried.”

I studied her face then looked at my dad, who was trying just as hard to look happy but succeeding even less.

Staring directly into his eyes, I replied with a meaningful, “I was just looking for Veronica, have you seen her?”

I saw them both visibly stiffen at her name but neither of them said anything. I waited for their response. My mum stood up and crossed over to the kettle, turning her back to me. “No we haven’t… she’ll be at the Diner, won’t she?”

There it was: the blatant lie that I was dreading and yet somehow expecting.

“She was there earlier, didn’t Dad fill you in on what happened?”

He smiled sheepishly at me while my mum laughed it off. “I’m sure it’s nothing, Darling. She was probably having a bad day at work.”

“Did he also tell you she tried to kill me?”

My mum laughed again. “Oh come on, dear. Stop being so dramatic. Throwing a couple of glasses hardly amounts to a murder attempt.”

I wondered if she’d be saying that if my dad had suddenly stood up and smashed three large tumblers over her head.

I let the silence grow as I tried to decipher what was going on. Had I woken up this morning in some kind of parallel universe? One fuelled by too many vodkas from the night before? If this were a normal day in my normal house, my dad would be methodically talking through my problem with me while my mum hovered around handing out comforting words and cups of tea. And they definitely wouldn’t be acting so normal about the glass thing; at the moment they were just sweeping it under the rug as if it was a tiny insignificant detail of our fight.

No one had yet pierced the deadly quiet that was hanging over our country kitchen and I wondered if I should probe any further; somehow I didn’t think they were going to tell me anything. “So, you haven’t seen her?”

They book shook their heads in unison, identical looks of confusion and guilt crossing their faces.

I was suddenly furious with them. This was turning into one of the worst days of my life and all they could do was sit there, smiling idiotically, pretending everything was fine. My mum hadn’t even mentioned Emma, which should have been the first thing out of her mouth; it was the number one topic of conversation in Little Forest that night, probably in Renfield and Durwich too.

I took one last look at their lying faces and stormed upstairs to my room.

I wasn’t hungry anymore.

I felt sick to my stomach.

[]Chapter Three

The next morning, after very little sleep, I was sitting in bed with Keaton on my lap, trying to think. I kept getting distracted by his loud purring but it didn’t bother me; at least someone was still being my friend. I stroked his straggly black fur and he purred even louder, sticking his little pink tongue out between his teeth. He looked so funny it made me laugh, and the sudden noise in my quiet room sounded completely out of place.

I let my smile fall away. In less than twenty-four hours I’d found out a work colleague was dead, I’d seemingly lost the friendship of the one person I could always rely on, and on top of that, even my parents were lying to me. Fun times.

I thought about calling Rach but I knew she wouldn’t be able to shed any light on Veronica’s behaviour; she only really knew V through me and they never hung out together without me.

Grabbing my laptop from off the floor and moving the cat (much to Keaton’s disgust), I put the computer on my lap and logged on. Despite seeing each other pretty much every day, Veronica and I still talked online, emailed each other, and left messages on each other’s ‘Calling All Covershire’ profiles all the time.

Someone at Birston City Uni had started the CAC (yes, I know, great acronym) website as part of his degree coursework on social media and it had really taken off in the past year. It was similar to all the major worldwide social networking sites apart from one small detail: you could only join if you lived in the county of Covershire. Of course, this couldn’t exactly be policed all the time so you occasionally got people from London and similar areas logging on to make fun of the ‘country folk’, but generally it was a good way to keep in touch with the locals.

Most of the people I knew in Little Forest were on CAC – including some of the older generations – but I mainly used it to communicate with Rach, Max, Veronica and Will, especially when I’d run out of free minutes on my phone. There were countless photos and videos of us all at The Pit on each of our profiles, and a few others from various weekends away. I’d forgotten to take my camera to our most recent Rock Magic outing, but seeing how the evening had panned out, that was probably a blessing. No one needed to remember that night, least of all me. It definitely wasn’t the twenty-first birthday I’d hoped for.

I logged into my account and clicked on Veronica’s page. She hadn’t updated it since Friday night when we are at The Pit, which struck me as strange. She usually went on CAC on her phone at work when she was bored (like me), but there was no recent activity at all. I sent her a private message asking what was wrong, and was just about to sign out when I saw a message Will had posted on her profile.

He’d written, ‘Where are you?! Call me.’ I stared at the words and let myself feel a little bit of hope; she’d been ignoring Will as well? I clicked on his profile and saw that his last update had been ‘I hate groceries. I’m in the wrong line of work’ just ten minutes ago.

The thought that Will Wolseley was the only person I could turn to was a bit sickening, but I’d had enough of sitting in my room all morning feeling sorry for myself. I closed my laptop, slipped some shoes on, grabbed my bag and went downstairs.

My mum was sitting watching some awful Agony Aunt show on TV and I completely ignored her as I walked past the lounge and out the front door.

***

I got to the village grocery store, Miller & Son’s – which was currently empty apart from a couple of elderly residents – and walked down a few aisles before I spotted Will in the entertainment section. He was wearing the dark green uniform of the shop and his usual Converse, rearranging a display on murder mystery books and seemingly getting quite annoyed with it; I could hear him swearing under his breath as I got closer and I couldn’t help but smile. Despite our differences, Will was pretty funny (to laugh at, mostly). He still hadn’t noticed me so I walked up to him and tapped him on the shoulder.

He jumped and dropped the books he was holding; he obviously wasn’t expecting to run into another human being in the grocery store, and by the pitiful amount of customers in here, I could understand why. He turned round, stepping on one of the novels, and smiled as he realised who it was.

He punched me playfully on the shoulder, causing me to flinch. I was usually a pretty touchy-feely person, but only with people I felt comfortable with.

“You nearly gave me a heart attack.”

I twisted my mouth into the best smile I could muster and helped him pick up the books. I was just putting one entitled ‘The Lady in the Woods’ back on the shelf when he asked me, “So, what brings you here? Other than to sabotage my job?”

I turned to look at him. He was still smiling but was obviously curious; I never really came here and I didn’t usually initiate conversation with him when we were on our own. For good reason. I took a deep breath and asked my first question: “Has Veronica been ignoring you?”

Will’s smile faltered. “I wouldn’t say ignoring… I just haven’t spoken to her since we went to The Pit for your birthdays, but it’s only been a couple of days.” He shrugged.

I nodded and looked at my watch. It was just before midday. “What time do you get off work?” I heard the pleading tone in my voice and hated myself for it.

His smile came back again and I suddenly wished I’d put that question in another, less ambiguous, way.

“Today I get off at…” he had to think for a moment, “four.”

I groaned inwardly. I couldn’t talk to him here, but four hours seemed like a long time to wait to get everything off my chest. “I need to talk to you. Can you meet me after work?”

He must have seen the desperate expression on my face because he looked at his watch and thought for a second. “Well I can take an hour off for lunch, we could go somewhere now?”

I smiled in relief. “That’d be great.”

He seemed relieved, too, probably to get out of work for a while. “OK, I’ll just go tell my manager, meet you outside?”

I nodded, and as I watched him walk off, I felt a (rather unpleasant) surge of appreciation towards him.

I was about to walk off when I realised the book he’d stepped on was still on the floor. Picking it up, I tried to dust it off; it was a flimsy paperback called ‘The Haunted Tree’. I laughed at the simple title and rubbish pencil drawing on the cover and put it next to the others.

After a couple of minutes wandering around the empty aisles, I left the depressingly quiet shop and waited for Will outside in the cool, fresh air.

***

He appeared a couple of minutes later, smiling widely and carrying a four-pack of cider. I raised my eyebrows at him and he laughed, holding it up. “Hey, if you worked here, you’d need to drink at lunch too.”

I laughed in disbelief. Yes, I often felt like I needed a drink after work, but I’m pretty sure I’d be fired if I drank at lunch. “Won’t your boss be mad?”

Will’s face lit up. “That’s the best bit! He let me have the afternoon off as it’s so dead. So, where are we going?”

The afternoon off? I was clearly working at the wrong place. “The Lake? It should be pretty quiet this time of year.” After mine and V’s showdown at the Diner, I’d rather go where other people wouldn’t see me.

Will nodded and we started walking towards Little Forest Lake. We cut through the outside market which was just as empty as the grocery store, and I nodded at one of my mum’s friends, Lydia Tyler, who had her own fruit stall there. I couldn’t bring myself to smile at her or say anything. I knew it was stupid, but I was so angry with my parents that I didn’t want to socialise with anyone even associated with them.

We crossed Castle Road and passed the ‘Welcome to Little Forest’ sign in silence. The old white signpost had become extremely weathered over the years and the triangular cattle sign that rested above the village greeting was threatening to fall completely off the pole – one more freak storm and it would be gone. The welcome notice was small and delicate and reflected the quaintness of the area. I supposed its tattered state also resembled the village, or at least some of its residents.

A few seconds later we turned into the lane leading to the picnic area. As expected, the place was empty and we had our pick of the benches. I chose the one nearest the lake and we sat down opposite each other, Will putting the cider between us on the table. It was pretty cold and I got my scarf and fingerless gloves out of my bag.

Will held out the cider cans. “Come on, it’ll warm you up!”

I looked at my watch again. “Well, it is after midday… go on then.”

That was the usual rule around here.

I opened the can and took a sip. The taste distracted me from the current situation; it was warm and pretty disgusting. “What is this?”

Will smiled at my reaction and held up the can in a toasting pose. “Covershire’s finest!”

I laughed. “Figures.”

I looked over at the lake and marvelled at how different things could look in just one change of the season. A few months ago I’d been sitting here with Veronica in the sun, surrounded by Little Forest residents and a few tourists, feeding the ducks with bread and revelling in the fine weather. Now it was the stark opposite: the ducks were gone, it was cold and cloudy, and the water was dark and murky. The usually beautiful ornate bridge over the water now looked ancient and crooked in its desolate surroundings, and there were no signs of life other than the two of us. I couldn’t even hear any birds or traffic from Castle Road; sitting there alone in the picnic area, we could have been the only two people in the village.

Now that was a scary thought.

I drank more of my cider before deciding to break the ice with a non-Veronica related conversation. “Did you hear about Emma?”

Will nodded, staring at the lake. “Yeah, it’s horrible. Makes you think you should drink less.” He looked at the cider in his hand and laughed humourlessly. “Trouble is, stuff like that happening just makes you want to drink more.”

I thought about Emma’s matted hair and dirty face. It would definitely be a while before I drank a vast amount of vodka again, that was certain.

“Did you tell the police about her being all weird?”

I hesitated, not wanting to tell him about the strange timing of my run-in with Emma. I knew Rach wouldn’t tell anyone and without V to spread it around, my secret should stay safe. “Yeah I did, it didn’t help much though; they already knew she was drunk.”

“I wonder what she was doing in the woods?”

That thought hadn’t even occurred to me. Some of the young residents hung out at the castle after they’d had a few, and some were stupid enough to walk into the woods in the pitch black, but Emma was definitely not the type. Then again, people did weird things when they were under the influence. Like following a guy home so you could see where he lives…

I noticed Will looking at me over his can of cider. “I have no idea,” I said, shrugging.

“Did you hear they arrested John?”

I paused with my cider halfway to my mouth. “What?”

“Well, I don’t know if he was arrested or just taken in for questioning.”

I took a sip. “Oh, they probably just had to get a statement from him or something.”

“Maybe. I’m just saying, I always thought the guy was dodgy.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Will liked stirring things up, but I really didn’t think it was funny joking about a death.

“John was the last person to see her alive.”

“Are you assuming this? Or are you a policeman now? Anyway, she choked on her own vomit.” At least, that was the official line.

“Yeah, after hitting her head on a rock. There’s nothing to say she wasn’t pushed.”

I couldn’t believe him; there was absolutely no way John was involved. “Where exactly are you getting your information from, anyway?”

Will shrugged. “Maggie at work. Her dad’s friends with Officer Paul or whatever his name is.”

I was getting pretty annoyed. “Well I got my information directly from DCI Wood. He’s the one who found her.”

“Really? He found her? What was he doing in the woods?”

Another good question. “I have no idea.”

“Maggie told me that Emma’s dress was all torn up, as if she’d been in a struggle.”

I had to stop myself from laughing in disbelief again. I wondered if Rick was aware half the village knew about that dress. So much for telling me I was mistaken. So much for telling me I didn’t see her…

I cleared my throat. “Look, can we stop talking about this, please? It’s giving me the shivers.”

Will looked at my pleading face and nodded. “So what did you want to talk about? What’s up with Veronica?”

The sound of her name made me flinch, and I think he noticed. “Well, I was sort of hoping you could tell me.” He looked confused so I carried on. “Veronica hasn’t spoken to me since the other night, either.”

He raised his eyebrows in a ‘So?’ expression.

“And… she yelled at me in the Diner, in front of everyone. She told me to get out. She was so angry, it was horrible.” I trailed off and looked at Will.

He was obviously trying to stop himself from smiling. “Yeah, I heard about that.”

I sighed. Of course, everyone would have heard by now. Apparently a murder wasn’t enough to put a stop to all the other gossip in the village. “Who’d you hear it from?”

“A couple were talking about it in the shop. So, what was this fight about? Make-up? London? Boys?”

I shook my head. “You don’t understand, it wasn’t like one of yours and V’s fights, this was… different.”

“Different how?”

“She told me she didn’t want to be friends anymore, and she meant it. She threw some glasses at me, but missed. She said if I valued my life, I’d stay away from her.”

Will didn’t look like he was hiding a smile anymore. “I thought that whole glass thing was just a rumour. What the hell did you do to her to make her do that?”

I banged my can on the table in frustration. “I didn’t do anything!” He jumped at my sudden outburst. “I just don’t understand. I was hoping you might know something?”

Will looked past me into the distance, lost in thought. Then he glanced back at me, shrugged, took another gulp of cider and replied, “Maybe you just caught her at a bad time.”

I shook my head; he just didn’t understand. I wasn’t planning on doing this, but I knew I had to tell him about Veronica and my parents.

I told him what happened in great detail, both at the Diner and then later at my house. When I finished, he stared at the table, not saying a word. I carried on drinking and when I got to the bottom of the cider, I opened another.

The sound of me breaking into my second can brought him back to the present, and he drained his first and did the same. After a minute or so, he looked up at me and asked, “Have you told your parents you heard them fighting with Veronica?”

“I asked them if they’d seen her… they denied it. Twice. They lied to me… I was too scared to ask them why.” I looked down at my cider, embarrassed.

“Hey, Beth, don’t worry about it. It’s probably not as bad as you think.”

I looked up at him and tried a smile. It felt wrong on my face, as wrong as my laugh had sounded earlier in my room. “Thanks. It was just a very weird day, and I can’t even talk to anyone about it.”

Will leaned in closer. “You can talk to me. I mean, I know we’re talking now, but if you need to again, you can talk to me.” He stopped his sentence, laughing awkwardly. “Sorry, that was supposed to make more sense.”

I noticed for the first time that I wasn’t the only one finding this whole thing awkward and embarrassing; Will seemed to be extremely nervous. “That’s OK. Thanks.”

The sound of my phone beeping made me jump, and I took it out of my pocket to find a text.

Will gestured to the phone with his can. “V?”

I shook my head. “J.C. He wants some new designs. Apparently cats are in.”

Will looked at me blankly. “Cats?”

“Oh…” I realised that Will didn’t know what I was talking about; we really didn’t know that much about each other. “I earn a bit of money drawing designs for J.C’s Tattoos in Willowton. It’s where I got mine done. Apparently he wants cat designs.”

Will still looked blank. “Who would want a cat tattoo?”

I smiled. “Well, my boss, for one…”

“No way.”

“Yes way, on her arm. It’s… classy.” We both gave in to the cider at the same time, giggling like school children.

We stayed at the lake for a while longer, talking about Veronica and my parents, and when we stood up, I thanked him for listening to me. I meant it; the alternative of staying in my room moping all day hadn’t seemed too appealing.

He smiled slightly drunkenly at my thanks and held up his hand. I stared at it, uncertain what he meant. Will laughed at my perplexed expression and grabbed my wrist. “High five?” He moved my hand so it hit his and then dropped it.

I laughed to myself. “Oh, high five, sure. I didn’t think people actually still did that.”

“Well, I do. I’m unique.”

I raised my eyebrows. “I could think of other words to describe you.”

We started walking away from the deserted lake and picnic area and back towards civilisation. He raised his can of cider at me in a bizarre – almost camp – toast. “Likewise, Powers, likewise.”

***

I tried ringing Veronica that night when I got in but, as expected, there was no answer. At a loss as to what to do, I broached the subject with Rach at work the next day.

She seemed surprised at Veronica’s behaviour, but like Will, didn’t seem to understand the extent of the situation. So once again I told her about my parents and their strange behaviour with V, and like Will, it got her attention.

She stopped messing around on her phone, looked up and said, almost to herself, “There’s something going around the village.”

I waited for her to continue, but she just seemed to be staring into space. “Rach?”

She snapped out of it and her eyes focused back on me. “Things are just a bit weird what with Emma and everything. And last night…”

She paused and I moved a little closer, intrigued. “Yes?”

She shook her head, “I shouldn’t say anything, I hate gossiping.” Bless Rach and her older-than-her-years moral code.

“It’s not gossip… it’s chatting with a friend. What happened last night?”

She didn’t look convinced but she must have (correctly) guessed that I wasn’t going to give up. “Well, I was at Max’s, he was playing video games with his brother and I was bored out of my mind. I went and looked out the window, just for something to do, and saw Norman Carter. He was sitting in front of his wife’s grave with some flowers.”

I nodded. There was nothing unusual about that; Norman was one of the village’s eldest residents and his wife, Doris, had died a few years back. Ever since, he’d spent a lot of time in the graveyard; apparently his wife’s grave was the only one in the entire cemetery that always had fresh flowers on top. I supposed that was sweet, but the amount of time he spent there was pretty worrying.

Rach continued in a hushed voice, “I watched him for a minute, then noticed someone go up to him. It was pretty dark but I could tell in an instant who it was.”

I had no idea where she was going with this. “Well, who was it?”

“I really shouldn’t be saying anything.”

“Come on, this is me we’re talking about. I’m not going to spread it around the whole village, I’m not Veronica.” I cringed to myself. “I mean, I won’t…”

Rach looked at me sympathetically, a small smile on her face. “OK.” She glanced around, making sure no one was there to overhear her awful gossiping. “It was Connor.”

I stared at Rach in surprise. I just couldn’t think why Connor would want to talk to Norman. “What happened?”

Rach dragged her chair closer to mine so she could speak more quietly. She was obviously serious about not wanting anyone else to know. “They had an argument.”

“You could hear them?”

She shook her head. “I didn’t have to. It was so obvious they were fighting. It took a couple of minutes to get going, but when it did, they were properly yelling at each other. Connor kind of gestured to the grave and that really set Norman off. He went right up to Connor, looking furious, and whispered something in his ear. Then he just walked off.”

“What would those two have to fight about? They can only have just met.”

Rach shrugged her shoulders. “I have no idea, but after Norman left, Connor went and stood in front of Doris’s grave for quite a while. Then he left, too.”

I shook my head. “That doesn’t make any sense. You should ask Connor about it, he’s still in your book club, right?”

Rach looked shocked. “It’s none of my business! Or yours, for that matter,” she whispered, rather haughtily.

“Right, sorry. No gossiping, got it.” I made a ‘my mouth is zipped’ motion with my hand.

“I just thought it was… strange.”

Strange was definitely the right word. I glanced at the clock above the main doors; it was nearly six and both Rach and I got off at seven.

Pulling my phone out, I sent Will a quick text asking if he could meet us at the Inn for some interesting news in an hour (my mum would probably be working there but I figured I’d just stay out of her way).

He replied with a ‘Sure!’ remarkably quickly; either he’d finished at the store by now, or he just wasn’t particularly concentrating on work. I asked Rach if her and Max wanted to join us and she agreed, saying she had nothing better to do.

Nothing better to do. That seemed to be the usual reply heard during the cold, dark days of autumn in Little Forest.

If only it had stayed that way.

***

Rach and I got to the Little Forest Inn just after seven. I scanned the bar as soon as I walked in through the large, old-fashioned oak door, and sure enough, there was my mum, pouring pints and talking loudly with the usual ‘Inn Crowd’.

This group mainly consisted of middle-aged housewives or the unemployed who had nothing better to do than sit in there all day wasting their money and their lives on cheap local beer and pork scratchings. I thought that Joan Cooper and Rose Wood, in particular, must literally spend half their time chatting to my mum and drinking themselves silly.

The mood tonight was slightly less jovial than usual – no need to guess why. I noticed a framed photograph of Emma on the bar, with a small bouquet of flowers resting underneath. The whole thing had my mum written all over it, and I didn’t know whether to be grateful to her for caring or mad that she’d even thought of doing that in the first place.

I grabbed Rach’s wrist when I realised she was heading for the bar and dragged her to the table in the furthest corner of the pub. I really didn’t want to have to talk to my mum, or anyone gathered at the bar for that matter.

The Inn wasn’t as bad as it used to be; I never used to go in there at all, but the owners had completely refurbished it over the summer. Now it was a pretty cool place to hang out, even for twenty-something’s, with events such as open mic nights and curry evenings.

Tonight it was the weekly quiz night. Veronica and I had remained the undefeated champions of the quiz for six consecutive weeks in the summer, but I hadn’t been to one since.

The table Rach and I were sitting at was situated next to a little log fire and right underneath two giant church candles which were resting in a gothic bracket on the cream coloured wall. It was set in its own little alcove, half separated from the main bar area by a thick wooden pillar, and was therefore the perfect spot to hide away from the nosy village people.

A few minutes later, Max and Will came in, more or less at the same time, but definitely not together. They got on well enough, but like me, I don’t think Will had ever hung out with Max when he wasn’t clinging onto Rach’s arm.

We all said hi and I asked if Rach could go and get the drinks now that everyone was here. She seemed a bit annoyed with me, but one glance round the pillar at the bar told her why I was being awkward, and she nodded, heading towards my mum with Max.

Will was staring at me quizzically, his eyebrows raised and his head tilted slightly to one side. This was the second time in so many days I’d asked him to meet up, which was more times than I’d done so in the past three years put together. “Have you spoken to V since yesterday?” He paused. “Or your parents?”

I shook my head, glancing over at my mum, who was now serving Rach. “Not so much.”

“I tried contacting V last night. Phone, text, email, nothing.”

I slumped further into my chair. “Right.”

He smiled encouragingly at me. “Just give it some time.”

I wasn’t used to Will being so nice to me, and I tried to search for an appropriate answer while he sat there looking at me.

I was saved by The Couple coming back with our drinks.

Will grabbed his Coke from Max. “So, what’s the deal? What’s this news you wanted to tell me?”

I took my glass of juice from Rach and noticed her annoyed expression. “Is that the only reason we’re here? To discuss goings-on in the cemetery?”

From out the corner of my eye I saw Will sit up in his chair, and I was glad he seemed interested. I was getting pissed off with Rach’s anti-gossip campaign.

I ignored Rach and turned to face Will, filling him in on what had happened in the graveyard. Max had obviously heard it before because he was staring into space, looking bored out of his mind. I hated to think what he did all day without a job if we were boring him now.

I finished the story with a hesitant, “What do you think?”

Will sat back and pretended to stroke an imaginary moustache (as weird as it sounds, he actually did that a lot), and then answered in his best Poirot voice (which wasn’t very good at all and sounded more German than anything), “I theenk it is very interesting, Madame!”

I laughed at his awful impression and wasn’t surprised to see that The Couple didn’t look at all impressed.

When I turned to face Rach I noticed my mum at the bar at the other end of the room; she must have heard my laughter and was trying to get my attention, but I ignored her. She had managed to crush my good mood in about a second.

“Anyway, I think something’s going on. Norman’s… well, he’s been around forever, and Connor’s hardly been here five minutes. He shouldn’t be arguing with anyone yet; I’m sure it usually takes people a good couple of weeks before they realise they hate most of the village.”

I was joking, but Rach, as usual, took it the wrong way. “God, I wished I’d never mentioned it. Connor’s a great guy and Norman’s just a lonely old man. If they are arguing for some reason, it’s none of our business. It was probably nothing, anyway.”

I nodded, wanting to stay on Rach’s good side but needing a good gossip to keep my mind off things. “I agree that usually it would be none of our business, but…” I hesitated, not wanting to make Rach angry or upset, “don’t you think it’s a little strange that you saw them having an argument, at night, in a graveyard, right after one of our residents was found dead?”

Rach looked like she was about to explode. “You’re not seriously suggesting…”

I cut in before she started screaming the pub down. “I’m not suggesting anything, I’m just pointing out the timing.”

I sat back in my chair and looked up at the wooden ceiling beams above me – anything to avoid Rach’s glowering glare. An awkward silence followed but I couldn’t be bothered to try and fill it. When I looked back at everyone, Rach was staring at her drink, Max was playing on his phone and Will was trying to catch my eye. He started twitching his head – as if he had some sort of nervous tick – and I looked at him questioningly until he got fed up with trying to communicate in code.

“Over there! Norman just came in.”

Looking round to where (I now realised) he was gesturing to, I saw Norman sitting on his own at a table in the middle of the room, his wallet already out in front of him. I watched as he waved to my mum at the bar and she brought him over his pint of beer. She sat down to talk to him and his face lit up; my mum usually had that effect on lonely old men, especially Norman, who seemed to spend most of his none-cemetery time at the Inn.

He was quite healthy looking, I supposed, for someone in their eighties; if I didn’t know any better I’d put him at seventy years old at the most. He had bright white hair and crinkly skin that had obviously spent many years outside in the sun, but his eyes were bright and his smile was that of a much younger man. I had a fleeting feeling that he must have been quite good-looking in his youth and then quickly batted the disturbing thought away.

As I was sitting there studying his kind face, I began to feel bad about my gossiping. Rach was right; he was just a lonesome old guy who missed his wife desperately. Poor man.

I was about to turn my attention to Rach to tell her this when both Norman and my mum turned in their seats and looked straight at me.

The suddenness of the movement and the total synchronicity of the action sent an ice-cold jolt up my spine and I froze, returning their gaze. I found I couldn’t look away, and in those couple of seconds, the rest of the pub crumbled away from my vision, my eyes focused only on that table and the two familiar yet haunting figures staring in my direction.

My mum was the first to break eye contact and she turned back to Norman, who after a few more seconds, turned his gaze away from me as well. I realised I hadn’t been breathing and I took a deep breath to calm myself down. Norman and my mum were now back to talking to each other normally, looking, to any regular observer, like two locals catching up.

I glanced at Will and saw the confused look on his face, quite possibly a mirror image of my own. “What was that about?” He looked over at Norman’s table and then back at me.

Rach and Max were whispering to each other and apparently hadn’t noticed anything, but I’m glad Will had. “You saw that too? That was weird, right? It’s not just me?”

He shook his head, looking back at Norman and my mum, who were now leaning towards each other, their voices low. “They’re definitely acting bizarrely.”

I nodded my agreement, thinking out loud. “And they’re not the only ones; Veronica, my dad, Emma…”

Will sat forward on his chair, cradling his drink in his hands. “Connor.”

I put my juice down onto a Guinness coaster and smiled at Will. “Connor. It’s strange how all this started happening when he blew into town.”

I was having fun, for the first time in days, trying to come up with some kind of conspiracy surrounding Little Forest. I was imagining Connor somehow brainwashing the residents of the village, one by one, creating some kind of Irish-inspired cult. I laughed to myself, imagining everyone in the village slowly changing their wardrobe into the same emerald green colour.

I stopped laughing when I saw Rach’s face. She looked angry, and it was only a matter of time before she exploded. Max, as usual, just looked bored.

“Oh come on, Rach. I’m joking.”

Sure enough, a couple of seconds later Rach was on her feet and pulling Max up with her. “Will you stop it? I know you must be bored now you don’t have Veronica to hang out with, but going around accusing Connor of God-knows-what isn’t going to help! If you actually got to know him instead of condemning him straight away, you’d realise how nice he is. But I’m guessing that thought hadn’t occurred to you.”

She paused, taking a deep breath before continuing her verbal attack. “You’re such a hypocrite, Beth. You constantly moan about the people who do nothing but spread malicious gossip around the area, and yet you’re no better. In fact, you’re worse. At least normal people don’t usually go as far as linking people to dead bodies!” She took another deep breath before starting to walk towards the door.

Stunned by her extensive rant, it took me a couple of seconds to recover. “Wait, Rach! Aren’t you staying for the Quiz Night?”

She rolled her eyes. “No. Oh, and you owe me three-fifty for the drinks. You can give it me at work.”

And with that, her and Max were gone. I turned back to face Will and saw the shocked but amused look on his face. He mouthed ‘Wow’ at me and I had to keep back a laugh. “Is she usually like that? I don’t know how you work with her.”

“She’s usually way more normal than that.” I tried to push the image of Emma lying on the forest floor out of my head. “I guess I did step over the line. I’m sure Connor’s a great guy, and this is just really bad timing.” I sighed. “Emma deserves better than my stupid joking.” I slumped down in my seat, staring at the table. “Rach is right.”

Will didn’t miss a beat as he leaned forward and whispered, “I think you’re right.”

***

We sat in the cosy pub corner and had a couple more drinks while Will tried to convince me that – joking aside – it was a little odd that the first horrific death Little Forest had seen in years just so happened to occur as soon as Connor and his mum moved into the village. I’m glad Rach had left; if she’d still been around to hear Will’s wild conspiracy theories, she would have gone even more insane than before.

When Will got up to go to the toilet and I was left alone, I looked around the pub and was surprised to see that four people had joined Norman at his table. I didn’t recognise any of them; they must have been some more late tourists. They were all listening intently to Norman, and oddly, they looked quite scared. It took me a minute or so to tune into the conversation, but when I did, I realised why they looked afraid: Norman was telling his ghost stories again.

Well, I say Norman’s stories, but they were actually the village’s stories. You couldn’t grow up in Little Forest without hearing the many, many supernatural tales that had sprung up over the years, and with Norman being one of the eldest residents, I supposed it was quite possible that he was responsible for the majority of them.

He was currently telling the tale of the ‘black dog’ near Coley Farm, just outside the village. The story of the canine apparition was one of the first I remembered hearing at school; it wasn’t as horrible as some of the other village legends and therefore got told to kids at an early age, or at least it did when I was at Little Forest Primary. Compared to murders and shrieking noises in the night, what was a friendly ghost dog to worry about?

Of course, Norman embellished the story for these gullible tourists, turning it into a ravenous, homicidal beast with a penchant for blood. I had to give it to him: he was a good story-teller.

In fact, I was so enthralled in his tale that I didn’t notice Will come back and sit down again.

“What’s going on?”

I jumped slightly at his voice, then gestured at Norman’s entourage. “He’s pretty good.”

Will followed my gaze. “Good with tourists. Not so much with new residents, apparently.”

“Maybe Norman should try telling some of these stories to Connor. They seem to be a good bonding tool; that lot are hanging on his every word.”

Will smirked at me over his drink. “I can’t really imagine those two settling down for a cosy story time hour in front of the fire, can you?”

I shook my head, still looking over at Norman, who’d evidently just finished the story and was laughing so much at the tourists’ faces that tears were streaming down his face. He was then distracted by my mum, who had just turned the TV above Norman’s table over to BBC One. It was muted but the subtitles were on.

“Thank you, Mrs Powers!” He turned to face his captive audience. “Sorry, folks. There will be a short interval in this evening’s story-telling entertainment.” He gestured to the TV where the football was just coming on. “I’d hazard a guess at around ninety or so minutes long.” He laughed again and waved them away as he settled in for the match.

He looked like the only one; all the other regulars were gathering for the quiz. I smiled at Daniel Fields, the resident quizmaster, as he appeared with his notebook and microphone.

I took another glance at Norman and shook my head. “I just can’t imagine them having anything to do with each other. I wish Rach had heard what they were fighting about.”

“Well, why don’t you ask him?”

Will looked serious enough, but I never knew with him. “Really? You want me to go over to that table and ask him outright why he’s been arguing with the newbie?”

He laughed, shaking his head. “No, not Norman. God no, he gives me the creeps. I was thinking more along the lines of asking Connor.”

“You want me to ask Connor? I don’t even know him; I can’t just walk into Cocktail and start demanding answers.”

“No, but you could flippantly mention it while already at some kind of social gathering with him.”

He’d lost me. “Social gathering? You want me to throw a party?”

“I was kind of thinking of the book club.”

I nearly choked on my drink. “I’ve managed to stay away from that book club for two years. I have no desire to get stuck in a room with Rach and Daniel Fields.”

“And Connor.”

I thought it over, staring at Norman. He hadn’t looked at me since his and my mum’s weird synchronised staring.

“I’m just saying, if you want answers…”

I looked over at Daniel, who now had a pint in one hand and the microphone in the other, waiting for the exact moment the clock struck eight so he could start.

I nodded, hoping I wasn’t going to regret this decision. “Start reading.”

***

The next night, I phoned Rach apologising for the pub and asking if I could go to her book club. She obviously didn’t guess my ulterior motive because she sounded genuinely pleased when I asked; she’d been trying to get me to go along for months. I loved reading, but the idea of reading to deadlines and forced-fun meetings had never really appealed.

But now there was Connor.

The only slight flaw in my plan was that I hadn’t read this week’s book, ‘The Secret of the Abbey’, which Rach had been adamant about. I really didn’t want to wait until next week to question Connor, and I knew she wouldn’t let me come otherwise, so I lied. I told her I’d read it about a year ago but didn’t have my copy anymore, and she said that was fine.

As soon as I hung up, I logged onto my computer and went online to read the blurb, or reviews, or anything I could learn about the book before I had to leave. But, of course, when I most needed it, the internet connection decided to go down. I reset the router in the hallway then waited at my laptop until it started working. It didn’t.

I swore at my computer and was about to phone Veronica to ask if I could use hers when I suddenly remembered we weren’t talking. My stomach did a little flip and I flopped down on the bed in despair. So many of my actions were automatically linked with V and our friendship that it was proving hard to stop being friends with her. I picked up my phone again before I could get too upset, and phoned Will’s mobile. It was ringing out, and I was about to hang up when he finally answered. “Yep?”

I paused. “Will?”

“Oh, hey Powers.”

I could barely hear him. “Where are you?”

There was a brief pause, as if he couldn’t hear me very well either. “I’m in the woods, reception’s a bit dodgy.”

The mind boggled. “In the woods? It’s almost dark… what are you doing?”

I could just about make out his words as the phone line crackled and whirred. “I come here and listen to music sometimes when I need to escape the parents. I’m pretty near the castle actually; I just saw your dad but he ignored me.”

I pictured Will sitting in the woods, surrounded by nature, listening to music. It was such a bizarre image that I had trouble even imagining him doing it. I guessed I knew even less about Will than I thought. “I don’t think he knows who you are; he probably thinks you’re one of the annoying kids who keep spraying graffiti on the walls.”

“Yeah, those morons. Can you tell him I’m not?”

“What?”

“Not a graffiti-spraying idiot.”

I was getting exasperated. “Sure. Look, I just called to see if you knew anything about the book ‘The Secret of the Abbey’? I’ve got about five minutes to learn it.”

I was hoping Will would be at home and near a computer, but now that I knew he was in the forest of all places, I wasn’t expecting much help.

“Yeah, we sell it at the store. I haven’t read it, though. I think it’s about…” he trailed off, and I thought the phone had packed in.

“Hello?”

“Erm… nuns and stuff.”

I smiled to myself despite being on the verge of throwing my phone against the wall. “Great, thanks for that. I’ll let you know how it goes.”

I hung up, grabbed my coat and bag, and headed out the room. Neither of my parents were back yet so I didn’t have to explain my sudden interest in Rach’s club, not that I would have anyway. We still weren’t really talking, and the fact that they hadn’t questioned me about it pissed me off even more.

I stepped out into the cold and started walking towards Rach’s house, trying to use the internet on my phone on the way. It was being ridiculously slow, as usual, and I’d only just managed to type the name of the book into a search engine when I realised I was there.

Rach had obviously been keeping a lookout for me; the door opened before I was even on the garden path. I put my phone in my pocket quickly and cursed myself for not being more prepared. Walking up to Rach’s smiling face and outstretched arms (she was obviously in ‘hostess’ mode), I hugged her before going inside. She took my coat off me and ushered me into the lavish living room, where Connor and Daniel were waiting.

Rach still lived with her parents, too, but her house was nothing like mine; it was one of the fanciest residences in Little Forest. I didn’t have to ask where her parents were (I knew they had a second lounge where they hung out in the evenings), but I’d never actually been inside either of the reception rooms until now.

This room was much larger than my lounge, and the décor was more old-fashioned and ornate than I ever would have thought possible. The words ‘classy’ and ‘elegant’ popped into my head; it was what I usually thought when I saw Rach, and her house was exactly the same. I walked in, feeling quite self-conscious, and greeted Connor and Daniel.

“Evenin’, Beth.” Connor’s sweet Irish accent washed over me and I almost forgot to reply. When I remembered, I mumbled an embarrassed, “Hi, Connor” before saying “Hello” to Daniel.

I’d never hung out with Daniel before (what with him being about 40), but we knew each other due to the proximity of my house to the school, and it had to be said, he was probably Little Forest’s premier middle-aged bachelor. His big brown eyes and floppy brown locks were often the talk of frustrated housewives all over Little Forest and the surrounding villages, and I had absolutely no idea why he was still single.

I walked over to the big, empty sofa (Daniel and Connor were sitting on rather stiff-looking wooden chairs on the other side of the room) and sat down in the middle of the seat.

And I just kept going. The sofa was the softest I’d ever sat on, and I continued to sink down into the middle of it until my legs were sticking out in a comical fashion. I sat there for a minute, feeling Connor and Daniel’s eyes on me while I pretended to brush something off my jeans, then decided I couldn’t possibly sit there in that position any longer.

Rach was out of the room and we were sitting in complete silence. I wondered if Connor and Daniel hadn’t spoken much to each other last week, or if it was my presence that caused them to be so quiet.

In any event, I had to move, and I tried to sit up in order to escape the clutches of the sofa, but without much luck. I tried harder on my second attempt, and almost fell onto the floor in my effort.

I could feel my face glowing red as I finally stood up, crossed the room, and went to sit next to Connor on one of the safer-looking stiff chairs.

We sat there in silence for almost ten seconds before Connor and Daniel, almost at the same time, burst into uncontrollable laughter.

That was the first time that night that I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me whole.

I was still ignoring Daniel and Connor when Rach came back with a tray, on which was stylishly placed a teapot, cups and saucers, a jug of milk, and a carefully arranged plate of chocolate biscuits. Despite my embarrassment, I was equally impressed and disturbed, and I had to remind myself (not for the first time) that Rach was three years younger than me.

She placed the tray on the coffee table in the middle of the room and looked at Connor quizzically.

“What’s so funny?”

At this question, Daniel started laughing so much he almost choked. Connor was also still chuckling as he answered, “Your chair claimed another victim.” He turned to face me. “Don’t worry, it’s grand. Got me on my first go, too.” As he said this, he smiled and winked at me before going to help Rach pour the tea. Damn that wink. My heart did a little jump and I had to remind myself why I was there.

I laughed as well and mumbled, “Glad it’s not just me,” but it was too low for anyone to hear properly. They pretty much ignored me anyway and carried on pouring the tea and offering the biscuits around.

Connor handed my cup and saucer to me with another heart melting smile and then offered me a biscuit. I declined, figuring I’d only just get chocolate everywhere and embarrass myself further. Rach finished hovering around and sat in the chair next to Daniel.

“Everyone knows each other, right?” We nodded. “Great, let’s get started then.” Rach had put on her Official Business Voice, which was similar to her Phone Voice at work. It made her sound about thirty years old, and never failed to make me laugh. “OK, ‘The Secret of the Abbey’ by Patricia Hanted. Beth, do you want to start us off?”

Everyone looked at me, waiting, and I could feel my skin starting to sweat under their stares. “You know what? I’m not really sure what I’m meant to be saying. Could someone else start?”

Rach seemed to accept this excuse and began the discussion herself. Putting on her fake voice again, she started on her obviously rehearsed speech. “Patricia Hanted, a relatively unknown author, creates a vivid and believable world in which dark secrets are the order of the day and bloodthirsty revenge seems a normal and even reasonable act…”

I switched off after about twenty seconds and concentrated on trying to look at Connor without anyone noticing. This was harder now that I was sitting next to him; at least with the human-eating sofa I’d been across the room from him and could see what his expression was. From what I could tell, he was concentrating intently on what Rach was saying, or, at least, was pretending to.

It took me a few seconds to realise it had gone silent and that everyone was looking at me. I smiled, embarrassed, and stared at Rach. “Sorry?”

As expected, Rach looked annoyed; she rolled her eyes and shook her head at the same time, actions that made her resemble some kind of comedy puppet. “I said, would you agree that Hanted wants the reader to feel sympathetic towards Margaret?”

I looked at Connor and Daniel for help, but their faces were mainly blank. Connor looked vaguely amused. “Yes. Yes I would.”

I could tell she was waiting for me to elaborate, but I looked back at her expectantly until she shook her head and mumbled, “Great insight. And why do you think we should?”

“What?”

Rach groaned in exasperation, while Connor tried to hide his smirk. “Why should we, as readers, feel sympathetic towards her?”

I shifted in my seat, wondering what the hell was going to come out of my mouth. I tried to stall. “Towards Margaret?”

Rach thumped the book down on her lap and mumbled something about pulling teeth.

I decided to ignore her comment and turned instead towards Connor, trying to sound warm and welcoming. “So, Connor, you haven’t been here long. How’d you get into the book club?”

I could see out of the corner of my eye that Rach looked pissed off – I’m guessing general chit-chat wasn’t usually permitted here when there were important books to talk about – but Connor seemed happy enough to converse. At first.

“Well, I love readin’, sure, and Daniel here was one of the first people I met in the village. I’d seen Rach’s ad already, o’course, then we got talkin’ and he invited me. That’s about it really.”

I nodded and asked another question before Rach could steer the conversation back to Patricia Hanted and poor Margaret.

“And do you like it here? Or do you miss Ireland?”

Connor shifted in his seat uncomfortably. I couldn’t tell if he was finding my questions too imposing or if it was just the stiff, hard-backed chairs. He cleared his throat before answering. “Sure I miss Ireland, but there was a reason we moved…” at this he trailed off and stared into the distance for a few seconds before he recovered himself, “and Little Forest is grand.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Really? You don’t have to lie, you know. Most young people can’t wait to get out of here.” I emphasised the ‘most’ and I could almost feel Rach rolling her eyes behind my back.

He laughed, a little reluctantly. “Well, I’m not most people. I’m not really into big cities, you know? I mean, Dublin’s great but I prefer smaller places. And it’s not like we’re in the middle o’ nowhere here. I’m savin’ up for a car at the moment so I’ll be able to go to Willowton or Birston whenever I want. Plus me mam wouldn’t have to get that awful bus to work every day.” He trailed off again and I could tell how close he was to her.

I smiled. “That’s sweet.”

He shrugged. “She’s been through a hell of a lot.”

I wasn’t sure what to say to that so I thought I’d gauge his reaction on something else. “I guess you’ve heard about Emma Harris who died in the woods the other night? She worked with me and Rach.”

Connor’s face darkened at the turn in the conversation. “Yes, I heard. I’m sorry. Did you know ‘er well?”

“Not really well, no. It was still a shock though, that kind of thing doesn’t usually happen in Little Forest.” I paused. “In case you were wondering.”

Connor smiled, evidently not quite sure what, if anything, I was implying. I didn’t really know either. “Good to hear.”

“Will thinks it might not have been an accident.” It came out of my mouth before I could stop it.

I heard Rach drop her teaspoon on the little table. “Beth!”

I ignored her, keeping my eyes on Connor. He shifted in his seat again, looking more uncomfortable than ever.

“I thought she was bolloxed.”

I laughed in surprise and, despite his obvious irritation, a hint of a smile appeared on Connor’s handsome, well-groomed face.

“Bolloxed?”

“Sorry, I mean I thought she was drunk.” His smile faded.

I wondered how far I could push him. “She was… he just thinks someone might have taken advantage of that fact. You know, her dress was ripped. It looks like someone took a piece of it with him…”

“Beth, that’s enough.” Rach’s voice was quiet but firm.

I decided to change tack before Rach got really fed up of my questions. “So, you made many friends here yet?” I leaned in further and whispered the next line, posing it like a joke. “Or enemies?”

I heard Rach cough loudly, and looked round to see that she was actually choking slightly on her tea. She gave me one of her warning looks but I ignored it and turned back to Connor.

He seemed confused but he had a crooked smile on his face. “Well, I meet people at the bar, which is useful. And o’course Rach and Daniel here have been great. Everyone seems really nice. Why, do you have any enemies?”

I was about to respond with a jokey reply when I thought of Veronica. Was she my enemy now? It sounded over the top to think, I know, but she definitely wasn’t my friend anymore. And the whole glass-throwing thing surely pointed to the ‘enemy’ category. I hesitated, not wanting to break down in front of the mysterious newbie and the local primary school head teacher. I managed to calm myself and say, “Everyone has enemies around here!” but not before Connor noticed something was wrong.

“Are you OK, Beth?”

I nodded but couldn’t make anything come out. Rach responded for me, guessing why I’d gone quiet. “She’s fallen out with her best friend recently; she’s taking it pretty hard.”

I glared at her but she ignored me.

Connor looked genuinely concerned. Either that, or he was just glad that the conversation had been steered away from Emma, I couldn’t tell which. “That’s too bad, for sure. Nothing’s worth arguin’ about, especially if you were best friends. Can’t you just apologise, like?”

I had no idea what to say; this conversation had taken a turn I hadn’t predicted. I could see that Daniel looked really uncomfortable (he was staring out the window, pretending he could see something incredibly interesting in the darkness of Rach’s back garden), and Connor’s smile had completely vanished. I could only imagine what Rach’s face looked like; I’d deliberately turned my back to her again. I knew Connor was only trying to help, but his suggestion that I apologise to Veronica really got to me. Of course, Connor had no idea that I didn’t know what I had to apologise for, but it pissed me off all the same.

“If nothing’s worth arguing about, why were you fighting with Norman the other night?” I regretted the question as soon as it had left my mouth. Connor looked shocked at first – understandably – and then he just looked mad. Very, very mad.

What did you just say?” All trace of the lovable Irish rogue was gone, and the harsh tone of his voice actually made me jump.

Rach jumped as well, up out of her seat and right over to me. She glared at me, replied to Connor with, “She didn’t say anything,” and proceeded to physically pull me out of the chair. I was so surprised I couldn’t say anything, and she’d got me halfway across the room before I could put up any resistance.

“Rach!” I hissed. I turned back to look at Daniel and Connor. Daniel had now turned fully to the window; his commitment to his fake interest in the garden was impressive. Connor seemed like he was about to burst.

I figured I had nothing to lose now. “I just wanted to know what Connor could possibly have to discuss with one of the eldest people in the village?”

He shook his head. “I’d say that’s none of your feckin’ business!”

Before I could respond, Rach gave me the angriest look I’d ever seen from her as she hissed, “I think you should leave.”

I flashed back to Veronica whispering the very same words to me in the Diner and immediately stopped struggling. I grabbed my bag, said a half-hearted “Sorry,” not knowing if I was talking to Rach or Connor, then walked out the room and straight through the front door.

***

I walked through Rach’s garden gate to the dark, silent road and threw my bag at the ground in frustration. I wondered bitterly how I’d managed to alienate Veronica, my parents, and now Rach and Connor, all in a matter of days. And Daniel too, I supposed, even though I’d never spent any time with him before. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be spending any time with him now, anyway. I was slowly working my way around the village, leaving behind pissed off acquaintances and broken friendships as I went.

I kicked my bag in anger before quickly checking the windows of the surrounding houses, making sure no one had seen my little outburst. You could never be too careful around here, and I was already high on the gossip list after the ‘Diner Showdown’.

I groaned and collapsed on the cold, hard ground; it seemed almost natural to sit down on the pavement in the darkness and put my head in my hands.

It felt like the only thing I could do.

Could I be any more pathetic?

Now that I was sitting down, still and motionless in the autumn air, I could feel the chill seeping through my skin and settling in my bones. I hadn’t been able to grab my coat on the way out, and I was left wearing a highly weather-inappropriate t-shirt. I thought about going back to get it but immediately decided against the idea; I didn’t want to see Rach’s face again so soon after what had happened, and I definitely didn’t want to see Connor’s. Handsome or not, I didn’t think I could deal with him yelling at me again tonight.

I sat there for a few minutes in the gloom, wondering what I was supposed to do now, when a sound punctured the night, shrill and piercing.

My whole body shivered involuntarily as I listened to the mind-bending noise; it sounded like someone, or something, laughing in the distance. No, cackling. It reminded me of something from a long time ago, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on…

I slipped my phone out of my pocket as quickly as I could with my shaking hands, making a mental note to avoid – at any cost – whoever it was who owned that inhuman voice. There were many unsavoury residents in Little Forest, but I was finding it pretty hard to connect that awful sound to someone I might know. Maybe it was just some cats fighting? Except I didn’t believe that. I didn’t believe that for a second.

I selected Will’s number from my contacts list without even thinking about it, and he answered on the second ring.

“Powers?”

“Hey Will.”

“You alright? You at the book club yet? ‘Cus I’ve got some major info on those nuns!”

In my current state I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, but the alien sound suddenly stopped, and I tried to clear my head. “Nuns?”

“Yeah, ‘The Secret of the Abbey’? I came home and looked it up for you.”

I smiled to myself. “Thanks, Will. But I’ve actually been and left.”

“Oh, that was quick.”

I hesitated, then figured there was no point in lying. “Yeah, well, actually… Rach kicked me out.”

There was a pause. “Why?” Then understanding filtered through into his voice. “Did you start interrogating Connor in front of her?”

“I didn’t have much of a choice. It’s her book club, after all. Anyway, now I’ve lost Rach as well as Veronica, so that totally backfired.” I sighed loudly.

“Hey, Beth, she’ll calm down soon enough.” He paused again, apparently unsure of what to say. “It’ll be alright.”

“Thanks.” I looked up at the surrounding houses, all of which gaped vacuously back at me with blank indifference.

The only lights on in the entire court were coming from Rach’s large Victorian bay windows, and as I turned towards the house that I’d been thrown out of, the spine-tingling caterwaul started up again, this time sounding much closer. “Can you hear that?”

“Hear what?”

I held the phone up to the air for a few seconds before pressing it back to my ear. “That.”

There was another pause from the other end, longer this time, and my heart sank as I waited for him to answer. “Sorry, you’ve lost me.”

I started standing up, wanting to be away from that house – away from that sound – as quickly as possible. “Never mind, I’d better get home. I’ll speak to you soon. And thanks for looking up the book for me.”

“Sure, no problem. Listen, Beth?”

I was almost running out of Elm Court now, staring straight ahead and ignoring the strange laughing that was echoing around the houses. “Yeah?”

“Are you sure you’re OK? My parents are out if you want to come round…”

He trailed off and it took me approximately two seconds to realise I was closer to his house than mine. “I’m on my way.”

Another pause. He was driving me mad. “Great! I’ll put the kettle on.”

I said bye as I got to the end of the road, taking one last glance at the deceptively sleepy street before I headed towards Will’s.

***

Despite being the only one at home, Will’s house was ablaze with lights as I walked up the path. It looked comfy and cosy and I couldn’t wait to get inside.

I got to his door and rang the bell.

He answered less than five seconds later. “Hey Powers, you OK?”

I tried to smile. “I’m sure I’ll be fine.” He stepped back and I walked into the hall, glad to be getting into the warm. “Thanks for asking me over, I really didn’t want to go home yet.”

“What were you going on about, a sound or something?”

I shut the front door, turning my back to him so he wouldn’t see me cringe. “Oh, nothing really. There was a weird animal sound but I guess it wasn’t loud enough to transmit over my crappy phone.”

“Right. So the book club idea kind of backfired?”

I turned back to him, nodding slowly. “I think it’s safe to say Rach won’t be inviting me round again in a hurry.” My voice came out flat and defeated – exactly how I felt.

Will noticed and before I could guess what was going to happen, he’d pulled me in towards him for a hug. It took me so much by surprise that for a few seconds I just let him hug me, my hands dangling at my sides, not knowing what to do.

I was used to hugs with my friends (when I wasn’t getting thrown out of their houses, anyway), but being this chummy with Will was a whole new experience. I resisted for a second longer then gave in and put my arms around him too. It didn’t feel as awkward as I thought it would, and the warmth of his skin through my thin shirt felt soothing and reassuring.

I was so lost in my thoughts that the sound of Will’s voice almost made me jump. “God Beth, you’re freezing!”

“Oh, yeah… I left Rach’s in kind of a hurry; she’s now the new owner of my favourite winter coat.”

He gave me a quick squeeze and then he was gone, running up the stairs. “I’ll be right down, go into the living room if you want.”

I stood staring at the stairs for a while before walking into the lounge. The TV was on with the sound turned down, showing some kind of detective show, and the various lamps that were dotted around the room gave it an almost festive feel.

I sat down on the sofa – luckily a sturdier one than Rach’s monster of a chair – and looked around.

It was smaller than my living room but it was warm and inviting. There were a couple of family portraits on the mantelpiece showing Will and his parents (like me, Will was an only child), and a large, clear tank on one of the old wooden bookshelves held Will’s most prized possession: his pet snake, who was inexplicably named Derek. I’d been in his living room a few times with Veronica, and I’m sure he’d told me a thousand times what kind of snake it was, but I think I’d managed either not to listen or instantly forget every time he told me.

To tell the truth, I couldn’t usually wait to get out of Will’s house and towards whatever nightspot we were heading to. Now, I was just grateful to have somewhere to be.

He came running into the room and jumped onto the sofa, holding out a black hoodie. “Put this on.”

I thanked him and pulled the hoodie over my head. It was soft and fluffy and it immediately made me feel better. It had a faint lingering smell of men’s aftershave.

He held up one finger and leapt up, running off into the kitchen. I heard some banging of cupboard doors and tinkling of cutlery and before long, he was back with two giant mugs of tea. He handed me one and leaned back into the sofa, getting comfortable. “So, did you get anything out of Irish before you got thrown out? What did you actually say to the guy?”

I grimaced. “Well I mentioned your theory about Emma, which he didn’t seem to like, then Rach told him about Veronica and he said I should apologise, and I know he didn’t mean anything by it but…”

“But it got to you?”

I shrugged. “And then I opened my stupid mouth and mentioned his argument with Norman.”

Will leaned in closer. “Really? How did he react?”

I thought back to earlier, Connor’s face so red I thought his veins might actually burst out of his head. “He was angry. He was really, really angry.”

Will’s face lit up. “What did he say?”

“He just said it was none of my business, then Rach man-handled me out the room before he could say anything else. He was definitely rattled though.”

Will nodded while blowing on his tea in an attempt to cool it down. “You wouldn’t think he’d react like that if it was just a harmless disagreement he’d had with Norman.”

“True… or maybe he was mad because someone had been spying on him.”

Will laughed. “Yeah, I hadn’t thought of that. But by all accounts he seems to be a charming Irish man. He doesn’t sound like the kind of guy to lose it over something like that.”

“Believe me, he lost it.”

“So, are we thinking there’s something suspicious about him?”

I sighed, thinking back to him and Daniel laughing at me… and that wink. “I really have no idea. He seems nice enough on the surface.”

“That doesn’t mean anything. I bet some of the world’s most evil serial killers were described as being ‘nice’ by their friends and neighbours.”

I raised my eyebrows at him. “Well I don’t know about that… all I know is he’s got one hell of a temper, and I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of him.”

Will nodded slowly. “So he’s new in the area, he doesn’t know anyone and yet he starts fighting with the village’s resident grandfather figure… he loses his temper easily, and almost as soon as he appears, a young woman turns up dead. Am I missing anything?”

“Apart from the obvious, no.”

Will paused. I guessed thinking quickly didn’t come easily to him. “What’s the obvious?”

It should have occurred to me before, when we were discussing everything at the Inn, but we were joking around then. Since seeing Connor this evening, I had actually begun to believe he might have something to do with Emma’s death, but there was one major problem with that theory. “Connor was working at Cocktail all Friday night, remember? It was his first shift.”

Will frowned, looking genuinely disappointed that his Irish conspiracy theory wasn’t panning out. “According to Rach… maybe she got the day wrong.”

“No, he was there until about half one.”

That pause again. “How do you know?”

Crap. I’d forgotten that no one else knew about us following him home. “When V and I left the Diner that night, we went to Cocktail. We wanted to see Connor for ourselves.”

“Right. So basically the two of you wanted to perve on him.”

I pretended to be insulted. “No! We wanted to welcome him to the village.”

“So you spoke to him that night? Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Well, no, we didn’t. He was closing up when we got there and… we didn’t want to disturb him.”

Will was staring at me, a sliver of a smile visible on his lips. “I see.” The smile vanished. “Damn it. So he’s got an alibi all evening? What about after work?”

I shook my head. “She was dead by then. According to Rick Wood.” I tried and failed to keep the sneer out my voice as I mentioned the DCI. Will didn’t seem to notice. He apparently didn’t put two and two together with the timings of my encounter with Emma, either.

“But it was his first shift? He wouldn’t have been working on his own, surely?”

“He was the only one left at closing time.”

“But earlier on, it must have been busier. There would have been someone else rostered to work that night. He could easily have popped out for a break.”

I could feel my own lips curling upwards involuntarily. “So you’re a detective now?”

Will shrugged. “I’m just saying there are different ways of looking at things. I wouldn’t trust Connor as far as I could throw him.”

A thought suddenly occurred to me. “Have you even met him yet?”

A pause. “Not physically… but I’ve heard enough.”

I laughed to myself. I couldn’t believe Will was coming up with wild, condemning theories and he hadn’t even seen Connor in the flesh. “Maybe you should reserve judgement until you actually meet the guy?”

He shrugged again. “I’m sure I’ll run into him, sooner or later.”

Something about his voice made me almost choke on my tea. “Don’t you dare.”

“What?”

“Don’t go tracking him down and asking questions. You can see how well that worked out for me.”

“Spoil sport.”

“I’m serious, Will. You didn’t see him tonight; I don’t want you pissing him off as well.”

He sighed. “Fine, I won’t.”

There was an uncomfortable lull in the conversation and I stared at my tea, trying to think of something to say.

Will broke the silence first. “So what did Rach say about the whole thing?”

I turned to look at the TV. “She said the same thing to me that Veronica said at the Diner. That she thought I should leave. In exactly the same way.” I put my hand over my face and rubbed my eyes. “I feel awful.”

He put a tentative hand on my shoulder. “Rach will get over it.”

I shook my head. “No, it’s not that. Emma’s dead, her parents and her boyfriend are going through hell, and all I can moan about is my best friend not talking to me anymore.”

Will pulled my hand down so he could look me in the eyes. “You shouldn’t feel bad. What happened to Emma was terrible but we’ve all got our own stuff going on.”

I nodded, not knowing how to respond. I felt numb. I took my first sip of tea and the smooth, hot liquid slid down my throat, warming me from the inside and relaxing me completely. I smiled at Will, who was still looking at me with big, concerned eyes. “Thanks.”

I suddenly felt shattered and I settled back into the sofa while cradling my mug against my chest. Neither of us said anything for a long time.

After a while I realised I’d been watching the TV without really taking it in, and now the detective seemed to be talking to a dog.

“Will?”

“Yeah?”

“What the hell are you watching?”

He started laughing and I joined in. “Is that guy having a conversation with a puppy?”

“Er… pretty much. I think the premise is he’s a kind of Inspector Morse mixed with Dr Dolittle. That’s his Labradoodle.”

I looked up at him to see if he was messing with me, but he seemed embarrassed that he’d been caught watching it.

“Sounds… awesome.”

Will coughed loudly. “It is actually.”

I laughed again, happy to be talking about something other than Veronica or Connor. It felt good. “Thanks again, Will. This is just what I needed.”

He frowned back at me. “What, a rubbish TV show about a dog-whispering detective?”

I rolled my eyes at him. “No, just… fun. Light-hearted fun, no Veronica, no conspiracy. You know, just hanging out.”

“No problem,” he beamed back at me. “And same here, it’s nice.”

I saw a troubled look behind his smiles and enthusiasm and I suddenly realised the whole Veronica thing was hard on him too. He wasn’t the one she was mad with and yet he’d still lost one of his best friends. “I’m sorry, Will. I’m going on about myself all the time when you’re going through the same thing. I always forget how much you and V hung out too. You had any luck contacting her?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “No, no reply. It’s not really the same as what you two have, though. I mean, had…” he trailed off and I noticed a faint hint of red gracing his cheeks. “Sorry.”

I smiled at his apology. “You’ve got nothing to be sorry about. Anyway, we’re doing pretty well without her. V’s name is banned from now on, OK?”

He nodded enthusiastically, and I felt a vague feeling of relief.

“Ooh!” I jumped up in my seat.

Will looked vaguely amused. “Ooh what?”

I grinned at him. “I know you think they’re for girls, but Random Violation are playing at The Pit this Friday. Go with me?”

Will moaned, but I could tell he was trying not to smile at the same time. “Go on then. I’ll have to be pretty drunk to put up with their music though, so you’ll have to buy me a drink or ten.”

I punched him on the arm. “For your information, they’re amazing. And I will buy you one drink and one drink only.”

Will pretended to weigh up his options. “OK, deal.”

I leaned back into the soft, comfortable sofa again and let all of the muscles in my body relax. For the first time since I’d met Will, I actually felt like he was my friend, not just some annoying guy who hung around V and I all the time. It was sad that it had taken this whole Veronica mess to bring us together, but I was glad it had.

I stayed at his house for the next few hours before going home, and by the time I left, I’d completely forgotten about Rach and her beloved book club.

Patricia Hanted and Margaret could just go to hell.

[]Chapter Four

It was Friday night, and I was wildly throwing clothes around the room in an attempt to find the perfect outfit. I wanted to look my best, and not because I wanted the band to find me attractive (which was my usual reason), but as pathetic as it was, I wanted to look good in case I ran into Veronica. She never missed a Random Violation gig and I wanted to show her that I was doing just fine without her. Of course, I wasn’t really, but she didn’t need to know that.

I’d just zipped myself into a tight-fitting dark purple dress – a dress I still wasn’t sure I could pull off – when there was a loud knock on my door. A split second later Will entered, beer in hand and smile on face.

“Powers! Looking good.”

I blushed, thinking how close he’d come to walking in on me in my underwear.

Thinking how close he’d come to seeing my scar in its entirety.

I tried to hide my shudder and distract him from my embarrassment by smiling at him and gesturing to the bottle he was holding. “Did you walk from your house drinking that?”

“No, your mum gave it me.”

“Really?” She never offered me alcohol.

“Yeah, she seemed surprised to see me. Then she looked really, really happy.” He hesitated. “I know you think she doesn’t care but she seemed genuinely pleased you were going out tonight.”

I laughed to myself, taking another quick peep in the mirror at the dress. “Yeah, right. She’s probably just glad I’ll be out all night. Then she won’t have to pretend like everything’s normal.”

Will walked over and handed me the beer, which I gladly took and had a couple of mouthfuls from. “Did you hear about the funeral?”

I gave him the beer back and looked at his concerned face. “Yeah, my boss called us all together the other day and told us. How did you know? You been invited?”

Will took another sip of beer. “No, I don’t think Emma even knew my name. Some people at work were talking about it.”

I sighed. I really didn’t want to go on my own. Rach was going but she still wasn’t talking to me, unless we were at work and it was absolutely necessary. “Will you come with me?”

He didn’t say anything at first – he just took another drink of beer, slowly. “Is that allowed?”

“Of course it’s allowed. Please?” I couldn’t keep the desperate tone out of my voice.

He nodded, his face grave, as if Emma’s death was suddenly real to him. “Of course I will.”

I smiled, relieved, then sat down on the edge of my bed as I looked at my reflection in the full-length mirror.

I thought back to the night Veronica and I had been getting ready to go to The Pit. It seemed like such a long time ago; we were best friends and I was looking forward to a fun birthday night out. Ironically, the only thing I remembered spoiling that night was meeting up with Will.

A small but strong pang of guilt flittered through me. “Thanks, Will. And thanks for coming to the gig; I know it’s the last thing you’d want to be doing on a Friday night. I just really didn’t fancy going on my own.”

He walked the couple of steps to my bed and handed me the nearly empty bottle. “It’s cool, Powers. But you have to promise me one thing.”

I knocked back the last of the beer and looked at him questioningly. “And what’s that?”

