DCI Brendan Moran returns in the sequel to ‘Creatures of Dust’. The title is ‘Death Walks Behind you’ and the novel will be published in early 2015. In the meantime, here is the prologue …
Linda Harrison wouldn’t have described herself as an outdoor type but she did enjoy her early morning perambulations, a word her husband had mischievously coined to describe her regular forays into Cernham Woods. Linda and Matthew were a dog couple, the proud owners of a hyperactive Cocker Spaniel and a pair of young Boxers. Linda was only too aware that to forgo their morning constitutional would mean that the three would spend the rest of the day tearing the house apart, a reality she’d had to deal with on more than one occasion when illness or practical necessity had conspired to keep her indoors. Matt knew this, of course, but persisted with his teasing as though her morning routine was little more than some selfish indulgence.
‘Pippa! Stop that!’ Her thoughts were interrupted as the young Spaniel plunged into one of Cernham’s many puddles. ‘Out!’ Linda scolded the bitch who was clearly having a wonderful time. ‘Not another bath, I can’t believe it! You are one high maintenance dog, girl.’ Alf and Bennie, the Boxers, sniffed around the puddle’s perimeter. Thank goodness they weren’t water dogs like Pippa.
Linda strode on, wrapping her scarf more securely around her neck. Although the year was turning and Spring was imminent the dank air held little pretence of warmth. As she turned onto the path by the farmer’s field she shivered, a long, body-shaking shiver that left her wishing for the warmth of her wood-burning stove. Matt was a great wood cutter and she took comfort in the knowledge that their log pile would last well into the new season. Linda smiled to herself as she thought of her husband’s ritualistic autumn preparations: chopping and splitting, hewing and stacking, his lean, wiry frame stalking the garden, axe in hand and a glint in his eye.
‘Come on, guys!’ she called the dogs after her. There were few folk around this morning, but it was dull and misty so Linda wasn’t particularly surprised. Sensible people would wait for the sun to burn off the mist before braving the elements, besides, many of the dog walkers with whom she came into regular contact only appeared in the woods after the school run, or later in the day before the teatime chores were squared up to. No school runs for us, though, Linda said quietly to herself. At forty-two the sands of time had pretty much run out for Linda and Matt. No amount of IVF, dietary regimes or periods of intense sexual activity had made the slightest difference to her body’s flat refusal to conceive. Still, they had each other, the dogs, a nice house, Matt’s secure job in town. All in all, much to be thankful for.
Footsteps behind interrupted her reverie. She turned and acknowledged the half-grunted ‘morning’ as a cagouled shape walked by, green Wellingtons slapping on the muddy farm path. Not one of the regulars. And no dog. Linda deliberately slowed her pace to put a comfortable distance between herself and the stranger. She never worried about walking on her own, but it was wise to be vigilant. She stopped altogether at the next gap in the hedgerow to watch the mist rolling across the fields. It was a beautiful, almost other-worldly sight. A kite called mournfully for its mate somewhere high above and she felt a warm sweep of contentment. This was England, her England and no one would shift her from it. You could keep the holiday cottages in Tuscany and the South of France. This was her country and she loved it, whatever the weather. Pippa appeared at her feet, sniffing and whimpering. ‘What’s up, girl?’ She bent to stroke the spaniel’s head. ‘Where are the two B’s?’
She peered ahead, looking for the Boxers. No sign. That was unusual; they usually stuck together, never roaming too far as Pippa was prone to do.
‘Alf? Benny?’ She picked up her stride and followed the path away from the field into the woods. ‘Come on, guys, where are you?’ She rounded a corner where the path twisted away towards the chalk pits. Aha. Behind a tree. A flash of movement. ‘Alf?’
As she drew nearer, a shape detached itself from the shadows and blocked her way. The walker she had seen a few minutes ago. Or was it? The face was covered, didn’t look right . . . She drew back in alarm, looked around for her dogs. Where were they when she needed them? The mist was thicker here; for a moment she thought her imagination was playing tricks, but then she saw the figure again just ahead, standing perfectly still. It was shaped like a man, but – somehow it wasn’t right . . .
Linda’s heart was pounding. Should she turn and run? She felt the Boxers’ chain around her neck and her fingers went to unclasp it. The next moment something had reached out of the fog and caught her by the arm.
Linda pulled away with a strength born of sheer terror. She felt fingers grasping at her coat, a brief scrabbling resistance and then she was free, stumbling and flailing through the trees, branches whipping and stinging her face. Don’t look back, she told herself, don’t . . .
She ran until she felt as if her lungs would explode. Disoriented, she came to a halt, pressed her back against the trunk of a silver birch and scanned the woodland for signs of pursuit. The woods were eerily still. Where were the dogs? She daren’t call them. Calm, Lin, calm …Linda’s breath gradually slowed to something approaching normal. Where was she? In her headlong flight she had lost all sense of direction. She began to walk cautiously to where a gap in the trees suggested one of the many walker-trodden paths might intersect with her present location. And then she heard it: the soft crunch of leaves underfoot, the slow searching tread . . .
Oh no, please . . . Linda bent low, darted away into the undergrowth. After a few seconds she recognised where she was; close to one of the smaller chalk pits. She remembered an ancient tree perched on the edge of the pit, its roots forming a knotted cage beneath the lip. If she could find it, slip inside, curl up, cover herself with leaves . . . she almost stumbled over the edge of the pit in her terror. Where was the tree? Was it as she had remembered? Yes …there…
Half slipping, sliding down the chalk face she grabbed at the roots and checked herself. There was just enough space. Heart thumping she squeezed in and lay down in the nest of foliage, sweeping handfuls of leaves over her legs and torso. For a while there was no sound except birdsong, the occasional scamper of a rabbit or squirrel. Then she heard it. Slap, slap, slap . . . marking the perimeter of the chalk pit. She lay still, hardly daring to breath. The footsteps circled once, twice. And then receded.
Linda shivered. How long should she wait? A few minutes, maybe . . . what was that? Something skittering into the chalk pit, snorting, rooting around. A dog . . . oh no, no…
A wet nose appeared through the mesh of roots. A spaniel’s nose. No, Pippa. No . . . She reached for the dog but the bitch backed away, alarmed to find a large moving object half-buried in the mulchy floor of the chalk pit. Pippa barked, and barked again.
No . . .
Linda grabbed at the roots to extricate herself but a cold hand slid between them and caught her deftly by the leg. She screamed and tried to pull back but the grip was inexorable and her voice was muted by the mist. As she was dragged into the open she made a grab for the scarf hiding her attacker’s face but he was strong and strangely elusive, moving with an assured, swaying gracefulness. Her heart skipped in fright as she saw that his head was oddly misshapen, stubby, antler-like protrusions jutting from the skull … then he was behind her, twisting her arm, making her gasp at the sudden, shocking pain. She felt something snap and the pain intensified. Probing, abrasive fingers slid around her neck, squeezing and palpating her flesh. She kicked back once, twice, tried to catch hold of his clothing but he was quick, far too quick and her hands were left clutching at the empty air.
The pressure on her neck increased, her legs thrashed once, twice and then became limp as she gave in to the inevitable.
I’m going to die …
Linda felt resistance go out of her like the final sigh from a pricked balloon; she was floating now, embracing the darkness. Somewhere far away she heard the shrill, whistling call of the Kite as it plunged and dipped in the gusting thermals high above, searching intently for its prey.
You can pre-order Death Walks Behind You from the Kobo Bookstore