It was time.
He turned off the engine and rolled the car to a halt outside the large, white house, trusting the few people around at two am on a Thursday morning would fail to notice the same red Peugeot had already been round the block three times. He turned off the headlights, plunging the leafy, suburban street into a silvery semi-darkness.
Lowering the window half way, he paused to sniff the salty air, listening for the sound of approaching vehicles or late-night clubbers staggering back home. He looked up at the huge creamy disc of moon and smiled. A worm moon at this time of year. The moon was his constant. His light. His Grace. It energised him, made him feel stronger.
Adrenaline pumped through his bloodstream as he imagined the feel of smooth skin, the taste of hot sweat on his tongue. He took a drag on his cigarette. He had to stick to the plan, control the urge, and remain constant to his meticulous routine. He sucked harder. The car brightened with a brief orange glow, before he stubbed the butt into the ashtray. He took no risks. He knew about DNA. He knew his stuff.
Climbing out of the car, the creak of a hinge broke the silence on Hwfa Road. He paused again as a cloud crossed the moon, his scanning eyes as keen as a wolf’s. But the blackness was broken only by the sodium street lamps, shadows creeping across the ground in their world of orange luminescence.
Satisfied, he slid across the pavement and disappeared into the shrubs surrounding the semi-circular drive of the house. Clad in black, he knew he blended into the shadows as he crept around the side of the house, avoiding the crunch of the gravelled driveway.
He pulled a balaclava over his head and slipped on leather gloves. Minutes later, he studied the antiquated latch on the French windows at the rear of the building. He’d already visited the house during the day so he could find his bearings easily enough. His ally, the moonlight, reappeared, affording him more than enough light to work.
The latch gave way with a sharp crack and the French window swung open. With a slow smile, he stepped into the lounge of Apartment Four, Ty Mawr.
Edwina’s eyes snapped open. A noise had woken her. Somewhere close. Lifting herself onto her elbows, she tucked her hair back and strained to listen, trying to ignore the rapid thump of her heart.
With sudden realisation, she patted the duvet, searching for her book. She relaxed as she recognised the sound. Goddammit. She was always dozing off until her book hit the laminate floor. Tonight she’d read almost a whole Raymond Chandler novel. Insomnia – the curse of her life.
Edwina was finding Uni life tough. Their first year at Bangor Uni.; their first in student accommodation; their first away from home. Her best friend, Amy, had adapted to the change so much more easily. They’d been friends since primary school – had the same taste in clothes, music and men – but were very different. Amy was outgoing, carefree and flexible, while Edwina struggled to make friends, to fit in, to sleep.
With a grunt, she thumped her pillow into shape and buried her face in its cool comfort. Closing her eyes, her mind began to wander and she welcomed the familiar tug of sleep, creeping through her senses like an incoming tide. She stretched and turned onto her back, kicking the duvet to one side, and lay spread-eagled across the bed.
Something grabbed her throat, covered her mouth, forcing the taste of leather between her lips.
“Don’t scream,” a voice hissed next to her ear. “I have a knife.”
The pressure on her throat eased, and smooth steel pressed into her cheek.
“Make a sound and I’ll use it. Understand?”
Edwina swallowed and nodded, biting back the scream on her lips as she began to shake.
She couldn’t see him. But she could smell him: alcohol, cigarette smoke, stale sweat … and something else. Something she couldn’t define. She forced her brain to work harder, remembering from her love of crime novels, that even the tiniest detail might be important.
The hand left her mouth and she gulped air, straining to make out some feature in the blackness. Her first instinct was to yell and scream her lungs out. Was Amy home yet? Liam and Craig were on the other side of the thin partitioned wall. But she had felt that cold blade on her face. She kept her mouth shut, trying to think through her fear. Trying to keep her mind alert, to find a way out of this alive.
