|The Murder Book: Part One C1-8
Author: benjhenry PM
Most of us will spend a third of our lives asleep; over 25 years lying unconscious in our beds. But when Alicia Crown explores the art of lucid dreaming, she finds that this time need not be wasted. Whilst others simply dream, Alicia finds friendship, love and murder.Rated: Fiction K - English - Fantasy/Adventure - Words: 18,197 - Reviews: 1 - Published: 10-06-12 - id: 3063483
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
THE MURDER BOOK
PART ONE: A WELL KEPT SECRET
Turning from her grave, I entered the lonely church. Everything was as I remembered: the stale smell of ancient pews; the stone floor worn from centuries of beaming brides and desolate pallbearers. It was so strikingly, painfully real. And yet entirely false.
The back wall held a circular stained-glass window, bearing a design so intricate that I could not possibly have memorised it. It was to this window that I found myself drawn. My feet padded softly against the cold stone and it was then that I realised I was barefoot. Through the silence, I slowly ascended the staircase leading to a gallery overlooking the pulpit. I was halfway up the stairs when I realised that there had been no gallery in the church. But I continued upward, guided by my curiosity of those tiny panels of glass.
Reaching a narrow walkway, I rested my palms on a low wooden railing and let the window fill my gaze. Light streamed through the coloured panels. So delicate; diaphanous, like the wings of a dragonfly. The pattern of shape and colour formed no coherent whole, yet like an optical illusion I ran my eyes across it in search of hidden meaning. I closed my eyes and, for a moment, I could see myself standing there, bathed in the coloured light from an unseen, unknown, unreal source. I was rooted in my solitude and felt a potent urge to anchor myself here forever.
Then the world shuddered. The glass trembled and the colours shifted. I felt a pain in my face and raised a hand to my left cheek.
"Alicia!" a voice cried from below. A moment later he was beside me, gripping my arm. I felt myself recoil and fought an urge to strike out; to knock him to the ground. How dare he come here? His lips were parted and his eyes were pained as he stood before me, violating my moment.
"Don't wake up," he pleaded. "They've come for the book. Alicia, they will kill you."
As I tore my eyes from his, pushing him roughly in the chest, I started at the sight of a figure to my left. It was Melissa. Her expression was such a perfect mirror of the boy's that I found myself wondering whether she was my own construction.
"Wake up, Alicia!" Desperation tugged at the tone in her voice. What was she doing here?
"They're coming for you. You've got to get out. Now!"
I turned from one face to the other. Who would you trust? The woman who had murdered your mother? Or the boy who had shot you in the chest?
Thunder engulfed the church and a ripple ran through the stone as I felt a sharp pain in my cheek and tasted blood in my mouth. Clearly, whoever was trying to wake me was in a great hurry to do so. With one effortless movement, I had mounted the wooden railing. I heard him screaming my name as I hurled myself through the window.
"Should I do it?"
The parking space yawned. Cameron gripped the steering wheel and leant forward a fraction as though to get a better look through the windshield. The whites of her eyes were reflected in the glass.
"I feel like she's watching me."
The space belonged, or at least had belonged – though had never actually belonged – to Sasha McKenzie. By some charitable act of God, Sasha had gone to University, and now the space was ready to be claimed.
As I watched Cameron quite literally staring into space, I felt a hint of relief that our summer together had come to an end. She would not have been my first choice for a holiday companion. In fact, she would be the first to suggest that she had fewer brain cells than there were stars in the sky. Followed by an admission that she didn't know what infinite meant. But Cameron had flirted her way through a driving test and this car had been my ticket out of Godalming; out of Surrey; out of whatever mess my parents were in right now.
Vibrating angrily against the car door, my phone started ringing.
"Who is it?" Cameron asked, her mouth approximating that of a goldfish.
I raised a hand to my lips, "It's Sasha."
"Really?" Cameron asked, her eyes approximating those of a goldfish.
"No." I said with a smile, watching 'Mum' flash across the screen. "It's nobody."
This time, my mother was missing the first day of the school year. This time it was to visit my Dad's sister. But this time, I didn't believe her. If she wanted to give the Headmistress an explanation for why she would not be turning up today, she would have to find someone else to pass on the message.
"We're going to be late." I said, impatiently. Cameron looked from me to the parking space. Nobody wanted to be late for Miss Lawson. But could she really take Sasha McKenzie's parking space? I watched the dilemma wreak havoc on her mind. Which approximated that of a goldfish.
I smiled encouragingly, and she smiled back, reassured. The summer had been good for Cameron; she had thawed. Being as far away from Winter as possible had been a blessing. But, as always, Winter was just around the corner.
Our heads snapped to the right as the low roar of an engine cut the air. Brakes screeched, gravel flew and a shiny blue Audi slid into view. I watched the pair of eyes looking back at us through the interior mirror, followed by a wink.
Winter stepped out of the car, pressed the door shut behind her and waited for Cameron to rest her tyres in a pothole nearby. As my summer companion skipped over, Winter smiled broadly; her white teeth iridescent against her dark, flawless skin. Cameron took Winter's hand and kissed it in a regal manner- a little joke which they had shared since Junior School, apparently.
Winter watched me pull my bag from the back seat of Cameron's car as one might watch a toddler peel the legs off a spider. My mother was the Art teacher here at Valmont and a year or so back she had been rather critical of Winter's GCSE project. The phrase 'artistic panache of a squirrel' had been used, and hastily quoted by Winter to the Headmistress in the hopes of my mother's termination. But Miss Lawson had found it hilarious and Winter had hated me ever since. I lost no sleep over the matter.
"See you at lunch!" Cameron said, which to her credit was a good deal kinder than Don't even think about sitting with us. Winter smiled warmly and said nothing.
Entering the Hall, Winter whisked Cameron off to the arm-chairs along the back which were exclusively for the upper-sixth students. Since we were late, there were no chairs available, but my friends slid along a bench to make space for me. With big smiles, awkward hugs with the boys and lots of apologising on my part for spending the summer in Cameron's passenger seat, we were hurriedly re-acquainted in time for the ancient grandfather clock in the corner to strike nine. I stole a glance back to see Winter sat between Cameron and her boyfriend, James. I couldn't see who had been relegated to the floor.
The door opened and a hush fell over the assembled. There were rumours that our Headmistress had done the comedy rounds back in her University days, and the apprehensive silence in the hall befitted the wait for a stand-up comedian. Miss Lawson marched across the stage to a wooden podium at the front. She adjusted her pencil-skirt, tightened the bun at the back of her head and tapped on the head of the microphone with a nail. For a Headmistress, she was very young. For a woman, she was rather tall. And for a moment she surveyed the school and we wondered who her gaze would settle on.
"Frizzy hair." I heard someone whisper on the bench behind me. And they were not wrong. One of the Year 7 girls near the front was still trying to chat to her better-informed friend. Miss Lawson's eyes slowly settled on her mop of curly hair.
"Miss Waterhouse, I believe?" she uttered down the microphone as though apologetic that others might hear her. The curls froze. "We have a tied-hair policy here at Valmont, my dear," she whispered into the microphone, "pop into my office upstairs, you'll find a bulldog clip in the drawer. Quickly, now."
Miss Waterhouse vanished through the double-doors. The Headmistress ran her eyes across the Hall with a soft smile on her face.
"Welcome back. I do hope that each of you had a spectacular holiday. Evidently my dream in which you had all died horrifically was indeed just a dream."
There was laughter too generous to be called polite, yet too nervous to be considered genuine. Miss Lawson looked into the distance and pursed her lips before lowering her eyes.
"I am sure that you are all aware of the tragic death of a young male driver in Haslemere last week. I will take this moment to urge those of you technically old enough - yet undeniably not mature enough - to hold a driver's license that caution on the roads is paramount. Not merely for your own safety," she said with a less-than-subtle glance toward Winter and Cameron at the back, "but for the safety of those whom you encounter."
She wore a knowing smile, and shook her head as though returning to the present, "Anyway, let us not start the year on a low-"
The double-doors burst open with such abruptness that I half-expected to see Waterhouse tripping through them and onto the stage. Nobody was as surprised as I to see my mother enter the Hall. Nobody, it would seem, except Miss Lawson.
There were faces turning in my direction as I watched my mother stride across the stage. The Headmistress preferred to greet the students alone at the start of the year- just her and her pupils. Teachers were to wait in their classrooms to receive their form group. Without so much as a glance at the assembled, my mother leant in to whisper in Miss Lawson's ear. It was then that an alien emotion clouded the Headmistress' face: it was panic. She mouthed something to my mother, who was turning for the podium. I was just able to make out the words.
I felt snakes twisting in my stomach as she reached out for the small microphone. Hearing a loud sigh, I glanced over my shoulder to catch Winter twirling an index finger around her ear and rolling her eyes. Cameron and James shot me a fleeting look, but didn't laugh.
As Anna opened her mouth, I saw the Headmistress' arm twitch, as though she were contemplating pulling her back. Her face was contorted, like she was chewing glass.
My mother caught my eye, but did not smile. She did not speak.
She dropped to the floor.
Silence plugged my ears. Deaf, I pressed my way through standing bodies to the edge of the stage just in time to see Miss Lawson checking my mother's pulse. As she lifted her head, the Headmistress looked into my eyes. In their truth the silence shattered.
In rivulets, the dark hair ran down the sides of my pale face. My eyes, Tiffany blue and generously big, smiled at me from the canvas. And in the corner of the painting, my mother had signed her name in thin, delicate strokes: Anna Crown. I ran my finger gently over the black paint, remembering how I had sat so still whilst she had painted me, interrupted only when one of us had started to laugh. I stopped stroking my own hair, and stepped away from the memory.
On the wall beside the portrait hung the painting that I had done of my mother, in return. I had been told more times than I can remember how I had inherited Anna's talent, yet as I looked upon the sharp yellow lines designed to capture her short and spiky hair, I failed to see a comparison between the two. The painting of my mother stood immature beside her portrait of myself; which was fitting in a sense, since I had often been considered the more mature in the mother-daughter relationship.
A third painting sat on the desk before the window of the study. It was Anna's recreation of my father sleeping in a chair in a crowded room. His heavy head rested on his shoulder as the figures around him chatted in an animated manner, as oblivious to Matthias as he was to them. Glancing out of the window, I saw my father tending to the barbecue. Perhaps an odd activity - perhaps an unusual choice of dinner following your wife's funeral - but he had told me that we were having a barbecue on Sunday, and Sunday it was. Matthias was a creature of habit.
