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Authors: Tom Grieves

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BOOK: A Cry in the Night
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Honest John Stern and his men stayed one last night, dining and drinking their fill at the inn. They left the next morning at dawn, hunting down rumours of a woman who turned herself into a magpie at dusk. They never visited the village again.

Once the noise of their horses’ hoofs had faded, the villagers were left with the familiar sound of the wind in the trees, the murmur of cattle, the slap of water against the rocky shoreline. Nature remained unchanged. But the women looked at the men and the men looked at their women and neither could hold the other’s eye. Once they had danced together, hands held, hips touching. The dance’s steps would demand they did so again. Slowly, the memories receded.

But the lake was always the same, untouchable despite the ice, the rain, the sleet and snow. It swallowed it all, swallowed it whole. The villagers stared out across the water. Their children would stand in their place, and their children’s children. The lake would always be there, guarding its stories for each new generation to tell.

PART ONE
ONE

Little Arthur Downing ran from the lake, tore into the woods and threw himself onto his belly among the long grass.

If I don’t move
, he thought,
if I stay dead still and don’t make a sound, then maybe the witch won’t find me
.

He lay amongst the bracken, his head pressed down against the mud and the moss, listening as keenly as he could for any noise. Although his little legs shook, he was sure he wasn’t making a sound. But still, that might not be enough.

The Lake Witches come from the water and promise you presents. But under their coats are blades and a silver thread. And they drag you back down – deep, deep down where they play with you like a cat plays with a shrew.

The little boy’s name was Arthur. It was his dad’s dad’s name and he was the latest in a long line of Arthur Downings. It was a name to be proud of. But when the woman had stretched out her gloved hand and said, ‘Arthur Downing, is
that you? Come with me, dear, I have something exciting to show you,’ he had wished his name was anything but that. He’d known right away what she really was. He might have been only nine years old, but after seeing the news on the TV and hearing what people were saying, he knew that the witches were back. She made him feel cold. Like a rabbit must feel on the fells when it looks up and sees the kites circling. Maybe she had talons under her gloves that cut when she grabbed you so you could never escape. He wondered if her sharp claws had grabbed Lily. He didn’t know where his little sister was now and he was torn between his worry for her and the stabbing fear that kept him pressed down in the dirt.

He listened again, raising his head ever so slightly to see, but the rocks obscured his view and all he could hear was the gentle lapping of the water against the shore. The witch had shouted after him as he ran, laughing as though it was all just a silly little joke. But now she would be floating above the trees, spying down on him, calling her sisters to rise up from the lake and join her. No child who’d ever seen a witch had lived to tell the tale. But Arthur Downing was going to be the first.

It was dirty and cold on the ground, but he stayed still for as long as he could. Once his mum had locked him out of the house and he’d been freezing all night. But they’d agreed not to tell a soul about it. Even then, in the dark,
he’d been able to get up and pace about, but this time he had to lie still as a sleeping lion. Stiller than that.

The wet leaves nibbled at the back of his neck and soon he couldn’t bear it any more. Arthur sat up as slowly and quietly as he could and looked around. He stared up at the trees and checked every branch. Two red squirrels twisted around a tree trunk and then scuttled off into the thick bed of autumn leaves. He sat and listened. Water, wind, a bird’s cry, but nothing else. He finally stood up, his legs cramped and cold. He rubbed his dirty hands on the back of his shorts and tried to work out what to do next. The lake was somewhere down there, ahead. If he went right, he’d head back towards home. But that was where the witch would be waiting for him. If he went left, he’d go deeper into the woods, and Dad had made him scared of the woods and the boathouse that creaked and moaned. He didn’t want to go there.

Arthur imagined them biting at Lily under the water, and his confidence failed him. Eventually he forced himself forward, heading right, towards home. The green, red and orange leaves hid the lake from view, but he knew it was there, just out of sight. He had to be careful. He stood behind the last line of trees, watching and waiting, his hand resting on a sycamore’s trunk, its bark softened by lichen. There was no one there. All he had to do was slip along the pebbles, join the road and belt it back up to the village. Five minutes and he’d be home. Just five minutes. Easy.