In one fluid motion he took the bottle off me with one hand, and pulled me off the bed and twirled me around with the other. “No moping!”

I’m not sure if it was the beer or the combination of the twirl and a head rush, but I felt better than I had in days.

***

We got to The Pit while it was still relatively empty, and after a quick glance around the bar area (no one had yet migrated over to the stage), I was fairly certain that Veronica wasn’t there. Come to think of it, as she’d abandoned all of her old friends, I wasn’t sure who I expected to see her with.

We grabbed two seats at the bar, taking advantage of the gig night special – buy one beer, get one free – and making meaningless conversation with Kirsty Finch, one of the bar staff who had worked there as long as I’d been going.

When it got busy, we just sat and talked to each other while waiting for the band. It seemed totally natural and I mentally kicked myself for not getting to know Will sooner. He was obviously trying to cheer me up and despite all my instincts telling me I should be miserable, I managed to ignore them and let all my problems be forgotten. For a while, at least.

We weren’t too bothered about the support band, so when people started crowding round the stage ready for Poison Prescription, we went and sat on one of the comfy sofas in the corner of the ‘chill out’ area. It was far enough away from the stage that we could just about hear each other. Not that the talk was particularly meaningful; we covered such intellectual topics as crap music, good music, local gig venues, and which instrument we’d both like to play. I was surprised and impressed to find out that Will played acoustic guitar, and I marvelled again over how little I actually knew about him, considering the years he’d spent following Veronica and I around.

It wasn’t a particularly nice thought; if I’d been completely oblivious about Will, what else had I been missing?

Eventually Poison Prescription left the stage and Random Violation came on, at which point I pulled Will up off the sofa and almost flew over to the main gig area. I dragged him into the middle of the crowd – much to his discomfort – and screamed and clapped as the band introduced themselves to The Pit (as if they needed to – most of their fans were regular Pit-goers).

I turned to Will excitedly and was greeted by a mixed look of horror and embarrassment; I think I was confirming his niggling feeling that Random Violation were a band for overexcited females. I put my arm around him (this was quite difficult as there was limited space in the crowd and Will was quite a lot bigger than me), and whispered “Just go with it” in his ear. I saw him try, and fail, to cover up his smile before turning back to the stage.

Random Violation were one of those ridiculously good-looking bands, and it amazed me that they still hadn’t hit it big; they should have been gracing the covers of every hip music magazine in the country by now. Every single member looked like they could be a male model, and the lead singer actually had been when he was younger. Now they were all in their late twenties, and over the years I’d managed to talk to all of them on different occasions when they were at The Pit.

The lead singer – the absolutely beautiful Mark Robson, continued his spiel to the crowd. “Little Forest never disappoints! Are you villagers ready to rock?”

OK, so he could do with refining his stagecraft and being slightly more original, but no one cared. Mark was quite possibly the most attractive man I’d ever seen in real life; his long, tousled hair made him look like he’d just rolled out of bed – probably one filled with lots of gorgeous groupies – but I had a sneaking suspicion it took him hours, along with finely honed skills, to perfect that barnet. His smooth-looking skin was beautifully pale next to his pitch-black hair, and his deep brown eyes were framed by thick, dark eye liner, or guy liner as V always called it.

They launched into one of my favourite songs of theirs, ‘You Want Me’, and as usual, I started jumping up and down and singing along. I think it took Will about three or four songs for him to get used to my insane teen-like behaviour, and then he seemed to give into it. I actually caught him mouthing along to one of the songs and there was definitely a bit of movement going on in his reluctant body.

My eyes hardly ever left Mark Robson, who was clinging onto the mic stand and singing as if his life depended on it. He may have looked like he belonged on a billboard advertising men’s aftershave or Armani suits, but he lost all that pretension when he was on stage. He didn’t seem to care what he looked like up there; he let the rhythm take over him and the music was the only thing that mattered. I wished I could be that passionate about something… anything.

It happened about halfway through the gig.

The band had just launched into ‘Save Me’, a slow, poignant song Mark had written about losing loved ones (yes, I knew all the trivia), when I felt a cold chill run up my spine.

Someone had emerged from the shadows at the back of the stage, and I watched (half in horror, half in wonder) as the little girl I’d previously seen in The Pit walked to the front of the platform and stood next to Mark. She was wearing exactly the same clothes as before, and was still so pale that I felt if I looked closely, I would have been able to see the veins and arteries through her skin.

Her expression was the same as before, too: a mix of uncertainty, curiosity, and fear. Her gaze shifted between the different band members, but of course none of them took any notice; the gig carried on as usual.

I stole a glance at Will, knowing that he wouldn’t be, but hoping with all my heart that he’d be staring at the strange girl in surprise. He wasn’t; he was bopping his head to the music, looking at the stage with no more shock than before. He noticed me staring at him and smiled. I tried to return it the best I could.

When I looked back at the stage, the girl was still there, and now she was staring at me; it was as if I was the only one in the room. At that thought, I glanced around the club, peering at as many people as I could see in the light radiating from the stage. They were all having a great time: dancing, singing, drinking. None of them seemed to notice the bizarre new addition to the stage line-up.

There weren’t a single pair of eyes that were wide with surprise or amusement – there was a sea of hundreds of faces, and I was the only one who could see her.

When I looked back at the stage, she was gone.

***

By the end of their set Will was definitely getting into the music, and even though I was sure the beer had something to do with it, I was glad he was having a good time. They finished their last song, ‘Feel the Fear’, and left the stage to rapturous applause.

I held onto Will’s arm to avoid being swept away with the crowd – which was now moving to the exit doors en masse – and we headed towards the bar. I ordered a tap water and, to my surprise, so did Will.

I tried to keep the conversation light, pretending I hadn’t just been sufficiently spooked. “You pretty dehydrated too? Getting into the gig a bit too much, were we?”

He rolled his eyes but his cheeks flashed slightly red. “Just too much beer.”

We drank our water and watched most of the crowd leave. A lot of them seemed to be under eighteens who couldn’t stay for Rock Magic after the gig; there were only about thirty or so people left near the bar. I knew it would pick up soon once they opened the doors again, but for now it was nice to have a bit of a breather.

I was about to ask Will what he honestly thought of the gig when I heard someone say my name behind me. Swivelling on my bar stool, I came face to face with Mark Robson. He was looking entirely too handsome to have just finished an energetic gig.

“It is Beth, right?”

I nodded slowly as my heart rate rapidly increased. “It sure is… wow, I must be an annoying fan for you to remember me!” I cringed at the overenthusiastic tone of my voice.

He laughed at my response. “Actually, you’re one of our cooler fans.” He stood back and slowly moved his eyes up and down my body as his smile broadened. I was half flattered, half creeped out. “You look amazing in that dress.”

Creeped out or not, I was full on blushing now. I looked down at my lap and swept some invisible lint off the purple fabric; Mark’s face was so perfect it almost hurt to look at it for too long.

“Thanks… you don’t look too bad yourself.”

He smiled his dazzling – almost too brilliant – smile at me and held out what looked like a business card. “Look, me and the guys have got to go, we’ve got a gig in London tomorrow and we want to get there tonight. But you should hang out with us sometime.”

Was the lead singer of my favourite band in the entire world actually asking me out? I took the card with a shaking hand and nodded, unable to respond with anything even remotely coherent.

Mark leaned forward then, kissing me on the cheek, and everything else blurred into unimportance.

“Oh, and bring your friend, the hot brunette. We’ll make it into a little party.” He gave me one last stunning smile and walked off back towards the stage.

My good mood disappeared in a second; people didn’t even have to say her actual name now for me to feel like crap… ‘hot brunette’ seemed to do it just as well. I jumped when Will put his arm around me; in all the Mark Robson drama I’d totally forgotten he was there. Oops.

It was as if there was some kind of spell around Mark that made you forget everything else.

“Hey, it’s OK. Hell, tell Veronica about what just happened and she’d be your friend again in a flash!”

I knew he was just trying to cheer me up, but I wasn’t in the mood for joking anymore. I wasn’t in the mood for even talking anymore. I wriggled out of his arm and started walking towards the exit.

He followed and stopped me. “Sorry, that was a stupid thing to say.” I didn’t respond and my silence obviously made him nervous. “So… that Mark guy, he was a bit of a psycho, wasn’t he?”

I raised my eyebrows at him..

“What? I know you idolise the guy and everything, but you don’t seriously want to be a groupie, do you?” I didn’t respond. “Do you?”

I smiled humourlessly at him. “What is it to you if I do?”

Will flinched and his expression cut through me like glass. I didn’t mean what I’d said. Obviously I fancied Mark, but I didn’t particularly want to be a rock star groupie; how lame were those girls? Sighing, I looked up at Will. “OK, no I don’t. Clearly, I don’t. Happy now?”

He didn’t look like he entirely believed me, but he smiled anyway.

I started walking again; all of a sudden I’d had far more of The Pit than I could deal with.

“No Rock Magic tonight then?”

I shrugged. “I think I just want to go to bed. You stay if you want, though.”

He shook his head and put his hood up as we emerged into the cold, wet night. “Nah, I’ll walk you home. I’m pretty knackered too from all that jumping around and sing…” he broke off.

I smiled in victory, letting Veronica and the disturbing stage show sink into oblivion. “I knew it. You love Random Violation!”

He looked at me sideways, whispered a low “No comment” and walked off into the night.

I had to run to keep up.

***

That night before I went to bed, I was sorting out my bag when I came across Mark’s business card.

I twirled it round in my fingers, smiling to myself. Idiot or not, he was ridiculously good-looking, and even though his comment about V had caused me to become a blithering idiot, I couldn’t deny that I was thrilled he’d come up to me, and even more so that he’d remembered my name.

I held it up to my bedside lamp to read what it actually said (I’d been too star struck earlier to look), and saw it was a simple white card with just four solitary words printed in a boring font: ‘Mark Robson: Rock Star’. The number was underneath.

I looked at it for a few seconds, trying to think what it reminded me of, and as soon as I thought of Patrick Bateman and American Psycho, I laughed so hard I dropped the card down the side of my bed.

Staring into the dark space that had now engulfed the card, I decided to leave it there; I was physically exhausted after the gig and mentally fatigued after spending the rest of the night avoiding thinking about Emma and the girl at The Pit, and all of a sudden Mark Robson didn’t seem worth the energy it would take to reach down and find that ridiculous business card in the darkness.

So instead, I got into bed, silently laughing to myself.

Mark Robson: Rock Star.

Will had been completely right about him. Psycho.

What if Will was right about another certain handsome stranger?

***

The next morning I decided that if Veronica didn’t want to talk to me, I’d respect her wishes and leave her alone.

Then I decided to just go and hassle her until she spoke to me.

I psyched myself up and left the house, almost running to hers in case I got nervous on the incredibly short journey and bottled it.

Although we lived just one street apart, Leaf Lane was much more aesthetically pleasing than School Road, where I lived. Each of the gardens looked immaculate, even during autumn and winter, and the pavement was separated every few feet by large, beautiful trees.

I got to her front garden and slowly opened the creaky wooden gate. My heart was pounding and I wondered why I was so scared, and then the scene from the Diner flashed in front of my eyes.

At least if this went wrong it wouldn’t be a public humiliation, although I knew for a fact that Mrs Teasdale across the road was a regular curtain twitcher and shameless gossip. If V did yell at me again, half of Little Forest would know by nightfall.

I took a deep breath, quickly walked down the path and pressed the doorbell before I could think about the consequences.

I needn’t have worried; after a few more minutes of ringing the bell, knocking on the door, and shouting, it was clear that no one was home. I had a brief thought that V might be inside and ignoring me, before I realised what day it was and grumbled to myself in annoyance. Of course she’d be working at the Diner, why I ever thought otherwise was a mystery to me; I knew her timetable pretty much off by heart. The recent lack of sleep and constant worrying was probably a factor, as well as pure old-fashioned stupidity.

I sat down on the cold, concrete step in front of the bright green door and took my phone out my pocket, going to ‘V’ in my address book and calling her number without much hope.

After a few rings it went to answer phone and I waited for the beep, wondering what would come out of my mouth. It would probably be one of two things – pathetic whimpering and crying or lots and lots of shouting. Instead it was somewhere in the middle: angry, but pathetic.

“Veronica, it’s Beth. Again. I’m at your house but you’re not here, and I refuse to come to the Diner just so you can yell at me again in front of the whole village. I just wanted to let you know that if you don’t get back to me, I’m going to wait here until you come home. I don’t care how long it takes; you are not going to ignore me any longer.”

I hung up and immediately wished I’d left a cooler message. Maybe next time I should plan it and write down what I was going to say in advance. My lame thought was interrupted by my phone going off and I looked down to see I’d got a text. It was from V.

I opened the message with a sense it wouldn’t be good news. I was right.

‘You’ll be waiting a long time. As soon as I have the money, I’m out of here. Please don’t contact me again.’

I looked at the text for at least a minute. She was leaving without me?

Of course, I didn’t think we were going to London together anymore, but I never thought she’d go on her own. At least she’d been polite when telling me not to contact her – a ‘please’ was better than a swear word. I looked at that sentence again. Why bother putting please at all when she’d been completely horrible to me the rest of the time?

I could feel the tears starting to form in my eyes and I stood up quickly, wanting to get out of there. I thought I could see Mrs Teasdale’s netted curtains moving in her living room window and I hurried home before she could see me lose it.

***

That night I sat on my bed with the cat on my lap and cried until I couldn’t breathe. I tried to be quiet at first so my parents wouldn’t hear, but then I gave up and just stuck loud music on (Random Violation, of course) to drown out my piercing sobs. Keaton was staring at me with wide, green eyes and I stroked his black fur, reassuring him that I hadn’t gone totally mad and would still continue to fuss him and feed him despite my current behaviour.

I thought about calling Will but then decided against it. No one needed to hear me cry down the phone to them for hours, especially not someone I actively used to avoid just a few days ago.

Instead, I picked my laptop up off my duvet and propped it on my bedside table to avoid disturbing the cat. I logged on, opened up the web explorer and immediately went to Calling all Covershire. I went to my Friends page and scrolled down through some of the updates.

Rach was deciding what her next book club book would be, Will was rambling about some TV movie he was watching, and Freddie Steiner was cooking lasagne. I scrolled down some more until I saw V’s update from just thirty minutes ago. ‘Veronica Summers: Pissed off. Can’t wait to get out of this hell hole and away from everyone in it!’

I laughed in shock. Putting something like that on a local social network site was really stupid, and it wasn’t like V at all. Pretty much all of the younger people in the village were signed up to that site, and most of them were either friends with Veronica or worshipped the ground she walked on and stalked her profile religiously. If she’d had any friends left at all in Little Forest, she wouldn’t now.

My phone beeped at me, interrupting my thoughts. I picked it up from the table and looked at the screen, surprised. It was a text from Tom Durden, my ex-boyfriend from back in high school. He was a couple of years older than me and when he’d moved to France to go to University, we broke it off; neither of us thought we could deal with a long distance relationship. He hadn’t been back to Little Forest since, but he’d kept in touch for about a year afterwards. This was the first time I’d heard from him in at least three. I opened the message.

‘Hey, Liz. Just thought I’d check in, how is the Shire? France is just as French as ever, nearly finished my Uni course now. Got a new job lined up too. Let me know how you’re doing, it’s been an age. Tom xx’

I shook my head, amazed. It had been so long since I’d spoken to him I’d completely forgotten he called me Liz and not Beth. I’d gone through a phase in high school where I rejected my normal shortened name and had made everyone call me Liz (it had been Eliza for a while but I stopped that when Veronica kept laughing at me).

Just reading that name made me remember high school: me and Veronica were inseparable, we had a completely different group of friends (we hadn’t yet met Will or Rach), and everyone thought I was incredibly cool for having an older boyfriend. I shook my head in wonder; I’d been devastated when Tom left, but it was nothing compared to how I felt now about Veronica. I realised in that moment that I’d never been as unhappy in my entire life as I was now. The thought made my stomach lurch.

I briefly thought about calling Tom and telling him about everything that was going on, but my mobile couldn’t afford long distance calls and I’m pretty sure I’d get thrown out if I tried it on the land line. Instead, I settled for a quick text message, hinting at my misery in case he felt like calling but not so much it would freak him out:

‘Tom, good to hear from you. I’d like to say I’m great but things are a bit weird here at the moment. Someone from my work died recently and it’s not been easy. It’s been strange to say the least. But I won’t bore you with that! Good luck with the new job. Beth/Liz xxx’

I hit send and then put my phone back on the bedside table. I didn’t want to go into the whole Veronica thing again with another person; it was just too painful to keep bringing up that day at the Diner.

Closing my laptop, I leaned back against my pillow, Keaton meowing loudly as he got moved. I waited for a few minutes in the vague hope that Tom would text back or maybe call, but there was nothing.

I threw my phone at my bed covers in frustration. Until I’d received that text from Tom, I’d been focusing on Veronica and Emma and all the weirdness surrounding that. Now I had loneliness to add to the mix.

I sighed, hugged Keaton close to me, and reached out to retrieve my phone. I hesitated briefly, then found Will’s name in my contacts list.

He answered on the first ring.

***

On Sunday I woke up with a vague sense of foreboding, and it took me a few minutes to realise why; it was the day of Emma’s funeral.

I forced myself out of bed with a moan and tried to think what I had to wear. I’d never been to a funeral before and I wanted to look right. Not that my outfit really mattered in the grand scheme of things.

It was around nine a.m. when there was a knock on my bedroom door. I groaned inwardly, wondering what my parents wanted. “Yes?”

My mum poked her head around the door and asked if she could come in. I nodded, smiling, pretending everything was normal, like I’d been doing for days.

“Beth, Darling. I’m putting some light washing in, do you want me to do any of yours?”

I felt a small bubble of anger rise up my throat, the same one I’d been getting whenever my parents talked to me recently. “Washing? That’s what you wanted to talk about?”

She rolled her eyes in exasperation and gestured to the basket in her hand. “Yes, washing. Is that concept too confusing for you?”

I shook my head, not taking my eyes off her. “No. I just thought you’d want to make sure I was OK or something.”

“OK?” She looked lost.

“It’s the funeral today.”

Understanding – with a possible hint of relief – flooded through her face. “Right, sorry. I’d totally forgotten. Are you going with…” she faltered, then recovered. “Are you going on your own?”

I shook my head. “With Will.”

“Oh, that’s nice.”

“Yeah, it is.”

I waited to see if she’d say anything else, but she just looked down at the wash basket again.

“I did my washing yesterday, thanks.”

She nodded and I gave her my best fake smile, letting it drop as soon as she had her back turned.

She was almost out the door before I decided she didn’t deserve to get off that lightly. “Mum?”

“Yes?” She turned round again, looking glad I’d said something but wary as to what I was going to say next.

“How come you haven’t asked me why I’m not hanging around with Veronica anymore?”

Her smile faded. “Sorry?”

“I’ve gone from hanging out with her every day, to not seeing her in almost two weeks. I was just wondering why you hadn’t asked me about it?” I stared at her expectantly while she started looking more and more flustered.

“Well, Darling, I didn’t want to upset you. Your father told me about your fight at the Diner, of course. I figured if you wanted to tell me the details, you would.”

I nodded, pretending to think this over. “Makes sense. And I would have told you, but you see, I don’t actually know what the fight was about. Do you?”

My mum looked even more uncomfortable now. “No… I can’t hazard a guess.”

I shook my head. “I meant, has Veronica told you?”

A deep crimson was creeping into my mum’s cheeks and she started playing with her ring like she always did when she was nervous. “No, why would she? I haven’t seen her since your birthday.”

There it was. The blatant lie again. One she’d told me in another way before, back when my life was still vaguely normal. I decided to push it. “Are you sure?”

I held her gaze and she had no choice but to look right into my eyes. “Of course!” Her smile widened so much it looked almost alarming, and she walked over to the door quickly and out onto the landing.

I sat looking at the now closed door and wondered why I didn’t feel more upset or angry.

I guess I’d always known she’d say that, and it’s amazing the kinds of things you can get used to in just a few days… like not being able to trust your parents anymore.

I sighed and called Will to check he was awake.

***

The funeral was held at the local church, St Michael and All Angels, and the turnout was pretty huge.

Most people from work were there, apart from the new guy, Graham, who I assumed must be manning the cinema. Veronica was nowhere to be seen.

John, unsurprisingly, looked awful; I could see him at the front of the church with Emma’s parents, and he looked physically sick.

“I guess the police don’t think it was him, then.”

I punched Will on the arm, a bit more violently than I’d intended. “Will, now is not the time.”

St Michael’s was a small but cosy church with beautiful stained glass windows, elegant marble statues, and creaky wooden pews. Although I wasn’t at all religious, I’d always loved it here.

Will, who had never entered the church before, didn’t seem too bothered about the décor. “John seems really nervous.”

I looked over; he was running his fingers through his hair and checking his watch. “Of course he’s nervous; it’s his girlfriend’s funeral. Will you stop?”

I glanced at Emma’s parents and felt my stomach churn. Her mum was in fits of tears and her dad was just staring straight ahead of him at his daughter’s coffin, which had been placed at the front of the church. Emma was their only child – as far as I knew – and I couldn’t even begin to imagine the pain they were going through.

At that moment, the vicar – Reverend Roger Kipling – took to the pulpit. Everyone hushed and I braced myself for the emotional service. I’d never been to a funeral before and I had no idea what to expect.

The vicar had got a few words into his opening speech when the back door of the church opened, allowing a gust of cold wind to come rushing up the aisle. Everyone turned round to see Norman Carter, looking a bit embarrassed at his dramatic entrance as he closed the door again and went to sit on a pew near the back.

Will, as I knew he would, raised his eyebrows at me and whispered, “What’s he doing here?”

“He’s probably friends with her parents or something… he knows everyone.” Which was true, but it didn’t stop me from turning round to stare at him; he looked even more nervous than John, fidgeting in his seat and looking around him at all the familiar faces.

I turned back to focus on the front of the church. “And now, if you’d turn to the third page of your order of service we will stand and sing ‘Jerusalem’.”

I heard Will groaning as we stood and flipped to the right page. I made a mental note never to ask him to another church service again.

The organist started playing and the congregation joined together for the song, their sorrowful voices filling the small church.

“And did those feet in ancient time

Walk upon England’s mountains green?

And was the holy Lamb of God

On England’s pleasant pastures seen?”

I sang along with slight confusion. I couldn’t imagine Emma ever being a fan of something like ‘Jerusalem’ but, then again, I didn’t suppose her parents would know what she wanted sung at her funeral.

“And did the countenance divine

Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

And was Jerusalem builded here

Among those dark Satanic mills?”

I looked around the church and saw Rach on the other side, trying to hold it together, and our boss Hannah behind her, staring sternly but sadly at her order of service.

The acoustics in the church were impressive, and the sound of everyone coming together to sing that particular song gave me goose bumps.

“Bring me my bow of burning gold!

Bring me my arrows of desire!

Bring me my spears, O Clouds unfold!

Bring me my chariot of fire!”

I glanced back at Norman and was amazed to see him crying; he looked totally devastated. I tapped Will’s arm and gestured to the rear of the church so he’d turn round as well.

He took a quick look at Norman and raised his eyebrows at me again. “OK…”

“I will not cease from mental fight,

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,

Till we have built Jerusalem

In England’s green and pleasant land.”

The congregation raised their voices for the last verse, and a tingle ran down my spine in response to the powerful words. When the song reached its iconic last line, Norman lost his self-control.

He was holding a plain white handkerchief to his eyes, spluttering into it as everyone else was singing the closing words. He was so loud that a few people near the back turned to look at him, and he put his handkerchief down, staring at the floor, his cheeks blazing red.

In the few seconds after the song ended, his sniffling was all that could be heard.

***

After the funeral, we all went to Emma’s parents’ house, where Will and I sat eating sandwiches in the corner of their living room.

The house was quite small but beautifully styled, with framed photographs of the family on almost every wall. I knew most of the people there but none of them well (apart from The Couple, and they’d left a while before), so we were sitting pretty much on our own.

Rach had looked like she was still having trouble keeping it together, and I’d sent her a text asking if she was OK after she’d left. I didn’t really expect a reply after my book club behaviour, but I thought I’d better try.

I also took the opportunity to text Veronica. She’d always liked John and from what I could tell, she hadn’t even spoken to him since Emma’s death. I felt bad about using him as an excuse to contact her, but I thought it might pull some heart strings, or at least put things in a different perspective for her. Whatever I’d done to upset her couldn’t be on the same level as someone dying. At least, I hoped not.

I sent her a text saying I was at the funeral and John looked like he could use a friend right now, if she wasn’t busy ignoring absolutely everyone. I didn’t try to be polite.

I got a reply surprisingly quickly. Unfortunately, it was only a few words long:

‘Tell John I’m sorry for his loss.’

I read it over twice before replying with:

‘Tell him yourself.’

I gave Will my phone so he could see what she’d written, and then picked a bread stick off the nearby table.

I was just about to get up to find some dips to go with it when Will asked, “Who’s Tom?”

I glared at him and grabbed my phone back. “Don’t you know it’s rude to go through other people’s messages?”

“I didn’t mean to! I pressed the down button too many times.”

He looked genuine enough, and I knew it was easy to do on my ancient phone. “OK, sorry.”

I wondered how long it would take him to ask the question again.

It took about two seconds.

“So, who’s Tom?”

I groaned, not wanting to go into this with Will. Especially not now. “He’s an old boyfriend, OK?”

Will raised his eyebrows.

“What? Is it so unbelievable that I’ve had boyfriends?”

An amused smile was threatening to emerge on Will’s face. “No! Course not. I just hadn’t heard about him.”

I shrugged. “We went out for a couple of years when I was in high school. He was about two years older, he went off to France for Uni, and I haven’t seen him since. Happy now?”

“But you hear from him?”

I put my phone back in my pocket. “Not for a while.”

“So why is he texting you now?”

I put the bread stick back, realising I wouldn’t be able to take even a small bite during this insane questioning. “I have no idea, Will. Maybe he was bored. What’s it to you, anyway?”

He held up his hands, palms facing me. “Nothing, nothing.”

I nodded, finally agreeing with him on something. I went to pick up the bread stick again when he started once more.

“So is he planning on coming back any time soon?”

I took a deep breath, trying to calm myself down; Will could be so annoying. “I doubt it, he always hated Little Forest. Why?”

Will just shrugged. “No reason.”

I threw the bread stick at him.

***

“How much longer do you think we should stay?” I asked, quietly so no one else would hear me.

We’d been waiting to see if Norman would turn up, but he’d left as soon as the service had ended and he hadn’t reappeared.

Will stuffed his last sandwich in his mouth and then proceeded to answer through the bread and cucumber. “Well, Rach left already.”

I looked away from his mouth in disgust and saw John walking over to me. I smiled at him awkwardly and he returned it just as awkwardly.

“Hi Beth.”

“Hi John. This is Will…” John nodded at him. “I’m so sorry about Emma.”

He pulled a chair up in front of us and nodded again. “Thanks.”

He wasn’t in a good way; he had dark lines around his eyes and more stubble than I’d ever seen on his usually smooth chin. He also looked like he hadn’t washed his hair in a week.

As awful as I could imagine the whole thing must be for John, a selfish part of me wished he’d go away so I wouldn’t have to think of things to say.

“Thanks for coming.”

I nodded, unsure of funeral etiquette. “It was a good turnout.”

It was John’s turn to nod.

The silence was starting to become colossal, and I looked over at Will for some help.

“So… was Norman close with Emma?”

I scowled at him; I didn’t mean that kind of help.

John looked confused. “Sorry?”

“Norman Carter, came in late, kept crying a lot, I didn’t know he was close with her?”

I kicked Will’s leg, not as subtly as I’d hoped, and he yelped.

John just shook his head. “He’s not, well not that I know of. Maybe he used to be friends with her parents or something…”

He trailed off and I smiled at him, hoping he didn’t find Will’s questioning too strange.

At that moment John straightened up and took a deep breath. “So, Beth. I saw Rach before the church service, and she mentioned you saw Emma outside The Pit?”

I cringed and made a mental note to yell at Rach later. I can only imagine it must have slipped out by accident; she knew how confused and freaked out I was by the whole thing. “Er… well it turns out it wasn’t her… it must have been another blonde girl.” I took a deep breath, finishing weakly with, “I was quite drunk.”

Will, who had now finished his sandwich, looked at me with his brow furrowed. “I thought you were certain it was her?”

Damn it, I should have just told Will earlier. I shook my head, trying to think how to word my answer. “No, the police told me the timing was all wrong, it couldn’t have been her.”

John sank into his chair, putting his head in his hands. “So you don’t have any information?”

“Information?”

“I’m just trying to figure out what happened. I thought if you’d seen her…” he glanced up at me, desperation in his eyes. I wondered how many times he’d stayed awake at night, going over every last detail, looking for an answer. Any kind of answer.

Again I thought of her running off into the darkness, being on the brink of following her, and then just going back to my friends. But hadn’t it already been too late by that point?

I took a deep breath, pushing the thought to the back of my mind, where it would rest with all the others.

“I thought we knew what happened? Alcohol, falling over, vomit…” I saw the tortured look on his face and wished the ground would swallow me up. Tact in the face of a grieving boyfriend was clearly not one of my skills. And I’d thought Will was bad.

“That’s what the police reckon.”

Will pulled his chair closer to both of us. “You don’t?”

I glared at him, trying to warn him not to go too far, but he was staring straight at John.

“The police are rubbish. They’re not used to murders around here; they see what they want to see.”

I could feel my throat getting very dry, and I wished I had a drink near me.

“Murders?”

John nodded. “You said the police told you that you were wrong? Well they did the same to me. I was the one who suggested that we go to the castle after The Pit; I thought if Emma had taken the step to go to a rock club she might be more willing to do other things I liked. A lot of my friends hang around the castle at night, it’s a laugh, and I wanted her to be less shallow and uptight…”

He trailed off and proceeded to stare at the floor. “We got there around eleven – we left The Pit early because Emma didn’t want to stay – and we had a bit of a fight about not going to Willowton, so she ran off into the woods. I tried to follow her but you know what it’s like there, especially at night, and I wasn’t exactly sober either.” He stopped again and ran his fingers through his hair like I’d seen him do at the church.

I smiled at him in encouragement. “Go on.”

“I couldn’t see her but I could hear her. She was trampling through the trees really loudly – it must have been her high heels – and then the sounds just stopped. There was silence for a few seconds and then…” He paused again, and even though I could tell this was hard for him, I was desperate to hear the rest of the story. After a few moments he found his voice. “I heard her yell at someone. She wasn’t alone.”

I thought back to the way she’d shouted at me outside The Pit and felt a slight sick feeling rising in my throat. The same feeling I’d been having a lot lately. The same feeling I got whenever I pushed something to the back of my mind, ignoring its significance. “Did you see who it was?”

John shook his head, his mouth contorting into a grimace. “I heard her yell… and then there was silence.” He had tears brimming in his eyes and my heart went out to him. “I knew then, I knew, that something was wrong.”

I couldn’t speak anymore.

Will fielded the next question. “What did you do?”

The tears consumed John, and even though he’d been building up to it, it was still a shock to see him like that. “I ran.”

He spluttered out the two words – each syllable filled with a pain I’d never known – and put his head in his hands, trying to stop the sobs. It reminded me of Norman’s behaviour in the church.

“I was drunk and I was scared and I left her there! I ran home and dived in bed. I rang Emma’s mobile every half an hour or so until I fell asleep, desperately hoping she’d answer. And when I woke up, I saw on the news… that she’d been… she’d been found…” He started crying again and I looked at Will helplessly.

“So what did the police say?” Even Will’s voice sounded shaky now.

He took a deep breath and tried to get himself under control. “Well, they were suspicious and they asked me questions for hours, they obviously thought that I’d had something to do with it. In the end they believed me about Emma running away, but as I was drunk, I wasn’t a reliable witness.”

I smiled bitterly. “Sounds about right.”

“I keep running it over in my mind. If only I’d tried harder to find her, if only I hadn’t left her…”

I leaned forwards and put my hand over John’s, not knowing what else to do. “It’s not your fault.”

John grunted to himself. “I should have done something, no matter what state I was in. You didn’t hear her, she sounded terrified.”

I thought back to her outside the Pit, dirt on her face, dress torn. Terrified sounded about right.

The tears were coming again and I squeezed his hand tighter. I decided if I didn’t ask the question I was dreading, Will probably would, sooner or later. “What was she shouting?”

He wiped away his tears with his free hand and stared at the floor again. “She asked, ‘What are you doing?’”

My stomach knotted.

“And then… and then…”

He paused, and I knew what he was going to say before he blurted it out, his voice thick with the anguish of the terrible memory.

“She yelled, ‘Get away from me, you freak!’”

***

I blinked in the afternoon sun and steadied myself on the Harris’s garden fence. I’d dropped John’s hand as soon as he’d recounted Emma’s last words – the words I somehow had also heard, later on and in a different place – and I was now hyperventilating in the back garden.

It had all happened so quickly, and I’d completely and utterly panicked.

I felt perspiration on my top lip and wiped it away absent-mindedly. I’d barely taken three deep breaths when Will appeared beside me.

“Beth, are you OK?”

I didn’t answer and he started babbling. “I know it’s upsetting hearing what actually happened… it’s OK to show your grief.”

I took another deep breath. “It’s not that.”

“What then?” He studied my face. “You really don’t look good.”

I felt even worse.

I sat down on the grass and Will followed suit. It was cold and slightly damp but I hardly noticed. My mind could only currently focus on one thing at a time, and this thing was a big one. It was so big that it was threatening to release all of those thoughts and memories I had so carefully locked away.

“It’s nothing, I just needed some air.”

Will didn’t look convinced. “So you ran off at top speed without saying a word? Come on, you can tell me.”

Could I? I desperately wanted to tell him, to tell him everything that had been driving me mad these past few days, but the thought of him laughing at me made me think twice.

“I’m sorry, Will, I just can’t. You wouldn’t understand.” He looked hurt, so I added a quick, “No one would.”

He nodded to himself slowly, eyes focused on nothing in particular. I waited for a few seconds, not knowing what else to say, until he turned to me, looking more serious than I’d ever seen him. “Beth, I know in the past we haven’t exactly been besties, but I kind of hoped that had been changing. Especially since… well, since the whole Veronica thing.” He cleared his throat. “I want you to know that if there’s anything you want to talk about, anything that’s getting to you, you can tell me. Don’t keep stuff bottled up – it’s not healthy.”

I reluctantly felt the corner of my mouth turn upwards. “Since when did you become a shrink?”

He shook his head, clearly not amused. “I’m serious.”

“Well, so am I. The last thing I need is you thinking I’m crazy and avoiding me too.” This hadn’t actually occurred to me before, and as soon as I said it, I shivered. Will was pretty much the only friend I had left.

“I promise I won’t start avoiding you. Hell, that’d leave me with no one to hang out with either.” He smiled cheekily, obviously hoping his attempt at lightening the mood would persuade me to open up.

I took another deep breath, thinking, ‘What the hell’! “You know I saw Emma outside The Pit when we left?”

Will nodded slowly, then shook his head. “You said it wasn’t Emma.”

“No, the police said that. I’m convinced it was Emma.”

“Oh, OK…”

I sighed in exasperation. “Rick told me that Emma died between eleven and midnight. And from the sounds of it John thinks it was around then too when she ran off into the woods.”

Will wasn’t getting it. “So?”

“Well, don’t you remember what time we left The Pit? It was after one.”

I could tell the cogs were whirring round slowly in Will’s brain, and he finally looked at me, eyes wide. “Well, you must have seen someone else then…”

“No!” I was getting angry now. “I saw Emma, she was wearing the same red dress – the same red dress but with some of the fabric missing – and she was bent over, hair all messy and dirt on her face, as if she’d been trampling around the woods. She was looking in my direction but not at me, and what John said he heard, well, she shouted something at me too…” I could feel my voice wavering and I peered up at Will, not able to say it.

He looked confused; I didn’t blame him. “What did she say?”

I nodded, vaguely wondering if I was going to throw up the many cucumber sandwiches I’d put away. “The exact same words.”

Will shook his head again; the cogs had obviously stopped moving altogether now. “Wait, the time thing. What exactly are you saying? That the cops and John, they’re both wrong?”

I bit my lip and shook my head. I didn’t know how to explain this without admitting that there was either something extremely wrong with me, or that I was crazy.

Again, ‘what the hell’ came to mind. “I read this book once, it was sort of trying to explain weird stuff using scientific reasons. One chapter described how people are made up of energy, and that even when they die, their energy would still linger around.”

Will was already looking at me like I was mad.

“Well, anyway. There was a case study of this woman, Diana, who thought she was seeing the… energy… of her dead sister. The energy was wandering around Diana’s house, doing exactly the same things her sister used to do, exactly the same routine in exactly the same way, but she was doing it in the wrong house, because her sister never lived with Diana when she was alive. It was like she was stuck on a loop, but she was lost. Exact same actions, different place. Do you know what I’m saying?”

Will exhaled. “Sorry, not a clue. Something about energy?”

“Never mind…” I stood up abruptly, needing to get away from that house, away from Will, away from John. He hadn’t come outside yet but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t. I couldn’t deal with any of this now. “I just want to be on my own for a bit.”

Will stood up and took hold of my hand. “Are you sure? Because I’ll blow off work this afternoon, we can talk some more. I meant what I said.”

I smiled, grateful. “Thanks, but I’ve just got to go.”

I ran off towards Forest Way, trying to think of anything but Emma’s dazed, dirt-smeared face and John’s haunted look of despair.

***

As I strolled back from Emma’s parents’ house, I thought about that book again, with Diana and her dead sister. Maybe I should go back outside The Pit, to where I’d seen Emma that night. Or maybe not. The thought of what that would mean if I did see something (or someone) was just too much to take.

Better to avoid that area for the foreseeable future.

Denial. Denial sounded pretty good.

I walked past Cocktail and automatically looked in through the large glass windows (I’m generally a nosy person, even when my mind is in tatters). Connor was at the bar, seemingly the only bar staff in there, staring into space and looking bored out of his mind. From what I could see, there were only two punters in the entire place and they were sitting far away from Connor in the corner of the room.

Despite mine and Will’s ridiculous conspiracy theories, and despite his rather scary temper, Connor still intrigued the hell out of me, and not just because he was drop dead gorgeous.

Anyway, I decided I needed a big distraction; getting yelled at by a furious Irish man would fit the bill nicely.

He looked up when I opened the door and after a split second of annoyance, his face settled into a welcoming, customer-friendly smile.

I felt extremely nervous as I walked up to the bar and sat down on one of the padded stools. “Hey Connor.”

He put on his best customer service voice. “Welcome to Cocktail, Miss Powers. Would you care to try today’s special?”

I smiled at him, trying to look friendly. “It’s a bit early…”

His smile faltered and his fake voice disappeared completely. “You do know you’re in a cocktail bar? The clue’s in the bleedin’ title.”

I laughed anxiously. “I know, I actually came here to… apologise.”

He immediately seemed more at ease; he relaxed his shoulders and the creases in his forehead smoothed out. “Really?”

“Yeah, I was completely out of order the other night. I’m sorry.”

He studied my face for a few seconds, as if trying to decide whether to believe me or not. Then he smiled, a real one this time. “Thank you. I’m sorry too, I kind of overreacted. Though you did put on a bit of a holy show, to be sure.”

I laughed, relieved he’d forgiven me so quickly. This Connor didn’t scare me at all.

This Connor I could definitely get used to.

“No you didn’t! I screwed up your book club and made an idiot of myself. Did you know I hadn’t even read that book?”

He rolled his eyes. “You don’t say.”

I blushed. “And for the record, I wasn’t stalking you in the cemetery…” I cringed to myself as I remembered following him home with V. “I just heard about the argument from… er, someone else.”

He seemed annoyed that I’d brought up the graveyard again but he obviously didn’t want to get into it now. “Nice and vague, I like it.”

A few seconds of silence followed and while I was trying to think of something to say, a thought occurred to me. “Hey, Connor? That night of the book club, you guys didn’t hear a weird sound outside, did you?” If no one had heard it, then it didn’t bode well. I’d just have to push it to the back of my mind like I did with hundreds of other things.

“What kind of weird sound?”

I hesitated, but only for a second. “Like a kind of laughing, cackling sound?”

Connor started to smile, but his brow was furrowed and he seemed extremely confused. “No… why? Were you cacklin’ outside Rach’s house?”

I laughed again nervously, shaking my head, and as I couldn’t think of anything else to say, I looked at the ‘Specials’ board mounted on the wall. “Never mind… so, ‘Seductive Strawberry’… you know, I think I will try one.”

“Yeah, go on. Start early, that’s what I say!”

I laughed at his response. “You’ll fit in well around here.”

I watched in fascination as he went about his job. He’d obviously worked as a bartender before he came to Little Forest; he made the cocktail so quickly I didn’t even see what alcohol he’d put in. Which was probably where it started going wrong.

He winked (that heart-stopping wink again) as he handed me the bright red drink in a tall glass, lowering his voice as he said, “On the house, but don’t tell anyone.”

He couldn’t be too bad if he was giving me free alcohol; I guessed he was trying to clear the air after my awkward apology. “Thanks Connor. Thinking about it, a drink is just what I need.”

Understatement of the century. I felt my mind slipping back to that scene with Emma in the semi-darkness and shivered.

He leaned forwards with his elbows on the counter, looking me straight in the eyes. “Are you alright?”

I forced myself to come back to the present. I’d become pretty good at blocking things I didn’t understand from my mind over the past few years, and I wasn’t going to give up now; those thoughts would stay locked up for a while longer yet. “Yeah, I’ve just come from Emma’s funeral.”

Connor’s smile faded, and I wondered briefly if mine and Will’s stupid gossiping about Connor actually had some substance. “Oh, sorry. Did she… get a good send off?”

I nodded, thinking of the whole church singing ‘Jerusalem’ in perfect unison, and Norman unapologetically breaking down. I didn’t even want to begin thinking about the look on John’s face or Will asking me why I’d run out of the house.

I decided not to push the whole Emma thing with Connor. I just wanted some escapism. “Yeah, thanks.” I took a sip of the velvety smooth strawberry cocktail. “Wow, is this your own recipe?”

“Sure. It’s my favourite, too. You like?”

“I like. I definitely like.”

I liked it so much that I ended up having two more, and all before three in the afternoon. Now, I can talk for England, but if I’ve had a few daytime drinks, God help anyone who is within thirty feet of my endlessly moving mouth.

With each sip of the smooth, fruity cocktail I became more comfortable with Connor, and with each top up I found myself actively enjoying his company.

After my second drink, I started giving him the low down on the village and surrounding area; whether he wanted to hear it or not was another matter.

“So, Little Forest is kind of like the social hub for the other villages around here. Renfield and Durwich don’t have their own cinema or club, or cocktail bar, so the people come here if they can’t be bothered to go into Willowton or down to Birston. I moan about it a lot but we have a lot more stuff here compared to most small villages.”

Connor nodded. “I’d noticed. I have to say, when I came here I was half expectin’ just the one run down pub and a local shop that sold weird artefacts and strange things in jars.”

I laughed. “If you’d come about fifty years ago you might have found that. We’re not totally in the dark ages anymore. There’s this local business mogul guy, Henry Windcliff. He runs pretty much everything around here. Before him, Little Forest didn’t have a lot going for it. You know, apart from one run down pub and a local shop that sold weird artefacts and strange things in jars.”

Connor laughed with me.

“You been to Renfield?” I didn’t wait for him to answer. “It’s the village directly to our west, slightly smaller than here. They do just as well with tourists though, they have a pub called the ‘Doctor’s Surgery’ and they serve ‘Poison Punch’. You should do something like that here, something gimmicky.”

“People like buyin’ drinks with ‘poison’ in the title? Jesus.” He didn’t look convinced.

By now I was in full on ramble mode. “Yeah… oh, you probably wouldn’t know. There was a doctor in the 1800s or something, he lived in Renfield but actually worked at the doctor’s here in Little Forest. Anyway, he went mental and poisoned loads of his patients. Loads of his family, too, actually… they hanged him in this village, where the market square is now.”

“Wait, he killed patients at the Little Forest Surgery?”

“Yep! Well, on the same site. It’s been modernised since then, but it still has bits of the old building. Actually, there was a doctor in the ‘70s who left the place suddenly, refusing to work there anymore. Some say he started hearing voices coming from the dispensary. Of course, some say that he left because his seedy affair with the receptionist went bad.”

I shrugged before carrying on. “The pub in Renfield is actually in the same building he used to live in. It’s one of those stories that puts this area on the map.” I paused, knowing I was straying into an area I really didn’t want to get into, but with no way of back-tracking now. “Shame it’s only bad stories that put us on the map.”

Connor looked really interested now, and I supposed I couldn’t blame him. Little Forest residents had grown up knowing all of these stories, true or not, and therefore we never really questioned them. People didn’t like to think too deeply about their origins.

“Right, so what other stories are there?”

I searched through my mental catalogue of the many legends that saturated the area. It was kind of fun, finding someone who wasn’t well versed in all the weirdness of Covershire. “OK… well you know the castle, where my dad works?”

He paused for just a second. “I didn’t know he worked there, but yeah, sure.”

“It’s been home to loads of people over the years, but a couple of centuries ago this really rich eccentric villager lived there. He had an affair with his best friend’s wife and it didn’t end well.”

“Sounds like a nice guy! So everyone found out?”

“The friend found out… and murdered him. Then everyone else found out. My dad’s obsessed with the story; he makes all the displays at the tourist centre.”

Connor shook his head. “Jesus… any other lovely stories like that?”

I put some money on the counter and gestured to my nearly empty glass. “More than you’d believe.”

Connor took the money and started making another Seductive Strawberry. The two customers from earlier had left and we were now the only ones in the bar. “And here I was thinkin’ Little Forest was all sweetness and light. Go on then.”

“There’s loads… you should go to the library, they have a whole local legends section.”

“You have a local legends section in the library? That’s so… English.” He smiled, shaking his head at the same time. “I’ll have to check it out.”

“Yeah, they have a kid’s area too, there’s a massive toy dog that’s supposed to be the famous ghost dog that lives at one of the local farms…”

Connor stopped his cocktail preparation and looked up. “Ghost dog?”

I didn’t like the G word. I didn’t like thinking it, and I definitely didn’t like saying it. I blamed the alcohol for making me bring all this up. “Yeah… a friendly one, though, or so I’m told.” I carried on talking, my speech getting faster as the drink took even more of a hold over my words. “Erm… the Abbey is usually surrounded by ridiculous scary stories, mainly because from the outside it looks really, really creepy. I guess nuns are creepy in general though.”

Connor tried to hide a smile.

“Oh God, you’re not religious, are you? Sorry.”

Connor laughed. “Me mam is. Me, not so much. I’ve never been totally convinced by Himself.” He raised his eyebrows upwards in case I didn’t understand who he was referring to. “You’re grand.”

“Good. And, of course, you must have guessed there are a lot of stories about weird, mystical things in the woods. A lot of residents still won’t venture into them at night. Or even in the day, some of them.” I wasn’t exaggerating; some people were downright terrified of entering the forest.

Connor gave me the cocktail. “Why? More murders?” He laughed, but it sounded flatter than his usual laugh, and empty somehow.

I tried not to think of Emma. “Well… yeah. People always seem to be hiding things in the woods, don’t they? There was one body found stuffed into a hollow tree in the ‘40s. Some woman, a stranger. They never found out who she was. A bunch of kids found her.” I shuddered; I remembered when someone in my Year 5 class had found out about the story and it was doing the rounds at school for weeks. I’d had a particularly horrifying dream that someone was stuffing me into a tree, and that story had made me cringe ever since.

Connor was staring off into the distance, and I drank more of the delicious strawberry cocktail while I waited for him to come back to the present.

He looked like he was taking this seriously and I was glad I was having a conversation with him that hadn’t ended in shouting. Well, not yet, anyway.

“No one believes them by the way.” I hesitated. “Well, most people don’t.”

Connor looked back to me. “And what about you?”

I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, not knowing how to answer that question. Instead, I ignored it. “I’m not freaking you out, am I?”

“No, I’m not freaked out. It’s really interestin’, it’s just so… dark.”

I pushed the image of Emma further from my mind and snorted into my drink. “Dark, right. Just wait until this year’s Fright Fest.”

“Fright what?”

“Fright Fest, it takes place over the weekend nearest Hallowe’en. Pretty much everyone from Little Forest, Renfield, Durwich – even Willowton – come to celebrate the weirdness of the area. There’s a parade down Main Street, shows at the castle, and lots of drunken adults dressed as the evil doctor and kids dressed as ghost dogs.” I laughed at Connor’s confused face. “It’s really screwed up, but it brings in the tourists. You won’t miss it, it takes place over three days – it’s a pretty big thing. I usually get roped in to help with the organising, so you probably will too.”

Connor grinned. “Sounds fun. So how do you get to Renfield from here? I might go and sample me some Poison Punch sometime.”

“You literally just take the Forest Way out of the village and keep going. Go past Hill Top Farm, and go straight ahead at the cross roads after that. If you turn left you’ll end up going to Willowton, turn right and you’ll find yourself at the Abbey.”

Connor seemed to be taking mental notes. “Hill Top Farm… now why do I know that name?”

I looked at his quizzical expression, trying to decide if he was being serious. “That’s where Norman Carter lives.”

His face suddenly turned dark; his mouth turned down to a grimace and his eyebrows bunched together. Even his eyes seemed to become darker. “Oh.”

I knew I shouldn’t have, but after a few cocktails I didn’t really have many inhibitions. “What is it with you and Norman?”

I regretted it as soon as I said it. Connor looked mad, just as mad as he had at the book club. Probably more so, as this was the second time I’d stupidly brought it up.

“Nothin’. Just stay away from ‘im, OK?”

I didn’t know what to say, but my drunken mind reminded me that I didn’t like being told what to do. “Stay away from him? You honestly think I want to have anything to do with a pathetic old man like him?”

I immediately felt bad for calling Norman pathetic; I blamed the alcohol for that, too.

“Don’t assume that.” He pointed at me as he said it, before lowering his hand quickly when he’d seen what he’d done. He still sounded angry, but there seemed to be a slight edge of concern to his voice now as well.

“Assume what?”

“That he’s pathetic. He’s not as harmless as he looks.”

I put my glass down on the counter. “What’s that supposed to mean? Of course he’s harmless!” The cocktails were definitely taking effect now, and I let my mouth run. “And not only that, he’s still so depressed over the death of his wife that he doesn’t seem to care about anything anymore, apart from maybe football and drinking. He’s pretty much just waiting to die. Why that should have any bearing on you, I have no idea.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that. And believe me, there’s plenty he cares about. Plenty he cares far too much about.” The words weren’t particularly frightening, but the look on Connor’s face when he said them sent a shiver down my spine. Maybe I’d made a big mistake by coming here.

“Connor, just tell me what’s going on. You can’t know that much about him, you’ve only just arrived. I don’t know that much about him and I’ve lived here all my life!”

He shook his head as an ugly smirk crossed his face. “You see, that’s the problem. Everyone here is so wrapped up in their own little weird world, you can’t see the wood for the trees. Ghost dogs and creepy figures jumpin’ over the rooftops are the norm here? No wonder you don’t notice when somethin’ is actually goin’ on. It takes an outsider to see…” he faltered and shook his head, as if trying to clear a thought away.

I leaned in closer. “It takes an outsider to see what, Connor?”

He looked straight into my eyes. “Just forget it, Beth. This doesn’t concern you.”

That pissed me off. If it didn’t concern me, why say all those cryptic things to me? I drained the last of my cocktail and stepped down off the stool, wobbling slightly as I did. “Fine, whatever. I was just trying to have a friendly conversation, make you feel welcome. But if nothing concerns me then I won’t make the effort in the future. Thanks for the cocktails.” I know it was rude and pathetic, but, yet again, I blamed the alcohol.

I turned towards the door and started walking out, glancing over my shoulder as I muttered an annoyed, “See you around.” I was glad to see that he looked more surprised than angry now.

I carried on towards the door and walked out into the much-needed fresh air.

***

I started walking home but stopped when I got to the Main Street crossroads. It wasn’t even three o’clock and I felt more than a little tipsy, and more than a little pissed off. But more importantly, I felt a kind of satisfaction.

I’d wanted something to distract me from the disturbing thoughts that were forming in my mind and I’d definitely done that; Connor’s reaction to my questions about Norman had given me something else to think about. I considered walking around the record shop or hanging out in the art gallery until Will finished his shift, but in the end I just decided to go straight to the grocery store.

As usual, it was extremely quiet. I often wondered how the place made any money. About ten years ago, everyone came here for their weekly food shop, but now most people went to the nearby shopping centre to get everything they needed. I also wondered how they could afford to keep Will employed, when he never really seemed to be doing any work.

This time I found him on the till. I could hear some people talking from behind the staff door but no one was on the shop floor.

“Hey, not stealing any money I hope?”

He looked up and smiled at me, then he narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “Powers, are you drunk?”

“I wouldn’t say drunk…”

He raised his eyebrows at me.

“OK, yes I would.”

Will shook his head in mock anger. “Unbelievable. So you’ve been getting drunk while I’ve been slaving away here…”

I cut him off. “Slaving away? Really?”

He pretended to look hurt. “So, are you OK? I was worried about you after the funeral.”

I really didn’t want to get into that now. “Will?”

“Yes, Miss Powers?”

I hesitated, not quite knowing how to broach the subject. “Do you think people who live around here are… inherently… odd?”

“Odd? Well you certainly are.”

“I’m being serious! Do you think there’s a reason people are driven to… oh I don’t know, get drunk in the middle of the day?”

He laughed as he looked at his watch. “Small village boredom, I guess. Where’s this coming from?”

“Oh nothing, just something Connor said.”

He looked up inquisitively. “Connor? Since when have you been speaking to him?”

I grabbed a chair from the other till and moved it next to Will. “I went into Cocktail to apologise for my behaviour and ended up staying for a few drinks.”

“Aha, that explains your state. So what do you think? Is he dodgy?”

I glared at him. “Not dodgy, just… well, I apologised and we talked for ages, I told him all about the area and all the local legends and Fright Fest and everything. Then I mentioned Norman.”

Will looked at me in despair. “Well that’s a good way to apologise. Mention the thing that pissed him off in the first place.”

“That’s the thing… sure, he was annoyed. But not like before. He told me that Norman wasn’t just a pathetic old man and that I should keep away from him.”

“What? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Who knows! Then he started going on about how everyone round here can’t see the wood for the trees and that it takes an outsider to see…”

Will waited. “To see what?”

I shrugged. “He wouldn’t say. He told me it didn’t concern me and then I got pissed off and left. And came here.”

“You’re right, there’s definitely something going on there.”

“You think?” He nodded. “Good, I do too.” What exactly, I had no idea. I looked at my watch. “What time do you get off?”

“At four. But it’s been totally dead for the past hour, I’ll see if I can leave early. Wait here.”

I watched as he wandered off into the ‘Staff Only’ area and it was only a few minutes before he returned, a big smile on his face. “Let’s go!”

“I’m not getting you in trouble, am I?”

“Nah, my boss isn’t as evil as yours.”

I laughed. “Lucky. So can we go somewhere?”

“Yeah, are you sure you’re OK? What happened earlier…”

I interrupted him. “Look, I just want to forget about it, please? I’ll be fine.”

Will didn’t look convinced as we walked out of the deserted shop and onto Main Street.

***

We spent the rest of the afternoon in the woods, of all places, and I’d resolutely avoided looking down the side of The Pit as we’d passed it by.

It turned out that Will was even more of a hobo at heart than I thought; he had a favourite place where he went to chill out on his own and listen to music on his ridiculously old CD player (it seemed 21st century technology had completely passed him by).

It was near enough to the main castle path so he couldn’t get lost, but far enough away from it so he wasn’t usually seen by my dad or any castle visitors walking up the track.

It was a cold day and the sky was filled with large, feathery clouds, but occasionally there was a sudden glimpse of intense blue. I was already longing for summer and we hadn’t even started with the harsh English winter yet. At least the cocktails were keeping me relatively warm.

We both sat on the ground against a large, looming tree and I looked up at the sky. My view was obscured by tree branches but I could still see the wispy white of the clouds passing by. It was calming here, and I could tell why Will liked it so much.

The main topic of conversation was, of course, Connor and Norman. I told Will exactly what Connor had said (or what I could remember of it, anyway), and we were now trying to figure out what he could possibly have meant.

“Maybe he knows Norman from before somehow.”

I shot a disbelieving look at Will. “In Dublin? No, Norman never leaves the village.”

Will nodded. “Or maybe Connor’s been here before?”

I shook my head. “If he’d been here before, people would know, people would talk about it. Someone like Connor doesn’t exactly blend into the background.”

“Why?”

“What?”

“Why doesn’t he blend into the background?”

I sighed, trying to put this as nicely as I could. “Well, he’s tall, dark,” Will already didn’t look impressed, “and maybe slightly more handsome than… some of the guys around here.”

Will made an odd noise that sounded like a ‘Pah!’

“Plus, you know, his accent and everything.”

“Assuming that all the other females in this village share your shallow views on Connor’s… looks… then, yeah he’d probably get noticed. But why think anything of it when there are loads of other tourists around?”

“Why are you so sure Connor and Norman already know each other?”

Will shrugged. “The argument Rach saw sounded pretty full on. What would they have to argue about if they’d just met? There has to be some history there.”

I thought back to Connor’s unexpected behaviour at the book club and the bar. “Or just a fiery Irish temper. I’ve got no previous history with Connor, and yet we’ve already had two arguments.”

Will thought about this for a few seconds, looking at some distant tree. “Yeah, but you’re ten times more annoying than Norman; who wouldn’t want to argue with you?”

A cheeky smile spread over his face and I punched him on the arm. “Remind me why I’m hanging out with you again?”

His smile stopped as we both remembered why, and I made a mental note to kick myself later. There were a few seconds of silence while I thought of something to break it. “So, Norman and Connor. Maybe they do know each other… maybe they met online or something.”

I smiled as Will laughed at the thought. “Norman, a silver surfer, loose on the net? Now that would be scary.”

***

We’d been talking non-stop for about an hour when I slid down the tree, now resting more on the ground than anything, and sighed.

“Maybe Connor doesn’t know anything, maybe he just hates me for some reason and it amuses him to mess with me.”

I felt uncomfortable with my head still propped up against the tree so I gave in to my sleepiness and just lay out on the forest floor. It may have been cold and dirty but at least it was dry. I sighed again as my head spun slightly from the quick movement mixed with the after-taste of the fruity cocktails.

“I wonder what it was like to live here a hundred years ago.”

Will sniggered. “Where did that come from?”

“I don’t know… just hanging out here, in the woods, in the quiet, we could pretty much be in any time period. I can’t see any modern buildings, can’t hear any car sounds, there aren’t any planes… it’s kind of cool.”

It was good to get out of the main village and just relax. Look at things from a different perspective. See the wood and not just the trees. We needed to think outside the box; I just didn’t know how.

Will interrupted my thoughts. “Exactly. Although I usually listen to loud rock music when I’m here.”

“On that crappy CD player? I’m surprised it hasn’t fallen apart by now.”

“Alright! Not all of us can afford all the mod cons, OK?” He was smiling but there was a sting of defensiveness about his tone of voice.

I decided I’d better change the subject. “I mentioned the local legends area of the library to Connor, he seemed really interested in all the stories.”

“Oh yeah? Which ones?”

“The evil doctor, mainly. I told him about Renfield’s ‘Poison Punch’.”

Will looked down at me. “Did you also tell him how awful Poison Prescription were?”

“No… I was trying to make the area seem interesting, not crap. What else… he found the ghost dog funny, I told him about the toy mascot they have in the library. Creepy nuns, Spring Heeled Jack…” I stopped short.

“You were trying to promote the village and you mentioned that stupid kid’s story?”

I thought back through the cloud of seductive strawberries. “No! I didn’t!” I sat up again and leaned against the tree trunk. “I didn’t mention Spring Heeled Jack at all.”

Will looked vaguely annoyed that I wasn’t explaining myself. “So…?”

“Connor did, though. When he said ghost stories were the norm for us, he mentioned a figure that jumped over the rooftops. I’d mentioned loads of stories to him but I didn’t say anything about Jack.”

Spring Heeled Jack was a fairy tale, which as far as I knew, appeared in various forms in many of the towns and villages in the area. I read the book on Covershire’s version of the legend way back in primary school and didn’t remember much about it. It was basically a mysterious figure who ran along people’s rooftops at night and let out a maniacal laugh while doing so. Thinking about it now, it was quite a striking image – especially if you heard the story when you were about six years old.

Will shrugged. “He probably heard it from someone else, what’s the big deal?”

I looked at him, annoyed. “Come on, Will. Out of all the horrible stories around here, Spring Heeled Jack is probably the most ridiculous. No one believes it, it’s just something to scare kids into going to bed when it gets dark. You read it in primary school and then you forget it. No one dresses up as Spring Heeled Jack at Fright Fest, there’s no Jack-themed food and no floats dedicated to him. Connor seemed surprised when I started telling him these stories; he had no idea the village was so… interesting. So how did he know about that small, insignificant story?”

All of this came out in a jumbled stream of consciousness, and Will still looked confused. “I have no idea.”

“He knew about Spring Heeled Jack, he must have known about the more familiar stories. Evil Doctor, Murder at the Castle, Ghost Dog. He pretended he didn’t know any of them. Why?”

Will shrugged again. “You think this actually has something to do with why he hates Norman Carter?”

I hadn’t, not until Will had said that. “Yes! Think about Norman in the pub, surrounded by all those visitors. He…”

Will cut me off. “His stories!”

I nodded as I leaned forward, getting more excited. “Connor could easily have heard them from Norman, all he’d have to do is sit in the pub with a pint for half an hour while Norman sat there scaring the tourists.”

“If that was the case though, why lie to you about it?”

I paused, trying to think; this would have been a lot easier if I’d been sober. I sunk back against the tree again. “I don’t know, but he’s hiding something.”

Will nodded slowly. “I’ve never heard Norman mention Spring Heeled Jack. Hell, I haven’t heard anyone mention that story for years.”

I thought back to a few months ago when I was in the library; I’d tried to flirt with one of the librarians so he wouldn’t give me a late fine for a book I’d borrowed (it hadn’t worked). The people behind me had been talking about local legends. “I have.” I looked at my watch: it was past five. “Damn it. I’m working tomorrow, but are you free the day after?”

He nodded. “Sure.”

“Good. Will you come to the library with me?”

“You want to get a copy of ‘The Secret of The Abbey’?” He laughed at his stupid joke.

“No… I think we should visit the local legends section. I want to see if they have any books on Spring Heeled Jack.”

[]Chapter Five

The next evening, I was enjoying having the house to myself and watching a girly film in the living room when someone knocked on the door. Chick flicks were a guilty pleasure of mine; only Veronica knew about my penchant for movies featuring conventionally good-looking men and cheesy storylines.

I paused the film, then thought twice and stopped it completely before going to see who it was. For a brief moment I thought it might be V, but I quickly realised how unlikely that would be.

I opened the door, nearly jumping when I saw it was Connor.

“Hi Beth! Hope you don’t mind me droppin’ round.”

I actually stuttered. Never before in my life have I had a stutter. I mentally kicked myself. “N-no problem. Er, how did you know where I lived?”

“Because I’ve been followin’ you since I got here.”

I could feel my mouth dropping open as I took a step back.

The handsome idiot started laughing. “Got ya! Sorry, Beth, I was just being an eejit. I couldn’t resist.”

I laughed, hoping to sound casual and carefree, but I could already feel my face burning. “Right… do you want to come in?” I hoped he hadn’t come to yell at me some more, but I couldn’t deny I felt flattered that he’d come to see me. I thought of all the other female residents who would have killed to have Connor Maguire turn up on their doorstep and tried to hide a smile.

“Sure, thanks.”

I stepped back and let him into the hallway before closing the door. I could see him examining the house: the kitchen through the door to the left, the stairs straight ahead, the door to the living room on the right. He walked straight through the latter and sat down on the sofa. I was so glad I hadn’t left ‘The Broken Kiss’ paused on the screen that I didn’t even mind his directness.

He looked up at me as I entered the room. “Actually, I asked Rach where you lived. I wanted to contact you but realised I didn’t have your number or anythin’.”

I sat down across from him. “So… why didn’t you just ask Rach for my number?”

He shrugged. “Well, I wanted to see you in person anyway, and now I can ask you for your number meself.”

I studied his face to see where he was going with this but his smile, whether fake or not, showed no signs of dropping from his chiselled features. He noticed me hesitate and sat forwards in his seat. “Look, I wanted to apologise for yesterday. I shouldn’t have let myself get so angry. Again…” he shrugged. “You must think I’m a right arse.”

