The first 5 chapters…
Prologue: Ten Years Later
The night was still and very dark, a lonely darkness untainted by street lamps or shop lights. Nothing moved or made a sound, it was as though the creatures of the night knew something strange was afoot and were holding their breath. Through skeletal trees and scudding clouds the cold blue of the winter moon cast brittle shadows. Snaking through the loamy soil, a thin stream trickled and gurgled in the silence. A narrow path ran along the edge of the stream, a flattened line of grass rarely trodden, but in the wetness of the soil were footprints leading upstream. They followed the water until the woodland gave way, the trees stopping abruptly in the face of a wall that loomed as tall as a tower block, filling the valley through which the river wound.
From a concrete-lined sluice near the base of the wall, a steady flow of water emerged, falling into a pool where it bubbled and foamed before overflowing and becoming the stream. Beyond the wall, hundreds of thousands of gallons of murky water hung in the dammed valley, dark depths, weed strewn and treacherous, pressing against the obstruction.
From the darkness of the sluice came scraping sounds. A man emerged from the round opening, soaking wet and breathing hard. He dangled his legs over the edge of the pipe’s opening and then pushed himself off, landing with a splash in the pool. In his left hand he held a reel of cable which trailed back into the darkness. Reaching up to the outer rim of the sluice he found a small black plastic box with a switch on its surface. Carefully he attached the cable in his hand to an opening in the back of the box.
The man was dressed in black combat trousers, a black polo neck and army boots. On his back he wore a dark, waterproof knapsack. His clothes shone in the moonlight where the water had soaked in, clinging to his thin muscular body.
Pausing for a moment he looked to the star scattered sky. A section was obscured by a strip of blackness, unmarked by the glittering pin pricks, a wooden bridge supported at either end by tall towers. The valley that the bridge traversed was narrow, no more than forty feet wide, but it had steep sides. It would have been beautiful if it had not been amputated, blocked by the huge dam from which the man had climbed.
He splashed through the pool, unconcerned by the noise, and stepped onto the bank. He settled, took one look up at the wall, and then flicked the switch.
From deep within came a concussion, a rumble spreading out in a wave and shaking the earth. There was the briefest moment of silence and then came the sound, a deep throated roar of anger. The earth jolted, shook, and a burst of dust exploded from the sluice, followed by a gout of water that spewed into the pool.
All became still, as before, the stream trickling and gurgling.
It was as though nothing had happened.
The man remained motionless. From deep within the wall came a tearing sound, slow and agonised. A bulge appeared high on the face of the dam, the stonework crazing and cracking.
The man scrambled to his feet and started to run.
The Darkest Hour
It had been Mike’s idea and he had kept reminding Joe of the fact until things started to go wrong, then it had gone from being ‘my’ plan to ‘our’ plan. That was typical of Mike, Joe thought, always taking the credit, never taking the blame. They were both in real trouble but despite being more scared than he had ever been in his life, Joe was amazed to find that he still had enough room in his quavering heart to feel annoyed with his best friend.
It had still been dark when they had set out that morning. Joe had pedalled through the silent town, his long legs clad in the cut off Levis that he thought made him look a bit French. His Nike trainers, flashes of white in the darkness, pumped away, turning the pedals, his tyres whirring on the cold tarmac of the road.
The air was chilly, pure and motionless, he saw a cat run across the road and a light go on in an upstairs window but apart from that it was as if he was cycling through a ghost town. He had never been up so early before and was enjoying the eerie stillness of the chilly black morning. The moon hung above him, its white luminosity bathing the town in a frigid light. The sky was clear and the stars glittered more brightly than Joe had ever seen before. It was so beautiful he shivered.
Joe’s dad had always been promising to take him out into the countryside to see ‘real darkness’, darkness where you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. Joe’s dad was from the west coast of Scotland, miles from anywhere, where it got really dark.
It was from his dad and from Scotland that Joe got his red hair, pale skin and freckles. Joe loved his dad and his dad always meant what he said, it was just that he didn’t often to get around to doing what he had promised to do. Joe had still never seen real darkness despite his dad making the promise over a year ago.