The day was beautiful: the sun streamed down in an insensitive, stoical manner. Whilst watching my father place sausages on the grill, my mind lurched back to fragments of our last conversation.
"She said she had to tell me something." He had not caught my eye. He had been speaking to himself as much as to me; wondering out loud. The sadness in his eyes was beyond loss and longing. There was uncertainty and fear. She was supposed to have been visiting his sister, Lucy, in Newcastle. I had spoken to Lucy at the funeral this morning. She had not seen Anna in months.
Reaching into my pocket, I withdrew a small grey key. Old and rusty, the key even resembled a secret. If a secret were a material object, this is the form it would take. I had found the key at the bottom of my mother's purse. Without a second thought, I inserted my mother's secret into the drawer of the desk.
I jumped at the sound of the doorbell. Looking out of the window, I watched my father sat in a chair facing the barbecue. I waited for him to respond, but he did not move. Sighing, I pocketed the key and turned for the door.
Bubbles of irritation rose within me as the bell rang a second time. We had made it clear that we wanted to be left in peace for the rest of the day. Despite peoples' best intentions, the funeral had been an assault course of questions, and there is little more infuriating than being repeatedly asked the very questions which are plaguing your mind.
Opening the door, I faced a giant. Horizontally, the woman was slim, but vertically she was quite gifted. She wore a thin smile on her Vietnamese features.
"You must be Alicia. Is your father in?"
I opened my mouth to question, and then waved her in to follow me to the garden, figuring that I ought to check on Matthias anyway. Leading the elongated lady through the house, I felt like a primordial dwarf. As we entered the garden, I was not surprised to see that my father was indeed asleep in his chair. Smoke rose from the barbecue.
"Now's not a good time, I'm afraid." I said as I picked up the tongs and turned the blackened sausages. "Who should I say came by?"
"Amelia Fletcher," she said, extending her extended arm. I shook the hand politely, though my eyes were narrowed as she continued. "I work for The Know. I was hoping to ask a few questions about your mother's fascinating death."
"Now really isn't a good time." I said slowly, my eyes on hers, "The funeral was today."
"I know," she said, patting my primordial-dwarf-like hand with her giant palm. "How do you feel?"
The sausages on the barbecue sizzled. I watched my father snoring gently in the chair and said nothing.
"You must feel like somebody has just taken your life and put it in a blender, rendering you a dysfunctional mess. Am I right?" she asked, clasping her spider-like fingers together earnestly.
I stabbed one of the sausages with a fork and the barbecue hissed.
"Maybe you could come back when-"
"I hear that Anna was meant to be visiting your Aunt up in the North of England...but this visit never happened, did it? Where do you think she might have been?"
I could see my reflection in the journalist's broad eyes, and found it difficult to believe that she did not register the emotion.
"Alicia, your mother dropped dead before five-hundred pupils. Scarred them for life, I'd bet. Now if you know anything about what might have caused this, the public have a-"
I found myself holding the fork before me as words tumbled out of my mouth, "If you try to tell me that the public have a right to know anything about my mother, I will barbecue your giant face."
Seconds passed as I waited for time to rewind, but with Amelia's startled expression filling my view I felt the guilt press down upon my shoulders. I lowered the fork and tore my eyes from hers to see that my father was watching me.
"I'll show you out." Matthias said, rising from his chair. He caught my eye as he led Amelia through the back door. I squinted as smoke rose from the charcoal and stung my eyes. Removing the sausages from the barbecue, I watched the embers burn.
In my pocket, my phone vibrated yet again. I glanced at the screen.
Twenty-four people wanted to know how I was feeling; what I was doing; whether I was coping. I flicked to the missed calls.
Monday. 08:53. Mum.
I had my own questions. Swallowing hard, I placed my phone on the grill. As the screen began to cloud over, I turned from the barbecue and walked back to the house.
With a soft click, the desk opened. I hesitated. This small drawer was the one space in the house that my mother had kept out of bounds. It was where she kept paintings that she was not ready for the world to see. It was her private drawer. Matthias had been profoundly indifferent. I had been curious, but had respected her privacy. Until now.
I tugged at the reluctant drawer, so filled with sketches and paintings that it was an effort to release. Sifting through the contents, I felt a panic rising in my chest. I had found the key; I had found the secret. But what if this drawer contained no secrets of its own? What if my questions, like all the others, would go unanswered?
It was at the very bottom, beneath the inchoate mass of unfinished ideas, that I found a leather-bound book. Old and worn, I drew the book before my eyes. A single word was barely visible, embellished upon the black cover: Murder.
Opening the book, I found that many of the pages had been torn away. What remained was a list of names scrawled down each yellowed page. Most of these names had been crossed out. The snakes twisted in my stomach. I closed the book and ran my fingers over each faded letter. Murder?
With my head swimming, I opened it again and turned the tattered pages, scanning hundreds of names. At the bottom of the final page sat a name which had not been struck through. The name had been circled.
The name was Melissa Lawson.
The moon lingered in the morning sky, like someone had forgotten to rub it out. Since Matthias could not drive, the half-hour walk to school was my only option. He had of course offered to walk me in, having failed to coax me into another day of rest, but conceded that there was a good chance he would not make it home safely. Such is life when your father is a narcoleptic.
I drifted past translucent shop-windows and from each one my reflection sought to catch my eyes. My dry, stubborn eyes. It was an uncomfortable truth that I had not shed a tear since my mother's death. To cry was to submit to reality. I felt as though this new reality was sitting on the top of my brain, lodged between the grey matter and the roof of my skull. It was heavy, but it was not going in. It was just there.
As my feet traced the familiar route, my gaze panned from left to right. From the hedges and trees to the houses and road-signs; from the pair of shoes dangling mournfully from the telephone wires to the rusting tyre in the rhododendron bush, everything was as before. Yet my perception of life had changed, irrevocably.
Gravel crunched underfoot as I crossed the path to the school entrance. Above the broad, black beam unto which 'Valmont' had been engraved, the spindly hands of a great clock face reminded me that I was ten minutes late. My pace did not quicken; nobody would be expecting me.
Passing through empty corridors, I made my way to my form room. I had nearly reached the back of the building when a scent slowed my pace. An open window along the corridor was drawing the crude smell of cigarette smoke from the girls' bathroom ahead. Just as I watched the door, it drifted open and two girls slid sheepishly into view. It was CC and Casey: the twins in the year below. They offered me a half-smile on two identical faces as we passed. I shook an odd feeling in the back of my mind and continued onward.
The first lesson – to use the term loosely – was General Studies: a compulsory subject which was invariably as interesting as its title. Fortunately, most lessons could be spent nodding along to Mr. Goodfellow's take on current affairs, which required little brainpower. Unfortunately, where little brainpower was required, Winter and Cameron could often be found. And following the former's return from her holiday in the Caribbean, I seriously doubted that my summer friendship with Cameron would survive the change in season.
"Alicia!" Cameron beamed before I had registered opening the door. But then I was more than a little distracted by the gun that was pointed in my face.
"Miss Crown!" Mr. Goodfellow said, with an expression that was equally surprised. "Take a seat," he gestured with the pistol to an empty chair on the left of the small classroom. The desks had been arranged in a horseshoe, and I was almost surprised to see my vacant seat awaiting me.
Twelve pairs of eyes watched me cross the silent room. James was sat on the end of the horseshoe, and he offered me a kind smile as I stepped behind him. Mr. Goodfellow arranged his class in an alphabetical order, which placed James Baker at the front. He would claim jovially that this made it easier for him to remember our names, though we reckoned that he did it to keep friendly alliances apart, lest we rise up and destroy him.
I took my seat not next to James, as was unfortunate tradition – given Winter's frosty gaze whenever our notebooks came in contact – but two seats down. For next to James sat a figure whom I did not recognise. The boy appeared to be lost in a trance, which out of habit I assumed was because he was staring at Winter on the opposing desk. Heavy bags pulled at the green eyes that lay sunken in his pale face.
Beside Cameron, Winter watched me take my seat, but did not catch my eye. As Mr. Goodfellow cleared his throat awkwardly and continued his lesson, my eyes flicked in the direction of the black moleskin diary sitting on the new boy's desk. The diary reminded me of a book which I had been striving to go five minutes without considering; which I had left my house in order to escape. There is only so much wracking an exhausted brain can take.
Gus Crow. The flickering electric light danced over the golden letters. James Baker. Gus Crow. Alicia Crown. There was a primal satisfaction to be found in names ordered alphabetically.
Lists of names flooded through my mind: an echoed memory of tattered pages. If there was any order to be found in my mother's 'Murder' book, it was well disguised. I had found no pattern in the unknown names, crossed out one by one. The sole name I had recognised was the one my mother had circled: Melissa Lawson.
Realising that Gus was watching me staring blankly at his diary, I tore my eyes from the desk and my mind from the matter. I watched Mr. Goodfellow turn the replica gun in his fingers as he sat on the desk beside Cameron and Winter.
"Which brings us to Capital Punishment – or the death penalty, if you will!" he said in a macabre fashion, "Arising from the Latin capitalis, meaning 'regarding the head', since of course the norm of the time was beheading." He gestured taking off his head with the barrel of the gun, and then caught my eye and flushed pink. Clearing his throat, he continued, "Nearly one hundred nations have, thankfully, abolished this penalty, yet over fifty still actively practise it."
I glanced right to see if Gus was still watching me, or perhaps watching Winter. He was staring in her general direction, but could well have been sleeping with his eyes open. My focus shifted to James, who was looking my way. He hastily turned his big brown eyes back to face the teacher. Mr. Goodfellow was sat back on the desk, watching with glee as the topic fell into debate. He basked in the class' novel interest.
Winter waved her hand as though brushing away a fly. She wore the Caribbean sun around her shoulders; her face the epitome of relaxation.
"I say kill them."
The smile on Mr. Goodfellow's face wrinkled uncomfortably. "But, in a modern society-"
Winter brushed away the flies, and spoke to Mr. Goodfellow as though educating a wayward child, "Modern society is a mess. Modern society is...it's evolution without survival of the fittest. The age of the moron. If we didn't keep letting these people breed, we wouldn't have these problems in the first place. Psychos have bad genes..."
"There's nothing worse than bad jeans!" Cameron added, looking immeasurably proud of herself. Winter looked sideways at Cameron with a smile that only she could believe genuine.