I smiled back at him, glad he hadn’t come to shout some more, but puzzled over his insane cheeriness. I got my phone out of my pocket and put it on the armrest; I still hadn’t memorised my number despite having it for years, and would need to get it from the directory to give to him.

I decided to try and relieve the tension. “Hell, everyone around here is more than a little odd, as I’m sure you’ll discover soon. Anyway, I just assumed it was some random bad Irish temper thing…”

He laughed and sat back, crossing one leg over the other, but in a manly way with his right ankle resting on his left knee. “I’ll have you know that us Irish are gentle folk.”

I gave him a look.

“Well, most o’ the time.”

“Thanks for the apology, I’m sorry as well. As you could probably tell, I get a bit, erm, chatty when I’m drunk. And defensive.”

“No problem. At least you don’t get violent or anythin’.”

I laughed uneasily. Something about that sentence, and his tone of voice, set me on edge. Was he a violent drunk? Was he threatening me?

I really hoped I was reading too much into this.

I tried to keep the mood light. “Well, you obviously haven’t seen me when I’m very drunk.” As soon as I said it I cringed to myself, remembering a certain tipsy stalking adventure.

He winked at me, smiling cheekily. “Maybe we should make that happen.” He looked at his watch and seemed to hesitate. “No time like the present, d’you want to go out for a drink? Maybe the Inn rather than Cocktail, I’ve had enough of that bleedin’ place today.” He looked at my casual clothes and lack of make-up. “I can wait here while you get ready.”

I didn’t know whether to be flattered at getting asked out or insulted by his second remark. After my last two run-ins with Connor, I knew it would be stupid to spend an evening with him, but I could use it to my advantage; I could try and extract information from him. Knowledge, as Rach was always telling me, is power.

Plus, hot Irish men were not to be turned away lightly.

I tried to get my thoughts under control. If we went out then I’d have the benefit of being surrounded by people in case Connor got nasty again, but the thought of going for drinks at the Inn – while my mum spied on me from the bar – really didn’t appeal. And as Cocktail was out, and the Diner was definitely out, that only left one place.

I stood up and casually wandered over to the windows that faced the street, with the apparent intention to close the curtains against the darkness. While I did, I sneaked a look at School Road. At least three of the houses opposite had their living room lights on; it would only take a few seconds to run over there and start banging madly on the door if I needed to.

I turned round and pretended to think. “My mum works at the Inn. She’s kind of nosy; we’d never get rid of her. But if you like wine, my parents have a ton of the stuff. We could just drink here?”

He smiled, seeming eager and also kind of relieved. “Sounds grand.”

I smiled again, thinking I must look like some kind of creepy grinning clown, and walked over to the TV to turn everything off, paranoid that the DVD might start playing again of its own accord. I turned back round to Connor who was looking at me questioningly. “My parents are always going on about not wasting electricity…”

He nodded and replied, “Sounds like me mam,” as I walked out the room and into the kitchen. Walking over to the freezer, I reached up to grab a bottle off the wine rack, before realising I hadn’t asked him what kind he liked. I walked back to the kitchen door and through the hall, but stopped myself just before I entered the living room.

Connor was hunched over, looking at something in his hands. It could have been anything, but the way he was sitting didn’t look natural to me at all; when I’d left the room he’d been relaxing back in the sofa. It was almost as if he was leaning towards the chair I’d been sitting in. I glanced over at the seat and realised with a shock that my phone wasn’t where I’d left it – it wasn’t anywhere. I looked back at Connor but couldn’t see what was in his hands from this angle.

I took a deep breath and said, “Red, white or rosé?”

He physically jumped and looked round, guilt etched over his previously smiling face. He quickly pushed both his hands into his pockets, my phone with them, and tried to look natural. “Sorry?”

“Which wine do you prefer? Red, white or rosé?”

He visibly relaxed as he registered my cheerful face. I wasn’t the only one who could fake a smile.

“Oh, whatever you want is fine by me.”

I nodded and walked quickly to the kitchen, grabbed the nearest rosé bottle off the rack – not caring that it wasn’t chilled – and picked up two wine glasses and the corkscrew, which were always placed within easy reach, before walking back to the living room. It took me less than ten seconds.

Connor was once again leaning back into the couch and my phone was back on the armrest. It was just the other armrest to the one I’d left it on.

I put the wine and glasses on the coffee table and handed Connor the corkscrew. “Do you want to do the honours?”

“Sure.”

I watched him open the bottle of wine, wondering if I should confront him about my phone or not. I still hadn’t decided what to do when he handed me a glass, and I took it eagerly. Maybe some wine would help me with my decision. “Thanks.”

“Thank you. Are you sure your parents won’t mind us drinkin’ their wine? They won’t come back and yell at us or anything?”

“It’s cool, they have enough. They’ll be out for a while, thank God.” Why I told him that, I had no idea. If he was dangerous, the last thing I should be telling him is that no one would be coming home for hours. I mentally kicked myself.

Connor took a sip of his wine and sat forward again. “You don’t get on with your parents?”

I snorted into my drink. “Not recently, no.” He waited for me to carry on. “It’s a long story, and boring, I won’t depress you with it now! How about you and your mum?”

“Yeah we’re pretty close, especially since my dad…” His words drifted off and his eyes did the same. He looked genuinely upset, and I knew that this part, at least, was no act.

I felt stupid for bringing his parents up and took a large gulp of rosé, knowing that alcohol wouldn’t stop me from putting my foot in my mouth but wanting the wine anyway. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bring up any crap.”

“That’s OK.”

He drained most of his glass and I reached for the bottle to top us both up.

“Woah, you tryin’ to get me drunk?”

I smiled, nodding. “Just paying you back for yesterday, your seductive strawberries! Did you know your concoction made me go and lie on the ground in the woods and wish I lived in the past?”

Connor looked confused for a second, then laughed. This one was real; it was high and loud and it even sounded Irish. “What…? Wait, what?”

“I’m just telling you what your cocktail did! So drink up.”

He nodded, laughing to himself as he took another sip. By the time he put his glass down his smile had faded. “Do you usually hang out much in the woods, then?”

“I wouldn’t say ‘hang out’, exactly. My friend Will does, though. He’s a total hobo.” My friend Will; that’s something I never thought I’d say.

Connor picked up his glass again. “Where?”

“Sorry?”

“Where does he ‘hang out’?”

His sudden change from carefree laughter to direct questioning caught me off guard. “I don’t know… near the path, I didn’t really notice much apart from the abundance of trees. Why?”

Connor stared into the distance for a second and then shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. So who else do you hang out with?”

“Well, you know Rach, have you had the pleasure of meeting her boyfriend, Max?”

“No, not yet.”

“He probably wouldn’t say much to you anyway. Then there’s Veron…” I stopped, wondering if I should go into all this.

“Is she the one you’ve fallen out with?”

I took another gulp of rosé. “Actually, she’s fallen out with me. And I still don’t know why, and to be honest, I don’t really care anymore. If she wants to lose all her friends then that’s up to her. I think she’s leaving the village soon anyway.”

My mini-rant had caught him off guard. “Oh, sorry. Don’t you want to know why, though?”

I shook my head, then gave in and nodded. The wine was doing its thing and having the usual effect on the speed of my mouth. “Of course I do, but she refuses to speak to me. Or Will, or Rach, or anyone. The thing that’s really pissing me off though, is that we were meant to leave together. We were going to go to London together and go to all these cool clubs and go and see plays and meet amazing people in expensive cocktail bars. Now that’ll never happen. Not for me, anyway.”

“Hey, you don’t know that. She might get to London and realise she misses you so much that she comes back to make up, and then you can both go and live the high life in the city.”

He was being suspiciously nice to me. “Thanks for trying to cheer me up, but I don’t think that’s ever going to happen now.”

“You were really close, then?”

I nodded. “Friends since primary school. Since birth pretty much, our birthdays are only one day apart. Our mums went into hospital at the same time.”

I thought I’d better change the subject before I went into full on depressed mode. Then I looked at my phone on the armrest and had an idea. “Excuse me a second, I’m just going upstairs to the bathroom. There’s one at the end of the kitchen down here if you need it any time, by the way.”

Connor smiled as I left the room, and I ran up the stairs to the bathroom. I shut the door from the outside, in case Connor was listening, and waited for a few seconds. Then I walked to the top of the stairs, peering down into the semi-darkness.

I was concentrating so much on trying to listen to any noises coming from the living room that I jumped when Connor walked past the bottom of the stairs and into the kitchen. I stood still, waiting for my rapid heartbeat to slow down, glad that I’d left the landing lights off so I was hidden in the darkness.

I strained my ears to listen for any sounds, but I couldn’t hear anything at first; maybe he’d just gone to the downstairs loo. Then I heard one of the kitchen cupboards slam shut.

What was he doing? Was he looking for something? I couldn’t believe he’d come here and been all friendly to me just so he could search through my phone and cupboards; no wonder he’d wanted to wait downstairs while I ‘got ready’.

I tiptoed down the stairs, grateful that none of them were creaking like usual, and entered the kitchen before I could think any more about what I was doing.

Connor was standing next to the fridge, looking through one of the cupboards. With the cupboard door open and him standing with his head behind it, he hadn’t noticed my presence, and it took me a few moments to realise that the cupboard he was looking in held all of my parents’ bills, letters and my mum’s diary. I couldn’t believe him.

“Connor?” He looked round so quickly he banged his head on the cupboard door, and I smiled despite myself. “Are you looking for something?”

Connor’s pale complexion quickly coloured and he closed the cupboard abruptly. “Yeah, I was lookin’ for a glass. I wanted some water, you know, take the edge off that wine.”

I looked at the draining board next to him, which had at least five washed and dried glass tumblers on it. He followed my gaze and barked a short, strange laugh. “Right, thanks.”

He picked up a glass and filled it with water while I looked on in silence.

***

The rest of the evening was more awkward than the first part, and although Connor kept trying to keep the atmosphere light, the drawn out silences and my lack of friendly laughter must have given him some hint of what I was feeling. I wouldn’t be a very good undercover agent; I could never hide the fact that I was pissed off.

After around another hour or so I was bored of talking about work and my family and I brought the conversation onto Emma Harris and how ‘Jerusalem’ had brought Norman to tears. As soon as I said Norman’s name, Connor started acting weird again, but this time he was the one asking the questions.

“He was cryin’? At her funeral?”

“Yep, not just the odd tear either. Mega falling-apart crying.”

“Did you talk to him after?”

“No, he didn’t go to the Harris’s house.”

“Did he speak to anyone else?”

“Not that I saw. He was probably embarrassed after his little outburst.”

Connor shook his head, looking past me at the now-closed curtains. “He sure knows how to call attention to himself.” His tone of voice was sharp and he suddenly looked extremely angry again.

“What do you mean?”

“Nothin’, nothin’.” He finished his most recent glass of wine and put it down on the table. “Anyway, I’d better be goin’. Thanks for the wine, Beth.”

He stood up and I mirrored his actions, relief flooding through me; I thought he’d never leave. I walked him to the front door and opened it, letting in a cold waft of air.

“Well, thanks for coming.”

Connor smiled. Whether this was one of his fake ones or not, I had no idea; I was too tired to keep guessing anymore. “Thanks for havin’ me.”

Polite, kind, and good-looking – on the surface Connor Maguire was certainly a catch. It’s just a shame he spent his evenings snooping around people’s houses.

I was about to say bye when he suddenly lurched towards me, making my body go rigid. The potential attack, however, turned out to be a hug. An extremely awkward hug as my torso was still far too tense to respond in any way.

He let go of me and winked. “See you around.”

I exhaled slowly as I watched him step through the door.

“Oh!” he looked back at me, and from the dim light of the front garden, I couldn’t tell what expression he was wearing. “Next time your man Will asks you if you want to chill out in the woods, maybe tell him no, OK?”

He left without another word. Was he warning me off Will now, too?

After a few seconds of trying to decipher his last comment, I remembered something. I nearly yelled out to let him know that I’d never given him my number, but then thought better of it. I wasn’t sure I wanted Connor Maguire to have my phone number.

I sighed, shut the door, and walked back into the living room, glancing at the empty wine bottle and the glasses on the coffee table.

Connor’s much needed water had been left completely untouched.

***

I woke Will up early (well, early for him) the next day, and filled him in on Connor on the way to the library. He seemed as shocked as I was and kept going on about giving Connor a piece of his mind, which was pretty funny; Will was the least threatening person I’d ever met. I left a few details out, like the hug and the wink, as I didn’t think Will needed to know about them. I figured it would be better just to concentrate on the important things, like the phone stealing and cupboard rummaging.

It was quite busy when we got to the library and the one woman working behind the desk looked rushed off her feet. I steered Will towards the local legends area and smiled at a couple of little girls who were sitting on a beanbag and looking through a giant ‘Legends of Covershire’ book. They were pointing at one of the pictures and laughing.

It reminded me of V and I when we were little; we used to come in here and read together. I felt a small, sharp pain in my stomach and tried to focus on the task at hand instead. I took one of the bookshelves and Will took the other. After a couple of minutes, he called my name and I went over to him.

He was holding a kid’s book in his hands. The title was ‘Beware of Spring Heeled Jack!’ and the cover picture was quite a disturbing drawing of a hideous man with pointy ears, crouched over as if ready to pounce on a small child.

“I don’t remember him looking that creepy… well, now we know there’s one here.”

Will shook his head and lowered the book so I could see the shelf properly. “Not just one.”

He was right. There was a whole section dedicated to the sinister Mr Jack. “OK, so more popular than I thought?”

He nodded and I sat down on one of the beanbags that were meant for the kids, with Will joining me a second later.

I looked at the book again. “So, Connor could have heard some of the stories from Norman, and the others from here.”

Will nodded again. “Or he could have looked it up online, or… well, anything really. I still don’t get why this is so important.”

“I just think we need to get a clearer picture of Connor and what he’s up to. And besides, if he did learn about it here, he was lying to me. He made it sound like he had no idea about the local legends section, as if he’d never been here.”

“That still might be true.”

“He also told me he hadn’t heard of any of the stories. Definite lie.”

Will had his confused face on again. “So what does that tell us exactly?”

I shrugged. “Nothing really, apart from he’s not really the good guy he pretends to be. He can turn on the lies mid-conversation without blinking an eye, not to mention the whole phone thing and going through my kitchen. That is not normal person behaviour.”

“It’s sneaky moron behaviour.”

I looked at Will’s cheerful face; he was loving the fact that Connor wasn’t as perfect as he seemed.

“True. But it doesn’t exactly make him a murderer, does it?”

I took the Spring Heeled Jack book off Will and started idly flicking through it. I stopped when I got to the middle, where there was a two-page intricate drawing of Spring Heeled Jack running over the rooftops, a ghoulish smile on his horrible face. There was a verse written in red near the bottom of the page:

‘Beware of Jack! He’s out tonight,

He’ll sneak to your window and give you a fright!

So keep an ear open for his hyena laugh,

In case he’s creeping along your path!’

I could hear Will sniggering from next to me but I didn’t find it funny; there was something niggling at my mind but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. The thought completely disappeared when I heard the two girls laughing from the other beanbag. They both stood up and walked hesitantly over to us.

The blonde girl coughed and whispered, “I’m Jess. And she’s Lizzie.”

I was a bit surprised by them coming over but tried to hide it. “Well hi there, Jess and Lizzie. I’m Beth, and this is Will. But pay no attention to him.”

They both giggled as Jess elbowed Lizzie in the ribs.

Lizzie glared at her friend before turning to me and Will and asking, “Do you know about the lady buried in the tree?”

I looked at Will, not sure how to reply. He shrugged. Helpful. “That’s just a silly old story. You don’t need to know about that.”

The one called Jess seemed embarrassed, but she stepped forward and handed me the legends book they were looking at, pointing at the open page. “How about him? Have you ever seen the ghost dog?”

I looked at the page and saw yet another highly creepy drawing of a giant black dog walking down a misty country lane. I looked around me as if making sure no one was listening. I’d heard Norman tell this story, I bet I could do it just as well. I’d just need to edit it to make it child-friendly.

“I have, actually.”

Jess and Lizzie looked at each other in excitement then both asked, “Where?” at the same time.

I answered in a hushed voice, “Down near Coley Farm. It was in the dead of winter last year, and I was visiting the old lady who lived there. She was ill and I was taking her some soup.”

Will snorted next to me and I elbowed him in the ribs. “Anyway, I left and started walking home in the dark, and I could feel something watching me, something following me.”

The girls held hands and one of them actually gulped.

“I pretended I hadn’t noticed and carried on walking, picking up my pace to try and get away from whatever it was that was hiding in the shadows. Anyway, my shoelace came undone and I tripped over it, landing on my knees. Bending down, I saw that I was bleeding.” I paused for dramatic effect. “And that’s when I heard the growl.”

Lizzie gasped.

“So I slowly turned round, knowing that I couldn’t possibly outrun it now, and there it was. It was the size of a horse. Its teeth were gleaming in the moonlight and its eyes were red like the Devil.”

Will laughed again but I ignored him. I was on a roll.

“We looked at each other for… oh, it must have been a couple of minutes, and then it started walking towards me.”

The girls leaned in closer to hear my lowered voice. Jess opened her eyes wide and whispered, “What happened?”

“Well, it crept towards me ever so slowly, but I was frozen; too scared to move. It eventually got to where I was cowering on the ground and it bent its giant furry head towards me…”

The girls spoke in unison again. “And?”

“And… it licked me all over my face! Man, that thing had bad breath.”

The girls sighed in relief before laughing.

“Then it got distracted by a cat and ran off down the lane!”

The girls looked delighted at my story-telling skills. Take that, Norman.

“So it wasn’t a ghost, then?”

I lowered my voice again. “Well I can’t say for sure… but I’ve never seen a dog vanish into thin air like I did that night.”

Lizzie and Jess gasped again, but they were still giggling.

“And on that note, girls, we have to go!” I handed them their book back and they ran off, whispering to each other as they went.

I looked over at Will for the first time since I started telling the story and laughed at his mixed expression of amusement and disbelief.

“Beth… that’s how stories like Spring Heeled Jack get started.”

I rolled my eyes at Will. “Oh come on, it was just a bit of fun. Anyway, that story’s been doing the rounds for years.”

“Yeah, because of people like you! You’re turning into Norman; in sixty years’ time it’ll be you in the pub surrounded by tourists.”

I shuddered at the thought.

I was just about to stand up when I heard a beeping noise telling me I’d received a text. Retrieving my phone out of my bag, I was surprised to see it was from Max. He never sent me messages, ever. I opened the text and read Max’s stunted sentences, my stomach fluttering.

‘Hey Beth. Saw Connor in the pub with Norman last night, around ten. They were talking and I heard Emma’s name. It got heated and the owner asked Connor to leave. Norman looked scared. Thought it might help you in your ‘quest’ or whatever. Don’t tell Rach, she’d freak. Peace. Max.’

Last night. Connor went round to the pub and had a fight with Norman after he’d been to see me. After I’d told him about Norman at the funeral.

Pieces of the puzzle seemed to be slowly fitting together, but I didn’t yet know how or why. I re-read the text then passed my phone to Will, who read it quickly. “Connor was having a go at Norman about Emma? What the hell is going on?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know, but I’d like to find out.”

***

We stood up and started walking towards the exit, but just before we got to the door something near the desk caught my eye. It was a simple white sign with an old photograph of the castle and the words ‘Get to know your local history! Enquire at the desk’ written underneath. I grabbed Will’s arm and steered him over to the woman on duty.

She looked overworked and annoyed, but she was trying to be helpful. “Yeah, we’ve got a new computer system. All of the local newspapers for the past hundred or so years have been archived, along with newsletters and other publications. You can search for stuff, so you don’t have to scroll through all the articles. If you want to use it, you’ll have to get a token from me. I’ll need your names, too.”

I looked at Will and he nodded back. Little Forest was behind the times in many ways and this newspaper archive was a big step forward for the village (you’d usually have to venture to Willowton for that kind of thing). And it could be a big step forward for us, too.

I gave the woman our names and she handed me the ‘token’, which was really just a piece of card with a code written on it.

“The computer’s in the little room at the back. You’ll need to sign the token back in when you’re done, if I’m not here just go ahead and grab the book.”

We thanked her and walked over to the small room which had two brand new computers in. We sat down and entered the sequence of numbers into the login box.

The computer seemed to think for a minute or so and then we were up and running. I immediately went to the search box and typed in ‘Connor Maguire’. The search came up with no results and I slumped back in my chair. I didn’t think there would be anything on him, of course, but a little part of me hoped he might have popped up somewhere in Covershire at some point.

I looked at Will and shrugged.

“Try Norman.”

I typed in ‘Norman Carter’ and the computer gave me a much better response. There were a few articles featuring other people with the same surname, but some actually featured the Norman Carter of Hill Top Farm, Little Forest.

There was a scanned in page of a local newspaper from around seventy years ago. The headline read ‘No Leads on Mystery Woman’ but it was the ‘Local Farmer Wins Big’ article that featured Norman. His father had won a farming competition and Norman had apparently ‘helped him to victory’. There was a grainy black and white photograph of Norman sitting on his father’s shoulders, holding up a trophy. It shocked me to see him looking so young.

It was even stranger to see him with his father; the thought of him having actual parents seemed far too strange.

From what I could make out from the photograph, Norman’s father was beaming at the camera, clearly thrilled at having won. Little Norman was also smiling, but he was looking off to one side as if in thought, or as if he’d just seen something that had grabbed his attention. I scanned the article quickly but there was nothing out of the ordinary.

His name popped up in various other pieces, mainly due to his helping out at various village fêtes and farming events, obviously in the more quaint years before the Fright Fest started becoming a regular event, dominating all other annual traditions.

The next mention I found of him was his wedding announcement to Miss Doris Spotwood; there was a photograph of them together, looking lovingly into each other’s eyes. The mention after that was the obituary of Mrs Doris Carter.

I glanced at Will, who looked exactly how I felt – guilty. Here we were, researching this poor old man for reasons I wasn’t even sure of, and what do we find? The obituary of his wife whom he had loved for his whole life. I felt a bit disgusted with myself.

“I think we’d better stop this now.”

Will nodded and we logged off the computer. When we got to the desk there was no one there so Will took the book from the back of the counter and opened it to the most recent page. He noted down the time, signed both of our names, and was just about to close the book when he stopped, his mouth hanging open in an almost comical fashion.

“What?”

Will looked up at me and said one word: “Connor.”

I leaned over to look in the book, gasping when I saw what he meant; on almost every line of the two open pages was written ‘Connor Maguire.’ I looked at the times the token was logged out and then in; the sessions lasted from between twenty minutes to two hours. I looked at the dates. Connor had been coming here for over two weeks, ever since he first came to Little Forest. Hell, it was before I even knew he was in Little Forest.

I exchanged a shocked look with Will as he said, “I knew he was up to something.”

“He was definitely lying about not coming here then, that sneaky little…”

Will cut me off. “Well, from the sounds of it, this all has something to do with Emma.”

I nodded.

“So, what do we do next?”

***

What we did next was go to the park, mainly because it was near the library and also because it was near the cemetery where Rach had witnessed the argument that had started this whole thing off; I thought maybe we’d see Norman wandering through the graveyard or something.

Well, you never knew.

We sat in the empty bandstand – which was only really used during summer and at Christmas – and discussed Connor and Norman. Will was even writing notes down in an old, ragged notebook. We were the most rubbish and ridiculous-looking detectives of all time.

“OK, so what do we know for sure?”

I lay down on the floor of the bandstand and stared up at the roof. The white paint was flaking off, uncovering the dark wood underneath. I had a vague thought that the Best Kept Village Committee wouldn’t be too happy with its state, before pulling my mind back to the subject at hand. “Well, we know that Connor Maguire arrived in Little Forest with his mum, apparently having never been here before. We also know Emma died soon after and was found in the woods.”

“By a DCI, no less.”

I rolled my eyes, even though he couldn’t see me doing it. “Don’t tell me you think he did it.”

“Hey, you’re the one who thought it was weird.”

“It is weird. I’d like to know what he was doing in the woods at seven a.m… but it doesn’t mean he has anything to do with it.”

Will was frantically scribbling in his pad. “Right, and Emma had a head wound but died by choking on her vomit, due to being extremely drunk.”

“Right.” I knew that at any moment Will was going to ask me about Emma outside The Pit again. It only took three seconds for him to try and bring it up.

“And she died, when?”

I tried to keep my voice level. “Between eleven and midnight they reckon. Twelve-thirty at the latest, I think.”

He wrote this down. “And John heard her shouting at someone…”

“Uh huh.”

When he realised I wasn’t going to elaborate he carried on. “OK, so John thinks she wasn’t alone and that someone else was there, and he also thinks the head wound may not have been the result of a drunken accident.” His tone of voice was business-like and the way he was speaking made me smile to myself. He was definitely getting into this.

I nodded slowly. “She was wearing killer heels though…”

Will stopped writing. “Why is that significant?”

“You’ve obviously never tried walking in heels, in the woods, while drunk.”

“Have you?”

I stuck my tongue out at him.

“So you think she probably did just trip over?”

I shrugged. “I’m saying it’s a definite possibility. She could barely walk in them when she was at The Pit.”

“Right. So, Connor – he had a massive fight with Norman Carter soon after he moved to Little Forest.”

“In the cemetery.”

“In the cemetery,” Will repeated while writing it down. “We also know Connor’s very touchy about the subject, and has yelled at you on more than one occasion for bringing it up.”

“And he’s also warned me off Norman.”

And the woods.”

I tilted my head towards Will. “What?”

“Didn’t you tell me he warned you off hanging out in the woods before he left your house?”

“Well, he warned me about hanging out with you.”

Will stared at me with his eyebrows raised. “When I was hanging out in the woods. Why would he be worried about me? He’s never even met me.”

He was right. Connor’s hug (and that damned wink) had confused me, set my mind off on a different track. Of course he was warning me off the woods! I shook my head in disbelief at how stupid I was. How many of Connor’s other comments had I taken the wrong way? “You’re right, he was warning me about the woods.”

Will just rolled his eyes at me. “And where was Emma’s body found?”

My head was getting far too confused now. “OK, but why would Connor warn me about going into the woods if it was him who had killed Emma?”

“He probably doesn’t want you snooping around the crime scene.”

I gave him a look of disbelief. “Really? Oh, and write down the fact that Connor’s been researching… something… in the library. Pretty obsessively by the looks of it.”

Will nodded.

“Then there’s him snooping through my phone and going through my kitchen cupboards. Explain that one.”

Will tapped his pen against the paper in an annoyingly erratic rhythm. “Well, the phone implies he either wants to find out more about you, or about someone you know. Someone you’re in contact with, someone you might have had texts from, someone whose number he might want to get.”

I thought about my closest friends and couldn’t even begin to understand who he might have been wanting to find out about.

“And you say he was going through the cupboard where all the bills and stuff are?”

“And my mum’s diary.”

“So maybe he wanted to find out about your mum, or someone she knows.” He paused. “Someone you both know?”

“Well, technically, that could be anyone in the village.”

He started writing this down then stopped. “Oh, yeah.”

“Shouldn’t we put something about Norman down in your little case book?”

“Sure. Like what?”

I didn’t know. “Just that he’s obviously got something going on with Connor. And the whole argument when Emma was mentioned.”

“Which we only know from Max.”

“So?”

“If ever there was an unreliable witness…”

I nearly laughed. “I know what you mean. But I actually think that underneath all his… er… stonerisms, Max might be pretty smart.”

“How the hell did you get to that conclusion?”

“Just a hunch. Anyway, we have to go on what we’ve got, no matter who told us.”

Will shrugged and carried on writing. “OK. And then there’s Norman and your mum being all creepy-horror-movie at the pub. And then…” he hesitated. “Then there’s Veronica.”

I propped myself up on my elbows. “You’re not telling me you think V has something to do with all this?”

He seemed to think about this, then shook his head slowly. “I don’t think it’s necessarily all related, I’m just saying all this stuff started happening at the same time. Connor moving in, Emma dying, Veronica going AWOL. That’s a hell of a lot of coincidences.”

I shook my head vigorously. “No way. V is the last person in the world to have anything to do with Emma, she hated her, and I’ve never even seen her in the same vicinity as Connor…” (stalking aside), “none of it fits.”

“You sure? You just said she hated Emma.”

“Not enough to want her dead.”

Will continued talking while writing in the book, clearly not wanting to look me in the eye while he said the following. “I’m just saying, hatred sounds like a motive to me.”

I wished I had something to throw at him. “You’re not seriously suggesting…” I couldn’t even say the words. Yes, it had occurred to me – very briefly – how weird the timing all was, but I didn’t actually believe she could have anything to do with Emma. “You and I both know V.”

Do we? Do we know why she stopped talking to us? Why she seemingly hates everyone in the village? Do we know what she’s been doing over the past couple of weeks? Who she’s been talking to? Not to mention the whole glass-throwing thing. Do I need to say ‘violent streak’?”

I lay back again, disbelief coursing through my body. “OK, forgetting for a moment that you’re obviously mentally unhinged, do you not remember that night? V was with us the whole time. Pretty solid alibi if you ask me.”

Will sighed in exasperation. “I’m not saying she physically went and hit Emma over the head with a rock, but people can have accomplices you know, they can make arrangements. We both know she had a crush on John. Maybe the two of them…”

“Are you actually saying this? You saw John at the funeral – he was devastated. He wants to find out what happened as much as we do.”

“Maybe he’s a good actor. Who are we to know V and him aren’t together right now, planning on running away to London together once the buzz about Emma has died down a bit?”

I groaned. “You’ve been watching too many detective shows. I may not know what V is doing right this second, but I know her. So do you. She’d never hurt a fly.” I paused. “Crazy glass-throwing antics aside, anyway… she’d never even cheat on someone, it’s just not her. Plus, why kill Emma if that was the case? They could run off to London just as easily if John simply broke up with her.”

Silence followed and I looked up just enough to see Will nodding to himself, his pen placed in his mouth in thought. “I know, I’m just trying to fit everything together.” A pause. “Sorry, Beth.”

I sighed to myself. “It’s fine.”

“Maybe we’re thinking about this the wrong way. Maybe Emma broke up with John that night, and he followed her into the woods… or maybe she was planning on leaving Little Forest and he couldn’t let her go.”

I shook my head. “No way. I know she moaned about him all the damn time, but Emma was totally in love with John. Her locker at work is filled with photos of him.” I wondered briefly if Hannah was going to do anything about cleaning out her locker. Maybe she already had. “And she wasn’t planning on leaving the village.”

“How do you know?”

“One of the last things she said to me…” I paused again, “when we were in the toilets… was about having a plan to sort our boss out at work. Why would she be planning work stuff if she knew she was leaving?”

Will shrugged. “Maybe she was planning to leave in a few weeks, a few months, and John just found out about it that night?”

I shook my head again. “No, I don’t buy it. John was gutted, there’s no way in hell he was involved.”

“Gutted? Or guilty?”

Will looked impressed with his own mind. I wanted to thump him.

“No more John talk, OK? Just… no.”

He shrugged and went back to writing. I was listening to the soft sound of Will’s pen drifting across the paper when I sighed, a little longer and louder than I’d intended to. “We’re never going to figure out what happened.”

“Why not?”

“Because, Will, we’re not the police. We don’t have all their information, we don’t have the report on Emma’s death. I was thinking about that head wound – you’re so convinced that someone bashed her over the head with a rock? I bet they have ways of proving that she fell over and hit her head, like you always see on the TV. They probably measure the angle of entry or the shape and depth of the wound, all that stuff. All we have is naïve guesswork.”

“Sure. But I’d bet my beloved CD player that you’re smarter than most of the local police, and besides, we can investigate as civilians, we can find out more than any up-himself uniformed detective ever could. We can get behind enemy lines. And anyway…”

I was trying not to smile at his line about me being smart. “Yes?”

He shrugged, smiling, and held up his Evidence Book so I could see his notes. “It’s bloody fun, isn’t it?”

I smiled back. Fun it most certainly was.

Like our own little whodunit.

If only I’d known what was coming, I would have burned that damn book there and then.

***

After half an hour, we hadn’t got any further and the conversation had progressed onto other areas.

“You doing anything this weekend, then? Apart from the usual drinking yourself to death?”

Will laughed. “Like you can talk.” He hesitated, looking at the ground and fiddling with his hands. “Well, actually, it’s my birthday on Friday.”

I sat up. “It is? As in three days’ time? Why didn’t you tell me? What are you doing for it?”

Will shrugged, looking vaguely annoyed. “I don’t know, birthdays aren’t a big thing in my family. I’ve not got anything planned, so there’s not much point telling people.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “But it’s your twenty-first! It’s a rite of passage and all that crap. If this was America, you’d finally be able to drink legally! Seriously, Will. This is a big deal.”

He groaned. “Not to me. My parents stop celebrating birthdays pretty much once you’re an ‘adult’. Look, if you insist, we can go to the pub or something – if you’re not working.”

I pretended to give in. “OK, pub it is. I’ll buy you a drink.”

Will smiled and then looked at his watch. “Powers, I gotta go. Give me a ring if you have some kind of Connor epiphany, OK?”

“Sure.” I watched him go, then immediately got my phone out and started dialling.

“Rach? It’s me. Please don’t hang up, I need to ask you a favour. It’s not for me, it’s for Will.”

***

I hung up from talking to Rach – glad that she’d agreed to listen to me long enough to hear my plan – and looked around at the park.

From my position on the bandstand, I could see most of the flat expanse of grass, as well as the bird cages, bowls lawn, and the white Victorian bridge over the river. It was all deserted, probably due to the ominous clouds overhead.

I sat up a little straighter so I could see the church and graveyard, and a flash of black – weaving through the bleak grey headstones – caught my eye.

Without giving it too much thought I stood up and ran across the grass in the direction of the church, trying not to pay much attention to the butterflies that were currently making an appearance in my stomach.

Graveyards always had that effect on me, ever since Edinburgh.

By the time my shoes started making small hollows in the gravel ground next to the church, I was beginning to wonder if I’d actually find anyone in the cemetery. When all I could see were rows and rows of crumbling gravestones, I nearly turned back towards the park, not wanting to confront whoever or whatever it was that I’d seen.

Thankfully, a couple of seconds later, Reverend Kipling’s head popped up from behind a particularly large stone, a smile on his face and a twinkling curiosity in his eyes.

“Hello!” His voice was deep and booming.

He stood up and waved some withered red roses at me, before walking in my direction. “I was just making a sweep of all the graves, tidying them up.”

I smiled as best as I could. “You take the flowers away?”

“I don’t have to with most of them, a lot of these poor souls no longer have any relatives to bestow such treasures upon them.”

It took me a few seconds to get my head around what he’d just said; I didn’t know anyone who talked like that. I gestured to the roses. “Some obviously still do.”

He looked down at the flowers, a small smile playing around the corner of his mouth. “Yes, some do. She gets flowers every week.”

I didn’t need to ask who he meant. Norman. Doris.

“So, can I help you?” He shook his head, laughing to himself, before I got a chance to answer. “I’m sorry, you probably don’t know me, I haven’t seen you at church. I’m Reverend Kipling.”

I nodded. “I’m Beth Powers, and I do know you. I came to Emma Harris’s funeral, we… worked together.”

This time it was his turn to nod, head bowed down slightly, as if in respect. “Ah, yes. It certainly is terrible when they’re so young, when they have to leave this life so suddenly. I’m sorry for your loss.”

My mouth was incredibly dry; I hadn’t come here to discuss Emma, and I felt like I was using her death somehow as a way of getting the Reverend to talk to me. “Thanks. Actually…” I gestured again to the flowers, trying to sound natural. “That wouldn’t be Norman Carter leaving those for his wife, would it?”

The Reverend laughed, seeming surprised. “You know Norman?”

I tried to put on a sweet, innocent smile. I wasn’t sure I pulled it off. “Well, he’s friends with my parents, actually. To tell you the truth,” I lowered my voice and took a step closer to Kipling, “they’re kind of worried about him. He’s been acting, well, not himself lately. I know he spends a lot of time here, what with his wife and everything. I was just wondering if you’d noticed any change in him, or if he’s been acting strangely lately? If he mentioned any… issues he was having?”

The Reverend raised his eyebrows and looked at the roses again in silence. I hoped he wouldn’t find this too strange, or track down my parents and try to talk to them. I’d just given up hope of getting any kind of answer from him when his face transformed into a genuine expression of gratitude. “It’s young adults like you who keep communities like this going. Young people who still care. God bless you.”

I smiled again, feeling slightly sick. I wasn’t exactly lying to him, but I’m sure that using a vicar to try and get information wasn’t exactly a good thing, either. I just hoped that trying to find out what really happened to Emma would somehow allow me to redeem myself.

“Let’s see… he usually comes here once a week, puts flowers on her grave, and sits and talks for a while. A lot of people do: they find it comforting, having an object – like a headstone – to aim their words at. I don’t always see him, of course, he comes at different times and on different days, but if I do he’ll always stop and talk to me a while. He’s a good man, Norman.”

“I heard he had a bit of an argument here the other day with Connor, the new Irish guy.” It came out my mouth before I could stop it.

A flicker of something – anger or hatred – passed over Kipling’s features. “If there was such an argument, I can guarantee it wasn’t Norman who started it. I’ve met Connor’s mother, of course, lovely woman, but her son should stop picking fights with people who don’t deserve it.”

“You’ve met Connor?”

He shook his head, almost violently. “No. Norman, he’s just an old man with…” he cocked his head to one side, then back the other way, as if trying to decide what to say. “Let’s just say he’s got problems. And who is Connor to come waltzing in here, acting like he owns the place, and taking advantage of an elderly person?” The Reverend’s unique way of speaking seemed to be lost in his anger; he just sounded like any annoyed person now.

“Take advantage? How do you mean?”

Another shake of the head. “He shouldn’t be aggravating vulnerable people like Norman. He’s been through a lot these past few years, his wife’s death affected him horribly, he’s…” a slight hesitation, “a very confused man.”

I could tell Kipling was getting extremely flustered, and I thought I’d better not push him any further. “I’m sorry, Reverend, I didn’t mean to pry. I just wanted to try and help.” I smiled my sweetest smile at him again and he visibly relaxed.

“No, I should be apologising. It’s just difficult. I’ve got to know Norman quite well these past few years, and people confronting him in front of his wife’s grave is the last thing he needs.”

“I totally agree.”

“Well, Miss Powers, I’ll leave you now. I’m sure Norman will be fine, you can tell your parents to stop worrying.”

“I appreciate that.”

He nodded, gave a brisk smile, and then started wandering off away from the cemetery, no doubt towards a warm fire and endless cups of hot tea. Well, that’s what I’d do if I were a vicar.

I waited until the sound of his shoes crunching on the gravel had faded before walking over to where Kipling had been standing, or kneeling, when I first arrived. In front of me was a headstone, quite large in comparison to some of the surrounding slabs, and starting to get covered in dark green moss. I kneeled down and reached out to touch the cold, rough surface, feeling the deteriorating engraved letters as I did. Even a few years in this place was enough to make your last memorial rot and decay as much as the steadily decomposing corpse buried beneath. I shuddered and took my hand away.

‘In Loving Memory

Doris Ethel Mabel Carter

1927 – 2006

Survived by her ever-loving husband, Norman.’

As epitaphs go, it was no masterpiece, but when you thought about it, it said everything that needed to be said.

I thought of Norman spending hours here, in this very spot, talking to his wife’s headstone. I thought of Kipling’s reaction -‘He’s a very confused man’ - and the way he instantly turned on Connor for even daring to argue with him.

I supposed a lot of eighty-something’s probably were a bit confused sometimes, but I’d never once seen Norman dithering in the street wondering how he’d got there, or getting his order wrong at the bar, or forgetting to take his wallet with him, and he never, ever forgot when a football match was going to be on the TV.

He definitely seemed to be someone who not only had all his marbles, but who knew exactly how many and where they were at all times. I could only guess at what Kipling’s definition of ‘confused’ entailed.

I took my eyes off Doris’s headstone. I’d been staring at it for so long its words were now engraved in my mind, and I let my eyes wander over the surrounding graves, some of which looked like they’d been here for decades, even centuries.

Not far from Doris Carter’s final resting place were three small headstones, grouped together at the end of one of the rows. I walked over and crouched down, intrigued by their size and odd positioning. I could tell immediately that these pieces of stone had been exposed to the elements in this graveyard for a lot more years than Norman’s wife’s had; they were almost entirely covered in moss, and the grass was growing relentlessly taller and taller around them, almost dwarfing the little stones.

I checked no one was around before picking up a nearby stick and scratching at one of the stones, tearing off the moss and other foliage that had made these graves their homes before going on to the other two.

I felt slightly bad about doing it, but a part of me thought I was doing a good thing; I was finally allowing some light and some air to get through to the ancient stone, I was rediscovering the names that had no doubt lain in this cemetery undisturbed for years.

When I’d uncovered as much as I could, I stepped back so I could see all of them at once. Each stone had a name on, nothing wrong there, and I tried to decipher each of the old, decrepit letters. Lucy Browning. Katherine Browning. Marianne Browning. All born between 1889 and 1897, all died 1899. I could feel my throat getting dry again. What could have happened to three sisters all in the same year? Some kind of disease? A fire? Murder?

The dates, however, weren’t the most disturbing thing on the headstones. Not by a mile. I’d studied the Victorian era at school, and I knew that a lot of their customs were, well, creepy to say the least, but this was taking it a bit far.

Underneath the names and dates were two lines of poetry, made all the more troubling by their repetition on each individual grave.

‘Those that are young, prepare to die. For we who are young, beneath we lie.’

I shivered and took a step back from the words. Who on earth would put that on a child’s grave?

I looked around to see if I could spot any more Brownings but from what I could tell, they were the only ones. Of course, others could be under their own thick layer of moss and grime, but I didn’t really want to stay and find out.

I took one last look at the death poems and turned quickly away, some of the gravel from under my feet clattering against Marianne’s grave as I did. I walked quickly out of the row and down the main path towards the church, towards the park, towards some form of normality.

The sound of a child laughing stopped me in my tracks. It was high-pitched and bubbly; a laugh that would sound delightful coming from a little girl or boy who was playing with their friends or perhaps one of their parents. In its current surroundings, however, it sounded so out of place I felt a chill worm its way through me.

The graveyard suddenly seemed like a completely stupid place for me to voluntarily hang out in on my own and I started walking again, faster this time, not daring to turn back to the Browning Sisters’ graves.

By the time I got to the end of the cemetery I was almost running, and I caught a flash of a name, noticeable for its position on a brand new, gleaming headstone, as I rushed past. ‘Emma Harris’.

The thought of Emma sharing the same soil as Doris Carter and the three Browning children – with only a few metres to separate them – was almost too much to bear.

I took one last look at Emma’s grave – smooth and white, sticking out like a sore thumb in a sea of withered grey – and wondered if it would too, one day, resemble all of the others. I supposed it would.

I supposed it was inevitable.

Shivering, I left the cemetery behind.

[]Chapter Six

The next day I got up early and caught the bus to the Green Tree shopping centre before my shift started. First I headed to Party Land to grab as many balloons, streamers and lame party hats as I could carry, then I headed to the electrical store next door to purchase a nice and shiny mp3 player and some new headphones.

I went to the card shop last and bumped into Veronica’s parents as I was going in.

There was an awkward moment when none of us said anything, then V’s mum plastered a big, toothy smile onto her face; it actually looked like it pained her to do it.

“Hi Beth, how are you?”

I didn’t really know what to say to that. “I’m OK thanks, and you?”

“Oh, not bad, not bad. You out shopping?”

What else would I be doing, loaded down with shopping bags? “Yeah, it’s Will’s birthday this weekend, I’m throwing him a surprise party at the Inn.”

“Oh, Will Wolseley?”

I nodded. “I’ve been hanging out with him more since V and I… you know.”

David and Laura Summers exchanged an apprehensive glance. “Will’s a lovely lad. Tell him ‘Happy Birthday’ from us.”

I wasn’t going to let them off that easily. “Sure. Although you could tell him yourself, it’s Friday night around seven. You could bring Veronica.”

David looked at his watch and gestured for Laura to hurry up. “Look, Beth, thanks for the invite. We’re in a real hurry though, so… see you soon.” They started walking off towards the entrance.

I desperately tried to think of something else to say, to keep them talking for just a few more seconds. “Wait!”

I saw both of them visibly stiffen at my command, then they turned round slowly, giving each other a quick, nervous glance.

I hadn’t planned what to say next, so I said the first thing that came to mind. “Can you tell Veronica that I miss her?”

It wasn’t a ploy to see what they’d say or how they’d react; I just wanted her to know.

As it turned out, neither David nor Laura said anything, but their reactions shocked me. David nodded slowly, with a grave look in his eyes that I’d never seen before, whereas Laura’s eyes filled up, and just before she turned to leave, I saw one single tear run down her cheek.

***

I was just crossing through the food hall to get to the escalators when I saw Jackie Maguire, sitting at a table on her own with a cup of tea in front of her. She was staring into space, looking tired and miserable. I immediately felt sorry for her and went over to say ‘hi’.

She looked up at the sound of my voice but there was no hint of recognition on her face.

“I’m Beth Powers, a… friend of Connor’s. I work at the Little Forest Picture House, I saw you there once?”

It suddenly dawned on her and she smiled back at me. “O’course, sorry Beth. I’m still gettin’ used to names and faces here. Will you join me?”

“Sure!” I sat down opposite her and put my shopping bags on the seat next to me.

“Been having a wee bit of a spree, have we?”

“You could say that. It’s a friend’s birthday in a couple of days and I’m throwing him a surprise party, so I just came to get some supplies really.”

“Ah, isn’t that nice? As long as he likes surprises, mind. I once threw one for my husband; he nearly had a heart attack!” She laughed and then looked into the distance again. I didn’t want to pry but I thought this would be the only opportunity I’d get.

“I’m sorry to hear about Connor’s father. When did he… pass? If you don’t mind me asking?”

I thought she’d be angry and I’d face the Maguire wrath again, but she actually laughed, albeit sadly.

“Connor’s father isn’t dead.”

“Oh… I thought he said…?”

She took a deep breath. “He probably did. I’ve been tellin’ everyone that he’s dead for years, but the truth is, he left me. I just couldn’t bear the humiliation, so I told everyone he died suddenly.” She paused and looked down at her tea. “I know it’s stupid, but I don’t have a lot of close friends or family, so it was only really work colleagues and acquaintances I lied to. O’course, Connor knows, but he’s a good lad, he went along with it for me.”

I must have looked incredibly confused because Jackie smiled kindly and put her hand over mine. “I know I must sound like a mad old bat. It was just my way of copin’, and it got a bit out of hand… but new start and all that. There’s no point lyin’ about it now.”

I nodded and tried to smile. I wasn’t expecting this kind of conversation with Connor’s mum; I could only assume she was lonely and hadn’t had anyone to talk to – apart from Connor – for quite a while.

Then I thought about Norman, and wondered if she knew what was going on.

“So, have you met many people in Little Forest yet? I see Connor’s getting on well with Norman.”

Jackie frowned. “Norman?”

“Norman Carter, the man who lives out on Hill Top Farm? I mean, I’m not sure what they have in common but Connor talks about him a lot.” Well, it wasn’t technically a lie.

Jackie still looked confused but not particularly interested. “Does he? I can’t say I’ve ever met ‘im. I seem to spend my life either working here or catchin’ up on me sleep! I haven’t met many people in the village to be honest.”

I nodded, thinking I’d better stop; she clearly didn’t know anything about her son’s involvement with Norman and she just seemed so sad.

“Well, darlin’… Nice to meet you again, I’d better get back to work. I hope the surprise party goes well.”

I stood up and grabbed my shopping. “You know, you’re more than welcome to come, if you like. Everyone’s getting to the Little Forest Inn on Friday for about seven.”

Jackie looked genuinely grateful that I’d asked. “Well thank you, dear. Maybe I’ll pop in after work.” She smiled and patted my hand again before standing up.

I stood and watched as she walked off, dabbing a tissue at her eyes as she went.

***

I spent the entire next day organising the party and inviting people (including Connor, mainly so I could keep an eye on him), and on Friday I headed to the Inn for about five to make sure I had enough time to set up.

I sent Will a text to meet me outside the Inn at seven thirty (hoping he wouldn’t find it weird that I wanted to meet him on the street) and sent a mass reminder text to everyone else.

I’d managed to rustle up quite a few people; The Couple were coming, possibly Connor and Jackie, some of Will’s work mates, some of the locals, and even his parents, who seemed surprisingly willing to help once I’d explained how much Will wanted to celebrate his birthday. Well, one tiny white lie wouldn’t hurt. I’d even sent a text to Veronica but I obviously wasn’t holding out much hope that she’d turn up.

By seven o’clock the pub was draped in streamers and banners, and there were more than enough balloons dangling from the old wooden beams and stuck to the front of the bar. By quarter past, the pub was more packed than I’d ever seen it, and almost everyone I’d invited – V being the main exception – had turned up. I went to wait outside in case Will was early and after ten minutes of standing in the cold, I was severely regretting it.

A few minutes later, he appeared and I went up to him and gave him a hug. “Happy Birthday, old man!”

He laughed quietly and shook his head. “Thanks.”

He didn’t seem his usual cheery self, and I started to think that he probably wouldn’t thank me for the big surprise. “What’s wrong?”

He shrugged. “Nothing’s wrong… I just told you, I don’t celebrate birthdays. My parents haven’t even mentioned it.”

I tried to hide a smile as I slipped my arm around his. “Well, I’m mentioning it, if I’m allowed. Shall we have a drink?” I led him to the door and then gestured for him to open it. He looked at me suspiciously but opened the door anyway.

I heard the shout of ‘Surprise!’ as he walked in and laughed when he stopped short, mouth wide open. I looked at him sheepishly, said a quick, “Sorry!” and led him over to the table where everyone was waiting for him. The Couple, Connor and Will’s parents were already sitting down and I smiled at Will’s wide-eyed look of disbelief. When he noticed his parents, his eyes became so large they nearly popped out of his head.

He turned back towards me, half happy and half murderously angry. “You did this?”

I nodded and gestured to the empty seat left for him. “Sit down and I’ll bring you a drink over.”

He looked bewildered and did as he was told, but not before he glared at me and said in mock rage, “I’ll get you back for this one day, Powers!”

Rolling my eyes, I walked the short distance to the bar. I ordered a couple of ciders from my mum, being careful not to say any more to her than was necessary, and turned back to face the pub. Will was being handed cards and presents and I couldn’t help but smile again, happy that my plan had worked out.

I took a sneaky glance at Connor. He was gazing around the room and smiling, looking like any other happy party-goer. He was sitting next to Rach, who spoke to him occasionally, but in general he just sat there, taking in the surroundings and not saying a word.

When I took the drinks over, Will was talking to his parents, and his dad was just about to hand over an envelope.

“Son, I’m afraid we haven’t got you a present, but here’s something that we think will come in useful. You know, if you ever wanted to buy a car.”

Will looked like he was in shock. He took the envelope and opened it to reveal a cheque, and from where I was standing I could see it was quite a sizeable amount; they must have been saving up for this for a while. He shook his head in awe and then hugged his parents each in turn. “Thank you… I don’t know what to say.”

I sat down beside him. “I say, have a drink!”

He smiled and picked up his glass of local Forest Legends Cider.

I held mine up as well. “To Will! Happy twenty-first!”

Most of the people in the pub had been listening and they raised their glasses to repeat the toast. After that, everyone started drifting off into small groups, and I used the opportunity to give Will his present from me.

“Now, Will, I know you love your old one, but it’s time to join the modern age.”

He looked at me curiously and unwrapped his mp3 player and headphones. “Awesome! Thanks Beth!”

“You like it? I thought you might defend your crappy CD player to the death.”

He shook his head, laughing. “That piece of rubbish? No way!” He looked up at me again. “Seriously, Beth. Thank you. You didn’t have to do all this.”

I shrugged, taken aback by his genuine gratitude. “Well, it gave me something to do. And besides, I couldn’t let you use that CD player anymore. Frankly, I was embarrassed to be seen with you and that thing.”

He laughed as he took the mp3 player out of the box.

I leaned over and started pointing things out to him. “The sound quality’s way better on this. You can turn it up here,” I pointed to the volume control on the side, “but you can do it with your headphones, too.”

“Nice.”

“You’d better not use this as an excuse to avoid my calls or anything though!”

He put the player back in the box and took a gulp of cider. “As if I’d ever avoid you.”

He said the last sentence without his usual jokey voice, and when I didn’t respond, he gave me a quick smile.

Looking up at the people sitting around the table – most of whom were having their own conversations – he lowered his voice. “So… why did you invite Irish? I’m assuming that’s Connor over there? The guy who keeps staring at you?”

I glanced over and, sure enough, Connor was looking back at us. Thankfully, unlike my mum and Norman, he had the sense to look away when he realised we were both looking at him.

“I keep forgetting you’ve never met him; how that’s possible in Little Forest I have no idea.”

Will just shrugged. “I know enough about him from you.”

“I just thought it would be interesting to see if he came, see how he reacted.”

Will nodded, not looking entirely comfortable with having him there.

“But you should make up your own mind,” I added, and before he could stop me, I’d raised my glass and shouted across the table, “Hey Connor, come and meet the birthday boy!”

Will’s head snapped round at me and he gave me a hefty kick under the table, one that made me utter a small yelp that I had to try and turn into a cough as Connor shuffled around the table towards us.

At the same time I noticed Rach get up to go to the toilet, leaving Max on his own at the other end of the table. Rach still wasn’t really talking to me since the whole book club fiasco, but I’d begun to see the signs of her rage thawing at work and knew it was only a matter of time until we were friends again.

I still didn’t want her to know about Max’s little tip off though, and I thought this might be my only chance to get him alone.

Connor was now standing next to me and I smiled at him as I stood up. “I’ve just got to talk to Max about something, but Connor, this is Will. Will, Connor.” I gestured for Connor to take my seat and ignored Will’s look of disbelief. I’m sure I’d pay for this later.

I moved to Rach’s now empty seat as quickly as I could and kept my voice low so no one else could hear. “Max.”

He looked at me in surprise, or I assumed he did; his facial expression was hidden under all his unruly hair. I rarely started a conversation with him – there just wasn’t any point most of the time.

“Beth.”

“I got your text.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Thanks for the tip.”

Max looked around the room, checking his other half wasn’t in the vicinity. “Can you not tell Rach? She’s pretty against this whole conspiracy thing you and Will have got going. You wouldn’t believe how mad she gets about it.”

I nodded, believing what he was saying about Rach but in disbelief about how much he was saying. I didn’t think I’d ever gotten this much out of him on any subject, ever. “Sure, no problem.”

We sat in silence for a couple of seconds and I took a sip of my drink. “So, the conversation you overheard… did Connor seem angry? Was he having a go at Norman?”

Max shrugged, and I feared he’d go back to his usual monosyllabic answers. Luckily he had a few more words left in him. “He seemed pretty pissed off, that’s why he got chucked out. To anyone watching, it looked like a young guy verbally abusing Norman, and you know the Inn basically lives off the income Carter brings in…”

I laughed in astonishment. Max wasn’t as stupid or as oblivious to everything as he made out. “And to you? What did you think?”

Max did seem to think, which was another first. “He definitely got under Norman’s skin. He was rattled.”

“And you say they mentioned Emma?”

Max nodded. “Connor did, yeah. Definitely.”

“But you don’t know what they said?”

“No, they were being loud but so was the rest of the pub. The footie highlights were on.”

I sighed. Damn sports, always getting in the way. “Maybe that’s why Norman was rattled; he didn’t get to watch the TV.”

Max laughed, and again I marvelled at how open he was being. “You’d think so, but after Connor left, he just kept staring at his drink. He didn’t even seem to notice it was on.”

I stared at my own drink for a while, trying to get my head around this. Norman not wanting to watch the football was almost unheard of.

I was about to ask more questions when Rach suddenly appeared next to us. She looked suspicious, and I didn’t blame her. Hardly anyone – other than Rach and his brother – could ever get much out of Max. “What are you two whispering about?”

I tried to think of a likely topic but my mind went blank.

Max, however, answered without missing a beat. “Beth was just asking me what we got Will for his birthday.”

I moved out of her chair and smiled as Rach sat down. “What, you couldn’t wait two minutes until he opened our present?”

I opened my mouth, hoping something would come out to explain myself. Sadly, all I managed was a, “Nope!”

I walked off before Rach could say anything else.

***

A couple of hours later I was stuck talking to Will’s boss, Thomas Hours, at the bar. Thomas could talk for England; I’d managed to get about two words into a half hour conversation, and he showed no signs of shutting up any time soon.

Luckily, Will had gotten thirsty enough to warrant a trip to the bar, and therefore managed to save me. “Hey, Thomas, can I borrow Beth for a bit?”

“Oh sure, Will. See you later, Beth.”

“Bye!” I watched him walk off before grabbing Will’s arm melodramatically. “Oh my God, thank you.”

“I think I need to thank you. This is amazing, Beth. No one’s ever done anything like this for me.” He stepped forward and started hugging me, a bit too enthusiastically. He’d had quite a few drinks by this point; people who hadn’t brought him a present kept buying him ciders, beers, shots, anything. The hug went on a bit too long and after I wriggled out of it he kissed me on the cheek, which was also unexpected.

I stood back and smiled shyly.

“You’re welco…” and then I saw her. Veronica was standing behind Will, looking at me with a face like thunder. “V!”

Will spun round to see her, but she’d stormed off as soon as I’d spoken. I gave Will a despairing look and ran outside after Veronica. She was already halfway down the street. “V, wait!”

She stopped running and turned to face me. “Wait? Wait for what? Wait for you to steal all of my friends?”

I was stunned. “What?”

“God, Beth,” she spat, “you don’t even like Will.”

I was glad she hadn’t said that in front of him when we were inside. “What did you mean, steal your friends? You’re the one who’s ignoring us! V, what am I supposed to have done?”

She paused, looking like she was trying to decide what to say. Then the venom in her voice was replaced with that same sadness I’d heard at the Diner. “You haven’t done anything, if only I could say the same for… I mean… just be careful, Beth. You don’t know…”

“Who? If only you could say the same for who?”

Veronica looked slightly panicked and started backing away from me.

I wanted her to stay, and I said the first thing that came into my mind. “V, you know when I said I saw Emma outside The Pit when we left that night?”

My change in conversation caught her off guard, and she responded automatically. “Yeah?”

“The police told me she died before midnight, while we were still in the club.”

I could see she wanted to get away but her curiosity was apparently making her stay. “Well, that’s…” her brow furrowed, as if remembering a distant memory, “impossible.”

I shook my head. “Impossible doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. We both know that.”

I paused, not wanting to scare her away. She was the only person I could discuss this with. “When I saw her, I had this really strange feeling, it reminded me of…”

Veronica stepped forward, obviously interested despite herself. “Edinburgh?”

I nodded, relieved that she was talking to me. Or sort of, anyway. “And there’s something else…” I braced myself for explaining what John had told me, but before I could get another word out, Veronica shook her head and took a step backwards.

“I’ve got to go, just please leave me alone.” She started inching away.

“But I really need to talk to you, no one else knows…”

It was useless. She gave me one last pained look, then ran off back towards Main Street. I thought about running after her but decided against it; I didn’t want to push her any more than I just had.

I was crushed. The first time I’d seen Veronica in days and I was no closer to finding out what the hell was going on. And to make matters worse, she was being more cryptic than ever; it was like she wanted to tell me something but couldn’t bring herself to do it. It just didn’t make any sense.

I sighed, turning back towards the pub, and saw Will standing outside the door looking at me.

He must have heard everything. Great.

“Will, I…”

He smiled his cheeky grin and held the door to the pub open for me. “It’s OK, I know I never used to be your favourite person. We’re good.”

I smiled back gratefully. “Well, if it’s any consolation, I was an idiot back then.”

He brought me in for a side hug and patted me on the shoulder. “Damn right!”

The question came two seconds later. “So, what happened in Edinburgh?”

I sighed; I’d been hoping he hadn’t heard that bit. “You really don’t want to know.”

***

It was a few days later and I’d just come out of the record store on Bishop Road when I noticed an old silver metro pull up to the curb about ten feet ahead of me.

Thinking Will had already found a second hand car, I excitedly ran up to the open window to see him.

“Hey Beth, like the new wheels?” It was Connor.

I cursed myself for coming up to the car but smiled at him as best as I could. “New?”

“OK, well it’s a few years old, but I got a great deal on it. You want to go for a spin?”

I knew that going for a ‘spin’ with Connor would probably be a bad idea, and I tried to think of a believable excuse. “Oh, I would, but I was on my way to Will’s.”

Connor raised his eyebrows, his smile widening. “Really? Because I just saw ‘im in the grocery store. Workin’.”

Damn it, Connor was good. “Oh, right. Maybe he got called in last minute.”

Why did my brain never work when I wanted it to? I let the silence grow as I tried to think of something else.

“Look, I was just goin’ to go to Renfield, not far. I wanted to check out those punch drinks you were talkin’ about.”

I shook my head, desperately trying to think of anything to say to get out of it.

“Come on, my shout.” He leaned over and opened the passenger door – as if no wasn’t an option – with a flashy and highly attractive smile on his perfect face. Damn.

I thought about running away without saying another word, but pissing Connor off was not something I wanted to do. So instead, I reluctantly agreed and got in.

It smelled a bit musty inside but it was tidy, and the majority of the interior was clean. I put my seat belt on and looked at Connor. “You know where you’re going?”

“Absolutely no idea.”

I directed Connor out of the village and along the road to Renfield, and apart from my occasional directions, we didn’t say anything to each other.

We passed Hill Top Farm but neither of us mentioned the looming farmhouse. I wanted to ask him more questions about Norman and the library but thought that angering him while he was driving probably wasn’t the best idea; I’d wait until we were in Renfield.

The silence grew louder and louder, and eventually Connor reached down to the ancient car radio and turned the old-fashioned knob until he found a local station. It was playing some weird eighties-sounding electro with an underlying soundtrack of static.

There was a fine mist in the air, threatening to become fog at any minute, and it was making the late afternoon light dwindle. I was hoping we wouldn’t stay for too long or it would be pitch black by the time we got back to Little Forest, and I definitely didn’t want to be stuck in a car with Connor at night. No doubt that would appeal to me more if I didn’t have my suspicions about him; he was looking particularly fine at the moment.

I mentally slapped myself, remembering his less-than-normal behaviour.

When we got to Renfield, I directed him to a car park near the Doctor’s Surgery pub and he pulled into a space.

“Made it! Good car.”

I looked at him in surprise. “You didn’t think it’d make it here?”

Connor laughed. “I never doubted it!”

We got out the car and I led him over to the pub. “Here we go, Renfield’s number one tourist trap.”

The old building was authentic enough, with its large oak doors and fading brickwork. The giant sign showing a cartoon of the doctor poisoning an unsuspecting patient, on the other hand, was less so.

We walked in through the front door and into the warm. Despite it only being around four p.m., there were candles burning on every table and there was a definite ambience of Victorian decadence in the air. There were very few empty tables and almost everyone looked up at us as we walked in, some stares lingering longer than others.

Most people were there in small groups, possibly bunking off work early or just unemployed. There were a few older men sitting on their own, looking dark and dreary with their dull clothes and even duller expressions. One man looked so depressed with his black clothes and grey complexion that he could have come straight from a funeral.

Seemingly oblivious to the reaction of the punters, Connor surveyed the pub and then gestured to the nearest table. “Do you want to take a seat? I’ll go order.”

I nodded and sat at the small, round table next to the wall furthest from the bar. I took my phone out from my pocket and checked my CAC profile while I waited, just for something to do; I’d never felt particularly comfortable in Renfield, and I wasn’t sure why.

A minute later I was reminded exactly why.

I could see someone coming to the table out the corner of my eye and I put my phone down, expecting to see Connor with our drinks. But it wasn’t Connor.

It was an old, haggard-looking woman with shocking white hair and more wrinkles than I could count. I guessed she must be in her late eighties at least.

She came and sat down in the chair next to me, her eyes wide and never leaving mine. I drew my gaze away from her and looked over towards the bar, seeing Connor in the queue for drinks. I wished he’d hurry up.

I glanced back at the woman – who was still staring at me intently – and tried to smile at her. I was pretty sure that what started off as a smile in my head turned to a grimace on my mouth.

I took a deep breath and tried the smile again. “Hello, I’m…” but she cut me off before I could say anymore. I gasped as her freezing cold, veiny claw of a hand suddenly grabbed mine.

She muttered three words, so quietly I could barely hear them. “You’ve seen them.” It wasn’t a question.