A tearing sound scattered her thoughts; a thick, sticky tape sealed her mouth. She sensed him moving to the bottom of her bed; the room streaked with pale moonlight as he pulled open a curtain. Light fell across the bottom half of the bed, and Edwina could see the paleness of her thighs and the edge of white panties. She lifted her knees and tugged down her t-shirt as far as it would go.
His silhouette was clear against the window, medium height and skinny all she could determine. He gazed down at her, seeming to take in every detail. She trembled and squeezed her eyes shut, covering her breasts with her hands. He bent and smoothed the hair from her brow and ran his fingers through the long black tresses strewn against her pillow. It was a tender gesture, but it filled her with pure dread.
She heard a grunt and felt the bed dip. No. No. No. Please, no. She squeezed her eyes tighter. Hot tears spilled down her cheeks. She concentrated on breathing evenly and braced herself for his touch. Instead, he grabbed her hands and held them together, in front of her stomach. More ripping noises and her wrists were bound with the same sticky tape. He dragged her to her feet.
“We’re going for a little ride, Edwina,” he whispered. She jumped at the sound of her name. She recognised for the first time the trace of a Welsh accent. “Don’t make a noise. Don’t try to be clever. If you do, I’ll kill you … and Amy too. Understand? Just for the fun of it.”
She started again at the mention of Amy’s name.
An open palm slapped her cheek. “Understand?”
She nodded, grunted through the tape.
As he pushed her along the hallway, the outdoor light crept along the corridor, and she turned to glance at him over her shoulder. She gave an involuntary yelp as she stared into a hideously-distorted face. He stared back, unblinking.
Just a mask, she realised. Why a mask? Did she know him?
“I said silence,” he hissed, pressing the knife hard into her ribs.
She lurched forward, grabbing hold of the patio window for support as she felt the sharp point break her skin. A warm trickle of blood oozed down to the waistband of her panties.
“Don’t piss me off. I won’t warn you again.”
Edwina nodded. There was no mistaking the menace in his voice.
The night air clung to her clammy skin, and gravel pierced the soles of her feet as he bundled her across the driveway, out onto the road. He stopped at a red car parked against the kerb, pulled open the rear door and pushed her inside head first. The car door slammed with an echo of finality. Edwina’s eyes watered as she fought waves of nausea.
Moments later, the engine revved and the car pulled away. Edwina lay awkwardly across the back seat, paralysed for several seconds, but finally forced herself to breathe normally, concentrating on each inhalation. She prayed for him to break the speed limit or jump a set of traffic lights, but he drove steadily, attracting no attention.
That strange smell hit her again, mixing with the smoky, musty atmosphere of the car. Then it came to her. Seaweed – salty dried seaweed. She could smell it at times from the house after a storm, or if she walked on Bangor Pier at low tide when the shoreline was drying out.
Every part of her body ached and her feet burned, but she needed to try and see where he was taking her. She pushed herself upright. The t-shirt had ridden up, exposing her more than ever. Vivid red stains covered her belly and underwear. Trembling violently from fear and cold, she glanced out of the window, searching for any chance of escape, any hope of assistance. Nothing. Her eyes filled with tears again, as familiarity slipped by.
Edwina met the cold, malevolent eyes of her abductor in the rear view mirror. Dear God, she said in silent prayer, let me come out of this alive.
Helen West woke with a start. Eyes wide open, she lay still. Had she been mistaken or had she heard the creak of her front door? As the only adult in the house, Helen had developed a sixth sense for night-time noises. She listened for the sound of breaking glass; the quiet tread of intruders.
Several seconds passed. A deep growl from the kitchen below filtered through the bedroom floor. Holly. The tap of claws on the stone tiles loud and persistent. Something had roused Holly from sleep. Something had upset her.
Helen threw back the duvet, found her slippers and tiptoed out onto the landing. Damp, chilly, night air crept up the stairs, and the instant she felt the drop in temperature, her heartbeat quickened, and she knew her suspicions were right. She leapt down the stairs two at a time.
The front door stood wide open.
