Authors: Mark Tilbury
Hannah Heath knew she was dying. Her head felt strangely detached from her body, as if it might float away at any moment like a helium balloon. A strip light blinked above her. Perhaps a mothership come to take her home. But where was home? Over the hills and far away, for all she knew. Her swollen bladder threatened to burst.
Outside the echoing dome of her skull, she heard a voice. ‘You asked to go to the toilet. Don’t you dare wet yourself. Get up!’
So tired now. Tired enough to die. She closed her eyes and waited for the angels to take her to Heaven. The angels seemed otherwise engaged. Perhaps this terrible place was beyond their jurisdiction.
‘Stand up. I’m not dragging you all the way to the toilet.’
The words sounded as if they’d been fired from a canon. She wanted to say that she couldn’t move. Her body was too tired. Exhausted. But the words refused to form on her lips. Hands on hers. Pulling her upright. A grunting noise, followed by several short sharp pants. ‘Come… on… get… up…’
Hannah opened one eye. Bright light forced it shut again. She tried to speak. To say leave me alone, but the words came out all wrong. ‘Schmalone.’
Something pressed into her right breast. It bore right down into her chest. She reached out. Her hand brushed against something coarse. Hair? She tried to grip it, but her fingers felt swollen and useless.
‘Stand up, you stupid girl.’
This time the words sounded as if the speaker was actually inside her head. More pressure on her chest, and then something digging into her ribs. Something sharp. Claws? Perhaps a giant bird come to take her away. Feed her to a nest of baby giant birds. Was there even such a thing as baby giant birds? This last thought made her giggle.
Sitting on a toilet. Naked from the waist down. No idea who she was or how she’d got there. Her stomach clenched and flipped over as she tried to remember her name. Give an identity to this strangely detached being that was part human, part alien.
‘Hurry up. We haven’t got all night.’
Hannah recognised the voice. But where from? Its raspy tone grated against the edge of her mind. Her bladder suddenly let go. Some of the urine splashed against her bare skin. Warm and instantly cold. Maybe her waters had broken.
‘Am I pregnant?’ The last word came out as
‘Are you finished?’
As finished as a corpse. ‘No.’ An instinctive answer. Somewhere deep in her mind she knew it best not to admit to anything.
On the back seat of a car. Head thumping like a bass drum. The roar of a jet engine. A face pressed to the window. Her Grandma Jane. But she was dead; Hannah remembered that much. Had a stroke and died. Or was it a heart attack? Grandma Jane smiled at her. Not a joyous smile, more of a chin-up smile. A grin and bear it smile. A smile stretched over a thousand years. Wide as the universe, sincere as the stars.
The car stopped. Hannah tried to get up and see where she was. It might be important one day. But her arms refused to take orders from her brain. A door slammed. The sound ripped through her head. And then the car moved again. Time continued in unrelated chunks.
Floating. Looking down at her dead body. She looked so peaceful. The ghost of a smile on her lips. Dark hair fanned out around her. She appeared to be floating in water. She wore a plain light-brown uniform. The lower part of the uniform was stained with dark patches. Blood? Had she had a miscarriage and died? But how could she have had a miscarriage if she wasn’t even pregnant?
Grandma Jane appeared beside her. ‘You must save the child.’
Hannah was about to tell Grandma Jane that she wasn’t pregnant when a thought, as sure and true as a marksman’s bullet, struck home.
You’re four months gone.
Hannah could now see the swell of her stomach. Another thought, this time laced with syrup. Robert needs you.
Robert. She tasted the name on her lips. Robert. Now she remembered. The scent of Boss aftershave, strong and… sensual? Lips pressing against hers. Hands touching her in secret places. But who was he? The memory seemed coated with grease.
Hannah was going to be sick. On a boat, lurching from side to side, like a drunk trying to stagger home. All the junk food she’d ever eaten sloshing about inside her. Burgers and greasy onions. Kebabs laced with chilli sauce. Chocolate ice cream and Branston Pickle. This last thought almost triggered a memory. A craving?
Back in the car. On familiar ground you might say. Sick rising in her throat. A chunk of something. Pickle? The car hit a bump and threw Hannah forward. A hot clammy hand between her thighs. The puke massager. She somehow managed to prop herself up on one elbow and shout a warning. ‘Sick.’
Shadows of eyes in the rear-view mirror. The Devil’s eyes. ‘Lay back down. We won’t be long.’
A gurgling noise in the back of her throat. And a cold stark certainty that she was going to throw up and drown in her own vomit.
Cool air brushing against her face. No more awful rhythmic motion. The nearest thing to Heaven in this never ending Hell. Hands pulling her out of the car and onto something soft. Grass?
‘Get it done.’
Hannah tried to locate the source of that terrible emotionless voice, but the need to vomit overwhelmed her. Hands pulled at her clothes and rolled her onto her front. Now on all fours. Retching. Stomach ripped to shreds.
