The Lost Boy
Matthew Arkdale gritted his teeth as his ankle rolled, then stumbled and kept going.
His breath escaped his lips in gasps, the cold October breeze slapping at his ears and cheeks while he ran past a bright yellow security barrier and pushed a middle-aged man out of his way.
He ignored the glare from the security crew loitering at the fringes of the crowd. The man’s loud curse was lost within seconds, drowned amongst a cacophony of shouts from the people lining the street and cluttering the road.
Don’t look back.
There were no vehicles here, no risk of being run over. The whole of the town centre had been closed off for the fair, save for a scant number of diversion routes that snaked around the periphery.
His pace slowed to a fast walk – the pavement was cluttered by parents with pushchairs and toddlers, teenagers walking four abreast in the middle of the street, older people strolling at leisure.
A thumping bass accompanied the roar of a commentator over the heads of the people in front of him, calling them to the more expensive rides, the ones with spiralling metalwork that curled up into the night sky and carried the screams of excited thrill seekers across the town centre.
A prickling sensation crawled between his shoulders and up his spine, settling at the base of his neck. Goosebumps spread across his arms, the fine hairs itching against the long-sleeved sports top he wore under his hooded sweatshirt.
Eyes darting left then right, he threaded his way between a couple with twin boys next to the dodgems, the kids bickering about which coloured car they wanted to ride in, and then ducked into a side street.
A gloom enveloped him, a blanket of grey light that made him blink to counteract the night blindness caused by the bright lights of the rides over his shoulder.
Stumbling into the covered doorway of one of the Regency houses that crowded the narrow road, Matthew leaned forward and rested his hands on his knees, panting. His lungs ached from the effort to stay ahead of his pursuer – a deep pain that wracked his chest and was echoed by the pounding of his heart.
A heaving sigh escaped his lips as he peered towards the throng lining the main street.
He had no idea where he was, where to go, or what to do next.
This wasn’t his town.
He had never seen the man until this morning – but he knew.
Knew now that coincidence had nothing to do with spotting him a second time only moments before his eyes had widened in recognition.
Moments before Matthew had seen the knife in the man’s hand and fled.
Shaking from hunger, fear, and the damp chill that seeped through his clothing, he held his breath as the man appeared at the apex to the T-junction, one side of his face in shadow, the other a flickering concoction of colour caused by the strobing lights from the funhouse to the left of the street.
Voices, similar in age to his, rang out within the four-storey structure as they navigated sloping floors and rope bridges while calling down to their parents from barriers that prevented them from falling out of the windows carved into the painted frontage.
The man sniffed the air, then moved away out of sight.
A hollowness permeated Matthew’s slight frame as he cowered back into the shadows, fatigued. He blinked to counteract a sudden dizziness that seized his vision, and clenched his teeth as a painful cramp clawed at his stomach.
He cried out at a movement behind the door where he cowered, voices on the other side reaching his ears before the latch turned.
He couldn’t stay here.
Matthew flipped up the hood of his sweatshirt, pulled it forward until it left his features in shadow, then shoved his hands in his pockets and jogged along the pavement until he was level with the main thoroughfare once more.
The noise assaulted his ears, numbing his senses and creating a disorientation that unnerved him.
A young child, no more than six years old, started bawling beside a stall offering prizes of soft toys, her teary gaze watching as a pink helium-filled balloon, having escaped her grasp, lifted into the air. Her cries of anguish blended with an argument that broke out between four teenagers queuing for the gravity wheel ride, the raised voices making him jump as he passed.
He lowered his chin, ignoring the cat-calls that trailed in his wake as he became the new focus for the teenagers’ disdain, and pushed into the shadows cast by the dimmed lights of a home interiors shop closed up for the night.
Pausing a moment, he craned his neck and peered amongst the crowd but the man who was hunting him was nowhere to be seen.
A cheer rose from another stall, the sound effects from a laser gun game driving him forward with a renewed urgency.
Hunkered low, his slight frame weaving left and right, he negotiated the busy street and dodged around discarded coffee cups and soft drink cans.
The road widened out into a marketplace, and Matthew turned his attention to the children’s rides that crowded the uneven cobblestones. A long line of people encircled a brightly lit carousel, jostling for space beside a large roundabout with teacups for seats.
He passed by all of it, his thoughts a blur as his fingers wrapped around the small bag in his left pocket. He could feel the hard round pills pushing against the plastic, and swallowed to lose the sour taste in his mouth.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time.
