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Authors: Chris Collett

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BOOK: Blood and Stone
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‘How are you?' she'd asked him, as if it wasn't written all over him.

‘I'm fine,' he'd said, fighting the urge to throw his arms round her. ‘What are you doing here?'

Her response had come as a shock. ‘Got a meeting with the wedding planner,' she smiled, inclining her head towards the nearby Brackley's department store.

‘Wow. Congratulations,' he'd managed to say.

‘Oh God, not for us!' Anna had shrieked. ‘That would be a bit premature. It's for Charles and Lottie, you remember them? Lottie wanted some support so I agreed to come, but this is clearly the season to arrange weddings because so far all we've done is to wait in a massive queue, so I've popped out to do a couple of things, while Charles is being measured for his suit.'

And before he knew it they were sitting opposite one another in a café in the Bullring, overlooking the concourse that led down to St Martin's church and drinking cappuccinos. Mariner was heady from the look of her and the smell of her, and had to consciously restrain himself from touching her. ‘I was gutted for a minute there, you know, when I thought it was you and Gareth,' he'd admitted.

She smiled. ‘I could see that. You haven't got any better at disguising your feelings.'

‘So how is he?' he'd asked, of Gareth, almost choking on the words. And instead of the enthusiastic response he'd anticipated, she was measured and deliberate with her reply, not wanting to give too much away.

‘We're taking it slowly,' she'd said, struggling to meet his eye.

At the time Mariner was euphoric, but had tried not to read too much into it. There was no need to press her. If the cracks were beginning to show between her and Gareth it would just be a matter of time.

Never had ignorance been so blissful or complacent. Less than twelve hours later she would be dead. It had even crossed his mind at the time that they should get a room, so powerful was the attraction. If he'd done that maybe Anna would have stayed; maybe she would have sent a text to Lottie telling them to go ahead without her. But deep down he knew that it wasn't Anna's style. She wouldn't have let down her friend, even for him. So instead she had made that fateful journey; the one that, because of her courage, had ended her life. Why couldn't you have stayed in the car, Anna? Charles was done for. Why couldn't you let it happen? He knew the answer to that one too of course. It was one of the many reasons why he'd loved her, because she could never in her whole life have stood by and let anything ‘happen'.

The path ahead of him blurred and a salty taste caught in the corners of his mouth. ‘Why the fuck, Anna?' he muttered out loud, as he mentally replayed the scene for the thousandth time.

Lost in these thoughts and weaving his way down a narrow gorge, the ground was greasy and piles of soil and scree across the path indicated a recent rock fall. A sudden loud clattering close by startled him into looking up, and straight into the path of a boulder the size of a football, bowling down the cliff towards him, inches from his head. Mariner leapt back, and the rock bounced past him and went tumbling down the hill, but as he struggled to regain his balance, the loose stones on the edge of the path gave way and for a moment he flailed on the edge of the thirty-foot drop. Throwing his weight forward, somehow he recovered his equilibrium, breathless and his heart thudding. Jesus. That would have done him some damage if it had hit him. A plaintive bleat came at him from the mist above, sounding almost like an apology. Peering up through the mist Mariner could see nothing. ‘Just watch where you're walking, will you?' he shouted up at the clumsy sheep.

The way-marking on the track was straightforward enough, though at several junctions Mariner had to consult the compass to make his decisions, and as he gained height, up on the fells, the wind became stronger and the ground grew increasingly soggy underfoot. For several miles his thoughts remained preoccupied with direction and the physical task of negotiating the terrain, the primeval thoughts eliminating all else, and finally his mind began to clear. As Mariner climbed higher the cloud pressed down to meet him, and in the middle of the afternoon the rain started again, a heavy downpour that slashed across the hillside. Dumping his pack down on the springy heather, Mariner retrieved his waterproofs as soon as he felt the first wet spots on his face. Pulling his new jacket out he was surprised anew at how flimsy and lightweight the modern fabric seemed compared with his trusty old Berghaus. But he'd been assured by the salesman in the shop that he'd get more warmth and protection from it than the traditional jackets. There hadn't been much of a choice in colours either, so he'd finished up with dark purple, like Bryce, which wouldn't have been his first choice.

