There was no mistaking her mother’s nod of disapproval, as she drew their attention to the visitor in the hallway. Jill knew her mother had always been a bit of a snob and regarded the police as somewhat beneath her. Desperate to get Paul out of the house and away from her cutting gaze, Jill suggested they take a walk. Her eyes were heavy from lack of sleep and the sudden glare of the wintry sun blinded her. Shrugging on her coat, she gestured to Paul to follow her. Neither of them spoke, as they made their way around the side of the house to the orchard. The freezing morning air stung her face and she brushed back her hair, aware how dishevelled she must look. The beauty of the scene was lost on her as overnight the trees were painted white by the frost. Silver hung between the bare branches and reflected the light from the watery sun. The small bench where she always sat was given the same treatment as the overhanging boughs, but she sat anyway, uncaring of the wetness and cold of the wood.
“You look done in,” Paul said.
She tried to look up at him, but the light from the sun dazzled her, and she shaded her eyes.
“Sit down, I can’t see you,” she moved to one side of the bench and made room for him.
“You don’t look too well yourself,” she said, once she could see him properly.
Like her, Paul hadn’t slept very well over the past four days.
“I’ve been tying up some loose ends,” he said. “There was a lot to sort out.”
It was obvious from his blood-shot eyes and the dark stubble on his chin he hadn’t been home.
“Has there been any sign of her?” He asked.
There was no need for Jill to ask who he meant.
“No, nothing, but it’s only a matter of time.”
“Christ,” he ran his hand over his chin. “This just gets worse and worse.”
“Why,” Jill asked. “What’s happening?”
She listened, hardly daring to breathe as he recounted the events of the last few days. His superiors were suspicious at first, when the anonymous tip led him to the cottage, but the horror of what was found there soon had their minds on other things.
“I had to get there first,” he explained. “I was afraid some of Toby’s belongings would still be in the cottage, but I needn’t have worried.”
“Was it bad?” Jill felt her throat grow tight with fear.
“The building itself was no more than a shell. What remained of the contents still smouldered, but that was just on ground level. I couldn’t leave anything to chance,” he looked at her and his eyes were troubled. “I had to see what state the cellar was in.”
“And?” Jill closed her eyes, not wanting to hear and yet needing to.
“The fire reached the lower level; either that or the old oil lamp was knocked over in the struggle. At least, that’s what I told my superiors and they seemed to accept it, but the smell!”
The stench of the men’s roasted flesh seemed to cling to his skin, and he retched as he thought about it.
“I’m all right,” he brushed aside Jill’s hand on his arm and stood up.
Leaning against the trunk of one of the trees, he gulped in mouthfuls of the frosty air, hoping its freshness would help steady his churning stomach.
“That’s what I’ve been doing,” he turned back to face her, now he felt steadier. “Going over the ground with the scene of crime people trying to cover our tracks.”
“What do you mean,” Jill asked. “I thought the fire had done that?”
“I mean the diary,” Paul said. “The one he wrote about. I couldn’t just leave it to be found, could I? There was too much information in it that might start the investigators asking questions, and it wouldn’t have been long until it led them to you.”
“What did you do with it?”
“Nothing yet. It’s in the boot of the car. I read it,” he shook his head in wonder at the horror within its pages. “He was one sick fuck.”
There was no disagreeing with that.
“There’s something else,” he frowned. “I don’t want you to worry, but I have to tell you.”
“What is it?” Jill felt the familiar knot of fear form in her stomach.
“According to the diary, he posted letters. To his sick companions warning them the game was up and to the police, perhaps, taunting them. I won’t know until the letter arrives. It seems he intended to die and wanted the last laugh. The reason I’m telling you all this is it may come back to haunt us, and I want you to be ready.”
“I may not be around if it does,” Jill said. “You might have to face the music alone.”
“We’ll fight that battle when we come to it, for now we can only wait. How is Toby by the way?”
“Remarkably well, considering. Have you heard from Tom?”
“I saw him this morning. He’s holding up, but I don’t envy him the days ahead.” Paul sat back down beside her.
“The funeral’s tomorrow, little Rachael’s I mean. They’ve released her body for burial. I say body, but there was nothing there other than a pile of bones.”