A sense of taking back control of his life.
And now look at him – a fugitive, on the run in a town where he had no friends, and pursued by someone who would kill him, of that he had no doubt.
The entrance to an alleyway caught his eye, a darkened maw that led out of the market square, away from the bright lights and noise.
Matthew shot a glance over his shoulder, saw no-one observing his movements, and ran the final few metres to reach it.
The shadows welcomed him, the neon lights trailing after his silhouette until he outpaced them.
He winced as a stitch tore into his ribs and slowed to a walking pace, his breathing laboured.
A groan escaped his lips as he passed a side door into the café that bordered one side of the alleyway, the sound of a radio playing carrying through the woodwork.
He was so damn tired.
Three large industrial-sized bins lined the wall opposite the doorway and Matthew edged past them, gagging at the stench of rotten food and waste.
The fine hairs on the back of his neck prickled a split second before he heard the voice.
‘Where d’you think you’re running to, Matty?’
He threw himself against the wall behind the last bin and brought his fist to his mouth, holding his breath in a desperate attempt to conceal his whereabouts.
Heavy footsteps approached, the man unhurried.
I can’t, he thought.
I want to go home.
Except he couldn’t, could he?
There was no home.
The footsteps drew closer.
He could hear the man breathing, hard.
‘Come out, Matty. There’s nowhere to go. Doesn’t matter if you run. We’ll find you. He’ll find you…’
He could smell him before he saw him – a fetid stink of unwashed clothing, body odour, sweat.
Matthew gagged, then broke cover.
He didn’t stand a chance.
The man reached out, snatched hold of the back of his jacket and jerked him to a standstill.
A burst of pain shot into his back, driving into skin and muscle, burning into sinew.
Crying out, Matthew gritted his teeth, his heart pounding as he squirmed and tried to loosen the man’s grip.
It was no use – his attacker was older, bigger, stronger.
The man let him go for a moment, then placed a heavy hand on his shoulder and spun him around until they faced each other.
His eyes widened in fear as the man raised the knife, his lips peeling back to reveal rotten teeth. He took a step back, tried to wriggle away, tried to escape…
The knife plunged into his stomach, fire spreading up into his ribcage.
Then the man shoved him away as if he couldn’t bear to touch him, and Matthew was falling backwards.
Fine mist clung to his hair, a shocked breath escaping his lips in a cloud of condensation as the warmth left his lungs.
A single tear rolled over his cheek, the salty water tracing its way across the grime that slicked his skin.
Matthew’s knees buckled, his legs shaking moments before his shoulder crashed against the hard pavement.
The twelve-year-old girl leapt back and emitted a strangled scream at the sight of the skull’s grinning jaw.
Flashes of light blinded her vision, highlighting the criss-cross of bones that lay under the skull, arranged so that she could spot the ribs, the fingers, the legs.
A pumping beat thundered in the air, decibel levels thumping in her chest and deadening her senses from all but the nightmare vision that lurched from the shadows.
Shivering, eyes wide with terror and oblivious to the light rain that peppered her slight frame, she blinked, and then swallowed as the skull’s jaw opened wide and laughter cackled from a speaker above her head.
Behind her, a chorus of screams pierced the night, and a hand wrapped around her arm.
Her sister’s voice bellowed in her ear.
‘I can’t believe you fell for that.’
Anna turned away from the animated display welcoming people to the ghost train ride, forcing a smile at her older sibling. ‘I wasn’t expecting it, that’s all.’
‘Stop teasing her, Louise.’ Detective Sergeant Mark Turpin reached out his hand for his younger daughter. ‘All right, Anna?’
‘I’m fine.’ Her voice defiant, she glared at her older sibling and shrugged off his touch.
‘Did you want to have a go on this ride?’
‘No. I was just looking.’
‘Right, then. I’m starving. Who wants hot dogs?’
‘I do.’ Lucy O’Brien grinned at Anna, and then pointed to the scruffy dog at her heels. ‘And I’ll bet Hamish won’t say no to a sausage, either.’
Anna’s face brightened as the dog tugged at his lead, and Louise rolled her eyes before holding up her phone to snap a photograph of the colourful fairground rides along the road beside them.
Mark paused to let the two girls go ahead, then winked at Lucy. ‘Disaster avoided.’
She laughed, slipped her hand into his and gave it a squeeze.