He took the first step out from the wood and made his way along the shore. He glanced down and stared at the lake water – it seemed to creep towards his feet. He took a step away from it, but up it came again. The water should be still, he thought. He looked up – his eyes running over the surface of the lake. It was so dark and huge, it made him shiver. He half expected to see Lily there under the water, staring up at him.

He hurried, crablike, along the shore, his eyes fixed on the waves that lapped back and forth. He turned to run home and suddenly there she was, with that smile. When she put a hand on his shoulder, he felt his heart crumble.

The witch looked around and she definitely was like the kite. Her eyes moved fast, checking, checking, checking. Arthur started to cry. The witch dropped down so her face was close to his. She wore a long purple coat and it looked elegant and sleek, but Arthur could see leaves and a broken twig which had snagged on her sleeve. She’d been in the woods. Hiding in the trees, no doubt. Any minute now, she would drag him into the lake. There was no one around. He wanted to pee. He was crying, he wanted to pee and he knew that he was going to die.

‘You mustn’t be frightened,’ she said. ‘Nothing bad is going to happen. We’re just going to play a game.’

She’ll play with me, he thought, like the farm cats do in the barn. Leaving only the guts behind.

‘Please,’ he begged. ‘Please, I want to go home.’

‘Don’t be scared. Your sister’s waiting for you. And we’re going to have such fun.’

She smiled at him and he tried to smile back, so she wouldn’t expect it when he ran. But then her spell started to work on him. His eyes started to water and the magic was so strong it was like liquid black going over his eyes and nose and mouth. He felt dizzy. He saw that the witch had stopped smiling and that she was turning away from him. But he was powerless now. He wanted to scream, but the spell was too strong. Everything went woozy and dark. Her purple coat faded and clouded.

Soon he was like the water, quiet and still. Unknown and unknowable.

TWO

Zoe Barnes stared out at the water, rubbed her hands against the cold, and took everything in. She’d read up on the area before they’d set out from Manchester but the facts and figures now felt redundant as she faced Lullingdale Water. Yes, the lake was indeed big – two miles long from north to south – and the maps certainly showed the steep slopes’ gradations with perfect detail, but nothing on paper could have reflected the sheer scale of the place. She took in the woodland to the left and the shale-strewn slopes on the right. The sky was blue but the sun had already fallen below the fells’ peaks, making it feel like twilight, although it was still only mid-afternoon. A faint mist hovered above the water like a gossamer shroud, twisting with the currents. She felt silly for letting it distract her from the job in hand and turned her attention back to the shoreline.

‘The boy’s bike was found there,’ she said, pointing.

Her boss, Sam, walked over to her and she felt tiny next
to his hulking frame. He looked to where she’d gestured and nodded.

‘Bike there,’ she continued, ‘found by the mother at quarter-to-five or round about. Then there’s a lot of shouting and running about and not much sense. Last known sighting of Arthur and Lily was when they left the school gates together at 3.30.’

‘It’s beautiful,’ said Sam.

It was, and she was glad that he’d noticed it too. They always thought alike.

‘What time are we seeing the parents?’ she asked.

‘Half an hour,’ he replied and stretched, rolling his shoulders, now free from the confines of the car. It had been a long journey and he hadn’t spoken much. While his silences made many of her colleagues uncomfortable, they didn’t bother her.

‘Okay, let’s check in to the hotel first,’ he said.

She reminded him that the hotel was actually just a room above a pub and made a joke about being ‘strangers in these parts’. He just threw the keys at her.

‘Bet your mobile phone won’t work half the time,’ she added. ‘And all there is to eat is minestrone soup from a packet and rabbit stew.’

‘DC Barnes.’

‘Yes, DI Taylor?’

‘Shut up.’

‘Shutting right up, sir,’ she said with a grin.

They walked back to the car, which was parked a small distance away from the lake, at the end of a road that looked as though it had just given up. When they got there, Sam stopped and looked back at the scene. Zoe did the same, seeing a thin line of clouds roll over the peaks to the left, illuminated by an invisible sun. A flock of geese flew low over the still water and she was struck by how quiet it was. There was no one on the water. When she was younger she’d visited the bigger, more popular lakes that were covered with sailing boats or jet skis. She remembered happy childhood days – splashing in and around the water by day, giggling in tents at night. But this lake was absolutely still.