"Although, there are those not quite there in the head. They could be shown mercy, I suppose."
James watched his girlfriend with an amused smile, the only genuine smile which Winter would return in kind. But his smile became an apology as he stroked the dark stubble on his chin.
"Don't you think that if someone were to kill somebody, they might not be right in the head anyway? So we would have to show them mercy too..." he suggested, in a diplomatic manner.
"No, James." A shadow blocked the Caribbean sun, "If they are capable of choosing between killing someone and letting them live, and they choose to kill them, then, well- they've made their choice." She folded her arms. "And they should pay for it."
"What if there is no choice?" It was Gus who spoke. Like magnets, twelve heads turned in his direction and I wondered if I was not the only one who had considered him asleep. A flicker of malevolence could be seen in Winter's eyes as she focused on the new boy. Beneath an untidy ruff of dark brown hair, Gus' expression was placid as he continued.
"You assume that they have – that we all have – free will. That this 'choice' is theirs to make."
Winter rose from her chair. Stepping around the horseshoe, she snatched the gun from Mr. Goodfellow's hands and marched up to Gus' desk. The boy looked as though he were watching a mildly interesting television advert as Winter raised the gun in both hands.
"Look Angus, or whatever your inbred name is, I have a gun to your head. I have two choices – to put it down, or to pull the trigger. To let you live, or let you die. My choice."
Winter's hands did not waver as she buried her point. Her almond eyes were wide and waiting.
Gus' face was expressionless, "Everything in your life...everything that you have ever done...everything that has ever happened to you..." he smiled, "Every text that didn't make you LOL...every present that Daddy never bought you...every boy who answered back. These experiences determine whether you pull that trigger. There is no choice. Only reaction."
Cameron laughed nervously, and bit her tongue. I wasn't entirely sure what his point was, but for a second I was left thinking that if we married, at least I'd only have to drop an 'n' in my name.
Winter looked like she dearly wished it were a real gun. Beyond Gus' serene smile, I saw James regarding him with a reverent expression. His chair scratched against the old carpet and he rose to his feet. Winter's gaze vacillated between Gus and her boyfriend.
"So I guess," James spoke just above a whisper, rounding the table, "if you think about it," he stood before Winter with an intensity in his eyes. "in a world without choice..."
James took Winter's face in his hands and kissed her deeply. Cameron whooped, the class chuckled and Mr. Goodfellow raised a hand in protest.
"Sorry, Mr. G. Reactions."
James left the gun on my desk, leaving Winter to turn for her seat with a smile that would have been difficult to suppress. Having diffused the situation, James relaxed into his chair. My eyes were fixed on the pistol lying before me.
"What does it matter?" I thought aloud. "Choice or no choice. If you kill an innocent person, you deserve to die."
If only I had known how those words would come back to haunt me.
Mr. Goodfellow opened his mouth, ready to steer the lesson back to appropriate ground and the class jumped as a shrill siren rent the air. It was the fire alarm. Assuming the role of an air-raid officer, he hastily shepherded us from the room. The corridors filled with wide-eyed students buzzing with the prospect that the building was ablaze.
The wide eyes widened as heads turned my way. In lines, the students of Valmont assembled in the quad outside the Hall. With the alarm silenced, the air began to thicken with whispers. I ignored the sympathetic smiles of my friends as I watched Miss Lawson march through the ranks toward the twins in the year below.
Following a hurried registration, we were filed into the Hall and took our seats as the Headmistress led CC and Casey onto the stage before us. I watched her standing at the podium, a guilty culprit on either side, and the image of my mother resonated sharply before me. With smart black trousers and a matching suit jacket, Miss Lawson still bore the respectful colours she had worn at the funeral the day before. Fragmented memories ghosted through me, but I allowed none into focus.
"It takes great courage to admit when you have made a mistake," she said, gripping both girls by a wrist. She continued to praise the humiliated pair for allegedly admitting to their crime, though few of us believed they would have been short-sighted enough to confess. Ignoring those that tried to catch my eye, I watched the twins writhe.
"And speaking of courage!"
She was looking right at me. The Headmistress smiled warmly as she gestured in my direction, "Alicia Crown! I am sure that not one of us would have expected your return to be so soon. And yet here you are. Come."
My body stiffened with the air. With limbs of lead I rose from the bench, feeling my heart beat through the silence. Her eyes were on mine as Miss Lawson brought her hands together. As I approached the stage, my bag hanging heavy from my shoulder, students and teachers followed her example. The applause was tumultuous.
Why were they clapping? Because I wasn't sobbing into a pillow at home? Because I had 'recovered' so quickly? Because I had allowed nothing to change?
The Headmistress all but pushed the twins from the stage as I crossed the wooden panels to shake her hand. And so I was stood, before the podium, in the exact spot where my mother's life had ended.
Surely she did not expect me to speak? I watched the microphone, waiting for her to continue. She held my hand as she spoke through smiling teeth.
"Tragedy will befall each of us, at least once in our lives, and often many times more. But whilst some take tragedy as a ticket to hide from the world behind tears and bedcovers, here Alicia stands- ready to move on; to face what new challenges lie ahead."
She was beaming at me and as I looked into her grey eyes a circled name filled my vision. I took my hand from her grasp and turned for the podium.
"The doctors say that her heart failed." My voice sounded across the room, clear and strong, as hungry eyes pressed me to continue.
"The police say there is nothing to investigate." I smiled drily as the audience shrank in my mind. "And my father was convinced she was having an affair."
As the students exchanged silent gazes and an uncomfortable shiver spread through the hall, I felt Miss Lawson step closer, raising her arm. Her hand gripped my shoulder as mine slipped into my bag.
"The truth is, my mother was murdered. And I plan to find out who did it."
I felt my fingers wrap around cool metal, and drew the gun from my bag. The collective sharp intake of breath might have pulled me from the stage. I turned to find what I was looking for: a cold fear on Melissa Lawson's face. Mouth agape, she stepped back as I raised the gun.
I turned it in my fingers, offering her the handle.
"Could you return this to Mr. Goodfellow?"
As our eyes locked, I handed over the replica weapon, feeling the assembled exhale as one. Like theirs, her perception of me had changed, irrevocably.
Matthias chewed his lip thoughtfully, turning the tile in his chubby fingers. The corner of his small mouth wrinkled in smile as he placed three letters on the board, and so infidel became infidelity. I examined the Scrabble board: what a window to the soul. I'm sure a psychologist would have scribbled down the random assortment of words and then stripped them of their innocence. I resisted the urge to glance over my shoulder and see if Amelia Fletcher's giant face was watching through the living room window. Matthias and I shared a glance, and the air was heavy with unspoken thoughts.
"Sweet of you to take the week off to play board games with your old man." My father's voice was deep and warm, too mature for his round and child-like face. My late grandmother would tell us fondly that her son had never lost his puppy-fat. There was a twinkle in his small, dark eyes and I wondered if time off school might be good for us after all. I had spent far too much of my time worrying about my mother to spare much thought for the husband she had left behind.
"It's amazing what you're reduced to without the Internet and TV."
He smiled, shaking his head. Tearing pages from The Know, he cast it into the fireplace. Under the headline 'For Pete's Sake', Amelia Fletcher had ignited a campaign for better lighting on Haslemere's country roads. I watched her picture curl and blacken before it was reduced to ash.
"There's nothing wrong with a little exercise for the mind. Lord knows your generation could brush up on their vocabulary."
"We could never fit all these big words into a text message." I said, playing derisive. "LOL."
Matthias smiled, "Knowledge is power."
And ignorance is bliss. As we continued our game, passing small tiles and sharing small talk, the night slowly darkened. Without power, we played under the dying light from the fireplace; just another two shadows in the dusk. As we deftly avoided any topics worth discussing, I felt the Murder Book tugging at my mind. I would show it to him, but only when I had shed some light on it. Only when I knew what it was. If knowledge was power then, without the Internet, I was left waiting in the dark.
Adding another forty points to my total, I studied the 'J' and 'K' sitting stubbornly on the tray. The game would soon be over, and the evening with it. With nothing but an open night lying ahead, I ventured a question.
"Did Mum say anything about Miss Lawson before she left?"
Matthias said nothing. I lifted my casual gaze from the letters and saw his head slowly drooping toward the table.
"Just because you're losing, Dad." I muttered through a smile.
Tossing the remnants of my hot chocolate over the fire, I pulled the throw from the sofa and placed it around my father's shoulders, tucking a cushion under his cheek. I kissed the dark hair on his heavy head. How easy it was for him to sleep. Of course I knew it was a curse, not a blessing, but that was hard to believe when my restless mind promised hours of entertainment. At that moment, I envied him his effortless departure from reality.
The darkness was all but total as I felt my way up the stairs, shed my clothes and slid under the cool covers. As my mind harassed me like an over-excited child, the sheets heated through tossing and turning. It is a well-known fact that checking a clock whilst sleeping is not a good idea. But it was not a clock that I wanted to reach for. It was a book.
When my mind finally succumbed to hazy dreams, I found myself passing through dark corridors. Through muddled thoughts I became aware that I was not walking towards anything, but away from something. From shadow to shadow, someone was following me. I could catch no glimpse of my pursuer, but I felt their presence. I felt their eyes. The landscape of my dream found new definition as the textures sharpened and the shadows shrank. I was standing in an unknown room, aware of a single fact: someone was behind me.
As a child, I would often dream that a lion was stalking me. With my fear, the belief would intensify and the lion would present itself. Oftentimes the last thoughts in my dream would be that the lion waited behind me. Every time I turned, I would see the beast and wake. As I stared at the white wall ahead of me, I knew that to turn around would be to face my pursuer. In a dream, what you get is what you see. I turned.
My eyes opened. A rapid heart throbbed in my chest. I had seen nothing, or at least could recall no figure. But that is because I had been woken by a whisper. Someone had whispered my name. Feeling foolish and immature for the fear the dream had evoked, I swung my legs over the side of the bed. With the moon uncovered in the sky, a silver light fell through the open curtains.
I rose from the bed, cold in my underwear and feeling exposed before the open window. I quickly stepped across to close the curtains. But as I reached out, I froze. My bedroom window overlooked the street below, and down that street I saw a figure running away. As he raced down the pavement and turned a corner, I caught sight of his face under the orange streetlight. It was Gus.
