Authors: Peter Labrow
For Ruth, Dave and Mike
This book simply would not be what it is without the enormous support I received from friends and family.
The biggest thanks go to Ruth, Dave and Mike who had to put up with me while I was writing this. But next in line has to be Claire Mooney, who gave me a much-needed initial kick up the arse. For Emma Clarke I reserve special thanks: her endless help, advice and encouragement helped to support this project from beginning to end.
Of course there’s also Claire Andrews, for providing the writer’s essential safety net and an excellent editing service.
Sven Carter, a police officer who became a family friend after the untimely death of Ruth’s brother, provided the essential insights into how a police search operates and how families respond to the stress of a loved one going missing.
I am also extremely grateful to those who read the early drafts and provided me with insightful and valuable feedback: Djamila Swindells, Emma Clarke, Gay Freeman, Jaycee Jewett, Kathy Lawton, Lizzy Russell, Rob Clarke – and, of course, Ruth. I can’t express enough thanks for how these readers helped to refine and shape this book.
Composition and illustration:
Original cottage photograph:
Martin R Mackenzie
Original well photograph:
Copyright © 2010 Peter Labrow
All rights reserved
The right of Peter Labrow to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
The characters, locations and situations in this book are entirely imaginary and bear no relation to any real person, place or actual events.
This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent publisher.
No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, scanning, recording on any information storage or retrieval system, without the prior permission in writing from the publisher.
Becca took a deep breath, cupped her hands around her mouth and screamed as loudly as she could, “Help!”
Her cry echoed around the inside of the well, but she doubted that it could be heard even just a dozen yards from the well’s mouth, around twenty feet above her.
She craned her neck back as far as she could and looked up, tottering slightly, pain shooting upwards from her ankle. The early evening sky was a bright disc at the end of a black vertical tunnel. Above her, she could see what remained of the metal grating, dangling at the top of the well.
She shouted again and her balance wavered. She instinctively reached out, steadying herself against the well wall, muddy water sloshing around her knees as she almost stumbled.
Beside her, Matt groaned. His breathing was an unnatural wet rasping sound. She knelt to face him, the cold water rising to her waist.
She tried as hard as she could to see how badly he was hurt, but her eyes hadn’t adjusted to the dark. Everything was reduced to being a series of vague shapes.
She shook him, carefully. “Matt!”
Matt’s head lolled against his shoulder and he let out a low, throaty moan. Trying to discover where he was hurt, Becca’s hands fumbled quickly over Matt’s body beneath the water. Her hands found metal; she caught her breath and her heart missed a beat. Part of the grille that had once covered the well’s mouth was protruding from Matt’s midriff. She felt around his body and was horrified to find that the metal had gone completely through him and was jutting out of his back.
Her own injuries seemed trivial. Although her right forearm hurt badly and the top of her head was throbbing like hell, she thought that they were probably just scuffed. Her side ached sharply where she had fallen onto the metal grating. Her knees, left shin and ankle also hurt, causing her to wince and falter as she stood again, looking upwards. Her shin was probably scraped; her ankle possibly sprained.
Becca yelled again and again, with a voice so loud and desperate it was as though she was trying to reach the whole world. No one was listening and she knew it. On a planet of over six billion people – and possibly just a few hundred yards from the nearest of them – Becca and Matt might as well have been on the moon. No one could hear. No one knew they were there.
Becca worked to fight back her growing panic. She inhaled deeply, trying but failing to bring her runaway breathing under control – before repeatedly slapping the well wall, half gasping, half sobbing in rhythm to her increasingly desperate smacks, “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!”
Somewhere above, a bird cawed.
“Fifty feet at least. Probably more.”
Becca shifted her weight, her bottom uncomfortable on the uneven stonework. What had survived of the old well wall varied in height between two or three stones – fewer in places – though the tens of stones that were strewn, half-hidden, around the overgrown grass suggested that it had once been at least half a dozen rows higher. She leaned her upper body tentatively over the edge – careful to keep a grip on the stones and balance her weight with her hips. She peered into the dark, straining her eyes. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t quite see the bottom: the inside wall of the well gradually became a dark, empty space about fifteen feet below her. The ancient, half-broken and somewhat battered metal grating that capped the well’s mouth didn’t seem to offer much in the way of protection. Deeply unnerved, she drew back and shook her head.
“No way,” she said, “It’s never fifty feet. Maybe not even thirty.”
Matt smiled – a knowing, superior smile – and dropped the stone that he had been holding at arm’s length. It fell neatly between the gnarled, rusty bars and instantly disappeared into the dark. Becca counted, in her head. Somewhere between “one” and “two” she heard a distant plop!
“See,” he said, “easily fifty feet.”
Becca shook her head, convinced that he was teasing her. “Nowhere near. I still think it’s way less than thirty feet. And you can’t prove it either way.” Despite herself, she couldn’t suppress the spoilt, childish tone in her voice. At fourteen (almost fifteen, as Becca would correct people when they mentioned her age), she considered herself to be more of a woman than a child – and self-consciously chided herself when her behaviour betrayed her youth. Especially when it was to Matt.