As Joe pedalled around the corner of Castle Street and Vicarage Lane he was disappointed to see that Mike was already outside the church where they had arranged to meet. He was sitting on the churchyard wall, blowing into his hands to keep warm. He was wearing jeans and a maroon sweatshirt with a small Lonsdale logo over the heart. A blue woolly hat was jammed on his head from under which bubbled the curls of his sun streaked blond hair. It wasn’t that Mike wanted it long, it was just that it wasn’t cut very often. Mike’s mother said that she had better things to spend her money on than a hair cut. She said that it did him a favour by covering his face, but she only said that because she knew that Mike was really quite handsome and could take a few insults about his appearance, or so she thought.
Unlike Joe, Mike never wore a bike helmet, he said that he wasn’t a nerd and that he was too cool for a helmet.
“Yeah, you’ll look really cool with brain damage, soup dribbling out of the corner of your mouth,” Joe had retorted.
The two boys were always mocking each other but neither one took it seriously. They knew it was almost always a joke, and when it wasn’t, well, then they really knew it wasn’t.
When he saw Joe approaching, Mike waved and leant across to where his bike was propped against the church wall. He rang his bell as though worried Joe might not see him in the dark.
“Told you I’d get here before you,” he called. His voice had only broken a few months before and had a slightly awkward deepness to it like a man who is wearing a coat he’s not sure fits properly, tugging at its sleeves and shrugging his shoulders, unsure of how it’s hanging on him, worried that he might look foolish.
Joe’s voice had broken when he was eleven years old and now he sounded like a man; he was often mistaken for one on the phone, something he took pleasure in without admitting it. He was also one of the only boys in the year that had to shave every day. All Mike could manage was wispy blond fluff across his upper lip.
Joe grunted at Mike, annoyed but trying to hide the fact. It was five minutes before they’d agreed to meet and Joe had been certain that he’d get there first.
It was always the way, somehow, whatever they did, Mike always came out on top; he got better results in tests, he scored higher on computer games, he got in the funny comment that made everyone laugh before Joe even had a chance to begin thinking about what might be funny in a situation. Mike was sharp. Try as he might, Joe couldn’t think of one thing that he could do better, other than grow facial hair, and girls weren’t impressed with that. Mike was even better looking; the girls gave Mike pearly smiles, giggled at his jokes and flirted. Amy Baird, who Joe liked most out of all the girls in Year 9, flushed an alarming scarlet whenever Mike talked to her. Mike had the sort of hair that all the girls wanted to touch. Joe’s hair was curly too, but, of course, it was a deep Scottish auburn – kids called him ‘Ginge’ when they wanted to be cruel – and Joe kept it cut short to stop it growing as it did, upwards and outwards in an afro style, not like Mike’s which flowed down in casual waves and made him look like a surfer.
To someone who didn’t know any better it might seem that Mike had it all. Joe knew better, he knew that Mike didn’t have it all, far from it. Hardly anybody at school knew, but there were things in Mike Werneria’s life that no one would want in theirs.
As he had ridden up to Mike, Joe had been glad to see that he wasn’t smoking. Sometimes Mike would steal them from his dad’s jacket and try to get Joe to try one but Joe had always resisted so far. ‘You’ll look cool with cancer,’ he’d say to Mike. Mike was always more interested in looking good than thinking about his safety or his future, he didn’t seem capable of looking more than a day ahead. It was what made him fun, but it was also what made him a little dangerous, both to himself and others around him.
Dawn’s first light was beginning to bleed out across the darkness of the sky. The sun was just beginning to crest the distant hills. It was amazing how quickly it had gone from moon-lit darkness to a pale half-light. The birds were beginning to sing in an ecstasy of chirping.
“Did you bring a jacket?” Joe asked, pointing up at the red clouds on the eastern horizon.
Mike’s gaze followed Joe’s finger up to the sky.
“Yeah,” he replied, shrugging. “Why?”
“Red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning. It’s going to rain.”
“Is it bollocks,” Mike scoffed. “The man on the news last night said it would be sunny all day.”