I pulled the curtains shut and a dressing gown around my shoulders. Checking my mother's old wristwatch that sat atop my powerless alarm clock, I saw that it was ten to two in the morning. I was tired, even paranoid; I did not doubt my fragile state of mind. But what logical explanation would lead the new boy from school running down my road in the middle of the night?
Deep in thought, I sat back on my bed. I could have woken Matthias, but to tell him what? Did I really believe that Gus had climbed onto my roof and whispered my name through the window? Abandoning the thought, I realised that the most sensible option was to go back to sleep. I grabbed the torch on my bedside table, opened the drawer, and withdrew a small black book.
Turning the tattered pages, I lay the Murder Book open on my pillow. The page before me had been committed to memory with such an intensity that looking at it felt quite futile. As with each page preceding it, eight names ran from top to bottom, all scribed in an old, cursive script. The first four names had been struck through with the same black ink that had presumably been used when they were first written. But the remaining four names bore a difference. Three of them had been crossed out in dark red: Melody Wilson; Peter Henson; Chantelle Serobi. And this same crimson ink had been used to circle the final name: Melissa Lawson.
But this last remaining page, lying between so many that had fallen out or else been torn away, was different still on the reverse. I turned the crinkled paper to reveal a final eight names, each written in black ink. Eight names which, like Melissa's, had not been struck through. Of the eight, my eyes would always settle on one: Clare Carpenter. The name certainly rang a bell, but why? Had I heard the name before, or was it merely similar to hundreds that passed through my mind each week? How would you ever know?
Tired and frustrated, I turned back to the previous page. And the bells rang stronger.
Peter Henson. 'For Pete's Sake'.
Gus was all but forgotten as I tied the cord of my dressing gown and ran down the stairs. Stepping into the living room, lit only by moonlight, I felt a pulse of relief that Matthias was no longer sat at the table and – since I had not tripped over him on the stairs – must have found his way to bed.
Before reason could catch up with me, I picked at the pieces of newspaper in the fireplace, searching for a name. If Peter Henson was the young male driver that had died in Haslemere, a secret from my mother's book would finally be revealed. But I drew my hands from the sodden ash, smelling a pungent combination of wood and hot chocolate. The article was lost.
No phone. No Internet. No chance of sleep. Wracking my brain, I could find just one other solution, and it was not an inviting one. Leaving the front door on the latch, I crept out under the night sky, hoping dearly that the recycling had not been collected. The road accident had filled the papers for weeks; I needed only one.
With ash and chocolate coating my hands, I pulled down the sleeves of my dressing-gown and ripped open the green recycling bag.
"What are you doing?"
Startled, I fell backward, landing in the mud. I looked up to see Gus sitting on the wooden fence. He watched me with interest. I felt the bubbles rise as I pulled my dressing-gown around me and attempted to wipe the soil off my backside with filthy hands.
"What the hell are you doing? Get off my fence!"
Gus didn't move. He looked immensely comfortable as he surveyed the scene, running his eyes from the broken bags and strewn litter to my disgusting self.
"Are you always this neighbourly?" he asked politely.
"Most neighbours knock on the door, not sit on the fence. Aside from the cats." I said weakly, drenched in embarrassment. He considered me with his green eyes, feline under the moonlight.
"You look like you haven't slept in days," he remarked with what might have been concern. I found this particularly irritating, and glared back at the black trenches encircling his eyes.
"My mother died last week. What's your excuse?"
"Insomnia," he said mechanically, as though he had been asked this many times before. His eyes drifted to my hands as he changed the subject, "You've had a fire?"
I stepped up to the bin and picked at the rubbish on the floor, unsure whether to put it back in the bag or to pull more out.
"I was burning the last cat who sat on my fence."
"Or Melissa Lawson's body?"
My head shot up. He grinned. But the smile faded as he continued, "I hear you were expelled?"
"I was told not to come back until next week."
"It's called 'compassionate leave'."
He raised his eyebrows, "You pulled a gun on the Headmistress."
"I was returning an artefact."
"With impeccable timing."
He didn't miss a beat. I felt a fresh wave of exhaustion and was torn between a desire to hurl a tuna can at him or threaten to call the police. As I watched him watching me, the sweat dripping down the sides of his face prompted me to notice his unusual attire: tracksuit bottoms and a light sports jacket. At two in the morning, Gus had been for a jog.
"Some time out of school is probably for the best," he began, interrupting my assessment of how abnormal he was, "rumour has it you saw those Carpenter twins leaving the bathroom and tipped her off. Doesn't make a lot of sense to me, but...point a pistol at the Head and people are going to find some way to keep the gossip flowing."
I had nothing to say; little interest in the matter and a cold wind had given me goose-bumps, so I returned to searching through the recycling bag as though Gus wasn't there. And when I raised my head a minute later, he wasn't. Neither, it appeared, was a single newspaper.
Defeated, I stood up and heard a door close. I stepped around the fence in time to see the lights in the neighbouring house flicker on. So Gus lived next door. Perhaps, through Mr Goodfellow's design, the houses of Godalming were now ordered alphabetically? Blinking heavy eyelids, I decided that it was time to return to bed.
As I washed my hands in the dark bathroom, watching ash, chocolate and soil disappear as one down the drain, something still harangued my absent mind. The Carpenter twins were blaming me for their detention. The Carpenter twins; I'd only known them as CC and Casey. My mind lurched.
CC. Clare Carpenter.
With a hum, the lights came on.
The only sound was the slow, rhythmic breathing as his chest rose and fell. My feet padded against the soft carpet as I carried the tray into my parent's bedroom (formerly known as my parents' bedroom). Matthias would joke that whoever was first to rise ought to make breakfast, since of course it was never him. I placed the plate of bacon, eggs and toast on his bedside table, hoping that he would wake to find them there as he did on his birthdays. Today was not his birthday but, like a mince pie in the midst of summer or pancakes when it wasn't Shrove Tuesday, some pleasures are just too good to be bound by tradition.
I opened the curtains, allowing the morning light to stream across his face; half-hidden in pillow. He snored quietly to himself. I was glad not to have made boiled eggs, which my father preferred soft. Resisting the urge to wake him, I padded out of the room.
Though the working toaster was testament to the fact that we had survived the power-cut, no Internet connection could be found. As I sat in the study, hammering the keys on the family laptop, I seriously considered firing up the barbecue and watching it burn.
An hour passed, and Matthias did not wake. I began to wonder whether Anna had kick-started his day by unceremoniously rolling him out of bed. But I clung on to a childish belief that if he slept enough during the day he would be more likely to make it through the evening without collapsing into his food. I cursed myself for making him a cooked breakfast, blaming a misplaced iota of optimism that he would have woken whilst it was still hot.
The plate was cold as I lifted it from the bedside table and crept from the room. He would be crushed if he knew that he had slept through my efforts. I needed to dispose of the evidence, and consider a lunch that would not ruin over time. Successfully closing the door behind me, I snuck along the corridor and reached the top of the stairs when I jumped at the sound of the doorbell. The plate slipped through clumsy fingers and bounced down the stairs, leaving a trail of eggs and bacon in its wake before it cracked in half on the wooden floor.
I marched into my bedroom and peered out of the window to spot a Renault Clio parked in front of the driveway, blocking my mother's redundant Fiat. I recognised the car immediately, comically small for its gargantuan owner. Amelia Fletcher could ring the bell as many times as she pleased, but there would be no mention of Anna Crown in The Know today. Or the foreseeable future, if I could help it.
Hunting for nuggets of scrambled egg in the corners of the stairs, my imagination feasted on images of my mother and her Murder Book plastered across the newspapers. I distracted myself from haunting headlines as I picked up the two halves of the broken plate. The plate was quite simple in design, with a single red band running along its rim. It had been part of a set, passed down from my Grandmother, Eleanor, to her daughter Anna. Only three had survived the years: one for Anna; one for Matthias and one for myself. Matching plates when I had lain the table for Sunday's roast. Contemplating whether I ought to attempt to fix the plate with glue, I drew the broken halves together to find that they no longer fit. My eyes ran along the cracks between the floorboards, wondering where tiny china chards might have fallen. Crossing to the kitchen bin, I tossed the plate away. Now there were two.
The day trudged on. I drifted between the rooms of the house in an endless loop, checking the Internet each time I passed the laptop. My patience frayed like an old rope. With my frustration mounting and the barbecue beckoning me through the window to the garden below, I switched off the laptop and decided that I would make the half-hour walk to the library when my father woke.
Rising from the desk, I stopped in my tracks and turned back. Chewing my lip, I stepped over to the drawer and reached for the small key hidden behind my father's portrait. With a click, the drawer unlocked and I tugged it open. I shifted the papers aside and my fingers ran from corner to corner until they had found what I was looking for. I withdrew a silver fountain pen.
As standard, my heart beat with the solid but frightening belief that I would find exactly what I was looking for. I took the lid off the pen, feeling the same certainty that would ground me before I turned to face the lion in my dreams. Pressing the nib of the pen against my forefinger, I watched the red ink bleed across my fingerprint.
Shoving the drawer shut and the lid on the pen, I returned to my bedroom to return to the Book. Careful not to leave a red fingerprint on the yellowed pages, I flicked through names that were written in a hand quite unlike my mother's. But on the final page, I could not muster a doubt that it was Anna that had struck through the three names before circling Melissa's.
I turned once more to see Clare Carpenter on the final side. The sixth name out of eight. Turning back to Peter Henson I found myself beginning to enter another endless loop. Slamming the book shut, I hurled it across the room, hearing it land with a thud. I buried my head in the pillow, willing the pages to disappear.
My eyes closed and sleep pounced. Stuttering thoughts became disjointed dreams as I circled through the rooms of my house. From room to room I painstakingly searched for nothing in particular. Passing through the landing, I saw a vague figure ascending the stairs behind me. I raced into my bedroom, feeling my heart in my chest and my face on the pillow; barely straddling sleep. Before I closed the door behind me, a shadowy silhouette had ghosted into view. I turned from the door and threw myself under the covers, riding a desperate urge to wake.
Through the darkness, I heard breathing. My eyes were closed tight as I listened to the gentle rise and fall, right against my ear. Surely these breaths were the memory of my father this morning. Surely when I opened my eyes I would wake. I could feel the breath on my face.
A door slammed and I opened my eyes. I sat up on my bed, searching from corner to corner as the fear waned and embarrassment waxed. I was, of course, alone. Crossing to my bedroom window, I saw that the sun had been lost to cloud, and a heavy rain was falling. Gus jogged under the streetlight, and I wondered whether it had been his front door that had woken me.
