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Brian E Cross

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Things are hotting up for Darren Goldwater as events in Three Mile Drove approach a conclusion

CHAPTER TWENTY ONE

Darren gave chase along the tree-lined track, and as he tried to clear his throat from the smoke that was clogging it up, he saw a grey-cloaked figure running ahead of the child.

He broke unwillingly into a sprint, ignoring the rasping he felt as he raced through boggy ground. He saw the figure ahead of the girl more clearly now, it was hunched and trailing a leg, though it seemed to find the conditions no more of an impediment to its retreat than did the child, treading quickly through the terrain, the polluted air not hampering it. But despite his smoke smeared eyesight Darren knew the child ahead couldn’t be the missing girl, she was too tall for a minor, he guessed she was nearing her teens, in fact she ran with the fluency of a teenager.

The wind blew like a hungry draught freed from a vacuum, while overhead, giant conifers bent double as though humming a warning down at him. Flames leapt into the sky, showing themselves above the trees like torchlight guiding the way, and over to his left where the ruins of the house lay, snapping timber erupted into flames creating solar-like flares, illuminating the ground in brilliant, transient light.

It was amidst one such flare that the figures suddenly halted, reaching a point where the track diverged northeast and southwest. Seeming uncertain on which path to take he saw the deformed figure stop, then grab the girl as she ran into it.

Darren stopped and gaped, a cold sweat running down his forehead. He saw skin riddled with holes, like craters on a lunar surface. He thought he saw it, though his mind was willing him not to believe it – and there seemed to be tiny pieces writhing in those holes, like worms maybe. Its brown texture blistered, its cracks deep and raw like a partly peeled potato. The bulbous head seemed grotesquely large, out of proportion to the frailty of the body. The eyes were sunken so deeply into their sockets he couldn’t be sure whether they were eyes at all. Its nose seemed little more than a gnarled twig while the mouth was simply a slit, which crossed from cheek to cheek.

Then, just as you might snuff out a match, the light thrown by the flare had gone; even the main blaze seemed to be subsiding, leaving a murky orange twilight. He realised then, that rain had begun to fall heavily; it was as though ghost firemen from the heavens had arrived to extinguish the blaze.

And with it, the creature (for that was all he could call it) had gone, lost in the smoke that drifted across the area like unrelenting fog.

Perhaps his mind had begun playing tricks, he’d only had that split second or two to form his visual impression. Perhaps the creepiness of the area, the sudden contrast between the light from the blaze and rapidly approaching dusk had stolen onto his mind like an intruder in a dream, distorting and fragmenting reality into a kaleidoscope of the unreal.

Except that it hadn’t.

Because what he thought he saw had been reality. Above all else the stench, which had made him want to wretch, told him so. More animal than human, but not even the most wretched beast could be so ugly. It was as if he’d left the real world unknowingly and been shown the footpath to hell in those few seconds. Every instinct told him that he should run from this place, this godforsaken area, retreat before he became engulfed in whatever evil existed here. But the adrenaline that surged through him now determined otherwise. He dithered for only a second and then chose the southwest track.
* *

McPherson stubbed his cigarette end in a tray and rapped his fingers on the desk, running the patrol officer’s message through his mind for the umpteenth time. It could be an out of control bonfire of course, one of the Tomblin tribe burning off the crap they’d let build up over the weeks, maybe months.

Or might it be something else? He just wished the officer who’d spotted the fire while passing the top of the drove would hurry up and get back to him.

And then as if the man might have been psychic, his phone rang. He snapped at it with the eagerness of a vulture, feeling his pulse rate rise as the officer relayed his news. The fire had come from the uninhabited house along the drove; he’d placed a call through to the fire service, though it was suspected that by the time they arrived the worst would be over. It was impossible to guess how it might have started.

Well, that was something the brigade might be able to answer.

McPherson switched off as the officer rambled on, he was one of those people who would fill up their pocket book with every conceivable piece of nonsense, and could probably spot an expired tax disc from a hundred metres. No wonder the man had been in the job twenty-five years and never made it past being a constable.

As McPherson made his way to his car, he turned the situation over in his mind. The plain fact was there had been a fire at the house, which had been at the centre of his investigation into the missing girl. Nothing else mattered apart from that. He’d taken out what little of content there had been in the property, but as he slammed down the receiver, stifling the waffling officer’s words in his throat, he found his mind spinning back to the day he’d first been called to Three Mile Drove, over a reported sighting of the missing girl. He’d thought then how it was probably just another wild goose chase, another dead end street like the many he’d encountered during the case.

Perhaps it really had been the wild goose chase his superiors thought it was, blaming their reluctance to support him on budget cuts, lack of funding and all that crap. But they hadn’t been there when he’d been called, when he’d encountered the unearthly looking kids who’d disappeared the moment his back was turned. They hadn’t been there when he’d found the ankle sock, the same colour as the one the missing child had been wearing, they hadn’t been there when he’d disturbed an intruder in the house, forcing his way past with an intensity that sent him crashing down the stairs. He’d found things then, buried beneath a blanket in the attic, newspaper cuttings amongst other things, amongst them references to a missing child, old cuttings it was true , but enough to draw comparisons with the present case, one which his knowledgeable senior officers at headquarters had deemed fit to cast into the pit of unsolved mysteries.

Not if he had his way, this little event might just yield something. If nothing else the fire service might be able to establish what had started it. And then he thought of the missing link, the one he’d been so angry with over the veil of secrecy she’d thrown around herself. The one who had, perhaps not more than twenty minutes ago promised to come clean, to tell him what she knew. In his eagerness to rush to the scene he’d forgotten her, and upon the realisation of that he almost overshot the turning into the drove.

But the waft of smoke that rose through the semi-darkness drew him like a moth to a flame.






       Web Site: Brian Cross and The Pen

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