I watched as her eyes zoomed all over my face in anticipation of my answer. All I could come out with was, “Who?”

The woman dropped my hand as abruptly as she’d grabbed it and seemed to nod to herself. “You will, soon.”

I had no idea what to say, but before I could think of anything, she leaned in closer. “Do I know you?”

I shook my head mechanically.

Her eyes zoomed over my face again. “You look just like… do you have a sister?”

Before I got a chance to answer, she held out her hand to me in a ‘stop’ gesture and shook her head vehemently. “Never mind.”

She got up from the chair and started to walk away, and she was still staring at me as she sat back down at her table. I could feel my face burning and I was suddenly far too hot, so I took off my cardigan, revealing a rather non-seasonal vest top underneath. Within seconds Connor had arrived with our drinks and I smiled gratefully at him in relief.

Connor handed me my cocktail and looked over at the old woman. “Who was that?”

I shook my head, laughing, hoping I sounded care free and normal. “I have no idea. I’ll tell you one thing though, Renfield folk definitely have the upper hand when it comes to crazy.”

Connor looked back over to the woman, who was still staring at me. “Why, what did she say?”

I hesitated. The truth was that she hadn’t really said anything that made any sense, but I still felt that keeping it to myself would be a good idea. Well, myself and Will; I’d tell him later. “Nothing really, she thought I was someone else. I don’t think she’s all there.”

Connor seemed to accept what I’d said and took a sip of his cocktail. “This is… interestin’. Please tell me the alcoholic version is better?”

I laughed, trying to forget about the woman. “Ah, you got the mocktail?” I took a sip of mine as well, the strange mix of flavours assaulting my tongue in an instant. It was much worse than I’d remembered. “Well Connor, I don’t think you’ve got anything to worry about.”

He laughed, nodding. “People really will pay for anythin’ around here as long as it’s got some kind of horror story theme, sure.”

I agreed with him, looking around at the pub. On the walls were framed pictures of the evil doctor, and there was a whole wall dedicated to testimonies from Renfield and Little Forest residents of the time. The décor was what I regarded as ‘gloomy Victorian’, with the splashes of deep red on the curtains and tablecloths giving it an eerie – yet colourful – look.

I turned round in my seat, my back to Connor as I looked at the large portrait of the doctor which was hung near our table; it was an intricate line drawing which somehow managed to perfectly capture the madness in his eyes, the amusement on his upturned lip, the evil lurking inside.

“Beth?”

Connor’s tentative question made me jump; I’d been completely mesmerised by the doctor’s taunting face.

I half turned back to face Connor. “Yeah?”

“Would you mind if I asked you a personal question?”

I tried not to let my face show the nerves I was suddenly feeling. “I guess.”

“How did you get your scar?”

At that word, my insides lurched. I looked down at my inappropriately skimpy vest top and swore under my breath.

For months after the incident, I’d avoided wearing any clothes that might show even a small part of it. My self-consciousness had faded at the same rate as my scar had, but occasionally, people still picked up on it.

Why did it have to be Connor?

“Were you… attacked?”

I squirmed in my seat, pulling on my cardigan, even though I was still far too hot. “I really don’t want to talk about it.”

He nodded and looked down at his drink as the silence between us grew to an uncomfortable size.

“I didn’t mean to pry.”

I looked at his face, somehow made even more beautiful by his embarrassment, and grabbed his hand, giving it a quick squeeze. “Don’t worry about it, I just… I try not to think about it.”

He nodded again. “Was it someone around here?”

Jesus, couldn’t he take a hint?

I hesitated for a few seconds before quickly shaking my head. “No.”

Well, that was the truth, after all.

I started to push all thoughts of my scar to the back of my mind, and then stopped. What Connor had said before was making me think.

“Hey, Connor? Do you have stuff like this in Dublin?”

“Themed pubs? Sure! Dublin is teemin’ with tourists ready to part with their Euros.”

I hesitated again. “No, I mean… the stories, the legends. Are things like that quite so… prevalent in Ireland? Are people so wrapped up in it?”

He looked back over to the woman, who was still unapologetically spying on us, and then back to me. “I think most places have their fair share of so-called hauntin’, don’t they? Some cities, or villages, just know how to exploit ‘em better. Dublin has a lot o’ tourists, so things like ghost tours started springin’ up; it’s just another way to make money. I’m surprised Little Forest doesn’t do a ghost tour to be honest.”

I nearly choked on my cocktail, and not just because he’d mentioned the ‘G’ word. “Don’t suggest it! My dad’s been thinking about running one from the castle for years.”

Connor raised his eyebrows. “Why not? It’d bring in a lot of money. Some of the tour guides in Dublin must be loaded.”

I thought back to the trip I’d taken with Veronica a few years ago. The trip I always tried to forget but the one I never could. For more reasons than one. “I just think they’re dangerous. No, I know they’re dangerous.”

“And how do you know that?”

I shook my head, really not wanting to tell Connor one of my deepest, darkest secrets. Not when I thought he had enough deep, dark secrets of his own to worry about. “Never mind.”

Connor shrugged and drank the rest of his dodgy mocktail. I was torn between bringing up the library and wanting to stay on his good side (if he did actually have one), but I should have known that my mouth would make that decision for me. “So, what’s so interesting about Little Forest that would warrant several library research trips?”

He nearly choked on his drink.

I laughed, trying to keep the conversation light-hearted. “I wasn’t spying or anything, honestly. I was helping Will look up his family tree, he’s into all that,” (I hoped it wasn’t obvious I was telling a blatant lie), “and I saw your name in the log-book.”

Connor slowly lowered his glass, his eyes avoiding mine as he obviously tried to come up with some excuse.

“You into English history and all that?”

He nodded slowly. For someone who had been pretty much lying to me from the moment we met, he was doing a spectacularly poor job of it at the moment. “Yeah, I like to know about the place I’m livin’ in.” He paused, then his face broke into a cheeky smile, almost resembling Will’s usual expression. “Actually, I was lookin’ up the Cocktail buildin’, seeing what it was before. I found some stuff in the back room, photos and things, I wondered who they belonged to.”

Nice save.

“Oh, cool. I like old stuff like that. So, did you find out anything?”

He shook his head, looking embarrassed, or at least pretending to. “No, not really.”

After over twenty visits totalling more than thirty hours? He would have to have been exceptionally bad at research. I smiled in what I hoped was an ‘oh well’ sort of expression.

I was trying to think how to carry on the library conversation when the pub door opened and John Rogers stepped in, looking incredibly tired and weary. He scanned the room and when he spotted us, he nodded at me.

I was more than surprised to see him; most of the Little Forest residents avoided Renfield at all costs, and I’d never seen John here over the years. “Hi John, do you want to join us?”

He walked towards the table, then glanced at Connor and hesitated. “Thanks, but I’d rather be on my own.”

I smiled at him, quietly relieved; I didn’t want him asking me about my freak out after the funeral, and especially not in front of Connor.

I watched as John walked off, past the bar and up the stairs to the bar on the first floor.

It wasn’t long before Connor made his excuses and got up to go to the bathroom. He walked towards the stairs, and as my gaze followed him, I caught the old woman’s eye from across the room. She was still staring at me with absolutely no attempt at hiding her actions, and I decided to go to the toilet as well. Anything to get away from that penetrating gaze.

I got to the top of the stairs and was just about to turn right to get to the toilets when I heard an Irish accent floating towards me from round the corner. Being one of the only non-English people in the area, it was easy to find Connor, even when you weren’t looking for him.

I walked quietly to the edge of the corridor area and peered round. Connor and John were sitting together at a table, John with what looked like a large whiskey in front of him. He had his head in his hands again like he had after the funeral, his long-sleeved red and black chequered shirt poking out of his jacket.

“Will you just leave it? I told you what I know!”

Evidently, Connor wasn’t going to leave it, as he shuffled closer to John and spoke in a voice so low that I couldn’t hear it.

John paused, obviously thinking. “I don’t know… it could have been.”

At that moment, John looked up and caught sight of me lurking. “Beth!” He smiled, as though relieved to see me.

I cringed as Connor turned round, staring at me with a creepily blank expression on his face.

I decided to go over; I couldn’t exactly get away with pretending I hadn’t seen them. “Hey guys, I didn’t know you two knew each other?”

John gave Connor what could only be described as a dirty look. “We don’t.”

Connor pretended to laugh off John’s comment before turning to me. “I thought you were goin’ to wait downstairs.” His tone resembled less of the carefree happy Connor who had brought me here, and more of the angry, scary Connor who had had a go at me about Norman.

“Actually, I came to say I think we should go, if that’s alright? I told my parents I’d be back for dinner.” I hadn’t told them any such thing and I was hoping neither John nor Connor would see through that lie, either.

Connor grudgingly agreed. We said goodbye to John and walked down the stairs.

“That conversation looked a bit heated, everything OK I hope?”

Connor ignored my question and walked ahead of me to the door. I couldn’t believe that a few minutes ago I’d been squeezing his hand and appreciating his nice looks.

I glanced back at the old woman before I left. She was still staring at me.

***

Five minutes later, we were in the car heading back to Little Forest.

Connor kept looking at me – possibly wondering how much of his little conversation I’d overheard – and I kept having to remind him to keep his eyes on the road, especially now that it was dark.

The fog that had been threatening to emerge on the way to Renfield was now well and truly smothering everything around us. We could only really see ten or so feet in front of the car, and when I looked out of the passenger’s side window I couldn’t even make out the trees that I knew were there beyond the road.

“Connor, can you slow down a bit please?”

“Ah, we’ll be fine.”

“Not if you don’t slow down. I don’t know how good your eyesight is but I can’t see a bloody thing. This road’s dangerous, anyway. There are loads of deer around here.”

He laughed. “I think I can handle a little deer.”

I couldn’t believe him. Everything else about him may have been mysterious and intriguing, but arrogance was something I definitely didn’t find attractive in a person. And anyway, no one could handle a ‘little’ deer if it bounded out in front of you with no warning; I’d seen the consequences before and it wasn’t pretty. I’d heard even worse stories.

One of my dad’s friends worked for the Forestry Commission and he’d once been called to a car wreck on the road to Willowton.

A deer had smashed through some poor woman’s windscreen and made her veer off the road and straight into a tree. When they found her, the deer (also extremely dead) was draped across the front seat, its head in the woman’s lap, looking up at her face with large, glassy eyes. The woman’s right hand had been resting on the deer’s head, as if she’d been stroking it when they both died. She’d only been doing around forty miles an hour.

The radio had now progressed onto some ridiculously boring phone-in session where the topic in question was education opportunities for the under privileged. Connor was obviously on the same wavelength as me as he reached down to turn the dial again. This time, though, the dial got stuck, and he looked down to try and detect the problem.

Unfortunately, he decided to do this as we were going round a corner.

There wasn’t any time to stop.

Naturally, after our disagreement, my first thought was of a deer, but it wasn’t the figure of a stag looming up out of the fog I could see; it was the horrifying form of a human. A man.

I screamed and closed my eyes before I’d even really registered what was happening, and Connor instinctively slammed on the brakes.

Nothing happened. There was no impact, no thud as we splintered the bones of the unfortunate soul, no sound other than my scream which was still ringing in my ears.

Connor looked over at me, fear etched on his face. “Jesus, what was it?”

I took a deep breath, finally able to move again. “There was a man in the road. He was right in front of us, you didn’t see him?”

He shook his head, looking down at the radio dial again. “We didn’t hit anythin’ though, right? I didn’t feel anythin’…”

“Me neither.”

Connor breathed a sigh of relief.

“We should check though.”

Connor nodded, waiting for me to move, but I had absolutely no intention of getting out of the car. After all, it was Connor who hadn’t been concentrating. “Go on then!”

He groaned and put on his hazard lights.

“Maybe we should pull over to the side or something first?”

He glared at me but did as I said; the last thing either of us needed was someone coming up behind and crashing into the back of us.

He moved the car a few feet to the left and then got out, first walking in front of the bonnet and looking under, and then around the side and to the back of the car. After a couple of seconds he disappeared into the fog and I couldn’t make him out anymore.

In fact, I couldn’t make anything out. If possible, the fog seemed to have become even worse since we’d stopped the car.

The sound of static was coming from the radio again; Connor must have got the dial working just before the incident, and it was now in between stations. Behind the static I could hear some very faint music – it sounded like weird carnival or circus music – and I reached down to turn the radio off, preferring instead the thick, lonely silence.

It must have been a minute or so since Connor had wandered off into the mist; he was either doing a very thorough search of the area, or he’d got lost. I hoped it was the former and that I wasn’t going to have to go outside myself.

Placing my hands on the cold glass of the passenger window, I rested my head against it, trying to look through the fog for any sign of life. There was nothing other than the grey murk. Then I turned round in my seat and strained my eyes to look out the driver’s window. It was the same on that side of the car: an endless haze. Finally, I rested back against the seat, turning my gaze to the front windscreen.

There was a man standing next to the car.

I nearly screamed again but stopped myself just in time; it was Daniel Fields, cupping his hands to the window and peering in at me.

He smiled and waved at me as he realised who it was and I wound down the window to talk to him. “Are you OK?”

He stepped nearer to my window and smiled again. “Yes I’m fine; I just got a bit lost what with this damned fog!”

“You weren’t just in the middle of the road?”

“No… I was on the path, trying to grope blindly along the fence.” He gave a little chuckle, a noise very much out of place in the dense atmosphere. “I heard a car engine and came to see who it was. Isn’t this Connor’s new car?”

I nodded. “Yeah it is, he just went to look… I saw someone in the road, I thought we might have… it wasn’t you?”

“No, and I haven’t seen anyone on foot for miles. Although,” he looked off into the fog and smiled, “I don’t suppose I would. Do you think I could get a lift back to the village?”

“Of course, get in. I’m sure Connor will be back soon.”

It was only a matter of seconds before Connor opened the driver’s door and climbed in. He saw Daniel in the back seat and jumped, almost hitting his head on the roof of the car. “Dan! You haven’t been there the whole time, have you?”

Daniel laughed from behind me. “No, no. I got a bit lost in the fog, Beth here said you could give me a lift back. I hear you were just out looking for someone…?”

Connor nodded. “Couldn’t see anyone. Are you sure you weren’t mistaken, Beth?”

I was relieved that we apparently hadn’t hit anyone, but I wasn’t so relieved as to what the alternative – or alternatives – meant.

I glanced over at Connor as he was putting his seat belt back on, his face expressionless. Could I even trust what he was saying? He could easily have found someone and not told me. He could definitely have found someone on the road and dragged them into the trees, it’s not like anyone would have seen him. And it’s not like I didn’t think he was capable of something like that. Will and I had secretly charged him with much worse.

He was still waiting for my answer, so I quietly told him that maybe I was mistaken and he drove off into the fog once more.

I looked out the window and remembered the figure emerging out of the darkness; there was no way in hell I was mistaken.

No one said a word on the way back to Little Forest.

***

I called Will the day after and asked him to meet me in the park. I was looking at the exotic bird centre that always seemed so out of place in Little Forest when he tapped me on the shoulder.

“Well if it isn’t the little party planner.”

I turned round. “Hey.”

“Wow, Beth. You look like crap.”

I stared at him for a moment and then turned back to the birds. “Cheers.”

Will laughed. “Sorry, I didn’t mean that. Are you OK?”

I sighed, looking at a bright-feathered green and yellow bird that was pacing up and down in its cage. They were pretty big cages to be fair, but it was still slightly heartbreaking. “I’m fine, just tired. I didn’t sleep much last night.”

Will sat down on one of the wooden benches in front of the birds and gestured for me to do the same. “So what’s up?”

I went and joined him. “A few things, actually.”

Will smiled, leaning back against the bench. “What’s new?” He saw my annoyed look and sat up straight again. “I mean, go on.”

“Well, I went to Renfield yesterday with Connor.”

Will’s eyebrows knitted together in his ‘not happy’ face. “How come?”

“He’s got a new car and he wanted to go get some Poison Punch…” I saw his look of contempt. “I tried to get out of it, believe me. I even said I was on the way to your house but he’d seen you at work in the grocery store.”

“Really? I never saw him.”

I shrugged. “He was probably lurking. Anyway, we were in the Doctor’s Surgery pub and this old woman came up to me. She said that I’d ‘seen them’ or that I would soon.”

“Who?”

I shrugged. “I think she was mistaking me for someone else, she asked if I had a sister. It was weird, she stared at me the whole time I was there. Like full on, unapologetic staring.”

“OK… so how long were you there for?”

“What does that matter?

He shrugged.

“But that’s not all. John turned up there as well, and Connor sneaked off upstairs saying he was going to the toilet, but I went up and he was sitting talking to John, asking questions. John was getting really frustrated. They stopped when they saw me, though. I’m telling you, something wasn’t right.”

“I knew it. Did you ask Connor about it?”

“Yep. Totally ignored me.”

Will laughed harshly. “Sounds about right.”

“Anyway, it’s what happened on the way back that I really wanted to tell you about.”

“What, he used his Irish charm on you and now you don’t think he’s up to anything?”

“I… what? What’s wrong with you?”

He leaned back against the bench again. “Nothing, you just seem to be spending a lot of time with Connor, socialising and stuff.”

I sighed, getting exasperated. “Firstly, it wasn’t exactly socialising. He asked me to show him the way and I didn’t want to piss him off so I agreed. And secondly, I was trying to see if I could get any information from him, which I didn’t, but that’s not the point. When I asked him about the library, he came up with some rubbish story about finding out about the Cocktail building.”

My last comment didn’t even seem to register with Will. “Fine.” He closed his eyes, whether to pretend he didn’t care or so he wouldn’t have to look at me, I didn’t know.

Ignoring Will’s bad mood, I carried on. “On the way back, we nearly hit someone.”

He opened his eyes again; that got his attention. “Irish not so good with the driving, is he?”

“God, Will. Can you just listen?”

I told him what had happened, or what seemed to have happened.

Will sat up, staring ahead. “Maybe he jumped away at the last minute, or maybe you did hit him but he went flying into the fog somewhere.”

I punched him on the arm, a bit harder than I intended to. “Thanks for that, that’s made me feel much better.”

Will rubbed his arm and smiled sheepishly at me. “Sorry, Beth. So what are you saying about this guy you did or didn’t hit?”

I sighed, leaning back myself. “I don’t know.”

“Go on. I’ll listen, I promise.”

I looked at Will, trying to discern how sincere he was. I decided I didn’t care either way; I just had to get this out. “It just reminded me of a story I saw on one of those TV shows when I was younger, you know the ones your parents knew you shouldn’t be watching but let you watch anyway? It was about urban legends, and the episode I saw was about this one particular road in this town where accidents kept getting reported.

“The story was always the same: the driver would see a woman walk in front of the car and they’d slam the brakes on, unsure of what had happened. They’d get out the car and look around but they never found the woman. In each of the reports, the woman looked exactly the same and it always happened at the same point on the road. It turned out there was a woman who got run over and killed at that exact point years before. The description of her even matched.”

Will was nodding, slowly. “Creepy. But you said it yourself… it was an urban legend. We’ve got enough of those around here to know they don’t mean anything.”

Didn’t they? “I’m not so sure.”

“Beth? You don’t think the man you saw was… like the woman in the story, do you?”

I ignored Will’s question. I was staring at the bird, pacing up and down its cage, doing the same route over and over again, never deviating from its path. The image of Emma outside The Pit started hammering against my brain again, her last words refusing to budge from my mind. What if I had been seeing Emma’s last breathing moments? What if the way she died was so traumatic that she, too, was stuck reliving it over and over again? An endless cycle of death.

I shuddered at the thought.

Will pierced through my dark thoughts. “I’m sure there’s a perfectly logical explanation for what you saw, or what you think you saw.”

I sighed. I knew this would be his reaction. “Yeah, I’m a mess, I’m seeing things, got it.”

Will took my hand and patted it with his. “I’m just saying you’ve been under a lot of stress recently, with Veronica and your parents and everything.”

I pulled my hand away. “And what about Emma? None of the Veronica stuff had happened when I saw her outside The Pit.”

He shook his head, not looking at me, then stood up and started walking away.

“Will?”

Turning round, he looked half sheepish and half perplexed. “Sorry, Beth, I just don’t know what to say. I do know that we should add Connor and John’s conversation to our book though, you coming?”

He started walking off again and I took one last look at the helpless bird before running after him.

***

That Friday I was at work with Rach and the new guy, Graham. We were trying to show him how to use the slushie machine – which was much harder than we first thought it would be – when DCI Wood and DS Lawrence entered through the doors.

I saw their grave faces and my stomach lurched; I was having some serious déjà vu.

“Hello, Miss Powers, Miss Williams.” Rick looked at Graham, “And?”

Graham looked terrified at the thought of a police officer addressing him and was evidently having a hard time remembering his own name, so I responded for him. “Mr Underwood. I mean, Graham Underwood.”

Rick nodded at him before turning his attention back to Rach and me. “May I speak with you both again? In private?”

Without thinking, I blurted out, “Oh God, what is it now?”

Rick just repeated his question. “May we speak with you? I’m assuming you’ll insist on speaking to us together again?”

I glanced at Rach, who looked just as sick as me, and we both stood up. “Graham, can you mind the front while we’re gone?” He looked ill at the thought of it (the day of the funeral had apparently not gone well for him), but he nodded anyway, probably glad the police didn’t want to speak to him.

We led Rick and DS Lawrence into the staff room again and sat down at the same table, in the same positions as last time. I couldn’t help myself and blurted out another question. “Do you have any news on Emma?”

Rick seemed taken aback. “No… nothing’s changed. She died as a result of choking on her own vomit.” He paused, evidently trying to get back to the reason he was there. “What we came to talk to you about is John Rogers. He’s been missing for a few days. Have either of you seen him recently? Possibly at The Pit again?”

I was trying to take in what Rick was saying when Rach started asking some questions of her own. “Missing? Someone’s reported him?”

Rick nodded. “His roommate was worried when he hadn’t returned home. Obviously, due to Emma’s case we are keen to find out where he’s gone.”

I looked at DS Lawrence, who was smiling encouragingly at me and Rach. It seemed like some kind of watered-down good cop, bad cop routine, but we weren’t the ones who’d done anything wrong. I pulled my gaze away from him and aimed it back at Rick. “Do you think he had something to do with it? Emma, I mean?” I didn’t want to believe it – I couldn’t believe it, thinking back to how devastated John had been – but disappearing wasn’t a good sign.

Unless, of course, he hadn’t actually run away of his own free will. Surely, Connor couldn’t have…

I let my thoughts trail off as Rick cleared his throat, clearly annoyed at my question. “Like I said, she died as a result of…”

I interrupted him, hoping that giving him information would make him less pissed off with me. “I saw John at the Doctor’s Surgery pub in Renfield the other night.”

Rick got his black notepad out again and opened it to a fresh page. “And when was this?”

I thought back. “It was Monday.”

Rick nodded. “That was the last evening anyone saw or heard from him.”

My stomach lurched. “He hasn’t been seen since Monday night?” Four days was quite a long time for someone not to be seen around here; it was hard to go unnoticed in a village like Little Forest.

“Yes. Did you speak with John at all?”

I thought back to Connor and wondered briefly if I should leave that part of the story out. Then I realised how dumb it would be to lie to them, even if it was just neglecting to tell them something.

“I said hi to him when he walked in… he looked terrible, like he hadn’t been sleeping, but I guess that’s to be expected… then he went upstairs.”

“And did you see him after that?”

I nodded. “I was with Connor Maguire and he went to the toilet but must have got side-tracked talking to John. I went up to find him and they were sitting together. John was drinking, I think it was whiskey or something from the looks of it.”

“Connor Maguire, that’s the Irish man who’s recently moved here?”

“Yes.”

“What were they talking about?”

I hesitated. Regardless of what they’d actually been discussing, it didn’t look good. “I don’t know, John looked pretty agitated, like Connor was asking questions he couldn’t answer, or didn’t want to answer. He said something like ‘I told you what I know’ and asked him to leave it. He didn’t sound happy.”

Rick was writing in his notebook. “And then what happened?”

“Well, they saw me standing there and I told Connor I wanted to get home. I asked him about it on the way out but he wouldn’t say anything.”

“And do you know where I can find Connor?”

I could feel my stomach knotting up; I desperately hoped Connor wouldn’t find out it was me who’d told the police about his and John’s little conversation.

Rach was looking at me with her mouth half open – I’m sure she thought Connor was some kind of Saint.

“He works at Cocktail on Forest Way, and I think he lives on Pine Street?” I didn’t mention that I knew exactly which house it was. Instead, I pretended to look to Rach for confirmation.

“Yes, that’s right. He lives with his mum, Jackie.”

Rick wrote this down in his notepad and turned to Rach. “And have you seen John recently?”

She shook her head. “Not since Emma’s funeral.”

“And how did John seem at the funeral?”

I interrupted before Rach could get a word in, suddenly furious at the police for thinking that John had something to do with Emma’s death. “How do you think he was? His girlfriend had been found dead, and he blamed himself for not going after her. He was a mess… he’s been a mess ever since it happened, including when I saw him in Renfield.”

Rick stared at me intently and I immediately regretted the outburst. Instead of berating me, though, he changed the subject. “This Connor, have you known him long?”

I glanced at Rach uneasily. “Not long, since he moved here around three weeks ago. Or maybe less, I’m not sure…” I could feel myself going into rambling mode and trailed off before I said something I really regretted.

“And is he friends with John?”

“No, well not that I knew of, but I’ve only really hung out with him a few times… I really couldn’t tell you, sorry.”

“Was he being violent towards John in the pub?”

“No, not violent.”

“Are you sure? This is important.” Rick’s questions were coming quicker now, and his voice was much louder than before. He obviously thought he was onto something.

“Yes, I mean he looked like he was making John uncomfortable, but…”

“Uncomfortable? How do you mean?”

“I mean, he looked like he might be pressuring him…”

“Pressuring him?”

Rach was staring at me with wide eyes and I tried to back track, not wanting to make it out to be something more than it was. “No, I don’t mean that… I mean, everything had been making John uncomfortable, really. As I said, he was distraught over Emma and…”

“Connor Maguire was asking John questions, and making him ‘uncomfortable’? Did he raise his voice or show any signs of anger?”

I shook my head. “It’s not as bad as it sounds, Connor’s voice was so low I couldn’t tell what he was saying.”

Rach could clearly see how distressed I was getting, so she jumped in with her own question. “So, are you, er, searching the area for him?”

Rick stared at me for a while longer before turning to face Rach. “We’re starting our search in Renfield as he was last seen there.”

I started shaking and Rach put her hand on my arm. “Are we finished?” Her tone of authority in the face of two policemen impressed me, and Rick’s face softened as he looked at us both.

“Yes, thank you.” He put his notepad back in his pocket again and stood up, with DS Lawrence following suit. “We’ll be in touch if we have any other questions.”

I watched them walk out and turned to Rach as soon as the door had closed. “Oh God, John… I hope he’s OK. And Connor!” I thought I was going to start hyperventilating. “I didn’t mean to do that, but I couldn’t lie to them. Do you think he’s going to get in trouble?”

So much for not getting on Connor’s bad side.

I took a deep breath, trying to get myself under control while Rach smiled and insisted, “He’ll be fine.”

I wasn’t so sure.

***

I’d called Will as soon as I was sure the police had left, and he’d tried to calm me down but without much success. I was counting down the hours of my shift so I could see him in person (if only I had a boss who let me leave whenever I wanted), and when it turned seven, I almost ran to the staff room to grab my bag.

I said bye to Rach – who still had another hour to go – and opened the heavy glass door, emerging onto Main Street.

I was walking towards the residential area when I saw Connor ahead; he was standing under one of the old-fashioned lampposts, his face lowered but his dark eyes fixed in my direction. My heart thundered in my chest.

A fleeting thought passed through my mind as I looked at him; standing under the lamp, leather jacket illuminated by the light, he had a major James Dean vibe going on.

This illusion disintegrated as soon as I heard him shout.

“Beth!” His fiery Irish voice boomed down Main Street and a passing couple looked up at his infuriated tone.

I considered turning and walking in the opposite direction but the only thing that lay that way was the castle and the woods – neither of them good places to run to with Connor in tow. Instead, I pulled myself together and walked towards him, trying not to catch his eye too much.

He yelled at me while I was still five feet away. “Did you tell the police I had somethin’ to do with John’s disappearance?”

I immediately wished I’d gone the other way. The flashes of potential anger I’d seen with Connor before were nothing compared to how he looked now, and as I replied, I wondered if he really did have something to do with John going missing. With Emma. With everything.

“No, of course not.”

“Then why the hell did they take me down to the station and question me for two bleedin’ hours?”

I looked up in surprise, properly registering his face for the first time since I’d seen him standing in the glow of the street lamp. His cheeks were bright red and – despite the cold weather – there were beads of perspiration glistening on his forehead.

“They took you to the station?”

Connor nodded, clearly too furious to say anything else.

“I’m so sorry. They asked me if I’d seen John and I couldn’t lie! I told them about him appearing in the pub in Renfield and… about you asking him questions upstairs. I didn’t mean to get you in trouble.”

His eyes narrowed. “What exactly did you hear upstairs?”

I felt my phone in my trouser pocket, wishing I could get it out and ring Will. “Does it matter?”

“Well if it means I’m somehow the lead suspect in a murder case then yes, it does!”

His voice had been getting louder and louder and I looked around instinctively to see who was on the street. With the exception of the lights coming from the Diner, and Rach who was at the cinema with Graham at the end of the road, there didn’t seem to be anyone around. The couple from before had now turned off into another street, leaving me alone with Connor.

“Murder case? I thought John was just missing?”

Connor opened his mouth to speak and then hesitated. “He is, I’m just assumin’…”

“Why would you assume he was murdered?”

His face drained of colour and he, too, looked around to see if anyone was present. “Well, the police dragged me in for ‘a few questions’ which lasted so long I missed the start of me shift. It seems like they’re kind of thinkin’ along those lines.”

His voice was quieter now but his eyes were filled with a hatred that I hadn’t imagined possible. He was rapidly going beyond the realm of dark and mysterious stranger and into the land of full on psychopath.

I tried to reason with him, more aware than ever that we were alone on Main Street. “Connor, will you please listen to me? The police asked me what I saw and I told them. I tried to tell them it wasn’t anything major but they just took that one piece of information and… well, they ran with it. They must be desperate for any leads. I’m sorry.”

“Well they’re not so desperate now they think I’ve done it.”

“I’m sure they don’t think that…”

“Oh yes, because o’course an interferin’, stupid little girl like you would know what the police were thinkin’.” He spat out the word police and I stepped back instinctively. I couldn’t believe I’d voluntarily got into a car with this man.

“Connor, you’re scaring me.”

“Oh and I suppose you told the Inspector that I was scarin’ John? You just… you have no idea.”

A rattling sound suddenly burst through the silence, and I looked behind me in shock at the doors of the post office. They were closed and locked at this time of night, but it sounded as if there was someone inside. Someone trying to get out. “Can you hear that?”

“Don’t try and change the subject, it’s not goin’ to work.”

The sound continued. “I’m not! I think there’s someone in there…” I looked at Connor and then at the door again.

“Beth, will you stop! There’s no one in there, there’s no sound, I’m not interested in whatever it is you’re playin’ at. If you hadn’t noticed, I’m a bit pissed off here!”

Connor looked like he was about to explode: eyes bulging, veins popping.

The rattling sound was louder than ever. I strained my ears, thinking I could hear some mumbling over the racket. It may have been just my fear of the current ludicrous situation, but I thought I heard a frustrating-sounding sentence seep through the locked doors: “Got the wrong damn portal again!”

I laughed to myself in surprise. “Are you seriously telling me you can’t hear that?”

“No!” Connor lunged at me, pushing me back roughly against the post office doors with a force that knocked the wind out of me. The rattling stopped as soon as I made contact with the cold wooden door.

“Hey!”

Connor let go of me and turned round at the voice, which had come from a man whom I couldn’t quite identify from the shadows on the other side of the street.

I took my chance and pushed past Connor, running off towards the estate and not stopping until I got to Will’s house.

As I knocked on the door, the tears I’d been holding in started running freely down my face, and I waited until Will’s mum opened the door.

“Hello… Beth? Are you OK?”

I shook my head, unable to speak. Stephanie Wolseley called Will’s name over her shoulder and held her hand out to me. I took it and stepped into the warm hallway. She took a tissue off the side table and handed it to me, looking extremely awkward but concerned nonetheless.

Within ten seconds Will appeared at the top of the stairs, running down when he saw the state of me. “Beth? What’s wrong?”

I used the tissue to wipe my eyes and then tried to smile as he got to the bottom of the stairs. When I still couldn’t say anything, he pulled me in for a hug while Stephanie watched on helplessly.

Will looked back at her. “Any chance of a cup of tea, Mum?”

I smiled into his shoulder. In Will’s family, tea would solve everything.

I didn’t, however, think it could solve this.

***

A few hours later, I was sitting in Will’s bedroom at the foot of his bed, having told him everything about the police and Connor. The radio was blaring out some exceedingly cheesy pop song and the warmth of Will’s room was already making me feel much better. I was on my third cup of tea.

“I’m really sorry if I freaked your mum out.”

Will waved my comment away. “Nah, I’ve already told her how strange you are.”

“Great, thanks.”

My phone beeped and I dug into my bag to retrieve it. “It’s probably just Rach checking up on me,” I told Will. “I think I scared her a bit as well.”

When I flipped open my phone, however, it wasn’t Rach’s name that appeared on my screen; it was an unknown number. I opened the message to see who it belonged to and nearly spilled my tea all over myself.

Will noticed my reaction and came and sat next to me. “Not Rach, I’m guessing?”

I shook my head and read out the text.

‘Beth, this is Connor. I got your number from Rach, like you suggested. I’m sorry if I scared you earlier, I was just knackered, and angry with the police. I hope you’ll forgive me. Connor.’

I was trying to figure out if Rach would have just handed over my number to him so easily after this afternoon, when Will interrupted.

“You suggested he get your number from Rach?”

I frowned at him. “Not now, Will.”

“Right, sorry.”

“Do you think he means it? It’s a bit formal, isn’t it?”

“I’ve got absolutely no idea. But I wouldn’t go getting into any cars with him in the future.”

I nodded. “You don’t have to worry about that.”

I re-read the text while Will watched.

“So, are you?”

I looked up. “Am I what?”

Will sighed, obviously at my slowness. “Are you going to forgive him?”

I looked at my phone, trying to think. “I don’t know…” I never knew with Connor.

Will made his exasperated noise, a sort of mix between a sigh and a growl. “Beth, he scared the crap out of you. Do you know what you looked like when you turned up here?”

I cringed, trying to imagine. “I can guess.”

He wasn’t letting this go. “I think we can safely say that after everything that’s happened with Connor, he’s not the kind of guy you should be dishing out second chances to.”

I shrugged, knowing he was right, but for some reason not able to completely jump on the Connor-hating bandwagon just yet. Surely I wasn’t shallow enough to let his looks and undeniable charisma cloud my judgement? I sincerely hoped not.

Will stood up and started pacing back and forth, as much as his small room would let him, anyway. “Man, if Connor ever goes near you again, I swear I’ll rip his charming Irish face off!”

His own face was turning an alarming shade of red and his voice had become extremely high, and I tried my hardest not to laugh at him. “You’ll rip his face off? As sweet as that is, I think that’s going a bit too far.”

He wandered over to the radio, turning it off and enveloping the room in silence. “Unless, of course, there’s another reason you’re willing to forgive him?”

I finished drinking my tea slowly, not wanting to look at him. Not wanting to lie to him. “Will… I’m not into Connor.” The words came out harsher than I’d intended.

I kept my gaze on my now empty mug, so I didn’t see his expression as he walked back to the end of the bed. He sat down next to me on the soft, cream carpet, taking the cup out of my hands and bending his head down to look into my own lowered face. “Beth.”

I looked up at him slowly. His unkempt hair was dangling in his eyes; in all the excitement of the last few weeks he’d obviously missed his most recent haircut. It made him look older.

“What?” This question came out quieter than my previous statement. In fact, it was almost a whisper.

He reached out and tentatively took my hand. “I don’t trust Connor. I don’t know what he has to do with Emma or John, but there’s definitely something wrong there.”

I nodded, knowing he was right.

“I just don’t want to see you get hurt.”

I nodded again and gave his hand a quick squeeze before letting it go. It was going to take me a while to get used to this kind of talk coming from Will; a few weeks ago I wouldn’t have thought there was one serious bone in his body.

I smiled at him, grateful to have someone I could talk to, somewhere I could come to get away from the weird direction my life seemed to be taking.

“I won’t get hurt.”

He smiled back. “Promise?”

“Promise.”

As it turned out, that wasn’t a promise I should have made.

[]Chapter Seven

The following night I was sitting in my room, feeling far too depressed to even think of going out anywhere. Apart from work, I hadn’t really been ‘out’ since mine and Connor’s trip to Renfield, and considering how that ended, I didn’t think it really counted.

I was back in my gloomy post-V-fight mood and I couldn’t snap out of it. My parents were away in Birston at some stupid-sounding convention, where middle-aged people dressed up and danced around pretending they were from the Middle Ages. Yes, really.

It was good to have them out of the house but I’d also been bored to death for the whole day. I’d dyed my hair, cleaned my room, drawn some new tattoo designs, and had been sitting with Keaton watching old black and white movies for the past six hours in an attempt to forget about what was going on. When I got fed up of that, I decided to just go to bed.

I was trying to avoid thinking about John – hoping he’d just decided to take off for a while rather than the horrible alternative – but it was easier said than done.

I kept nearing the calm depths of sleep when I’d think of him hunched over that whiskey, head in hands, looking like a shell of his former self, and I’d jolt awake again.

It was a couple of hours later and I’d only just managed to drift off properly when my phone rang. I fought my way out of my dreamy haze and felt around on my bedside table (nearly knocking my glass of water over in the process) until I reached my mobile. I looked at the caller display and groaned as I answered.

“Will, what the hell? I’m asleep. Or was.”

“Powers, shut up and listen.” His business-like tone immediately woke me up and I dragged myself to a sitting position.

“What is it?”

“Connor.”

“What? Where are you? You sound muffled.” I reached out and turned on the bedside lamp. My clock read 1:23 a.m.

“I’m in the woods. It’s raining. I’m trying to keep my phone dry under my coat, and I don’t want to speak too loudly.”

“It’s one in the morning, why are you in the woods?”

I tried to picture the unending darkness, the groups of identical trees, the claustrophobia of the night. I shuddered.

There was a pause. “I was listening to music in my usual place and I… kind of… fell asleep. Anyway, I woke up and was just finding my way back to the path when I saw a light, like a torch. I hid behind a tree and after a while, I could make out who it was. It was Connor.”

My mind reeled. “What was he doing?”

“I don’t know for sure… but he seemed to be looking for something.”

“Has he gone now?”

“Yeah, he’s gone. But Norman might still be around.”

It took a couple of seconds for that to sink in. “Norman was with him?”

“Not exactly… Norman came after Connor left.”

“And what the hell was Norman doing?”

“He didn’t really seem to be doing anything.”

“No person in their right mind would go wandering through the forest in the small hours of the morning without any purpose.”

“Yeah, I know. Look, all I can say is that he had a torch too and he was just walking around. Like patrolling, or something.”

Patrolling? I didn’t know what to say, didn’t know what to think. “And he’s still there?”

“Well, I haven’t heard or seen anything for a few minutes; he’s probably gone by now.”

“Be careful, Will.”

“Sure. I just thought you’d want to know. I’ll text you when I get home.”

“OK, thanks. Bye.”

I hung up and stared at my phone. What on earth could they be looking for in the woods? Were they working in shifts throughout the night or something?

I thought about Will, alone in the forest and narrowly avoiding running into both Connor and Norman. I hoped he got home without being seen.

Climbing out of bed, I walked sleepily along the landing to the dark bathroom, meaning to splash water on my face in an attempt to wake up; I didn’t want to fall asleep before I heard from Will again.

I placed my phone on the side and was just about to turn the tap on when the whole room was illuminated with a bright light.

We had a movement-sensitive lamp outside in the garden and Keaton usually set it off in the night, but I’d just left him curled up on the end of my bed. Opening the frosted window, I leaned out to see if next door’s cat had burrowed its way into our garden again, and that’s when I saw it.

I froze in place as I felt my mouth opening wide in a soundless scream.

In the middle of the grass – blurred by the rain but still visible – was the unmistakable figure of a man. He was holding a black umbrella over his head. His face was obscured from view but I could tell by his posture that he was looking up at the house.

I knew the rain was soaking my face and outstretched arm but I couldn’t feel it. I knew the bitterly cold wind was swirling into the bathroom but I didn’t pay it any attention. All I could focus on was that large, dark silhouette planted in my garden. I had to get out of view, but I just couldn’t.

I wasn’t sure how long I stood staring at him for, but the figure never moved an inch the entire time I was watching.

Eventually my brain kicked in and I closed the window, locked it, grabbed my phone and collapsed on the floor in one swift but shaky motion. I quickly chose Will’s name from my contacts list and waited for him to pick up. I just hoped he wasn’t still in the vicinity of Norman or Connor in case they were alerted to his presence.

I was counting down the seconds as I listened to the phone ringing out; the man in the garden could try and break in at any time, and I was alone in the house. A tear rolled down my cheek while the phone rang and rang. Finally he picked up.

“Beth?”

“Will, there’s someone in my garden.”

“What?”

I nearly yelled down the phone, feeling an insane hysteria rise up in me. “There’s a stranger in my back garden and I’m the only one at home.”

He must have heard the urgency in my voice and understood that I wasn’t messing around. “Stay there, I’ll be over in a minute.” He hung up.

I knew I’d have to go downstairs and unlock the front door for him, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do that. At the moment I was only just remembering to breathe; any kind of movement seemed beyond my current capacity.

With a jolt I remembered the spare key, and I breathed a sigh of relief as I sent a quick text to Will. All he’d have to do was lift one of the plant pots on the windowsill and he’d be able to let himself in. Not the best idea in some areas of the country, granted, but around here most people didn’t worry too much about break-ins.

But then again most people didn’t have a strange man standing in their back garden. What if he started looking for the key before Will got here? What if Will got here and ran into the man, whoever he was? I was just starting to think of more possible things that could go wrong when I heard a key in the lock of the front door. I held my breath as I waited for Will to run up the stairs; I’d told him in the text that I was in the bathroom. If whoever it was stayed downstairs, I’d know it wasn’t Will.

“Beth?” It was Will’s voice.

I breathed a massive sigh of relief.

After a few more seconds he pushed the door open and his eyes fell on me, sitting pathetically on the floor. His wet hair was dripping onto his face and he smelled of soil and rain. “Beth, are you OK?”

I nodded as he leaned down and brought me in for a hug; he smelled of wet soil and mud.

He whispered in my ear. “Is he still there?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know; I haven’t looked out the window since I called you.”

He stood up, and I watched as he reached out to push the window open. This time I immediately felt the cold rush in and I crossed my arms against my thin camisole top.

I waited, trying to read the expression on Will’s face. After a few minutes he closed the window and crouched down next to me. “I can’t see anyone there now.”

“Are you sure?”

“Positive.”

I had another horrible thought. “Did you bolt the front door?”

“I did. Beth, what exactly did you see?”

I took a deep breath. “There was a man standing in the middle of the garden, looking up at the house. I stood and watched him for ages; he didn’t move at all.”

“He was looking up? Did you see his face?”

I shook my head. “No. He was holding a big black umbrella but I could tell he was looking up at me.”

Will paused. “A black umbrella? Did you notice anything else?”

I tried to think. “Not really, he could have been wearing a long, dark coat. Everything was just black, I couldn’t distinguish much.”

He sat down and leaned against the base of the sink, frowning.

“What?”

He looked at me. “Connor had a black umbrella with him earlier, and he was wearing a long coat. Black.”

I almost laughed. “Connor? Why on earth would he be in…” I trailed off.

“I’m not saying it was him, but it would make sense after yesterday.”

My mind was racing. “Do you think Connor’s got Norman involved with whatever he’s doing? I mean, what would he gain by standing in my garden like a creepy stalker? It doesn’t make sense.”

“Maybe he wanted to scare you.”

I took a deep breath. “Well, he succeeded.”

My head was spinning. Could it have been Connor out in the garden? Half of me felt relieved at the thought; having a name and a face to put to the figure should have made it less scary somehow. But after Connor’s little Main Street showdown, I was more convinced than ever that he wasn’t the nice Irish boy he claimed to be.

Will got to his feet and offered his hand out to pull me up. “Let’s get to your bedroom, OK? It’s cold in here.”

We walked to my room, and he waited while I got into bed and pulled the covers up to my chest.

“I can go outside and check the garden if you want.”

The thought of being left alone was too much, not to mention the horrible idea of Will bumping into the intruder. I reached out and grabbed his hand. “No!” He jumped slightly at the unexpected volume of my response. “I just don’t want to be here on my own. Would you stay here tonight? Please?” I was far too scared to care that I was now begging Will to stay.

He smiled. “Of course I will.”

I smiled too, relieved. “What about your parents?”

“Don’t worry about it. They get up early and go out to work, they never come in my room. They’ll just think I’m in bed.”

“Thank you.”

“No problem.” He paused. “So, do you think we should call the police?”

I thought about the man outside. “I’m not sure… he wasn’t actually doing anything, and I couldn’t tell who it was. I don’t see what they could do.”

“He’d had to have walked around your house and opened the gate to your back garden; that must be trespassing or something.”

I shook my head. “Whoever he may be – we don’t know for sure. I’d rather not tell them, they’d probably just say I was imagining it or something.”

“Well…” Will had his head cocked to the side and his eyebrows raised.

“Well what?”

He gave me an apologetic smile. “Are you sure you didn’t imagine it?”

I stared at him for a second in disbelief then shook my head. “Of course, crazy Beth, she’s hallucinating again.”

“I didn’t mean…”

I looked him dead in the eye. “I know exactly what you meant.” With that, I turned away from him, fuming too much to look at his face.

Will’s voice was sounding more desperate every time he spoke. “I just meant, like the guy in the road the other day. And, you know, the whole Emma thing, do you really think…” he trailed off, unable to say the words.

“I didn’t imagine either of them, they were there. And so was the man in the garden. The movement-sensitive light turned on!”

That stumped him. For about two seconds. “Surely an animal or something could have set it off?”

I turned back to face him. “Look, Will. I know we don’t exactly see eye-to-eye on some of the things that have happened recently, and that’s fine. But please don’t try and convince me I’m losing my mind.” I lowered my eyes and started fidgeting with my bed covers, before adding quietly, “I’m already starting to wonder that myself.”

My trembling voice made Will come and sit next to me, putting his arm around my shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

I couldn’t bring myself to say anything else.

“So, you got a blanket or something I can use on the floor?”

I nestled into his arm, feeling safe there despite our little row. “You can just stay here. We can watch TV for a while; I don’t think I can sleep yet.”

He nodded silently as I grabbed the remote and turned the box on. A late night movie was just starting, some ‘80s film called ‘Murder on the Moors’. I rested my head against Will’s shoulder and watched the opening credits, trying to block out the image of the man in the garden. I fought to stay awake but could feel my eyelids getting heavier.

After a while I reluctantly gave into my exhaustion and fell into a deep sleep.

***

I was sitting in the middle of Screen 2 in the Little Forest Picture House, waiting for the film to start. It was extremely cold and I pulled the frayed ends of my sleeves over my numb hands. Staring at the black screen, I shuffled in my seat, trying to get warm.

Getting more and more exasperated, I turned to ask Will if he was cold too, but Will wasn’t there. I turned around to look at the rest of the room, but no one was there. A chill went up my spine as I tried to recount the steps that had led me here. My mind was as blank as the fifty-foot screen in front of me.

I was just about to stand up when the already dim lights got even darker and an image flickered up in front of me. I watched in surprise as the picture focused to show a garden – my garden – with the usually vibrant colours subdued in the darkness.

A single solitary figure stood amongst the long grass, a creepy silhouette in the half moonlight. He was standing under a large, dark umbrella.

At first, I couldn’t take my eyes away from that flickering image; I was scared that if I did, the picture might have changed when I looked back. He might have moved. He might have disappeared.

As it was, the image didn’t change, save for the odd glimmer of light on the wet grass, or when the figure’s coat flapped slightly in the wind.

I couldn’t be completely alone; with a cinema this old, there had to be someone in the projection room. I prized my gaze away from the screen and looked over my shoulder, seeking the small square of light coming from the back wall. When I saw none, I turned round fully in my seat, desperately searching for an explanation.

I rose slowly from my chair, careful not to look at the screen again, and just wanting to get out of this place. I walked as quickly as I could – which for some reason wasn’t quick at all – towards the door with the word ‘Exit’ floating above it in glowing red letters.

I knew before I got there that it would be locked. I tried putting my full body weight against the heavy doors, but with no luck.

Keeping my head down, I walked towards the emergency exit that led out onto the street, but again it was locked and again the force of my weight did absolutely nothing to budge it.

I suddenly thought of the windows in the girls’ toilets next to the screen and turned to face the empty cinema room.

The image had changed.

It was still dark.

It was still raining.

The colours were still muted in the moonlight.

But the man was gone.

No, not gone. He was just nowhere on the screen.

He was in the room.

I jumped and a pain shot through my right arm. Real pain. Something seemed to be coming to my mind but I couldn’t quite think what.

I battled with hazy thoughts as I looked at the figure who was now standing in the middle of the chairs; he was in the row I’d been sitting in just moments ago. I backed away towards the emergency exit and looked down when the sharp metal of the door handle dug into my back.

It didn’t hurt.

When I looked back to the room the figure was still there amongst the seats, but now he was back on the screen as well, a sinister dual image. I watched in horror as both of the figures started to lower their umbrellas in unison, inch by inch, knowingly torturing me.

I braced myself to see Connor’s face, red and sweating, a suspicious glint in his eye. Seeing two of Connor’s face would just be too much.

After what seemed like a lifetime, the umbrella on the screen and the umbrella being held by the man in the seats were both lowered enough so I could see the faces beneath. And it wasn’t Connor.

It was Norman.

Norman, with his hair spiked up and his face a mottled grey colour. Norman, with a giant joker-smile plastered onto his skin and the darkest eyes I’d ever seen on anyone.

I lifted my hands to my head, pulling at my hair in despair. And there was that pain again, shooting up my right arm.

I lowered my arm and looked at it, but there was no sign of anything wrong. When I looked back up, the image on the screen was of an empty garden again, but now there were two Normans in the room, and they’d moved forward a few rows from where the first figure had been standing.

I could see their faces more clearly now, and I really wished I couldn’t. I stood, transfixed, as the two Normans turned to face each other, their identical and abnormally wide smiles getting even wider.

I took my chance while they weren’t watching me and started running towards the toilet door. But of course I wasn’t fast enough, and before I reached it, something grabbed onto my hair and pulled me backwards. I was still reaching out with my painful right arm for the door as I went crashing down.

I saw the scarily wide smile of both of the Normans as I was falling, and just as I hit the floor with a thud, an image of the old woman from Renfield loomed at me through the fading tatters of my dream. I woke up in my bed with a thumping headache and that awful pain in my arm, and the first thing I saw was blood.

There was blood all over my covers.

I screamed at the top of my lungs, something I hadn’t been able to do in my dream, and yelled again when I realised someone was moving next to me.

I looked to my left and saw Will – who had obviously been woken by my shrill shouting – wide-eyed and terrified. He glanced down at the blood as my scream disintegrated into stunted sobs, and he sat up and leaned over me, looking at my arm. I looked too, finally realising what the pain had been.

There were pieces of glass embedded in my skin, and looking at my bedside table, I saw that it too was covered in glass. I must have knocked my tumbler of water over while I was flailing about in bed. The shards had embedded themselves in my arm.

The dream.

I never usually remembered my dreams, even straight after I’d woken up, but I remembered every single second of that particular cinema horror. I tried to push it away while I concentrated on the red stained covers.

Will had moved round to my side of the bed and was now kneeling down to survey the damage. I’d never been brilliant with blood, and I could feel myself getting light headed as he cleared the glass off the bed.

“Beth, are you OK?”

“I’ll be fine,” I replied, my voice quiet. “I had the weirdest dream…”

“Dream? Can you not see the blood?”

I lifted my throbbing arm and inspected it. “Oh.”

There was one particular shard of glass, about five centimetres long, sticking out of my arm. I couldn’t tell how far it had gone in but the dull pain was getting worse with every passing second.

“I think I’m going to be sick.”

Will looked scared, whether of the blood or potential vomit, I’m not sure.

“Oh my God… Beth, don’t move. I’ll phone for an ambulance.” He started running off.

“No, wait.”

He stopped mid-stride. “Beth, we have to get you to A&E.”

“Phone for a taxi, it’ll be quicker.” As stupid as it sounded, my giant clumsy gene meant I’d had lots of experience with getting to Willowton hospital, and my parents never stopped talking about the slow response times of the emergency services. “I don’t think it’s too bad anyway, not enough to involve ambulances.”

I watched as Will nodded and ran out of the room to make the call before looking back at my damaged arm. There were at least four cuts that I could see, one of them very near to my wrist. Taking a deep breath, I thought how this would look at the hospital.

I glanced towards the window and could see the early morning light filtering in through my purple curtains. At least it wasn’t still dark; I couldn’t face going outside when he – whoever he was – could still be out there, lurking in the darkness of my garden.

I didn’t have long to linger on that thought as Will raced back into the room to get me ready.

“You sure keep things interesting, Beth.”

If I hadn’t been in so much pain, I would have punched him on the arm.

***

I’d been to the Willowton Hospital A&E quite a few times in my life, and I hated it more every time I went.

There was something about hospitals that never failed to make me feel physically sick, and the air at Willowton Hospital always seemed sour, somehow; I never felt I could breathe properly when I was inside the building.

This fear of the hospital had resulted in a full on panic attack when I was ten years old and had been brought in due to falling and hitting my chin on a pavement.

I still remember the look on my dad’s face in the A&E; he’d been as white as a sheet as I’d sat on the bed screaming, with blood pouring out of my mangled chin. I’d tried hard with every subsequent visit to be ever so slightly less psychotic any time a nurse or doctor approached me.

This hospital visit, however, was the worst of them all.

It started the same as always; the bitter air hit me as soon as I entered through the automatic door, the foul smell of sickness almost bowling me over. I gave my name and details at the desk, but this time it was Will propping me up in case I fainted (I’d come close on the ride over), rather than my parents. He’d made me hold a hand towel to the deepest of the cuts before coming to the hospital, and the plain cream cotton was now almost completely red. It was looking at this that had almost caused me to faint.

The receptionist finished entering my details into the computer and, catching sight of the crimson towel, hurriedly asked a passing nurse to take me to a cubicle. A short, plump woman with dark hair and even darker eyes came over and grabbed the towel off me. She started leading me away down the corridor and when Will tried to follow, she turned and almost hissed at him, “Please stay in the waiting room.”

He stopped mid-stride and looked at me for help. I nodded and he turned back to the seating area, shoulders slumped in defeat. I didn’t feel like being alone with this woman, but if she made me take my top off or get changed into a gown, I’d be exceptionally grateful if Will wasn’t there to see it.

And not just because of my scar.

She took me to a small cubicle and told me to sit on the padded examination table. I sat down and she started looking at my arm, carefully taking out the pieces of glass that were still embedded in my skin. She noticed the cut by my wrist and looked up at me, staring straight into my eyes.

“How did this happen?” Her tone was harsh. It didn’t really need to be; her condescending eyes said it all.

“I knocked over a glass next to my bed, and woke up to find shards of glass all over the covers. And in my arm.”

She didn’t look convinced. “Are you sure? Was that your boyfriend out there?”

I glared at her. Did she always treat her patients like children? “Yes, I’m sure. I’d be grateful if you could stop implying things as well. He’s not my boyfriend and neither of us did this to my arm. OK?”

The nurse looked startled, but kind of respectful, too; she obviously wasn’t used to backtalk from her patients. “OK.”

I tried not to look as she got the rest of the glass out and cleaned the wounds; I couldn’t face fainting in front of her.

She didn’t say anything else and didn’t even look at me until she’d finished. “Right, wait here. Most of the cuts aren’t too deep but the bigger one will need stitches, I’ll be right back.” She turned and left the cubicle, pulling the curtain across before walking off, the soft thump of her shoes floating away down the corridor.

Staring at the blue and white stripy curtain, I listened to the sounds of the hospital around me. For an Accident & Emergency department it seemed pretty quiet, and the fact I’d been seen to straight away demonstrated just how calm it was this morning.

I sighed and leaned back against the wall, looking up at the white, slightly cracked ceiling. This had definitely been one of the weirdest nights I’d ever had, but stuck under the harsh fluorescent lights of the hospital, the events of the early hours seemed like an incredibly long time ago.

I sat still for a few minutes – trying to avoid looking at my arm – until I heard footsteps approaching. Then I propped myself up to be ready for the nurse.

The footsteps had now stopped but no one had appeared to see me; whoever it was must have gone into another cubicle. I sat back again and groaned quietly.

A split second later, the curtain twitched.

There was someone standing outside the entrance to the cubicle; I could now make out a vague shadow behind the curtain.

I waited for the nurse to come in but the shadow didn’t move, and I traced the outline with my eyes: it was definitely a person, but it was a hell of a lot bigger than the nurse.

As soon as I’d had that thought, the shadow moved, and at the same time the curtain rippled as if someone had just touched it. I held my breath without really realising I was doing it.

I went to grab my bag with my phone in and then cursed myself for leaving it with Will. If it hadn’t been for last night I would have got up off the seat and gone and confronted the person, but as it was, I couldn’t even bring myself to move.

What if it was the same person from my garden? I couldn’t even take comfort in the fact that we were in a busy A&E department surrounded by people; this part of the hospital seemed dead. I listened and could only make out some phones ringing in a distant part of the ward, possibly at the reception where Will was waiting.

I was still figuring out what to do when the man – it was definitely a man – put his hands to the edges of the curtain. I could see his fingertips feeling down the edge of the frayed blue and white material, as if getting ready to sneak into the cubicle.

I desperately wished that Will was there, and I kicked myself for letting the nurse tell him he couldn’t come with me; I shouldn’t have let her boss us around.

Bracing myself against the wall, I wasn’t sure what else I could do. I did, however, feel a slight surge of excitement weave itself through my overwhelming fear – at least now I’d know for sure who this man was.

I didn’t find out.

The hands stopped fumbling with the curtains and a couple of seconds later I knew why; I could hear more footsteps coming towards the cubicle, and this time they were heavier and quicker than before. The nurse was coming back.

In a few seconds the hand had disappeared, the shadow with it, and the nurse had opened the curtain and entered the cubicle. She had a clipboard in her hands and was reading whatever was on it intently.

When she’d finished, she put the board down on the little table next to the seat and looked up at me, her face blank. After a few moments she frowned and came over to look at my arm.

“You look much paler than when I left. How bad is the pain?”

I shook my head. “There was a man just outside the curtain, did you see who it was?”

The nurse looked back towards the corridor. “No I didn’t…” She turned back to me, her brow still furrowed. “Now, are you OK for me to continue?”

I nodded and sat up, looking over her shoulder at the stripy curtain, which was now as still and silent as the rest of the ward.

“Look… I’m sorry about before.” The nurse smiled at me, immediately seeming more human. “It’s just that I see a lot of girls come in who’ve been in the wars, and they’d defend their boyfriends to the death. It’s so sad.”

I nodded.

“You know, I used to work on the maternity ward before I came to A&E.” She was smiling again.

“Oh, yes?” I feigned polite interest while trying to block out the pain in my arm.

“How’s your sister? Do you see her much?”

Suddenly the pain stopped. The stitches, the Garden Man, the curtain twitcher, all ceased to exist. I looked up at the nurse blankly. “What did you say?”

The woman’s smile faltered, her eyes drifting off to her right, the colour draining from her face. “I’m sorry, I’m thinking of someone else. I’ve helped out with so many births…” She flashed a quick, nervous-looking grin at me before going back to my arm.

“What did you mean, do I see my sister?”

“I told you, I was mistaken…”

I cut her off. “Yes, you said. But… well, why wouldn’t someone get to see her sister?”

The nurse just shrugged, still smiling. “Oh, you know, if you’d… they’d… moved out of home.” She shrugged again. “Or something.”

Yes. Or something.

Neither of us spoke again until it was time for me to leave.

***

I’d just finished telling Will what the nurse had said (he thought it was weird but that was about it), when he pulled me – by my non-painful left arm – towards the revolving exit doors.

I stopped, gesturing to the normal automatic door we’d come in through. “Why don’t we just use that one?”

He laughed. “Because everyone knows that revolving doors are more fun! Apart from, you know, the occasional people who get crushed to death in them.” He started pulling me towards it again. “I’m only joking, come on…”

“No! Get off me!” I didn’t care that I was making a bit of a scene; it’s not like there were that many people around to witness me losing it.

Will stopped abruptly, confusion etched on his face, and I ran out the side door into the much-needed fresh air.

“Beth! I’m sorry, I didn’t realise you had a fear of… revolving doors?” A playful smile was tugging on his lips.

“I’m not scared of revolving doors, Will.”

He raised his eyebrows.

“It’s the space… or lack of it.”

“Like claustrophobia?”

Like being locked in a dark crypt? “Something like that. I just…” I paused, taking a nice big, non-hospital breath of fresh air. “I like knowing I can get out of small spaces if I need to. And revolving doors can get stuck.”

Will seemed satisfied with my answer and put his arm around me as we started walking towards the taxi rank. “Didn’t peg you for a weirdo, Powers.”

I felt like punching him in the arm again, but with my own arm still incapacitated, I settled for kicking him in the shin instead.

***

I told Will about the curtain incident on the way back, and when we got to my house I stuck to his side as he checked every room and then every inch of both the back and front gardens. I felt beyond pathetic in the light of day but Will didn’t seem to mind.

I couldn’t face another day at home alone before my parents got back, so I made Will wait while I showered, and then we walked to Main Street. I’d decided to hang around some of the shops killing time while Will went home and had his shower; we’d arranged to meet at the pub in an hour.

I’d just come out of Robinson’s Records when I saw Connor. Stopping mid-stride, I thought about turning and walking the other way (at least then I’d be going in the direction of the police station if he got angry again), but I hesitated when I saw who he was with.

Connor himself was hunched over, looking through the window of ‘Ready to Read’, the local second-hand bookshop. Standing next to him and watching him intently was a tall man with dark hair, similar in colour and style to Connor’s. He also had a similar shaped nose and mouth, and a kind of despairing sadness in his eyes. He had a prominent scar under his left eye.

He looked vaguely familiar, but not enough to be a Little Forest resident, and I realised with a jolt that not only was he wearing a long, black coat, but he was holding a large, black umbrella at his side, too.

I stood frozen to the spot as I watched the two of them, standing so close to each other they were almost touching. Broken images from my dream bombarded my busy mind, the whole cinema nightmare looming up in front of me.

I was desperately trying to think who this man could be – and why on earth Connor would hire him to stand in my garden and freak me out – when Connor suddenly moved. He straightened up and took a step to his right, almost knocking the Garden Man over and making him step out of the way before a full on collision occurred.

Connor didn’t look up, or apologise to the man, or make any kind of acknowledgement that he was there. It was as if…

He couldn’t see him.

At that realisation, my heart started beating rapidly and I let out an involuntary gasp.

Connor immediately looked my way and, seeing it was me, rushed over.

“Beth.”

I tried to keep my voice level. “Hi Connor.” I glanced at him briefly, trying to keep one eye on the Garden Man over his shoulder. He was still standing next to the window and was now staring at us both.

“Did you get my text?”

I nodded, wishing I’d gone straight to Will’s to wait there.

“I really am sorry about the other night,” he continued. “The police had been windin’ me up for hours and I just… lost it. I don’t blame you, you were doin’ what you had to do.”

I was barely listening.

Standing a few feet behind Connor was… what, exactly? Another hallucination? A trick of the light? Or proof of something I’d been avoiding for years?

I’d never been this close before. Not knowingly, anyway.

“You alright? You look a bit… strung out.”

I took a deep breath, prized my eyes off the Garden Man, and tried to act normal. Or as normal as I could act in front of a possible murderer.

“I’m fine, I just didn’t get much sleep last night.” I gestured to the bandage that could just be seen sticking out of my jacket sleeve.

“Ah, I hope all’s OK?”

“I was just…” I looked back at Connor, who seemed to be acting all concerned. Was he? Or was it all an act? I said the first thing that came into my mind. “I was just in the woods until late, being my usual clumsy self.”

His smile faded. “How late?”