It was 4:15pm. I should have felt relief for catching up on lost sleep, but the day felt wasted and the dreams cheap. It would take more than a haunted sleep to revive my mind. The frayed rope had snapped, and I needed answers immediately.
Tucking loose pages back into the Murder Book, I shoved it to the bottom of my school bag. Pulling a coat around my shoulders, I left my room to be greeted by the sound of my snoring father. A leafy salad awaited me on the kitchen table. A salad: Matthias knew how to cook for the slumbering! Feeling no hunger, I opened the front door and left the house.
I pulled the bag under my coat so as to protect the contents from the pouring rain. Rounding the fence, I crossed to Gus' front door and took respite from the rain under his porch. As the minutes passed, I wondered whether I should have waited for him to return from his jog before venturing out. The truth was, I felt a good deal better out of the house, even if it had left me waiting in the cold.
Absent-mindedly, I found myself gazing through his living-room window. My attention was drawn to what looked like a bird staring at me from the darkness. Curiosity drew me closer and I peered through the glass to see that the room was strewn with unopened boxes; unsurprising given that they had just moved in. But what did surprise me was the stuffed crow perched on a box near the window. Its black beady eyes bore into my own. My eyes shifted as I saw a movement deeper into the house. The living room ran through to the back of the building, to patio doors leading onto the garden. Deep blue curtains ran down either side of the doors. Had I seen these curtains move?
I leapt back from the window to see Gus catching his breath, drenched from head to toe.
"You're the one who moved in next door!" I said defensively, before remembering that I had come to ask a favour. "I thought I saw someone." I hastily added.
Gus raised his eyebrows and stepped up onto the porch as though stepping out of a shower. He brushed a hand across his forehead and water splattered against the tiles.
"Very neighbourly of you to watch my house while I'm out. How much do I owe you?"
He spoke so genuinely that I would have believed him, had I not been sure he was still sore from me ignoring him the night before.
"Actually, I was wondering if I could use your computer?"
Definitely still sore. He reached out and unlocked his front door. Panicking, I rummaged through my bag and pulled out a book. It was my diary from school. He watched me scribble down three names onto a blank page and tear it out.
"Could you just Google these for me?" I asked, handing him the paper. "Please."
He looked from me to the paper, with a stark bemusement on his features.
"Peter Henson. You know that this is the guy who died in that car accident, right?" he watched me under furrowed brows, "Is this part of your neighbourhood watch...thing?"
I put the pen back in my bag and looked him in the eyes.
"Will you Google them or not?"
"Not." He opened the door. "I can do better."
I smiled gratefully as he led me into the house and switched on the lights. Boxes lined the corridors and balanced on the stairs. I followed him up to his bedroom, wondering whether I should dash and tell Matthias where I was. In case he wondered. Or Gus murdered me.
As we stepped into his room, bare and unpacked like all the others, he unzipped his jacket and pulled the sodden t-shirt over his head. I looked away, resisting a Don't mind me! and found nothing else to focus on but the computer on his desk. Aside from the bedcovers and a string of clothes on the floor, it was the only thing out of the boxes.
Drying his hair, Gus wrapped the towel around his shoulders and booted up the computer, placing the three names beside it. Neither of us attempted small talk whilst his fingers flicked across the keys and Surrey Police flashed upon the screen. He gave me an accusatory look, and turned the screen toward him to shield my view. I glanced from unopened boxes to the boxers on his floor, wondering how he was hacking into the police database.
"Peter Henson," he said, breaking the silence. "22. Haslemere. Drove straight into a tree." His eyes ran down the page and he shook his head, "Just didn't make the turn."
"Drink driving?" was all I could think of to ask. My tone sounded desperate, as though I were to blame.
"Nope. No alcohol in his system."
As my mind struggled to connect absent dots, Gus keyed the next name into the system.
"Melody Wilson. 34. Swimming in her pool in the back garden. Oxford. Drowned."
Gus nodded, "It must have been heated."
I had been referring to the death, rather than the temperature of the pool, but I let him continue. "Husband said she used to get cramps in her legs. Reckons that might have done it."
I dropped my bag on the floor and sat on the bed behind him.
"Chantelle Serobi. 63. Canterbury. Cooking pasta – very specific, doesn't say what sauce – set her flat on fire. Burned to death."
I felt myself sink into the bed. All three dead. It occurred to me then that there is a powerful difference between believing something and knowing something. But there was a good deal more I had to know.
Gus looked from the red names on the paper to me, sat silent on his bed.
"So what's the link?" he asked. "Aside from three rather odd, closed cases."
"Like my mother."
Gus rose from the chair, opened one of the boxes and pulled out a jumper. He threw the towel over the door and pulled the jumper over his shoulders. I watched his silence, appreciating every second of it.
"I'm sorry I've been such a...bad neighbour." I offered.
Gus looked at me and laughed. It was a merry laugh. Short, but real.
"It's fine. You're not in the market for friends. Neither am I."
And I believed him. He sat on the chair, turning to face me. I looked down at my bag.
"I just don't want anyone to ask me how I'm feeling."
He smiled. "My parents were murdered last year. So I already know."
I looked up and he turned away, switching off the computer. But I had seen emotion in his eyes. A crack in his nonchalant manner. The first sign that he, too, was broken. For the second time, Alicia Crow resonated in my mind. I pushed it aside, once again blaming extreme fatigue for childish fantasy. Two broken halves don't make a whole.
I reached down into my bag, and pulled out a book. With a gentle thump, I placed it on the desk beside him. His eyes darted across the six letters embellished into dark leather.
"What's this?" he asked, running his fingers across the cover of the Murder Book.
"This is the link."
Alicia watched me from her bedroom window. She looked pretty. Pretty damn tired. Trying to work out if your Mum's a serial killer really takes it out of you. On the pavement, I stretched my hamstrings, followed by my calves, enjoying the audience of one. Alicia shook her head and strode from view. I had promised not to tell anyone about the Murder Book and she had promised not to float around the house driving herself nuts. Today she would ask her Dad about the alleged affair. Tomorrow she would speak to Melissa.
Warmed up, I broke into a jog. The paving slabs flew under my feet and the world blurred around me: just the way I liked it. I was half-way to school when a blue Audi stopped beside me at the traffic lights. Conditioned to look at the drivers of smart cars to determine whether they are hot, stylish, arrogant or all of the above, I found myself looking into the almond-brown eyes of Winter Hazelby. Definitely all of the above.
As I waited for the lights to change, I was surprised to see a smile on her face. But then I saw the drops of rain falling on her windshield, and guessed it was simply out of spite. Before I had realised that I need not wait for the lights to change, since I was not actually driving, the passenger window lowered and James Baker was calling my way.
"Want a lift?"
Winter's face fell.
"I'd love one." I beamed, throwing myself into the back seat.
"Careful with the-" Winter began, stalling the car as the lights changed.
"Yeah, sorry," said I, dripping everywhere, "I'm sweating like a skunk in a sauna."
Her cute little nose wrinkled. I drew the towel from my bag and mopped myself up.
"You're pretty fast," James commented as Winter floored the pedal, "Training for something?"
I shook my head, putting the towel around my neck. "Nope. Got a lot of practice running from the police."
James laughed. It wasn't a joke.
"James is the fastest in school, aren't you James?" said Winter, running the back of her finger down the side of his neck.
"Don't disagree with me, James." She prodded him in the neck. James kissed her hand and carefully placed it back on the steering wheel.
"I prefer free running, to be honest," said James, looking at me in the side mirror. "A black guy in a white neighbourhood- you never know when you're going to need that short cut!"
I smiled, looking out the window as the houses blinked past. "I've done a bit of parkour in my time."
"Really?" Winter asked, peering at me for the first time through the interior mirror. "Do you race?"
"Where do you jog from?" asked James, changing the subject.
"Gardner road. Next to Alicia, actually."
James' eyes widened in the side mirror. "You seen her this week?"
Yeah, she's been studying her mother's hit-list.
"I doubt she'll be back," stated Winter. "There are some things you don't recover from."
She could have meant her mother's death, but I'm fairly sure it was Alicia's social suicide she was referring to. Winter claimed her parking space, I thanked her for the lift and we went our separate ways.
Despite the fact that not even the most audacious of Valmont School would dare to take Winter's parking spot, she had driven as though slowing to the speed limit would detonate a bomb. As a result, I had no problem fitting in a leisurely shower in the sports block before registration.
Computing was easy, morning break was spent unsuccessfully hunting for Clare Carpenter and Physics was a gruelling battle of Gus Crow versus sleep. I was happy with a draw. Yawning, I spilled out into the quad with the other students for lunch. I froze mid-yawn as I saw Winter standing on a picnic bench, loudspeaker in hand, pointing my way.
"And here we have our competitor, folks. All the way from God knows where – but do we care? – It's Angus!"
Her voice echoed through the loudspeaker as I walked awkwardly over, the crowd parting before me. With Winter standing in full view, some younger boys in the excited crowd were taking the opportunity to wolf-whistle at her.
"If the offensively unattractive crowd would keep their voices down, I wouldn't have to strain mine."
That shut them up. I reached the table, to see James stood beside me, looking up at Winter with an apprehensive expression much like my own.
"The task," Winter began, her voice bouncing around the square of grass that currently held most of Valmont's student body, "is as simple as our kind donator. The first to get Cameron's knickers is the winner."
She gestured to the far side of the quad, where the Chapel lay terraced between the sports hall and Humanities building. Fixed to the spire atop the building, I could just make out a scrap of pink fabric flapping in the wind.
Cameron sat on the bench below Winter, with her legs crossed.
"It's cold today."
"The prize, I hear you cry?" Winter called over the all-but-silent crowd, "Dinner with yours truly." The crowd remained silent, as instructed. Winter raised her eyebrows in a powerfully threatening manner and the air was rent with whoops and wolf-whistles. I looked across at James, who shrugged. He was wearing a grin.
"Well what are you waiting for, gentlemen?" Winter aimed the loudspeaker in our direction, "A starting pistol? Let me just see if Alicia can lend us one..." she put her phone to her ear, wearing a comedic smile. Then she turned back to us with an impatient glare, "GO!"
I'm not sure why I ran. Maybe because I didn't want to stand there like a brick. Maybe because I didn't want James to run off on his own like an idiot. So, as the gravel scattered underfoot, there were two idiots racing for a pair of pants.