Joe thought that perhaps the clouds were warning them about something else, something worse, but it seemed a stupid thought so he didn’t say it, even as a joke. Joe’s jokes didn’t always come off, unlike Mike’s. Instead he pointed towards Mike’s bike.
“Come on then,” he said. “Let’s go. We’ve twenty five miles to do before ten o’clock.”
Mike jumped off the wall and moved to his bike, slinging his bag across his broad, muscular shoulders as he did so. He saddled up, brought his bike around level with Joe’s and then with a crunch of gravel they moved out into the road. Both of them rose from their saddles and pumped at their pedals, quickly picking up speed, racing one another, neither one wanting to be second.
Within ten minutes they had passed the last of the housing estates and The Royal George pub that marked the edge of town and were on the main road, the road that led to their distant destination. As the sun climbed slowly into the summer sky they chattered about the coming day.
Little did they know that before very long they would both be praying that they would live to see another.
Mike Werneria was of the opinion that Stonebridge was the most boring town in Britain. In fact, he often said, if London was the head of Britain then Stonebridge was the arsehole.
Joe didn’t agree, he quite liked Stonebridge, even if it was a bit sleepy and boring. It gave them the chance to make things up for themselves, nothing was laid on for them like it was for city kids. ‘Nothing’s going to happen if you don’t make it happen. If you don’t like the news, go out and make your own,’ Joe’s dad often said whenever Joe had complained about being bored, and he should know, coming from the remote part of Scotland that he did.
A river ran sleepily through what used to be the centre of Stonebridge and then under the old mill. There the steadily moving weight of the water drove the paddles of the big wheel that had driven the mechanism inside the building. Inside the machinery helped in the manufacture of paper products that the Frayne family who owned the mill had packaged up and delivered to stationers across the country. In fact the river still drove the big wheel, it just didn’t drive anything inside anymore; the mill had closed down many years before and the mechanism had been disengaged so that the wheel revolved pointlessly, a picturesque diversion for the few tourists who passed through the town.
Nowadays the people who lived in Stonebridge commuted to the nearest big city or worked in the slaughterhouse or the industrial estate on the edge of town. There was very little work in the town itself, just the supermarket and the few remaining independent shops.
Apart from the old High Street, which looked like something from a postcard Stonebridge was little more than a housing estate with a couple of pubs and the occasional rank of shops. There was no cinema, no bowling alley and no burger bars, all there was, was an expensive sports centre and a park with two tatty old swings, a climbing frame and a slide that your jeans stuck to half way down.
It was quite boring Joe had to admit when he thought about it, even if you did have an imagination. Of course boredom and imagination weren’t always a good combination and Joe and Mike had often got themselves into trouble in the pursuit of amusement.
Stonebridge was just big enough to have its own secondary school, Millfields, and that was where Joe and Mike went. They were both in the same Year 9 tutor group and it had been during a particularly boring English lesson with Mr Quinte that the big idea had been born.
Mr Quinte had been droning on about angels when Mike had leaned over and whispered into Joe’s ear. He then shoved the leaflet that had dropped through his letter box the previous evening across the desk. Joe recognised it immediately, he had received the same one on his own door mat. The boys mistakenly assumed that the leaflet was a part of an advertising campaign and that everyone had received one.
What neither boy had realised was that they were the only people in the town to have received the leaflet.
As soon as Mike had announced his plan Joe had agreed, it was incredible, audacious and a little dangerous. They would certainly be in a lot of trouble if their parents ever found out, but nevertheless, Joe was never in any doubt that they should do it and do it as soon as possible.
The long summer holiday was only a week away and so while Mr Quinte blathered on about some islands off the coast of Ireland, Joe and Mike made notes in the backs of their books about what they needed to do to get their plan to work.
By the time the school day was over it was agreed, they would each tell their parents that they were going camping with a third friend, Billy Fisher, who was actually away on holiday in America for a month. If their parents tried phoning Billy’s parents, which they wouldn’t because they didn’t know them – Billy had only moved into the area at Christmas – there would be no reply and so they would phone the other boy’s parents who would confirm the story, or at least what they knew of it.
