- Published: 17 September 2019
- ISBN: 9781405930970
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 368
- RRP: $19.99
The Taking of Annie Thorne
'Britain's female Stephen King' Daily Mail
Even before stepping into the cottage, Gary knows that this is bad.
It’s the sickly-sweet smell drifting out through the open door; the flies buzzing around the sticky, hot hallway and, if that isn’t a dead giveaway that something about this house is not right, not right in the worst possible way, then the silence confirms it.
A smart white Fiat sits in the driveway; a bike is propped outside the front door, wellies discarded just inside. A family home. And even when a family home is empty it has an echo of life. It shouldn’t sit, heavy and foreboding with a thick, suffocating blanket of silence like this house does.
Still, he calls again. ‘Hello. Anyone here?’
Cheryl raises a hand and raps briskly against the open door. Shut when they arrived, but unlocked. Again, not right. Arnhill might be a small village but people still lock their doors.
‘Police!’ she shouts.
Nothing. Not a faint footstep, creak or whisper. Gary sighs, realizing he feels superstitiously reluctant about entering. Not just because of the rancid aroma of death.
There’s something else. Something primal that seems to be urging him to turn and walk away, right now.
‘Sarge?’ Cheryl looks up at him, one pencil-thin eyebrow raised questioningly.
He glances at his five-foot-four, barely-breaking-one-hundred-pounds companion. At over six foot and almost twenty stone, Gary is the Baloo to Cheryl’s delicate Bambi.
At least, in looks. Personality-wise, suffice it to say, Gary cries at Disney movies.
He gives her a small, grim nod and the pair step inside.
The ripe, rich smell of human decay is overwhelming.
Gary swallows, trying to breathe through his mouth, wishing fervently that someone else – anyone else – could have taken this call. Cheryl pulls a disgusted face and covers her nose with her hand.
These small cottages are fairly typical in layout. Small hallway. Stairs to the left. Living room to the right and a tiny kitchen tacked on the back. Gary turns towards the living room. Pushes open the door.
Gary has seen dead bodies before. A young kid killed by a hit-and-run driver. A teenager mangled in farm equipment.
They were horrible, yes. Needless, most definitely.
But this. This is bad, he thinks again. Really bad.
‘Fuck,’ Cheryl whispers, and Gary couldn’t have put it better himself.
Everything conveyed in that single appalled expletive.
A woman is slumped on a worn leather sofa in the middle of the room, facing a large flatscreen TV. The TV has a spiderweb crack in its front around which dozens of fat bluebottles crawl lazily.
The rest buzz around the woman. The body, Gary corrects himself. Not a person any more. Just a corpse. Just another case. Pull it together.
Despite the bloating of putrefaction he can tell that in life she had probably been slim, with pale skin, now mottled and marbled with green veins. She is dressed well.
Checked shirt, fitted jeans and leather boots. Telling her age is difficult, mainly because most of the top of her head is missing. Well, not exactly missing. He can see chunks of it stuck to the wall and the bookcase and the cushions.
Not much doubt about who pulled the trigger. The shotgun still rests in her lap, bloated fingers bulging around it. Quickly, Gary assesses what must have happened. Gun inserted into her mouth, pulls the trigger, bullet exits slightly to the left, as that’s where the worst damage is, which makes sense, as the gun is in her right hand.
Gary is only a uniformed sergeant and doesn’t have a lot to do with forensics, but he does watch a lot of CSI.
Decomposition probably occurred quite rapidly. It’s hot in the little cottage, stifling in fact. The temperature outside is mid-seventies, the windows are shut and, although the curtains are pulled, it must be creeping up to ninety.
He can already feel the sweat trickling down his back and dampening his underarms. Cheryl, who never loses her cool, is wiping her forehead and looking uncomfortable.
‘Shit. What a mess,’ she says, with a weariness he doesn’t often hear.
She stares at the body on the sofa, shaking her head, then her eyes shift around the rest of the room, lips pursed, face grim. Gary knows what she is thinking. Nice cottage.