Sam’s hands hung loosely by his sides and she wondered how he didn’t feel the cold. She tried to do the same, but after a few minutes she dug them back into her pockets.

‘There’s only one way down here,’ Sam said. ‘This road. It comes down to here, and stops here at the car park.’

They looked at the small gravelly square; room enough for two, maybe three, cars, plus the stile and nicely painted footpath sign nearby.

‘There are no roads around the lake,’ Sam continued. ‘So if someone took them, they’d need to have parked here. Or carried them away – but that’s more risky and would probably have been seen. We must make sure the local police checked all the CCTV that leads to here. If there is any.’

She nodded, cross that she hadn’t spotted this herself.

‘And I like minestrone soup,’ Sam said with a wink. They got into the car and adjusted their seats – him pushing back, her coming forward.

‘Good spot for running,’ she said. He nodded, uninterested. ‘How long do you think we’ll be here?’

He just shrugged. It was a stupid question, really. Missing kids’ cases were notoriously difficult to predict and she knew it. Sam had said that they were there to double-check it had all been done properly after the initial investigation had run cold, but she knew that anything could happen once they got stuck in. Something about the lake pulled her eyes back to it. The mist on the water had thickened and the far end of the lake was gone.

‘You know this is witch country?’ Zoe said, a grin on her face.

He looked at her. He had beautiful blue eyes, light and delicate. It was a stare that got people talking.

‘Back in the old days,’ she added to end the silence, ‘sixteen something or other. There was meant to be some sort of witches’ cabal here. It’s in the guidebook.’

‘You bought a guidebook?’

She shrugged – why not? – but felt silly and over-eager. She wished herself older and more hardbitten.

Sam said nothing, and she could tell his mind was now elsewhere. He was often like this. He would be talking and
then something would take over, and he would disappear for a bit. It seemed to freak out some of their colleagues, but Zoe knew him too well for any of that. She guessed that he was thinking about his wife. So she let him be and turned the key in the ignition, reversing the car back and away.

Another glance at Lullingdale Water. She saw some birds fly into the mist and disappear, but they didn’t seem to come back out. She would have stopped and checked it out properly if she had been on her own, but Sam’s silence forced her hand onto the gears, turning the wheel and steering them towards the village.

THREE

Zoe was right. Sam was thinking about his wife. He was remembering the way she let her hair fall on his face as she lay on top of him, laughing when he grumbled. He stared out of the window at the tall hedging that lined the narrow road and tried to shake her out of his head. His mind found a new preoccupation: his meeting that morning with Chief Superintendent Frey.

Michael Frey was a tall, gaunt man who chose to keep his white hair cropped, giving himself a military appearance. He liked to look ‘severe’ and therefore smiled as little as possible. It was a decent enough performance and it only sagged when in the company of tougher men who would naturally smell the fraud. Then the Chief Superintendent would become a little too eager to be one of the lads. As a result, Sam loathed him.

‘So we have an odd one,’ Mr Frey said, patting Sam on the shoulder and offering him a seat. He returned to the other
side of his desk and played with a paperweight as he talked. ‘Two children have gone missing – you might have seen the reports. Brother and sister – Arthur and Lily Downing. Last seen near their local village up in the Lake District. It’s been four weeks now and the local police haven’t got anywhere. Press has got bored, thankfully, and moved on. But I wanted one of my boys to have a second look. I thought it was one for you.’

Sam wondered what this meant, unsure why this was coming from the lofty position of Chief Superintendent and not from his immediate boss, his DCI.

‘You look well, by the way,’ said Frey to fill the silence. ‘Still pumping iron? Still boxing?’

‘A bit.’

‘Good for you. If it weren’t for my knees … too many marathons.’

What a tit, thought Sam. He waited for the Chief Superintendent to continue, a blank stare on his face.

BOOK: A Cry in the Night
3.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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