“Oh I dunno, one, half one.” The Garden Man had taken a couple of steps towards us and was now looking at me with wide, doubting eyes.

Connor glanced down at the ground, either trying to think or wanting to hide his expression. “Why?”

I was amazed that my brain was even still working – considering who was currently in my close vicinity – but again I quickly made something up. “My dad’s been noticing someone hanging around the castle late at night, he gets quite a lot of vandals. I was trying to investigate.”

Connor’s expression turned to one of anger. “You shouldn’t be doin’ that, Beth. The woods are a dangerous place.”

I glanced again at the Garden Man, who was edging ever closer. My eyes flickered briefly back to Connor. “So you keep telling me.”

He shook his head furiously. “You don’t know what you’re gettin’ into; all kinds of things happen in those woods.”

The Garden Man was now right behind Connor.

I took a deep breath. “Like what?”

“Like…” he trailed off, evidently not sure how to respond. “Just… things. Beth, why do you keep lookin’ over my shoulder?”

At that, he turned round to look behind him, ending up face to face with the Garden Man, who looked surprised at the sudden movement. Their noses were an inch apart, if that.

I held my breath. A couple of seconds passed before Connor turned back to me, shrugging.

I looked at the Garden Man as his eyes locked with mine, understanding filtering through his face. He started stepping around Connor, obviously on his way to walk right up to me and…

Well, I had no idea what he was planning to do. All I knew was that if I didn’t get out of there immediately, I was in severe danger of fainting. Or screaming. Or both.

“Beth?”

I switched my eyes to a still confused-looking Connor. “Sorry, I’m late to meet Will at the Inn… I’d better run.”

I stepped around the other side of Connor and started walking off quickly, urgently wanting to get away from them both.

Wanting to get away from whatever the hell had just happened.

I heard nothing for a couple of seconds, then just as I turned the corner, Connor shouted something at my back.

“Hope you feel better, glad you got sorted out at the hospital!”

The hospital?

I’d never mentioned the hospital to him. I could just as easily have put a bandage on myself or gone to the doctors this morning.

As I got nearer to the pub, my mind was racing. He must have just assumed the hospital thing himself.

Either that, or he knew of my less-than-mundane visit to Willowton A&E. I shivered as I took the last few steps towards the Inn.

***

I sat down with Will at the corner table of the Inn, and while drinking ridiculously sugary tea and eating an enormous scone, filled him in on what Connor had said – I’d decided before I’d opened the doors to the pub that I wasn’t going to mention the Garden Man part of the run-in; the last thing I needed was Will staring at me like I was mad again.

He looked deep in thought – which was odd for Will – and his usual joking on the subject had subsided.

Sitting back, I drank my tea and scanned the pub. It was still quite early in the afternoon, but that hadn’t stopped some of the Inn’s regulars from starting on the hard stuff.

I was just straining my eyes to see what was written on the ‘Events’ board for the upcoming week when a pale face with a blue rinse stepped in my line of vision. Mrs Teasdale. Great.

She hobbled over to me and sat down on the empty chair without so much as an invitational nod from me.

The sound of her sitting down brought Will back to the present and he raised his eyebrows at me.

Shrugging, I turned to shout at Mrs Teasdale (this wasn’t me being rude, by the way, she had trouble hearing and was usually self-conscious about wearing her hearing aid out and about… not that its presence would have really made any difference; her ears were long lost underneath all her grey, wiry hair).

“What brings you here, Mrs Teasdale?”

She flinched away from me, her smile turning into a grimace. “Alright, alright, I can hear you.”

I apologised as Will started sniggering under his breath. OK, so maybe she wasn’t as self-conscious about her hearing aid as I’d thought.

“I’m having new carpets put in, Dearie. My nephew’s doing it for me and he told me I was getting in the way. So, of course, I left immediately. I know when I’m not wanted; you don’t have to tell me twice.”

If only. I cut in before she started telling me every detail of her nephew’s life.

“I meant what brings you here, to this table?”

OK, so that might have been a bit rude, but I thought it was a valid question. Mrs Teasdale didn’t usually lower her standards enough to talk to the ‘youth’ of today. In fact, I didn’t even know what her first name was. Friendly terms were something we definitely weren’t on.

“Oh! Well I just wanted to check that young Veronica Summers was well.”

I gave Will my best, most exasperated look. “Why would I know anything about that?”

Mrs Teasdale paused, smiling to herself knowingly, almost smugly. I’d obviously just confirmed something she’d probably already been gossiping about. “Well I know you two have been best friends since you were tiny little things. But I haven’t seen you round her house recently.”

I could feel the anger rising in me. “Not that it’s any of your business, but how would you know unless you spent every second of the day sitting in your window seat and peering out of your hideous net curtains?”

Will started choking on his drink as I gave Mrs Teasdale my best smile. I didn’t feel particularly bad about it; she’d received much worse from the subjects of her spying in the past.

“There’s no need to be like that, young lady. I only ask as I know you’ve, let’s say, fallen out with your parents recently.”

I wanted to ask her how on earth she knew that, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. I just looked at her with what I hoped was a straight poker face.

“Well, it just seems a coincidence, what with Veronica having that awfully loud argument with her parents. Multiple times, in fact.”

Is there anyone V hadn’t been arguing with? “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Mrs Teasdale.”

“Well,” she said, settling into her story, “it started one morning a few weeks ago. I thought young Veronica was going to shout the house down! I nearly called the police; I thought it was a domestic dispute.” She smiled, adding proudly, “I’m with Neighbourhood Watch, don’t you know.”

Will spoke for the first time since we’d been joined by Little Miss Gossip. “I think everyone in Covershire knows you’re with Neighbourhood Watch.” He said it in a slow, bored drawl. I tried to stop myself from laughing.

Mrs Teasdale moved her attention across to Will. “That’s enough of the old cheek out of you, young lad!”

I watched, amused, as Will tried to think of something to say, gave up, and went back to staring at his drink.

“Look, Mrs Teasdale. I appreciate your concern but I’m not really friends with Veronica anymore. I’m sure you heard about our little disagreement at the Diner. I don’t know what her argument was about.”

Mrs T stared at me for a few seconds then nodded to herself. “Something about a photograph if I recall. I didn’t get much more than that; my hearing aid was on the blink.”

I gave Will a knowing look. I was surprised Mrs T hadn’t been outside Veronica’s front door with a glass pressed to it.

“I don’t know anything about a photograph.” Or did I? I tried to rack my brains but nothing was standing out. I didn’t see why V would fall out with her parents over a photo, and I certainly didn’t see how it would have anything to do with me.

Mrs Teasdale must have guessed she wasn’t going to get anything juicy out of me and started standing up. “It’s just a shame, is all. I don’t like young ladies fighting with their parents, you should have more respect!”

I stared at her, not saying a word.

“Well, I’d better go and check on my nephew. I once gave him the job of changing a few light bulbs and he nearly ended up burning the whole house down!”

Will laughed into his drink again as Mrs T shuffled off towards the door.

“That was… enlightening.”

Will nodded. “Do you think her fighting with her parents has anything to do with you?”

I shrugged. “I doubt it.”

“What about the photo thing?”

“I bet Mrs T just heard wrong. She said so herself – her hearing aid was dodgy.”

Will nodded, going back into deep thought mode.

I was just about to ask him to describe in detail what Connor and Norman were doing in the woods when Norman himself entered the pub. I didn’t have to gesture to Will – who had his back to the rest of the Inn – as Norman soon made his presence known.

“My usual please!” he shouted at the bar, not even bothering to walk over to it. He took residence at the table in the middle of the room and then noticed John Walker sitting on his own at the next table. He moved to join him, seemed to rethink his request, and yelled out, “Actually, bring over two, would you?”

John shook his hand in appreciation.

John Walker was the local GP and my dad’s best friend, and he often hung around the pub after finishing work at the Little Forest Surgery. I’d never seen him be friendly with Norman before, but then again, until recently I hadn’t exactly been a regular at the Inn. I wondered how many strange friendships and illicit romances I’d been missing by hanging out in the Diner instead of here; I was beginning to see that people my own age weren’t anywhere near as interesting as the older generations.

Will looked at his watch and sighed. “I’m really sorry, Beth, but I’ve got to get to work. Unless you want me to try and get it off?”

I shook my head. “Thanks, Will, but I’ll be fine. Really.”

I finished my tea before following him out of the pub, rolling my eyes as Will handed me the investigation notebook. “Write down last night.”

I nodded and said bye to him as he hugged me gently – obviously mindful of the arm – before he walked off towards Main Street. My feeling of safety vanished as he disappeared round the corner.

I thought about going back inside for another tea, but seeing Norman through the window – who seemed to be settling in for the day – I decided against it. Since my dream, I no longer thought of him as the kind old grandfather figure. Not his fault, by any means, but I couldn’t look at his face without seeing that dual image of him, grinning widely at himself.

So, instead, I put the notebook in my bag and started off towards home, hoping my parents wouldn’t be out for much longer.

I ran into Connor as I rounded the corner. Great.

“Beth.”

I looked behind him, but the Garden Man was nowhere to be seen. “Connor.”

“Are you OK? You left in a hurry earlier.”

“I’m fine.”

He pointed at my arm. “Does it hurt much?”

I shook my head. “I got some pretty strong painkillers.”

“Good, so you can help me.” He grabbed my other arm and started walking me in the opposite direction to where I’d been headed.

“Excuse me, what do you think you’re doing?” Alarm bells were going off in my head. Major bloody alarm bells.

He ignored my question. “You said you met Will at the Inn. Was Norman there? He usually is at this time. Generally for hours.”

I nodded, bewildered.

“Good. I need you to come with me to Hill Top Farm.”

I stopped walking. “What? Why? I just told you, Norman’s in the pub. He won’t be there.”

He rolled his eyes, which I now realised were glinting with excitement. “Well, yeah. Breakin’ and enterin’ usually works better when the person isn’t at home.”

My stomach did a little flip. Hell, it did a cartwheel. “Are you insane?”

Connor turned to face me, standing a little too close for comfort. I thought of him obliviously standing this close to the Garden Man and shivered. “I know you don’t trust me, Beth. And I don’t blame you, but I need your help. You know the farm, you’ve been there before, right?”

I nodded reluctantly.

“I need someone who knows the layout, I need someone to watch my back.” He stepped even closer, running his hand down my left arm and letting it come to rest on my hand. “I need you.”

I shivered again, but this time for a different reason. Man, this guy wasn’t above using his charms to get what he wanted.

I tried to clear my head – which was hard to do with his hand stroking mine – and tried to remember the Connor from Main Street; the angry, scary Connor. The potential murderer.

I pulled back from him, shaking my head. “I’m not going anywhere with you.”

He closed his eyes for a second, nodding slightly to himself. “OK, I’ll cut the seduction crap. I know you’ve got no reason to believe me, but I like you. I want to be your friend. I know I’ve been actin’ a little…” he smiled bitterly, “crazy, but I’m just not used to this. I’m not used to the police bein’ on my back, I’ve never even been in a fight before, let alone been questioned for hours about a missin’ person. I wish you could have seen the person I was back in Ireland…” He took a deep breath. “I realise I’m not handlin’ this well, but I’m beggin’ you to help me.”

This Connor seemed sincere. He seemed kind. And he seemed frightened.

“OK, let’s say for argument’s sake that I agreed to come with you. What on earth are you expecting to find in Norman’s house?”

Connor smiled, that sparkle of excitement coming back into his eyes.

“Evidence.”

***

Fifteen minutes later we arrived at Hill Top Farm. Neither of us had said much on the walk; I was feeling much too nervous to make small talk and by the looks of it, so was Connor – he kept peering at his watch and messing with his hair.

Fortunately for me, as soon as we got there and were greeted by the ominous black iron gates, the adrenaline kicked in and I started to feel a little excited myself. I just hoped I wasn’t doing something incredibly stupid by coming here with Connor (apart from the obvious illegality of it, but I was trying hard not to think about that).

I couldn’t, however, say that the adrenaline was kicking in for Connor – he was standing gazing at the gates with a look of uncertainty lurking over his features.

A dirt-encrusted sign sporting the words ‘Hill Top Farm’ had definitely seen better days, and the old brass letter box that had been built into the wall was now stuffed with grass, dead leaves, and rubbish. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think the place was no longer home to anyone.

The gates – though large and imposing – were just for show, and I reached out to touch one of the rusty yet ornate handles. Sure enough, as soon as I put a tiny amount of pressure onto it, the gate swung open with ease, and I pulled a still nervous-looking Connor through before shutting it behind us.

The driveway leading to the farm was everything a large, country house’s driveway should be: long, grand and sweeping.

Unfortunately, due to years of neglect, the once perfectly spaced trees lining either side of the gravel drive were now unkempt and overgrown, giving the previously pristine farm entrance an ancient and withered look.

The farm, like its owner, was slowly crumbling and decaying.

Connor and I ran up the path, gravel crunching noisily beneath our feet, eager to be away from the main road and any prying eyes that may pass by. It only took thirty seconds or so before we stopped in front of the main building.

I hadn’t seen the farmhouse for years (I’d been here several times when I was younger, both with my mum and with school on some kind of environmental learning exercise), and like the path, it had seen better days. It was in a serious state of disrepair and as it was no longer a working farm, the empty animal pens and stables I could see in the grounds made it look like no one had lived there for decades.

I could just about make out the huge barn in the distance, looming over all the little stables and outhouses that were forever in its giant shadow, and pointed it out to Connor. The barn had always scared me as a kid; there used to be massive hay bales piled right to the top, some of them arranged so they created a kind of hollow space in the middle. Veronica had once tried to force me into climbing a particularly large tower of hay bales and I’d refused; I was terrified of falling from the top or getting lost in the dark, dirty labyrinth of farm feed.

I laughed to myself as I watched Connor walk across the cobbled courtyard towards the barn. I bet if I went in there now, in my grown-up body of 5 feet 7 inches, it would seem tiny. I’d experienced the strange memory effect of childhood sizes before; every time I visited the primary school I marvelled at how small the chairs were, how tiny the tables, how petite the classrooms. They’d seemed huge as a child, and the hay bale barn at Hill Top Farm had seemed absolutely monolithic in comparison.

I watched Connor disappear into the barn, had a brief moment of wanting to run away, and then started looking in the windows of the main building. Now I was here, I was curious myself. Maybe I could get something out of Connor to note down in the investigation book.

Despite my previous visits, I’d never been into the Carters’ living areas of the farm and I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I saw through the grimy glass seemed to be a normal country kitchen – if a little dated – with a large wooden table in the centre and an old, black AGA along one wall. I moved round the outside of the building and eventually came to the door. Without really thinking I tried the handle and, to my surprise, watched as the door opened with a loud creak. Pausing, I hovered in the doorway, too scared to go in but wanting badly to look around. I yelled Connor’s name at the top of my lungs so it would carry over to the barn, and after a couple of minutes he came running over.

“Jesus that barn smells bad, looks like he doesn’t do anythin’ with it, he’s just left it with animal shite everywhere. I had a good rummage in the hay, anyway.”

I frowned. “Well I can’t smell it from here; he must just stick to the house these days, he probably doesn’t even remember what’s in most of those buildings. What exactly were you rummaging for?”

He just shrugged as we both walked inside.

The room wasn’t as normal as it had seemed through the dusty windows.

I looked around the kitchen, taking everything in, silently wishing I’d said no to Connor, after all.

He was obviously thinking the same thing as me. “How long’s ‘is wife been dead?”

I cast my mind back to her headstone. “About five years.”

We looked at each other in disbelief and after a few indecisive seconds, I reached out to hold his hand, wincing slightly at the pain in my arm. It seemed my pills were beginning to wear off.

The kitchen was undeniably sinister, and with its mounted stuffed animal heads and hunting paraphernalia adorning the walls, it had the air of an old horror film set. All of these things were unquestionably disturbing, but it was something else that made the hairs on my arms prickle with a morbid excitement; I hadn’t been able to tell from the outside, but the large oak table was perfectly set for a meal. For two.

There were two plates, two sets of cutlery, two bowls, two glasses, two napkins, and two newspapers set out on the table. Everything was covered in a thick layer of dust and the glasses were eternally linked to the bowls and cutlery by many intricate cobwebs. I walked closer and my stomach churned as I noticed the front of the newspapers; the date on them was 5th February 2006.

I looked at Connor, who – after a second of staring at the table – raised his eyebrows and made a ‘Psycho’ stabbing motion with his free hand. I didn’t appreciate the humour.

I wanted to say something, to express my fear as well as my sympathy for Norman, but nothing would come out. It was as if I was too scared to put my thoughts into words, to make them as real as the horrifying meal set-up.

Stepping away from the table, I looked around the rest of the kitchen, dragging Connor with me as I went. I tried to avoid looking at the stuffed deer’s head above the sink and winced when I saw a long, black rifle mounted over the door. I loved animals and people who went hunting made me sick. But this wasn’t the time to get into that debate.

Apart from the hunting trophies, the main theme in the room was Doris Carter; the kitchen was filled with a wide array of photographs. Some of when she was a girl, some on their wedding day, and some where she looked so old she didn’t even slightly resemble the woman in the other pictures.

I started to feel sorry for Norman again; I couldn’t even imagine what it must be like to spend your entire life with someone, only for them to go and die, leaving you totally and unavoidably alone. I glanced at the Addams Family style breakfast table again before pulling Connor through a door into the long, wood-panelled hallway.

There were six doors leading off from the hall. I looked questioningly at Connor. “I take this side, you take that side?”

He nodded and started walking towards the first door on the right, but I pulled on his arm before he could get there. “You still haven’t told me what it is I’m supposed to be looking for.”

He hesitated, but only for a second. “Well, I’d start with a small piece of red fabric. Somethin’ that might have come from a lady’s dress?”

I stared at him in disbelief. “Emma’s dress?”

Connor nodded before quickly going into the room and closing the door behind him.

It took me a few moments before I could get myself moving towards the door on the opposite side. Whether Connor was involved with John and Emma or not, he’d do himself no favours by trying to pin it on a much-loved eighty-year-old man.

I reluctantly headed into the room on the left, which seemed to be a bit of a dumping ground.

One wall was covered with shelving, on which stood an array of ceramic ornaments, decorative knick-knacks and small wicker baskets. Each basket had a hand-written label stuck to the front: Batteries, Paper Clips, Buttons, Possessions.

My eyes lingered on that last label, so vague compared to the others. I thought I could see a driver’s licence poking out of the top and I laughed to myself; my muddled brain had read ‘Possessions’ and immediately jumped to an image of some kind of medium being possessed by an unearthly voice.

On second thoughts, that wasn’t very funny at all.

I heard a door slamming, making me jump; Connor must have been onto the second room by now.

I started my search of the room, being careful to use the sleeve of my jacket if I needed to touch anything. Not that I could really imagine the local police fingerprinting Norman’s house, but stranger things had happened.

The room was full of… ‘stuff’ was really the only word for it. Plastic bags, padded envelopes, piles of newspapers. There was also an interesting-looking purple bag in the corner of the room, possibly made of velvet or some other rich fabric. I was about to walk over to it when I heard another door slam. Reminding myself that I was here to look for a piece of a dress, not a bag, I went back to the corridor.

The doors along the hallway were all closed, but the one right at the end was open, shedding a small rectangle of light onto the tiled brown floor.

The sounds of my clunky Doc Martens on the smooth tiles echoed around the narrow hall and I wished I’d put some of my ballet pumps on instead; even with Norman safe and sound in the pub, I felt extremely nervous about loudly stamping around his house. I sped up, wanting to get to the end of the seemingly eternal corridor as quickly as possible.

I got to the end of the hallway and turned to see a living room through the door, possibly one of many considering the size of the farmhouse.

I was just about to walk towards the doorway when music flooded out into the corridor, and it took me precisely three seconds to realise what it was; with the funeral still fresh in my mind, ‘Jerusalem’ was easy to identify.

What was Connor playing at?

That was soon to be the least of my worries.

As soon as I stepped onto the soft carpet, an overwhelming feeling of misery filled every inch of my shocked and unprepared body. Gasping, I steadied myself on the doorframe, trying to catch my breath.

It was as if – within the second it had taken me to cross over the threshold – I had been driven into a deep, dark depression. I took another deep breath as I straightened up, trying to clear my head, pushing the strange sensation out of my mind as I stepped further into the room.

This place seemed even more sinister than the kitchen. For one thing, the primary colour scheme was brown. The carpet, the walls, the photo frames; they were all the same disgusting, muddy colour. There were three old-fashioned green armchairs placed around a small wooden table, one of which had a knitted brown and yellow blanket thrown over it, adding to the overall hideousness of the piece of furniture.

There was a dusty old record player in the corner – from which the sound of Jerusalem was floating into the room – and I could hear the loud ticking of a clock coming from somewhere underneath the music. There was also an underlying odour of something stale; I thought I’d smelled it somewhere before but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

Connor was standing next to the table in the middle of the room, a haunted expression on his face and a piece of scarlet material in his hands.

“Connor…”

He looked up at me slowly. “It was in the table. In that drawer.” He nodded at the open drawer.

In a sudden movement, he walked towards me, thrusting the fabric at my hands. “Is this it? You saw her that night… is this from Emma’s dress?”

I backed away instinctively. “Hey, you’re not getting me to touch that!”

He stopped coming towards me, nodding. After a few seconds I leaned over to look at the material. It was definitely the right colour for Emma’s dress, and it looked about the right size from the tear I’d managed to see outside The Pit. “Looks like it.”

He nodded again. “I knew it.”

I looked at the open drawer in the table. Could I trust Connor? Had he come in here, immediately opened the drawer and found it? Or was it possible he could have planted it, timing it so he found it just as I was coming through the door?

And why the hell had he started playing music when we weren’t even supposed to be here?

I pulled my mind away from the red fabric and walked over to the record player.

“Stop.”

I turned back to look at Connor, exasperated. “Look, I know I’m new to the whole breaking and entering thing, but I’m pretty sure you’re not meant to start playing loud music.”

“I didn’t.”

“Oh, right. So it just started playing by itself?”

Connor just stared at me, expressionless, not saying a word.

Oh God.

Turning, I looked at the record player, not wanting to get any nearer to the source of the eerie music. In the church, the song had sounded powerful and patriotic; here it seemed grim and threatening.

Like most things in the room it was covered in a thick layer of dust, and from where I was standing I couldn’t see any fingerprints or marks to show it had recently been touched. In fact, I was amazed it could still play any records with that much filth encrusted on the needle.

The sensation I’d felt when I first entered the room was trying to inch its way back into my body, and I turned away quickly so I could no longer see the ancient vinyl record spinning eerily around.

“It started playin’ as soon as I opened the drawer. I thought for a second that maybe I’d gone mad,” he let out a shrill, piercing laugh, “but when you could hear it too…” His face was ashen, perspiration was forming on his upper lip, and I realised that he wasn’t lying, at least about the music.

“It’s ‘Jerusalem’.”

“What?”

“The song… Jerusalem. They sung it at Emma’s funeral. Remember, I told you? Norman totally broke down during this song.”

Connor’s eyes widened.

“So can we leave, now? Please?”

My whining voice brought Connor back to his senses, and he shut the table drawer whilst shaking his head.

“No way. If there’s this, there may be more. Help me look.”

“For what? You think there are more scraps of dresses hidden around here?”

Connor moved over to the mantelpiece. “No, not dresses…”

I groaned loudly and gave in. If I helped him look for whatever else he thought he was going to find, then maybe we’d be able to get out of the house by nightfall.

The large mirror over the mantelpiece was so old and dirty I could barely see a reflection in it, and I noticed yet more photographs like the ones in the rest of the house.

I walked over to the little ledge under the mirror to inspect them, and in the middle of the ledge was placed the largest photo of them all. Glancing at Connor, I picked it up and wiped off some of the dust so I could see it better.

I immediately wished I hadn’t; it was one of the most disturbing pictures I’d ever seen. The photo showed Doris in a hospital bed, almost completely withered away, looking like a living corpse surrounded by machines and tubes. I put it down quickly and glanced at Connor, nauseated. “Why would he keep a photo like that? Why would he frame it?”

Connor shook his head, unable to come up with an answer. I looked at the rest of the framed pictures but they were all similar to the ones in the kitchen.

I was just about to turn away when I noticed another frame which had been hiding behind the disgusting hospital photo. Picking it up, I blew off some more dust to reveal a framed letter.

I held it up to the light coming from the window but the handwriting was almost illegible and I could barely read it. Squinting, I eventually managed to form some words out of the mess.

I read it out loud so Connor could hear.

“My dearest, I don’t have long. They won’t tell me but I can feel it coming. Death is waiting for me.”

My voice faltered; nothing was normal about this couple. I cleared my throat and carried on.

“I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me. Please protect them. No one can ever know. This is my last wish, please honour it. All my love, Doris.”

Connor and I stood in silence for a good minute or so, and I kept looking over the words. Forgive her for what? Protect who?

“No one can ever know.” Connor spoke the words in a whisper which I could only just hear over the music.

He was staring at the letter. No, not staring. Glaring. I could see his jaw working beneath his pale skin.

Suddenly he turned to me. “You got a pen?”

“What?”

“Can you write that letter down? I want to remember what it says.”

“Why? Connor, what’s going on? Is this still about Emma?”

He stared at me in what I thought was probably exasperation. “Have you got one or not?”

After a couple of seconds I nodded, reaching into my shoulder bag for Will’s Evidence Book and a pen. Opening it to a new page so Connor couldn’t see any of what we’d written (that would be bad), I started writing.

I was about to ask Connor what he thought it meant when the record stopped playing.

Looking up instinctively, I watched as a large, dark shape appeared in the filthy mirror.

It wasn’t something out of the corner of my eye or a smudge in the dusty glass. It was right behind me. And it wasn’t happy.

I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me, and I gasped and dropped the book, hearing it make a dull thump on the carpet. I turned round in a blind panic but even when I saw there was nothing there, I knew there was.

I could feel it.

“Beth? You’re kind of freakin’ me out.”

I couldn’t speak. I didn’t know what to say or what to do; all I knew was that I felt an incredibly powerful urge to get the hell out of that room.

The only problem was I seemed to be frozen to the spot.

“Beth?” Connor’s voice was surprisingly full of concern, and even though I could barely register anything in my state of paralysis, I was shocked that he even seemed to care.

Taking another deep breath, I looked back at the mirror; it was the same as when I’d first entered the room. Whatever – or whoever – it was, it wasn’t trying to make itself known to me anymore. Not that I really had to guess who it was. “Connor, get me out of here.”

“What?”

“Please get me out of this room, out of this house, now.” I could hear how dramatic I sounded and the embarrassingly desperate tone of my voice kicked Connor into action. He pulled on my hand until my body gave in and I ran behind him to the door.

It slammed shut before we could reach it.

***

Gasping, I stopped running, but Connor immediately started to try and open the door. It wouldn’t budge.

OK, breathe.

I watched Connor grappling with the door handle as if I were in a dream – the feeling of unreality was overwhelming. This couldn’t possibly be happening, could it?

I didn’t trust myself to answer my own question.

I was still watching Connor when the next attack came.

As far as attacks went, it was pretty abstract; one of the framed photos landed at my feet, as if it had just dived down there. The main problem with this was that it wasn’t one from the nearby mantelpiece; it had previously been positioned neatly on the windowsill on the far side of the room. Ten feet was an impressive length for an inanimate object to cover.

I bent to pick up the picture (not caring about fingerprints now), and went to walk over to the windowsill, when I registered what the photo was.

It was of me. Of Veronica. Our parents.

It was taken in the hospital, clearly not long after both of us had been born. Both sets of parents were smiling widely, each couple with a tiny baby on their laps.

That was V and I – together from the start.

As Norman was such good friends with my mum, it didn’t seem like such a weird thing to find in his home.

But something was wrong with this photo. Very wrong.

Both sets of parents – both mums and dads – looked immaculate. My own mum’s hair had been meticulously styled, and she was wearing an alarming amount of make-up. Even V’s mum, who hardly ever wore make-up, looked incredibly well-groomed. Neither of them looked like they’d just given birth.

The woman in the background, however, definitely did. She was wearing a highly unflattering hospital gown, her face was shiny with sweat, and her hair was plastered to her forehead. She looked tired. She looked sad. Her eyes were small black hollows.

I’d assumed that they’d been on some kind of ward, but looking closer, they were definitely in a private room. The woman’s private room.

I wondered vaguely if the nurse from A&E had been there when the photo was taken. The one who had asked about my sister.

The sound of the door slamming into the wall brought me back to the present. Connor was holding it open – seemingly using all his strength to do it – and his eyes conveyed his pure, unadulterated fear.

“Beth, come on!”

I snapped out of my thoughts and walked over to the windowsill, propping up the photo on the white painted wood before following a madly gesticulating Connor out of the room.

As soon as we stepped back into the hallway, the record of Jerusalem started up again.

This time it was Connor who seemed to freeze. I pulled on his arm, more able to move now that I was out of the living room, my thoughts filled with hospitals and babies rather than ghouls and ghosts, and we ran down the corridor back towards the front of the house.

As we entered the kitchen I heard the unmistakable sound of a car pulling up outside. I knew Norman didn’t have a vehicle anymore, but people often gave him a lift home when he’d had a few too many. I didn’t think we’d been at Hill Top long enough for him to have finished in the pub, but my mind was a bit preoccupied to say the least, and ignoring my common sense, I started panicking.

Connor’s face was still ridiculously pale, and we both ran across the room, hoping to get out in time.

By the time we got to the door, however, we could hear footsteps on the gravel outside and a man whistling. I looked around the kitchen, grabbed Connor, and pulled him under the big table.

We huddled together, waiting for the sound of the door opening and praying that Norman wouldn’t come and sit in one of the chairs. If he sat down and pretended to have a meal with his dead wife I wasn’t sure I’d be able to cope.

Connor was staring at me with wide eyes, looking as queasy as I felt, and I wondered what he must be thinking. At least I’d had some time to get used to the idea that things weren’t always as they seemed.

I turned my head to look at the doorway, but from under the table I could only make out the bottom of the door panel and the start of the frosted glass. After a couple of seconds, I watched in horror as I slowly made out the vague shapes of two dark boots appearing behind the door.

There were a few long, drawn-out seconds of silence, during which I could feel my heart hammering in my chest and my breath catching in my throat.

How on earth did I get myself into these things?

After what seemed like an eternity, I heard the wonderful sound of envelopes being pushed through the letterbox and falling onto the doormat. I sighed in relief as I saw the boot shapes disappear and heard the postman walk back to his van, still whistling, before driving off.

Without a word, we both scrambled out from under the table and ran quickly out the kitchen door, where I gratefully breathed in the fresh air as we ran back down the drive and onto the road.

I started off towards Little Forest – again without one word to Connor – and we walked back in silence. We got back to the village in a record ten minutes and had a quick look through the pub windows; Norman was still sitting at his table, enjoying his drink.

I said goodbye to Connor mechanically and went home. I didn’t particularly want to be on my own, but I didn’t think I could handle all his questions about what had happened at Hill Top. I had a lot more than that to think about.

It wasn’t until a few hours later that I remembered dropping the Evidence Book on Norman’s sitting room floor in my haste to get out.

***

The next day I called Will to an emergency meeting at the bandstand, and recounted mine and Connor’s Hill Top adventures while he sat there with an unimpressed look on his face.

“I can’t believe you went there with him. Alone. Do you not remember him scaring the crap out of you? What if he did murder John? What if he’d tried to kill you? Jesus, Beth.”

I sat there nodding, waiting for Will’s rage to subside. “Yes, I know, I know. I’m an idiot. But I was intrigued…” I hadn’t told him about Connor’s little seduction routine for obvious reasons. “But, Will, I think you’re missing the point. Or points. Lots of big, scary, pointy points that I really think are more important!”

Will sighed. “You mean like the red dress?”

“The red dress. The letter. The Evidence Book. The photo?” I’d also deliberately left out the whole poltergeist-with-a-love-of-music part. There was already far too much to think about without getting into another argument with Will.

He stopped pacing around, as he had been during his rant, and came and sat next to me. “So you really think that V might be your sister? Have you called her? Have you asked your parents?”

“No. I don’t know. Do you think it’s even possible? Maybe I took the photo the wrong way, I was pretty freaked out after… after seeing Doris’s letter. Maybe I saw it wrong or something.”

“Didn’t Mrs Teasdale say V and her parents were arguing about a photo?”

He was right. I hadn’t even thought of that.

“Maybe it’s the same one. Maybe she found it… add in the comments you’ve been getting about your sister, and V arguing with your parents, and going on about lying and stuff… maybe it is true. Maybe you’re both…”

Adopted. Adopted was the word he was looking for. Adopted and split up. Brought up as friends rather than sisters.

“No.”

Will moved to grab my hand. “No?”

“It doesn’t make any sense. V and I… we used to wish we were sisters, living in the same house and seeing each other every day. We used to dream about it. If she found out we actually were, then why wouldn’t she tell me? Why would she push me away?” I paused, not wanting to say out loud what I was thinking. “Unless, of course, the thought just doesn’t appeal to her like it used to…”

“Hey.” Will put his arm around my shoulder. “Just ask her.”

“I haven’t had much luck getting her to talk to me. I’ve probably got it all wrong, anyway…”

“Tell her what you think you know. If she knew that you knew…”

I shook my head vigorously. “No, I can’t. Can we just leave it?”

After a few seconds, Will nodded and claimed his arm back.

“So what are we going to do about the Evidence Book?”

I shrugged, feeling despair creep over me again. “There’s nothing we really can do. Hope Norman doesn’t find it? There were a lot of rooms in that house. Maybe he doesn’t even go in that room.” Maybe it was her room.

One thing was certain; there was nothing – not even the Evidence Book – that could bring me to go back to Hill Top Farm. I’d already told this to Will, but not the reason behind it.

“And Connor? Do you believe him about the dress?”

I sighed, leaning back against the side of the bandstand.

“I wish I knew what to believe. I don’t think he’s going to tell the police, though. What’s he going to say when they ask how he found it? He’s not exactly going to dob himself in.”

“So why bother? If he can’t do anything with the evidence?”

I thought back to when I walked in on him in the Jerusalem room. “Either he was trying to convince me that Norman had something to do with Emma’s death…”

“Or?”

“He seemed kind of preoccupied at Hill Top, like he was looking for something else, like he wasn’t telling me everything.”

“What else is new?”

“He got really weird when he saw Doris’s letter. Like he was… I don’t know, finding a meaning in the words that I didn’t understand.”

Will shrugged, looking as perplexed as I felt.

Please protect them. No one can ever know.

What if someone did know?

What if Connor knew?

[]Chapter Eight

It was that time of year again: Fright Fest was coming to Little Forest.

I’d spent the last few weeks helping my parents and the other local contributors make preparations, and it was much like any other year, apart from this time it had been Will helping me, not Veronica.

Nothing odd or bizarre had happened since going to Hill Top, and it was all starting to feel like a bit of a (terrifying) dream. I’d hardly spoken to Connor since our little adventure, and I’d pushed the whole Veronica thing to the back of my mind, locked away with everything else. I was doing quite a good job of being civil with my parents, and none of us had mentioned V for days.

The first night of Fright Fest kicked off, as usual, with the ‘Castle Productions’ play. Each year the local amateur dramatics club put on an open-air performance in the castle grounds, and this year was the first time they’d tackled the story of the evil doctor. In true Little Forest style, they’d made it into an entirely inappropriate musical entitled ‘Poison Me’. I’d had no hand in setting up the production so was more than intrigued to see what it would be like, and Will thought it sounded like an excellent idea for a musical so was happy to come along with me.

We got to the castle around seven and there was already a definite chill in the air. Most of the village were making their way to the performance area, weighed down with woolly blankets and Thermoses, and I started to wish I’d brought something warm with me, too. We made our way over to the stands and got seats in the middle set of the three. The plastic chairs were all under cover but the stage wasn’t, so everyone was praying for a dry evening. Well, everyone apart from Will; he thought it would be hilarious if the actors had to sing and dance whilst getting thoroughly soaked.

I saw The Couple sit down in the right stand of seats and waved over to them. Rach smiled and waved back – she’d finally forgiven me for the whole Connor thing a few days before – but Max just raised his right hand a couple of inches and then put it down again.

The seats were really filling up now and I watched as all the locals drifted in, chatting to each other and trying to decide where to sit. Will nudged me in my side and I looked up to see Norman sitting down in the same stand as Rach, right at the front. I thought back to the Evidence Book yet again and cringed.

Everyone hushed as the lights went down and dramatic music started blaring out of the speakers. It was a good couple of minutes before any of the actors appeared so I glanced around the seats again (or the parts I could make out in the dark). I was just about to switch my attention back to the stage when I noticed a latecomer arrive. He was trying to find a seat and kept apologising for getting in everyone’s way. It was Connor’s voice.

I turned to tell Will but he was already looking in the same direction as me. Connor was now sitting in the left stand, opposite to where Norman was seated.

At that point the show started. Daniel Fields – of all people – was playing the evil doctor and he had a surprisingly good singing voice. That, however, did not make up for the sheer bizarre nature of the production. The set was meant to be a doctor’s surgery in the 1800s, but looked more like a torture chamber (which I supposed was quite apt), and Daniel pranced around the place in glee as he sang about all the people he was going to kill.

There were quite a few kids in the audience, and I was trying to guess how many complaints this would receive from horrified parents when I noticed someone leave the third stand of seats. Straining my eyes to see, I just caught a glimpse of Connor before he disappeared out the exit.

I nudged Will and we both looked over to the other stand. Sure enough, Norman was next to stand up and sneak out. I glanced at Will’s face to see what his expression was; I’d told him I didn’t want to do anymore investigating after Hill Top Farm and he’d agreed, but it was kind of addictive. From his excited smile I guessed he was thinking the same as me, so I nodded and we both stood up and walked towards the exit.

I saw a flash of white hair dart across the grass and into the trees, and Will and I followed past the impressively lit castle. Some of the light from the building, as well as the stage area, illuminated the trees immediately ahead of us, but as we walked further into the forest we were enveloped in darkness.

I tried to pretend I wasn’t about to have a panic attack, but after a few seconds of almost complete blindness, I grabbed Will’s arm and clung onto it as we walked.

We’d barely taken ten steps into the gloom when a figure crossed our path. It was Norman. From what I could see of his face from the light of his torch, he looked suspicious and overall, nervous. I flashed back to the feeling I’d had in his living room and shivered.

“What are you two doing here?”

I was too terrified to speak, thinking of the Evidence Book, but Will had the audacity to laugh. “Just taking a stroll. Public place, you know?”

Norman grunted, rolling his eyes. This was not the same man who was friends with my mum and who made a habit of entertaining tourists in the pub; this Norman was angry, argumentative and overbearing. This was the Norman who kept his kitchen table set for a five-year-old dinner date with the dead.

“Why would two young people such as yourselves be taking a stroll in the woods?” He looked down at our hands. “Without a light?”

Well, it was a good question. There was a pause while I frantically tried to come up with an explanation, and then I felt Will’s arm snake its way around my waist.

“We just wanted to be alone.” He pulled me closer to him. “If you know what I mean.”

Will looked at me, smiling melodramatically. I smiled back brightly and made a mental note to slap him later.

Will carried on. “And what are you doing here?” I really wished he would just shut up.

Norman’s eyes narrowed. “Just taking a stroll.”

Will barked a short, sharp laugh. “Actually, we were looking for Connor. Have you seen him?”

Norman looked confused, or pretended to look confused, I couldn’t tell which. “Is that the Irish lad?”

Will and I exchanged doubtful glances.

“You two should head back to the stage, you’re missing the performance. I’ve heard it’s going to be a riveting show.”

“And what about you? Don’t you want to see it if it’s meant to be so great?”

I wanted to whisper to Will that I thought Norman was being sarcastic, but I didn’t dare.

The old man laughed. “There are more important things in life than watching the local school head master prance around in a wig. Now, run off, you two. The woods are no place for young whipper snappers.”

He stood and stared at us until we turned round and headed back to the castle.

I waited until we were out of earshot and then punched Will on the shoulder. “What the hell was that? Are you trying to piss him off? And couldn’t you think of anything other than us wanting to be together?”

He just shrugged and smiled. “Can’t blame a guy for trying! ‘Is that the Irish lad?’ How stupid does he think we are?”

I shook my head, mentally kicking myself for about the hundredth time since Hill Top. “Well, he probably thinks I’m stupid enough to leave my private notebook in his front room.”

“I told you, you need to stop freaking out about that. He didn’t mention it, did he?”

“No… but he kept saying you two in that weird way, I’m sure he knows. Maybe he thought I’d been there with you.”

“Well, if he does, he’s obviously not going to do anything about it. It’s not like the police have been round or anything, right?”

We both stood in silence for a few seconds, deep in thought, and then the night was pierced with a shrill scream of terror. I gasped and grabbed Will’s hand, my heart beating rapidly.

He started laughing.

“Will, what…?” I spluttered in confusion, before laughing myself. What we’d just heard was the high-pitched feminine scream of a certain Mr Daniel Fields.

We made our way back to the stage, both of us giggling at my idiocy.

“Also,” Will stopped walking and spewed the words out in between his crazed laughter. “Did Norman just call us whipper snappers?”

I nodded, unable to answer until I’d taken a big breath and got my giggling under control. “I think it’s an older generation thing.”

“I think it’s a crazy person thing.”

“Don’t! He could still hear us.”

We waited until our laughing had subsided before carrying on with our walk back to the stage. I could hear vociferous laughter making its way over to us from the stands of seats, and I wondered if they were finding the comedy in the murder of some poor innocent. Probably.

Little Forest was a strange place to be sometimes.

I glanced over my shoulder at the shadow of the woods, but Norman was nowhere to be seen.

***

As it turned out, that night was the best opening night in Fright Fest history.

Not because of the play – that was God awful – but because of what came after. The am dram club usually got its money from small donations, ticket sales, and the annual fee that the members grudgingly paid, but there were some rich eccentrics in the area who always funded the club in the vague hope that they were giving back to the community. This year the contributions must have been off the chart, as after the costumes, sets, and equipment hire, the club still had money left over to put on a small fireworks display.

The evil doctor had just been hanged for his sins (a lovely way to end a production aimed mainly at families), and we were all told to leave the seats and go and stand on the grass in front of the castle in order to join in with the celebration of his death (again, lovely).

We all filed out of the seats (neither Norman nor Connor had made another appearance), and stood where we were told. It was a lot darker and colder now, and I linked arms with Will, nestling into his large, warm-looking hoodie.

The ‘small’ display turned out to be an extravaganza of whizzing lights and blaring music, similar to what could usually be found in Willowton and Birston on Bonfire Night, but unlike anything Little Forest had ever been host to.

I often think back to that fireworks display; the whole village – or most of it, anyway – oohing and ahhing and laughing and singing along to cheesy pop songs with the odd concerto thrown in, eyes alight with a magical glow, blissfully unaware of the blossoming evil that was slowly worming its way into their cosy existence.

I looked up and smiled at Will, forgetting the cold, forgetting Norman and Connor doing whatever it was they did in the woods, forgetting Veronica. The sky was ablaze with reds, blues, greens and golds, a spectacular symphony of lights set against the grand backdrop of the silent castle.

I sighed, as I’d been doing a lot lately, but this wasn’t a sigh of despair or grief or of feeling totally and utterly alone, it was a sigh of contentment. I let my hand slip down Will’s arm to his hand, giving it a friendly squeeze, and we stood, hand in hand, watching the illuminated sky while the music washed over me, (temporarily) erasing all my worries and fears.

I cling onto that memory with a fierce longing; it was the last night before everything went completely and irrevocably to hell.

The calm before the storm.

And the storm was a big one.

***

The second evening of Fright Fest was always spent at Chillingsley Hall – a stately home situated on the outskirts of the village of Durwich. It was the elegant and impressively grand house of Lord Willowton, and one of the main tourist attractions in the area.

Along with its annual contribution to Fright Fest, Chillingsley played host to summer fêtes and Christmas extravaganzas, and I was sure that there wasn’t a single person in Little Forest, Durwich or Renfield who hadn’t visited the Hall at least four or five times in their lives.

I used to go to Chillingsley a lot with Veronica when we were little. The part of the house which was open to the public was awe-inspiring, especially to a couple of ten-year-old girls who loved the rich colours and vibrant decorations in the luxurious rooms. The furniture, chandeliers and paintings of long gone but not forgotten Lords and Ladies evoked an extravagant past that fascinated us both. We’d done the tour of the main house and the servants’ quarters more times than we could count, and it wasn’t unusual for us to spend entire weeks playing in the acres of beautiful gardens during the summer holidays.

During Fright Fest, Lord W gave permission for the house, the grounds, the museum – everything – to be transformed into a fantastical world of ghosts, ghouls and goblins with devilishly fun games, a spooky fairground, and a lavish ‘bloody buffet’ which pretty much everyone in the area turned up for.

I was more than a little excited about it this year. I was going with Will, Rach and Max, and I was convinced Veronica would be there. She loved Chillingsley as much as I did, and if I saw her at all, I was going to grab her and make her talk to me.

If I had the guts, that was.

All of the weird things that had been happening lately were making me miss her more than ever. Sure, I had Will to talk to, but I’d known Veronica my whole life. I wished I could tell her what was going on with Norman and Connor, as well as what was going on with me. She knew me inside out.

More importantly, she knew about Edinburgh.

She was the only one who knew how I’d really got my scar.

***

The sun was just setting as we made our way across the river, over the cobblestone bridge and down the long, sweeping drive to the Grand Entrance.

The four of us had walked from the village (it only took about half an hour), and around twenty or so other Little Forest residents had left the same time we had. We’d all been laughing and joking on the way, and were in high spirits when we got to the Stately Home. There was something about this place; just seeing those giant white pillars of the Mansion House made me feel like a child again.

I grabbed Will’s hand and pulled him through the gate. “Come on guys, you’re being too slow!”

Rach rolled her eyes. “Every year. Beth, you’re twenty-one!”

I knew Will found Rach’s superior attitude highly annoying, so when he saw an opportunity to piss her off, he took it. “Let your hair down for once, Rach! You’re allowed to have fun, you know. Come on Maxy-boy, you gonna join the ‘kids’?”

I could see Max’s mouth and one of his eyes through his tangle of hair, and from what I could tell, he looked vaguely excited (which is about as emotionally charged as he ever seemed about anything), but one annoyed glare from Rach put him back in his place. “I’m good, we’ll catch up with you.”

I exchanged a glance with Will, our usual ‘well isn’t he under the thumb’ look, before we ran off down the smaller path to the main courtyard area. I was trying to look as silly as possible, limbs flailing about all over the place, in case Rach was still watching. Will was trying to look as silly as possible because… well, because he’s Will.

We paid our £10 entrance fee at the little gatehouse and joined the rest of the crowd outside the main Hall. On a normal day, the building looked grand and magnificent, with the giant pillars and pristine white steps – which led up to the main door – sparkling in the sun. On a Fright Fest evening, the look was completed with synthetic cobwebs, glowing pumpkins, fake blood, and hundreds of tiny green lights twinkling in the darkness. It never failed to make me shiver.

Although the event was only just starting, there were already hundreds of locals milling around the courtyard area, with some dressed up in generic Halloween garb: witches, devils, ghosts, black cats. A lot of people, like us, didn’t bother dressing up for Chillingsley as the next night was host to the Fright Fest Finale, complete with parades, floats, and the all-important costume competition.

The main attractions at Chillingsley during Fright Fest were the Mansion House itself (you could take the usual tour of the stately home, but with added morbid decorations), equally grisly tours of the servants’ quarters, a small fairground full of old and creaky rides, marquees full of food, drink and local crafts, and the usually beautiful gardens which were transformed into a macabre wonderland. The only thing not included in the festivities was its working farm; they kept the sheep, cows and donkeys far away from the drunken locals.

I couldn’t wait to get started.

I was pulling Will towards a ‘freaky fudge’ stall when I stopped in my tracks, and he must have seen the surprised expression on my face because his tone immediately became concerned.

“Beth? Beth, what is it?”

I gestured to a sign that was pointing to inside the museum. It read ‘Dress up this Fright Fest! Be a Lady or a Lout, a Lord or a Lowly Servant! £20 each.’

Will read the sign out loud and then punched me on the right arm. Luckily it had healed pretty well over the last few weeks and didn’t hurt anymore. “Jesus, Powers, I thought you’d seen the Garden Man or something.”

I shook my head (no need to go into all that now), and walked towards the museum entrance.

Will caught up with me just as I was going inside. “Beth, it’s twenty pounds!”

I looked longingly at the display of costumes on offer, including men’s suits and cute children’s ensembles. There were also some of the most beautiful Victorian style dresses I’d ever seen.

V and I used to spend hours staring at the outfits in the museum, imagining what we’d look like in them, knowing we’d never get a chance to wear them. I turned to face Will, pleading with him. “Please, Will. You have no idea how much I wanted to wear one of these dresses when I was little. It’ll be fun!”

His eyes widened in fear. “Hell no! I just wanted to stop you wasting money. I’m definitely not going to do it!”

The woman from behind the desk was watching us now, a smirk on her face, clearly amused by our conversation. I wondered if it was the first male-female argument she’d seen tonight regarding dressing up.

I decided to take charge. “Yes, Will, you are. I’m paying. Come on!” And with that I dragged him over to the desk and handed the woman £40 before he could protest any further. It was a bit steep, I admit, but I’d saved so much money from not eating at the Diner recently that I thought I could afford to splash out. Hell, I deserved to splash out.

Ten minutes later, I was dressed in a lavish purple and white Victorian replica dress complete with giant underskirt, long flared sleeves, corset, and more cleavage than I usually put on show. I also had a long, black wig that was styled into ringlets. They weren’t the most comfortable of things to wear, but I vowed to keep them on all evening to get my money’s worth.

Will had chosen – or rather, had chosen for him – a black suit with a long coat and a much-too-ruffled cream coloured shirt for his taste, but I think he secretly liked it and he agreed to wear it as long as I was paying.

I had to shell out an extra £5 each for the deposit, and I desperately hoped I wouldn’t drop any food on the dress during the next few hours. Although, as far as the corset was concerned, I didn’t think I’d be able to eat anything anyway, so I paid the extra £10 and asked the woman to take a photo of the two of us using my phone. After that, we headed outside to test out our new looks.

***

It was hard to walk in my dress. It was so long that I had to pick up the ridiculously large skirt so I didn’t trip over, and the corset was feeling tighter with every passing minute. I stood up straighter and breathed in as much as I could.

Will seemed to be having problems, too; he kept pulling his trousers up while trying to keep his shirt tucked in. Lord and Lady we definitely were not.

Walking up the steps to the Mansion House, we joined the queue of people entering through one of the three main doors into the Grand Foyer.

The entrance room was a vision of white marble, or at least it usually was. The busts of long-dead Willowton Lords were covered in black cobwebs, the dazzling gold chandelier had green ooze dripping from its delicate crystals, and there was a rather childish crime scene outline of a body on the floor.

I was just staring at the strange position the fake person must have died in when I felt a hand on my shoulder. Jumping only slightly, I turned round to face a giant demon, at least three or four feet taller than me. It was laughing under its red and black mask.

“I sense this one has… Powers!”

Even trying to be a creepy giant demon, Daniel Fields couldn’t hide his voice very well.

“Hi Daniel.”

The demon slumped. Or as much as he could when he was eight or nine feet tall.

“I didn’t know you could walk on stilts.”

Will started lifting up the bottom of Daniel’s stripy silk trousers to see what was underneath, causing the head teacher to kick out reflexively, nearly losing his balance in the process.

“If you don’t mind…!” He looked back at me, or at least I thought that was what he was doing; his mask didn’t leave much room for manoeuvring. “Yes I can stilt walk. I can also ride a tricycle, juggle, fire twirl and fly on the trapeze. I went to Birston Circus School for five years.”

Daniel Fields never failed to surprise me.

“Well, anyway, you’d better hurry along, we’re holding the queue up. Have a horrific time, both of you!”

He started laughing as we walked off, and I could tell he was enjoying every evil minute of it.

“Man, that guy pops up everywhere!”

I nodded, agreeing with Will. “I don’t know how he has time to sleep.”

“Maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he really is some kind of demon.” He paused dramatically. “Maybe he’s our killer…”

I shushed Will, laughing at the same time. “Maybe he’s in on it with Connor; they seemed pretty chummy at Rach’s book club.”

Will stopped walking. “Really?”

I gave him a clip round the ear. “I’m joking! If Daniel Fields is a crazed psychopath, then there really is no hope for the rest of us.”

Daniel’s maniacal laughing floated over to us from behind and I looked at Will, his mouth turning up at the corners.

We were both still laughing at the thought when we entered the next room.

***

As usual, each and every single room of Chillingsley made me stand and stare in awe. The Dining Room – with its high ceilings, long table, and elegant place settings – was made only slightly less appealing by the fake food on display, most of which was oozing with slime and guts and was accompanied by glasses of what I guessed was meant to be blood.

The Red Drawing Room was stuffed with dead dummies, some of which looked a little too real for my liking (especially the deceased little girl on one of the chairs), and the Library was lit with eerie red lamps, casting ghoulish shadows onto the centuries-old tomes.

Will and I watched in amusement as one of Ralph Cooper’s idiotic friends messed about with an out-of-bounds bookcase and found the secret passageway that ran through the downstairs of the building. He was all jokes and showing off until he pulled the bookcase shut and inadvertently got stuck in the now blocked-off passage. Ralph, as ringleader, thought this was the funniest thing he’d ever seen (even Will and I had tears in our eyes from laughing), and decided to leave his so-called friend there.

Once they’d left the room and there were still desperate shouts and pounding noises coming from the bookcase, I decided to put him out of his misery. After all, if it was me who was stuck in that tiny space, I’d be far more hysterical than he was being.

Walking over, I pressed on the large, black book and let the case creak open.

The tall, lanky teenage boy – who had tears running down his face – jumped out of the small hole as soon as he could before leaping on me and hugging me fiercely. After a second or two of awkwardness, he let go of me, embarrassed, and ran out of the room.

“That was a good trick.” It was Mrs-bloody-Teasdale, who had obviously just entered the room and seen me apparently conjuring a snivelling male from a bookcase.

I walked quickly over to Will – who could barely breathe he was laughing so much – and pushed him out of the room, giving Mrs T a quick (and what I hoped was sarcastic-looking) smile.

The next thing we did was take a tour of the servants’ quarters, which had been a particular favourite of mine since childhood when V and I had learned how to wash clothes Victorian-style and helped to make old-fashioned biscuits in the kitchen.

Entering the servants’ kitchen was like entering another world; everything was done with such fine detail that it always seemed more real to me than any other part of the Estate, and the wooden tables, copper pots and giant jelly moulds always made me wish I knew how to cook. For a few minutes, anyway.

Of course, it wasn’t looking its usual charming self tonight. The normally smiling, helpful maids were now grimacing, dirt-covered ghouls, screeching with laughter at anyone unfortunate enough to enter their grime-encrusted kitchen.

One of the women – whom I thought I recognised but couldn’t quite tell under all the make-up and fake blood – grabbed hold of Will and slammed him against the wall, a little too violently for my liking.

“Could I treat a nice, young lad like yourself to some of our pie? It’s delicious! It’s made from only the finest human ingredients.”

Will looked slightly panicked. “Er… no, you’re alright, thanks.”

The kitchen hand screeched her banshee-like laugh again and let go of him, giggling to herself madly as she disappeared down the small corridor towards the brew house.

“You OK, Will?” I tried to hide my smile as he peeled himself off the wall.

“No… I think I went to high school with that girl. She scared the crap out of me then and she still does now!”

I took Will’s hand, laughing, and led him over to the main table where various kitchen implements – that looked more like torture devices – were laid out.

I started picking them up and inspecting them, trying to guess what they were used for (V and I used to play this game when we were little), until I came to a silver plate cloche, taking pride of place in the middle of the table.

The sick people at Willowton did this every year, and I briefly wondered if Will knew about this particular joke.

“Hey, Will, what dish do you think is under here?”

He kneeled down to be on the same level as the cloche and hovered his hand over it. “Probably some of that human pie that Little Miss Freak was on about.”

I watched, trying not to laugh, as he reached out and lifted the lid.

The top of the cloche clattered to the floor as Will yelled, jumped up, and hung onto me for dear life.

It only took me a few seconds to join in with the screaming.

“Hi Beth!”

This year, the damn head that was always under the cloche was none other than my boss, Hannah Green. She had white make-up all over her face and was doing a pretty good job of looking like a corpse.

“Jesus, Hannah. I didn’t know you worked Fright Fest.”

The corpse head smiled, showing newly-blackened teeth. “Got ya! I wouldn’t have missed that reaction for the world. It is a bit uncomfortable under here though, only got a little cushion to sit on.”

I prized Will’s fingers off from around my waist and smiled at Hannah.

“I think I need a drink after that.”

Hannah tried to gesture behind her with her head. “There are free samples in the brewery.”

Will grabbed my hand and started walking towards the corridor. “That sounds more like my kind of thing.”

I waved bye to Hannah as we left the kitchen, ignoring her request that I put the lid back on over her head.

Hey, she wasn’t my boss here.

***

The Brew House always seemed formidable to me, whether it was Fright Fest or not; something to do with the giant, gaping wooden vats and the old-fashioned machinery lurking in shadowy corners made me uneasy.

Astonishingly, they still produced beer here for a local brewery, giving the whole place an air of authenticity that a lot of the other rooms didn’t have.

It was empty of people when we got there, and Will made a beeline for the sample table, picking up two of the small glasses and downing them one after the other. He had a third and fourth in his hand when he went over to the ‘History of Chillingsley Brew House’ information board.

I picked up one of the glasses and smelled it suspiciously before taking a gulp. I wasn’t the biggest beer fan in the world, but hey, it was free.

“Awesome.”

I turned round to face Will. “What’s awesome?”

“Did you know that servants at Chillingsley used to be given eight pints of beer a day as part of their wages? Even kids used to drink it.”

“Sounds like a good idea to me, maybe I should go and suggest it to Hannah while she’s stuck in that table.”

Will walked back over to the sample stand and deposited the empty glasses. “Yeah, remind me to get you back for that, by the way.”

I smiled, putting my own glass down. “Hey, it’s not my fault you didn’t know about the Head in the Kitchen; they do it every year.”

He handed me another glass of free beer. “Well at least I’ll know for next year.” He smiled, his eyes lingering on mine. I broke his gaze and moved away to look at the information plaque, and at the same moment we were plunged into darkness. I gasped, nearly dropping my glass in surprise, and instinctively reached out towards Will, but I’d moved too far away and couldn’t find him.

“Beth?”

“Yeah, I’m here.” I could hear my voice shaking.

A familiar cackling sound drifted over to us in the gloom, and I heard Will moan loudly, “Turn on the damn lights!”

I blinked as the room was suddenly illuminated.

The girl Will knew from school was standing next to the switches, giggling madly. “Got you, Wolseley. You know I always wanted to get you alone in a darkened room…”

I walked over to the table, deposited my glass, and pulled Will by the arm towards the exit. I was furious that this stupid, annoying girl had just scared the crap out of me. “Yeah, well he’s not alone, is he?” I screeched, a bit banshee-like.

I dragged Will out into the fresh air, slamming the large door shut behind me. “What the hell is her problem?”

Will looked dazed, as if he wasn’t sure what had just happened. “Are you OK?”

I nodded, walking off towards the bright lights of the marquee. “I’d just rather not be in the dark right now.”

***

We’d just emerged from the large crafts tent when we ran into The Couple.

“Sorry! I didn’t see… Beth? Will?” Rach obviously hadn’t recognised us straight away, and I smiled to myself.

I’d almost forgotten we were in costume; I’d become so used to them when we were in the mansion house and the servants’ quarters, where we matched the extravagant surroundings.

I curtseyed to Rach and Max, then immediately wished I hadn’t when I saw Max staring at the top of my corset, where certain things were threatening to pop out. Will noticed too and I cursed myself for not trying on a different size.

“Where on earth did you get those clothes from?”

I mentally thanked Rach for steering the conversation in a less embarrassing direction. “You can hire them for the evening from the museum. You two should do it, you’d look brilliant!” Rach would definitely look more Lady-like than me.

Her eyes lit up and she turned to face Max, whose unimpressed expression was exactly the same as Will’s had been when I’d dragged him to the museum desk. “Please?”

Max looked at Will for backup, who responded with a, “Be strong, man!”

Unfortunately for Will, Rach looked him up and down and came back with, “Like you, you mean?”

I laughed at the look on Will’s face when he realised he was probably as under the thumb as Max was, and I realised I was having a good time – a really good time – for the first time in ages. The only thing that would make it better would have been…

“Veronica!”

I glanced at Rach, thinking she must have developed psychic powers, before following her eye line to a couple of people standing next to one of the pillars outside the Mansion.

Her eyesight must have been better than mine; in the darkness it took me a few seconds to recognise her from this distance. “Who’s she with?”

Will answered flatly, “Norman.”

***

I watched V and Norman for a minute or so, the other three in silence behind me, and after a while Rach mumbled something about looking in the marquee. I didn’t reply.

Will came and stood next to me and I glanced up to see him shrug, looking as bewildered as I was. I turned back to watch Veronica and Norman and from what I could tell at this distance, they were talking animatedly. Or, at least, Norman was; Veronica was looking at him with what might have been fear. Or it could have been boredom. I couldn’t quite tell.

“I can’t see anything from here.” Grabbing Will’s hand, I started walking towards the Hall, making sure to keep behind big groups of people as much as possible. We managed to get to the stairs and we both slid behind one of the pillars about twenty feet from where Norman and Veronica were standing. If we poked our heads round we could see them pretty well; I only prayed that neither of them would turn in our direction and see us spying on them.

I still couldn’t hear what they were saying from this distance but I could see their faces more clearly now, coloured green by all the tiny lights. Veronica didn’t look scared or bored after all – she looked angry. Almost as angry as she’d been with me at the Diner.

Norman, on the other hand, seemed worried; he kept putting his hand up to his temple as if he had a headache.

I took Will’s hand again and dragged him to the next pillar along, walking behind them so neither Norman nor Veronica would catch sight of us. I still couldn’t hear anything but I was scared to get too close in case they did see us; I couldn’t afford to piss either of them off any more than I already had.

V suddenly turned towards us – as if she were about to walk away from Norman – and I quickly pulled my head back behind the pillar, nearly knocking it into Will’s in the process.

I held my breath and could feel my heart beating rapidly beneath my newly-found cleavage. I looked at Will – who seemed just as jumpy as I was – and it dawned on me just how strange my life had become. Now it was me spying on Veronica, and Norman of all people. I wondered if Connor had also been giving V advice on staying away from Norman.

None of it made any sense.

Veronica hadn’t walked past and I hadn’t seen her walk into the crowd so I peeked my head tentatively round the pillar again, with Will doing the same. She was still standing next to Norman, but now Norman had his hand around her wrist, seemingly trying to stop her walking off.

Veronica didn’t look happy by this turn of events, and was struggling out of Norman’s surprisingly strong-looking grip. When she’d freed her arm she yelled something at him – from this distance I couldn’t tell what – and stormed off towards the gardens. Norman turned to watch her and then lurched off in the direction of the marquee.

We waited for a minute or so and then made our own way towards Chillingsley Gardens.

***

Will and I crept towards the elegantly decorated archway that served as the entrance to the gardens, and we were about halfway across the gravelled space in front of the Mansion House when someone called Will’s name.

Stopping abruptly, we turned to see his colleague – Michael Cushion – peering hesitantly at us, and it took me a few seconds to realise why he looked so uncertain; I’m guessing Will had never turned up to the grocery store looking like this.

Michael started greeting Will in his slow, drone-like voice and I smiled politely, pulling on Will’s sleeve at the same time.

“Sorry, Mike, we were just on our way…”

“Oh, no problem. Will, I just wanted to ask you a quick question about your working hours next week.”

I groaned, not very subtly at all, and mumbled a quick “Excuse me” before running off towards the gardens. I wasn’t going to let the annoying Mr Cushion stop me from finding Veronica.

Passing through the lit up archway, I kept walking until I found myself in a labyrinth of neatly cut shrubs and wonderfully carved stone statues. I could still hear the excited bubble of voices coming from the main Mansion area, but it was more muted from here and I soon forgot about the crowds.

I’d always found these gardens breathtaking. No matter what the weather, what mood I was in, or who I was with, these few acres always made me feel peaceful. I had come here once as a teenager when my boyfriend of five months had broken up with me to go out with a tall, skinny blonde, and even though I’d been in a terrible state, just being in the gardens had soothed me.

It was having the same effect now, despite the dark and the cold.

Spotlights were dotted here and there, nestled in the foliage and in front of statues, casting brilliant streaks of light through the darkness.