Students leapt out of the way as I took a right, toward the Chapel, and James took a left. I skidded to a halt and it took me a second to realise that he was heading for the library: where the entrance canopy would provide access to the roof. Following his lead, I vaulted two tables whilst he darted nimbly between benches and chairs.
James was faster on the ground, and with his head start he reached the library before I did, hopping onto the bike rack and pulling himself up onto the glass canopy. I was there a second later, running straight for the wall. I kicked myself off the face of the building and landed neatly on the thick glass. To the right was sheer wall- there was no way of getting up to the sports hall and onto the Chapel. We would have to take the long way round.
James launched himself up the sloping roof to the left, stepping past the windows on the first floor of the library until he had reached the Science block. He struggled to pull himself up the wall, and I overtook him as I scrambled higher up the tiles and dropped down onto the flat roof.
My lead on James was short-lived, and he sprinted past me across the concrete. He went straight for the fire-escape that would take him from the Science block to the Old Block, above the Hall. Whilst he ascended the ladder, I went for the ventilation pipes coming out the side of the building, hopping from one to the other. It wasn't until I reached the roof, a fraction ahead of James, that I realised how high we now were.
We were stood on the tiled roof of Old Block, but there was another sheer wall ahead of us, where faculty offices could be found. We had two options: to go left, along the sloping roof that overlooked the quad; or right, across the front of the school building. James took a left, and I heard the tiles crunching under his feet. I turned right, and the crowd were lost from view.
I could hear them cheering for James as he scrambled across the tiles on the other side of the offices. I was faced with the black beam, less than a foot across, that ran along the front of Old Block, ten metres high. As I stepped onto the beam, I knew that to fall wouldn't be the end of me. But it wouldn't be much fun, either.
Whilst the beam was narrow, it wasn't half as slippery as the tiles, and I darted sideways across the front of the building, with nothing but the silent car park below me. As I passed under the spindly hands of the clock directly above the school's front doors, I wondered how James was faring across the tiles. In seconds I had reached the far end and the flat roof of the Humanities building lay ahead of me. James could not be seen.
I was about to drop down onto the roof when a sharp smell caught my attention. Cigarette smoke was billowing from one of the windows just below me. I lowered myself onto the ledge, to see that it was coming from Miss Lawson's office. Careful to keep out of view, I peered down through the window to see the Carpenter twins sat in armchairs, facing the Headmistress across her desk. Clare and Kara each held a cigarette in their fingers. Clare drew the cigarette to her lips and took a deep drag. A tear slipped down her cheek. I could only see the back of the Melissa's head. She watched on, with her arms folded.
Why was Clare Carpenter in the Murder Book? Was she safe now that Anna Crown was dead?
James leapt past me, having finally conquered the sloping tiles, and landed with a barrel roll on the roof of the Humanities building. I dropped down onto the concrete and sprinted after him. As James vaulted a chimney-pot, I turned to see a familiar face in the crowd below. Mr. Goodfellow was marching across the quad. No point in stopping now. Damage done. I cursed as James reached the Chapel before me, and began to navigate the tiles onto the roof. I leapt straight for the guttering ahead of me and hauled myself up, reaching the spire as he did.
The cheering in the quad had died down, possibly because of Mr. Goodfellow's intervention, but more likely because James and I were King-Konging our way up the Chapel's spire, and we would definitely break more than our spirits if we fell. The world beneath us was a blur as Cameron's pink knickers fluttered above our heads. The spire had narrowed to the point where James and I could have reached out to grab the other on the far side. A couple of steps higher and we were facing one another. I was red. He was sweating. We both began to laugh.
I followed his gaze to the underpants, tied to the tip of the spire, and wondered who Winter had ordered up here to attach them. It was an arm's length away. The first hand extended would win. As Cameron's knickers twisted in the breeze, the prospect of reaching out to grab them began to diminish. I looked down from the underwear to see James looking my way. He sighed.
I smiled, extending my hand. I was happy with a draw.
"Well folks," came a cry through the loudspeaker. She was so far below, yet it was remarkably easy to see the emotion in Winter's eyes. "I guess that leaves one pair of knickers and a pair of losers."
My voice carried down into the quad, "Leaving Winter with a dinner for one."
The offensively unattractive crowd sniggered. Mr. Goodfellow reached out for the loudspeaker, but Cameron beat him to it.
"WOULD SOMEBODY GET MY PANTS?"
The rain was falling heavily when I finally made it home. My detention – the first of many, I had been assured – had added an hour to my day. But it had been worth it.
Alicia was sat cross-legged on my doorstep. For a second I wondered if she had fallen asleep, but she raised her head and looked up at me with her large, blue eyes. I opened my mouth, searching for a suitably offensive comment.
"Save it." Alicia said, rising to her feet. "Can we go inside?"
She was characteristically rattled, and I led her into the empty house so that she could tell me what was bothering her. As she sat on my bed, I found out that Melissa had called on her yesterday afternoon, whilst she had been sat in that very spot.
"The desk drawer was locked," she said sombrely. "I'm sure I didn't lock it when I took the pen."
"What did your Dad say?" I asked.
"He let her upstairs to see me. He didn't know I was here. She was up there by herself, Gus. Snooping around."
"Looking for the Book?"
She didn't answer. She didn't need to. Alicia took a receipt from her pocket and pressed it into my fingers. It was for petrol: £47.52. I frowned.
"Turns out I wasn't the only one who went through Mum's purse before the police got a look. Dad took this receipt." She wore a half-smile, shaking her head, "To hide the affair. It proves she wasn't in Newcastle."
It wasn't the petrol that was interesting. It was the location of the petrol station.
Canterbury. Sunday 2nd September. 11:46am.
"Gus, what date did Chantelle die?"
She wanted me to check the database, but I didn't need to. Anna Crown had died on the third of September, and Chantelle Serobi the day before. I passed the receipt back to her, saying nothing.
"What a relief," Alicia said with a smile, her skin pale as milk, "Mum wasn't having an affair. She was just killing people."
I didn't smile. My body froze as the front door slammed shut. I leapt out of the chair and crossed to the window.
"You've got to go." I said, pulling the window open. Alicia hurried to my side, perplexity splattered across her features, but faltered as she saw the roof of the side alley below.
"Hop down onto the tiles and over the fence."
I admired her assent. She didn't want to do it, but she didn't argue. She read the panic on my face, slung the bag over her shoulder and climbed through the window. When she was clutched to the ledge, ready to drop, I held out a gun before her.
"Take it." I ordered. Alicia's eyes were wide as she looked into mine. "Just in case."
She opened her mouth, closed it, and slipped the gun into her bag. Stepping up to my bedroom door, I slammed it shut as she landed on the roof of the side alley, masking the thud.
"Sorry, Joe!" I cried out. "Wind caught it."
A minute later, Alicia's face appeared in her living-room window. I smiled apologetically, but she did not return the smile. She looked away awkwardly and was gone. I turned from the window to see why: my uncle was stood behind me, looking across at Alicia's house.
Uncle Joe was a heavy-set man. Broad shoulders, thick neck, big bald head. He would not have looked out of place roaring a group of army recruits into wetting themselves. There was an unpleasant look on his face as he turned from the window to regard me.
"You've got a thing for her?" was all he said.
He was my height, yet still managed to look down at me, his bushy grey eyebrows drawn together in a frown.
"Good." He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, returning his gaze to Alicia's house. "I asked you to stay away from her."
Joe turned and made for the door. I chewed my tongue, biting back several well-rehearsed phrases.
"Funny that you chose the house next door." It slipped out, followed by a yawn.
"You're tired." He remarked, and there was concern in his eyes as he stood in the doorway.
"I need to sleep." I said, drawing fingers down my face. "I can't think straight."
"Then go for a run." He closed the door.
We spend a third of our lives asleep; over 25 years lying unconscious in our beds. I looked down at my bed, wondering what fraction of my life I had already wasted in it. What percentage of my existence had been spent writhing in the quest for sleep? Sitting innocently on my duvet were two small objects which promised to be large obstacles in my nightly battle against insomnia. One was the Murder Book; the other, a handgun.
A smile crept on my face as I admired the view. Had I not barbecued my phone, I might have taken a picture and sent it to Amelia Fletcher. I picked up the gun, turning it carefully in my fingers, as though to squeeze too hard would set it off. I studied the barrel: Glock. 27. Austria. It was little bigger than my hand. There was a clip in the bottom, which I dared not touch. Was it loaded? The handle was heavy, which suggested so. I would have to ask Gus.
He had given me a gun, so I was fairly sure he did not think I was crazy. This was certainly comforting, but with that truth came the fact that, if I was sane, this was not all in my head. I placed the gun back on the bed, considering with more than a little hope that Gus might just be crazy too.
My eyes drifted from the gun to the Book. There lay proof that my mother had not driven to Canterbury to visit a lover. I could run downstairs and tell Matthias: she wasn't having an affair! But since it doubled as evidence that she might have been involved in the death of a sixty-three-year-old spinster, I wasn't ready to go shouting from the rooftops. I still needed answers, and it was pretty clear that Matthias knew nothing.
I placed the Murder Book in the bottom of my school bag, followed by the gun. I was half-way down the stairs before I turned, strode back to Anna's desk, and locked them both in the drawer. The small, grey key weighed less heavily in my bag and in my step.
Half an hour later, I was ascending the stairs in Old Block, heading for Melissa's office. The quad outside overflowed with the hum of Friday lunchtime. The weekend was nigh and the excitement almost tangible. I would have envied my fellow students their plans had they not felt so trivial in my heart; so dwarfed by my warped perspective.
Miss Lawson would be expecting me. On her unexpected visit, she had asked Matthias to invite me in for a 'back to school' interview. To check, I surmised, whether I had regained my mind and lost any desire to shoot her. If it was the truth I wanted, I would have to lie convincingly.
As I reached the top step, two twin heads bobbed into view. CC and Casey's eyes locked onto mine and their gentle features contorted. They wrinkled their noses as they walked past me; radiating distrust. I turned to watch Clare Carpenter descending the stairs behind me, wondering amid much else why I could smell cigarettes.
I turned back to face ahead, passing various office doors. At the end of the old, carpeted corridor lay the Headmistress's office, with two chairs on either side. On these chairs sat four familiar figures: James, Gus, Winter and Cameron.
James and Gus looked like two naughty schoolboys, which I suppose is exactly what they were. Three faces lit up as they registered my approach, and Cameron jumped from her seat.
