Sarah Brinkley was too timid for the Job and soon realised it wasn’t for her. To be honest, deep down she had known all along. She’d learned quickly that working Moss Side and Longsight certainly wasn’t for the faint-hearted. Anyway, they’d frozen her pay, and upped the retirement age and her pension contributions, so there wasn’t much point in sticking around as she’d probably never get to see it. And she certainly wouldn’t miss the goddamn paperwork, that’s for sure.
Mike was really understanding about her decision to quit the cops, and secretly relieved, she’d sensed. He always used to back her up, even at the simplest of jobs, saying, those were the ones that could catch you out, when your guard was down. The response sarge soon twigged and, due to lack of resources, Mike got a bollocking for unnecessarily tying himself up at her jobs. Despite this, he’d still turn up to ensure she was safe, bless him. Anyway, even though being a Bobby hadn’t suited her, at least she’d found her soul mate by joining up.
“You moving in this place then?” The elderly woman, carrying a bag of groceries, didn’t make eye contact.
“Yes… yes we are… we have.” Sarah couldn’t disguise the pride in her voice, at her and Mike having finally found their dream home, away from the noise, pollution and ‘fuckwittery of the city’, as Mike so eloquently put it. Now they were beyond the outskirts of Manchester, just into Derbyshire. “Do you live through the woods? I saw a little cottage earlier.”
“Sure. On my own now. It’s lonely out here… alone.” Her voice was crackly, like sticks breaking underfoot.
Still no eye contact. Strange. “Oh, Mike and I will pop over to see you. He could cook you a meal. Was a head chef in The Trafford Centre before he joined the police. He’s lovely is my Mike. Funny too, he’ll soon cheer you up.”
“We’ll see.” She craned her neck upward at charcoal clouds. “Best get going. It’s a different place at night, you know.” She turned away and trudged off, unsteadily, using a wooden walking stick.
“Bye… er… do you have a name?”
She didn’t turn round. “Sure.”
The old lady mumbled something, Sarah didn’t fully catch.
Very odd. Sarah watched her go, slowly disappearing through a path of flattened foliage into the woods. Sarah shrugged and went back inside the grand old house. Their grand old house. Smiling with pride, she grabbed the metal wallpaper scraper and busied herself in the huge living room. Well, it was huge compared to their dingy end-terraced in Eccles.
She thought of the aged woman, as she laboriously stripped the walls. Why was she so aloof? Maybe her age. Probably lost her husband. Anyway, nothing could spoil this dream move for her and Mike. They’d saved up, sold up and here they were, amid the beautiful scenery of the Peak District. It was a bit of a drive for Mike, but beat the concrete jungle any time.
The house sale – damn cheap too for its size and location – went smoothly and Mike’s transfer would hopefully come through soon. Sarah recalled her excitement as she checked on Google Maps how close this house was to his new prospective workplace. “Ten miles and just half an hour’s drive,” she’d said excitedly. They’d hugged because they both knew it could really happen. Mike had joked that he couldn’t wait to be like Nick Berry in Heartbeat, him being so fed up with working the city. They were just up the road from one of her favourite places too: The Peak District national Park. It truly was meant to be.
Sarah stopped scraping as she saw a girl’s name scrawled on the wall. It was faded, but she could just about make it out. Lucinder. Bet it’s when a kid who’d lived here had measured herself. But there was no pencilled line, just the number 8 beside it. Aw, must be her age. She scraped some more and saw Jennifer 9. It reminded her of the fact they couldn’t have kids. It wasn’t Mike’s fault, it was her. It had been a dark day when the doctor had informed them, but Mike was the perfect gent about it – “It doesn’t change anything. I love you and always will, Sarah.”
Glancing again at the names, she shook thoughts of kids away. This new house was their ‘baby’. If it wasn’t for their… her… infertility, then they probably wouldn’t have self-indulged with the move. Now though, nothing would spoil this for them.
Hearing a crunching sound, she paused and glanced through the bay window. It was Mike pulling up on the drive, the four by four’s sidelights flicked off. She ran to the front door, like a giggly school girl.
They embraced, a tingle of excitement shooting through her.
“Bloody’ell, darkness falls quick round here, dunnit?”
“It’s lovely though.”
“Certainly is, babe.” They unhooked themselves.
“Drive home okay?”
Mike grinned. “Stunning scenery… and I defo went the scenic route.”
They strolled down the hall into the living room. “What do you mean?”
“I was driving round in circles for twenty minutes. Bloody Sat-Nav lost its signal.”
Sarah picked up the scraper again. “Work okay?”
“Same shit, different day. Need I say more?” He raised his eyebrows. “So, what’ve you been up to? Busy I see.”
“Talking to the neighbour.” Her face contorted and she passed him a spare scraper.
“Hang on, let me get me bloody coat off, cheeky.” He took it off, lay it on their new leather suite that was still covered in plastic while they decorated. “What’s with the face? We’ve not moved close to weirdos have we? I get enough of them at work, and that’s just supervision!” He grinned again. “I knew things had gone too well.”
“Nah, just this old lady. She was a bit strange, but I’m sure she’ll come round, once she gets to know us.”
“Wouldn’t look at me or tell me her name.”
“That’s cos yer a dodgy Mancunian.”
“Oy! Says the man arrested in his teens for joyriding.”
“I didn’t know the car was stolen, honest. And there was no charge.” Mike regarded her, mischief dancing in his eyes. “Anyhow, you calling me a scrote?” He tickled her and they laughed and wriggled, then embraced and kissed.
Sarah broke free first. “Here, I want to show you something.” She passed him the spare scraper and this time he took it. She pointed at the girls’ names.