It was genius, a genius plan, dreamt up by a genius, Mike had said. Joe had just grunted but he was certainly excited about the prospect of what lay in store.
And so it was when they shut their front doors behind them – their parents safely in bed and still asleep, not realising that their boys were leaving on their ‘camping trip’ so early – that Mike and Joe headed off on what they thought would be a journey of fun and adventure, but in fact, would turn out to be a journey into terror.
Somewhere, not so very far away from Stonebridge, sat a man on a chair in a cold lonely room. His head was bald but for wild greying hair at the back and sides that stood out from his narrow skull. His crooked eyebrows bushed out in crazed tangles over his flinty grey eyes.
On a wooden table in front of him was a bowl carved from the trunk of a tree that had died over two hundred years ago. In the bowl was water, pure clear water, but water that had been drawn from a special source, a source unlike any other.
The man gazed into the bowl and beneath the gently rippling surface of the water strange images moved as though emerging from the darkness of the wood, tricks of the light in the shifting of the liquid.
Only these weren’t tricks of the light and there was nothing in the water at all. Something was there though, images, but images that only the man could see, images that came from a place that only few could summon.
Had anyone else peered over the man’s shoulder at that moment they should have wondered why he was staring into a wooden bowl filled to the brim with nothing but water.
The man chuckled, a low mirthless sound, a sound not of joy but of satisfaction.
He had been watching them, watching the two of them for a long time, ever since they had visited the year before. Time had passed and all the while he had been planning, plotting a way to conjure them into his web. When he was ready he put his plans into action and in the ancient bowl he had watched them receive the information that he had sent in the post.
The invitation to come and join him.
Not that they had known that it was an invitation when they had received it. It had seemed like an ordinary leaflet advertising an attraction.
Nothing was clear to these boys, they had no idea what was happening, of the plans that were being drawn against them.
It hadn’t mattered that the boys didn’t realise that it wasn’t an invitation, they had received it, they had read it, and now they were coming.
The man laughed again, a pitiless sound like winter rain running down a storm drain.
Under deeper water, much deeper water, so deep that the light barely filtered through the floating algae, something moved. Something large and very old. It shifted its bulk and sent up a cloud of silt and organic matter that had floated down through the depths.
The creature hadn’t moved in a very long time. It hadn’t eaten in a very long time. And now it was hungry.
It opened one eye, a huge yellow eye.
“We’ll need to take jumpers. It could get cold in the night,” Mike had said earlier that week. He had been lying on Joe’s bedroom floor as they had planned their trip. “And we probably won’t have any cover.”
“Yeah,” added Joe. “And if it’s warm we can just use our jumpers as a pillow.”
Now that they were on the move a thought occurred to Joe, what would they use for pillows if it wasn’t warm?
Other items in their bags were torches, bottled water, and anoraks. It would be a rough night’s sleep without blanket above or mattress beneath but that was how it had to be, where they were going they were going without permission. It gave them both a delicious thrill, the thought of doing something wrong, of getting one over on someone else, of getting something for nothing. And what harm would it be doing anyone? And what was the worst thing that could happen if they did get caught? After all, they could only be thrown out, couldn’t they?
It hadn’t occurred to either of the boys that getting caught was by no means the worst thing that could happen to them.
The day was opening before them like a blossoming flower, the sky growing lighter and warmer, ripening to an orange glow.
As they cycled on they passed ancient churches, old manor houses, slowly crumbling mile stones, their numbers and names fading with the centuries of wind and rain. Birds darted overhead and mist hung in low valleys as they pedalled along the roads that clung to the edges of the slopes, dipping and rising with the contours of the ancient landscape, the same landscape that the Romans had seen, thought Joe, as he imagined the legions marching across the hills.
It was a tough ride, a lot of hills, but both Mike and Joe were fit. Living in Stonebridge there wasn’t much to do so bike riding was something that they found themselves doing a lot.
As the sun climbed higher the numbers of cars on the road increased as people began to make their way to work. The boys found that they had to ride single file, there simply wasn’t enough room on the road to ride two abreast, and as a result they were less able to talk. It didn’t matter though because as the road got steeper they didn’t have the breath to spare.
