Bess rushed around the side of the house barking furiously. Something unearthly waited in the orchard, something that threatened everyone she loved. By the time Jill and the others reached her, she was growling and baring her teeth. Her coat was bristling, the fur standing on end. Her ears were drawn back flat against her head, and her tail was between her legs, but still she stood as a barrier between her pups and this strange, unearthly thing. The pups whimpered and drew closer to their mother, sensing her fear. They had no idea what stood before them, other than the smell. There was a familiarity to the scent, like when they went digging in the orchard. It smelled of the earth, of dry, rotting things.
“Bess come here,” Jill pulled on the dog’s collar, but she spun around, eyes wide in terror and snarled.
Jill saw there would be no reasoning with the animal, not while she was in such a state. Instead she picked up the pups and carried them back towards the outbuildings. Once her pups were out of harms’ way, Bess began to back away, but her eyes never strayed from the thing standing in the orchard.
“Even the animals despise me,” said the Wraith, and though she had no idea of the meaning of the words, Bess felt their sadness.
“She doesn’t understand,” Tom walked closer to the thing that had once been his wife.
“She understands all right,” the Wraith replied. “She knows I don’t belong here, that I am unholy.”
Tom could think of no response and instead went back and stood beside Paul. Once Bess and the pups were locked away, Jill joined the men. Unlike them, she didn’t fear the strange apparition, and lost no time.
“Did you find anything?”
“I found him.” the Wraith threw something towards them, and it landed with a rattle on the ground.
Jill picked up the plastic bag full of pills and checked the name on the containers.
“Oh, my God,” she whispered, and held out the bag so the men could see.
“Fucking bastard,” Paul growled, when he saw the name. “I’ll kill him myself.”
“I know him,” Tom gasped. “I was talking to him only yesterday.”
They looked at one another, amazed the man they sought was so close by.
“He intended to take his own life,” the Wraith said, “in much the same way as I did. I couldn’t allow this. I read his diary; he does not work alone. There are three of them. Your boy,” she looked at Jill, “is being kept in a cellar, but I don’t know where it is, but I know this man wants no part in his death.”
Tom watched the Wraith’s every move, watched her lips as the words tumbled from them, but even her voice sounded different than his wife’s and her eyes reflected the endless darkness she had endured. There was nothing of Marie left, this thing, this avenging spirit might look like his wife, but there was emptiness about it, and he wondered if it was soulless. He felt nauseous each time it appeared, and he swallowed hard to stop himself from spewing his meagre supper onto the frozen grass. Paul, on the other hand, avoided looking at it. His thoughts echoed Tom’s, but he was more concerned with the suspect and how to arrest him. So far there was no proof, other than the bag full of pills.
They trooped back inside the house, each lost in their own thoughts. It was a rather subdued party that sat around the kitchen table.
“What now?” Jill looked across at Paul.
“Let me think,” he turned the plastic bag over and over, as though searching for clues within the colourful containers. Finally, “that thing out there said he was going to commit suicide, so he has nothing to lose. If I bring him in there’s no guarantee that he’ll tell us where Toby is.”
“He’ll run and join his own kind.”
Paul jumped out of his chair and Jill’s eyes opened wide when she saw the Wraith inside the house. It gave no outward sign of noticing their surprise at its presence but spoke.
“He has no choice but to run. They,” She waved towards the bag, “were his escape route. There is no way out for him now, but to take refuge with those he trusts.”
“She’s right,” Paul agreed. “I know this man fairly well. He’s not the type to hang himself or cut his wrists, too messy and painful.”
“Then we follow him?” Jill asked.
“We’ve no other choice; I’ll ring the station and arrange it.”
“No.” The shout startled them, and they turned towards the Wraith.
“What do you mean no?” Paul asked, “I have to get my men involved, I can’t do it all on my own.”
“What will you tell your superiors,” it asked. “How will you explain how you came by this information? They may arrest him anyway and then what happens to the boy? The others will go ahead without him. Do you want his blood on your hands?”
“She’s right,” Jill said. “There could be any number of reasons for them choosing to delay. We’ll have to follow him ourselves.”
“Even if we do,” Paul said. “We might lose him.”
“I won’t lose him,” the Wraith smiled. “He will not escape me.”
“Then it’s settled,” Jill stood. “We take turns watching the house and when he leaves, we follow.”
“It’s not that simple,” Paul ran his hands through his hair in exasperation.
“It’s simple enough,” Jill refused to hear any more. “I’m going to have a quick wash and then we’ll head off.”
“We’ll need two cars,” Paul knew there was no use arguing.
“I’ll take Jill in mine,” Tom offered. “We’ll follow you.”
“Fine,” Paul sighed. “I’ll take the first watch. There’s no use arousing suspicion parking a strange car in the street. I can see any movements from my house. I’ll ring you on the mobile if anything happens.”