“And, nothing, it’s just… help me. Let’s see if there’s any more.”
Mike looked at the bay window and walked over, shutting the blinds. Opposite, trees swayed and creaked in the wind. He reached up and shut the top windows before peering out of the window. “It’s pitch black out there. You can really see the stars. No light pollution here, eh?”
“Here’s another one…” Abigail 4.
Mike studied the names. “So the previous owners had three girls. Bet they’re grown up by now, judging by the style of this crappy old wallpaper.”
They both scraped away.
Sarah pointed at another name. They stared agog. Joanna 10 – screamer. “What the hell does ‘screamer’ mean?”
Sarah heard a dull thud and jumped. It came from below, in the bowels of the house. “You hear that?”
“What? Hey, steady on, babe. Old houses make noises you know. Chill.” He smiled reassuringly, smoothed a hand across her cheek. “So do yer reckon the numbers are their ages?”
“Assume so.” She was still looking through the open living room door into the hall.
They continued peeling off the paper with vigour.
Mike suddenly stopped. “Bloody’ell, Sarah.” He pointed. “They’re not ages… they’re marks… marks out of ten. What the…?”
Sarah saw the name Layla 9 / 10. She quickly scanned the other names and numbers. Jennifer 9 also had / 10, but it was somewhat faded.
“Jesus. What is this, hun?”
“Don’t worry. It’s probably nothing. Summat obvious, that we’re missing.”
They bounced looks, then continued.
Sarah stopped, leaned against the wall, arms up.
“What’s up, babe?”
“It was just something the old lady said as she walked off.”
“What? What did she say?”
“I thought she said, ‘They never caught him, you know’, or something like that.”
“Really?” Mike looked stern, not his usual self, fuelling Sarah’s angst.
“I think so. Does your laptop get a signal here.”
“Er. Not sure. Not had chance to check yet, but I’m paying for it and the telly’s working, so it should do. I can give it a go.” He walked into the dining room and grabbed his laptop from the drawer of the sideboard containing his football trophies. Sarah joined him as he turned it on and placed it on the dining room table. They both sat down and waited for Windows to fire up.
“Yes!” The Web browser opened. “Okay, what are we searching for exactly?”
Sarah hesitated, then said in a hushed voice. “Missing girls in Derbyshire?” Mike frowned at her, shook his head, and typed it in.
They stared as eight photos came up. “Jesus Christ. Look at the names, Mike.”
Suddenly the lights and laptop went off.
Sarah felt ice shoot up her spine, and screamed.
“Shit. Okay, calm down. Give me your hand. It’s okay, babe. I’ve gotta torch on me phone.” After a few seconds fumbling, he lit the immediate vicinity, shining the light around, causing shifting shapes of the furniture around them.
“Did you see that? The names… I’m really scared, Mike.”
“Come on. Get a grip. Please. I’ll go down to the cellar.”
“No, don’t leave me.”
“I won’t. We’ll both go. It’s probably just a blown fuse. The house hasn’t been lived in for a while. They did say that, remember? That’s why we got it so cheap. Needed a bit of work.”
They moved slowly out of the dining room, into the living room, through the hall and up to the door beneath the staircase. Sarah felt a shudder as she peered into the kitchen to the rear, its dense blackness seemed to stare back at her. She quickly looked away, holding Mike’s hand every step of the way.
Thankfully, the door to the cellar didn’t creak. The phone torchlight wasn’t so bright, and Sarah felt jumpy, seeing dark, fluctuating shapes and shadows. She’d not been down here before. It smelled really musty. The stairs were stone and their footsteps seemed amplified by the gloom.
She didn’t answer.
“Right. The fuse-box is over here somewhere.”
“There. Looks like another door.”
“Oh yeah. Not noticed that before.”
In the far corner was the shape of an old dark wooden door, somewhat camouflaged in the brown stone brickwork. “We’ll take a look in a minute.”
“We don’t have to.”
“Here we go.” He shone the torch at the fuse-box. “You’ll have to just let go of my hand for a minute.”
Sarah released her grip, her hand clammy, her heartbeat audible.
“Yep, as I thought.” A click later, and the lights came on, including the bare bulb just above them.
Mike grinned. “You gonna relax now, babe?”
The wooden door burst open and a dark figure flew at them. The sword swung at Mike before he could turn, and it cut through the air toward his head.
Sarah screamed and froze to the spot. Everything funnelled in, like slow motion. The bearded man wearing a long black cloak turned to her. He leered, his manic eyes shining with glee. She looked at Mike and he staggered. His expression was fixed, wide-eyed. His head slowly slid from his neck and fell off onto the stone floor. It bounced, settled and he stared up at her, like a dead salmon. His jerking body crumpled beside her, blood spurting onto her legs from the gaping neck.
Catatonic, she couldn’t scream. Her legs wobbly, she turned to the stairs and clambered up. She instantly heard throaty laughter and felt sturdy hands gripping her ankles, as her bladder gave way. She was pulled back down, slowly, her chin buffeting the steps, one by one. At the bottom, he grabbed her by the hair and an excruciating pain ripped through her scalp as she was dragged past Mike’s head, those eyes still staring, helplessly.
“I hope you’re a ten out of ten, like Joanna,” the man said gruffly, before slamming the door.
BIO: Col Bury is the former award-winning Crime Editor of Thrillers, Killers ‘n’ Chillers. His short stories have featured in many anthologies, most notably, THE MAMMOTH BOOKS OF BEST BRITISH CRIME 9, 10 & 11. Col is the author of two short stories collections, MANCHESTER 6 and THE COPS OF MANCHESTER and his debut novel, MY KIND OF JUSTICE will be out in June 2015 via Caffeine Nights Publishing.