Mike didn’t like silence, he always wanted to fill it with a joke or just some meaningless chatter. Silence meant that he started thinking, and when he started thinking then bad thoughts appeared in his head, thoughts that made him sad and made him angry, thoughts that scared him as well. Whatever was going to be on offer today couldn’t scare him, he thought, nothing could be as bad as what he had to live with. Mike wished his family could be like Joe’s, Joe’s family were so calm, so boring.
Joe, on the other hand, was glad his family were boring. As he rode along – behind Mike of course, Mike always had to take the lead – he thought about Mike’s dad and how glad he was that his dad didn’t get angry like Mike’s had, angry over the smallest thing.
Once Joe had called around and Mike had come to the door with red eyes and a bruise on his left cheek. Joe hadn’t said anything but later that morning Mike had asked Joe if he thought it was possible to want to kill someone you loved. Joe had been shocked but had covered up his reaction and said that he wasn’t sure, maybe if it was to put them out of their misery. Mike had nodded and stared at the ground. Then he had farted and the pair of them had cracked up laughing. Their laughter was relief more than anything else, relief at not having to carry on looking at an ugly truth.
Not long after that – Joe couldn’t believe it was only three months ago, it seemed like much more time had passed – Mike’s dad had been killed in a car crash. A lorry had skidded in the rain and jack-knifed in front of his car. Joe wondered if Mike felt guilty about what he’d said that day, or if maybe he was just relieved he was gone. It was hard to tell what Mike was thinking at the best of times, but when it came to his dad Joe had even less idea.
Joe and Mike talked about almost everything usually, but for some reason Mike’s dad was the one thing they never talked about. It was a subject that sat there like a skeleton propped on the corner of a settee that everyone can see but prefers to ignore, they just avoid sitting in that particular corner. Joe wondered if it might not be better to point out the skeleton and then get it good and buried, but he could never think of how to bring it up. Joe couldn’t imagine how awful it would be if one of his own parents died, he didn’t even want to think about it. He knew Mike missed his father – ever since he had died he’d worn his dad’s gold necklace with its little golden cross – but he also suspected that Mike’s life was in many ways better without him around. Joe had thought about Mike’s feelings a lot since the accident and he was pretty sure he knew what was going on in his friend’s head. He was grieving because he loved his dad, but he was relieved he was gone, almost happy, and for that he felt guilty. Mike seemed so lucky in so many ways – looks, sporting ability, brains – but Joe knew him better, he knew he didn’t like himself very much, and now, since his father was dead, he feared that Mike was beginning to hate himself.
By quarter past eight both boys were getting tired and so they pulled off the main road and pedalled their bikes for the quarter of a mile that led into the middle of a village that Mike said he knew. Apparently there was a gunsmiths there and his dad had taken him along on a couple of occasions when he had gone to buy shotgun shells.
The road into the town centre opened up into a huge pie slice of cobble stone where in the past a market would once have taken place, all hustle and bustle of stalls and shouting, but where now white painted rectangles were lined up neatly next to one another to show where cars should park. For now though it was almost empty.
Higgledy-piggledy buildings, all of them built by men long dead, lined each side of the market place. In the middle of the car park was a sand stone column atop of a plinth of steps. Carved into the side were the names of the boys and men who had died in both world wars.
Mike and Joe dismounted and leaned their bikes against the sandstone steps, then took off their bags and sat down, drinking from their water bottles and watching the few cars that went past.
Mike took off his sweatshirt and stuffed it into his bag. He sat there flexing the muscles in his arms and Joe could tell that he had been working out with his brother’s weights again. Mike went through stages of body building which would last for a couple of months at a time. He would down protein drinks and his size would increase impressively only to subside again when he gave up and a growth spurt stretched him out and slimmed him down again.
Joe was amused to see that Mike was picking at a spot on his chin that appeared to have been covered with some sort of make up. Despite the temptation to ridicule Mike, Joe decided not to say anything. He didn’t want to spoil the pleasant air of excitement and comradeship that he felt between them as they sat there in the cool morning sun.
