DEAD MAN'S DAUGHTER
She lay on her back, hard metal under her, so cold it felt like being punched. The smell of antiseptic scorched her throat. She couldn't move.
She tried to scream. To tell them not to do it. She was still alive, still conscious, still feeling. It shouldn't be happening. But no sound came.
The man had a knife. He was approaching with a knife. Silver glinted in the cold light. Why could she still see? This was wrong.
With all her will, she tried to shrink from him. He took a step closer.
Another man stood by. Dressed in green. Calm. They were all calm. How could they be so calm? She must be crying, tears streaming down her face, even if her voice and her legs and her arms wouldn't work.
Please, please, please don't. Inside her head she was begging. Please stop. I can feel. I'm still here. I'm still me. No words came out.
The terror filled her; filled the room.
The knife came closer. She couldn't move. It was happening.
The touch of steel on her skin. Finally a scream.
One of the men placed his hand on her mouth.
The other man pushed towards her heart.
The woman grabbed my hand and pulled me deeper into the woods. Her voice rasped with panic. "She was running towards the gorge. The place the locals call Dead Girl's Drop."
That didn't sound good, particularly given the Derbyshire talent for understatement. I shouted over the wind and the cracking of frozen twigs underfoot. "What exactly did you see?"
"I know what you're thinking, but I didn't imagine it." Strands of dark hair whipped her face. She must have only been in her forties, but she looked worn, like something that had been washed too many times or left out in the rain. She tugged a similarly faded, speckled greyhound behind her. "I was expecting proper police," she added.
"I'm a detective. DI Meg Dalton, remember? We wear plain clothes." No matter what I wore, I seemed to exude shabbiness. I was clearly a disappointment to Elaine Grant. I sneaked a glance at my watch. I'd had a phone-call from my mum that I should have been returning.
Elaine tripped on a stump and turned to look accusingly at me, her edges unclear in the flat morning light. "Pale like a ghost. The dog saw her too."
I glanced down at the dog. He panted and drooled a little. I wasn't sure I'd rely on his testimony, but I couldn't afford not to check this out. I shivered and pulled my scarf tighter around my neck.
"Wearing white, you mean? But you saw blood?"
"It was a nightdress, I think. Just a young girl. Streaking through the trees like she had the devil at her heels. And yes, there was red all over her."
Branches rattled above us. Something flickered in the corner of my eye – shining pale in the distance. My breath stopped in my throat and I felt a twitch of anxiety. "Is there a house in these woods?" I asked. "Approached down a lane?"
Elaine walked a few steps before answering. "Yes. Bellhurst House."
I knew that place. The woman who lived there had kept calling the police, saying she was being watched and followed, but she'd had nothing concrete to report. After the first time, they'd joked that she had an over-active imagination. Possibly a fondness for men in uniform. And we hadn't taken her seriously.
Elaine touched my arm. "Did you see the girl?"
We waited, eyes wide and ears straining. The dog let out a little affronted half-bark, more of a puff of the cheeks. A twig snapped and something white slipped through the trees.
"That's her," Elaine shouted. "Hurry! The gorge is over there. Children have fallen . . ."
I re-ran in my mind the control room's leisurely reaction to this call; our previous lacklustre responses to the woman in the house in these woods. A band of worry tightened around my chest. I pictured a little girl crashing over the side of the gorge into the frothing stream below, covered in blood, fleeing something – something we'd been told about but dismissed. Maybe this was the day the much-cried wolf actually showed up.
I broke into a limping run, cursing my bad ankle and my bad judgement for not passing this to someone else. I couldn't take on anything new this week.
The dog ran alongside me, seeming to enjoy the chase. I glanced over my shoulder. If the girl had been running from someone, where were they?
I arrived at a fence. A sign. Private property. Dangerous drops.
Elaine came puffing up behind me.
I was already half over the fence, barbed wired snagging my crotch. "Did you see anyone else?"
"I'm not sure . . . I don't think so." She stood with arms on knees, panting. She wasn't in good shape. "I can't climb over that fence," she said. "I have a bad knee."
"You wait here." I set off towards where I'd seen the flash of white. The dog followed me, pulling his lead from Elaine's hand and performing a spectacular jump over the fence.
The light was brighter ahead where the trees must have thinned out towards the gorge. I could hear the river rushing over rocks far below. My eyes flicked side to side. There was something to my left. Visible through the winter branches.
"Hello," I shouted. "Are you alright?" I moved a step closer. A figure in white. I hurried towards her. She was uncannily still.
I blinked. It was a statue, carved in pale stone. Settled into the ground, as if it had been there for centuries. A child, crying, stone tears frozen on grey cheeks. I swore under my breath, but felt my heart rate returning to normal.
Was that something else? It was hard to see in the dappled light.
A glimpse of pale cotton, the flash of an arm, a white figure shooting away. I followed. There in front of me another statue. Whereas the first child had been weeping, this one was screaming, mouth wide below terrified eyes. I shuddered.
I ran towards the noise of the river, imagining a child's body, smashed to pieces by stone and current. I didn't need a dead girl on my conscience. Not another one. I'd been good recently – not checking my ceilings for hanging sisters or hoarding sleeping pills. I wanted to keep it that way.
"Hello," I shouted again. "Is there anyone there?"
A face nudged out from behind a tree which grew at the edge of the gorge.
It was a girl of about eight or nine. She was wearing only a white nightdress. Her face was bleached with fear and cold, her hair blond. The paleness of her clothes, skin, and hair made the deep red stains even more shocking.
I took a step towards the girl. She shuffled back, but stayed facing me, the drop falling away behind her. She must have been freezing. I tried to soften my body to make myself look safe.
The dog was panting dramatically next to me, after his run. He took a couple of slow steps forward. I was about to call him back, but the girl seemed to relax a little.
The dog's whole body wagged. The girl reached and touched him. I held my breath.
The girl shot me a suspicious look. "I like dogs." Her voice was rough as if she'd been shouting. "Not allowed dogs . . . Make me ill . . ."
"Are you running from someone?" I had to get her away from the edge, but I didn't want to risk moving closer. "I'm with the police. I can help you."
She stared at me with huge owl eyes, too close to the drop behind.
Heart thumping, I said, "Shall we take him home for his breakfast?" The dog's tail wagged. "Is that okay?"
She shifted forward a little and touched the dog softly on the head. A stone splashed into the water below. "He needs a drink," she whispered.
Elaine had been right. The girl's nightdress was smeared with blood. A lot of blood.