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Authors: Chris Collett

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BOOK: Blood and Stone
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‘Hard to say,' Knox said, truthfully. He heard something that sounded like a sob. ‘Not your fault, Michael,' he said. ‘Not unless it was you who gave her the pill.' He had to ask. ‘Was it?'

He expected an outraged, defensive response, but instead could barely hear when Michael said, ‘No.'

‘Any idea who might have?'

‘I was downstairs. I hardly saw Kirsty all night.'

‘Then you have nothing to blame yourself for. All you did was ask your friends to a party.'

‘But if I hadn't …'

Aware that the boy was standing close to him, Knox put out a comforting hand to squeeze his shoulder, and was astonished when Michael collapsed into him, his breath coming in wrenching sobs.

ELEVEN
Day Four

A
fter a day on the move, McGinley was getting into his stride, pack on his back. It had been a thrill getting away from the centre of population and the memories that came with it were bittersweet. He could remember the first time he'd come out here from the cramped little terraced house, and despite what had happened since, he looked back on that time as the most amazing adventure. Most of the other kids had been completely freaked by all the open space and had whined to go home again, back to their TVs and record players, but McGinley was enthralled by the drama of the landscape; the huge skies and the towering peaks.

The stuff they did out here was exhilarating and it didn't matter that you couldn't write your name, or stumbled over every other word in the reading book. He'd gone home and raved about it to Spencer: ‘You've got to come too!' So the next year he had. But Spencer was different. Even then McGinley knew it was true, even if he didn't know why. And what had been the making of McGinley turned out to be the breaking of his kid brother. The price of that adventure had been paid in full years later, when life kicked him in the balls yet again, even harder than before. That was when he'd learned once and for all that those you thought you could trust were the most untrustworthy, and that those you thought were your friends could hurt you beyond measure. Right now though, McGinley felt as if he was back in his natural habitat. After years of confinement, crammed into overcrowded cells, the freedom was heady and invigorating and transcended any immediate physical discomfort.

At more than one point during the night, Mariner was disturbed by rain beating on the skylight of the bothy, but such is the fickle British weather that the next morning when he woke, his shoulder and hip bruised from lying on the hard surface, the sun was shining and a fresh breeze blew white fluffy clouds across the blue sky.

Mariner washed his face under the cold tap and packed up his things, not sure if he would be coming back this way again. His next planned stop was officially no longer listed as a hostel – it was possible that it may even lie derelict – but he was hoping one way or another to be able to stay there. If not it would be another bothy tonight. As he set off, a skylark trilled out in the sky high above him, and the sun was warm on his back, and today it felt more like June than April. After a while he entered the dense shade of a pine forest, the trees set out in regimented rows in one of the forestry commission's efforts to reforest after the deciduous trees had been torn up. Finding a shady spot, Mariner stopped for lunch. From his vantage point he saw hawks circling high above him, riding the thermals. He dug out his binoculars; as he'd thought, a pair of red kites searching for prey. He watched them for a while until his attention was snagged by a movement down below, too big and too dark to be a sheep; a deer perhaps, but it was gone before he could train the binoculars on it.

From here, the path began to rise higher and opened out on to a rocky ridge that climbed and dipped like the spines on a dinosaur's back. After several miles of undulating footpath Mariner recognized the shape of the mountain that headed the valley, crested the ridge and saw the land spread out below him, strangely familiar and yet somehow different. Taking out his binoculars again he scanned the vale. Immediately below him was the patchwork of meadows of Abbey Farm, though for a while he struggled to make sense of the newly configured territory. Created from a monastery that was abandoned shortly after the reformation (Mariner knew this because when he had last stayed here he'd been reminded of its history every other day), parts of the original building lay in ruins, marked out by a series of crumbling walls and archways. The main farmhouse was distinctive; a plain red-brick building with Jacobean features, one of which had definitely not been the dozen or so shiny solar panels that now covered the roof like the protective shell of a tortoise.