“Hello.” Her fingers groped in the darkness for an umbrella she kept at the bottom of the stairs. “Hello, who’s there?”
Her heart thumped as she crept forward until she reached the open door.
“Oh my God!”
Helen bolted across the front garden and out onto the road. Her six-year-old son was walking, bare foot, the length of the centre white line. Dressed only in his striped pyjamas, fists clenched at his side, his vacant eyes stared straight ahead. The umbrella clattered onto the tarmac as she gathered his stiff body into her arms and hugged him tightly.
“Jake, sweetheart! What’re you doing? Dear God, you’re frozen.”
His eyes remained focused on some unseen object, staring off into the distance. Helen glanced over her shoulder but the road was empty; the swaying branches of the trees the only movement in the quiet street, casting dancing shadows between every streetlamp. The distant bark of a fox was the only sound that broke the silence.
Helen shuddered and settled him on her hip.
Jake lashed out with a stinging blow to the side of her head.
Her ear buzzed with pain. Momentarily blinded, her head swam as she steadied herself against a parked car, still holding him tightly, trying to contain his flailing arms.
He kicked and punched. “Let me go, let me go, let me go!”
“Shush, Jake. It’s okay, Mummy’s here.”
“Let me go!” Tiny fists pounded against her back. “I hate you! I hate you! Let me go!”
“Jakey, sweetie, it’s a nightmare. Calm down. Please! Stop fighting. You’re having another nightmare.”
“I can’t see. Let me go!”
“Oh Jake, please. Keep still, stop kicking.”
Helen struggled to hold onto his wriggling frame as he flailed and twisted. She half carried, half dragged him into the house, and kicked the front door closed. She sat on the bottom stair and cradled him, smoothing his hair and trying unsuccessfully to press his arms and legs against her.
“Come on baby, wake up. It’s a bad dream. Wake up, darling. You’re home. You’re safe.”
“Don’t hurt me. Don’t hurt me!”
“No one’s going to hurt you, baby. I’m here. Mummy’s here. It’s fine.”
It broke Helen’s heart to see his tiny face contorted with anger, struggling against the evil of the nightmare. Whatever demons Jake faced in his sleep, they were definitely getting worse.
Come on, Helen! Get a grip. Jake needs you now; he needs you to be strong.
“Please, wake up. Please. Come on Jakey, we need to get you back to bed, sweetheart. Wake up for Mummy, there’s a good boy.”
Jake muttered under his breath – a jumble of incoherent words. Every few minutes he let out a yell and his body stiffened. Each time he cried out, Helen’s heart grew heavier, until it felt like a boulder in the pit of her stomach. His breathing laboured. His mouth opened and closed as if he was drowning and gasping for air.
What if he stops breathing? What if he has a fit?
Afraid to wake him, yet even more scared to let him sleep, she caressed his shoulders.
“What are you saying, sweetie? Come on, wake up. You’re scaring Mummy now. Wake up, Jake! Oh, dear God, please wake up!”
Helen was on the verge of dialling 999, when Jake woke with a piercing scream. He clung to her; his sweat-soaked little body shaking as he sobbed. She stroked his hair and kissed his face, feeling wetness against her cheek as she embraced him. Her own eyes filled as she tasted his salty tears. She felt so helpless, such a bad mother to let her baby suffer like this.
“You’re safe, I’m here,” she whispered, rocking him, hoping she sounded more confident than she felt. “You’re fine.”
Fifteen minutes passed before Jake relaxed and his breathing became less ragged. Helen carried him up the stairs, relief washing over her.
“Are you okay now?” she whispered.
He nodded, drowsily.
“Do you remember what happened, baby?”
He shook his head, thumb creeping into his mouth.
“Just another nightmare. Nothing to get scared about, okay?”
He nodded and snuggled his face into her neck. “I’m sleepy, Mummy.”
“I know, Jakey. We need to get you into bed, but let’s change your pyjamas first. Look, they’re all dirty.”