He’d spare her the description of watching as the contents of the three small mounds were uncovered. Of the tiny white bones dusted free of the dirt of the grave, until they lay exposed to the elements, resembling nothing human, nothing real. She was spared the sound of Tom’s anguished sobs as he watched from behind the yellow tape that cordoned off the crime scene, and she didn’t witness the pitiful sight of the three grey mortuary coffins being loaded into the van. No, she didn’t need to hear this, as there was still so much suffering to come, and nothing under heaven could prevent what was about to happen to her.
“I haven’t tried to contact Tom,” she said. “I was afraid seeing him would remind it was real and not part of some terrible nightmare. That makes me a coward, I know,” she shrugged. “But I have to face up to it sometime. I told my father.”
He looked at her in dismay.
“I know,” she tried to smile. “I can hardly believe it myself, but as always, he was a rock of sense and I know what has to be done.”
“With the thing, the…”
“The Wraith,” she finished the sentence for him. “Yes, I’ll set her free; it’s only fair I send her back where she belongs.”
“But you’ll be playing into her hands,” he stood and paced the along the path between the trees.
The frost-coated grass crunched beneath his feet.
“She could come here at any time.” She called to him. “You’ve seen what she’s capable of. This delay is nothing more than a game to her. She’s tormenting me, making me pay for what I’ve done by delaying the inevitable.”
“When will you go?” He knew there was no point in trying to talk her out of it.
“The grave may already be open,” he warned. “They sometimes dig them the night before the funeral in preparation, especially when the weather is dry. There’s no sign of rain,” he looked up at the sky. “And there’s not going to be any, not with this cold.”
Jill saw the image of the open grave in her mind, and she could envision the rawness of the dark hole.
“Perhaps, I should leave it until tomorrow night?
“That might be better, Christ,” the sound of his laugh echoed in the still air. “I can’t believe we’re talking like this. I had no idea how happy I was in my ignorance of such things, but I suppose there’s no going back.”
“No,” she agreed. “There’s no going back, and no escape from what has to be.”
“Will you come to the funeral?”
His question startled her.
“I couldn’t bear it.”
“No one would blame you. I’m not looking forward to it myself, but I’m going for Tom. He’ll need a shoulder to cry on in the coming days.”
“So, will Toby and my parents,” Jill said. “I hope you’ll be there for them when the time comes?”
“Count on it,” he put his arm around her shoulder and led her back along the side of the house to the yard. “And I’ll be there for you too, tomorrow night.”
“No,” Jill cried. “Promise me you won’t do that, please?”
Her eyes filled with tears as she looked up at him.
“I need to know you’re safe, that Toby has someone other than my parents to trust, promise me?”
“If that’s what you want,” he said, with a lump in his throat.
“It is,” she wiped away a tear from her cheek. “I’ll rest easier knowing you’re there for him.”
“I promise,” he kissed her forehead and the skin against his lips felt cold as marble.
They walked in easy silence back towards his car, unaware of the prying eyes that watched from inside the house.
Paul reached into the open car boot and moved aside a stack of files and paper, searching for the thing he’d hidden there.
“I thought you might want to hide it up there,” he nodded up at the roof of the house.
Jill took the diary and slipped it inside her coat.
“I’ll put it at the bottom of one of the trunks,” she said. “Hopefully no one will find it, at least not until long after you and I are gone.”
“I’ll say goodbye then,” Paul held out his hand, but she ignored it and wrapped her arms around him.
“Goodbye, my friend,” her voice was muffled by his coat.
Once inside the car, he refused to look back. He didn’t notice how she stood aside to allow him to back out, and he flipped the rear-view mirror up so he wouldn’t see her reflection. He managed to steer the car out though the yard gates, despite the tears that flowed blurring his vision. He kept the most frightening thing of all from her, and he wondered now at the wisdom of his actions. Despite the condition of the men’s bodies after the fire, it hadn’t been the cause of their deaths. Even he, who witnessed most things in his job, had never seen such carnage. It looked as though the men were attacked by a wild animal. Clumps of hair and brain matter coated the walls of the cellar as the bodies were torn asunder. He could have told her this, but it wouldn’t stop her doing what she had to do. A force he would never understand drove her on. Only a woman would ever know the true meaning of the words, mother love.