The Wraith led the cars ever deeper into the winter gloom. After a few miles, they turned off the main road and drove down a disused track. They bounced on the uneven surface as the wheels hit one pothole after another. The bushes and trees on either side of the road were so overgrown branches scratched the paintwork of the cars’ roofs and sides. The sound made Jill’s teeth ache, as it reminded her of nails on a blackboard. There was no sign of the Wraith; it had disappeared into the night the moment they left the main road. But it would not be far away and the track they now travelled was journey’s end. Neither of them spoke, too caught up in private thoughts. A pinprick of light appeared in the distance and the flashing of headlight from behind them meant Paul had seen it too.
Tom stopped the car in the middle of the track as there was no place he could pull in, no indent in the wild bushes.
“We’ll go on foot from here,” Paul ran up to them. “We don’t want them to hear us.”
“Well, they’re not going to be able to drive past us,” Tom said. “That’s for sure.”
They squeezed between the bushes and the car. The branches clutched at their coats, digging thorns into the soft wool, trying to drag them back until they were forced to tear the offending claws away. The icy winter moon shone down on the small party as they made their way along the track.
Ahead of them the Wraith swooped through the trees. Animals of the night stopped and watched the silent shape go past. Owls peeped from hallows of trees in a wood haunted by the echoing screams of children.
The cottage hunched at the end of the rough track. The windows on either side of the door were black. Whatever light they had seen was extinguished, but there was doubt someone was about, as three cars lined the small parking area in front of the cottage. Jill shivered and tried not to cry, when she thought of what her son endured in this hellish place.
“We’ll check round the back,” Paul whispered. “Just to make sure there’s no other exit.”
With the aid of the small torch, they picked their way round the side of the cottage. A terrible stillness filled the air, broken only now and then by the hallow cry of a curlew echoing from the marshy ground beyond the wood. The overgrown garden behind the cottage smelt of death. Another sound broke the silence of the night the lament of someone in the most extreme pain and they came around the side of the cottage and found the Wraith kneeling over three small mounds in the earth.
“Don’t make this any harder,” Mr Jackson said, reaching for Toby.
“Leave me alone,” he hit at the outstretched hand and tried to burrow back against the mouldy timber.
“Hold this,” Mr Jackson handed the strap back to Freddy and crawled onto the bed to get a better grip on the boy.
Toby screamed, as his teacher’s hands closed on him like a vice and the sound mingled with the cries from outside.
“What the fuck was that?” Christy asked.
A hand clamped over Toby’s mouth. The men looked towards the ceiling and hardly dared breathe as they listened. It was constant now, one continuous, mournful wail that caused the fine hairs on their necks to stand.
“Probably a vixen,” Freddy offered, but none of them believed this.
“Should I look?” Christy asked.
“If you like,” Freddy shrugged. “I’m not going out there.”
Toby tried to wriggle free and received a stinging slap to his head for his trouble.
“It’ll stop in a minute,” Freddy offered. “Whatever it is.”
Tom stayed with the spirit of his dead wife while she mourned over the graves. The others made their way to the front of the cottage. He was now alone in the dark with only the dead for company.
“Is she here?” Tom asked.
“Yes, she’s here,” the Wraith turned to him, the sadness in her eyes made his heart ache.
“I wish I could give you a hug,” he was crying.
“You can,” she stretched out a long, white arm. “Come here and close your eyes.”
He knelt beside the grave of his daughter and did as the Wraith asked. With his eyes closed he felt her beside him, solid and real. She moved closer to him and his body shook as he placed his arms around her. She was cold, colder than the night air, but the contours of her body were as familiar as the last time he held her. He expected a smell of death, but if there was one it was lost in the stench of the garden.
Paul put his finger to his lips, warning Jill not to make a sound as he turned the handle on the cottage door. He held a gun in his free hand. She was surprised when he drew it from his coat.
“You didn’t think I was going to come here unarmed, did you?” he asked, and though she never liked the idea of a gun, it was comforting to know it was there to protect them.
The full moon made the cottage interior bright. She followed Paul inside the one room. It smelled of neglect. Cobwebs hung from the rafters; gossamer-white shapes billowed like ghosts above their heads. The walls were decorated with fishing rods and other hunting paraphernalia.
“Look,” Paul whispered, gesturing to the floor, where a thin line of light crept through a trap door.
They tip-toed forward and knelt ears to the floor, listening.
“There’s definitely someone down there,” Paul said, and Jill nodded.
They were leaning on the trap door when it started to move, but their weight made it impossible to open it fully.
“Police,” Paul’s roar made her jump. “The cottage is surrounded. Stand back from the door. Armed officers are about to enter and will shoot on sight.” Turning to Jill, he whispered. “Get Tom.”
She ran out and round the back of the cottage.
“They’re in the cellar,” she was too frightened to be in awe of the sight of Tom with his arms around the Wraith. “Paul needs you.”
He followed her back inside. Paul held up a hand when he saw them outside the door.
“Make as much noise as you can,” he whispered.
They ran across the bare floorboards and their footsteps echoed like thunder hoping to make it seem, to the listeners below they were indeed surrounded by dozens of men.
“What’ll we do?” Christy looked at Freddy, ashen faced.
Mr Jackson dropped Toby on to the bed and cowered in a corner of the room. Freddy used all his powers of restraint, as he answered.
“It’s time to face the music old chaps,” he sneered at Jackson’s quivering figure. “They’ve caught us bang to rights, as they say. I could have given us an easy and painless exit, but I left my bag in the car. What’s the worst that can happen, few years in jail? An expensive lawyer will have us out in four at the most.”