It was so quiet among the shrubbery that it came as a shock to hear raised voices cutting through the serene atmosphere, and I tried to figure out where they were coming from. I walked along the gravel path, hearing the small stones crunch under my flat ballet pumps, and tried to focus on what the people were saying.

I couldn’t make out any words but the conversation sounded frantic and panicked. Quickening my pace, I lifted the layers of my skirt so I wouldn’t trip over. I was getting further and further away from the main house and I wondered vaguely if Will was still stuck talking about work.

I finally reached the end of the little path and entered the part of the gardens that were my favourite. There was an intricate maze made of hedges and statues that frustrated most people, but if you looked hard enough and walked for long enough, you would come across the most beautiful courtyard in the centre featuring a cute little pond and a set of benches, which in the summer were surrounded by a colourful array of flowers.

At this time of year there would just be empty trellises, but it was still a great place to sit and think.

Or normally it would be. From the sounds of things, a raging argument was about to break, kicking and screaming, through the tranquillity. I heard what sounded like glass smashing and I started running towards the row, worried that Norman might have somehow caught up with Veronica. Having been in the maze many times before, I navigated my way around the hedges and decorative sculptures with ease, the voices getting louder and more alarming as I got closer to the courtyard.

I ran round the corner and into the open space, just stopping myself in time to avoid running into a newly added statue of a woman and a baby.

The courtyard was ablaze with hundreds of pumpkins, each one meticulously carved, radiating warm orange light over the centre of the maze. The spotlights dotted here and there added to the light source in the area, making it blindingly clear that I was alone.

There was no one there. There were no voices, no smashed glass, nothing.

I stood and stared for a few minutes, the realisation that I was about to faint slowly filtering through my dazed mind; I only just made it to a nearby bench before I collapsed. I was feeling dizzy and disoriented, and a familiar sick feeling was lurking in my stomach.

My mind flashed to the woman in the Renfield pub and to my experience at Hill Top Farm. Not to mention Emma and the man in the road. Not to mention Edinburgh. Before I let my mind wander anymore, I fumbled for my phone in my bag and sighed in relief when I saw it still had signal. I called Will and immediately heard a phone ringing from not too far away.

“Beth? Where are you?”

“Near you, I just heard your phone. I’m at the centre of the maze.”

“Oh, brilliant.”

“Look, I’m not feeling great, can you come here?”

“Are you OK? Sure, only… I’m not great at mazes. And that’s when it’s daylight.”

I sighed. “Right, hang up. Then call me. I’ll let my phone ring, just… follow the noise.”

He didn’t sound convinced, but he did as he was told, and after a few minutes and a few attempts at calling (my stupid phone didn’t ring for long before reverting to answer phone), Will found me on the bench.

“Beth, are you alright? You look really pale.”

I nodded as he sat down next to me. “I’m OK now, I just went a bit… odd.”

“Odd? More than usual?”

I let that slide. “I came running through the maze because I could hear really loud voices and glass smashing. I thought maybe V might be in trouble. But when I got to the courtyard, there was no one here, absolutely no sign of any life.”

Will raised his eyebrows. “Yep, definitely more odd than usual.”

I groaned. “I’m serious.” I was starting to feel faint again and I took a few deep breaths.

Will seemed to realise that I wasn’t messing around and brought me in for a hug. “Sorry… I don’t have an explanation for that.”

I hugged him then pulled back, noticing my mouth had suddenly become very dry.

“I think I do.”

***

Will was waiting for me to explain, but I wasn’t entirely sure if I could tell him; my previous attempts at broaching the subject with him hadn’t exactly gone down well.

After a few moments of silence, I took a deep breath and hoped that what I was about to say wasn’t going to come out in one long, unintelligible jumble of words.

“I need to tell you something, and I’m hoping it will go some way to explaining why I’ve been a bit… preoccupied lately. I didn’t want to bring all this up but after what’s been happening, I can’t ignore it. And without V to talk to about it…”

I trailed off and Will sat closer to me on the bench. “You can tell me, Beth.”

I took another deep breath. “OK. Well it starts with a trip that V and I took to Edinburgh a few years ago.”

Will smiled, not sure where I was going with this. “Oh, I’ve heard of that trip, didn’t you get really drunk and end up sitting on a street corner in a puddle for three hours?”

I mentally cursed Veronica and her big mouth. “That’s not the point…”

Will smiled again, wider this time. “I knew it was true.”

I sighed, frustrated. “Can you just listen, please? This isn’t easy for me.”

His smile faded as he nodded. “Sure, sorry.”

I’d never told this story to anyone; the only other person who knew was V and that was only because she’d been there when it happened.

I took a deep breath and went into story-telling mode.

“Well, we went on one of the ghost tours that went round the city and then to this famous cemetery where a poltergeist was supposed to live. We’d deliberately avoided the ‘comedy’ ghost tours where people in costumes came up and grabbed you from behind, that kind of thing. We wanted the authentic thing. You know, the facts and figures. A historical tour.”

Will nodded uncertainly; he clearly had no idea why I was telling him this. Not that I could blame him.

“Anyway, they took us to this cemetery and into the part of the graveyard that had served as a prison in the past. Then they took the whole group into this supposedly haunted mausoleum and locked everyone in.” I paused, taking another deep breath.

“It was pitch black and we were packed in really tightly. There was hardly any air in there, and despite the laughing and joking we’d had on the tour, everyone was deadly quiet. We were all just too scared to talk or move.

“I remember thinking how stupid it was – twenty or so tourists stuck in a cold, dark mausoleum. Actually paying to do it. And then I felt something.”

Will was looking dubious but he kept his comments to himself. “Felt what?”

“I felt a pain on my back. A real pain. My first thought was that one of the rest of the group had got scared and had grabbed me, but then logic kicked in. I’d been the first to go into the mausoleum, and I was standing at the back with nothing but the muddy wall behind me. I could feel the pain start to intensify, almost to the point of excruciation, and then it stopped as soon as everyone in the tomb started screaming.”

“Screaming?” Will was raising his eyebrows as he stared at me, as though he was sure I was making this whole thing up for my own amusement.

I smiled bitterly, nodding. “And then laughing.”

“OK…” He trailed off, waiting for me to go on.

“I was too far back from the entrance to see, but someone in a sheet had jumped in front of the bars, shouting at everyone. Hence the scream, and then the relieved laughter when they’d realised it was just the tour guide in a crappy ghost costume. It turned out that there were no totally serious ghost tours in the city.

“Anyway, he unlocked the bars and let everyone out, but as I was right at the back it was a while before I could get moving. And that’s when I started feeling… unusual. I’d been fine when we’d first gone in, and while we were waiting in silence, but since the mysterious pain I’d felt on edge, and I began to feel sick and claustrophobic. Everyone was just being so slow. Veronica noticed and asked me what was wrong, but I didn’t want to say in front of everyone. Well, we eventually got out and we went straight back to the hostel.”

Will waited for me to carry on, and when I didn’t, he seemed to get frustrated. “And the pain?”

I thought again about whether I should tell him or not. We’d become close over the past couple of months and I didn’t want to lose his friendship now over this.

I decided to just come out with it. “Well, I told Veronica about what I felt when we were back at the hostel, and this other girl who was in our dorm overheard me. She was clearly some kind of ghost nut and had been on the tour loads of times. She was rambling about how poltergeists are meant to be able to physically harm people without them seeing, and often they’d leave a mark on the victim’s skin.

“V got angry at her and told her to mind her own business; she could tell it was freaking me out. Of course, the girl could tell this too, and she started asking me all kinds of questions: what was the pain like, where on my body had I felt it, had I looked at the skin there yet… I said no, I hadn’t. And that’s when she went crazy.”

“Crazy?”

“She literally started pulling at my shirt, trying to get it off me.”

Will leaned in closer. “Seriously?”

“Yes. V started yelling at her and she tried to pull her off but this girl was strong. There were two other girls in our room, French I think, and they’d been sleeping until that point. All the yelling had woken them up. I can only guess what it must have looked like to them; I don’t think they spoke English very well.

“Anyway, the next thing I know, the buttons on the front of my shirt were pinging off as this girl was tearing into my clothes.

“Eventually, Veronica managed to hit this girl round the face…”

Will opened his mouth and let out a brief laugh. “She hit her?”

“I know, it sounds bad, but it really was getting out of hand. Anyway, the girl fell backwards and she took my shirt with her. She gasped as she hit the floor, and I looked over to see if she was OK. She was pointing at me, her face eerily blank, and she told me to look in the mirror.

“With the fight and everything, I’d almost forgotten why it had started in the first place, but the look on her face brought it all back to me. I walked over to the mirror, almost too scared to look, and heard Veronica and the two French girls gasp from behind me as I did. I hesitated, then I turned round with my back to the mirror and looked over my shoulder.”

I stopped talking and again Will looked frustrated, but also scared out of his wits. While I didn’t want to frighten him, I was glad he seemed to be taking my story seriously.

“What I saw was a scratch mark.”

“There was an actual mark on you?”

“Yes, although ‘scratch mark’ doesn’t quite cover it. It was from my right shoulder down to pretty much my lower back. There were five long lines, bright red even though there hadn’t been any bleeding. A giant scratch covering most of my back from what looked like a human hand.”

I paused, remembering how I’d felt when I saw it for the first time. “But the weird thing is, my bra hadn’t been touched at all. The scratches were deep but the bra hadn’t been ripped or torn or anything. And of course, my shirt had been intact until the crazy girl ripped it off me. It was like something had the ability to get under my clothes and go straight to my skin.”

Will opened his mouth in horror and then closed it again, studying my face. “Are you having me on?”

I shook my head, wishing I was.

“Did you take any photos?”

“Oh, yeah. The crazy girl in the dorm took about ten just for herself. For all I know they’ve been published in some dodgy ghost book. But in the end, there wasn’t any need for photographic evidence.”

“What do you mean?”

I looked around, making sure we were still alone, then turned away from Will. “Undo my corset.”

I heard a nervous laugh. “Excuse me?”

“I can’t reach; you’ll have to undo the ribbon for me.”

There was a second of silence and then I felt Will scrambling at the thick ribbon. “How did you get it on?”

I shrugged. “The woman in the shop helped me while you were getting into your suit. She didn’t see it, though, it only shows up in certain light. You’ll probably be able to see it with all these spot lights.”

“See what?”

Will could be incredibly slow sometimes. It was one of the things that always drove Veronica mad and I could understand her annoyance now. “The scar. Why did you think I was asking you to undo my corset?”

“Oh, right.” There was another pause and then he started fumbling at the back of my dress again.

“Just loosen the ribbons so I can do it up again easily.” I could feel the dress getting slacker and I held onto the front to stop any form of indecent exposure occurring. I also hoped no one would walk into the courtyard while I was half undressed; it wouldn’t give off a very good impression.

I could feel Will getting to the end of the ribbon and he paused as he registered what he was seeing.

The same mark I’d described, only much fainter now than it had been a few years ago. I’d always wondered if Will had noticed it, but apparently he’d been oblivious.

“Jesus, Beth. How did I not know about this?”

I turned back to face Will, whose face had by now gone completely white.

“Only Veronica knows how I got it. I told my parents that I got attacked by a dog near Edinburgh Castle.”

Will raised his eyebrows at me. “They bought that?”

“They seemed to, they bought it more than they would have the real reason, anyway. Can you do me up again please?”

Will nodded, looking scared but wary.

I waited for him to tighten the corset back up, not wanting to say any more until I could see his face and gauge his reaction.

“OK, I think that’s done.”

I turned round and smiled at him. “Thanks.”

“So…”

I wasn’t quite sure how to go on. “So, the whole experience terrified me, and I had nightmares for months. I got better once the scar started to fade and I realised it wouldn’t be as noticeable, but obviously I can’t ever forget about it. Or how I got it…

“When it first happened I went into mad research mode, reading up on poltergeists, ghosts, that kind of thing. Then, when nothing else happened, I just kind of pushed it to the back of the mind. I got kind of good at doing that.

“After ages of talking the subject to death with Veronica, I made her promise me she’d never bring it up again. But you know V…”

Will nodded. “I’m guessing that was easier said than done?”

“Understatement. Every time we saw a horror film with a poltergeist in or someone mentioned a weird occurrence, she’d give me one of her looks.”

“I can imagine.”

I smiled. “It was a few years ago now so she’d stopped doing it so much recently, but still… actually, these past couple of months without V would have been a welcome break from her reminding me of it. Well, if it wasn’t for…” I hesitated again. “For everything that’s been happening.”

Will was waiting for me to go on. “Everything?”

“Yeah… like Emma, and the man in the road who I thought we’d hit, and the voices I just heard.” And Hill Top. Couldn’t forget Hill Top.

He nodded slowly, infuriatingly saying nothing.

“Will, do you have any idea what I’m saying?”

He hesitated, and my stomach lurched. I knew I shouldn’t have said anything; any moment now he was going to run off into the maze and leave me completely on my own, in more ways than one.

“I understand what you’re saying.”

There was silence again. “And? What do you think?”

He paused yet again, and I had a fleeting urge to slap him.

“I believe that you believe what you’re saying.”

Now I was the one who was silent.

Will obviously saw my face drop and tried to back track. “I mean, I believe you.”

“No you don’t; you just said so.” I heard the fear in my voice and felt like running away, away from the maze, away from Will, away from this whole situation.

He squirmed on the bench. “I’m sorry, it’s just… how did you expect me to respond? What you’re saying is impossible, there must be logical explanations for all of it.”

“Right, like I was too drunk to know who it was outside The Pit.”

Will was looking decidedly uncomfortable now. “That’s one theory…”

I sat up straight, getting angry now. “And what are your other theories? Please tell me, I’m dying to know.”

“Beth…”

“No, really, I’d like to hear. The man we didn’t run over?”

“Had you had a drink then?”

I shook my head in disbelief. “One Poison Punch.”

“Well, they’re pretty strong…”

“Strong enough to make me hallucinate? I’m pretty sure if that were true, the Doctor’s Surgery pub would have a line of local stoners queuing up to get theirs every night.”

“Or maybe you did hit someone but couldn’t find him in the fog.”

“Well, that’s made me feel much better. And the voices?”

“You probably did hear voices, but they could have been anyone. This is a maze, Beth. You could hear people in the next row and not see them before they’d got to the exit.”

I paused. That was true, but these voices had stopped abruptly, as soon as I got into the courtyard. It’s not like I was overhearing some people who had just walked off in a different direction.

“Fine. And the girl at The Pit?”

His face was a blank. “Who?”

Oh yes, I’d forgotten I’d kept that little gem to myself. “I didn’t tell you… but remember when we were all at The Pit together and I sent Freddie looking for that girl that looked about four?”

He nodded slowly, as if he was having trouble remembering something from two months ago.

“Well I followed her to the toilets, but when I got there, she’d vanished. She was in a cubicle, and then she wasn’t.”

Will was looking dubious again. “So why didn’t you tell anyone?”

“It was kind of eclipsed by the whole Emma thing. But I saw the girl again, at the Random Violation gig.”

Another look of doubt. “Oh yeah?”

“Yes. She was on the stage. Standing right next to Mark Robson.”

“No, she wasn’t… I think people would notice if a little girl appeared on stage with a rock band.”

I gritted my teeth. “I know.”

He smiled sheepishly, shrugging.

“OK, forget the girl. What about the scar?”

Will looked stumped on that one.

“It’s a bit different when there’s evidence, isn’t it?”

He wavered. “Could you have scraped yourself on something sticking out of the wall?”

“Something that scraped my skin but not my clothes? Now you’re the one not making any sense.”

“The point is, most of these things can be explained; I wouldn’t want you to get worried over nothing.”

Tears sprung to my eyes as it occurred to me that having one of your closest friends not believe you was quite possibly one of the worst feelings in the world. I thought of telling him about Hill Top – the music, the door, the photo flying across the room. But there was no point if he wasn’t believing a single word I said.

“Beth, I’m just trying to help. Enough bad things are happening around here without throwing all that into the mix. You’re just making yourself stressed for nothing.”

I wanted to keep talking, to convince him that it was all true. I thought about telling him about the encounter with Connor and the Garden Man as well, but I just couldn’t face any more rejection.

Wiping away my tears, I nodded, pretending to give in. Maybe I really was giving in, letting Will confirm all my doubts about what was happening to me; maybe alcohol was partly to blame, or my over-active imagination, or maybe someone was just messing with me.

And then there was always the thing that scared me so much more than supposedly seeing dead people ever could; maybe I’d just gone completely and totally 100% crazy. “You’re probably right.”

Will didn’t look convinced. “Really?”

“Let’s just leave it. I think I want to go home now.”

He looked crushed. “But there’s still loads of stuff to do! I heard you and V were the last ones to leave last year.”

I shook my head. “A lot of things have changed since last year.”

Taking a deep breath, I stood up, waiting for Will to go.

He looked at me helplessly. “I don’t know the way out.”

***

I led Will past the identical, perfectly trimmed rows of dark green hedges, glancing at the only distinguishing features of the seemingly never-ending labyrinth: fake gravestones and mini mausoleums had been evenly spaced along the lush foliage, and they did a spectacular job of quashing any kind of beauty the maze had previously had.

They only held my attention for a few moments, however. I hadn’t realised it but I was physically shaking from the recent incident in the courtyard, and the subsequent cringe-worthy conversation. Will kept looking at me with concern and all I wanted was to pull myself together, at least until I was on my own and could break down without worrying about witnesses.

I was just wondering if Will would let me go home by myself so I could be alone, when I started hearing a real voice from up ahead, possibly round a bend or two. I glanced at Will to check that I wasn’t hearing things again, and he mouthed ‘Veronica’ to me at the same moment that I twigged who it was.

She seemed to be talking to someone, pausing for moments of silence. She must have been on the phone. Here it was, the moment I’d been waiting for; I could try and talk to V while she was on her own and in one of the places that held great childhood memories for both of us.

Then I started shaking again, quite uncontrollably. I couldn’t deal with this now, I just couldn’t; one harsh word from V and I would definitely break down right there in the middle of the maze.

I took Will’s hand, and much to his bewilderment, walked quickly back towards the courtyard, trying not to make too much noise treading on the stony ground.

I was trying to get back to the maze centre so we could hopefully get out the other side of the courtyard before Veronica appeared, but her voice was already getting louder, and in a panic I ran towards one of the fake mausoleums, opening the plastic door and pushing Will inside before getting in myself.

The door of the mausoleum barely closed; it had looked pretty big from the outside, taking up half the width of the path, but it soon became extremely apparent that it was a sort of anti-TARDIS. It was obviously meant to be looked at and not used, and I’d inadvertently forced Will and myself into an embarrassingly over-friendly position, squeezed into a fake crypt.

A very small fake crypt. Tiny in fact. With not much air.

I tried not to dwell on that too much.

To top it off, Will hadn’t done up my dress quite tightly enough and it now fitted even worse than it did when I’d first put it on. I looked down and got an eyeful of cleavage; I could only guess what Will’s vantage point was. I couldn’t even be grateful that it was dark (although that would have freaked me out even more); there was a spotlight just outside the mausoleum and more than enough light was filtering through the thin plastic door. I just hoped Veronica wouldn’t be able to see our silhouettes through it.

I glanced up at his face (which was easier said than done when there was hardly room to breathe) to find that he looked just as uncomfortable as me. Rising on my toes slightly, I whispered into his ear, “I swear I thought this would be bigger.”

He smiled awkwardly. “I’m not complaining.”

After a few seconds of silence, I looked down to avoid his gaze and saw that the door hadn’t closed properly. To make it worse, my billowing skirt was poking out of the gap.

“Oh great.” I bent over as much as I could in the confined space and tried to free the stubborn fabric. I looked quickly out of the slit in the door and saw V; she was about twenty feet away, looking at one of the cheap Hallowe’en decorations whilst talking on the phone.

The dress fabric was caught on a stray bit of plastic and the more I fiddled with it, the more stuck it became and the more exasperated I grew. I could feel a kind of hysteria rising in me and I told myself to stop being so melodramatic.

I’d just managed to reel in the excess material when Veronica turned in my direction, and quickly pulling the door to, I impulsively held onto Will, hoping she hadn’t seen me.

I could feel Will’s arms stiffen, and then loosen as he put them around me. “Beth?” he whispered. “What’s going on? Why are we hiding from Veronica? She’s the one usually avoiding you…”

I just couldn’t cope with this anymore. I was dressed as a Victorian woman, hiding in a fake crypt that was much too small for someone with claustrophobia, pushed up next to Will Wolseley of all people, and the person I was hiding from – the person I was scared of running into – was my former best friend.

Who was possibly my sister.

I was amazed my brain didn’t just explode right there and then.

“Beth?”

Will was waiting for a response but I had no idea what to say. I had to stop him talking as I could hear Veronica getting closer, so I shook my head, hoping he’d get the message. He must have heard her too because he shut up as her voice became more audible.

I listened to what she was saying, while all the time leaning against Will’s shoulder.

“Can you tell Norman to back off?… Yeah, he just cornered me… I’m at Chillingsley… Yes! You can’t stop me from at least trying to have fun…”

Who was she talking to? Someone who had influence over Norman? I moved slightly to peer at Will’s face. He looked confused too, but whether about Veronica or me, I wasn’t sure.

V’s voice suddenly became much louder. “No, I haven’t. I’m in the maze, I thought I might see her…”

She was right outside the mausoleum now, and I stiffened against Will again. If she opened the door and saw us like this, she would definitely get the wrong idea, and seeing as she’d got mad at me at the pub just because Will hugged me… well, it wouldn’t be good.

Luckily, I didn’t have to worry for much longer, as her voice started getting fainter again. “Yes, I know. As if I could forget… Yes I’ll come round for Dad’s birthday… No, I’m not just saying that… Yeah, bye.”

I could barely make out the last word, and I guessed she’d walked off round the corner towards the courtyard. Relaxing, I stood back slightly, looking down in thought.

“Beth? Are you alright?” Will placed his hand under my chin and raised it until I was staring straight at him.

He looked so concerned, so worried about my possible breakdown, that I could feel myself getting angry. He’d done nothing wrong, and I knew that, but I wasn’t exactly thinking clearly. “You ask me if I’m alright? After I just tried to confide in you and you completely shot me down? No, I’m not alright.”

I thought I’d better not bring up the whole claustrophobia thing; I was trying to push that to the back of my mind until I thought it was safe to go back out onto the path.

Will tried to speak but I stopped him.

“I don’t know why I thought I could just come and have fun today. Do you know that I still have nightmares about the man in the garden?” This was true, but I didn’t tell Will that they were now always set outside the second-hand bookshop rather than outside my house. “I can’t even go to that bathroom at night because it brings it all back. I’m terrified of being alone, and I’m even more scared of what’s happening to me.”

Will shook his head and was about to say something when I cut him off again. I could feel tears – of anger, of fear, of disappointment – filling my eyes.

“Will, I’m seeing things, I’m hearing things. I’m hallucinating entire conversations! If you’re right and my beliefs are wrong, do you know what that means? It means there’s something seriously wrong with me. And to top it all off, I’m hiding from my former best friend, I’m petrified of a man in his eighties, I can’t even talk to my parents anymore…”

The last few words came out in a garbled mess as the tears engulfed me, and when Will pulled me towards him, I gave in to the hug.

I could feel him stroking my hair, although it wasn’t actually my hair, it was a Victorian wig. That kind of random thought would usually make me laugh, but I was currently too numb to find anything funny.

“Beth, I know you’re scared, anyone would be. But no matter what you think, you’re not alone. I’m not going anywhere, and I’ll be here whenever you need me. Even if it’s the middle of the night and you need an escort to the bathroom.” I could tell he was cracking a smile, trying to lighten the mood. “I mean it. Any time, I’ll be there.”

I mumbled into his shoulder, feeling my anger subside slightly. “Thanks, Will.”

There was a pause and I could tell he was smiling. “What was that?”

I leaned back so I could see him. “I said thanks. I mean it. I know you’re just trying to make me feel better; I’m sorry I had a go at you.” I hadn’t completely forgiven him, but I was just feeling so low that I figured anyone who was still willing to be my friend was OK by me.

He smiled back, raising his right hand so he could gently brush away one of the tears from my cheek. “No problem, B.”

He dropped his hand and moved it – along with his left one – around my waist. I tried to ignore it (which, again, was easier said than done in the confined space), so instead I just settled for smiling back.

“Beth…”

Will seemed to run out of words, and after a few seconds of hesitation, he leaned down quickly and pressed his lips against mine. I was so caught off guard that for a moment I couldn’t think at all and I just let him kiss me while my hands dangled awkwardly at my sides.

His hands moved up to cup my face as he pressed my body against the cool plastic of the wall, and I had a moment of worry that the whole façade would just collapse under the pressure.

A second or so passed, and before giving it any more thought, I brought my hands up to the back of his neck – feeling his warm, smooth skin – and kissed him back, with more enthusiasm than I’d intended. More enthusiasm than I ever thought I’d have for this unexpected situation.

The perfect moment lasted all of two seconds, after which my brain kicked in. A tangled flash of images passed through my mind: Emma, the Garden Man, the girl pulling my shirt off in Edinburgh, Hill Top Farm, Will.

Will not believing a single word I said.

A mixture of anger and sadness suddenly coursed through my body and I pulled away from him, pushing my hands against his chest and forcing him to stop.

There was a brief instant of complete embarrassment before I gladly opened the plastic door and stepped back into the path of the maze, drinking in the fresh night air and not even thinking about the possibility of Veronica being there. Luckily, she wasn’t, and I started walking towards the entrance when Will caught up with me.

“Erm…”

I cut him off, not wanting to talk about what just happened. “So, Veronica’s phone call was weird, wasn’t it?”

“Beth…”

“She sounded like she was talking to her mum… but why would she need to go round for her dad’s birthday? Isn’t she living with them anymore?”

“Look, can we just talk?”

I stopped walking. “Fine.”

“OK, what just happened?”

I turned to face him. “Well, it would seem that you decided to take advantage of the fact that I was upset and all over the place.”

His mouth opened in objection. “I wasn’t taking advantage! Beth…” he shook his head. “I’m sorry for the bad timing. But do you know how long I’ve waited to do that?”

Oh, God. As if I didn’t have enough to worry about.

“Will, I’m sorry… I don’t… I just don’t think about you in that way.”

Watching his face drain of colour made me feel physically sick. “I just thought… you know, we were getting close. You keep holding my hand, hugging me…” he shrugged, clearly embarrassed.

“Will… I kind of do that with everyone. I’m sorry if you thought…”

“Really? I’ve never seen you do that with…with…” I could tell he was frantically searching for a name, any name, which he could make his point with. It seemed to come to him suddenly. “Max!”

I laughed in spite of the awkward situation. “I’m not exactly friends with Max…”

Will shook his head, cheeks blazing red, with either embarrassment or anger, I couldn’t tell. Probably both. “You kissed me back! You can’t deny that!”

I reached out for his hand, shaking my head. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to. Will, you’re my best…”

“Just drop it.” He nodded, as if to himself, then stormed off.

I didn’t have the heart to tell him he was going the wrong way.

***

A while later, we were just going past the statues near the entrance to the gardens when we walked by a couple and their daughter. I smiled at the parents automatically and then at the little girl, before realising it was one of the girls from the library. Lizzie or Jess.

She smiled back at me, but her expression soon turned to horror; she seemed to be looking at something just past my shoulder. I turned round to peer into the darkness but there was nothing there. Nothing visible, anyway.

Her parents had noticed now and were looking at me, accusation in their eyes. The mother looked down at Lizzie – I’m sure it was Lizzie. “Darling, what’s the matter?”

With pure fear in her eyes, Lizzie continued to stare just past me.

Will glanced from Lizzie to me, confusion clouding his features as he tried to figure out what was going on.

The father glared at me. “Who are you? Do you know my daughter?”

His tone was so sharp I didn’t know what to say, but surprisingly, Will came to my rescue. I could only assume that he was trying to hide his deep embarrassment; as if he could just pretend our little argument hadn’t happened.

“We met her and her friend in the library, they asked us about the ghost dog.” I noticed his eyes flicker to me on the G word and I winced. The parents were still glaring at us. “So she told them the story.”

Her mother bent down and picked Lizzie up, turning her back to us. This, unfortunately, still meant that Lizzie could see us both over her mum’s shoulder. Her expression hadn’t changed, and I was starting to feel very, very uncomfortable.

Her father’s voice got louder, booming through the tranquil gardens as he shouted, “That was you? She’s been having nightmares about that bloody dog for weeks!”

I expected Lizzie to flinch at the volume of his voice, or his language, but she just kept staring steadily past my shoulder.

Will tried to defend me. “Hey, they wanted to hear the story. They were having a great time! Anyway, they were already reading about it in the local legends section. Maybe you should keep a better eye on what she’s doing.”

I prized my eyes away from Lizzie’s deathly stare and looked behind me again. There was nothing but a bush about five feet away, but a horribly familiar feeling was slowly starting to descend over me.

Whatever it was, I couldn’t see it, but I could sense it. And clearly, Lizzie could too. Surely, if she could see or sense something, it couldn’t just be me going mad?

Surely Will could see what was happening here?

All of a sudden I wanted to be out of there, to be on my own. “Will, I think we’d better go.” I turned to the father. “I’m so sorry if I scared your daughter.” I walked away quickly; I could almost feel the parents glaring after me as I went.

Will was shaking his head. “They could have heard that story from anywhere.”

“I know. I don’t think it was that, though. She wasn’t looking at me, Will. Didn’t you notice?”

“What? She was properly staring at you.”

I shook my head vehemently. “She was looking at whatever was behind me. Don’t they say children can sense things that most adults can’t?”

Will was looking at me dubiously. “Isn’t that dogs and stuff?”

“Well, yeah. And kids. She was blatantly staring at something behind me! I could feel it too.”

I looked at him expectantly but he just shook his head.

“You’re never going to believe me about this, are you?”

“Beth…”

“Never mind. Just leave it.”

“Wait…”

“Leave it!”

I stormed off back to the Mansion House, with Will trying to keep up with me the whole way. I could feel all the hurt and the anger mixing together inside me, turning into some kind of lethal concoction, and I was worried that if I tried to say anything else to Will, my head would just explode, or I’d start breathing fire at him or something. I supposed the latter wouldn’t be too bad.

On returning to the Mansion House, I immediately took the costume back, wanting to get out of there as soon as humanly possible.

***

Will accompanied me home (we walked slightly apart from each other, mainly in silence), and when we got to my house I told him I wasn’t feeling great and that I was going to bed.

“Beth, I really think we should talk about what happened.”

I knew we should, but I just couldn’t; I was still unbelievably disappointed that I’d told him my deepest, darkest secrets, and that he’d rejected all of them. Every single one of them. “I can’t, not now.”

He stared at me blankly for a few moments, responded with a brisk “Fine,” and walked off without saying another word.

Closing the front door, I watched him through the kitchen window as he walked down my garden and along the pavement. His head was bent down and it looked like he was mumbling to himself. I stared at him helplessly; not only was I apparently losing the plot but now I was sending others crazy as well.

I sighed, feeling incredibly lousy, and went to find Keaton.

[]Chapter Nine

The next day I was supposed to be helping my parents out with their booth at the Market Square – on the last day of Fright Fest the market got transformed into a ghoul-related money-making machine, and my dad always had a stall there to promote the castle – but as the morning light slowly started to filter through my curtains, I decided to skip it.

When my mum came to ask if I was still going to help, I told her I felt ill and that I was going to stay in bed for a few more hours.

She looked slightly disappointed, but more relieved if anything. Like me, she probably hadn’t been looking forward to a whole day of awkward silences as we all pretended everything was OK.

So instead I spent the day wandering around the house, drinking cup after cup of tea, and generally feeling sorry for myself.

At around two in the afternoon a thought suddenly occurred to me. I’d been thinking all day that I was well and truly alone now that Will had made it clear he didn’t believe me, and now that the whole V situation was too complicated to even think about, but that wasn’t entirely true. There was another person I could go to.

If only I knew who she was.

Ever since my dream that ended up in a wrist slashing, the strange Renfield woman in the Doctor’s Surgery pub had been waiting at the back of my mind. Waiting for me to remember her words, waiting for me to go and find her.

She knew something I didn’t, and I intended to find out what it was.

I left the house and walked to the end of my front garden, peering up and down the street to see if anyone was about. When I didn’t see anything, I opened the gate and started walking towards Forest Way, which would take me out of the village. It was around a thirty minute walk to Renfield and as there weren’t any buses running on Fright Fest weekend, my only option was to go on foot.

The first time I felt like calling Will was when I was approaching Hill Top Farm; I could just about see the very top of the farmhouse looming behind the tall, leafy trees and I started to feel physically sick. I tried to keep thoughts of my previous visit right at the back of my mind.

I stopped walking and took a deep breath, trying to decide whether to get my phone out of my pocket or not. I decided against it; the thought that I couldn’t even walk to Renfield without an escort reminded me of just how much things had changed since the fall out with Veronica.

So instead of turning back, I kept my head down as I walked by, not wanting to catch even a single glimpse of Hill Top and the dark power that was lurking in the room at the end of that hallway.

I carried on walking and was glad when I could see the crossroads ahead – I was almost there.

But, of course, nothing was going to be that simple for me. As I got closer I could see the barriers along the entrance to Hartly Lane, and by the time I’d got there I could make out a digger halfway down the road towards Renfield, with road workers surrounding the machine.

One caught sight of me and immediately ran over. “I’m afraid this road’s closed, Miss. There’s been…” he paused, looking behind him, “an incident.”

I looked at the man in front of me. He was your typical road worker – big, burly and dirty from working outside – but there was something else behind his macho exterior. He might have just been tired, but I could have sworn it was more than that. He looked scared.

“Oh, no one hurt I hope?”

He glanced back towards the digger and the other men again, one of whom was standing with his arms crossed, seemingly glaring in our direction.

He turned back towards me. “If you want to get to Renfield, you’ll have to walk down Willowton Road, past the Abbey…”

I cut him off, annoyed that he’d ignored my question. “Yeah, I know the way. Thanks.”

He smiled, looking relieved; possibly because I hadn’t asked any more questions, or maybe just so he didn’t have to give detailed directions. He was shifting his weight from his left to his right leg, his arms now crossed too, staring at me in a disconcerting way. I shifted my focus away from his face and to the piece of pale blue paper that was sticking out of his shirt pocket. A couple of words stood out in bold black lettering.

“What’s a portal area?”

The man’s eyes flickered down to his pocket as he quickly tucked the piece of paper out of sight.

“None of your damn business!” The words came out perhaps even harsher than the man had intended, and he cleared his throat as he lowered his head. “Now, move along.”

I stared at the digger for a few more seconds, wondering why the hell they would require that kind of machinery for an accident, if indeed that’s what it was.

The man was staring at me again, sweat now running down his forehead in tiny rivulets. He nodded at me in a kind of ‘piss off’ way and I turned, leaving the strange scene behind me.

I started walking down Willowton Road, intrigued by the ‘incident’ but annoyed that it would take me even longer to get to Renfield; the diversion would probably add another forty minutes or so onto my journey.

After about fifteen minutes I turned onto Rushfield Way and walked past the Abbey, before eventually turning onto Rushfield Road (people weren’t very imaginative around here when it came to road names), and after another twenty minutes or so I finally started seeing signs of Renfield. I never usually came this way and it took me a while to figure out where I was in relation to the pub.

Renfield was similar to Little Forest in many ways; it had the same kinds of houses, similar shops, and an almost identical park and church, but there was something about this village that always struck me as odd.

For one thing, the people who lived here never seemed to smile or even acknowledge others as they walked past. Little Forest was the complete opposite – you couldn’t walk down the street without someone saying hi or stopping to talk to you, whether you wanted them to or not.

After a few minutes of staring at everyone I walked past, trying – and failing – to make eye contact with someone, I got to the Doctor’s Surgery pub and went inside.

It was totally different compared to when I’d come here with Connor; the place was dead. There were a couple in one corner who gave me a look of surprise when I acknowledged them, but apart from that, there were no other customers. The rich atmosphere it had exuded before had vanished, leaving behind a vague smell of something stale and a lingering sense of depression. I guessed everyone must have been either at the Market Square or getting ready for the evening’s events.

Walking over to the bar, I was greeted immediately by the young bartender, who was tall and slim, with brown hair and average looks. I guessed from his eagerness that he must have been extremely bored on his shift today, perhaps due to not serving many people.

“Hi! What can I get for you?” he asked enthusiastically. “We’ve got some delicious Poison Punch for you today…”

I shook my head, smiling. “Actually, I was wondering if you could help me. I was in here last month, and…”

“Oh, really? I would have thought I’d remember you. Of course, I’m not always here…” He was smiling like the damn Cheshire cat now.

I ignored his comment. “Yeah… anyway, there was this old woman, kind of short, or maybe she was hunched over, with white hair. She was sitting over there,” I pointed to the small round table, “on her own. Do you have any idea who she is?”

The bartender was looking at the table, a knowing smile creeping its way onto his pale face. “Yeah, I know who you mean; she comes in quite a lot.”

I leaned closer in anticipation. Maybe I’d be able to find her and ask her what she’d meant that night.

“I’m afraid I don’t know where she lives or anything. I can only… I mean, I’ve only ever seen her here.” He shrugged, smiling sheepishly as my heart sank. “Look, you’re welcome to wait around to see if she turns up. You could have a Poison Punch in the meantime?”

I nearly said yes – God knew I could do with a drink after the weekend I’d been having – but then I remembered how truly disgusting Poison Punch was. “Actually, could I just get an orange juice?”

“Sure.”

I watched as he got a glass and filled it with juice.

“You know, there’s this massive thing going on in Little Forest for Fright Fest, I wouldn’t be surprised if the woman you’re looking for was there. I’d totally be there if…” he hesitated, shaking his head. “If I wasn’t stuck behind this bar.”

I handed over the money. “Yeah I know, I can’t really imagine her as the village fête kind of person, though.” He laughed as I took the glass, walking over and sitting on a table next to the couple so I wouldn’t look quite so pathetic in the near-empty pub.

I got my phone out and logged into Calling All Covershire while I waited. Rach had updated her page with a photo of her and Max done up in Victorian garb; it looked like Max had lost the costume argument after Will and I had left.

Rach was wearing a high necked, long-sleeved dress that pretty much covered up everything, and I smiled to myself, thinking that Max must have been extremely disappointed in her conservative choice of outfit.

I then navigated my way to Will’s page and saw his last update from the day before. “At Chillingsley for Fright Fest!” I groaned out loud, actually making the couple on the next table look over at me. I smiled at them, embarrassed, and turned back to my phone. Now I felt really bad; Will had been so excited about Chillingsley – as I had been – and I’d cut the evening short. I was just thinking about ringing Will when a text came through. It was him.

‘Hey Beth. Hope you’re feeling OK. Can you let me know when you’re well enough to come round? We need to talk. Will x’

I hit reply on the message but stared at the blank screen, not knowing what to say. I wanted to phone him, I wanted to ask him to come to Renfield to keep me company, and not just because the guy behind the bar kept raising a cocktail glass in my direction in a creepy, invitational pose.

I just wanted to see him.

But if he came now I wouldn’t know what to say; I was in too much of a mess. So, incredibly immaturely, I decided to ignore him, at least until I could get my head straight.

Instead, I sent V a message on Calling All Covershire. I didn’t believe for a second that she’d reply, but I just needed to get everything out. I went to her profile and clicked ‘send message to Veronica Summers’. I thought carefully about what to write, but in the end, I just wrote the first thing that came into my head:

‘V, I need to see you. I don’t know who else I can talk to, I tried to tell Will but he doesn’t believe me. A lot of weird things have been happening recently, a lot of things like Edinburgh. I just need to talk to someone who I know won’t think I’m crazy. If you could put this ‘thing’ between us aside for just five minutes, please reply. Love you. Beth xxx’

I hit send and sunk back in my chair. I thought it best not to mention the sister thing. If I was wrong, then she definitely would think I was crazy.

I stared at my phone waiting for a message to pop up from Veronica, but it never came.

I sat there for another half an hour or so before I noticed that the old couple who’d been sitting next to me weren’t there anymore – my mind obviously wasn’t firing on all cylinders if I didn’t even notice them leave.

I didn’t particularly want to be the only punter left so I got up to go as well, but halfway to the door I stopped, not really wanting to talk to the bartender again but knowing it would make sense to try something else.

Turning round, I walked back to the bar, smiling falsely for the guy behind it. “I’ve got to go, but could you please do a favour for me?”

“Sure!” He sounded a little too enthusiastic for my liking.

“The next time that woman comes in, would you be able to give her a message?” He nodded as I started to write on a scrap of paper from my bag. “Could you let her know that the girl she thought she recognised was asking to see her?” I handed him the paper and he looked at it with interest. “Here’s my name and number. If you could give it to her, I’d owe you one.”

“Will do, Beth.” He smiled at me and tucked the piece of paper away behind the bar. “I’m Jeremy, by the way.”

“Thanks Jeremy. See you around.”

I smiled again and walked out, hoping that he would actually pass my message on. The last thing I needed was to receive a smarmy text from him instead.

***

The apprehension hit me as soon as I got outside; it was getting dark and I still had a hell of a lot of walking ahead of me. To make matters worse, there was a fine rain in the air; the kind that you didn’t really notice much but somehow managed to soak you through.

I considered phoning for a taxi but I didn’t have much cash left, and I was pretty sure there wasn’t a cash machine in Renfield to get any out from. So instead, I zipped up my jacket and walked back the way I’d come.

The thought of having to walk past Hill Top Farm in the pitch black made me quicken my pace, and I cursed the stupid diversion – whatever it was.

I walked down the road towards Rushfield Manor as quickly as I could, and when I saw the large building ahead of me, I walked even faster; the Manor – like many old buildings in the area – could look incredibly menacing in the dark, especially when you were alone.

Continuing onto Rushfield Way, I quickened my pace even more as I walked towards Renfield Abbey.

When I was younger, I’d conjured up images of sad, silent nuns drifting around the empty hallways of the Abbey, but despite my fear, I’d always been intrigued by the place. The Abbey was set back from the road behind a long stone wall, and not much of the actual building was visible from either Rushfield Way or Willowton Road. The sheer mystery of the place never failed to get under my skin.

I stood staring at the wall for a few moments before turning onto Willowton Road.

What I saw made me stop instantly.

There was a flock of sheep lined up against the dilapidated wooden fence.

They were all facing me, still and silent.

Every single one of them was looking straight at me.

I’d never seen anything like it, and what would have been amusing in the daytime was heart-stopping in the darkness; their eerie, blank staring caused a thin shiver to crawl slowly up my spine.

I wondered if they could sense something in me, or were seeing something I couldn’t, like with Lizzie the day before. I was sure I’d read something somewhere about children and animals having a sixth sense which adults couldn’t comprehend, but I didn’t really want to think about that while I was standing in the middle of nowhere in the dark.

I moved towards them – seeing if my sudden movement would scatter them – but they just stayed in their rigid positions, their eyes fixed steadily on mine.

Suddenly, I felt a great desire to be far, far away from them, and without thinking, I stepped back into the road.

A split second later, a car came racing round the corner.

I heard the car horn at the same time as I saw the lights, and I jumped out of the way just in time to avoid the accelerating hunk of metal. I landed highly inelegantly on my arse in the ditch next to the sheep and watched as the car drove off. It had been going too fast to see the number plate, but I’d noticed the familiar shape of a Honda Civic hybrid car as it had zoomed past; my Dad drove the same make. I thought I could write him off as not being the racing hooligan, though, as his vehicle was light blue compared to the black paint job of what had just gone past.

Despite the screech of indignation that had escaped from my lips as I’d landed on the ground, whoever it was didn’t even stop to see if I was OK.

After getting my breath back, I looked up at the fence slowly; the sheep were still there, staring down at me, eyes wide. I’d nearly had a heart attack at the sound of that horn and the screeching tyres and they hadn’t even moved an inch.

I went to stand up and realised I’d managed to get wet mud (I hoped it was mud and not something deposited by my new sheep friends) all down my jeans, turning my light blue denim into a disgusting brown. I collapsed back down in a heap on the ground, too exhausted to do anything else.

I decided that if anything else went wrong this weekend, I’d just go and live in the woods as a hermit.

“Are you hurt?”

I jumped and looked up, searching for the source of the voice in the shadows. I couldn’t see anyone. “Hello?”

Squinting into the darkness some more, I made out a figure at the other side of the road, seemingly emerging from a hedge in front of the wall.

“I said, are you hurt?” The person seemed to be wearing some kind of dark cloak and I immediately thought of the Garden Man, but the female voice I’d heard – and the fact I was sitting in the road next to the Abbey – suggested otherwise.

Not wanting to be cowering in the mud in front of a nun, I stood up and tried to get my balance.

“I’m OK, just a bit wet… I nearly got run over by that car.”

She walked over to me. “I heard your scream and thought someone might have been braking for a deer. We get a lot of animal-related accidents around here, and I usually come to check. Most people don’t report them; they just leave them in the road. Are you sure you’re not injured, dear?”

I nodded. I’d been wrong about the nuns being silent; this one sounded like she could talk for England. From what I could see of her face, her skin looked old and wrinkled, but the way she’d spoken and moved had made me think she was a much younger woman. There might be something to the holy lifestyle after all.

She looked me up and down. “Where are you walking to?”

I cleared my throat. “Back to Little Forest, I was just visiting Renfield but the diversion’s made me a bit later than I planned.”

“Diversion?”

“Hartly Lane was closed off, some kind of incident.”

The nun looked slightly concerned. “I hope it wasn’t anything too serious.”

I nodded, smiling. I didn’t really know how I should talk to a nun.

“Well you can’t walk now, you’re covered in dirt. Come inside, can we phone anyone to come and get you?”

I thought about declining, but then gave in. I supposed I could put up with my parents’ questions about what I was doing if it involved no more walking in the dark. And besides, this way I’d get to see some of the Abbey. I’d be able to find out if it was anything like the pictures in my imagination.

“Thanks, that’d be great. I’ve got my own phone though…”

“Come in and wait inside. It’s dry and it’s warm.” I followed the nun back across the road and to the hidden gate in the hedge next to the wall, looking over my shoulder before going through. The sheep had finally gone.

I felt a slight tingle as we entered the grounds and I wondered what my parents would think of having to pick me up from Renfield Abbey. I couldn’t see the surrounding garden in the lack of light but the massive expanse of darkness suggested an extremely large lawn. We walked along a brick path and through a stone archway, eventually passing through a large wooden door.

The room I entered was small and basic but someone had obviously made an effort to make it nice and welcoming; the wall was painted a summery lemon yellow and there were a few framed pictures dotted around the small space. I didn’t know if nuns had many guests but I assumed that if they did, this would be where they received them.

The nun pointed to a chair next to the small table and I sat down, looking around me in wonder.

“I didn’t introduce myself. My name is Sister Mary Eunice.”

I smiled. “Oh, I’m Beth. Nice to meet you.” My voice sounded far too polite to me, but I didn’t want to be my normal self and risk offending a woman of the cloth.

“A lovely name, Beth. Short for Elizabeth?”

I nodded. “Well, I’ll just phone my parents then if you don’t mind.” I took my phone out of my jeans pocket and dialled home. After a few rings my dad answered. “Hi, Dad. Have you finished at the Market? Any chance you could come and pick me up?”

“We were wondering where you’d got to.”

“I’m at Renfield Abbey.”

There was a pause. “Why?”

“I had to go to Renfield for something. Can you just come and pick me up please? I’m in with Sister Mary Eunice at the moment, so just ring when you get outside. Thanks!” I hung up before he had a chance to answer, and I tried to picture what his reaction had been.

Sister Mary Eunice was smiling at me. “Are they on their way?”

I nodded. “My dad will be here in a few minutes.”

“Do you want some water, dear?”

I declined, vaguely wondering if they blessed their water before drinking it. “I’m fine, thank you. I didn’t interrupt… er… anything did I? Praying or… singing?”

I mentally kicked myself. I’d clearly seen too many musicals and not enough documentaries.

The sister smiled, sitting down on the other chair. “No, you didn’t. We do have a daily schedule but we also have free time. I was just catching up on some correspondence.”

I didn’t really know how to respond to that. “Ah, right. Do you… write to other nuns?”

“Yes, and others.” She looked over at a black and white photograph on the wall. It showed a vaguely familiar-looking woman next to a much younger Sister Mary Eunice. She saw me looking and gestured to the picture. “Mary being one of them.”

I wondered how many of the sisters were called Mary. “Did she used to be a nun?”

She shook her head, laughing. “No, she’s not really the type. She was definitely family, though. She only lives in Renfield but we enjoy writing to each other. I have sixty years’ worth of letters from her.” She smiled again. “Of course, that probably wouldn’t interest you. I’m afraid I’m a bit out of touch with the young people of today.”

I looked at the photo, trying to put my finger on what was bothering me. “You said she was family? Do people stay here, even if they’re not nuns?”

“People visit, yes. Mary was special though – she grew up here.”

“Grew up?”

“The Abbey took her in as a child. I was very young when I came here, and we grew up together. We’re as close as sisters.”

I smiled at her, ignoring the confused emotions that the ‘S’ word inevitably brought up. I was glad that some friendships lasted so long.

“That’s nice. So, do you… hang out with the other nuns much?” I regretted it as soon as I’d said it. I could feel myself threatening to become beetroot-coloured and laughed nervously. “I’m sorry, I just don’t know much about the Abbey.”

Sister Mary Eunice smiled, closing her eyes at the same time. It made me wonder if nuns ever got stressed out or worked up over anything. I guessed not. “Don’t worry, I wouldn’t expect many people to. As I say, we have our own time to pursue hobbies or enjoy each other’s company. For instance, Sister Margaret has been taking computer classes in her free time; she’s looking into starting a blog on the Abbey.”

I stared at her in disbelief, not knowing if she was joking or not. Were nuns even allowed to joke? I decided to smile vaguely instead. “Sister Margaret?” I thought back to Rach’s book club and her sympathy towards Margaret and tried to keep my stupid laughter from bubbling out of my thoughts and into the room.

“One of our younger Sisters. A similar age to you, I shouldn’t wonder.”

I hoped the horror that I felt wasn’t showing on my face. “My age? Wow.”

“We have open days twice a year if you’re ever interested.”

I tried to imagine how my parents would react if I told them I was going to live at the Abbey and pursue a life of spirituality. It would almost be worth it to see their expressions. “Open days? Like Universities?”

Sister Mary Eunice shook her head, smiling. “Not quite, but with a similar purpose I suppose. The next one is in January if you’d like to come.” She stared intently at my face, trying to read my expression. “I can imagine you here, even if you can’t imagine it yourself.”

OK then. I wasn’t sure what to say to that, so I smiled and nodded, and after a couple of silent seconds I tentatively asked, “Really?”

The Sister smiled and nodded herself. “There are many options in life – especially for someone as young as you – and some of them will lead you down the wrong path. You should know that God is also an option.”

I tried to think of something to say in response, but I immediately drew up a blank. So instead, I just smiled sheepishly.

“Forgive me, child. I didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable…” Sister Mary Eunice’s sentence fell away abruptly.

She was staring straight ahead of her, eyes wide open, as if she’d suddenly remembered something vitally important.

“Sister?”

At the sound of my voice, her head mechanically snapped round to my direction, now staring at me with those same wide, frantic eyes.

I wanted to ask her if she was OK, but I couldn’t bring myself to speak again. The look in her eyes, it was just so… haunted.

As soon as I thought that word, the Sister’s body began to violently convulse; her back arched and her arms reached out and then down, flailing around her spasming body.

I stood up quickly – knocking the spindly wooden chair backwards where it crashed onto the hard stone floor – and rushed over to Mary Eunice.

At my movement, the Sister stopped her fit and her eyes again found mine. “Beth? Beth Powers?” Her voice was high pitched and breathless, not at all like the low, soothing voice she’d been using before.

I nodded slowly, trying to remember if I’d given her my surname.

“Are you-”

“Listen to me, I can’t stay long. I think I’ve got a thin portal…”

“Portal?”

“You need to stay away from him. It’s not his fault, but he’s dangerous. You must help… you must help my son!”

I kneeled down in front of her, grabbing her arms and looking directly into her eyes. “Who?”

Sister Mary Eunice opened her mouth again, but her answer was lost in another bout of violent thrashing that ripped through her body.

It was over in a few seconds, and I watched as the Sister’s eyes changed, coming back into focus and seeing me kneeling in front of her.

“Whatever’s the matter…?” She took in my face, looked at my chair on the floor, and passed her gaze over the photo on the wall. “I’m sorry, dear. Did I have one of my… fits?”

I nodded slowly. I supposed that was as good a term as any.

“I hope I didn’t scare you. I have them occasionally, that’s all.”

She paused, glancing over at the chair again. “I didn’t… say anything to you, did I?”

I shook my head, trying to look calm and collected, and jumped when my phone started ringing. One look at the display told me it was my dad; for once, he had brilliant timing. “Well, thanks for letting me come in! My dad’s here now so I’ll just let myself out.”

Sister Mary Eunice smiled at me, again slowly and calmly. “You’re welcome, Beth. I’m sorry again about… what just happened. And you’re welcome here any time.” Her smile faded. “If you feel the need.”

The need? The wrong path? I shuddered at the look of concern on her face, similar and yet completely different to the face she’d shown me a few seconds before.

Thanking her, I walked through the door and into the garden, and as I walked out of the grounds and towards my dad’s car, I thought about her last sentence.

Did I look like someone who needed to be saved?

I got in the car and avoided my dad’s questions all the way home; I had more than enough to think about myself, even with all the nun-related strangeness that I’d already started to push to the back of my mind, safely locked away.

Things such as: was the near-collision with the car actually accidental? Had I been followed from Renfield? And could the driver of the car be a certain bad-tempered Irish man?

Nothing would surprise me anymore.

***

A story once got spread around my school about a girl in the ‘60s who was bullied so much that she committed suicide in her classroom at lunchtime, timing it perfectly so her classmates would see her swinging corpse as they got in from having their sandwiches. Of course, like most stories around here, I had no idea if it was true or not, but it was one of the more likely ones; I’d hated every second of school and had often felt like doing something drastic myself.

In most towns and villages it would no doubt be in bad taste to wear an old school uniform, do your hair and make-up in a ‘60s style and then tie a bit of rope around your neck, but that was what Fright Fest was all about.

I’d chosen this outfit as it was cheap and simple; it only involved me having to wash my old school uniform, and luckily – for whatever reason – in every varied version that had been told over the past couple of decades, the girl in the story was always a redhead. No effort needed there.

I finished the look off with some fake blood dripping out of my mouth, accidentally ingesting some of the thick red gloop in the process. It was not nice; whatever fake blood was made out of, I didn’t want to know.

***

I could hear the festival before I got to the end of Main Street, and going by all the shouts and laughter, I could tell that quite a lot of the village had started celebrating early this year.

It looked fantastic; there were skeletons hanging from the old-fashioned lampposts, cobwebs covering the windows of the local shops and black and orange streamers draped over pretty much everything. Will and I had been given the specific task of designing how Main Street should look and I thought we’d done a pretty good job.

I could hear loud rock music coming from inside the Diner, and people had set up little stalls and food carts on the pavement and the road (the main road was closed to vehicles during Fright Fest). Unfortunately, I’d missed the parade due to my little Renfield adventure but I was sure I hadn’t missed much; it was the same every year and mainly consisted of a bunch of kids making a racket on various badly-decorated floats. Walking over to a drinks vendor, I ordered a cup of tea in an attempt to keep warm. I was just paying when a nun appeared next to me, making me jump.

“Jesus, Rach.”

“Are you OK?”

I nodded. “Nice habit.” I looked past her to the rubbish-looking ghost hovering behind her.

Rach rolled her eyes at me and I heard a laugh coming from under the white sheet. “Max picked it out for me.”

“Ah.”

“I like the outfit. Marie Mason?”

Marie Mason, Suicide School Girl. I nodded.

Rach studied my face and asked again, more quietly, “Are you OK? You kind of disappeared yesterday.”

I looked down, not wanting to lie to her, but not wanting to tell her the truth either. “Yeah, I left pretty early, I started feeling a bit faint. I just needed an early night.”

Rach nodded. “I bet that corset didn’t help either, it looked rather… tight.”

I heard Max cough under his sheet and Rach elbowed him in the ribs. Or where I guessed his ribs were.

I smiled, embarrassed. “You’re probably right.” I was just thinking what else I could say when Will appeared, apparently in an oddly good mood. I tried not to look at him directly; I felt bad about not texting him back.

“Hellooooo people. Nice costumes.”

Rach looked him up and down, frowning at his usual jeans and hoodie combo. “And where’s yours? Even Max made an effort.” She looked at his sheet. “Sort of.”

Will raised his eyebrows. “Not my thing. I’ll go to the play and mess around at Chillingsley, but I have no desire to win the Best Dressed trophy or whatever it is. I had enough of costumes yesterday, anyway.”

I smiled, trying to act normal. I was amazed Will was even acknowledging me after everything that had happened in the maze.

Rach laughed. “So did Beth by the sounds of it. Did you go a bit mad too?”

Will looked at Rach in surprise. “Mad?”

My stomach lurched but Rach just laughed at Will’s confused expression. “Yeah, light-headed, too many layers of Victorian fabric… although I guess you weren’t wearing a corset.”

“Ah, sure.” He smiled briefly. “For a second there I thought Beth had told…” he trailed off, coughing to try and cover his near slip-up.

The damage was already done; Rach was intrigued. “Told me what?”

“Nothing.” The word that came from my mouth was too loud and harsh to sound casual.

“Come on guys, did something happen at Chillingsley? Why did you two leave so early?”

Will’s voice was low and rough, unlike his usual care-free timbre. “Nothing happened.” He looked at me blankly. “Nothing ever happens…”

I could tell Rach was going to keep pushing this, so I took charge of the situation before it got completely out of control. “See you later, guys. Ignore Will; he’s being an idiot. We’ll meet up for the awards ceremony, OK?”

Rach nodded, still looking fascinated. “Sure, it’s on at midnight this year. You know, so it’ll officially be Hallowe’en.”

I nodded and walked off, dragging Will behind me until we were out of range of The Couple. “Do you mind?”

He just shrugged. “Do you mind? You just called me an idiot. I didn’t actually say anything.”

Would you have said something? If I hadn’t hauled you out of there?”

He laughed to himself – a harsh, bitter sound that didn’t suit him at all. “Well, that depends. Were you talking about Veronica? Or our talk? Or – what was the other thing – oh, yes! Us kissing, and then you ignoring me?”

He was staring at me, unblinking, and all of the muscles in my upper body tensed up so much I nearly crushed my still-full paper cup of tea. I tried to think what his tone of voice was reminding me of. “Will…”

“You just think you’re so great, don’t you? So superior to everyone else, but you’re not!”

Where was this coming from? And who was he reminding me of?

“You just, you have no idea!”

I took a step back as I realised. Connor. He was speaking to me exactly as Connor had on that deserted Main Street, the same anger and bubbling rage. The only difference was this Main Street was filled with drunk teenagers and small children stuffing their faces with doughnuts. That, of course, and the fact that the person yelling at me was not Connor, but my best friend.

“Will, can you calm down?”

“Calm down? You can’t just kiss someone and then pretend it didn’t happen. You could at least have talked to me about it! And I know you think I’m a pathetic idiot, but it doesn’t give you the right to mess me around. I’ve been too good a friend to you to be treated like crap.”

I was starting to feel physically sick; this was not a Will I even knew existed. “Look, I’m sorry, OK? But I’ve kind of had other things on my mind…”

He snorted; a horrible sound that reminded me of Norman laughing in the pub. “Right, right. The, er, seeing dead people thing.” His voice was high and almost hysterical-sounding.

“Will you shut up? Just because you don’t believe it, doesn’t mean…”

“It’s not a case of believing, Beth. You must know yourself that none of this is possible. It’s, it’s just… ridiculous! You’re crazy!”

I hit him.

I did it without thinking, and without caring what the consequences were. Luckily I missed his face, but I did get him pretty good in the right ear.

Will glared at me, speechless for a second or two. Then he put his hand up to his ear and shook his head in amazement. “You’re crazy, do you know that?”

Urgh, I hated the ‘C’ word… not the C word, obviously, but somehow this one was worse. “I’m… not… crazy.” Tears were threatening to emerge, but I didn’t want to give Will the satisfaction.

He mumbled something under his breath. It sounded a lot like, “Could’ve fooled me.”

I took a deep breath, trying to calm down. “Look, I’m sorry for hitting you, OK? But Will… you don’t understand. I needed you yesterday, I needed you to say you believed me, and you couldn’t. I needed you to say it, even if you didn’t really, because that’s what friends do.”

“So you wanted me to lie to you? Because I’m pretty sure that’s not what friends do.” He shook his head again. “God, Beth, you’re like a walking contradiction. You can be so infuriating. And Veronica! You’re both as bad as each other. You find out this huge news, and you don’t even try to speak to her?”

I tried to get my head around the change of subject. “I do try. I have been trying…” I trailed off.

Will was nodding, but kind of sneering at the same time. “Yeah, well let me know when you finally make it up with her. I’m sure, after all this, you’ll be closer than ever and I’ll go back to being V’s annoying little friend that you can’t wait to get rid of.”

“Will, you know I wouldn’t…” I couldn’t get the words out. The tears that had previously been threatening to make an appearance were now rolling down my face.

My pitiful crying seemed to stop him in his tracks, but only for a split second before he started shaking his head again. “Won’t work on me this time. And to think, I’d had Connor pinned down as the manipulative one.”

I took a sharp intake of breath as he turned round and walked off.

I desperately wanted to stop him. “We’re not done here!”

He looked over his shoulder. “Yes, we are. Get over yourself, Beth. The world doesn’t revolve around you.”

I stared at him in despair as he walked off in the direction of the castle.

There was nothing left for me to say.

***

I slowly ambled back to where I’d last seen Max and Rach, but they were nowhere to be found.

Instead I saw V, who was surrounded by both her and my parents. None of them were dressed up as ghouls or goblins, but they all looked sufficiently creepy to me; they seemed to be talking desperately to Veronica, a mixture of fear and anger carved on each of their faces.

Everyone was starting to congregate in front of the makeshift podium for the usual Last Night at Fright Fest Welcome Speech, but I only vaguely noticed the hushing of the crowd. Wiping away my tears, I walked over to V. Will had upset me, but he had pissed me off too, and I was going to put that anger to good use. I was not going to remain in the dark any longer.

“Veronica!”

She turned round when she heard my voice, and so did the parents, both pairs. V looked almost relieved, but the others looked nervous. No, they looked downright scared. I got to them all and stood right in front of Veronica, determined to be heard.

“V, this has gone on long enough. Just what the hell has been going on?”

V looked at her parents, then mine, then took a deep breath and stepped towards me.

My mum spoke up. “No, Veronica, please. Think about what you’re doing.”

Anger flittered across V’s delicate features. “Think? I’ve done nothing but think about it for two months! And you know what? I’m pissed off. Really pissed off.” She looked at me again. “B, there’s something you need to know.”

This time it was her mum who interrupted. “Veronica! Please don’t, you know why you can’t.”

V hesitated, but she still looked incredibly angry. She took a deep breath and nodded to herself, seemingly making a decision.

She looked at her parents. “No. Beth’s right; it’s gone on long enough. And if you’re as terrified of… that woman… as you seem to be, go to the police. I’m pretty sure death-threats, or blackmail, or whatever it is she has over you is a criminal offence. And don’t worry about me; I don’t even know her, remember?” Her words were dripping with venom and it shocked me badly – not just because I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about, but because I’d never heard her speak to her parents like that, ever.

Her mum seemed to pipe down after that, but she kept glancing nervously at her husband.

Veronica tried again. “Beth, we’re…”

All four of the parents rushed towards her at the same time, trying to cut her off. I barely noticed that the entirety of Main Street was now watching them. Watching us.

All I could think of, all that kept going round my mind, was that I’d been right. Even with the photograph, even with all the comments, I hadn’t let myself believe it. But the behaviour of the two sets of parents was just too much to ignore.

Veronica dodged their attempts at blocking her and shouted something above the scuffling noises of the supposedly more mature adults.

I couldn’t quite hear her. “What?”

The parents had stopped now, defeated. It went deadly silent and I was dimly aware that pretty much the whole village was staring at us.

Veronica took a deep breath. “Adopted. We’re both adopted. We’re sisters.”

I nodded, tears springing to my eyes as I walked towards her. “I know.”

***

I glanced at V, trying to gauge her reaction, and then at my parents, both of whom were in tears. I’d never seen my dad cry in my whole life and somehow that scared me more than anything else.