A lucid moment. The grass stained with a small patch of yellow vomit. She now knew who she was. Hannah Marie Heath. Sixteen weeks pregnant. Her boyfriend was called Robert. She could see his clean white smile on the surface of a large grey stone. She wanted to crawl towards that stone and lose herself in the reassuring beauty of that smile.
A badge pinned to her brown tunic. Hannah Heath. Care Assistant. She tore the badge off and put it behind the large grey stone that had once held the promise of Robert’s smile. Out of sight. Somewhere it might be seen by someone walking a dog. Someone that could give it to…
Back in the car. Vomit drying on her lips. No memory of throwing up. No recollection of being dragged into the car. Just that awful instinctive certainty that she was going to die.
A basement. Lying on an airbed staring at the ceiling. Dressed in a red baggy sweatshirt and brown jogging bottoms. Her bare feet filthy, as if she’d trekked through mud without shoes. Watching a spider crawl around a bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling, its legs busy weaving thread like miniature knitting needles. The spider appeared to have a face. A smiling face.
A lucid thought: She was supposed to be getting married in the summer. Was it still summer? It certainly felt as if it was. The basement was stifling, and the two-bar electric fire near the far wall wasn’t even plugged in.
The spider had woven a perfect wedding veil. It hung across the lightbulb, illuminated and grandly displayed. The spider wasn’t there anymore, just his handiwork. So beautiful and so intricate that it made Hannah want to cry. She tried to swallow. No spit in her mouth. She willed her useless mind to work. Do all the things a mind was supposed to do.
The spider’s wedding veil hanging in ghostly tattered strands. A fly trapped in its silk shackles, seemingly intent on beating itself to death against the ceiling in an effort to escape. The concrete floor beneath the airbed was hard and uncompromising, digging into her back and making it difficult to breathe. The stale air reeked of disinfectant and shit. And something else that she couldn’t quite place. Death, perhaps? The fly stopped moving and hung above her like a failed trapeze artist. Hannah wasn’t sure if it was dead, or just resting before having another stab at breaking free.
She scraped her tongue across her parched lips. ‘What’s happened to me?’
The basement threw the words around its empty walls and right back at her. Heaviness pressed down on her bladder. She reached down and felt a slight swell beneath the sweat shirt. She ran her hand slowly across the bump. Was she really pregnant?
Does it really matter. You’re going to die.
She arched her back to relieve the tension at the base of her spine. She tried to stitch thoughts together, but the thread kept snapping. What she needed right now was some of that spider’s web to hold it all in place. The lightbulb started to swing, which was strange, considering there was no wind in the stinking basement. She closed her eyes and was treated to a vision of a dead body swaying back and forth on the end of a hangman’s rope. The slow, rhythmic creak of the gallows screeched across her mind. And then the sudden realisation that the distorted face bulging from the noose belonged to her.
Falling. Someone must have cut the rope. Deeper and deeper into a black hole. No sounds in this empty void. No sensory perception. Just a long rolling darkness that was as comforting as it was terrifying.
Ben Whittle stood in the newly refurbished office of Whittle Investigations and fought an overwhelming urge to kill his father. ‘I want Maddie working with me, or else I’m going to look for another job.’
His father thumped the arm of his wheelchair and lurched forwards. The wheelchair banged into his desk and spilled some of his freshly made coffee. Thankfully, it missed the computer keyboard and formed a harmless puddle next to it. ‘This is a private investigation business, not a dating agency.’
Ben rolled his eyes. The old man had only been out of rehab a month. It felt more like a year. ‘I see you’re full of Christmas cheer.’
‘Christmas is still two weeks away. And I offered you a job, not half of bloody Feelham.’
‘Maddie isn’t “half of Feelham”.’
‘What happens if she chips a nail in the middle of a stakeout?’
‘Don’t be so damned patronising.’
here,’ Maddie White reminded them both.
‘You’ll have to excuse him,’ Ben said. ‘He’s got the manners of a baboon.’
‘How do you know?’ Geoff said. ‘You been talking to David Attenborough again?’
‘I know they like to show their big red backsides to the world.’
Geoff mopped up the spilled coffee with a white cotton handkerchief. ‘You’d do well to remember who you’re talking to.’
How could I forget?
Ben thought. ‘If it wasn’t for Maddie, you’d be dead now.’
Maddie looked at the floor. ‘I wouldn’t go that far.’
‘Maddie was the one who convinced me we could get you out of Penghilly’s Farm. Left to my own devices, I’d have probably stuck my head in the sand and prayed for a quick end.’
Maddie touched Ben’s arm. ‘You more than played your part.’
‘I’m not saying the girl—’
‘Maddie has a name.’
