Chapter One 

Chopwell Wood Monday 13 June 2016

 

The boy stood on his tip-toes and peered in through the car’s passenger window. Nobody inside – all the doors were locked but the engine was still running. Curious, he inched his way forward through the thick undergrowth and thought he could hear a man’s voice, not too far away, and close to the footpath. Oblivious to the dangers now surrounding him, the dim and vaulted green woods always had a magical appeal.

Earlier, having built a secret bird hide close to the river and just off the beaten track, he was hoping to spot Kingfishers. Fledglings had been seen on the banks. Wild, spectacular, Kingfishers in flight always filled him with joy. Not that he was expecting to see any, but he might if he kept quiet.

Eyes peeled through a gap in the treeline, he could just make out a dark silhouette beyond the ridge. He knew it was risky, knew he shouldn’t, but he crept forward anyway. There was a man. Not tall, but portly, with a rounded face and balding hairline that reminded him of his late Uncle Arthur. What was he doing here? Who was he talking to? He was eager to find out.

Crawling forward on all fours, twigs snapped beneath his fingertips and the long knobbly ferns dug deep into his scrawny knees and caused him to wince. He didn’t want to get too close as he might be seen, but curiosity had unquestionably got the better of him.

Then, through the thick undergrowth he spotted a woman’s face. Motionless, eyes wide open in a look of terror, she was staring out into space as if searching for something. He could see her lips were tinged blue and her mouth wide open in a cry of revulsion, but still it didn’t register. Next, he noticed the yellow cord attached to a branch and tied taut around her neck. She was bent forward slightly, knees buckled, with her feet touching the ground. She wasn’t a tall woman, slim with long shoulder-length blonde hair that clung to her cheeks like ripe summer corn. Wearing an ankle-length skirt, blue cotton blouse and flat leather shoes, he noticed her fingernails were painted a bright orange colour reminding him of pyracantha berries in autumn.

Who was she?

Shifting his weight, he watched as the man extended his arms towards the heavens as a priest offering prayers. The boy had never seen a person this close to death before, and never wanted to see one again.

Without warning, the man’s eyes shot sideways suddenly. His voice was threatening, cold. ‘Who’s there?’ he demanded.

Scared out of his wits, the boy pressed his face hard against the damp woodland soil and tried to make himself small. He should never have skipped off school lessons; it was a stupid thing to do. Now caught in something he no longer wished to be part of, he didn’t feel safe anymore.

Warily, he opened one eye and caught the resolute expression on the man’s face.

‘I’m not going to hurt you,’ the man said unconvincingly. ‘Why don’t you come out?’

The boy wanted to say something, anything, but the words got stuck in his throat. Too scared to move, he was looking for a way out. To his right was a woodland path. Beyond that, a tangled mass of branches swayed leisurely in the sweltering summer breeze making a whispering sound. What if he ran towards the mass of woodland ferns? He was brave enough, and he might even lose him there.

What if he fell?

With every sinew in the boy’s body now straining, he lifted his head a tiny fraction; enough to peer out of one eye. Closer, closer than ever before, the thought of what the man might do had put the living fear of God in him.

‘I know you’re in there,’ the man shouted out.

Coiled like a spring, blood drained from the boy’s face as the woods began to spin. His heart was pounding so fast, he thought it was about to explode. Tears rolled down his cheeks, and he felt wet fluid running down his legs.

Motionless, the man shot him another sideways glance. There was evil in his eyes, the likes he’d never seen before. After a few deep breaths, the boy pulled back into the thick undergrowth and hid behind a tree. He was desperate to get away from him, but nowhere felt safe anymore.

Terrified, the boy rose to his feet and ran towards the woodland footpath. Head down, shoulders slightly hunched, he sprinted as fast as his legs could carry him. He was heading for the river and the safety of the bird hide he’d built. Twenty metres, fifty metres, he thought he was going to be sick. If only he could run faster the man might give up on him. Then, reaching a bend in the footpath, it ended abruptly, and for one split second he’d lost all sense of direction. As his eyes searched for a gap in the undergrowth, he shuddered at the hopelessness of escape. He’d taken a wrong turning and there was nowhere else to run.

Then he heard footsteps approaching.

Panic came in waves as he felt the man’s strong hand grab the back of his neck. He remembered the woman’s face and imagined himself in her place. Somehow, he wriggled free, dropped to one knee and scrambled through a gap in the undergrowth. Thorns tore into him, like a werewolf’s talons gouging through flesh. He tried to scream out, but the pain was excruciating and his voice pitiful.

Then daylight appeared, and he was standing at the top of a steep ravine searching for his next route of escape. There was none, only the sound of running water deep in the valley below. Caught in two minds, he plucked up enough courage to slide down a steep slippery slope. Everything was a blur, and his head was pounding so hard that he thought he was about to die. Tumbling headlong to the bottom, he turned. But all he could hear was the man’s ragged breathing and the sound of falling rocks.

What to do next? His mouth felt dry, and the hairs on the back of neck were standing on end. Gripped by uncertainty, he decided to make a dash for it. It wasn’t far, but on nearing a bend in the river he doubled back on himself and ducked inside his secret bird hide. It was dark inside – eerie – only the afternoon sunlight streaming through the tiniest of gaps in twisted branches. Then he heard the man’s ragged breathing again, like the wind along a knife.

Crouching low, the boy held his breath and listened. Less than a metre away sunlight danced on the man’s mud-spattered shoes. They were brown, with sharp pointed toes and his shoelaces had been tied in a criss-cross pattern. How much longer he could hold out he had no idea. What if he made another dash for it – ran towards the river and swam to the other side?

Then the man’s ragged voice again.

This time he was goading him, wielding a heavy stick above his head and shouting out profanities. Half expecting it to come crashing down on top of him, the boy closed his eyes and wished himself invisible.

Only the man’s irregular breathing now, and the sound of running water.

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