“You knew? And you didn’t say anything?”

I shook my head, thinking how I could best explain it. “I didn’t know, not for sure. I kind of guessed. And I found a photograph… of the day we were born.”

V’s eyes widened and she started rummaging in her pocket, eventually pulling out a piece of paper which she handed to me. I took it with my shaking hand and looked down; it was the same photo.

I heard Veronica’s mum gasp. “Why did…”

V cut her off. “Because I was planning on telling her anyway, OK?”

I didn’t notice if her mum responded to her outburst or not, I was too busy studying the photograph.

She spoke to me again. “I found this in the loft. Where did you…?”

I waved her question away. “So it’s true, then?”

V came and stood next to me so we could both see the photo, smiling encouragingly. “The woman in the background, that’s our real mother. Her name’s Samantha.”

I nodded automatically. Samantha. Our real mother. Right.

Veronica carried on talking, more softly this time, as if loud noises would scare me off. “She couldn’t afford to bring up twins, and neither could our parents. But they could each afford to raise one child.” Her voice faded on the last word.

I glanced over at my parents and were greeted with two pale, blank faces. They looked like they were in shock.

I stood there in silence, trying to take it all in. Veronica put her arm around me and waited for me to speak. I couldn’t face talking to my ‘parents’, so instead I looked at V. “Why didn’t they tell us?”

She glanced over at the fake parents with a look of almost hatred on her face, and I could tell she’d asked the same question before. Of course she had. The anger took all the concerned softness out of her voice. “Apparently our actual mum’s a real piece of work, isn’t that nice? And she didn’t want us to know about her, so she started threatening everyone.” The malice was back in her voice. “She sounds like a real gem.”

V’s parents looked beaten but her mum tried speaking again. “You have no idea, Veronica. We didn’t have a choice.”

V looked at me again, the anger still in her voice, but nothing but sadness in her eyes. “Oh, that’s the best part, B. Not only has she been threatening them, but my so-called parents have been threatening me.”

My mind was reeling. “What?”

“They made me promise not to tell you, they begged me. I’ve been wanting to tell you ever since, I swear. But I knew if I was around you… you know how bad I am at lying, I just couldn’t risk it.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “You avoided me for two months with no explanation because your parents asked you to? Oh no, sorry. Not your parents. Just a couple of people who have been lying to us for our entire lives.” I shook my head, trying to understand. “How could you side with them?”

V shook her head too, mirroring my body language. “It’s not about sides. You should have seen how terrified they were,” she gestured to her parents. “They went to see her – our mother, she lives in Birston – and when they came back…” another tear rolled down her cheek. “Even though I was angry at them, I couldn’t put them in any danger. I couldn’t put you in any danger. Our birth mother sounds like really, really bad news. Like pure evil. Even Norman Carter warned me against her, told me that getting involved with her would be the worst thing I ever did, and that if I told you I’d be dragging you into the whole twisted, dangerous mess, too. He’s met her, he knew about the whole thing.”

“Norman?” I couldn’t handle much more. All I knew at that moment was that I had to get away; I had to go somewhere and assemble my thoughts.

I suddenly turned and ran away from V and my parents, or whoever they were, pushing my way past various badly-dressed ghosts and corpses as I went. I heard Veronica yell my name as I rushed off, but all the other onlookers were too shocked or concerned to say anything to me.

I could have gone home to sort my head out, and in hindsight I definitely should have done that, but I knew my ‘parents’ would go looking for me there.

So instead, I weaved through the rest of the crowd and headed towards the castle.

[]Chapter Ten

I shivered and started walking up the path towards the eerily lit castle, trying to remember at which point Will usually veered off the trail into the trees. Finding the stone that I thought marked the turning off point, I walked into the darkness.

I’d only gone a few metres when I realised just how dark it was. I’d been able to see the full moon on my way to the castle but now it was hiding behind a thick veil of clouds, and the torches at the castle had long since been swallowed up by the trees.

Taking my phone out my pocket, I used the display as a feeble light as I carried on walking deeper into the woods. I’d just started thinking that I must have taken a wrong turning somewhere when I heard a faint rustling sound. I turned round wildly but couldn’t see anything in the dinginess.

Holding my phone out as far as I could, my arm trembling slightly, I squinted into the gloom, my eyes roaming over every visible inch of tree and grass. I figured it must have been an animal and turned back again, right into the chest of someone standing next to me.

My scream was muffled by the person’s smooth-feeling jacket and I stepped back in shock, looking up to see Connor – who seemed just as surprised as I was. He held a torch pointing down at the ground which half illuminated us both from below in a spooky circle of light.

“Beth? What are you doing wandering around the woods on your own? It’s pitch black!”

I couldn’t speak for a few seconds, and I tried to get my breath back. My heartbeat felt so erratic it made me wonder if you could have a heart attack at the tender age of twenty-one. If Connor did have anything to do with Emma and John, I was well and truly screwed. I decided to pretend that Will and I hadn’t spent the last two months discussing Connor’s potential involvement in the case; it might be my only shot at getting out of this.

“Christ, Connor. Didn’t you see me? Why didn’t you say something? You nearly gave me a heart attack!”

He didn’t answer my questions, and his facial expression turned from shock to anger. “Why are you here? Didn’t I tell you to stay out of the woods?”

I took a step away, and heard my own voice trembling as I turned the question back on him. “Why are you here, Connor? What is it with you and these woods?”

He groaned and reached out for my hand.

I whipped it away from him and held it behind my back, trying not to look directly into his eyes; I was worried that if I looked at his face, I wouldn’t be able to look away. As if he were some kind of vampire who could glamour me into doing his bidding. Well, around here, you never knew.

“Beth.”

I kept my focus on the ground.

“Look, I know I’ve not exactly given you any reason to trust me…”

A short laugh escaped from my lips before I knew what I was doing, and I looked up quickly to gauge his reaction, still avoiding eye contact as much as I could. Connor’s own lips were ever so slightly turned up in one corner, creating an amused kind of half smile.

“I wanted to call you, after Hill Top… you know, about what happened. I guess I’ve been tryin’ to pretend it didn’t happen. I’m sorry for draggin’ you there. But you don’t need to be scared o’ me.”

I wanted to yell out that of course I did, why wouldn’t I be? But I just looked down at my shoes again, not saying anything. My pulse was slowly returning to normal but I still didn’t feel like I was getting enough oxygen.

I breathed in deeply. I was trying to figure out how far I could get if I just ran off now, but Connor had a torch and much longer legs than me; he’d catch me in less than five seconds. If I didn’t knock myself out on a tree or something first.

Stepping towards me, he put his hand under my chin before I could stop him, and it reminded me of Will doing the exact same thing just one night ago. It seemed like weeks had gone by.

His skin was ice cold. “Look at me.”

I reluctantly did what he said, noticing that he seemed more worried than angry now; his previously screwed-up, tense features were softer, more relaxed. “If you come with me, I’ll explain everythin’.”

I shook off his hand. “You must be joking. I’m not going anywhere with you.” My voice was trembling, but at least I was standing up for myself. Why on earth I felt I could provoke a possible psychopath, however, was beyond me. Maybe I really was losing my mind.

Connor looked more peeved off than anything. “Come on, Beth. I swear on me mam’s life that I’m not dangerous, and I’m not goin’ to hurt you. I would never…”

Swearing on his mum’s life… it seemed like such a school boyish thing to say, it almost made me laugh. I thought back to their cinema trip, and Connor getting his car so he could give lifts to Jackie. He obviously loved her very much, and wouldn’t say a thing like that lightly, but then again… I tried not to think of movie psychos and serial killers that were mummy’s boys – Norman Bates, anyone?

Connor wasn’t giving up. “Just let me explain. Isn’t that what you’ve been wantin’ all this time? Answers?”

Answers would be good. Actually, anything would be good at the moment if it stopped me from thinking about Veronica and the Evil Birth Mother… if it stopped me from thinking about my argument with Will.

I stared at Connor’s face in the semi-darkness; it looked much thinner and paler than when I first met him (although that could have just been the effect of the torch light), but he looked sincere enough.

“Depends on the kind of answers you have.”

He looked relieved. “I’ll tell you everythin’. Come on, I can find the way back to the castle.”

I really didn’t like the idea of going to the castle with him alone, but at the moment I just wanted to be out of the woods. I nodded and he grabbed my hand before leading the way out of the dense forest.

***

Five or so minutes later we emerged from the trees onto the path and started walking towards the castle, the torches that were surrounding the ancient building quickly erasing my fear. Well, some of it. I went to sit on one of the benches next to the visitor’s plaque so I could have a good view – and easy access to – the path, but Connor stopped me before I could sit down.

“No, in here.”

I looked at him in disbelief. “Are you going to break the door down? Because it’s closed off to visitors at night.”

He flashed me a cheeky smile, which reassured me slightly, and led me to the back of the castle. Lifting one of the rotting wooden boards that were propped against the wall, he revealed a hole just big enough for a person to wriggle through.

He motioned for me to go in but I shook my head vehemently. “If you think I’m getting into an old ruined castle with you, then you’re sadly mistaken.”

Connor sighed in exasperation. “Come on, Beth. I just want to make sure we’re not overheard; I’ve never told this to anyone, and I don’t want it gettin’ round the whole bleedin’ village.”

I thought ‘fat chance of that’ but didn’t say anything; despite my original fear after bumping into him, I was intrigued as hell.

“There’s no one around, let’s just do it here.” I tried to sound firm. It didn’t work.

I watched as Connor shook his head in frustration, before he looked me up and down with his eyebrows raised. It took me a while to realise why.

“Who are you supposed to be, anyway? A zombie teenager?” His cheeky smile was back, and it seemed so real and infectious that I relaxed a little more.

“Suicide School Girl. It happened in the sixties. Another uplifting Little Forest story.” I gave him a brief smile, which he returned. After a few more seconds of hesitation, I reluctantly crawled through into the hole, with Connor following after me. I prayed that I wasn’t doing something incredibly stupid, but something in my gut told me that Connor wasn’t going to hurt me.

I just hoped my gut was right.

Holding my breath, I tried not to think about the tiny dimensions of the hole I was currently cramming my body into.

Before I knew it, we were in one of the building’s larger rooms (not that you could really call it a room anymore with half of the roof gone), one that used to be the dining room if I remembered correctly. It seemed to be even colder in here compared to the woods – if that was possible – and Connor noticed me shivering.

“Here, take this.” He passed me his jacket and I was too cold to refuse.

“Thanks. So what’s going on?”

Connor hesitated, then sat down on the floor and motioned for me to do the same. “It’s a long story, but I’ll break it down for you.”

I sat on the cold, dusty ground as he put down the torch, the beam facing off towards the wall so it wouldn’t blind either of us. I was reminded of camping trips I used to take with my dad when I was little; we would sit round the fire and he’d tell me all the popular village ghost stories while I listened with morbid fascination. My stomach churned as I remembered my dad’s face back on Main Street.

Shivering again, I looked over at Connor, who still seemed reluctant to talk. “Go on then.” I hoped he actually was going to tell me the truth and not just make up some lame story to keep me quiet. I’d had enough of lies recently.

“So I know you’re wonderin’ about a few things.”

I nodded, ‘a few things’ being an understatement. Something in his tone of voice and his body language put me at ease. This was the Connor I’d first been introduced to: nice, charming, polite. I started to feel more relaxed, relaxed enough to ask a few of my own questions.

The first question I had in my head turned into a demand when it came out my mouth. “The first thing I’d like to know is why you were looking through my phone and in my cupboards.”

Connor’s face coloured. “I wasn’t very subtle about it, was I?”

I shook my head.

“I’m really sorry, Beth. I’d seen Norman bein’ all friendly with your mam and I thought you might know somethin’, I guess I was hopin’ to find some kind of clue. I was just clutchin’ at straws, trying to find out anythin’ I could about Norman.”

“Norman.”

He nodded, then hesitated. “Also, you should probably know…”

“What?”

“I followed you to the hospital, when you cut your arm.”

I couldn’t quite comprehend what he was saying. “That was you outside my curtain! What the hell were you doing?”

“I know, I’m sorry. I was up early drivin’ around – I couldn’t sleep – and I saw you and Will go by in the taxi. I got a quick look at your arm and was worried that a certain someone had attacked you… I followed you there to check on you.”

“So why didn’t you just come into the cubicle?”

“I was goin’ to, but I chickened out. I kind of got the idea you were suspicious of me.”

I laughed without any humour. “You think?”

He shrugged. “I didn’t want to freak you out.”

I tried to process everything. “Wait… what certain someone are you talking about?”

Connor paused, a silent question of ‘who do you think’ pasted on his face. “Norman Carter.”

I leaned in closer. Was he actually going to tell me the full story? “Why would Norman attack me?” I left out the more natural question of how someone in their eighties would go about attacking a twenty-one-year-old girl.

Connor’s face darkened, and I experienced a split-second of panic; panic that everything he’d told me about being able to trust him was one huge lie.

“I’m only tellin’ you this so you’ll leave it well enough alone. I meant what I said about Norman; you don’t know how dangerous he is and I don’t want you gettin’ caught in the crossfire. So if I tell you everythin’, will you promise me you’ll stay out o’ his way?”

I was extremely intrigued now, and for the first time since leaving Main Street, Veronica and that whole sorry mess was pushed momentarily from my mind. “Yes.”

Connor looked dubious but carried on anyway. “Right, well the first thing you need to know is that despite what me mam says, me dad didn’t die in Dublin.”

I nodded. “I know.”

He did a double take, thought for a moment, then seemed to accept my response. “O’course you do. Well, as you probably already know then, he left me and me mam. She doesn’t know this but he came to England and travelled around for a while. He kept in touch with me by text and the occasional postcard, only occasional though because he worried that me mam might take a day off and get the post before me. Even more rarely, he would call me. I missed ‘im like crazy and I loved hearin’ from ‘im, but he never wanted me mam to know. He said a clean break would be better; if she was reminded of ‘im all the time, it would be harder for her. So, sure, I went along with it.”

He paused briefly, taking a deep breath. “One day I received a postcard from ‘im with a picture of Little Forest Castle on it…”

I actually gasped. “When was this?” I didn’t remember any other Irish people having been in Little Forest recently.

“About six years ago. He passed through a lot of places, not stayin’ anywhere for too long, and I was used to the generic messages he put on the cards: ‘Found a new village, it’s extremely English. Miss you’, that kind of thing. But the Little Forest one stood out.”

He stopped talking and I thought I’d better wait for him to tell me in his own time. Then I got impatient. “Why?”

He sighed. “Because it was the last postcard I got from ‘im. In fact, it was the last communication I ever had with ‘im.” His eyes glazed over for a second before he breathed in deeply, visibly pulling himself together. “So when me mam suggested movin’ to England a few years later… I pretended to look online at villages in the middle of the country and… I told her that Little Forest sounded perfect for us.”

I was starting to feel very uncomfortable. “So she doesn’t know the real reason you moved here?”

Connor’s forehead creased. “No. But it’s OK; she likes it here.”

I remembered her sitting in the canteen at the shopping centre and wondered if Connor was lying to me or if he was just lying to himself. “So, did you find anything out about your dad?”

Connor hesitated again. “There wasn’t much to go on at first, but I asked at the local hotels and found out he’d stayed at the B&B near the church. And…” he looked at me, unsure of whether to go on.

“I won’t tell anyone.” I meant it; who did I have who I could confide in now, anyway? Even though I now knew the truth about Veronica, I’d never felt more alone.

Connor carried on. “He signed in, paid for his three nights, but never signed out, and he left loads of his clothes in the room. The owner of the B&B said that happened sometimes, but it didn’t sound like me dad at all.” He frowned. “He was very tidy and very methodical; he did everythin’ by the book, and he wouldn’t have left without signin’ himself out and handin’ in his key. I asked the owner if she knew anything about what me dad had done in Little Forest, and she told me he’d mostly hung around with a man called Norman Carter at the Village Inn.”

I nodded slowly, still scared but glad I hadn’t been completely mad about something going on between Norman and Connor. And if Connor’s dad had mostly hung out at the Inn, that would explain why I hadn’t heard much about him; my mum didn’t work at the pub six years ago and I would have been too young to get in. I waited for Connor to carry on.

“So I went to the Inn and asked if anyone knew Norman and if he’d been in that day. Sure enough, they told me he had and that he’d just gone to the cemetery to put flowers on his wife’s grave. I felt bad about disturbin’ him when he was doing that, but I didn’t know when I’d get another chance to talk to ‘im.

“When I got to the graveyard I heard Norman mumblin’ to himself as I walked towards the gravestones, and I caught some of it: he was mutterin’ about the woods and the castle and he said something like ‘I won’t let the nosy outsiders discover your secret’. When I addressed him, he seemed afraid but angry. Really angry. I figured he was a bit xenophobic or somethin’ because as soon as he heard my accent…” He shrugged.

“Anyway, he asked me what I wanted and I asked him if he knew my dad. He immediately got shirty and tried to avoid the question, not denyin’ it or anythin’. I kept pressin’ ‘im and he got more and more agitated. Well, I finally had enough and asked ‘im what he meant about outsiders and secrets. He looked insanely angry then, his veins looked like they were goin’ to pop out of his head. He walked up to me, said ‘Stay away from me and my wife’, and then walked off.”

I started involuntarily shivering again, remembering the breakfast table set for two. “And his wife…”

Connor nodded. “It sounds like he never really got over her death, from what I’ve found askin’ around. Well, I started investigatin’ Norman and his farm as much as I could at the library, and started lookin’ around the woods as well. See, that’s the other thing people told me about Norman: he’s only ever in four places: at home, in the pub, in the cemetery, or in the woods. And from what he was mumblin’ about in the graveyard, I figured the woods was a logical place to start.”

I was a bit lost. “To start what?”

Connor hesitated again. “To look for me dad.”

I didn’t say anything; I honestly didn’t know what to think. After a few minutes I opened my mouth and hoped something vaguely coherent would come out. “You think your father is…”

“Buried in the woods, yes.”

***

I stared at Connor in disbelief. He couldn’t be serious, surely?

“You think Norman killed your father?”

“Not just me dad… Emma and John, too.”

I shook my head, trying to clear my thoughts. “Emma’s death was an accident, and John’s just missing, he’s not dead.”

Connor stared back at me, his face blank. “Is that really what you think?”

I hesitated. Yes, I’d been toying with the idea of some kind of village conspiracy, but it was only really ever half-hearted (let’s just say other things had been distracting me recently).

But Norman, a killer? A serial killer? He was in his eighties!

“I don’t know – he’s creepy, sure, but a murderer?”

Connor nodded. “People can surprise you.”

They sure can. Either all of my concerns about Connor had been unbelievably wrong, or he was a very, very good actor.

A thought suddenly occurred to me. “What were you talking to John about that night? The night he went missing?”

He rubbed his eyes before answering; he looked like he hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in at least a week. “I was tryin’ to find out if he or Emma ever had anythin’ to do with Norman. I thought that if I was right about me dad, Norman could have had somethin’ to do with Emma’s death. I was worried that…”

He hung his head.

“What?”

“I’m worried that I put the thought of Norman into John’s head and that he might have gone lookin’ for ‘im. When he disappeared, well… you can guess what I thought had happened. I was so angry at myself.”

He looked up at me, his handsome face twisted in a pained grimace. “I’m really sorry I took it out on you. Everythin’ was so messed up.”

I remembered how terrified I’d been of Connor that night on Main Street; it seemed like so long ago now.

Connor’s beeping phone cut through the silence and he fished it out his pocket, looking at the display. “Just Mam.” He put it back in his pocket without another glance.

“Don’t you want to reply to her?”

“Nah.”

His thoughtlessness disturbed me; didn’t he feel guilty at all about dragging his mum all the way over here on false pretences? I thought back over everything Connor had said and realised that the thing really bothering me wasn’t his ridiculous ideas about Norman being a murderer, but the way he’d lied to his mum. He’d shown complete disregard for her feelings by keeping his dad’s communication a secret from her, and he’d dragged her all this way just so he could go around accusing an old man of murder! I thought again of Jackie staring into space while her tea went cold, and wondered if she’d been like that back in Ireland.

Their ‘new life’ in the English countryside was a complete sham, and I couldn’t help but equate it to my newly discovered messed-up situation, which was formed of so many lies I couldn’t even begin to count.

“So, do you have any evidence?”

“Against Norman?”

I rolled my eyes in exasperation. I decided I wasn’t afraid of Connor anymore; I just thought he was a bit of an idiot. All of the previous attraction, the power he’d had over me, the allure of being dangerous or whatever crap I’d been inexplicably thinking, was now completely gone. “Of course against Norman.”

“Apart from the dress, no.”

“So what makes you so sure about your dad?”

“Well… every time I mention either me dad or Emma to ‘im, he goes on the war path. He spends hours walkin’ around the woods at night, Emma died in the woods… and when you think about it, wouldn’t it be the perfect place to hide a body?”

Of course I’d thought about it, I’d been thinking exactly that since the story of The Woman in the Tree was doing the rounds at school. “But Emma’s body wasn’t hidden, it was just left where it was.”

Connor nodded knowingly, as if he’d put a lot of thought into this. “That’s the bit I don’t get.”

“Look, the police are pretty sure that Emma’s death was an accident.”

“Unless the police are coverin’ it up for some reason.”

Great, now he was beginning to sound like Will. I ignored the sharp pang that shot through my chest when I thought of Will (the one I used to get when thinking about Veronica), and looked at Connor sceptically. “Why on earth would they do that?”

He just shrugged. “I don’t know, but I wouldn’t trust that Rick Wood fella as far as I could throw him.”

On that point at least, we both agreed.

“I’m sure there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for your dad.”

“I’d think so too, if it wasn’t for the clothes and everythin’ he left in his room. I can’t think of another explanation for that, other than he went out one day, expectin’ to come back, and didn’t.”

“Did you get any of his stuff back?”

“No, they’d got rid of it years ago. The woman who owns the B&B could remember what he left though – clothes, trainers, paperbacks, his address book, toiletries. He would never have willingly left all that behind. His wallet wasn’t there, which is what made ‘er think he might have left Little Forest, but he’d take that with him anywhere. He’d never leave all his IDs, or his drivin’ licence or anythin’, behind in a hotel.”

Driving licence. A vague image of a small wicker basket floated into my mind, the word ‘Possessions’ in thick, black writing.

Connor carried on. “From what I can gather, he was dressed to be out in the elements when he left; he didn’t leave his long, waterproof coat behind, or his boots he used for walkin’, or his umbrella. I wondered if he’d gone for a walk in the woods and… well…”

I’d stopped listening to him, the last sentence washing over me completely. A long coat, walking boots, an umbrella.

“What kind of umbrella did your dad have?” I could hear my voice shaking.

“He had…” Connor realised what I’d asked and he stared at me, frowning. “Wait, what?”

I shrugged, not knowing what I could possibly say to make that seem like a normal response.

“After all I’ve said, that is your question?”

I didn’t want to mention the Garden Man. “I was just thinking… Norman has an umbrella.”

He looked as exasperated as I’d been a few minutes ago. “Many people do.”

“Was it one of those really long ones, one that reaches to the ground and has a giant point? Black, kind of grubby?”

Connor looked at me like I was mad. “Yeah… I’ve got the same one. Why?”

I cut him off. “Connor, what did your dad look like?”

“A slightly more normal question than the umbrella thing…”

“What did he look like?” I asked again, more urgently.

“Tall, dark brown hair, cut shortish, standard build…”

I took a deep breath. “Did he have any distinguishing features? A birthmark or…”

“A scar.” My stomach flipped. “Just under one of his eyes. He got it from when his best friend whacked him one with a club durin’ crazy golf. We thought he might have banjaxed his eye, but in the end it was grand.”

“Which eye was it?” Left, I knew it was the left.

“Again, what does that have to do…?”

“Connor.”

“Alright! It was his…” he looked off to the distance, trying to remember the face of his now possibly deceased father. “Left. Definitely left.”

“OK then.” My own memory flickered back to Connor and his dad (as I now knew) outside the bookshop. As soon as I did, I remembered why his dad (or the Garden Man as I’d been thinking of him then) had looked so familiar. Out of all the bored-looking punters at the Doctor’s Surgery pub in Renfield, one of them had looked paler, much sadder than the rest. He’d been there as Connor and I had drunk Poison Punch and talked about ghost tours. He’d seen that woman come up to me. He must have been watching us the whole time.

Sister Mary Eunice suddenly floated up to the front of my mind. Whoever she’d been possessed by had asked me to help his son… surely, it couldn’t be…

I couldn’t ignore what was happening to me for much longer, whether people believed it or not.

“Why all the questions about me dad?”

I shook my head, unable to answer.

“Beth?”

Everything that had just happened on Main Street – as well as everything that had occurred in the past couple of months – chose that moment to come crashing down on me, as if part of the derelict roof of the castle had finally given up the ghost (I know, I know, bad choice of words) and come rushing down onto my head.

I couldn’t think of anything to say, and to Connor’s obvious amazement, I stood up and ran towards the hole in the wall with absolutely no explanation, crawling through the small space and out into the night.

***

I ran away from the castle and into the woods without really thinking which direction I was running in, as long as it was away from Connor. If my brain had been switched on at all, I would have run round to the front of the castle and down the lit pathway. As it was, I was now running blindly into the cloaked darkness of the forest.

I knew my sudden outburst must have confused the hell out of Connor, but that wasn’t my main concern right now. I’d spent weeks trying to unravel the twisted and tangled web of lies and deceit concerning Norman and Connor, and Veronica and my parents, and now I genuinely wished that I didn’t know any of it.

Ignorance was definitely bliss.

I carried on running, and seeing my breath in front of me, I realised just how cold it had become over the past couple of hours. Apart from a few sunny spots here and there, this autumn had been the coldest, darkest, and most dismal I’d ever experienced, in more ways than one.

I looked down at Connor’s leather coat so I could do it up, but my hands were shaking badly and I couldn’t get a good grip on any of the fastenings. With my lack of concentration on where I was going, I managed to stumble over a fallen tree branch and hit my kneecap on a large rock, forcing me down onto the wet, muddy ground. I gave out a little yelp into the dense silence and looked down at my legs, groaning at the state of my dirt-covered jeans.

I wished – not for the first time – that I could be ever so slightly less clumsy.

Picking myself up, I carried on running, worried that Connor might be following me. I didn’t want to have to explain my actions to him; I wasn’t even sure what I was doing anymore. I went a few more steps before I decided to try the coat again; looking down, I attempted to use my almost-numb fingers to button it up.

A blinding pain shot through my head. I staggered back, confused and disorientated, my vision rapidly doubling. I half laughed at my own stupidity when I saw the tree I’d just run into face-first, then had to steady myself against the rough bark. I was not having a good night. Not at all.

If I’d known then just how much worse that night was going to get, I would have gladly turned round and gone running back to the castle right there and then.

I looked down, blinking, trying to clear my eyesight, and realised the tree I was holding onto was hollow. Instinctively, I looked into the hole, absurd thoughts of the Woman in the Tree coming to mind.

At first I couldn’t make out what I was seeing, and I thought it might be the brown fur of some kind of creature. The moon had appeared again but the light was weak and I couldn’t distinguish what animal it was; I could tell, however, that the fur was wet and matted, and probably didn’t belong to anything that was still alive.

I bent down more closely and fumbled to get my phone out my pocket. Holding it over the opening to the hollow, I leaned in some more, a morbid curiosity suddenly coming over me.

What I saw drove all the curiosity out of me in an instant.

Sticking out under the fur was a sizeable scrap of black and red chequered material, the colours dull in the feeble light.

The sight of the fabric triggered a memory. The memory of Connor in the Doctor’s Surgery pub; it was the same material I’d seen poking out from beneath John’s jacket. I looked again at the matted brown fur, feeling bile rise up in my throat as I realised it wasn’t fur, but human hair.

John’s hair.

I didn’t stay to see the rest of him.

I had to get out of the woods, quickly.

***

I’d only made it a few feet when I lost my footing on the damp leaves and the ground quickly and abruptly whirled towards me. I yelled out in surprise as I fell through the grass and rain-slicked bracken, realising too late that I was falling down a hidden opening in the forest floor. I felt my legs and arms getting scraped against jagged edges but barely registered any pain in my shock.

A second, maybe two, had passed since I’d been upright in the woods, and I now found myself wedged in a hole barely big enough for me to fit in. If it had been any smaller, I may have just got one leg trapped in the hole, but as it was, my whole body was well and truly stuck. This realisation took a second to sink in, and when it did, the panic attack started suddenly and without warning. I tried to take in deep breaths as I madly flailed against the rough walls of the tiny hole. It was no use.

In my shock, it took a couple of seconds before I became aware of a tightening feeling around my neck, and to my horror I remembered the rope I’d tied around myself; the rope that was supposed to be Marie Mason’s death instrument.

Thinking of the scrapes I’d felt on my way down, I realised there must be something jutting out of the earth – something I’d caught the rope on, turning it into a much more realistic noose than I’d ever intended.

This did not help my panic attack.

I struggled to breathe in; there didn’t seem to be any air down in my vertical grave, and what little there was tasted dirty and earthy to my suddenly parched tongue. At least I still had that sense intact; my others seemed to be deserting me. The only thing I could hear was my own stunted breathing, and it was far too dark to see anything around me.

I tried to raise my head as much as I could to alleviate the pain, but the rope seemed to get tighter the more I moved.

I forced myself to stop struggling and breathed in as much air as I could.

Closing my eyes, I tried to calm myself. I tried not to think about John, about Connor’s dad, about a certain Edinburgh mausoleum…

I was about to shout for help (even Connor appearing would be a relief), but stopped myself when I remembered what he’d said about Norman constantly hanging out in the woods. After the discovery of the Man in the Tree, I was more willing to believe Connor’s accusations, as unlikely as they seemed. I thought of my phone which I’d managed to jam into my pocket again after seeing John’s remains, but there was no way I could reach it in this position.

After some deep breaths and a few investigatory movements, I found I could move both of my arms slightly in each direction, and after I realised I wasn’t completely jammed, I began to breathe steadily again. I even started registering sounds coming from above: the wind fluttering through the surrounding leaves, the occasional cry of a bird in the night air.

Slowly, I reached each hand up in turn, and running them along the length of the rope, found an angular shape on which it was snagged. Ignoring the pain in my neck, I put all my strength into pulling the rope free. After a second or so of tugging, I felt the coarse material relax from around my throat as the end dropped down from above me.

At least that was one problem solved.

Reaching up again, I felt around the limited space to try and get hold of the rock that the rope had been caught on, and I squirmed as the cold dirt oozed under my fingernails.

My heart leapt when my right hand finally closed around the rock; if I could get enough of a hold on it, I might be able to heave myself out. Of course, that depended on how far down I was, something I couldn’t quite discern in the darkness.

I vaguely wished I’d started going to the gym like I was going to for my new year’s resolution, but quickly batted the thought away. I hoped that adrenaline would somehow give me the strength I needed to pull myself out, otherwise I didn’t know how I was going to do it.

Taking a deep breath, I tried with all my might to pull the rest of my body up using my right arm. It started to work and I managed to lift myself by a few inches but then the rock in my hand came loose from the soil. I swore to myself and tried to push it back in.

At that moment, a dim light came over my earthy prison, and I looked up to see the moon directly overhead. Evidently, it had been hiding behind the clouds during my moment of panic, and I wasn’t sure how long the light would last before it got swallowed by another batch of dark clouds. I looked back at the rock I was pushing into the soil and stopped, squinting.

It wasn’t a rock at all.

It was a skull.

***

I stared at the horrific object for the best part of a minute before I finally convinced myself of what I was seeing, at which point I dropped it, screaming at the top of my lungs.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t any space in the tight hole to drop it very far, and the skull just rolled down the soil before stopping next to my chest, gazing towards the top of the hole. In a black comedy it would have been funny. As it was, it made me want to be violently sick.

With the moon still semi-illuminating the hole, I could now see that all of the ‘rocks’ that had scraped me on the way down were actually bones as well. Far too many bones.

I thought I could see some kind of fabric sticking out of the soil, reminding me of John’s sleeve in the hollow tree. What if Connor had been right? What if this was some kind of trap set up by Norman? I tried to block the thought out.

I could also see a part of another skull jutting out from just above my head and decided not to look at it. Closing my eyes, I tried to focus; I was starting to get the weird swirly feeling I usually got when I thought I was going to faint.

Taking a few deep breaths, I opened my eyes again, immediately feeling sick at the sight of the many smooth, white bones. I peered up towards the opening of the hole in an attempt to avoid looking at them, and froze.

There was someone on the surface. Someone looking down at me.

***

I could feel hysteria bubbling up inside me. The someone was a woman, but she was unlike any woman I’d ever seen before.

She had long, dark hair that fell lankly around her extremely pale face, and her mouth was contorted into an unnatural, silent scream. Her eyes were pitch black (the usually logical part of my brain had deserted me, and I didn’t think for one second that in this light, anyone’s eyes would look like that), and far too large. I didn’t dare move a muscle, not that I could move much anyway. I wanted to yell out for her to help, but something stopped me.

Other than her twisted face, there was something deeply, deeply wrong with this woman. I hadn’t heard her approach and her expression didn’t change the whole time I was staring at her. After a few more seconds I began wondering how much longer I could stare into that ghastly face without actually going crazy.

I gasped as I noticed some movement, but couldn’t tell what it was until the moon came out from behind another cloud, lighting up the figure, who was now reaching her arm out to me.

Was she trying to help me?

The thought broke whatever spell she’d cast on me and I began to wriggle again, trying to lift my arm up towards the woman.

I stopped when I saw something glinting in her hand.

***

As it turned out, I didn’t have to worry about the woman’s intentions for much longer, because she stopped reaching down and sat up straight as I heard twigs breaking and leaves rustling above me.

The woman looked off to the right, and now that her face wasn’t visible enough to distract me, I noticed how strange her clothes were. From what I could tell they were very basic and were all the same dull brown colour. I heard the noises get closer and the woman – if that’s what she was – disappeared from view in an instant.

I held my breath, praying Norman wouldn’t find me.

If he did, there wasn’t much I could do about it.

A few seconds later I heard Connor’s voice shout my name and an immense relief flooded through my body. I yelled back as much as my hoarse voice would allow and he appeared at the top of the hole with his torch, face crazy with worry, or perhaps fear.

I decided it was a mixture of both.

I tried to think what I must have looked like – filthy, shaking, and wedged in a hole – and it reminded me of a story on a television show I’d seen as a kid. A child had gone walking in their local forest, had slipped down a hole and had got stuck there. I remembered thinking at the time that I couldn’t imagine what that would have been like.

Well, now I knew. Plus I had the added element of a whole load of bones for company.

With an obviously great deal of effort, Connor reached down towards me and grabbed one of my hands. From what I could tell, he must have been lying down, perhaps digging his feet into the wet ground for stability. I helped by grabbing onto the jutting bones on the way up, trying to ignore what they were for the time being. After a lot of pulling and pushing, and after I’d gained a lot more cuts and bruises, I got to the top and collapsed next to Connor, almost crying in relief.

“Connor, thank you.” I decided not to mention the woman; this wasn’t the time to get into that conversation again.

I really didn’t want to tell Connor about the hole but I knew I had to. When I thought of all the bones down there, I actually did start crying, and I collapsed against him, muttering, “I’m so sorry,” into his chest. When I eventually looked up at him, I saw that his face was completely drained of colour. “I’m sorry I didn’t believe you.” I looked over at the hole and he followed my gaze.

After a few seconds he asked in a monotone voice, “Is there a body down there?”

I looked up at him, wishing I could give him any other answer than the one I was about to give him, and whispered, “bodies.”

Connor stopped staring at the hole and looked at me, eyes wide.

“I’m so sorry, Connor. And I’m sorry I didn’t believe you – about Emma, about John…” I trailed off, quite certain that I was going to be sick.

“Was John down there too?”

I took a deep breath, holding it until I was certain I had my stomach under control. “Not exactly…”

“What does that mean?”

I gestured behind me. “In the tree.”

He looked over at the hollow. “Seriously?”

“Unfortunately, yes. Didn’t I tell you people liked stuffing bodies in trees around here?” I could feel myself getting hysterical and I lowered my head, taking long, deep breaths.

There was silence for a few seconds and I jumped when Connor suddenly moved to get his phone out of his pocket. “At least now I know. I’d better call the police.”

And that’s when we heard his voice, low and raspy and filled with hatred.

He was standing directly behind us.

“I’d rather you didn’t.”

***

I sat frozen to the spot as Connor turned round, slowly and cautiously.

After a couple of seconds I looked over my shoulder to see Norman, his face twisted up and a whole new level of madness in his eyes. He was standing over us, a torch in one hand and the hunting rifle from his kitchen in the other. The gun was pointed at us, only a few feet away from our faces.

I’d never actually looked down the barrel of a gun before, and if I’d ever wondered how I would react in such a situation, I knew now. I became a complete gibbering mess.

My brain failed me and I started emitting a high pitched squeaky noise that I didn’t realise was actually me until Norman pointed the gun solely at my face and told me to shut up.

At this, Connor stood up and pulled me up with him. I could barely stand and had to lean against him so I didn’t fall over.

Connor’s torch was left abandoned on the ground, pointing towards the hole, illuminating the now-obvious opening in the forest floor.

Norman gestured to Connor’s hand and ordered, “Lose the phone.”

To my horror Connor replied with a shaky, “No.” Didn’t he see the man had a gun? “Not until you tell me the truth. Is me dad down there?” He flickered his eyes to the hole.

I thought I saw a glimmer of sympathy cross Norman’s face but it passed so quickly, I couldn’t be sure.

“Yes. I think so.”

Connor nodded, defeated, then looked up at Norman again, suspicion in his eyes. “What do you mean, you think so?”

Norman sighed and looked at the hole again. “You don’t think I killed them, do you?”

Connor stared at me in disbelief, and I just about managed to shrug my shoulders. I was starting to feel a little ray of hope that maybe Norman wasn’t planning on actually shooting us.

Connor turned back to him. “Well someone feckin’ did!”

Norman lowered the rifle slightly and my heart leapt in relief. Unfortunately, what he did next stopped it in its tracks.

He was looking to his right, smiling sadly. “I know, I know. But don’t worry, dear; they won’t tell anyone. I’ll make sure of that.”

From the corner of my eye I could tell that Connor was looking in my direction, but I was completely focused on Norman. On that spot next to him. I’d seen someone looking into the air like that before…

“What’s he doin’?” Connor whispered the question so low it was almost inaudible.

Without warning, Norman’s neck twisted round to face us again, much like he’d done with my mum in the pub. “What are you two whispering about?”

I stared at him, too scared to say anything.

He leaned over to his right side, still looking at us. “Yes, you always could hear like a bat.”

I thought back to Hill Top Farm and the record player. I decided to try something, anything to distract Norman from using his gun.

“Did Doris like ‘Jerusalem’?” I gestured to the thin air next to Norman.

As soon as I’d looked at the nothingness I became aware of feeling a powerful desperation. It was the same feeling I’d got at Hill Top in the living room.

I could tell Connor was staring at me again but I concentrated on Norman’s awestruck face instead. “‘Jerusalem’ was Doris’s favourite song, how did you…?” He looked off into the distance and then a half smile played across his lips. “Of course… she must have been playing it when you broke into my house.”

The last four words were delivered in a much deeper, louder voice that didn’t seem to belong to him, and I winced at the change in his demeanour.

“By the way, Missie, if you’re going to go snooping around people’s homes, don’t be so damned clumsy. Pick up after yourself. And don’t be so obvious about it, I may be an old man who likes sitting in the local but I can tell when people are up to something!” He paused. “Whether or not they leave their silly books behind!”

To say I was on the verge of a slight panic attack was an understatement.

“Did you honestly think I wouldn’t know?”

I stared straight ahead. The only thing I could focus on at that moment was remembering to breathe. And even that was much harder than it sounds.

Norman looked to his right again, seeming to calm down after a few seconds, and then he smiled and turned back to me, the gun still pointed in our direction. “We used to sing Jerusalem at school when we were younger, before tourists started flooding through the village, back when it was a nice, quiet place to live. We bonded over that song, we even sung it at our wedding. She loved that song, still does. I can’t stop her playing it, even now!”

After giving me a worried look, Connor finally spoke up. “Don’t you know your wife’s dead?”

For a second the moon was swallowed up by some clouds and I tightened my hold on Connor in the darkness.

I heard Norman’s voice coming from the silhouette in front of us. “Of course I know that, I’m not stupid!” There was a brief silence and then he started talking again, more calmly now.

“Before she died… she was ill, she didn’t know what she was doing. She kept listening to that song, over and over again, and she became obsessed with building ‘Jerusalem’ in England. I kept trying to tell her,” he turned to the right again. “I did try and tell you, love. It was just a song, just a poem set to music. It had no bearing on our lives, or where we lived.” He looked back at us again. “But the illness had already taken over her mind. She thought that in order to create this Jerusalem she had to rid the village of ‘rotten outsiders’ and people who didn’t belong. People like your father.”

Connor shouted back angrily, “And you didn’t think to stop ‘er?”

With no warning, Norman pointed the gun just to the side of Connor and shot it. I jumped but Connor didn’t even flinch. I looked to check if he was OK but he was frozen in place, his eyes wide and unmoving.

Norman carried on as if he hadn’t just shot a near-deadly bullet. “I didn’t know! I thought it was just insane ramblings, I didn’t think she’d actually try and do anything! The last year of her life…” The sadness came back into his eyes. “I couldn’t stand to be around her; she wasn’t my Doris anymore. I left her in the house and stayed in the village most of the day. I had no idea she was…” he made a strange choking sound. “She was inviting travellers back to the farm and poisoning them. She only told me just before she died, showed me the bodies… and she made me promise to keep it a secret.”

Connor was shaking his head in disbelief. “Are you tryin’ to tell me that your wife was harbourin’ dead bodies somewhere in your house and you had no idea? Didn’t you smell them?”

Norman’s voice got louder, his teeth glinting in the moonlight as he spoke. “I’m not an idiot, boy! And neither was my Doris. She didn’t keep them in the house; she took them out to the barn.” He added sadly, “She was still relatively strong then.”

The barn. I knew there’d always been something sinister about that place. I thought, almost hysterically, that it’s a good job the Carters stopped the Farm Visit programme they had going with Little Forest Primary before Doris started sticking bodies in the hay for the kids to find. I thought back to mine and Connor’s conversation outside the farmhouse kitchen. “You can’t smell the barn from the house.”

Norman gave me a quick look of contempt before carrying on. “I went to the barn where she said she’d left them, had to scramble about in the muck to find them all. I had to move each body from our barn into the woods and bury them on my own. Of course, they were already quite… deteriorated… by then. You can’t even imagine…” He looked at Connor. “And then to have you bring it all up again…”

He looked devastated now, and was staring at the ground, gun lowered.

Connor spoke again, disgust oozing from his voice. “And what about Emma? John?”

Norman looked up again, lifting his gun at the same time. “Emma’s death was an accident.”

Connor laughed humourlessly. I wished I had his confidence when faced with the barrel of a gun. “Yeah yeah, that’s what the police keep sayin’. Somehow I don’t believe ‘em. Especially as her boyfriend seems to be stuffed in a tree!”

I flinched, remembering John’s brown hair protruding from the hollow, and watched as Norman had a similar reaction.

“Emma’s death was an accident; she stumbled upon me a little while after I’d been covering up the hole. Sometimes with all the rain we have, the surface becomes exposed again… I suppose she would have seen an old man covered in mud with a shovel, talking to his…” he paused, looking pained, “dead wife, about covering up the bodies.”

He shook his head, half smiling. “I’d have been scared, too. I panicked, not knowing how much she’d seen or heard… and I walked towards her, not sure what I was intending to do… that’s when she screamed at me and started running away. The alcohol didn’t help with her balance and she fell over. I tried to stop her falling, even tore some of her dress off trying to help her, but… when I looked at her face, I saw she’d hit her head on a protruding rock and I assumed she was dead. So I left her.”

Connor sounded furious. “You left her there to die!”

Norman shook his head again, this time more violently. “I didn’t know she was still alive.”

Connor laughed. “And if she hadn’t have fallen, you’d have just let her go? Is that what you’re tellin’ us?”

Norman looked on the verge of tears, genuinely distressed, and I started thinking we may be able to get out of this after all.

Then Connor asked his next question.

“And what about your man? John? I suppose you’re goin’ to say he tripped and accidentally fell into the tree and died?”

At the mention of John’s name, Norman raised the gun fully again. “That boy wouldn’t stop; he was obsessed with Emma’s death. He was wandering through the woods late one night and he found me – when I was making sure you didn’t find the hole – and he already knew too much. I had no choice.”

I was getting angry now, and somehow I found the strength to speak up. “There’s always a choice when it comes to murder! He was twenty-six years old, what gives you the right to take his future away?” I spluttered the question out before falling silent.

Norman hesitated before answering, “I didn’t think I could do it, but Doris was quite insistent.”

Connor shot me another confused glance. “Is this makin’ any sense to you?”

I nodded slowly, not sure how to communicate to him that it was making sense to me. More than either of them knew.

Norman interrupted us before I got a chance to say anything. “I don’t care if it makes sense to you, you wouldn’t understand. I loved my wife with all my heart, I still do, and I would do anything for her.” This sincere declaration would have been touching if it hadn’t been for the sinister look that came over Norman’s face as he finished his sentence. He turned to his right again and was smiling at the darkness when my phone started ringing.

Norman snapped his head back up and pointed the gun at me again. “Both of you, phones on the ground.”

We had no choice but to obey.

The moon became cloaked in darkness again as he kicked my phone away, before doing the same to Connor’s. After he’d thrown away our last hope, he stood back in front of us, looking at us both in turn. His voice was sincere but unapologetic. “I can’t have this getting out. No one is going to remember my wife as a murderer.”

The clouds uncovered the moon again and for a split second I thought I saw two silhouettes standing in front of me instead of one. It surprised me that I didn’t jump at this macabre vision; it didn’t shock me in the slightest. My brain must have accepted what was going on before I even got a chance to take it all in.

Connor was still brave enough to speak, but I could hear the waver in his voice now. From his direct questioning of Norman, I could tell he hadn’t seen what I’d just seen. Or if he had, he didn’t want to admit it to himself. “And how will people remember you? What you did to Emma? To John?”

Norman laughed darkly, then started smiling sadly. “There’s plenty of room down there, son. No one will know.”

I thought I was going to start hyperventilating, and I gripped onto Connor again for support.

Norman started walking towards us, gun still pointed at our trembling bodies. We walked backwards, away from the torch and the hole, until I felt the hard bark of a tree dig into my back.

We were cornered; we were going to die at the hands of a mad eighty-year-old farmer.

I didn’t think things could get any worse, but then Norman gave us a heart-stopping order. “Turn round and face the tree.”

I started pleading with him. If he was going to shoot us, couldn’t he just do it now? When we could see him? When we knew it was coming? I would not leave this world with my back turned to an evil gunman. A firing squad in Little Forest was just too unthinkable.

“Norman, what are my parents going to say? When they find out you killed me? My mum trusted you!”

That hit a nerve. No matter how crazy this Norman seemed to be, he must have remembered who his friends were. “Yes, your mum’s been very good to me.” He lowered his voice. “She’s one of the reasons I go to the pub so much, sit there all day instead of at home, where…” his head tilted slightly to his right. “Sometimes I go to Doris’s grave and just sit there, even though I don’t need to… I could talk to her just as easily at home. Too easily. Being at her graveside seems normal. Right.”

He lowered his gun and turned to his right in a dithering, confused movement. “Doris, she’s right. I can’t do this to her parents.”

The relief that flooded through me was indescribable.

Then I saw Norman’s face.

It looked like his skin was twisting and contorting, and I hoped it was just my imagination playing tricks on me in the dim light. He stood still and silent for a second or two and then started jumping around violently, as if he was having a fit. He was still holding on tightly to the gun as his limbs flailed about in a kind of demonic dance. It was what had happened to Sister Mary Eunice, times a thousand.

All of a sudden he stopped and turned back to us, gun held up again, all doubt and confusion gone from his face. He was smiling widely, seemingly without a care in the world.

The new and definitely-not-improved Norman told us again to turn round, this time with more authority in his voice. I complied and turned round slowly, looking up at Connor and seeing the same pure unadulterated fear that I felt reflected in his face.

I heard a chuckle from behind us; the sad, guilt-ridden Norman was well and truly gone. Doris must have completely taken over. “Look at that! It’s just gone midnight, how fitting. Happy Hallowe’en, kiddies!”

***

October 31st

Little Forest is the only place I’ve ever lived, and it’s the place where I’m going to die.

Tonight.

My life wasn’t flashing before my tear-filled eyes and no treasured childhood memories were entering my muddled, exhausted mind. There was no time to remember friends or family, no chance for bravery of any kind and absolutely no hope that I’d somehow be saved from this crushingly swift fate.

At twenty-one years old, my time was up.

Considering what had happened to me over the past couple of months, it seemed darkly poetic that everything should catch up with me at Hallowe’en.

It would make a sensational headline.

If I was ever found.

For just one second, the sheer terror of my current situation was overridden by another – more unexpected – feeling: wonder. Pure and simple wonder that the tiny village I’d lived in my whole life could harbour such sinister secrets. Wonder that the place I’d always moaned about being boring was actually anything but. Wonder that I could have ignored all the signs for so long.

My persistent tears had at last succeeded in blurring my vision and everything in front of me was now in an eerie soft focus; the ground, the grass and the trees were now just smudges in the darkness.

With my sight impaired, the sounds of the forest suddenly bombarded my ears. I could hear the cold autumn wind blowing shrilly through the leaves of the surrounding trees, the scuttling of some small, nearby animal, and the calm hooting of a distant owl.

But there was only one sound that I was waiting for; the sound that would be the last I ever heard.

At this gut wrenching thought, my trembling legs finally crumbled and I reached out to hold onto the rough bark of the tree branch in front of me, scratching my already bloodied hand in the process. I didn’t even register the pain.

I was just steadying myself when I saw something move out of the corner of my eye. Blinking frantically to remove my cloud of tears, I shifted my now slightly clearer gaze to the large hollow tree about ten feet away. I saw a silhouette of someone standing next to the bark and for one brilliant second my heart leapt in hope.

The Woman.

I blinked some more, wanting to get a better picture of my possible saviour, but felt a familiar sick feeling clawing at my stomach as my vision cleared and I realised there was no one there.

No one could help me now.

My desperate thoughts were cut off as the distressed voice next to me rasped, “I’m so sorry, Beth.” Connor sounded as frantic as I felt, his accent completely lost in his fear.

It was the first thing either of us had said since we’d realised it was the end.

I didn’t even try to reply; the effort of talking seemed impossible. I wanted to tell him that it was alright and that it wasn’t his fault, but words – like my courage – failed me.

I let the stinging tears run freely down my damp, dirty skin as I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and waited for the gunshot.

***

In the few seconds that I was waiting for death, I thought I saw a brown blur ahead of me, disappearing behind the hollow tree where John lay rotting. I didn’t think much of it, though; my brain was slowly shutting down, getting ready to join my body when that, too, would give up.

I closed my eyes, wishing now that Norman would just hurry up. Was he having second thoughts, battling the orders that Doris was no doubt giving him? Or was he just deciding which one of us to shoot first? I’d been holding the madness in me for too long and I knew it was only a matter of seconds before I gave in and started choking on my own desperate tears.

Then I heard the sound.

But it wasn’t the sound I was expecting. There was a rustling, a dull thud, and then a much louder noise as if someone had fallen over. I looked up at Connor, seeing a mixture of shock and hope on his face. We both turned round slowly.

***

Will was standing there, a large rock in his hand and an expression on his face that told me he was very close to throwing up.

His wild eyes darted from Norman’s motionless body on the forest floor to me and Connor, and he seemed to register the gun before looking me over, taking in the blood, the dirt, and the desperation that was no doubt still lingering on my face. He opened his mouth to say something but closed it again within a second.

I suddenly found the strength that had been rapidly leaving my body just moments before and ran over to Will, knocking into him so hard that he nearly fell over. I put my arms around him, not caring that I was covering him in blood and mud, and buried my face in his chest.

Will hesitated for a moment – possibly still in shock from what had happened – and started stroking my hair. “It’s OK, it’s OK now. Jesus Christ…”

I pulled back from him, peering up at his face through my tears. “Will, I’m so sorry I said those things. I didn’t mean it. Oh God, thank you.” My thanks dissolved into unintelligible mutterings and Will went back to trying to calm me.

I’d almost forgotten Connor was there, and it made me jump when he spoke. His voice was still shaking. “Will, I can’t thank you enough, man. How did you know we were here?”

I looked up at Connor – who was now standing over Norman, holding the gun to him in case he moved – and when Will didn’t answer, I glanced back at him; he seemed to be thinking of what to say.

After a few seconds, he shrugged and said quietly, “I was in the woods, listening to music.”

I laughed to myself, unbelievably thankful that his odd behaviour of hanging out in the forest had saved us.

“I heard a gunshot, and I was worried that Beth had got herself into trouble so I tried calling. When there was no answer I just ran to where I thought I heard the shot.” I saw Connor raise his eyebrows questioningly. “We’ve both… er… been investigating in the woods lately; I figured she’d be involved.” He looked at me, not knowing what to say.

“There’s no need to investigate anymore, Will. I’ll tell you later.”

“What the hell happened? Did he shoot at you? Are you hurt?”

I shook my head tiredly. “He shot to the side of Connor…” I trailed off and stopped talking, afraid that I’d soon start throwing up.

“Jesus. Did he kill Emma? John?”

I nodded gravely. “Well… with a bit of help. It’s too much to think about at the moment.”

He looked like he wanted to know now, but my energy was spent. I sat down on the ground and pulled Will down to sit next to me. We watched as Connor leaned over and felt for a pulse on Norman’s wrist. I could hear Will take a deep breath as we waited, and I reached out and squeezed his hand.

Connor looked up at us. “He’s still alive.”

I smiled at Will as he exhaled slowly, looking beyond relieved. Moving closer, I put my head on his shoulder while we watched Connor retrieve his phone from the sodden ground and call the police.

I made myself take several deep breaths, trying to get my heart rate down to normal; the last thing I needed now was to have a heart attack after so narrowly escaping death by rifle.

Shivering at the thought, I moved even closer to Will. I desperately needed some water (not to mention a hot shower and about a week’s worth of sleep), and I tried to focus on that rather than the unconscious geriatric lying in front of us.

After he’d finished on the phone, Connor came and sat next to me, on the other side from Will. “They said they’ll be right here, but it could take them a while to find us.” He looked past me to Will. “I still don’t get how you managed to find us in time, fella.” He shook his head. “I’m just glad you did.”

“Me too.” I smiled at Will again.

Connor put his hand on my shoulder. “Beth, are you OK? I’m so sorry… I did try and warn you about Norman, though.”

I had just about enough energy to roll my eyes at him. “This is not the time for ‘I Told You So’. And I’ll be fine.” I glanced over at Norman, who still showed no signs of waking up. “What about him?”

Connor shrugged. “No idea. Assumin’ he’s not in a coma or anythin’, I’d say he’s got a pretty good chance at pleadin’ insanity, for sure. All that stuff about his dead wife…”

I felt Will’s body go rigid. “His wife?”

Connor nodded. “He was talkin’ as if she were right next to him. As if she still had influence over his actions.”

Will’s eyes widened as he took this in. “Beth…”

I cut him off. “We can talk about it later.”

I looked at Norman’s body – old and frail, sprawled on the ground – and thought back to the way he kept looking into the air next to him, talking to the love of his life; so much for ‘til death us do part.

I took Will’s hand in mine and linked my left arm through Connor’s, unable to say anything else.

All three of us sat silently in the darkness together, our eyes fixed on Norman, until we heard the first rustling sounds of the police approaching through the shadows.

[]Chapter Eleven

The next afternoon, after a morning of giving statements to the police and getting checked out at Willowton Hospital (luckily a more boring visit compared to last time), I was sitting on my sofa next to Will, trying to fall asleep against his shoulder but having no luck.

Every time I closed my eyes I’d either see Norman pointing his rifle at me, or the strange woman reaching towards me in the hole. I’d made Will go with me everywhere since his heroic saving-of-the-day; in fact, the only time we’d been apart was when we’d had to talk to the police. I was probably annoying him with my constant presence but he hadn’t said anything about it.

My parents had hovered around me at the police station and the hospital, and I finally had to ask them to chill out. We hadn’t yet mentioned the ‘A’ word, and my brain was too exhausted to think too much about the fact I was adopted. They hadn’t slept the night before, either, so were currently having a nap. The peace and quiet was nice, or it had been for a few minutes. Then I’d realised it was a little bit too quiet and the thoughts that I’d been trying to block out kept reappearing, kicking and screaming into my exhausted head.

So now Will and I were watching a film without really watching it, and talking about random things to avoid talking about the chaos of the night before.

I knew that as soon as I was left alone I wouldn’t be able to stop the unwanted thoughts from coming, and I was trying to put that off for as long as possible.

I was just talking to Will about Random Violation when there was a knock at the door. I jumped in my seat (any sudden sounds were having that effect on me today), and Will patted me on the shoulder as he got up to answer it.

I heard him unlock and open the door. “Oh… hi.”

There was a pause, and then a familiar voice. “Hi Will, long time.”

It was Veronica. I stood up and walked into the hallway, joining Will.

V was standing awkwardly on the doorstep, staring at me. I was trying to think what to say when she abruptly burst into tears and ran into me, with a similar force as I’d run into Will the night before.

She hugged me and cried into my shoulder. “Oh God, Beth. I’m so glad you’re OK! I’d heard all kinds of things, I didn’t know what to believe. I would have come earlier but… I didn’t know if…” she broke into sobs, then stood back, took a deep breath and seemed to pull herself together. “I didn’t know if you’d want to see me.”

Despite what she’d put me through the past couple of months, it was nothing to what I’d gone through last night, and I hugged her, tears threatening to emerge in my eyes. “Of course I want to see you. Isn’t that what I’ve been trying to tell you all along?” I asked this with a wry smile, trying to lighten the mood.

V took another deep breath and smiled back. “Can we talk?” Her eyes flickered to Will.

I nodded, turning to him. “Would you mind?”

Will smiled at me. “Sure, I’d better go home and have a shower anyway.” He pulled me in for a quick hug and whispered in my ear. “Call me any time if you don’t want to be alone. And stay strong, Powers.”

I smiled gratefully and said bye as he let himself out the front door.

Veronica frowned as she watched Will leave. “Is there something you want to tell me?”

I laughed, the first time in what felt like forever. “How long have you got?”

***

A few minutes later, we were sitting at the kitchen table, each with a mug of tea in front of us. Veronica had gone for Earl Grey while I’d been on the chamomile all day; I was hoping it would sooth me, or help me relax, or something. Either way it hadn’t had much effect yet.

I could feel the silence begin to grow and I wanted to stop it before it became monumental. “So, where do we start?”

V smiled, clearly as uncomfortable as me. “Well, side-stepping the obvious for a second, what happened last night? You look all scratched up… are you OK?” I could tell she was bursting to get the gossip so I, too, ignored the most relevant topic of conversation for us and went into the explanation.

I told her every detail of the previous night – or as much as I could remember – while V sat with her mouth hanging open in an entirely unattractive fashion. I skipped over the more abnormal parts of my explanation, knowing I’d need to tell her but not quite able to go into all that yet. By the time I’d finished, both of our teas were cold and forgotten.

“Wow… that’s quite a lot to take in, B. I can’t believe… Norman?” She shook her head. “I’m just so glad you’re OK. God, if it wasn’t for Will…”

I nodded, willing myself not to start crying again. I remembered Will’s parting words and tried to get myself under control.

After a brief hesitation, Veronica came over and sat next to me, and I put my head on her shoulder. It felt a little odd after spending so much time apart, but it also felt right. Normal.

“I’m sorry, Beth. I’m so sorry I haven’t been around through all of this. I’ve been completely lost without you! Can you believe I actually moved in with Justin Hanks? Like I don’t see enough of him at work…”

I laughed, trying to imagine those two living together. I sat up and turned to face her. “I’m just glad you’re here now.”

V smiled. “Me too. So…” She took a deep breath. “Should we talk about the fact that we’re related?”

We both burst out laughing; it just sounded so stupid.

I tried to keep it light-hearted. “I knew there must be a reason why you always felt you could steal my stuff.”

V laughed, then the smile faded. “You have no idea how much I wanted to tell you. I was so angry when I found out about the adoption, but I was thrilled about the prospect of us being sisters. Then it just got really complicated.”

I thought I’d better start from the beginning, or my brain wouldn’t be able to take it all in. “How did you find out?”

Veronica went and sat on the other side of the table again so we could talk more comfortably. “Well, the morning after we went to The Pit, I was really hung over.”

I nodded, remembering my own state that morning. It seemed so long ago.

“So I had the biggest cup of coffee ever, and of course, spilled it all over my uniform.”

I smiled; it wasn’t the first time V had ruined her turquoise waitress dress.

“I didn’t have time to wash it and my other uniform was still drying from the day before so I went into the attic to find my old one. Anyway, I was searching through all the boxes and I came across this really cool antiquey-looking chest, and I thought it would be perfect for my jewellery.”

I raised my eyebrows at her. I’d forgotten V’s skill at going off on insanely wild tangents when she was trying to tell a story.

“Right, sorry. Anyway, when I opened it I found loads of photos including the one I showed you. I thought it was a bit strange so I took it downstairs and asked my parents about it. Well, you know,” she raised her hands and did air quotations. “‘Parents’.”

I nodded, marvelling at her casual references to the adoption. I suppose she’d had a lot more time to get used to it than me.

“Well, they said it was nothing but my mum almost choked on her tea and my dad just went deathly white. So, I asked them again and that’s when my mum broke down crying. She told me everything: that Samantha was a young mother, she couldn’t afford one baby let alone two, they’d been having trouble conceiving… I felt so ill, I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I’d had the wind punched out of me. I tried ringing you, but my dad grabbed my phone off me and switched if off. I was so mad.”

I thought back to that same morning in my room, the pain that had suddenly – and without warning – taken hold of me. Surely it wasn’t linked to V?

I guessed anything was possible now.

Veronica carried on. “I was furious and said I was going to tell you, but they pleaded with me not to. They said our birth mother had been extremely explicit in her instructions, it was an agreement they’d all made, a kind of condition of the adoption. She didn’t want either of us to ever find out about her, and if somehow one of us did, under no circumstances were we to tell the other one. Our birth mother also had to be told immediately if one of us did manage to find out.”

I shook my head, trying to think. “But why?”

V shrugged. “They just said if both of us knew, we’d be more likely to go looking for her. Anyway, I had to get out of there so I went to the Diner, fully intending to tell you everything when you came by after your shift. I just needed a few hours to calm down and think things through.”

“And wait for the hangover to clear?”

“Exactly. But before I had a chance to tell you, my parents came to the Diner. They’d just been to Birston to see the birth mother… our birth mother… to tell her I knew, and you should have seen them; they’d never looked more terrified. Even my dad.”

Veronica’s dad was one of the strongest, no-nonsense people I’d ever known. If he was scared, then it must be bad.

“They wouldn’t tell me exactly what happened, but they begged me not to tell you, saying it was for my own good. My dad actually tried to give me money so I could move to London right away, and when your own dad starts bribing you, you know that something’s up.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “So did you find out what she’d said to them?”

Veronica hesitated, staring down at her unfinished drink. “Our birth mother…”

I was getting impatient now. “Yes?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

I laughed to myself. “You’d be surprised what I’d believe.”

“OK… she threatened to kill them.”

I laughed in surprise. “What? They actually told you this?”

Veronica wasn’t laughing. “You didn’t see them, B. They made me promise never to go near her, and they said that if I told you, I was risking your life as well. My mum said she never wanted me to see the darkness in that woman, and I believed her.”

I stared at her in disbelief. “What does that even mean?”

V took a deep breath. “There’s something deeply wrong with her. I don’t know if she’s mentally ill or what, I just know she made my parents cower in fear, and they were desperate for me to stay away from you. So were your parents; they didn’t want to put you in danger either, obviously.”

“So, throwing those glasses at me in the Diner…”

She cringed. “Oh God, Beth, I’m so sorry. You just wouldn’t listen to me! I had to try and make you see how serious I was being, that you had to stay away. If it’s any consolation, I wasn’t aiming for you; I just wanted to make a point.”

She certainly did that. “You gave the people in the Diner quite a show.”

She stared at me, obviously trying to see if I was honestly still mad about the glass thing. After a couple of seconds her mouth curved up in a semi-smile. “I guess I did. I just thought that if I made you angry, you’d be more likely to leave me alone… did you see my CAC updates?”