Geoff held up a hand. ‘Okay. Look, I’m not saying she didn’t do well. I’m grateful. I truly am. But this is a serious business.’
‘Maddie knows how serious it is. She nearly died saving you.’
Geoff changed the subject. ‘I thought you helped your father out at church?’
‘I do. But the church isn’t really my calling.’
‘And this is?’
Maddie tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. ‘I want to give it a try.’
‘What does your father say?’
‘Pastor Tom’s fine,’ Ben interrupted. ‘He’s got Rhonda and Bubba.’
‘That’s all well and good. But Maddie’s his daughter. I’m sure he doesn’t want her risking—’
‘How do you know what Pastor Tom wants?’
‘Because I’m a parent.’
I don’t ever remember you being concerned about my wellbeing
, Ben thought. ‘Maybe Pastor Tom wants Maddie to do something that makes her happy.’
‘Such as putting her life in danger? Some kind of happy!’
‘It’s not like that all the time, though, is it? Penghilly’s Farm was a one-off.’
‘You don’t know the half of it. The stuff I’ve had to put myself through on behalf of ungrateful clients.’
Ben almost told his father he was more than aware what it was like to be on the receiving end of ingratitude. They’d spent the past four months jumping through hoops to get the house adapted to meet his father’s needs, only to be met with derision at every turn. ‘I’m just saying—’
Geoff rattled on. ‘Half the public are bloody criminals. If I had a pound for every so-called victim that told me a tissue of lies, I’d be a rich man by now.’
If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard you moan about someone, I’d be a rich man by now
, Ben thought. ‘It’s your choice. If you want me to work for you, then it’s with Maddie or not at all.’
‘If Maddie was applying for a job in the office, I’d have no hesitation in taking her on. I’m sure she’d make a smashing secretary.’
Maddie walked to the door. ‘I’ll wait outside for you, Ben. I know when I’m not wanted.’
‘No. You stay right there. He’s going to apologise for—’
Maddie didn’t wait for him to finish. She walked out and closed the door.
Geoff wasted no time. ‘It’s for the best. Cruel to be kind. I didn’t mean to upset her.’
‘You owe her an apology.’
‘For being honest?’
‘For being rude.’
‘Like I said, it’s for the best.’
‘Best for who?’
‘For the company. I have to look at the bigger picture.’
Ben sat on the edge of the desk. ‘Do you want me to put an advert in the paper for you, or are you going to do it?’
‘Advert? What the hell for?’
‘A private investigator.’
‘Don’t be such a drama queen. You don’t mean that.’
‘I do. In fact, I’m sick and tired of being pushed around. We’ve spent the last Christ knows how long in turmoil. Builders. Mess. And your bad moods thrown in for good measure. People have bent over backwards to help you, and how do you repay them?’
Geoff sighed and looked out the office window.
‘By criticising everyone and everything. You’ve got an en-suite shower in your new bedroom downstairs, and all you can say is you prefer a bath.’
‘That’s because I do. Especially in winter.’
‘Mother spent two weeks painting this office after the builder widened the doorframe for your wheelchair, and what did you say?’
‘I don’t like yellow. It reminds me of daffodils, and them damned things always make me sneeze.’
‘We buy a nice mahogany desk, and you say you prefer oak. Can you see a pattern here?’
‘Yes; no one seems to take into account what I like. Anyway, oak doesn’t collect the dust like mahogany does.’
‘That’s what I thought you’d say. Why can’t you just appreciate all the effort that’s gone into converting the house? It’s like you're taking out what’s happened on everyone else.’
‘I’ve lost my legs.’
‘You haven’t lost them.’
‘Don’t play with technicalities, boy. I can’t walk. They might as well be gone.’
‘I’m sorry. But medical science can do wonders nowadays. They’re making advances all the time.’
‘Next you’ll be telling me to take it one step at a time like that bloody doctor at the hospital. I swear to God if I’d had more strength in me I’d have throttled the bastard.’
‘He was only trying to encourage you.’
‘And it nearly worked. I almost leapt out of bed and clumped the insensitive sod.’
‘You have to stop taking it out on people who are trying to help you.’
Geoff picked a flake of something out of his beard, studied it, and then dropped it in his coffee cup. ‘I’m not taking anything out on anyone. I’m just honest. Everyone’s just too sensitive these days. I blame soppy mothers. Cosseting their kids and wrapping them up in cotton wool. I swear some of them breastfeed the buggers right up until their wedding day.’
Ben laughed. ‘You could be right there.’
‘Talking of soppy women, where’s mother?’
‘Aunt Mary’s. Coffee morning.’
‘Coffee morning, my eye. Gossiping about me, more like.’
Ben smiled. Perhaps he needed to take a subtler approach concerning work matters. ‘About Maddie—’
‘The answer’s still no.’
‘Please. Just hear me out.’