Helen helped Jake into fresh nightclothes and dabbed a cold flannel on his feverish forehead. She watched as he dragged himself back into bed, rubbing his eyes with tiny fists. Without another word, he turned on his side and fell asleep, exhausted.
A single tear, the last remnant of the earlier deluge, slid from his eye, across his cheekbone, disappearing into his mop of blond hair. Gently, she wiped away its track, kissed his sweaty brow and tucked the duvet under his chin.
Helen paused at the doorway. Her son was sucking his thumb and snoring gently. His face, illuminated by the yellow glow of the night-light, looked angelic. His untidy dark blond hair, and pale lids flickering over blue eyes – were so like his father’s.
It was so unfair.
Helen sighed. I need a drink. In the bathroom, she glanced at the mirror as she splashed cold water onto her face. Her sharp features and grey eyes, dark with worry, made her face look gaunt. She wrapped her dressing gown around her, and pulled her long hair into a ponytail. Quietly, she made her way downstairs to the kitchen, glancing at the clock in the hallway as she passed – 2:40 am. She yawned and rubbed her eyes, imagining another day ahead bordering on exhaustion.
Thankfully, Jake never seemed to remember anything the following day, nor suffer any after effects. The nightmares had started three months earlier, but tonight they’d taken a more chilling turn. Jake had never sleepwalked before. Never left the house. Tonight he could have been abducted – or killed, so easily knocked down by a passing car.
Vivid images filled her mind. She pushed them away. She needed that drink.
Helen poured a double shot of vodka and added cold lemonade. She took a long, refreshing sip, feeling the mix of burning alcohol and icy fizz hit the back of her throat, gripping the glass tighter to steady her trembling hand. God, she hoped this hadn’t been triggered by the visit to the doctor yesterday.
A jolt of guilt added more weight to the rock in her belly.
It hadn’t been an easy decision to make the doctor’s appointment. Even after three years of it, she still hated the sympathetic smiles and the patronising words of comfort. Yes, she knew people wanted to be kind. Perhaps it simply hid their own inability to express their feelings; a cover for their own awkwardness. But it irritated the hell out of her. Doctors should know how to deal with such problems.
“Nightmares, you say?” Dr Dennis asked, after greeting her warmly. The doctor scanned Jake’s notes. “Ah, well, this kind of thing is not unusual following, erm …” He coughed, nodding in Jake’s direction.
“His father’s death,” she said.
“Well, erm, yes.” He looked shocked by her reply and fidgeted in his seat, glancing at Jake, who was reading a comic on a sofa in the adjoining room. He dropped his voice and added. “It’s a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. It can be particularly prevalent in children who lose a parent at an early age. Nightmares, panic attacks, are all common symptoms. As upsetting as I’m sure it is, Jake will grow out of this. And, unless absolutely necessary, I would prefer not to prescribe any form of medication at this stage.”
“I’m not asking for drugs. And I would believe all this post-traumatic stress stuff, but Mark has been dead for over three years, doctor. So why now?”
He shook his head. “It’s hard to say. Every case is different, because every one of us is different. We all handle grief in our own way. As I’m sure you understand, my dear.”
He leaned over the desk, and patted her hand. Helen slid her hand away, sucked in a sharp retort and affected a strained smile.
Dr James Dennis had been her GP since childhood, and must be near retiring age. His rotund frame and bushy white hair and beard gave him the look of an absent-minded professor. He wore wire-framed, half-moon spectacles and a permanently surprised expression.
Helen had a feeling she was about to surprise him some more.
“I’m sorry but I think that’s a load of crap, doctor.”
“I’m s … sorry?” He sat upright and adjusted his spectacles.
“I don’t think these nightmares are connected with Mark’s death. I think it’s an easy and pat excuse to blame every symptom, every problem, on it. And I won’t have Mark getting the blame for this.”