I nodded. “Ah, so they were for my benefit.”

She nodded too. “I’m so sorry, B.”

I suddenly thought of something, and I couldn’t believe it hadn’t occurred to me earlier. I must have been more tired than I thought. “Do you know who our father is?”

Veronica shook her head. “Sorry. Either my parents don’t know, or they’re doing a good job of covering it up. They said that our mother never went into who the father was, and they didn’t want to pry. For all I know it could have just been a randomer.”

I nodded. I already had more to deal with than I ever thought possible, and I thought my head would actually explode if I gave it something else to worry about on top of everything else. I decided that mystery could stay unsolved, at least for now.

“I heard you fighting with my parents that night. I…” I shook my head, embarrassed to admit it. “I was in the front garden when you came storming out of my house.”

It took Veronica a few seconds to realise what I was talking about. “You were?” She laughed. “You really are getting good at the whole stalking thing!”

“I didn’t really catch the whole argument though…”

“I was just letting off steam, really. I’d promised my parents I wouldn’t talk to you about it, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t talk to your parents about it. I was begging them to tell you, but they just said the same things my parents had said. They’d obviously been updating each other on what had happened, and they seemed just as terrified of our birth mother…” she shrugged.

After a few minutes in silence I asked another question, one that seemed to be more urgent given the very public fight of the night before. “So what happens now? The entire village knows we’re adopted, don’t you think it’s going to get back to her?”

V cringed. “I know, I wish I’d told you sooner, I really do. But after everything that happened to you and Connor after the public humiliation on Main Street, are you really worried about a crazy woman in Birston?”

I looked her in the eye. “Are you?”

She smiled back at me, then gave up trying to act normal. “I’m petrified.”

***

We talked about our actual mother for another half an hour or so before my phone went off. I took it out my pocket and saw it was a text from Will. I smiled.

“Who’s that?” V was looking at me curiously.

“It’s just Will seeing if I’m OK.”

V nodded, smiling. “Yeah, I’d noticed you two were rather close.”

I shrugged. “Well, he did save my life. That kind of thing brings people together.”

Veronica shook her head. “You looked pretty close before that, too. Seriously, is something going on there? You used to hate him!”

I pulled a mock shocked face. “I wouldn’t say hate, exactly. I just… didn’t really know him.”

“And you know him now?” I could see she was on the verge of cracking up.

“Grow up, V.”

She started laughing, and although she was really annoying me, it was nice. It almost felt like old times. “I’m just saying, he seems really sweet to you. He’s never been like that with me.”

“I think he just feels protective after everything that’s happened.”

Veronica nodded, a smile still playing around her lips. “Right, so you’re not together then?”

I rolled my eyes, sighing theatrically. “No!”

“Bit defensive, aren’t we?”

I looked down at the table, wondering how much I should say.

Her eyes glinted. “Oh my God, something has happened, hasn’t it? I know you!”

I gave up. “Alright… we kissed.”

Veronica’s manic smile made a full appearance. “I knew it! Tell me all.”

I laughed. All of the drama with Norman and our parents, and what did Veronica want to talk about? “It was pretty awkward actually.”

V nodded, knowingly. “Bad kisser? I always thought he would be, he hasn’t really had that many girlfriends…”

I shook my head, cringing as I remembered the fake mausoleum in the maze. I decided not to tell Veronica that it had happened while we were hiding from her. “That’s not what I meant.”

“So he was a good kisser?”

I refused to answer, although my flushed cheeks were no doubt giving me away.

“No way! So what happened? You said you’re not going out with him?”

I sighed, suddenly extremely tired. “We had a massive fight, and I was so angry at him I couldn’t even begin to think about anything like that. I kissed him back for a bit, then I just stopped when I realised what I was doing.” I shrugged again.

Veronica wasn’t going to let this subject go too easily, I could tell. “So, what were you fighting about?”

I cringed, not wanting to go into the whole sorry mess of a situation. “Let’s just say he didn’t believe me about something. Which I suppose is fair; I mean, it is pretty unbelievable.”

V frowned at me for a second and then understanding seemed to filter into her features. “Edinburgh?”

I nodded slowly.

Veronica’s mouth opened again, wider this time. “You were trying to tell me something, outside the Inn, and then with your text. B, I’m so sorry I never… what’s been going on?”

I sighed, suddenly completely exhausted. “A hell of a lot, and I will tell you, I just… I can barely function at the moment, I haven’t slept at all. Can we just talk about this some other time?”

She looked like she was about to burst from excitement and anticipation. “Please?”

I groaned, and V nodded, giving in. “OK, fine. So, anything else happen over the past two months? Irish men and Norman aside?”

I tried to think of something that would take the focus away from the Edinburgh conversation.

“I got a text from Tom.”

Veronica raised her eyebrows ever so slightly. “Tom Durden, your ex-boyfriend, Tom?”

“The very one.”

“Oh my God, what did he say?”

“Not much, really… it was a bit odd. He asked how I was and said he was finishing his Uni course soon. I replied, but there was nothing. For a second, I thought-”

She cut me off. “You thought he was coming back to England?”

I nodded, embarrassed.

“No offence, B, but you’ve been thinking that ever since he left. Remember the whole year you spent moping around, feeling sorry for yourself, binging on ice cream…”

I smiled reluctantly. “Yeah, thanks for that, V. I remember.”

“I just thought you were over all that?”

I shrugged. “I am. It’s just, hearing from him after all this time… it was weird.” It had made me feel like crap, but I didn’t want to admit that to Veronica.

I tried to think of something to get away from this depressing conversation. Then it hit me. “Hey, I may have been asked out by a certain Random Violation front man…”

V stood up dramatically, her hands over her mouth like she’d just heard something too shocking for words. “Don’t mess with me, B!”

I laughed and launched into the story, allowing myself to forget about my messed up life for just a few minutes.

***

A couple of days later, I was sitting on my bed with Keaton next to me, staring at my laptop screen. It still took a great deal of concentration to do anything; I hadn’t had more than a few hours’ sleep since the night of Fright Fest. This, along with the extreme awkwardness between me and my parents, had helped with my decision to finally leave Little Forest.

It wasn’t the most sensible idea ever as I didn’t really have enough money yet (especially as I hadn’t sorted out a job down there), and Veronica had opted out of the plan exactly for that reason. Now that I knew about the whole adoption deal, her dad had taken back his offer of financial support.

She’d tried to convince me to stay but I just couldn’t see how I was going to get over everything that had happened when I was constantly being reminded of it all. I hadn’t yet got round to telling Will, though, or my parents, or The Couple. I just didn’t know how to break it to them.

Every time I was alone my mind would drag me back to that night, holding onto that tree and waiting for the gunshot. It had only been a few days but I didn’t see any sign of the nightmares stopping.

My only option was to get out of this village while I still could. It had been my plan (well, mine and Veronica’s plan) anyway, and if I stayed, I could see myself becoming totally dependent on Will and being too scared to even leave my front door or look out my window. Being a recluse at the age of twenty-one really didn’t appeal.

I thought about Will again. We hadn’t mentioned the kiss since that night, and it really didn’t seem important anymore in the grand scheme of things, but I’d miss him. A lot.

I’d asked the police and they said I was OK to leave as long as I agreed to come back when a date had been set for the trial. I was one of the key witnesses and they needed my statement in court, something I definitely wasn’t looking forward to, especially as I would have to edit my story a hell of a lot; if I started rambling on about weird feelings and seeing people that couldn’t possibly have been there, they’d probably cart me off to the Birston Clinic.

By now the whole Norman fiasco had swept around the village, as I knew it would, and everyone was torn between gossiping about that and gossiping about the adoption ‘scandal’. I hadn’t heard from Connor for a couple of days, but I didn’t want to push him to talk to me.

I knew he’d told his mum everything and that, as expected, she hadn’t taken it well at all. It had been confirmed that Connor’s father was one of the bodies in the hole, and they were in the middle of working out who the others were. My guess, from what Norman had said, was that they were people who had just been travelling through briefly; there certainly hadn’t been any missing people in Little Forest for years – until John, of course.

I’d tried to forget the image of the woman pointing down the hole at me with something glinting in her hand, but my subconscious wouldn’t let me. She appeared in every single nightmare I had – even more so than Norman – and despite her constant presence in my mind, I still hadn’t told anyone about her. I was already worried that my parents were going to send me to some sort of counsellor and this would definitely give them more reason to.

I’d told Veronica about Doris and my recent run-ins with similar situations, but I didn’t think she’d quite understood exactly what I was saying; she couldn’t have completely understood unless she’d seen what I’d seen, and I just didn’t know how to explain it properly. Every time I tried, I got frustrated that I couldn’t describe it well enough, and so I eventually stopped trying. Veronica said she believed me – she’d been in the Edinburgh mausoleum after all – but she didn’t seem to understand the extent of what had been happening to me. I couldn’t really blame her; I didn’t understand it either.

I tried to concentrate on my laptop again. My train ticket to London had arrived that morning and I’d managed to intercept the post before my parents could see it.

I was now looking up hostels in the city - the cheaper the better - and I’d just found one near Piccadilly Circus that looked promising. |I was about to book it for a few nights when there was a knock on my door.

No doubt it was my mum checking for the millionth time if I was OK. I groaned inwardly but called out, “Come in!”

It wasn’t my mum, it was Will. He stood hesitantly at the door, not quite knowing what to say.

Smiling at him, I patted the bed next to me. He walked over, picked up Keaton (who meowed in protest), and sat next to me, plopping the cat on his lap. “You OK? I haven’t heard from you for a couple of days.”

“I’m getting there. Just needed some space, you know?”

He looked up from stroking Keaton. “Oh, do you want me to go?”

Laughing, I shook my head. “No, I didn’t mean that.”

I glanced at my screen and realised too late that I’d left the hostel page up. I was about to minimise it when Will asked, “What are you up to?” and leaned over to look.

I cringed as he registered the site.

“Beth… please tell me you’re just taking a weekend break in London?”

I looked up at him and shook my head, feeling awful.

He nodded to himself and started to get up, knocking Keaton off his lap. “So you’re leaving. Perfect.”

I grabbed his hand and pulled him back. “I’m sorry, Will. You knew this was my plan anyway. I just can’t be here anymore. It’s too… painful.”

He wriggled out from under my grasp and stood up. “When?”

I gestured to the ticket on my desk. “In three days.”

He stared at me, disbelieving. “I get it. It just would have been nice to have been told. I’ll see you later.”

And with a few strides to the door, he was gone.

***

The next day I was surprised to get a text from Will asking me to meet him at the Diner, and I gladly went along. At least he was letting me explain my decision to him, and I didn’t want to leave without us clearing the air.

I knew something was wrong as soon as I got outside Stars & Stripes; despite it being lunchtime, the blinds were down as if it was closed. Will was waiting outside the door, a smirk on his face. I walked towards him hesitantly, trying to read his expression. As I got to the doors he winked at me and whispered, “I told you I’d get you back, didn’t I?”

I kicked myself for ever throwing him that stupid surprise party. “No, Will, please. I didn’t want everyone knowing I was leaving.”

I could see my pleading wasn’t going to make any difference, and I supposed I owed him after he’d saved my life and all, so I gave up and agreed to go in. Will grabbed my hand – probably to stop me if I tried to run away – and led me inside.

I was shocked to see how many people he’d rounded up at short notice. Obviously, there were all the regular Diner staff, including Justin, then there was Veronica, Connor, Rach, Max, my parents, Veronica’s parents (I still couldn’t think of them as just Rob and Rebecca or David and Laura, it was too strange), my work colleagues… even my boss. It wasn’t the welcoming party that Will had got at the Inn, though; everyone looked pretty mad.

I leaned over to Will and whispered, “I don’t get it… is this a leaving party?”

He looked sheepishly back at me. “Not exactly.”

At that point my parents came up to me and started having a go at me for not telling them my plans. Great, so this was more of a get-yelled-at party. An intervention. I’d have to remember to thank Will later.

After I’d spent a few minutes ignoring what my parents were saying, The Couple came up to me. Max looked more awkward than usual but Rach just hugged me. “You can’t leave me here to deal with her!” She glanced at our boss and I burst out laughing, mouthing ‘Sorry’.

I looked over at Hannah and smiled. She was the only one apart from V who knew I was planning to leave (I’d handed in my notice the other day), and I had to give her credit; as far as I knew, she hadn’t blabbed about me going to anyone.

Connor came up to me next and I gave him a big hug. I hadn’t seen him in person since we’d left the police station after giving our statements, and I was glad I got to see him before I left. Pulling back from the hug, I looked him over. “Are you OK?”

He started saying yes then stopped, settling for an, “I’ll be alright. I’m not so sure about me mam.”

I squeezed his arm, not knowing what to say.

“I’d be better if you were stayin’, though! You can’t leave now, Beth. Who am I goin’ to run around the woods with?”

I grimaced, and so did he. “Too soon for jokes, hey?”

Before I could even reply, Veronica flew into me. “Beth, you can’t go to London without me – we had a deal. Just wait a while, and we’ll earn the money and go together when we can afford it. Please stay. For me.” She smiled hopefully.

“I just can’t, V. All the memories…”

Veronica just gave me her ‘so what?’ expression: hands on hips and eyebrows slightly raised. “You’ll have the memories wherever you are, and don’t you have more good memories here than bad? I mean, yeah, nearly getting killed was bad, I’ll grant you that…”

I glanced at Will in disbelief. “Is she for real?”

Will shook his head, his hands covering his face. “Hey, she’s your sister, not mine.”

Sister. Wow, that sounded weird.

Grabbing my hand, Veronica pulled me over to our usual booth in the corner. “Look, just sit and chill with us for a bit. Then you can make up your mind about whether you want to run off to London on your own or stay here with your amazing friends and family.” She flashed her brightest smile at me.

Laughing, I sat down next to her. How did I know that leaving would be easier said than done?

***

A few minutes later I was drinking a chocolate milkshake with the gang and almost feeling normal again.

Rach had tentatively asked me how things were at home, and although I knew she was dying to talk to me about the whole adoption thing, she could tell this wasn’t the time to bring it up.

That didn’t stop Will from bringing it up, though. “I still can’t believe you two are sisters. Well, twins.” Apart from Connor, Will was probably one of the only people who had heard about our little family scandal second hand, rather than having watched it play out on Main Street himself. V and I had told him everything, but I got the impression that he was annoyed he hadn’t seen the whole ‘reveal’ for himself.

V smiled enthusiastically. “Just call us the Sweet Valley High girls.”

I laughed. We’d both loved those books and the TV show when we were young. “But without the blonde hair and, you know, being identical.”

Will sat up in his seat. “You know, if you both wore long, blonde wigs and V took off her five inches of make-up, you’d look pretty similar.”

V hit him playfully over the head.

“What? I think you should try it. I’ve always liked blondes.”

I laughed, shaking my head; a few months ago, a comment like that from Will would have made me groan in disgust. He winked at me and got another slap from V for his trouble.

Veronica was back on top form, and once she’d finished abusing Will, she started asking me, Connor and Will to tell The Couple everything about Norman. I’d already been through some of this with Veronica but she didn’t know the whole story, and as usual, she wasn’t going to stop until she knew absolutely everything.

It took a long time, but we went through what happened, starting with the day after mine and V’s fight. Everyone ‘oohed’ and ‘ahhed’ in the right places, and Veronica and Rach gasped in shock when I told them about our infiltration of Hill Top Farm. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, even Max; I was surprised none of them ordered a bowl of popcorn to go along with the show.

Needless to say, I didn’t tell them everything. Veronica was one thing, but The Couple didn’t need to know about what had happened in the Jerusalem room at Norman’s, for instance, other than the creepy photograph and letter.

I’d just got to the part with the bones in the hole and I could tell that everyone was sufficiently freaked out. “I couldn’t look at them anymore, so I looked up towards the moonlight, and there was this…” I stopped. I’d nearly mentioned the woman, and even with my best friends, I couldn’t quite bring myself to recount that memory.

I noticed that everyone was staring at me. Veronica looked confused. “This what?”

I couldn’t think what to say; I’d never been very good at lying. “What? I meant that’s when Connor arrived.” I looked at him to see what his expression was. I’d often wondered if Connor had seen any sign of the woman at the hole when he got there, but was too scared to ask in case the answer was no. He looked a bit confused like everyone else, but that was about it.

No one said anything further so I filled them in about getting out of the hole and the confrontation with Norman, ending in Will’s amazing appearance just in the nick of time.

Rach looked at Will in awe, poking Max at the same time. “Take notes.”

Max ignored her.

Attention now turned to Will as he told his side of the story. I’d heard it before, of course, but he seemed to be in his element with a larger audience. He got to the end of his tale, when his converged with mine and Connor’s, and everyone sat back in thought.

Rach was shaking her head. “I can’t believe Norman’s a murderer. He always seems so nice… so normal. It doesn’t make any sense.”

I didn’t want to defend him, but I did want to make Rach understand. “I don’t think he would have even thought of harming anyone a few years ago… I guess grief does weird things to you.” And the constant nagging of your dead wife, I thought to myself.

Rach nodded and turned to Connor. “And you say he kept referring to his wife like she was there?”

Connor looked at me uncomfortably. “Yeah, it was like he was tryin’ to blame ‘er for his actions or somethin’.” Or something.

“I guess grief really does do weird things to you.” Rach looked up at Connor, her mouth open. “Oh God, sorry Connor.”

Connor smiled. “It’s OK, I think a part of me always knew I’d never see me dad again.”

There was a moment of silence before Veronica rapidly changed the subject. “Well, Will, all I can say is it’s a good job you weren’t listening to your music at your usual ear-splitting volume, or you would never have heard that gunshot.”

I thought back to Will’s birthday party when I gave him his shiny new mp3 player, telling him about the sound quality, the volume, how he’d better not use it as an excuse to ignore my phone calls…

Will’s face was rapidly becoming tomato coloured. I knew there was something about his story that didn’t add up. Veronica was right; he listened to his music with the volume turned up to eleven. I could only ever get in contact with him when he was in the woods because he usually played with his phone at the same time and could see when his display lit up.

Will still wasn’t saying anything, and I was really intrigued now. “Will?”

He slumped onto the table. “OK, I’ll tell you the truth.”

“You haven’t been telling us the truth?”

He glanced around the Diner to see if anyone else was listening. Most of the people had turned the intervention into an impromptu party and seemed to be having a great time, which is probably what the village needed after the revelations of the last few days. “Not the whole truth.”

He leaned in and signalled for everyone else to do the same. He gave me a fleeting look that I didn’t understand, a strange mix of embarrassment and guilt.

My skin prickled.

“You’re right, V. I was listening to my music at full blast, there was no way I would have heard that gunshot if I’d carried on listening at that volume. The truth is, something made me turn my music off completely.” He shifted in his seat, looking uncomfortable. “It sounds weird, but I suddenly, erm, sensed that someone was there with me. I looked up and there was this… woman… there.”

I choked on my milkshake. Will patted me on the back, laughing nervously. “You OK?”

I nodded. “Go on.”

“Well, she looked odd. More than odd. Her mouth was wide open but she didn’t seem to be making a sound. It was twisted, it didn’t look natural, I can’t describe it…”

I could feel a tingling in my stomach, like butterflies but more intense. I waited to see what else Will had to say.

“She was pointing into the woods, obviously trying to tell me something. Then she walked off in that direction, so I turned my music off and got up to follow her. I don’t even really know why I did it. Then she just… vanished. I couldn’t tell where she’d gone, so I just carried on walking in what I thought was the same direction. That’s when I heard the gunshot, right ahead of me…” He trailed off and looked around the group, embarrassed.

“That’s it?” asked Veronica, not sounding impressed at all. “Some weird woman made you turn your music off?”

Will sat back, shaking his head. “You didn’t see her.”

I figured I had nothing to lose now. “I think I did.”

He looked at me suddenly, eyes wide. “What?”

I hesitated. “Was she wearing brown clothes? And had long dark hair?”

Will nodded slowly, obviously a little confused.

I took a deep breath. “I saw her too. When I was in the hole, she appeared at the top and she reached down to me… something glinted in her hand, I thought it was a knife… then Connor came and she disappeared.”

Connor was frowning at me. “There was no one there when I got to the hole; I sure would have mentioned it if there was.”

I nodded solemnly. “That’s what I figured.”

Will looked like he was going to be sick. “But I saw her!”

I tried to sift through my jumbled emotions. I was intensely relieved that someone had seen the woman too – and seemed to understand the disturbing nature of her features and general demeanour – but I was incredibly pissed off that the person who had seen her, and kept it a secret, was Will.

He knew the nightmare I’d been having the past couple of months, thinking I was going crazy, and yet he’d neglected to tell me this very important piece of information. He could have saved me days of agony worrying about my mental health.

After all, if my real mother was a complete lunatic, why couldn’t I be?

“Why didn’t you tell me? You knew I was terrified that…” I looked at the others, remembering that they didn’t quite know everything that had been happening to me recently. “That I was… seeing things, hearing things.” I tried to ignore Rach’s worried look and Max’s bemused expression. I whispered the next line. “You could have told me you were seeing things too!”

Will shifted uncomfortably. “Hey, I didn’t know that I was… I mean, this woman looked wrong, sure, but she was so solid. She didn’t look like a… you know. The things you think you’ve been seeing.”

I thought back to her face; ‘wrong’ didn’t seem to cover it. Then I thought back to Emma. “Emma didn’t look like a ‘you know’ when I saw her outside The Pit either. And I don’t just think I’ve been seeing them, I know.” I was beginning to get angry at him again; he couldn’t not believe me now, surely?

Rach was staring at me worriedly, like a concerned parent.

I ignored her and carried on. “I think I saw the woman again, right before you came and knocked Norman out. I saw a blur of brown, like a figure, and then it disappeared behind the tree, the tree where John…” My voice cracked on John’s name and I looked down at the table. We’d been cheerfully and successfully ignoring the tragedy of John’s death. After all, we’d all had chance to get used to Emma being gone, but learning about John was a new, more deeply-felt pain. Especially for V, who’d been closer to him than any of us.

Veronica closed her eyes briefly before snapping back to her usual self. “So?” I’d told her about the woman but I hadn’t mentioned my secret inkling about the tree, something that had occurred to me a couple of days before.

“The hollow tree, I’d seen it somewhere before.”

“Jeez, B. You’ve been spending far too much time in those woods.”

I shook my head, wondering if I should go on. “Not in the woods… in the library.”

Will’s face was blank. “What?”

“When we were researching Norman. I didn’t really focus on it because it was on the same page as an article about the farming competition, but the headline was something about having no leads on the mystery woman, and there was a photo of the hollow tree! It had police tape wrapped around it.”

He wasn’t getting it, and I was getting more and more exasperated. “What did those kids ask us about at the library?”

He looked very puzzled now. “The ghost dog?”

I shook my head impatiently. “No, before that.”

Will’s eyes widened and I knew he’d got it. “The woman in the tree…”

Veronica broke the tense atmosphere with a laugh. “You guys talking about Elizabeth?”

Connor was now the only one who had no idea what was going on. “I’m sorry, Elizabeth?”

I nodded. “I told you about the body those children found in the tree…”

“I’ll tell it.” Veronica turned to Connor, glad that she was finally getting to tell a story to someone. “In the forties some kids were messing about in the woods and they found the body of this woman stuffed into a tree. The kids totally freaked out, of course… never got over it. The thing was, no one knew who the woman was. The population of the village was much smaller back then and there weren’t any tourists. People became obsessed with trying to find out who she was, but I think it was during the war or something and there were bigger things to worry about. Anyway, residents started referring to her as ‘Elizabeth’, and graffiti started appearing on the tree and around the village – ‘Who put Elizabeth in the tree?’ That kind of thing. It’s one of those stories that gets passed around school here. The killer was never found.”

I almost jumped when Max spoke. I usually forgot he was there; he hardly ever joined in the conversation. “All of it’s true.” He was staring at his phone, brow furrowed. “I found the article from the Little Forest Gazette. It’s pretty much what Veronica said. ‘The unknown woman was estimated to be in her mid-thirties, with long black hair and a small birthmark on her neck. She was wearing a full-length, dark grey skirt and cream blouse. When found, her garments were entirely covered in mud, suggesting an extensive struggle on the forest floor.’”

I sneaked a glance at Will. He seemed to be listening intently and his mouth was open slightly. Max carried on.

“‘She was carrying no identification and the only other distinguishing feature was a gold ring, worn on her wedding finger.’”

I thought back to the hole and realised it was her left hand she had extended down towards me. I thought she’d been holding a knife, but could it just have been a ring glinting in the moonlight?

“‘It is thought the woman was travelling through the north-east area of the Great Specton Woods when she was attacked and subsequently strangled. She was placed in the tree soon after death, before rigor mortis could set in.’”

The north-east woods… that sounded about right considering the direction I’d first run from the castle.

“‘The four young boys, who can’t be identified for legal reasons, were alerted to the tree when they heard a baby crying. A child of approximately five months of age was found near the tree and has now been taken into care.’”

I gasped. I’d never heard the part about the baby before.

Max had stopped talking and Veronica gestured to his phone. “Anything else?”

Max looked uncertain about whether or not he should continue. “Well, yeah. It looks like the Little Forest Gazette wasn’t too bothered about printing photos of the dead in those days.”

I felt my heart beating quickly. “There’s a photo of her? Let me see.”

“I don’t know, it’s pretty sick…”

I grabbed the phone off him. “Oh, please Max, like I haven’t been through worse these past few…”

I stopped.

I completely forgot to breathe.

The grainy black and white photograph showed the face of the woman, and she had the same long, dark hair I’d seen in the woods. Her mouth was twisted into an unearthly silent scream of the dead.

I nodded to myself, almost in defeat. If I’d managed to convince myself at all that I wasn’t seeing dead people, this was evidence to the contrary. Actual evidence. I thought to myself in resignation that it may well be time to unlock the back part of my mind and finally let out the years of memories I’d tried to hide away. I thought I’d probably known all along that I’d never totally forget them. I needed them.

I handed the phone to Will in silence.

Will took one look at the photo and dropped Max’s phone on the table.

Veronica looked delighted. “No frigging way!”

I suddenly felt incredibly light headed as I asked Will, “do you believe me now?”

He looked up at me, eyes wide, biting his lip. “Beth…” He shook his head and looked back at the phone.

The photograph had scared me badly, but what I felt most was an overwhelming sense of relief. If this was confirmation that I’d been seeing ghosts, or spirits, or whatever they were called, and if Norman had seen them – or at least one of them in the form of Doris – and Will had too, then I wasn’t alone. And I wasn’t mad.

Connor took the phone off Will and stared at it for a few seconds before looking at me. “You nodded when I asked if Norman was makin’ any sense to you, when he kept speakin’ to his wife like she was there…”

“I think she was there. I mean, I couldn’t see her or hear her, but I knew she was there. It was her at Hill Top, you must have guessed that, and I think I saw a silhouette of someone standing next to Norman, just for a second.”

Connor sat back in his seat, hands still clasped around the phone. He’d gone more pale than usual and I was worried he might be about to faint. The Couple were looking at each other warily, as if trying to figure out if the other was buying all this or not.

Will was still staring at me as if I were a ghost. “Beth, I’m so sorry… I honestly thought…”

Veronica interrupted, being as casual about everything as always. I supposed it wasn’t that strange, though; unlike my own attempts at ignoring anything vaguely supernatural, V had always been a big believer in the afterlife. We’d often had drunken arguments about it. “This is awesome, I knew all those ghost stories had to start somewhere! I bet they’re all true.” She shook her head, smiling. “They’re all true!”

I poked her in her side. “Don’t get carried away, V.” I was starting to feel very sick, and was definitely regretting the chocolate milkshake.

She gave me one of her looks. “You’ve just admitted to seeing the dead and you’re telling me not to get carried away? This village is built on those stories; they can’t have all been made up. Some of them clearly weren’t.”

Rach looked physically sick at the mention of ‘the dead’. I’d once tried to talk to her about ghosts and she’d immediately told me to shut up; apparently ghosts scared her more than clowns did.

V babbled on. “You know what’s cool? This whole Norman thing will probably turn into one of the village legends too. It’ll be passed down, generation to generation…

She paused, probably for dramatic effect, knowing V. “It’ll become just another ghost story.”

Rach was looking really uncomfortable now. “Veronica…”

“Sorry, Rach, but it’s gonna happen.” V carried on rambling, talking about setting up some kind of ghost investigation blog on the net, and I stopped listening after a few minutes, thinking about Elizabeth. Thinking about Norman. Thinking about something Veronica had said.

Without warning, Connor suddenly stood up, almost knocking his drink over in the process. “I’m sorry, but am I the only sane person around here?”

His deep Irish accent rose above the noise of the room and a few people glanced over, curious. I glared at Connor until he sat down and then he said more quietly, “This just doesn’t make any sense. I mean, listen to yourselves, Jesus. Dead women, ghost wives… do you honestly believe that…”

I cut him off. “I saw your dad.”

Everyone stared at me. I remembered I hadn’t told this part to anyone, not even Will.

Connor said nothing.

“Long, black coat, massive black umbrella, dark hair, golf scar below his eye. It was definitely him.”

Connor laughed, shaking his head. “I told you all that.”

I nodded. “Yes, after I’d seen him. Why did you think I was asking what he looked like?”

He just shrugged.

“Do you remember when I saw you outside the bookshop? I’d just hurt my arm.”

A nod.

“And you were wondering what I kept looking at? Over your shoulder?”

Connor was eyeing me uncertainly.

“Well, I was looking at your dad. He was standing right next to you… he looked sad, like he wanted you to be able to see him. You nearly walked into him at one point. Well, not, into, but, you know…” I trailed off, unsure of how to proceed.

“You actually saw a man next to me?”

I nodded. “I’m sure it was your dad. He was in the pub when we went to Renfield as well. And he was in my garden, too.” I looked at Will. “He was the Garden Man.”

Will’s eyes widened and Connor shook his head. “What?”

“I think he was trying to warn you, about Norman. Or warn me. I think he knew I could see him.”

“This isn’t somethin’ you should be bleedin’ jokin’ about.”

I glared at him again. “Do you honestly think I would? I’m just trying to tell you, to explain…” I looked around at the group, varying levels of disbelief and fear showing on every single one of their faces. Well, apart from V, who just looked excited. “Guys, it’s all true.”

“She’s right.”

I turned round at the sound of the old, raspy voice. It was the woman from Renfield: the woman from the pub.

“Beth?”

I stood up, not knowing what to do or say. “Yes, hi… erm, how did you find me? I only gave you my mobile number…”

Everyone looked at me oddly and I knew exactly what they’d be thinking: what was I doing giving my phone number out to old women? Only Connor was wearing a vague expression of recognition on his face.

“We need to talk.” She looked over to Veronica and back to me. “This wouldn’t be Veronica Summers, by any chance?”

V shot me a wide-eyed look and turned back to the old woman. “Yes it would. And who are you?”

The woman glanced at the others and then came and sat next to us on the end of the table. “I’m your grandmother. Your real grandmother.”

***

She sat there, not saying a word, letting her announcement sink in. At least a minute seemed to pass before I broke the silence. “I’m sorry, how is that possible?”

The old woman looked at the others again and then back at me. She also glanced over at mine and V’s ‘parents’, giving them a little nod. “I’m Mary Donovan. My daughter is Samantha Donovan, I believe you’ve both just found out that she’s your birth mother.”

Will grunted from next to me. “Some of us a little later than others.”

He still hadn’t quite forgiven Veronica for ignoring us for all that time. Well, he understood why she’d been ignoring me, but he didn’t understand why she had to ignore him, too. I supposed if I hadn’t got so close with him she would have told him everything, and made him stay away from me as well.

I’d shuddered when that thought had first occurred to me; If I hadn’t had Will to lean on for all those weeks, I don’t know what I would have done.

V was glaring at him for his comment and he turned sheepish under her angry gaze. “Shut it, Will.”

I looked back at Mary, who seemed unsure of herself and not at all like the creepy woman who’d been spying on me at the pub.

Veronica asked the next question. “Do you know who our real father is?”

Mary hesitated. “To tell you the truth, I’m not sure. Samantha didn’t really know many men and she never confided in me about that.”

V looked crestfallen. “And our grandfather? Is he still…?”

Mary shook her head. “I’m afraid he didn’t stick around very long when I got pregnant with Samantha.”

I changed the subject quickly. “So how did you find me?”

“I knew I recognised you that day at the Doctor’s Surgery. You look so much like your mother,” she looked at Veronica, “you both do. When I went to the pub earlier, I received your note from Jeremy Pincer. He explained you’d been looking for me. I was lucky to catch him while… well, while he was there.”

I heard Will laugh. “Since when have you been looking for her?”

I glanced at him, forgetting he didn’t know. “Before the street festival and… everything, I went to Renfield to try and find her.”

Will stared at me in disbelief. “Why?”

I looked back at Mary, who seemed to be thinking the same question. “I wanted to know what you meant, you know, about seeing ‘them’, or that I would soon.”

Mary nodded, a small smile playing across her lips. “I thought it might be something like that; I knew it was only a matter of time.”

V shot me another wide-eyed glance – it didn’t look like she’d even blinked since Mary had entered the room.

Mary continued, either not noticing Veronica’s looks or ignoring them. “When I saw your name on the piece of paper I realised who you were and I just had to come and find you. Of course, my daughter kept in touch with your adoptive parents so I knew where you worked. You weren’t at the cinema, so I came here.”

At the mention of her ‘daughter’ Veronica became very defensive. “So how come we’re allowed to see you, but not our own mother?” She almost spat out the question.

Mary sighed. “Samantha had been extremely clear in her wishes once she’d found out she was pregnant, and I’m afraid they haven’t changed at all over the years, despite my attempts at convincing her otherwise.”

Veronica seemed to be getting angrier with every word Mary said. “So, did she hand over the babies along with death threats? Or is that something she’s just recently got into?”

Mary looked down at her lap and I noticed her wringing her hands; she looked incredibly nervous and I was shocked again by the change in her conduct since I saw her in Renfield. “You have to understand that Samantha is – and always has been – desperate.”

I waited for Will to make a stupid comment and was immensely relieved when he didn’t. “How do you mean?”

Mary shifted her position on the seat and spoke solely to me. “You wondered what I meant that night you were in the pub with Mr. Handsome over there…”

She nodded at Connor and I could almost feel Will fuming next to me.

Mary continued. “Well, seeing as you came to see me, I’m assuming you figured it out.”

I nodded, warily. “You were talking about…”

“Spirits, yes.” Mary said it so matter-of-factly that I wondered why I’d been embarrassed to say it out loud. “Or spectres, as I call them. You and I both know that a person’s life doesn’t end with their death. Unfortunately, this is something my daughter knows only too well.”

“Our mother knows?” I paused, trying to take everything in. “Why did you say unfortunately?” I could tell by Mary’s continued fidgeting that she was putting off telling us something.

“You have to understand that when someone is opened up to the world of the afterlife, and when they actually start to believe it, one of two things can happen. You can see it like I do – that it’s a gift, a confirmation that death doesn’t have to be the end and that there’s hope for our loved ones even after they’re gone – or you can see it how your mother sees it.”

She paused again. I tried to catch Veronica’s eye but she was focused solely on our newfound grandmother.

Mary glanced at the others, still clearly uncomfortable that they were there, but carried on regardless. “Samantha and I both have the same gift you have, Beth. Samantha is a reluctant believer – or gazer as I call it, ‘believer’ always sounds too religious, I think – although reluctant doesn’t really cover it. She was such a sceptic growing up, she used to think I was crazy and she’d tell me over and over again that there weren’t such things as spectres. She even tried to get me to go to a doctor, but I refused. So, because she was such a cynic, when it became apparent that there was more to a person’s life than our allocated eighty or ninety years on Earth, she couldn’t handle it. She locked herself in her room and became more and more terrified of the… things… she was seeing and hearing around her. Eventually it got too much and she came to me in hysterics, asking me to make it stop.”

She paused again and stared into space for a moment. “Of course, I couldn’t do anything; once you’re open to it you can’t stop it, and unless you accept it as a good thing, it can consume you. Many gazers who don’t accept the truth quickly become tainted. Samantha was one of the worst; she barely slept, she didn’t have a job, she lived off my money, and she never married or settled down. She’d been haunted by this other world – or the Former World as I call it – since before she got pregnant, and the thought of her children succumbing to the same fate nearly tipped her over the edge.”

I thought about Samantha’s (thinking of her as my mother still seemed too odd) extreme reaction, and wondered how close I’d been to it happening to me. Luckily, the whole spirit aspect hadn’t come as such a shock to me; I’d realised that deep down I must have always known about it on some level, or at least since my experience in Edinburgh.

It had slowly but surely been creeping up on me ever since.

Veronica looked like she’d been lost in thought too, but she managed to drag herself out of it. “So that’s why she doesn’t want us to see her? That’s why she threatened our parents?”

Mary nodded, again looking incredibly miserable. “You don’t know how distressed she was when she found out she was pregnant. She only knew about the Former World because of me and she didn’t want to pass on this knowledge – or curse as she thought of it – to you two. Of course, she wasn’t in any position to look after two children, either, and after Samantha had sucked me dry of all my money, I couldn’t provide financial support to anyone else. She thought you might want to seek her out when you got old enough and she did everything in her power to make sure that didn’t happen. So when Veronica found out…”

V smiled dryly. “She was pissed off?”

Mary flinched; I guessed she didn’t appreciate bad language. “No, she was devastated. You see, she was twenty-one herself when she first started becoming aware of the Former World. She thought history would repeat itself if either of you tried to make contact with her. From what I can tell, twenty-one is the usual age for gazers to start believing. They may have had experiences before, occurrences they couldn’t explain… but these things almost always intensify around your age. Don’t be mad with her; everything she’s done has been in a desperate bid to protect you both.”

I nodded slowly. “So I’m… a gazer?”

Mary carried on. “Everyone has the ability to see, or sometimes just hear or sense, spectres. But there are some people, like you and I, and Samantha of course, who have a better ability than anyone else. To a gazer, a spectre can be seen, heard, sensed… and sometimes appear just as a normal person.”

V interrupted, obviously feeling left out. “So why aren’t I a gazer? I’m Beth’s twin. Even Will’s been seeing… er… spectres.”

“Once a gazer turns twenty-one, the people closest to them can sometimes latch onto those abilities. It’s quite normal.”

Normal? Nothing about this conversation was normal.

But something else was bothering me. “You said they can appear like normal people?” Mary nodded. “I guess Connor’s dad looked vaguely normal, but I could tell what he was. I just can’t imagine seeing someone and not knowing. Is that what it’s like for you?”

Mary raised her eyebrows and slowly took a piece of paper out of her coat pocket, handing it to me gently. It was a page from a newspaper.

Unfolding it, I spread it out on the table. The main headline shouted out in huge capitals: ‘RENFIELD LOCAL KILLED IN CAR CRASH.’

I quickly scanned the first few lines and felt my stomach drop. “Twenty-four year old Renfield resident, Jeremy Pincer, was killed yesterday when his car collided with a deer on Willowton Road, just past Renfield Abbey.”

I looked up at Mary in shock. “He’s dead? That’s awful! I only saw him about a week ago.”

Mary shook her head. “I brought the paper with me in case I had to try and convince you about spectres… look at the date.”

It’s never a good thing when someone tells you to look at the date of a newspaper in that way, as if you had amnesia or had somehow time travelled without knowing it.

Unfortunately, it was neither of those things. It was worse. The paper had been published three years ago.

My gaze wandered to the photograph accompanying the article: it showed a smashed-up black car with the caption ‘Pincer’s hybrid Honda Civic was written off during the crash’.

A black Honda Civic? Willowton Road? Near the Abbey? I thought back to the eerie group of sheep, to Sister Mary Eunice, to the car I’d jumped to avoid…

“No.”

Mary put her hand on my shoulder. “I knew Jeremy before he died, but I’ve come to know him much better since. He loved working at the pub, and whenever he can find a portal in the Former World, he goes back there.”

“But there were other people in the pub… could they see him as well?”

Mary smiled at me. “They were spectres, too. The Doctor’s Surgery pub wasn’t open the last night of Fright Fest. It never is.”

I couldn’t accept this. “But he served me. He poured me a drink! He handled money.”

Mary nodded. “Some spectres can’t physically touch things in the Modern World, some haven’t yet learned to speak with the living… but some can manipulate the space around them. They look solid, they can interact with their surroundings. Jeremy has learned very quickly. He’s a clever lad.”

I shook my head. “Was a clever lad, you mean.”

Mary hesitated. “Is, was, that’s one of the joys of knowing about the Former World. They’re almost the same.”

I shook my head again, getting angry. “But he’s dead. That couple, they were dead too! And I didn’t know. I had no idea.” That realisation was far scarier than any dark, shadowy ghost.

Mary patted me on the shoulder again. “You’ll get used to it. I’m here to help.”

V cut in before I got a chance to respond. “Like you helped Samantha?” She was obviously getting pretty mad herself, and she closed her eyes and took a deep breath before carrying on. “Look, we know about… spectres now, anyway, so surely seeing her wouldn’t make a difference?”

The thought of a crazy woman rocking herself to sleep every night while she tried to block out disembodied voices crossed my mind, but I had a wild idea that maybe with me and V to back her up, Mary might be able to get through to her.

Instead, Mary shook her head and I could see tears filling her eyes. I had an extremely bad feeling and I reached out to grab Will’s hand from next to me. “Mary?”

I could see her trying to get herself under control before speaking again. “A few days ago Samantha heard of your little argument at Fright Fest and… she didn’t take it well. Apparently, one of her neighbours phoned the police when they heard the commotion coming from her room, and, well, she’s been taken to a clinic just outside of Birston.”

I slowly took in what Mary was saying. I felt an odd detachment; this woman she was talking about was my mother, and yet I’d never met her or even known about her until a few days ago. It was all too much to get my head around.

Veronica’s voice broke the silence. “What sort of clinic? Like a psyche ward?”

Mary didn’t seem like she was going to answer so I decided to change the subject slightly. I’d finally found someone who could explain, or at least try and explain, the weird things that had been happening to me, and I wanted to make the most of the opportunity.

“Mary, the… spectres you’ve encountered, are they something we should be scared of?”

She took a deep breath before she started speaking. She seemed more comfortable talking about this than about her daughter. “Most people are. Most people who’ve seen them are so scared they convince themselves they didn’t see anything. But when you know about the Former World, you’ve got to try and embrace it. If you start to fear it, it will consume you.”

I shook my head; she didn’t understand what I was asking. “No, I meant the actual individual spirits. Are they generally… good? We think one of them has been trying to help me.”

Mary smiled a little wistfully. “Spectres come in all shapes and sizes. You have to remember that they were all once flesh and blood, like you and me, and as I’m sure you know, people can be good or they can be devious, irritable, vicious, and downright evil. What a person was in life gets amplified when they pass into the Former World, so you get virtuous spirits, and then you get the… difficult spirits.”

I thought back to Edinburgh. “Like poltergeists?”

Mary laughed. “Yes, I suppose you could use that term, although I tend to call them Rogue spirits, to separate them from the Pure ones. Unfortunately, that’s one of the things Hollywood films have got right about the Former World.”

I looked at Will to see his reaction; he liked to act tough about horror films but I knew that deep down he was terrified by them. As I probably would be now, too. He just stared back at me, his expression unreadable.

“Not that this isn’t all fascinating, but what about Samantha? What was the ‘commotion’? What happened?” V’s voice was low and raspy and I could tell she didn’t really want to know the answer. I didn’t really want to know the answer.

Mary’s previous smile faded. “I don’t know exactly what happened, but apparently there was deafening screaming and lots of banging and then just… silence.”

I found my voice again. “You don’t know? You haven’t seen her since?”

There was a pause. “Oh, I’ve been with her every day. She’s… unresponsive.”

Rach spoke for the first time since Mary had appeared. “Unresponsive?”

Mary nodded slowly. “She’s in a catatonic state.”

V’s face was draining of all colour. “I don’t understand, what happened?”

Mary shrugged, looking more tired than ever. “If you’re open to the Former World, it can become extremely heightened during moments of intense emotion or severe stress. It finally got too much for Samantha. I can only imagine what she saw in her last lucid moments.”

Mary only just got the last few words out before she broke down in tears. I wasn’t quite sure what to do and after a small hesitation, I let go of Will’s hand and moved closer to her, putting my arm around her awkwardly. “I’m really sorry about your daughter, especially if it was us that caused… whatever it was that happened to her.”

Mary shook her head violently. “No! You mustn’t blame yourselves. If your finding out about her wasn’t the catalyst for what she did then something else would have been. She’d been fighting against it for too long… it was only a matter of time.”

Veronica leaned in closer, too. “What do you mean, what she did?”

Mary put her hands over her face, wiping away the tears, and then brought them down to her lap. “She’s not just in the clinic because they think she’s mad; she’s there because she tried to kill herself.”

The silence which descended over our little group was absolute, and I only vaguely noticed as, one by one, every member of the gang turned their gazes on me.

Veronica was the first to break through the quiet. “Does that happen a lot? With gazers?”

Mary looked down at her hands, not saying a word, and Will put his arm around me, in a kind of protective gesture. Although I’m guessing an arm around a shoulder wouldn’t protect a crazy person from wanting to commit suicide.

I was definitely regretting the chocolate milkshake now.

Clearly wanting to get away from the whole Samantha thing, V tried to change the subject. “Can I ask another question? Why do you call it the Former World?”

Mary looked off into the distance, seemingly thinking of how to answer.

During the lull in conversation, I glanced around the Diner. Everyone was talking and laughing – everyone except for a lone figure standing just inside the main door. I tried to smile, to convey that everything was good, but the figure just stood there, not moving an inch.

Eventually, Mary seemed to find the words she needed. “The spectres who are there… some of them are similar to us here, in the Modern World. Take Jeremy, for instance. Others, though… are different. They’re mere shadows of their former selves, drifting around, soulless, empty. They’re former people – some can’t talk, some can’t function like we do. The way they are… it’s prehistoric, almost. For some people it’s as if, when you die, you lose your humanity. You go back to a primal time. You don’t live, you simply exist.”

That stunned everyone, and by the look on Veronica’s face, she was already regretting asking the question.

Mary smiled, trying to dissolve the tension. “I know this is an awful lot to take in, but I only live in Renfield, so feel free to come and visit me any time you like. You can ask all the questions you want, and, Beth… I want to help you through this as much as I can. I know I failed with my own daughter, but I can tell you’re different to Samantha. You’re strong. I can tell you won’t give up.”

Tears started to form in my eyes as I took in what she was saying. How was I strong, exactly? And hadn’t I already decided to give up by running away to London?

Could I really leave now?

Not only did I have a new sister to get to grips with, but a new birth mother and a new grandmother, too. Not to mention the whole gazer thing.

Could I really deal with that on my own?

I wasn’t strong – at least I didn’t feel like I was – and if the past couple of months were anything to go by, I’d need all the help I could get.

Looking round at my group of friends, all of them smiling at me encouragingly, I knew that I couldn’t leave.

Not yet, at least.

I had to see where this gazer thing was going.

I had to learn more about the Former World.

And I had to do it without losing my mind and ending up in a psyche ward. Great.

Hoping I wasn’t going to live to regret this, I looked at V, Will, Connor, Max, Rach and Mary in turn, and made my announcement. “I think I’d better stay in Little Forest for a while longer.”

The cheers and animated chatter from my friends washed over me as I looked at the main door again.

The Garden Man – Connor’s dad, as I now knew – nodded at me briefly: a tiny, seemingly insignificant motion that looked like it took a huge effort to complete.

And, with that, he was gone.

[]Epilogue

People always talk about ghosts. Ghosts of the past, ghosts of memories. Vague, shadowy, metaphorical ghosts.

It turns out it’s the real ones you need to look out for.

I’d left the Diner a while after Mary had, needing to walk in the fresh air, needing to be alone for a few minutes.

To tell the truth, I was majorly freaking out.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Emma. She’d been stuck in a loop, reliving her death over and over again… I couldn’t think of anything creepier. I could only hope that now the mystery of her death had been solved, she could get some kind of peace. She could move on.

And then there was Samantha. What if by the time I was middle-aged, I was in hospital having attempted to kill myself? What if I didn’t even make it to middle age?

I could feel a panic attack coming on so I quickly got out my phone and dialled Will’s number. He answered on the third ring.

“Miss us already?”

“No, I was just worrying that I’ll go mad and try and kill myself like my mother.” I still couldn’t call her anything as familiar as mum.

“Beth… you’re not going to end up like her. Come back to the Diner, Connor’s seeing how monumentally drunk he can get on Stars & Stripes cocktails.”

“No, I’m OK. But how do you know I’m not going to end up like her?”

There was a pause. “There’s a big difference between you and her. You’re accepting it… you’re not trying to fight it. You’re much more like Mary.”

I nodded to myself; he was making sense. Of a kind.

“And anyway, you seem to get the nice ghosts.”

I rolled my eyes. “Are we really going to call them ‘ghosts’? I quite like spectres, or spirits.”

“Whenever I hear spirits my mind immediately jumps to vodka.”

I cut him off, trying not to laugh. “That doesn’t surprise me.”

“I guess we could call the good ones spectres. Like the Woman in the Tree.”

I interrupted him. “Elizabeth.”

“Right, Elizabeth. She was such a nice little spectre that she tried to save your life. Did save your life; if she hadn’t made me turn off my music…”

“That’s true.” I shivered at the thought of what could have happened.

“Look, Powers, you’re not going to let this take over your life, you’re too smart. And if you start to get stupid, you know I’ll slap you until you see sense.”

I smiled. “Well, that’s always good to know. Thanks, Will.”

“No problem.”

I hung up and took a deep breath, thinking about what Will had just said. Elizabeth had tried to save me – had saved me – and I owed her. I just didn’t know how on earth I was supposed to pay back her kindness when she was a spectre.

A few minutes later I was heading up to the castle – now back to its boring pre-Fright Fest state – and I walked round and found the hole at the back. It seemed like so long ago that I was standing here with Connor, wondering if he was the someone I should be scared of. I laughed the thought away; there wasn’t anyone less scary than Connor. Apart from maybe Will.

Turning round, I faced the trees, trying to figure out which part of the forest I’d entered.

Even in the daylight it seemed ominous, and I knew it would be a long time before I came anywhere near here at night again. I walked to where I thought I’d started my mad run and then carried on into the woods.

Before long I came across the scene of the attempted crime. There was still police tape stuck in the ground surrounding where the hole was (it had all been dug out now), and it reminded me of the black and white photo of the tree with police tape wrapped around the trunk.

I managed a little laugh; nothing much changed in Little Forest.

I found the tree that Norman had backed Connor and me into (my stomach fluttering as I remembered that terrible moment), and then looked beyond it to see the large hollow tree standing on its own, it too surrounded by police tape. I walked over to it warily, not sure of what, if anything, I’d find there.

I hesitated when I got to the tree, remembering what I’d seen when I’d last looked into it, and then quickly peered in the hollow. I half expected Elizabeth’s head to pop up, and I laughed at my own stupidity; of course, there was nothing there. I felt the rough bark of the trunk and tried to think what it would have been like for that group of boys to find her here. I shivered.

Looking around at the other trees and the hole, everything came flooding back. I had to hold in the tears as I relived the moment I turned my back to Norman, absolutely certain I was about to die.

I felt slightly sick and light-headed knowing that I owed my life to a woman who died almost three quarters of a century ago, but standing there in the woods, next to the place her body was discovered, I knew it was true.

No one ever found out who she was. Well, I was going to try. I didn’t know how, but I owed her that much. I turned back to the tree, resting my hand on it.

Peering into the dark hole again, I whispered the two words that I hoped would somehow find their way back to Elizabeth: “Thank you.”

I turned round in time to see the police tape fly from the ground and into the air, and my stomach lurched as I watched it dance in the wind.

There was only one problem with this picture, however; there wasn’t any wind. There hadn’t even been a single breeze since I’d ventured into the woods.

I started backing away from the disturbing but graceful movements of the blue and white strip of plastic and then stopped. As I stood watching the tape’s unlikely ballet I realised that I wasn’t scared. Will was right; why should I be frightened of someone who had tried to help me?

I took a deep breath before whispering, “Elizabeth?” into the cold autumn air. The piece of plastic immediately lurched in an almost violent movement and the end of the tape flew upwards a good ten feet.

I laughed in amazement. At the same time, my phone went off, and the tape abruptly stopped its vertical journey and started floating towards the ground. I stared at it for a minute until it had landed on the soil and then slowly got my phone out of my pocket, still in a slight daze.

The message was from Veronica: ‘Get back to the Diner. Little Forest Investigations needs a gazer. First meeting in 15 mins. V xx’. Smiling, I looked back at the tape. This Scooby Doo idea of Veronica’s might not be so stupid after all, and I knew exactly what should be our first ‘case’; finding out Elizabeth’s real identity was the least I could do for her. Finding her killer would be even better.

Putting my phone back in my pocket, I took one last glance at the now motionless police tape.

I supposed that the tape – like Doris’s victims – would soon get covered in soil and dirt and the debris of the forest, ultimately taking up its final resting place in the woods, waiting to be discovered by the next generation of curious residents, it too becoming legend.

I smiled as I walked off towards the village I called home, thinking about everything I’d learned the past couple of months.

I have a feeling there’s a hell of a lot more to come: more things I haven’t even begun to understand or conceive of, more secrets lurking in dark and dusty corners, more spectres I’ve yet to meet.

After all, sooner or later, everything becomes just another ghost story.

Impossible is just an excuse.

At least now I know the truth.

I can finally accept it.

Still, part of me will always wonder… would I rather go back to not knowing? To thinking that bumps in the night were just the creaking of a tired house, that flickers in the corner of my eye were just my over-active imagination?

Would I give back my newly-gained horrific knowledge, knowledge that keeps me awake every single night, and go back to being blissfully ignorant and – consequently – bored out of my mind?

It’s a tough call.

I guess I’ll have to get back to you on that one.

 

[]Want a Free Book?

Did you enjoy The Former World?

If you sign up to my mailing list, you can get the second in the series – Memento Mori – absolutely free, as well as the opportunity to hear about my new releases and exclusive Readers’ Group competitions. How’s that for a bargain?

If you’ve enjoyed this book, I’d really appreciate a review of The Former World on Smashwords, as reviews can really help independent authors like myself, thank you.

 

[]Acknowledgements

There have been a few key people who have helped me enormously on my quest to write my first novel, and I want to say a big thank you to all of them: Lauren Hughes, for her enthusiasm and encouragement in all things literary, and for being the first person I let loose on The Former World. Jamie Barnett, for her expertise on the lovely subject of decomposing bodies, and for proving that you don’t need to physically meet a person for them to be a huge help. Ruth Fry, for letting me ramble to her about storylines-in-progress. David Coleman, my brother, for his help with all things technical, and for answering my endless website-related queries. Creative Paramita, for the wonderful book cover design. And last but not least, Vicki Marshall, for her brilliant editing skills, and for pointing out my plot holes from the other side of the world.

[]About The Author

Jessica Grace Coleman was born in Stafford, England and raised in the nearby village of Little Haywood, a quaint English location that would later be remodelled into Beth Powers’ home village in the Little Forest novels.

She studied Film Studies and American Studies at the University of Sussex in Brighton, and attended the University of Colorado at Boulder for a year as part of her course. A big fan of travelling, she has road tripped around North America and backpacked across China, South East Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.

Jessica has so far self-published five books in the Little Forest series: The Former World, Memento Mori, The Exalted, Carnival Masquerade and The Gloaming. She has also released her first short story collection, Grown By The Wicked Moon, featuring 14 weird and wonderful tales, as well as her non-fiction titles, Creative Ways To Start Creative Writing, Volumes 1, 2 & 3.

You can find out more about Jessica, her available books, and her works in progress at her website: www.jessicagracecoleman.com and you can contact her at [email protected]. You can also sign up for her mailing list – where you’ll be first to hear about her new releases and reader competitions – at www.jessicagracecoleman.com.

This is a Darker Times book – www.darkertimes.co.uk

 

Also Available from Jessica Grace Coleman

Memento Mori

A Little Forest Novel

Beth Powers is twenty-one, single, and lives in the traditional English village of Little Forest. She has a sister, a great group of friends, and a steady, if slightly boring, job. Oh, and she can see dead people.

Beth’s home village isn’t exactly normal, either, and a Memento Mori art exhibition showcasing Victorian photos of the dead is the catalyst for a whole new set of problems for the Little Forest Investigations team. Who was the dead woman who saved Beth’s life last Hallowe’en? Why do spectres keep getting drawn to Beth’s house? And what does it all have to do with the imprisoned murderer, Norman Carter?

Join Beth and the LFI gang in this Little Forest novel as they delve deeper into the Former World, seeking out spectres as they try and unlock the dark secrets surrounding their village, their lives, and their deaths.

Memento Mori (Little Forest Book Two) is now available from online bookstores.

For more details, check out my site at www.jessicagracecoleman.com

Also Available from Jessica Grace Coleman

The Exalted

A Little Forest Novel

Beth Powers is twenty-one, single, and lives in the traditional English village of Little Forest. She has a sister, a great group of friends, and a steady, if slightly boring, job. Oh, and she can see dead people.

Along with the Little Forest Investigations team, Beth is on a mission to help the lost spectres that keep getting drawn back to Cherry Tree House, but as usual, it isn’t all plain sailing. Who was the leader of the brainwashing cult, ‘The Exalted’? Why are residents of the village acting stranger than usual? And what does it all have to do with the events of 1921?

As if this wasn’t enough, Beth has to deal with a fake medium who has just set up shop in the area, manipulating those around him and throwing up the important question: should people know about life after death?

Join Beth and the LFI gang in this Little Forest novel as they explore myths, magic and mediums in their home village and try to discover the truth about the Former World.

The Exalted (Little Forest Book Three) is now available from online bookstores.

For more details, check out my site at www.jessicagracecoleman.com

 

Also Available from Jessica Grace Coleman

Carnival Masquerade

A Little Forest Novel

Beth Powers is twenty-one, single, and lives in the traditional English village of Little Forest. She has a sister, a great group of friends, and a steady, if slightly boring, job. Oh, and she can see dead people.

Like many other village residents, Beth is intrigued by the circus which has just set up shop on Willowton Common: ‘Doctor Blackout’s Magnificent Masquerade Carnival’ is certainly bringing in the locals, but there’s something not quite right about the whole set up, including the elusive Doctor Blackout himself.

Throw in a couple of spectres who hold a personal grudge against the reluctant gazer, plus a best friend who’s acting extremely oddly, and Beth has more to deal with than she can handle on her own.

Join Beth and the LFI gang in this Little Forest novel as they battle against the forces of evil, some bored spectres, and even one of their best friends. The Former World has never been so deadly.

Carnival Masquerade (Little Forest Book Four) is now available from online bookstores.

For more details, check out my site at www.jessicagracecoleman.com

 

Also Available from Jessica Grace Coleman

The Gloaming

A Little Forest Novel

Beth Powers is a pretty normal twenty-one year old woman. She has a sister, a great group of friends, and a steady – if slightly boring – job. She lives in the traditional English village of Little Forest. Oh, and she can see dead people.

When the Little Forest Investigations gang get a request from an Irish gazer in trouble, Connor jumps at the chance to go back to his homeland, and soon, the whole LFI team find themselves in rural Ireland. It’s cute, it’s quaint, and it’s jam-packed full of dead people.

It isn’t until they return back to England, however, that things really start to heat up. Covershire County’s dark past. Unfortunately for them, they’re about to experience the darkness first-hand, as it seems that Beth didn’t exactly leave Ireland empty-handed…

Join Beth and the rest of the LFI gang in this Little Forest novel as they continue their quest to help the spectres of the Former World, dealing with madmen, witches, and unwanted visitors on the way.

The Gloaming (Little Forest Book Five) is now available from online bookstores.

For more details, check out my site at www.jessicagracecoleman.com

 

Also Available from Jessica Grace Coleman

Creative Ways To Start Creative Writing

Volumes 1, 2 & 3

Do you love writing but find it hard to get in the ‘zone’? Do you love the idea of being creative but find it difficult to get in the creative mood? Do you procrastinate instead of being productive?

If so, then this book is for you. It is several things in one: some tips on how to start thinking about writing, some recommendations for apps and programs that will help you on your way, and – hopefully – a kick up the arse that so many writers (including me) often need.

I know how hard it is to start a creative project. I’ve been there, and I’ve been there so many times that I’ve found a whole heap of different ways to get myself into that zone, some of which can be really fun.

So what are you waiting for? The sooner you get reading, the sooner you can start getting creative.

Creative Ways To Start Creative Writing Volumes 1-3 are now available from online bookstores.

For more details, check out my site at www.jessicagracecoleman.com

 

Also Available from Jessica Grace Coleman

Grown By The Wicked Moon

A Short Story Collection

‘Grown By The Wicked Moon’ is the first short story collection from Staffordshire writer Jessica Grace Coleman (author of the Little Forest series of mystery novels), and features 14 weird and wonderful tales.

This book delves into the dark lives (and deaths) of a wide range of characters, with a little bit of horror, a dash of fantasy and a pinch of humour thrown in for good measure. It will take you from a seemingly doomed girl lost in the woods to a disturbing business transaction, from a writer whose made up characters are a little too realistic to a spurned woman on a mission, from a mysterious hero in a small town to a bored ghost who finds out that death isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Whether you read this collection as a whole or dip in and out whenever you want to read a short snippet of spookiness, there’s a story for everyone. All of these tales have elements of darkness in them, and all of them were written on cold, gloomy, wintry evenings, where they were cultivated under the steady gaze of the black night sky. These stories were grown by the wicked moon.

For more details, check out my site at www.jessicagracecoleman.com

 


The Former World

The Former World: Book One in the Little Forest paranormal mystery series. If you’d like to get the next Little Forest novel - Memento Mori - for free, sign up for the mailing list at www.jessicagracecoleman.com. “Little Forest is the only place I've ever lived, and it's the place where I'm going to die. Tonight.” These are the words of Beth Powers, long-time resident of Little Forest. On the surface, she’s just an ordinary English girl in a typical English village, but appearances can be deceiving… extremely deceiving. There’s something lurking beneath the picturesque façade of the English village of Little Forest, something dark and disconcerting, something which the vast majority of the residents are refusing to see… Fed up with living in the tiny, gossip-fuelled village, twenty-one year old Beth resolves to escape to London with her best friend, Veronica Summers. That is, until something throws a spanner in the works. A rather large spanner. A dead body, to be exact. A dead body found early one morning in the spooky surroundings of the Great Specton Woods. The apparently accidental death of Beth’s work colleague sets off the small community’s well-oiled rumour mill, and Beth soon finds herself in the middle of a bizarre village conspiracy. Potential suspects start appearing in all shapes and sizes – including the handsome new resident, mystery man Connor Maguire, who has conveniently just arrived in Little Forest – and with the police refusing to consider murder, Beth takes it upon herself to investigate. At least it’s a good distraction from the other strange and unusual things that have started happening in her generally boring life; let’s just say that Beth’s work colleague isn’t the only dead person she has to deal with these days. After all, it isn’t always something as innocent as the ghosts of past memories that come to get you… With the help of rather unlikely ally Will Wolseley, Beth delves into the village’s sinister secrets and, in turn, uncovers a terrifying truth about herself that could change her life forever. Unfortunately, she might not have much of ‘forever’ left, as when it comes right down to it, it’s not a question of whether or not she’ll decide to leave her childhood home. The question is whether or not Little Forest will let her go. The Former World is reminiscent of a good old-fashioned English mystery thriller, updated to the twenty-first Century but still relying on the quaint locations of the beautiful English countryside: close-knit villages, local pubs, ancient castles, large, looming forests and magnificent Stately homes. This enchanting rural environment gives Beth the perfect setting to explore the ominous events that threaten to shake up her small village and her life. “Jessica Grace Coleman is one of the most exciting new writers around. Her stories inspire, entertain and mesmerise. An absolute must-read.” - Adam Croft, English author. Jessica Grace Coleman brings you the first novel in the paranormal mystery 'Little Forest' series, setting the stage for the follow ups: 'Memento Mori', 'The Exalted', 'Carnival Masquerade' and 'The Gloaming'. A fan of mystery books and horror writers, Coleman delves into the world of legends and paranormal activity in this supernatural series, leading her own investigation into the fictional fantasy landscape that permeates readers’ darkest fears. The Little Forest series isn’t just concerned with spirits of the dead or other ghost stories, it’s about how we would react if these terrifying spectres actually did come into our world. How would you react?

  • ISBN: 9781310711176
  • Author: Jessica Grace Coleman
  • Published: 2015-09-09 23:35:18
  • Words: 133486
The Former World The Former World