“What about the boy,” Christy looked at Tony who shivered on the bed.
“Kill him. The last thing we need is a witness. What’s one more?”
Toby screamed as hands reached for his throat. Dry, coarse hair covered the knuckles and he smelled the stench of the tobacco-stained fingers.
“Toby,” Jill cried, as his scream reached them.
Paul threw back the trap down and descended the ladder with an agility that belied his age.
“Move away from the boy,” she heard him shout, as Tom climbed down after him.
At the sight of the gun, Christy released his grip on Toby’s neck. When Jill reached the bottom of the ladder, the three men were herded in one corner.
“Mam, oh Mam,” Toby ran to her. “I knew you’d find me.”
Jill was sobbing too much to speak, as she lifted her son in her arms and felt his familiar soft hair against her cheek.
“I have a sore throat,” he pulled back a little.
“Have you, darling?” she managed to say. “Never mind, you’ll soon be home and tucked up in bed.”
A shadow slid down the ladder behind them and Toby stared in wonder at the Wraith. Mr Jackson whimpered, and his companions drew back in terror as it advanced.
“Let the law deal with them,” Paul said, looking directly at it for the first time.
“They killed my child,” it ignored him. “And now they will pay.”
It reached for them, nails jagged and caked with the earth of the grave.
“Are you Rachael’s Mammy?
The question made it stop and turn around to the child.
“Yes, I am,” it walked back to where Jill stood.
She was amazed her son showed no sign of fear at the dreadful image before him.
“Do you know where my child is?” the Wraith asked.
“Yes, she’s over there,” Toby nodded in to one of the dark corners. “Rachael come out, your Mam’s here.”
Those watching didn’t see the little girl run out of the shadows. All they saw was the Wraith holding her arms out to the empty air. But Toby saw. While Paul handcuffed the bad men, Rachael told her mother all about what had happened. Even Paul and Raymond came forward and joined in the telling.
“We’ve been conned,” Freddy looked at the others. “This is not an official police investigation. I’ll have you badge for this.” He sneered at Paul.
“You’ll pay for what you’ve done,” the Wraith stood, took her daughter by the hand and walked over to them.
“I don’t know what the fuck you are,” Freddy said, putting on a great show of bravado. “But I’m sure you’re nothing a competent exorcist can’t deal with.”
“He hurt us, Mam,” Rachael tugged at her mother’s hand.
The Wraith turned and held her hand out to the boys.
“Come here,” she said, and kneeling, she nodded at Tom and Paul. “These are good men, but they need to see you. Will you do that for me? Show them what the men did to you?”
“Come on, scaredy cats,” Rachael said. “Let’s show them.”
The men watched as the three children swam into view. The light from the lamp fell on their wasted bodies and showed scars and mottled bruises left behind by the men’s lecherous groping.
“Hi Dad,” Rachael waved at her father.
“Hello, sweetheart,” Tom sobbed, on the verge of collapse.
“Will you let these monsters,” the Wraith turned to Paul, “these abominations live and hurt other children?”
“I can’t in good conscience let you alone with them,” he shook his head.
“Forget your conscience,” the Wraith roared. “What do you feel as a man? Will you sleep any sounder knowing they live?”
“You’re wasting your time,” Freddy said. “You’re talking to someone from the old school. He’ll do his duty to the last.”
“Go up,” Paul nodded to Jill and Tom.
With Toby balanced on one hip Jill held onto the ladder with her free hand and climbed up. With only the towel for protection Toby shivered and Tom took off his coat and wrapped it around the child.
“Are you, all right?” Jill asked as they walked to the car.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be right again,” Tom took a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed his eyes.
“I’m so sorry,” Jill said.
Once Toby was strapped into the back seat, Jill took off her coat and tucked it around his lap. The bottle of energy drink Tom bought for her lay untouched and Toby gulped it down so fast she was afraid he’d lose his breath.
“Why is the man sad?” Toby asked as his mother wiped his mouth.
“He’s sad because he lost someone he loves very much.”
“Give him this,” Toby held out the Superman doll.
“I don’t think that will help,” Jill kissed his forehead. “But I’ll tell him you offered it.”
When she came out of the car Paul was making his way back towards them.
“I gave them a fighting chance.” His eyes were filled with anguish as he held up the three pairs of handcuffs.
“I know it goes against everything you believe,” Jill said. “But the Wraith was right. They would kill again.”
“Still,” Paul looked at the cottage. “No one deserves to die like that.”
“Did the children?” Tom asked.
“You’re a hero,” Jill assured Paul.
“I don’t feel like a hero,” he brushed by them. “I’ll bring a team back tomorrow. Say I’m working on a hunch. We’ll have to think up a story about the boy,” he nodded at the car. “We’ll say Tom found him wandering. Can you get him to stick to that story?” He asked Jill.
“He’ll understand,” she said. “He’s a clever boy.”
Sudden screams resounding in the still night air made them start in terror.
“We best be off,” Paul said, and holding up a small notebook. “I found this in the front of his car.”
They knew who he meant.
“I’ll have to break into the house and remove the diary he talks about; otherwise we’ll all be in trouble.”
They still hear the screams when they reached the end of the dirt track.
“What’s that noise?” Toby looked up at his mother.
“It’s some weird night bird,” her smile belied the terror she felt; wondering if the fate of the men reflected what she would suffer.
Before they turned on to the main road, Tom looked around.
“You’ve been a very brave boy,” he smiled at Toby.
“I wasn’t frightened, not really,” Toby assured him. “I had him.”
Yes, Tom thought, it must be easy to be brave, when your best friend is Superman.