She felt her voice rise and her chest tighten. “You don’t know this, but even though he was only three when it happened, Jake understands his daddy is dead. He knows he’s gone to heaven. Yes, he misses him. But he accepts it. To him, it’s okay, because in his mind he will see him again one day. If anything, he’s handled the loss better than I have.” She paused for breath.
“I’m sorry, doctor, but I know my child. And I know that whatever’s causing these nightmares, it’s not Mark. And I’m sick of everyone using that as an excuse for –” Her voice trembled as she thumped the desk in time with each word, “every … single … thing.”
Tears burned as she twisted her hands in her lap.
“I’m sorry,” she muttered. “I’m sorry for wasting your time. We’d better go.”
She pulled Jake’s parka off the back of the chair and stood.
“Helen, sit down.” Dr Dennis spoke with quiet authority.
“I suppose you think I’m neurotic,” she said. “You think I’m the cause of Jake’s problems. You probably think I’m the one struggling to cope.”
She gulped. Please God, don’t let me cry.
“Helen, I don’t think that at all. I think both you and Jake have handled Mark’s death admirably. And I’m sorry if you think I’m using it as an excuse. I’m not. Truly, I’m not.” He paused and looked over his spectacles, staring Helen in the eye. “You know, I expected a visit after Mark died. I was there at the funeral. You looked so calm. I thought it was a front – fully expecting one day you’d crack and I’d see your name on my patient list. I didn’t. You’re a remarkable woman.”
“It’s not a case of being remarkable, doctor. I had Jake to think of. He needed me.”
“Yes, but you had lost your husband.”
He didn’t need to tell her that. Just because she hadn’t broken down as everyone expected her to, didn’t mean she wasn’t grieving. They hadn’t seen the endless hours alone in their marital bed; her body filled with a deep emptiness. Nights when she’d cried until her pillow was sodden and her eyes throbbed. Days when she could barely drag herself out of bed.
But she had Jake. It was simple – she had no choice.
Helen realised Dr Dennis was speaking and she’d missed most of what he’d said.
“…and if so, I’ll gladly arrange an appointment.”
“With the child psychiatrist. If you think it might help get to the bottom of things. I can refer you for an appointment.”
Helen took a deep breath. “Do you believe in reincarnation, doctor?”
He jolted in his chair and his unkempt eyebrows rose even higher.
“I don’t know that I do. Why?”
“Since before Mark’s death, Jake’s talked about another family. He calls them his Ireland Mummy and Daddy, and his Ireland brothers and sisters. He has vivid memories of this … let’s call it … a … past life. Mark believed in reincarnation, I’m not sure that I do. But these memories seem to be getting stronger. He talks more about them now than ever. I’m wondering if the nightmares may be connected.”
“This is not my field. Not at all.” He scribbled notes onto the pad in front of him. Glancing up, he added, “And you say this is an on-going thing. When did it start?”
“From about twenty months, pretty much as soon as he started talking,” Helen said. “Mark was fascinated – totally blown away by it. Just little comments to start with – like his other mummy had long, blonde hair and he had brothers who teased him. But now he describes the house they lived in; the black and white dog he calls Chi; he has a passion for boats that’s unaccountable. Lots of things. But it’s becoming more and more real to him, I’m sure of that.”
“Amazing.” Dr Dennis looked stunned as he continued to take notes. “I definitely think I should contact Paul Owen. Dr Owen is a leading children’s psychiatrist. I’m sure he would be interested in taking Jake on. And if anyone can help you and Jake, I’m positive it will be him.”
Helen drained the last of the vodka from the glass as she recalled the GP’s words. She leaned heavily against the kitchen unit, and stared up into the night sky. Thousands of stars glittered like tiny diamonds, lighting up the blackness. She had told Jake that Mark was one of them, looking down on them, and she held onto that belief.
Would Mark think she was doing the right thing?
She nodded, sure that he would. He’d been more open to things outside his understanding than she ever had. As she saw it, she really had little choice. Jake needed help, and this could be the answer.