“Have you noticed Lorraine Abbott?” asked Mike expressionlessly.
Joe laughed into his drink.
“I know. They’re getting massive.”
“She could do with a new blouse. She’s bursting out of the one she’s wearing at the moment.”
“I know. It’s great.”
“Imagine what they’ll be like at the end of the summer holidays!”
“I know. You should have seen her the other day. She was playing netball and they were flying about all over the place.”
They both laughed and for a moment there was an easy silence between them.
“Isn’t it nice to see everyone going to work,” said Mike. “And us here, free as birds. They’ll be stuck inside, stuck at a desk and staring out of the window while we’ll be out having a laugh.”
Joe nodded and Mike went on.
“It makes it everything sweeter, I reckon, if you’re having fun while other people aren’t.” He paused, watching a Porsche drive past. “It’s like being in prison, having to go to work or going to school.”
Mike paused for a moment, contemplating the weight of his own words and Joe realised that it wasn’t a good moment to offer his own opinion.
“I want to make loads of money and retire early,” Mike went on. “Enjoy life. I’d never get bored. You’ve just got to have good ideas. Something to spend your money on. Don’t you reckon?”
“Yeah,” Joe said. “Life could be one long summer holiday.”
There was a pause as they drank from their bottles and then Mike spoke again.
“It’s like I said, having fun is always better when someone else isn’t having it, don’t you reckon?”
Joe nodded, squinting into the sun.
“Suppose so. It’s a bit sick though, isn’t it.”
“Yeah,” Mike replied and they both laughed.
“You know,” said Mike. “If I won the lottery I’d never be bored again in my whole life.”
“Obviously,” said Joe, shoving a chewing gum into his mouth.
“No,” said Mike, shaking his head. He turned to Joe and spoke as though to an idiot. “It’s not obvious. You read it about it all the time. It happens all the time. Some knob end wins the lottery and then a year later they’re moaning how they’re bored and how it’s ruining their life.”
“‘Spose so,” conceded Joe, chewing on his gum and watching a woman push a pram on the opposite pavement.
“Moaning, how everyone just wants to be friends with them for their money,” Mike went on, fiddling with his spot again.
“I could deal with that.”
“No one would be friends with you even if you were a billionaire,” said Mike, punching Joe on the arm. Joe punched Mike back a little harder than he had meant to. An elderly man getting out of his car nearby gave them a disapproving glare and they stopped laughing and settled back.
They were quite for a moment, watching the old man, his back straight as a soldier’s as he walked slowly and stiffly away.
Mike took a swig from his bottle and went on.
“Seriously though, every day, something different. There’s so much to do, so many different things to do in the world. How could you be bored? That’s what money’s for isn’t it? Doing stuff.”
They sat for a moment in silence drinking their water until, without a word passing between them, they simultaneously capped their bottles and got to their feet. It was as though a moment of telepathy had occurred between them, though neither boy noticed, and if they did they didn’t mention it. They shouldered their bags before getting on their bikes and setting off out of the village and back to the main road.
Joe was beginning to worry about what his mum might do if she ever found out about what they were doing. He wasn’t so bothered about his dad, his dad was so calm that he was almost asleep half the time. He worked so hard that when he relaxed he was almost comatose, his big red head leaning tilted back on the sofa as he gawped at the television.
His mum though, she was calm most of the time but when she went mad she really went mad. Her face would turn crimson and her hair would start flying about everywhere as she snapped and jerked about the room. It was scary. She didn’t hit Joe very often but when she did it made his brain shake within his skull; that was one of the things that made it scary, wondering if it was one of the times that he’d get a wallop. The sheer force and intensity of her temper was pretty frightening as well, it was like she was possessed by a demon and it was all focussed on Joe.
Still, most of the time she was alright. It was probably just the stress of Joe’s dad being away so much.
At least she was better than Mike’s mum.
Joe glanced at his watch, determined to forget about her for now. It was eight twenty seven and according to the schedule they had drawn up in Joe’s bedroom and they were supposed to be an hour and a half away from where they were going.
Joe was pretty sure that they were running late.