From somewhere in the distance came the echoing crowing of a cock, signalling the arrival of the sun. When they looked around the kitchen, there was no sign of the Wraith.
The mirror above the wash basin reflected the damage worry had done to Jill’s face. Her skin looked coarse and dry and the dark shadows that swooped beneath her eyes, were deeper still. Shrugging of her jumper, she washed and went next door to her bedroom for clean clothes. She would need something warm, as the weather had grown colder in the last few days. Walking to the window, she pulled back the curtains and looked out in the gloom of an early winter morning. The roofs of the outbuilding were coated white with frost, as were all the trees and bushes. Miles of empty fields reminded her how isolated she was. Stopping outside Toby’s room, she peeped inside at the neatly made bed and the assortment of toys. He would be home soon, she thought. In just a few more hours he would be back with her. She had to believe it; anything else was unthinkable.
Below in the hallway the phone rang, and she hurried down the stairs just in time to see Tom replace the receiver.
“It was Paul,” he informed her. “Our man is still at home. He said not to do anything until he phones.”
She nodded, reached up and took her coat down from the stand.
“I better feed the dogs,” she tried to walk past him, but he caught her arm.
“Do you feel we’re caught up in a sort of nightmare?”
“I’ve felt like that since the day Toby disappeared.”
She was glad to be outside in the milky, white light of early morning. Though the cold stung her cheeks and the wind whipped her hair about her face, she’d rather freeze than go back inside and view the torment on Tom’s face. He had suffered as she was now, but for him there was no more hope. At least she could cling to the fact Toby was still alive. Now, on top of all his grief, Tom had to endure the image of his wife, and be forced to witness the vision of death itself standing before him every time she appeared. I won’t cry, Jill thought as she struggled with the bolt on the door of the outbuilding.
Bess pushed against the door, knocking Jill off her feet.
“Hey,” Jill had to push her away, as she became engulfed in a blanket of fur. “I take it that you’re glad to see me?”
As Jill filled the bowls with food and water, Bess scouted around the orchard, checking if the Thing from the night before had gone. The pups scoffed down their food and ran off to play once they were finished. It was obvious that they had forgotten the events of the night. Bess stayed by Jill side as she pottered around the yard, looking for something to do anything rather than go back inside.
Tom called out to her once that her mother was on the phone, but she told him to make an excuse and say she would call her back. She knew she’d not yet been forgiven for her outburst and the last thing she needed was a scolding from her mother. When it became obvious there was nothing else to do, Jill went inside the outbuilding and sat down on the straw that formed the bed for the dogs. With Bess beside her, she counted down the hours, praying for Toby’s safety and asking forgiveness for the terrible thing she had done.
I’ve decided. There’s nothing else for it but go to the cottage. I’ll pretend, as I have in the past, to take part in the atrocity and when it is over, I’ll ask Freddy for the drugs. On the scale of things, the death of one more child won’t matter. The phone rang twice this morning, but I let the machine answer. I listened as the familiar voices left messages saying how much they were looking forward to our little fishing expedition and letting me know what time they expected to be at the cottage. We arranged to meet about six so there’s no need for me to set off until 3pm. It will be getting dark and though night driving is not something I relish; it means there will be very few about to see me go. My nerves are on edge since the events of last night, and, as my tranquillisers have disappeared, I can’t take anything to stop the trembling of my hands. My throat hurts and it shows the scars of the attack by my invisible assailant. I’ve been trying to make sense of what happened here, but it seems beyond reason. My mind tells me I’m imagining things, but how do I account for the wounds on my neck? I went as far as to check under my nails for traces of skin, hoping in my drug-induced state I’d scratched myself. But I was clutching at straws and my nails are clean and certainly not capable of causing the injuries.
I saw Paul O’Farrell arrive home early this morning. I was on my way back from buying the newspaper when he drove past me. My cheery good morning was met with nothing more than a nod, and I wondered at his dismissive attitude. I tend to blow everything out of proportion and allow my nerves to get the better of me. Of course, the man is no nearer to finding the boy than he was the other children and this realisation made him standoffish. Poor man, the strain is telling on him and God only knows what his superiors think. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he were for the chop. There are younger, fitter men waiting to step into his shoes, and it’s a pity I won’t be here to witness his downfall.
I’ve put my house in order. There’s no sign of the break in. I’ll take the letters for Christy and Freddy with me and post them on my way home. That is if Freddy gives me the drugs I require, but I’m sure he will. I’ll miss this old house, but there’ll be others who’ll live here long after I am gone. I wonder if they’ll remember me. I’m sure the newspapers will report my part in our little boys’ club. It makes me wonder what type of person would buy this place. After all, I wouldn’t like to live in the former home of a monster, would you? The hours are slowly ticking away, tick tock, tick tock.