"Alicia!" she squawked.
Melissa's door flung open, nearly knocking Cameron in the face. The Headmistress tightened the bun at the back of her head, watching with an intensely irritated expression as Cameron shrank back into her chair.
"Ah, Miss Crown!" she broke out a smile, before glancing left and right at her detainees as though suddenly surprised to see them there, "Perhaps your friends can tell you how they landed jobs as my new security detail?"
She turned first to James, who cleared his throat, "For demonstrating a public display of idiocy..."
Melissa then worked her way along the line with a pleasant smile, as though in genuine congratulation that they had entered her service.
"And making a mockery of the school safety rules," added Gus, nodding earnestly in fitting with the charade.
Winter folded her arms and commanded an air of austerity. "For organising a public display of idiocy and mockery of the school safety rules."
Cameron mimicked Winter's pose, commanding the air in her head, "For facilitating a public display of idiocy. With my pants."
Melissa nodded deeply, and gestured for me to enter the office.
"Do you want me to search her, Miss?" asked Winter, looking from the Headmistress to myself.
I exchanged a glance with Gus, and followed Miss Lawson into her office. She closed the door behind me and stepped up to the window, opening it wide.
"Rather stuffy in here," she commented vaguely, taking her seat. The small office stank of cigarette smoke.
I took a seat in one of the black leather armchairs facing her desk and she rested her elbows on the mahogany. Clasping her hands together, she brought her head forward and brushed her thumbs against her lips, regarding me between slow, sympathetic blinks.
Had she been my mother's next target? Had she poisoned Anna to save her own life?
"How are you feeling?" she asked, her voice barely audible above the raucous babble of the quad.
I took a deep, theatrical breath, burying burning chards of antagonism.
"I'm not going to lie to you, Miss Lawson," I lied, "I've felt better. The week at home was good for me and Matthias, but...you can't hide forever, right?"
Melissa nodded, her eyes never leaving mine. She said nothing, so I filled the silence.
"You and my mother were close. She was in Canterbury the day before she died. Why?"
She blinked once more and sat back in her chair, perhaps thrown by the direct line of questioning. Shaking her head, she shrugged.
"I couldn't say," she smiled. "You know Anna, always in search of a new vista!"
"Let's not joke."
I stood up and closed the window, shutting in the silence. When I sat down, her face was placid, and I could not tell whether she had taken umbrage at my attitude.
"Why do you think your mother was murdered, Alicia?" her tone lay between intrigue and pity. Was it loaded?
"She was thirty-six years old, Melissa. People don't drop dead at thirty-six."
I studied her hard face. No trace of the comedian remained. She was chewing glass.
"The police searched Anna's car before returning it to you. Did they find anything of interest?"
I could have smiled. A book, perhaps? Finally, we were on the same page.
"No." I replied, with a subtle shake of my head, "But I did."
A second passed as we stared at one another, and then she rose abruptly to her feet. When she spoke, her tone was light and accommodating.
"I think you should visit my house this weekend. You have questions; I have answers."
She stepped up to the door and opened it, breaking our privacy. The conversation had ended. Clearly whatever we might discuss was not appropriate here or now. I rose from my chair and exited her office.
"And Alicia..." I turned around, standing in the doorway between Gus and Winter. "Bring the book."
Five pairs of eyes watched me walk away down the corridor. I harboured too much anxiety for what my expression would reveal to turn around and say goodbye. Would Gus see my excitement, or Melissa my fear? You never know how adept you are at hiding your emotions until it is too late.
Matthias' small, dark eyes were the last that I avoided before taking refuge in my bedroom. There was nothing left to do and nothing left to say. I would visit Melissa tomorrow and there I would find my answers; soothing the burning questions like a salve on scorched skin. Until then, there was one question that burned the brightest: whether to bring the Book or the gun?
With the door shut, the curtains closed and the lights out, I spent my Friday afternoon lying on my bed in the dark, willing the hours to pass and my adrenaline to subside. Bothered by the green glow of my digital alarm clock, I unceremoniously yanked the plug from the wall. A silence stretched on as viscous as the heartbeat between a symphony's end and the torrent of applause that follows it.
Feathery shadows gave way to sharp, black eyes. Wings beat and beaks whispered. From boxes and stairs; windowsills and mantelpieces, they were watching me. Vast. Innumerable. I fled from the crows. A hot and foggy mind tried to contemplate how these birds had got inside and why they were watching me. I opened doors and windows but could find no solace.
I stepped from the kitchen table through my bedroom door and saw the single crow waiting on my duvet, sat between a gun and a book. He did not move as I crept across the carpet to claim the weapon. Reaching out a timid hand, the bird tilted his head as I wrapped my fingers around the handle of the gun. I lifted it slowly, aiming the weapon at his dark, feathered head. But there was somebody behind me.
This time I was armed. It was not with fear but ire that I turned to face my relentless stalker, ready to end their game. And so, for the first time, I saw him.
First, there was each individual eyelash that framed his grey-blue eyes. Black pupils sat like the eyes of crows floating in a frozen ring of wild sea. My perception broadened down his nose to the dark, full lips of an unsmiling mouth and up his forehead to short fair hair; the individual strands of which ranged from a wheat-blonde to cinnamon-brown. And finally, as he stood before me, in a stark and violent clarity against an incomplete, chaotic backdrop, two things became clear simultaneously.
This is a dream; I am aware.
As the penny dropped and the bulb burst brightly, my room itself was no longer a hazy background. My duvet cover was perhaps a shade darker than the white t-shirt that he wore. My china doorknob caught the light, as did the brass button, half-concealed in the fly of his blue jeans. It was then that I felt the gentle heaviness of my bottom lip and realised that I was staring with my mouth agape.
Self-aware, I composed myself, relieved to find that I was wearing the black trousers and green, sleeveless top that I had worn to school, rather than my underwear. Running my eyes from his bare feet to his chest, the contours of which were just visible under his t-shirt, I could not shake my awe of the dream's resplendent lucidity. Reality was bleak in comparison.
My roving eyes had just revisited his face when the boy turned and walked from my room in a slow and deliberate manner. I followed him. Along the corridor I studied the light, downy hair on his neck. Down the stairs I watched his knuckles flex as his hand found the oak banister. As we left the house, he turned to face me and I judged him to be a year or two older than myself. Satisfied that I was following him, he led me to the pavement and along the road.
Minutes passed as we ventured further from my house, heading neither to my school nor the centre of Godalming. I wondered who he was: a boy at school whose name I had misplaced? Or perhaps a friend of a friend, long forgotten? A stranger at a bus-stop? A face from the newspapers, Internet or television? Each time that he turned to check I was still there, I failed to identify him.
I quickened my pace in order to reach him, tiring of this silent stalk through the neighbourhood. But as I reached his side, I realised where we were. Nestled in the trees at the back of a park, a low, stone wall stood before my Grandmother's house. My mother's mother, Eleanor, had lived here until the day I was born. The house had been empty ever since.
I turned to face him. He looked older in close profile, perhaps nineteen or twenty. He glanced in my direction and I opened my mouth to question, but he stepped over the low wall and began to wade through the tall, untendered grass. I stepped down the path that he created through the wilderness, brushing my flat palms against tickling stems. He led me not toward the front door – painted red to match the tiles on the roof – but down the side of the bungalow. Grass gave way to a dirt path that took us into the back garden.
Again, I quickened my pace to catch him and felt a sudden irritation in his silence. The irritation boiled to anger and I opened my mouth to shout after him, when I felt my face against my pillow and stopped in my tracks. He turned to face me, and his expression shifted for the first time. Stepping towards me, he mouthed slowly: "Stay with me."
Hot anger subsided as I rooted myself in the frozen depths of his irises. I ran my eyes across the garden, from the overgrown flower-beds to the redundant swing sitting alone in the corner. For a moment I thought he was going to sit on the swing, and felt a bubble of humour at how bizarre that would be. But as my pillow caressed my cheek, I reminded myself to concentrate, and watched with confusion as he stepped over the low wall and left my Grandmother's property.
Down a slope we travelled, between the fraying bark of silver birches, until we had reached a small shed before a railway line. The grass was course, and I found myself stepping carefully between thistles. He stopped before the shed, and turned to face me. I felt my brow wrinkle and my forehead crease in frown as I watched him standing before the wooden panels. He waited for me to reach him and raised an arm, indicating the door.
I reached out for the wooden handle, but he shook his head. When he opened his mouth no words came out and I struggled to read his lips. Through the silence his nostrils flared in frustration as I stared blankly at his failed attempt to communicate. His face began to blur, and his eyes widened in panic. Hurriedly, I turned and grabbed the handle.
With a sharp yank, I opened the door. As the darkness engulfed me, the dream ended.
I was blind. Redundant eyelids flitted up and down my eyes as I sat up in bed, sealed in darkness. Knocking items off my bedside table, I groped for the lamp.
Click, and the darkness was gone, leaving me exposed on my bed like a frightened schoolgirl. Which, I could not deny, was exactly what I was. Glancing right, I remembered having unplugged my alarm clock, hence the perfect darkness. I pressed the plug back into its socket. 11:07pm. A Friday night it may have been, but it was still too late to go knocking on Gus' door. On the other hand, it might be the perfect time to visit Melissa.
Click, and the drawer opened. I placed the Murder Book in the bottom of my bag, and then initiated a staring contest with the small handgun. In a defiant act against reason, I chucked the gun into my bag. Just in case.
The lights in Gus' house were off, which I found surprising given his alleged insomnia. Since it was the right side of midnight, it was unlikely that he would be out for a run. But if he was, I might just bump into him on the way.
Wrapping my coat around me, I strode past his house. It occurred to me as I stepped over cracked paving slabs that I had followed this path that afternoon. But as I watched my shadow morph between the streetlights and felt the cold air nibbling at my cheeks, I refused to dwell on my dream. I felt the gun in my bag, pulling down like lead on my shoulder; gently reminding me that now was not the time for childish fantasy.
I stalked unseen between the sleepy suburban streets, twisting from corner to corner. And there, on a corner of its own, stood a grand house with tall white walls. Melissa's humble abode towered above the bungalows on either side, which cowered in its shadow. And these shadows were cast deeper tonight, since bright spotlights bathed the house in an ethereal light. It glowed in the dark.