The aroma of onions cooking on an open grill teased his taste buds, his stomach rumbling as they followed the two girls towards a line of catering wagons that had been parked outside a busy pub. Ruing the diet he had been trying to maintain since the summer, he ran a hand over black curly hair and sighed.
At thirty-eight, he was all too aware of his forties approaching and with it all the health issues he could see in many of his older colleagues.
‘You’re thinking too hard,’ said Lucy over the noise of the crowd. ‘I can hear the cogs whirring from here.’
He pointed to the prices listed on a blackboard next to the Ferris wheel. ‘It was only fifty pence when I was their age.’
‘It’s called inflation,’ she said, and grinned. ‘Think yourself lucky we came tonight – they put up the prices on some of the rides at the Michaelmas Fair on Tuesday last week. Anyway, I saw your face on the waltzer earlier – you’re enjoying yourself.’
He smiled, conceding the point, and then they reached the front of the food queue and he decided to stop worrying about the cost of everything. His daughters were here, they were having fun – and if the size of the burger Anna held in her hand was any indication, they were hungry.
‘Move over here, out of the way,’ he said, leading them to the doorway of a darkened clothing store. ‘Does anyone want to go on the dodgems after this?’
Louise wrinkled her nose. ‘Dad, we haven’t been on those since we were little. What about the big swing at the end of the street instead? We could walk back there.’
A shiver ran down Mark’s spine at the memory of the tiny swings suspended on top of an enormous rotating pole, and he shook his head.
‘Maybe next year. Anna needs to be a bit taller. Mind you, the way that burger’s just disappeared, it isn’t going to take long before she grows.’
That raised a laugh, and his youngest daughter hiccupped before balling up her paper napkin and shoving it in her pocket.
He finished his hot dog, held out the last morsel for Hamish, and then wiped his fingers. ‘Okay, time for one more ride at this end of the street, and then we’ll head home. You two might have an early holiday pass from school, but you still have homework to hand in tomorrow morning, right?’
‘Thanks for the reminder, Dad,’ said Louise, scowling.
He shook his head as she flounced away from the doorway, Anna in tow as they worked their way towards Market Place, and then felt Lucy’s arm loop through his.
‘Cheer up,’ she said. ‘When she was helping me wash up after lunch, she told me how good it was to be spending some time with you.’
‘Really?’ He’d taken the girls to visit Lucy on her narrowboat, and they hadn’t stopped talking about it all afternoon. ‘That’s good to know. Anna seems happy enough, but it’s hard to tell what’s going around in Louise’s head sometimes.’
‘Well, I’m sure she knows she can talk to you if she needs to. Have you heard from Debbie?’
‘She’s arrived in St Helier and called me when she got back to the hotel after going to the hospital.’
‘How’s her mother?’
Mark shrugged. ‘Not good. She had a stroke, and they’re still trying to work out what damage has been caused.’
Lucy murmured a response, and then froze as a piercing scream cut through the noise from the fairground rides.
It rang out over the excited shouts and screeches from the rides, different in pitch, and full of terror.
Mark craned his neck, spotted his daughters a few metres ahead, and hurried to join them.
‘Dad?’ Anna’s voice wobbled.
He held up his hand to silence her, straining his ears to hear over the thudding bass-heavy music from the ride next to him.
Then he saw her – a woman in her late twenties, bundled up in a dark-coloured anorak against the elements, running from an alleyway beside a café.
Another scream carried on the breeze, her face stricken.
Mark watched as the woman tore across the cobblestones, weaving between the carousel and swings before she reached one of the security personnel and began pointing towards the direction from which she had appeared.
He frowned as the security guard paled and brought a radio to his lips.
‘Lucy? Can you wait here with the girls?’
She pushed her curls from her face, her eyes quizzical. ‘Of course. Why?’
‘I want to find out what’s going on. Back in a minute.’
He didn’t wait for an answer, and instead strode to intercept the woman and the security guard as the pair pushed through the tide of people flooding the market square.
Her eyes wide in shock, she kept one hand on the security guard’s arm as she led him towards the entrance to the alleyway.
Mark caught up with them beside the carousel, ignored the children’s excited cries as the machine spun them around, and cupped his hands around his warrant card.
‘DS Mark Turpin, Thames Valley Police. What’s going on?’
‘There’s a boy in the alleyway,’ said the woman, her voice catching in a sob that wracked her body. ‘He’s been stabbed. I think he’s dead.’
"Another brilliant, fast paced read that concludes in some very dramatic, pulse pounding moments"