Mariner stopped, reminded of a conversation he'd had with Anna soon after they met, when she'd been disparaging of his customary grey shirts.
You should try fuchsia
, she'd told him. Hm. In the time they were together she changed him in many ways but she never got him into a fuchsia-coloured shirt.

There's a knack to the timing of putting on waterproofs. Too soon and you sweat unnecessarily. Too late and you're already wet and clammy. By the time Mariner had wriggled into his over-trousers and jacket the rain had become a deluge, but he'd made it just in time. Moving up into the cloud, the visibility dropped too, and soon he was walking in a thick mist across the open moorland that was criss-crossed with dozens of sheep tracks and he had to rely entirely on his compass for directions. The landscape that stretched out immediately behind and before him was indistinguishable and it was vital that he didn't go wrong, or he could end up floundering about for hours in the way that Jeremy Bryce had the previous day.

He was just beginning to wonder if perhaps he had made the same mistake when suddenly the path dropped away into a narrow gully, with a rocky path that led down to the bothy, a simple stone hut with a slate roof that would shelter Mariner for the night. It was, as he had expected at this time of year, deserted. This place would only be regularly used in the summer, but it was well maintained, probably by local volunteers. Lifting the latch he pushed open the wooden door. Inside was remarkably dry and peaceful, the solid walls firm against the elements, and smelling comfortingly of wood smoke. It was about the size of an average living room, with a stove to one side and space to cook on the wooden floor, then, at the back, a raised wooden sleeping platform. Many of the bothies didn't have running water, but this one did at least have an outside tap connected to a water butt. There was a small skylight window that would let in some light, but Mariner had brought his torch for after dark, which wasn't far away.

Dinner that evening was a simple one: bread and cheese, fruit and chocolate biscuits, with a couple of mouthfuls from his hip flask to warm him inside before settling down for the night. Even with the padding of his camping mat the platform was initially hard and uncomfortable and sleep was a long time coming.

Tony Knox was feeling like death. During the course of the day he'd rubbed several layers of skin off his continually blocked-up nose, whilst coils of barbed wire seemed to have taken up position in his throat and an invisible brace around his head was squeezing his skull tighter as the day wore on. He was sweating and shivering at intervals and in the middle of the afternoon DCI Sharp appeared in her office doorway. ‘Go home, Tony,' she ordered. ‘You've looked up at that clock ten times in as many minutes. You're not doing anyone any favours by being here spreading your germs around. Get some rest over the weekend and we'll see you on Monday.'

Knox wasn't in any condition to argue. A couple of whiskies and an early night beckoned irresistibly. In the end he couldn't even manage to eat anything and, dosing up on paracetamol, instead went upstairs at just before six. The relief of sinking into bed and closing his eyes was indescribable, but it didn't last long. He was jolted awake a couple of hours later by the slamming of car doors and yelling on the street just below his window. As he came round he was aware of the insistent boom-boom pounding of loud music: Michael's party. Knox groaned. One of the beds was made up in the back bedroom, on the off-chance that Gary or Siobhan should ever stop by, and gathering up his duvet he sought refuge in there, where it was blissfully quiet.

Eventually he fell asleep again only to be woken almost straight away by a louder and more insistent hammering, this time on his own front door. Someone was trying to get his attention. He waited to see if it would stop, which it did, for all of five seconds, before almost immediately starting up again. Crawling out of bed, Knox pulled on jeans and a sweater and descended the stairs, his anger growing with every step. If this was some kid who thought banging on people's doors was a joke … He opened the door on a man of around thirty, skinny and fair-haired with a thin strap of a beard that signalled the battle against a disappearing jaw-line. He was wild-eyed, a sheen of perspiration covering his face, and he was bouncing on the balls of his feet, like he needed a pee. ‘You're Tony Knox? Jean asked me to come and get you. One of the kids has collapsed. I've called an ambulance but we don't know what else to do.'