‘It’s not that I don’t like her. She seems a very capable young lady. But her place is at the church, lighting candles and doing Mass.’
‘She’s not Catholic. It’s a Pentecostal church.’
‘Does it matter?’
Ben didn’t want to get drawn into a discussion about faith. Especially with an agnostic like his father. ‘She’s not religious. She only helps out because it’s her father’s church.’
‘And what will her father do if she comes to work for Whittle Investigations?’
‘I told you: he’s got Rhonda and Bubba.’
‘Bubba’s mute. As I recall, that lunatic Ebb cut out his tongue.’
‘Tom’s teaching him sign language.’
‘Useful for making the sign of the cross, then?’
‘That’s not funny.’
Geoff looked away. ‘I meant nothing by it. Bubba’s a good man.’
After an awkward silence, Ben tried once again to argue Maddie’s case. ‘She really wants to work with us. She wants to do something useful, not just mark time at the church.’
‘Are you sweet on her?’
Ben felt a blush creep onto his neck. ‘No.’
‘You fight her corner like someone who is.’
‘I like her, that’s all. She’s a good person.’
‘She’s put a glow on your chops.’
Ben felt the blush turn radioactive. ‘Think what you like. She’s just a friend.’
‘No one gets that het up for a friend.’
‘I’m het up because you’re so damned rude.’
‘But you don’t need a partner.’
‘We’d work well together.’
‘I managed well enough on my own until Ebb and his cronies got hold of me.’
‘It might not have happened if you’d had a partner,’ Ben suggested. ‘Someone to watch your back.’
‘It wouldn’t have made a scrap of difference. There isn’t a damn thing you can do when some crazy sod has a gun. Not unless you’ve got one yourself, and we don’t want to go down that route, do we? It’ll only make the criminals more inclined to carry weapons. That’s why they don’t arm the police; and as an ex-copper, I reckon they’ve got the balance just about right.’
‘They do arm the police. What about that Brazilian bloke they shot on the railway station the other year?’
‘That was the Armed Response Unit. That’s something different altogether.’
‘Still murdered an innocent man.’
‘They were convinced he was a terrorist.’
Ben thought it was a good idea that they didn’t arm the regular police if that’s what the so-called experts were capable of. ‘And that makes it all right?’
‘Don’t judge what you don’t do. Those guys have a split second to make a decision. Sometimes they get it wrong just like everybody else.’
The phone rang on the desk. Geoff plucked it from its cradle. ‘Whittle Investigations. How may I help you?’
Ben watched his father nod, tut and sympathise with the person on the other end of the line as he scribbled details onto a notepad.
Geoff put the phone down and leaned back in his wheelchair. He stared at the ceiling.
Geoff ignored him.
‘Is it a new case?’
‘Some girl’s gone missing. That was her mother. But she must have got the wrong number.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘She thought this was a private investigation business.’
Ben was momentarily confused. ‘It is.’
‘Really? And how are we meant to investigate without any investigators?’
‘Now you’re being childish.’
‘Not from where I’m standing. Or sitting, to be exact. As I recall, you said you didn’t want to work for me anymore.’
Ben tried not to rise to the bait. ‘So what did she say?’
Geoff looked at the notepad. ‘Hannah Heath. Twenty-five years old. Went missing about four months ago when she was sixteen weeks pregnant. Living with her fiancé. About to get married. Left work one day and just vanished.’
‘Does she have any idea what might have happened?’
‘It hardly matters, does it?’
‘I don’t follow.’
‘We’re not going to be working the case.’
Ben walked out of the office. He felt like slamming the door. Shaking the walls and rattling the windows. Sending shock-waves right into the old man’s brain. Instead, he closed it gently behind him.
Maddie was waiting in the hallway. ‘I’m sorry, Ben.’
‘All this fuss.’
‘It’s not your fault. It’s him; he’s like a bloody kid.’
‘I ought to go home. It’s youth club tonight. I think I’d be more appreciated there.’
Ben’s heart dropped into a muddy puddle. ‘Ignore him. He could try the patience of Mother Teresa – and she’s dead.’
Maddie smiled. A tired smile that slipped away like the sun behind a rain cloud. ‘It is your dad’s business. It’s up to him who he employs.’
‘No, it’s not. Maybe before Penghilly’s Farm, but not anymore. He needs me. Needs both of us. He’s just rattling his sabre and trying to lay down the law.’
‘So what do we do? We can’t force him to change his mind.’
‘We don’t have to. He’s just had a call about a missing girl. He’ll come round when he realises the potential earnings.’
‘A missing girl?’
Ben told her the rather sketchy details.
‘She must be just about ready to give birth by now.’
‘If she’s still alive.’
The office door opened and Geoff manoeuvred his wheelchair into the hallway. ‘If you’re interested, the mother lives out at Wheatfield Close. Number fourteen.’