Nice car. Nice clothes. But you never really know. You never really know what goes on inside.
Apart from the leather sofa the only other furniture is a heavy oak bookcase, a small coffee table and the TV. He looks at it again, wondering about the crack in the screen and why the flies are so interested in crawling all over it.
He takes a few steps forward, broken glass crunching beneath his feet, and bends down.
Closer, he spots the reason. The splintered glass is covered in dark, crusted blood. More has run down the screen to the floor, where, he realizes, he has only just avoided standing in a sticky puddle that has spread over the floorboards.
Cheryl moves to stand beside him. ‘What’s that? Blood?’
He thinks about the bike. The wellingtons. The silence.
‘We need to check the rest of the cottage,’ he says. She looks at him with troubled eyes and nods.
The stairs are steep, creaky and streaked with more trails of dark blood. At the top a narrow landing leads to two bedrooms and a tiny bathroom. If possible, the heat on the landing is more intense, the smell even more repugnant. Gary gestures for Cheryl to go and check the bathroom. For a moment he thinks she’ll argue. It’s obvious that the smell is coming from one of the bedrooms but, for once, she lets him play the senior officer and walks cautiously across the landing.
He faces the first bedroom door, a bitter metallic taste in his mouth, and then, slowly, eases it open.
It’s a woman’s room. Clean, neat and empty. Wardrobe in one corner, chest of drawers by the window, large bed covered with a pristine cream duvet. On the bedside table, a lamp and a solitary picture in a plain wooden frame. He walks over and picks it up. A young boy, ten or eleven, small and wiry, with a toothy smile and messy blond hair.
Oh God, he finds himself praying. Please, God, no.
With an even heavier heart he walks back out into the corridor to find Cheryl looking pale and tense.
‘Bathroom’s empty,’ she says, and he knows that she is thinking the same thing. Only one room left. Only one door to open to reveal the grand prize. He angrily swats away a fly and would have taken a steadying breath if the smell hadn’t already been choking him. Instead, he reaches for the handle and pushes the door open.
Cheryl is too tough to be sick, but he still hears her make a retching noise. His own stomach gives a good solid heave but he manages to fight the nausea back down.
When he thought this was bad, he was wrong. This is a fucking nightmare.
The boy lies on his bed, dressed in an oversized T‑shirt, baggy shorts and white sports socks. The elastic of the socks digs into the swollen flesh of his legs.
Bright white socks, Gary can’t help noticing. Blindingly white. Fresh‑on white. Like a detergent ad. Or perhaps they just seem that way because everything else is red. Dark red. Streaking the oversized T‑shirt, smeared all over the pillows and sheets. And where the boy’s face should be just a big mushy mess of red, features indiscernible, crawling with busy black bodies, flies and beetles, wriggling in and out of the ruined flesh.
His mind flicks back to the splintered TV screen and the puddle of blood on the floor, and suddenly he sees it.
The boy’s head being smashed into the TV again and again, then hammered into the floor until he is unrecognizable, until he has no face.
And maybe that was the point, he thinks, as he raises his eyes to the other red. The most obvious red. The red it is impossible to miss. Big letters scrawled across the wall above the boy’s body: NOT MY SON
She sleeps. A pale girl in a white room. Machines surround her. Mechanical guardians, they tether the sleeping girl to the land of the living, stopping her from drifting away on an eternal, dark tide.
Inside Laura's head, Deidre spoke. The trouble with you, Laura, she said, is that you make bad choices.
The boy gasped for breath, hair in his mouth, before the next wave slammed him back against the bottom. He tumbled, the fizz of bubbles around him.
He opened the new bag of coffee beans and inhaled, relishing the toasted aroma that his favourite brand of arabica gave off.
Discarded medical equipment litters the floor: surgical tools blistered with rust, broken bottles, jars, the scratched spine of an old invalid chair.
The two suspects sat on mismatched furniture in the white and almost featureless lounge, waiting for something to happen.