The motley collection of rundown outhouses at the back of the main house had also been joined by a sleek prefabricated steel shed that had yet to tarnish in the elements. And alongside this were a couple of small and modest wind turbines. The absence of cows in the outlying fields was unsurprising; Mariner had seen enough evidence of the extent to which the foot and mouth epidemic of 2001 had decimated the dairy farming industry out here. But instead it looked as if the land immediately surrounding the farm was being cultivated; there were three or four fields covered with white poly tunnels that gave the illusion of a covering of snow. But the climate was so inhospitable here it was difficult to know what could possibly be growing beneath them.

Beyond the farm, running along the valley north-east to south-west, or as Mariner saw it, from left to right, the road and river ran in parallel, their course marked out by a wide band of dense deciduous woodland, broad at one end like the shape of a giant comma, the high branches dotted with crows' nests. Beyond that end of the woods the land opened out again onto Gwennol Hall, the estate and country home of Lord Milford, the rolling acres of parkland dotted with mature trees the clear indication of the wealthy landowning classes, with the imposing grey edifice of the Hall in the centre. Between those two properties, strung out along the road and hidden by the trees from this angle, was Mariner's destination: the village of Caranwy. He could just see the two tiny dormer windows of a hostel attic poking out between the high branches. From here it looked as if little had changed in terms of development. As he stood watching, a shot rang out, echoing around the hills. Mariner started for a moment until remembering where he was; it would be either clay-pigeon shooting or automatic bird-scarers, both completely harmless. Context is everything, he thought wryly.

Mariner swept the scene with the binoculars and they came to rest on the farm. A movement attracted his attention and into his line of vision, behind the outbuildings, came two men in conversation. The powerful 10 x 42 lenses of the binoculars brought the figures close enough to seem within reach and two factors made the scene compelling. One was the contrast in their attire. Although both men looked young, one was casually dressed in jeans and a checked shirt, but the other was more formal and strangely out of place in the environment, wearing a dark suit, tight across the shoulders, complete with tie. Mariner remembered the misapprehension of the barmaid in The Star and immediately thought sales rep, though he could see no telltale BMW parked nearby. The other interesting factor was their body language. Both men were leaning in, shoulders back, like two young stags squaring up, which meant either that one of them was hard of hearing, or that this was some kind of confrontation. But in the few seconds that Mariner watched, the dispute, if that's what it was, seemed to be amicably resolved, as the man in the suit visibly relaxed, clapping the other companionably on the shoulder. There followed an awkward handshake, of the kind Mariner had seen many times on the street corners of Birmingham. Then, in perfect synchronization, both men looked skyward, as Mariner too became aware of the low pulsating throb of rotor blades. Rising up from behind Gwennol Hall came a small, private helicopter that flew out over the estate and farm, roared over Mariner's head and disappeared over the mountain behind him, into the darkening sky. When he looked back at the farm, the two men had gone. At the same time he felt the first splattering of rain on his head.

Stowing his binoculars, Mariner set off down the mountain towards the Caranwy valley, picking up a footpath he'd trodden many times before, and he confidently followed its winding course down off the tops, over craggy outcrops and into the pastureland below. Where the land began to flatten out the path became a muddy bridleway that ran between hedges, the fields of Abbey Farm on either side, sloping down towards the forest-covered ravine at the bottom of which ran the river. This was an infrequently used trail and as it approached the woodland became increasingly overgrown.

At the edge of the woods he came to a drystone wall with an integral stile and crudely painted way mark pointing both left and right, and he climbed over it and into the cover of the trees just as the shower really took hold. The woodland covered several square acres with a network of footpaths, and Mariner had two options for getting to a river crossing. To the right would take him a mile or so along the trail to a rudimentary bridge that used to comprise just a couple of rotting old railway sleepers, then through more woodland and up on to the road. To the left would take him out into the parkland and on to the drive of the Milford estate, to cross the river by a wide stone bridge that supported Gwennol's grand entrance gates. He chose that as the more reliable option, taking care to assess his bearings regularly and avoid going round in circles. All went to plan initially, but after about twenty metres the grass grew longer and intermingled with brambles and ivy that got gradually thicker until Mariner was waist high in them, the path indistinguishable and the ground underneath lumpy and uneven. The rain had penetrated the trees here, making the ground slippery and several times, despite his boots, Mariner rolled over on to his ankle. Cursing and swearing to himself, he persevered, ploughing his way through while thorns clawed at his clothing, until finally he came to a complete physical and metaphorical brick wall.