Stopping in the driveway, suddenly reluctant to step from shadow into the path of light, I was surprised to hear a merry chattering down the side of the house. Keeping to the road, I followed the low hedge, the height of which sat just below my eye-line. Rounding the corner, I saw two step-ladders up against the broad, white wall. On one of these ladders stood Gus, and on the other, Winter. James waited patiently at the foot of Winter's ladder, holding a bucket of paint.
They were painting Melissa's house.
"Well, well, well." I called over the hedge, as three heads snapped my way. "You're certainly taking this security job seriously." As was Melissa, it would appear.
Gus waved his paintbrush, splattering the white walls with white paint.
"We're painting," he said, matter-of-factly.
"So I can see." I raised my eyebrows, and Winter turned to continue her task. "The reason being?"
Gus shrugged, "Being unreasonable."
James grinned, holding up the bucket so that Winter could reach it. "We cut a deal," he said proudly, before lowering his voice, "If we paint her house before her friends arrive tomorrow, she won't tell our parents about the-"
"Public display of idiocy?"
"And mockery of the school safety rules." Gus and Winter added in unison, before glaring at one another.
"Whose idea was it?" I asked sceptically, before shaking my head as Gus carefully spread the white paint invisibly over the old coat. "Hers, I imagine? It's not a deal. It's blackmail."
Winter dropped her brush in the bucket and turned to face me, leaning back on the ladder and folding her arms. She wore a defensive expression.
"Nobody asked your opinion, Alicia. What are you doing here?"
It was a very good question. I glanced down the road, and could see the edge of a park in the distance.
"I'm heading to my Gran's house."
It was a very stupid response. Winter took her turn to raise her eyebrows. "To go clubbing?"
My desire to club her was curbed as I saw Gus looking from the silhouettes of treetops in the park to the bag on my shoulder. He caught my eye, as though hunting for clues.
"I'll come with you." He jumped from the ladder into the gravel with a crunch, bringing a splatter of paint with him. "You know, in case you encounter any wolves on the way, Little Red."
Winter's expression of perpetual dislike stiffened as Gus dropped the bucket at the foot of her ladder.
"You're a weird kid, Angus. And not just in the face." She waved her arm, "Go. And take my boyfriend with you. I'll finish here alone."
James sought out Winter's eyes, but it was clear he had no intention of arguing with her. Stepping on his toes, he kissed her on the cheek, and he and Gus vaulted the hedge, landing beside me. We strode off down the path toward the road.
"Your girlfriend is up to something." I remarked as soon as we were out of earshot, not quite intending 'girlfriend' to sound like a disease. James glanced over his shoulder, watching Winter climb down the ladder. He shrugged, "She wouldn't let me help her when we picked up the paint..."
"Why the late-night visit to Grandma's house?" Gus changed the subject, evidently bored of talk involving Winter.
I looked at James, walking between us, and wondered what I might have told Gus if we had been alone.
"I need to check something." I caught Gus' eye as the path ended and we reached the road. A left would take us to the park, and to the house. A right would take us back towards our homes. "I could do with a hand actually," I said to Gus, "It shouldn't take long..."
"Sure," said James. His lips were curved in a friendly smile. It appeared as though mine would have to remain sealed. "I can grab Winnie on the way back," he added.
Winnie? Like Winnie the Pooh? I could think of a good deal worse. Thanking them for their assistance, I led them across the park, down the path that I had followed that afternoon. Although, as I reminded myself as though berating a child, that had been a dream. Just a dream.
"It doesn't look like anybody's home." Gus remarked as we stepped up to the crumbling wall.
"It doesn't look like it's been anybody's home for a while." Added James, as we looked across an overgrown lawn to the cracked glass windows of the desolate bungalow. It was far worse than I had remembered. The house looked abandoned, in every sense of the word.
"My grandmother died the day I was born." I said quietly, as the three of us stood before a rusting iron gate. "It's been empty ever since."
I pulled the gate, which brayed like a donkey as it opened. The haunting sound swept into the trees beyond. As I stepped through the long grass, running my palms across the tall stems, I remembered visiting the house as a child. So mysterious it had seemed to my seven-year-old self. In a half-hearted attempt to sell it, Matthias had painted the front door and window-ledges.
"Red, like the roof!" I had commented with infantile excitement.
"Follow me." I said, passing down the side of the house. And they did so without question. Moonlight soaked the boughs of silver birches as I led the boys over the back wall and down the slope beyond. Upon reaching the bottom, I saw the railway tracks that were no longer in use. Iron rusted mournfully along a line leading nowhere. And there beside it, looking equally forlorn – lost between the old track and trees – stood the forgotten shed.
But it was no longer forgotten.
"I played here as a child once," I remarked, as though in vague explanation. I had dared myself to jump the tracks, but settled instead for making my mark on the panels of the shed. Standing in the spot where the boy had waited for me, I lifted my hand to trace fingers across a name etched into the wood. Alicia Crown.
Gus and James stepped up to the shed, each mirroring an expression caught between curiosity and bewilderment. As Gus looked me in the eye, I felt a compulsion to tell him exactly why we were here; to challenge his belief that I was sane enough to be trusted with a weapon. But James raised his hand to the lock on the door, and I knew that this test of our unlikely friendship would have to wait.
I watched him twisting the old lock in his fingers, noting its absence in my dream. Neither of them had questioned why we were here; both awaited instruction.
"Can you open it?" I asked the pair. I clearly had no key. The question was a simple request.
Gus took the lock from James' fingers and tugged it gently. He shrugged, and the pair nodded at one another. They took a step back.
"Are you sure?" asked James. I nodded consent.
Standing shoulder to shoulder, the boys each raised a leg. A violent crack rent the air as their combined force knocked the ancient door inwards, sending splinters of wood into the darkness where my dream had ended. I stepped between them.
Moonlight fell greedily upon the shed's unshielded interior. All that lay within was the outer rim of a stone well. Pushing the remnants of the door aside, I entered the shed with Gus and James behind me. The well had been filled and the ring of stone bricks held a thick concrete disc.
"Well, well, well," whispered Gus to himself, and then blushed when we looked his way, "That wasn't actually intentional."
James laughed. "Creepy, secret well."
I rested my hands on its surface, wondering why it had been sealed. Why it had been locked in a shed.
A well, kept secret.
The boys assured me fervently, and quite unnecessarily, that there was no breaking through the concrete. Nodding, I turned and left the shed before any of the questions that hung in the air could make themselves known.
Gus and James chatted behind me about wells and horror movies and I drifted in and out of their conversation, wondering why my sub-conscious had felt the need to direct me to a forsaken well.
Reaching Melissa's house, we found the white wall shining brightly under the security lights. We peered over the hedge to find no sign of Winter or the stepladders. It was when we reached the entrance to the driveway that a blue Audi screeched into view.
Winter was smiling as James jumped into the vehicle. Gus jogged over to her window.
"Any chance of a lift?"
Winter looked him in the eyes.
She floored the pedal and Gus stepped back as the car shot down the road. But our eyes were drawn to the ground, as a tyre had left a white mark stretching from the driveway. Not only did the white paint gleam against the black tarmac of the road. In the darkness, it was glowing.
Gus knelt down and pressed his finger against the tyre-track. He held it up before our eyes, and we watched the luminous green glow. And then, in unison, our heads turned to face the white wall of Melissa's house. As we did so, the security lights cut out. The building fell into darkness, leaving five letters to stand bright and tall against the night sky.
A moment later, the lights in the neighbouring house came on. Gus cursed and grabbed my arm. We ran.
Sprinting down the streets that I had crept along little more than an hour ago, I struggled to keep up with my neighbour. The bag was heavy on my shoulder and I called out to Gus as we neared the turn for Gardner road.
"Why are we running?"
Gus slowed to a halt and leant on his knees. At first I thought he was exhausted, which was surprising given his nightly routine, but then I could see that he was laughing. I shook my head, unable to suppress a smile. Winter had sealed her fate. But had she sealed theirs with it?
As we rounded the corner, Gus' face fell, and he pulled me back. There was a police car in his driveway. When he turned to me, his expression was sober.
"You go. I'll be right after."
The weight of the bag intensified with every step as I passed the police car. The vehicle's lights were off, so the officers must have been inside with Gus' uncle. I kept my eyes ahead as I reached my home.
I dared not think what time it was as I locked my illicit possessions in Anna's desk and snuck into my bedroom. Exhaustion hit me like a brick as I lay down on my bed, bathed only in the green glow of my alarm clock. I pulled out the plug.
Resting my head on the pillow, I willed my thoughts to wander from images of locked sheds and hidden wells. But that is exactly where my mind took me. Stepping from the swing in Eleanor's back garden, I drifted over the low wall and between the silver birches. At the foot of the slope, I found the shed and with it, lucidity. The sun shone down upon the letters of my name, scrawled into the wood with a rusty nail. Unbroken, unlocked, the door yawned open as I tugged the handle.
Before me stood the well, with dust-motes raining gently upon its stone rim. As I stepped closer, I saw exactly what I expected. I saw no concrete disc sealing it shut. My pillow was soft against my cheek as a rush of anticipation threatened to awaken me. I could feel my fingers twitching under the duvet. Before the waking world and all its questions might find me, I leapt into the shed, gripped the cold stone and hurled myself down the well.
I was awake. The sun was warm against my cheek, and blades of grass tickled my chin. Lifting my head from the ground, I saw green hills rolling into the distance under a flawless blue sky. Fraught with sudden concern at where I was and how I had got here, I felt the fingers of my right hand brush against a rough stone. I turned to see that I was lying beside a well.
I was not awake. A profound confusion sharpened to fear as I felt my heart racing and wondered why I could not feel the pillow against my cheek; why I felt so grounded in this dream. I rolled onto my back and froze.
His eyes were smiling as the boy rose from the rock upon which he had sat. With dark lips harbouring a small smile, he stopped before me. From the ground, a daisy poked between the toes of his bare feet.
"Welcome to Vivador," he gestured half-heartedly at the surrounding fields, as though performing a summer job that he had long tired of. His voice, so much deeper than I had expected, shattered the silence and ran a tremor through my heart.
He held out a firm hand and helped me to my feet. With our faces merely an inch apart, I tried not to stare so dopily into the frozen blue of his irises. I brushed grass from my black trousers and glanced at the rolling hills, as my mind spun like a roulette wheel; but on which question would it land?
As his eyes found mine, he opened his mouth. The deep voice seemed to reverberate across the hills.
"I'm here to take you to your mother."
END OF PART ONE