Susi (S.J.I) Holliday grew up in East Lothian, Scotland. A life-long fan of crime and horror, her short stories have been published in various places, and she was shortlisted for the inaugural CWA Margery Allingham prize. She has written three crime novels set in the fictional Scottish town of Banktoun, which are a mix of detective, mystery and psychological thriller with a hint of dark gothic noir. They are: Black Wood, Willow Walk and The Damselfly - all featuring the much loved character, Sergeant Davie Gray. Her latest book, "The Deaths of December", featuring Detective Sergeant Eddie Carmine and Detective Constable Becky Greene was released as a Christmas serial killer thriller in November 2017.
Prologue & Chapter 1
He spots the two girls through the cracked screen of beech, sycamore and leg-scratching gorse: a flash of red skirt and a unison of giggles.
He waves a hand behind him, silently gesturing for the other boy to stop walking.
They hunker down behind a giant felled oak, and watch. The one with the red skirt sits astride a rusty water pipe that juts out through the hard-packed mud on either side of the burn. Her long, skinny legs dangle like the branches of a weeping willow, her sandalled feet almost skimming the water that bubbles beneath.
‘Come on, scaredy-cat!’
Her face is turned in the direction of the far bank, watching the path that runs down the side of the neat little row of square seventies housing where all the nice families live with their panel-fenced back gardens and their rabbit hutches and their Swingball sets. Where the other girl stands: shorter, plumper and dressed in denim dungarees and a pair of blue wellingtons.
‘I can’t. It’s too fast.’
The water is high from the rain that has barely stopped for weeks. The ground is soggy, and the boys’ footsteps have disturbed the mulch on the floor of the wood, releasing a stink that reminds him of clothes that’ve been left too long in the washing machine mixed with the tang of fresh grass from the bucket on his dad’s lawnmower.
He hears the snap of a twig close behind him and whirls round.
‘Ssssh, you idiot. Don’t let them hear us.’
The other boy mumbles a sorry.
The girl with the red skirt turns back to face the wood and he holds his breath, desperate not to make a sound. She frowns and shakes her head and dark little curls bob around her face. She is younger than he is. A couple of years. Maybe the same age as the pudgy-faced one in the dungarees, but even from this distance he can tell she’s going to be a heartbreaker before long. He stares at the long bare legs straddling the pipe and feels the stirring in his trousers that’s becoming increasingly familiar.
The other girl takes a tentative step towards the pipe.
‘I’m not going over it like you,’ she says haughtily. ‘I’ll get my dungarees dirty.’
The other girl lets out a dirty little laugh and shuffles over to the end of the pipe, then leans forward and grabs the protruding roots of the ancient oak that overhangs the waterway. As she pulls herself up, the front of her baggy T-shirt gapes open and he strains his eyes to see what’s concealed beneath. The other one steps onto the pipe and, with arms outstretched like a tightrope walker, slowly makes her way across, until she is close enough to grab onto her friend’s outstretched hand.
He waits until they are both safely away from the bank before he grabs the sleeve of the other boy and they both stand up. The smaller girl sees them first and she lets out a strange little squeak and jumps back, grabbing onto the other girl’s T-shirt, revealing a flash of milky-white shoulder.
The routine calmed me. Smoothing an eyebrow upwards, pulling the skin taut, gripping a wiry little hair between sharp metal pincers.
A little nugget of pain. Just for a moment.
Sometimes, if it was a particularly deep-rooted hair, or if I’d dug in just a little too hard, a little bubble of blood would form: a dark, shiny pearl. When that happened, I’d stop for a minute and just stare at it until it sealed itself over before I continued.
I placed the hand mirror and the tweezers by the side of the bed and kicked off the tangled sheets; the movement caused a waft of fetid air to puff out from the bedding. My stink, mixed with Scott’s. His imprint burned into the sheets.
Sun was streaming through the blinds; the only sound was the persistent whine of next door’s dog. I knelt up on the bed and stared out of the window. Bob the terrier was sporting his usual ridiculous red bow. The barking had always annoyed me, but I knew I was going to miss that silly little dog. I watched him for a moment, running about on the small patch of lawn, sure that he preferred that to being carried in Mrs Goldstone’s oversized shopping bag. No animal liked to be trapped.
I glanced around the room, at the piles of clothes and half-packed suitcases. The wine glass by the bed, tinged with red. The big green numerals on the alarm clock taunted me. Seven fifty-eight . . . -nine. I couldn’t put it off any longer.
‘Bob, come on, baby – breakfast’s ready . . . Bob? Where are you, Bob?’
Her shrill voice penetrated my already banging skull. I slid off the bed and crouched low. I didn’t want her spotting me. Bridie Goldstone would have a field day when she found out I’d gone.
Scott would be inundated with offers of home-cooked meals and his washing put on. She’d think it was me who left him. I could hear her now: ‘I always thought she was a bit flighty, that one.’ She had me all wrong though. She had no idea how I felt about Scott. It’s just that sometimes I wasn’t very good at showing it. I was grateful, though. Grateful that he’d gone and left me to pack up my three years’ worth of things with a little bit of dignity.
I plucked jeans and a T-shirt from the floor. The T-shirt looked dark under the armpits, but a quick sniff said I’d get away with it. Just. I smoothed my hair down over my ruined eyebrow, had a quick squirt of body spray. It’d have to do. On the way out of the bedroom I caught a glimpse of my gran’s watch, lying on top of a pile of books. It was the only jewellery I wore. I slid the old-fashioned bracelet over my wrist, pressed it against my chest. The clasp clicked weakly into place and I felt that familiar shiver telling me she was close, watching over me. My other hand was occupied with hitting speed dial on my phone.
I was downstairs in the kitchen by the time he answered. The blind was closed, and the sunlight pressing against it gave the dark cabinets a thick marmalade hue. I’d planned to sand and paint them. Yellow, maybe, in attempt to brighten the place up. To brighten us up. Too late now.
‘It’s me. Can you pick me up please? I’ve got some bags and stuff . . .’ My voice came out muffled, as if I had a bad cold.
‘Jo? Are you crying?’
Shit. I needed to hold it together. ‘No. I’ve got the flu or something. Can you come and get me?’
‘Maybe you should stay in bed. I don’t want to be catching anything and . . .’
‘Craig! Please . . . I’m . . . I’ve . . . Look, Scott’s kicked me out, OK? I need you to take me to . . .’ I hesitated for what I hoped was the right amount of time. ‘To Claire’s . . .’
I heard the sound of keys jangling and a door being slammed shut. ‘I’m on my way,’ he said, ‘and Jo?’
I sniffed. ‘What?’
‘You’re coming to mine. No arguments.’
I pressed the button to end the call and slid down the dishwasher door onto the kitchen floor. Thank God for that. I was worried that the bluff would backfire and I’d be dropped at Claire’s doorstep ready to be greeted by her ‘Well I don’t really want you to be here but I’m not going to say that’ face, having to pretend I couldn’t see her parents’ disapproving faces peeking out from behind their twitchy curtains in the house next door. I still remembered that day I turned up on their doorstep a month after Claire had come home. We were eleven, and our lives had been turned upside down. We needed each other. So that we could try to make sense of it all.
‘I just want to see her,’ I’d begged, my voice thick with tears.
‘Stay away from her, Joanne. She doesn’t need friends like you.’
(C) SJI Holliday 2018
© Paul Kane 2003-2018. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.