Mariner consulted his map. Bought specially for this trip, it was bang up to date and clearly indicated the public right of way through the grounds of the estate. He could see the main Hall, grey and imposing, hidden behind clumps of trees way off to his left. This was definitely where the path went, crossing into the country park for about a hundred metres to meet the long driveway, which went over the bridge, with pedestrian access through the impressive gates, and out on to the road. But with a blatant disregard for the right of way, the dilapidated stile had been all but removed and the public footpath sign broken off and thrown to one side. The wire fence bordering the estate was topped with dense swathes of lethal razor wire, with a particularly unfriendly sign stating that trespassers would be prosecuted.

A further notice advertised the name of the security company patrolling the grounds, along with a sketch of one of the vicious-looking dogs they employed. Row upon row of sapling conifers had also been planted, which in the not-too-distant future would provide a dense screen. Someone was suddenly keen to protect their privacy. Lord Milford, Mariner remembered, had been well liked by the community and there had never been any issue about access to his land. Clearly his successor had different ideas. It confirmed what Mariner had already guessed from the helicopter: that the old and highly traditional Lord had been succeeded by a young and modern heir.

For a few moments Mariner weighed up the risks of being bloody-minded and following the official footpath. Legally he was in the right and would be able to prove it in court. But that was a long way from the immediate physical threat of tearing his hands to shreds on razor wire, followed by a savage attack from a Doberman or two. Such security signs were often there for deterrent purposes only, and not necessarily backed up by the real thing, but whilst he couldn't see any animals anywhere, he had been conscious since dropping into the valley of a persistent barking somewhere not far away, and as further proof there was a fresh and disturbingly large turd on the other side of the fence.

Irritating as it was, the most sensible course of action was for Mariner to retrace his steps back along the path and take the alternative route to the wooden bridge, in the hope that it had been upgraded since he was last here. He was in for a disappointment. The crossing remained as flimsy and insubstantial as he remembered it and if anything had deteriorated in the intervening years. Mariner didn't fully trust it to take his weight, on top of which, months of sustained rainfall had created the added hazard of a deep and fast-flowing river rushing along immediately beneath it. It was always a toss-up in this situation of whether to tread slowly and carefully or get it over with quickly: Mariner chose the latter. Running across the planks, he made a lunge for the opposite bank, where he backslid for several agonizing seconds before he was able to grab on to a thorny branch that tore into the palm of his hand. It enabled him to get his balance and he was able to push on into the brambles and climb up to the dry-stone wall bordering the road. A scramble over the stile and he was on the road, breathless and his heart pounding. ‘Christ, I'm getting too old for this,' he gasped to himself, though on the plus side, the rain had stopped.

TWELVE

O
ut on the lane Mariner followed the wall along and into the village. There was a straggling main street of grey stone buildings, in total no more than about two dozen houses, among them a row of tied cottages, a chapel and a pub but little else. The post office looked as if it had long ago closed and been converted into residential accommodation, though the sign for the White Hart looked freshly painted. Then on past the end of the street, as he rounded a corner, the hostel, a two-storey L-shaped stone farmhouse, set back behind a yard and an open five-bar gate, came into view. A murmur of nostalgia tickled Mariner's stomach. The absence of a sign, a pale triangle on the moss-covered wall marking out the place where it had once been, confirmed what he already knew: that the hostel had long been closed to the public. Scaffolding erected around one end of the barn-like structure indicated that work was being done on it, or even that it could be in danger of collapse, but curtains at the windows made what used to be the warden's wing appear inhabited A row of saturated washing hung limply on the line in the garden; child-sized T-shirts and a dress, the significance of which was not wasted on him.

BOOK: Blood and Stone
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