Knox was instantly awake, the symptoms of his cold reduced to a mere irritation as he tried to get his brain into gear. Outside the blast of icy air revived him a little as he followed the man across the road to where the front door of Jean's house was wide open, kids spilling on to the driveway and out on to the street, one of them, a young lad, throwing up noisily into the hedge. Knox vaulted up the stairs, his senses bombarded by the deafening thud of bass and heaving mass of shrieking teenagers, and breathing in an atmosphere that was a sweet stuffy mixture of alcohol, perfume and body odour. On the landing a couple of young girls, no more than fourteen, were waiting anxiously, one quietly weeping. ‘Is she going to be all right, sir?' she asked the messenger. Sir? Christ if this was Lennox he looked barely out of school himself, thought Knox.

The bathroom was crowded with more young girls and Knox had to force his way through to where a skinny pale youngster with long red hair was slumped lifelessly against the side of the bath, eyes closed and her head lolling to one side at an impossible angle. ‘Tony, thank God.' Jean was kneeling beside the girl but moved back to let him through. Knox crouched down beside them. Cradling the girl's head, he gently eased her over so that she was lying on her side on the floor in the recovery position. She was out cold, but breathing, and her pulse was regular and felt strong. ‘What's her name?' he asked.

‘Kirsty,' said Jean.

‘Kirsty!' Knox called, gently stroking the girl's cheek with his fingertips. ‘Can you hear me, love?' He lifted an eyelid and saw the pupil widely dilated, indicating deep unconsciousness.

‘How much has she had to drink?' Knox asked, but suddenly none of the kids would look at him. One of the girls murmured something inaudible.

‘What?' Knox's patience was non-existent.

‘Kirsty doesn't drink,' she said. ‘It must be something else.'

‘What kind of something else?' The possibilities raced through Knox's mind as he turned to the girl nearest to him, who was standing in the doorway gazing wide-eyed at her friend and sniffling into a tissue. ‘What was it? Was it pills?'

‘I don't know,' she wailed. ‘I think so.'

‘Where did she get them?'

Terrified, the kid transferred her gaze from one teacher to the other and back again, fearful of what they'd say. ‘I don't know,' she blurted out. ‘A guy …'

‘Which guy?' Knox demanded. ‘Go and find him and get him up here!' He nodded at one of the other girls, bleary-eyed with drink. ‘You go with her.'

Suddenly Knox realized what he should have done straight away and he swore at himself for being so slow. ‘Get the names and contact details of everyone here,' he commanded Lennox. ‘It's important. And don't let anyone leave before they've given you an address and phone number.'

‘But some are already …'

‘Do it now!' Knox yelled. He should have expedited it as soon as he got to the house. Startled into action, Lennox disappeared down the stairs.

In Lennox's place Knox was relieved to see the green uniforms of two paramedics appear up the stairs. He sat back to let them through, updating them rapidly with what he knew. The girl was still alive, thank God, but they worked quickly to get her on to the stretcher-chair and insert a drip in her arm. As Knox followed them down the stairs, he found that the music had stopped and lights had come on. Kids in varying states of drunkenness were loitering in the hallway and sitting and lying in the garden outside. They were stunned and frightened by degrees. As the paramedics made their way to the ambulance with their grim cargo, one by one they fell silent and some of the girls started crying again. The boy with the pills was nowhere to be found, nor did any of the girls seem to know who he was or where he had come from. Their descriptions were vague.

‘Anyone here you didn't recognize?' Knox asked Jean.

She gave him a helpless smile. ‘Ask me about those I did,' she said.

‘You've contacted Kirsty's parents?'

Jean nodded wordlessly as Lennox came and stood beside her, slipping his arm around her.

Definitely more than just a colleague then, Knox thought absently. ‘Where's Michael?' he asked, suddenly.

Jean frowned. ‘I don't know.'

A horrible thought crossed Tony Knox's mind. A search of all the rooms turned up nothing, but then coming back past the kitchen he spotted the telltale flare of a cigarette at the end of the garden. He went out into the darkness.

‘Is she going to be all right?' The tremor in Michael's voice made him sound much younger than his fifteen years, and Knox even wondered if he'd been crying.

BOOK: Blood and Stone
11.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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