Becca eased herself down off the stones and sat beside her schoolbag on the warm, dry grass, her lower back resting against the ruined wall of the well. Matt dropped his backpack to the ground and sat next to her, his hip lightly in contact with hers. She considered shifting her weight towards him, ever so slightly, to make the contact more definite – but she didn’t want him to know that she either appreciated or encouraged his tentative overture.
He can wait
, she thought. She glanced at her watch – it was almost four-thirty. She was pretty sure that Mum and Jim would have left by now. But she wanted to be certain, so she and Matt had come to the well to pass an hour or so. (Becca knew that if she’d been at home to wave goodbye to her mother, she’d feel too weird to close the door and, well,
with Matt – especially since it would be her first time. It’d be as if her Mum was still there. They’d have the house to themselves for the whole weekend. She’d been putting Matt off for weeks; he could wait another hour.)
Matt took his cigarettes and lighter from his backpack and lit one without offering one to her. Smoking wasn’t the only thing Matt did that Becca didn’t like, but it was probably the worst. He drew deeply on the cigarette and exhaled. Becca pulled her knees up against her body and tried not to let her disapproval show.
It’s not that Becca didn’t
to smoke – after all, plenty of other kids did, though few of her closest friends – it’s just that she wanted her lungs to stay just the way they were, thank you very much. Becca didn’t excel at much, but she easily led the school swimming team – which somehow made up for the Cs and Bs she otherwise struggled to get. Petite, with a light build that seemed made for cutting through water, she could, by quite a margin, swim further and faster than anyone in the school – including old Stubbs, the sports teacher. Despite her size, she was strong and could be very determined – able to keep pushing herself when her body was aching to stop. She amazed people by swimming under water for minutes at a time, looking serene on the outside – but on the inside forcing herself on. (Her record was just under four minutes, which had taken
of practice.) Being the school’s best swimmer made her
Becca the fish
: not exactly great, but better and cooler than being
, which is what she’d been called until year five.
“I don’t like this place,” she said, shivering slightly despite the warm breeze. “It’s creepy.”
Matt looked into her eyes. “You only think it’s creepy because you’ve been told it’s creepy.” He took another long pull on the cigarette. “I like it.”
The breeze blew Becca’s fine dark hair across her face and she absently brushed it away. “Why?”
He smiled. “No one comes here. Where else do we get to be properly alone?”
Becca felt herself flush and hoped it didn’t show. “Someone might come.”
Matt sighed and put his arm around her, pulling her close.
“It’s OK,” he said, “you know no one comes here.”
He tilted his head and their hair gently touched, though their heads barely connected. Becca wanted to kiss him but really wished he hadn’t lit the cigarette. Yet, to her, the moment still felt almost electric.
Matt didn’t quite feel the same way. Sure, he was turned on to an extent he couldn’t believe – and having to work very hard not to screw things up. After all, he’d invested a lot of time in Becca. For starters, he’d lied – he wasn’t a virgin. What’s more, the one girl he’d had sex with, Natalie White, had been drunk at the time and didn’t exactly qualify as willing. The (very brief) sex hadn’t been great – but Becca was just about to give it all up, non-stop for a whole weekend, and all he’d had to do was be nice to her and tell a few small lies. Of course, being nice was easier now that he lived over forty miles from his mates (something about which his father was
pleased). No, he didn’t want to push things and end up blowing his chances with Becca, although he did have a packet of condoms in his pocket just in case she wanted to start early; he knew
Just turned sixteen, Matt was a boy at a turning point in his life – “difficult” was how he’d been described by his English teacher, who was being both diplomatic and charitable. If he worked at it, Matt could probably change, but the decisions he made almost always pointed in the same direction: bad. For instance, he had considered that having sex with a clearly underage Becca might be wrong (wrong enough to keep his desires to himself: even if he did score with Becca he doubted that he’d brag about it). Becca might be almost fifteen, but her build was that of someone almost two years younger. But he easily dismissed these feelings – if no one knew about it, then what’s the problem? He also knew that he would be
pissing on his own doorstep
, as the saying went. If things went bad, his life could become very unpleasant.
, he thought,
things won’t have to go bad
. Matt guessed that he could keep Becca warm for months, maybe until he left home – which he planned to do as soon as he could. He doubted she’d ever tell anyone, just because of what her friends and mother would think of her.
Becca didn’t know anything about Natalie White, but she was aware that Matt used to have some pretty unpleasant friends and had a reputation for solving problems with his fists. But Becca believed that was the old Matt; that he’d changed once he and his Dad had moved in with her and Mum. When her Mum and Jim had first been dating, Matt had been pretty cool towards her, but he seemed to have warmed once they all lived under one roof. Matt had been interested in her; attentive even. And so, talking had turned to friendship; friendship to flirting; flirting to kissing; kissing to petting. Becca didn’t know if it was
the real thing
, but it did seem like
a good thing
– and she absolutely enjoyed her first experience of male attention. No one else had noticed their relationship develop – after all, they were almost brother and sister.