Dead Man’s Daughter by Roz Watkins ~ #2 DI Meg Dalton Series
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She was racing towards the gorge. The place the locals knew as ‘Dead Girl’s Drop’…
DI Meg Dalton is thrown headlong into her latest case when she finds a ten-year-old girl running barefoot through the woods in a blood-soaked nightdress. In the house nearby, the girl’s father has been brutally stabbed to death.
At first Meg suspects a robbery gone tragically wrong, but something doesn’t add up. Why does the girl have no memory of what happened to her? And why has her behaviour changed so dramatically since her recent heart transplant?
The case takes a chilling turn when evidence points to the girl’s involvement in her own father’s murder. As unsettling family secrets emerge, Meg is forced to question her deepest beliefs to discover the shocking truth, before the killer strikes again…
She lay on her back, hard metal under her, so cold it felt like being punched. The smell of antiseptic scorched her throat. She couldn’t move. She tried to scream. To tell them not to do it. She was still alive, still conscious, still feeling. It shouldn’t be happening. But no sound came. The man had a knife. He was approaching with a knife. Silver glinted in the cold light. Why could she still see? This was wrong. With all her will, she tried to shrink from him. He took a step closer. Another man stood by. Dressed in green. Calm. They were all calm. How could they be so calm? She must be crying, tears streaming down her face, even if her voice and her legs and her arms wouldn’t work. Please, please, please don’t. Inside her head she was begging. Please stop. I can feel. I’m still here. I’m still me. No words came out. The terror filled her; filled the room. The knife came closer. She couldn’t move. It was happening.
The touch of steel on her skin. Finally a scream. One of the men placed his hand on her mouth. The other man pushed towards her heart.
The woman grabbed my hand and pulled me deeper into the woods. Her voice rasped with panic. ‘She was running towards the gorge. The place the locals call Dead Girl’s Drop.’ That didn’t sound good, particularly given the Derbyshire talent for understatement. I shouted over the wind and the cracking of frozen twigs underfoot. ‘What exactly did you see?’ ‘I know what you’re thinking, but I didn’t imagine it.’ Strands of dark hair whipped her face. She must have only been in her forties, but she looked worn, like something that had been washed too many times or left out in the rain. She tugged a similarly faded, speckled greyhound behind her. ‘I was expecting proper police,’ she added. ‘I’m a detective. DI Meg Dalton, remember? We wear plain clothes.’ No matter what I wore, I seemed to exude shabbiness. I was clearly a disappointment to Elaine Grant. I sneaked a glance at my watch. I’d had a phone-call from my mum that I should have been returning. Elaine tripped on a stump and turned to look accusingly at me, her edges unclear in the flat morning light. ‘Pale like a ghost. The dog saw her too.’ I glanced down at the dog. He panted and drooled a little.
I wasn’t sure I’d rely on his testimony, but I couldn’t afford not to check this out. I shivered and pulled my scarf tighter around my neck. ‘Wearing white, you mean? But you saw blood?’ ‘It was a nightdress, I think. Just a young girl. Streaking through the trees like she had the devil at her heels. And yes, there was red all over her.’ Branches rattled above us. Something flickered in the corner of my eye – shining pale in the distance. My breath stopped in my throat and I felt a twitch of anxiety. ‘Is there a house in these woods?’ I asked. ‘Approached down a lane?’ Elaine walked a few steps before answering. ‘Yes. Bellhurst House.’ I knew that place. The woman who lived there had kept calling the police, saying she was being watched and followed, but she’d had nothing concrete to report. After the first time, they’d joked that she had an over-active imagination. Possibly a fondness for men in uniform. And we hadn’t taken her seriously. Elaine touched my arm. ‘Did you see the girl?’ We waited, eyes wide and ears straining. The dog let out a little affronted half-bark, more of a puff of the cheeks. A twig snapped and something white slipped through the trees. ‘That’s her,’ Elaine shouted. ‘Hurry! The gorge is over there. Children have fallen . . . ’ I re-ran in my mind the control room’s leisurely reaction to this call; our previous lacklustre responses to the woman in the house in these woods. A band of worry tightened around my chest. I pictured a little girl crashing over the side of the gorge into the frothing stream below, covered in blood, fleeing something – something we’d been told about but dismissed.
Maybe this was the day the much-cried wolf actually showed up. I broke into a limping run, cursing my bad ankle and my bad judgement for not passing this to someone else. I couldn’t take on anything new this week. The dog ran alongside me, seeming to enjoy the chase. I glanced over my shoulder. If the girl had been running from someone, where were they? I arrived at a fence. A sign. Private property. Dangerous drops. Elaine came puffing up behind me. I was already half over the fence, barbed wired snagging my crotch. ‘Did you see anyone else?’ ‘I’m not sure . . . I don’t think so.’ She stood with arms on knees, panting. She wasn’t in good shape. ‘I can’t climb over that fence,’ she said. ‘I have a bad knee.’ ‘You wait here.’ I set off towards where I’d seen the flash of white. The dog followed me, pulling his lead from Elaine’s hand and performing a spectacular jump over the fence. The light was brighter ahead where the trees must have thinned out towards the gorge. I could hear the river rushing over rocks far below. My eyes flicked side to side. There was something to my left. Visible through the winter branches. ‘Hello,’ I shouted. ‘Are you alright?’ I moved a step closer. A figure in white. I hurried towards her. She was uncannily still. I blinked. It was a statue, carved in pale stone. Settled into the ground, as if it had been there for centuries. A child, crying, stone tears frozen on grey cheeks. I swore under my breath, but felt my heart rate returning to normal. Was that something else? It was hard to see in the dappled light.
A glimpse of pale cotton, the flash of an arm, a white figure shooting away. I followed. There in front of me another statue. Whereas the first child had been weeping, this one was screaming, mouth wide below terrified eyes. I shuddered. I ran towards the noise of the river, imagining a child’s body, smashed to pieces by stone and current. I didn’t need a dead girl on my conscience. Not another one. I’d been good recently – not checking my ceilings for hanging sisters or hoarding sleeping pills. I wanted to keep it that way. ‘Hello,’ I shouted again. ‘Is there anyone there?’ A face nudged out from behind a tree which grew at the edge of the gorge. It was a girl of about eight or nine. She was wearing only a white nightdress. Her face was bleached with fear and cold, her hair blonde. The paleness of her clothes, skin, and hair made the deep red stains even more shocking. I took a step towards the girl. She shuffled back, but stayed facing me, the drop falling away behind her. She must have been freezing. I tried to soften my body to make myself look safe. The dog was panting dramatically next to me, after his run. He took a couple of slow steps forward. I was about to call him back, but the girl seemed to relax a little. The dog’s whole body wagged. The girl reached and touched him. I held my breath. The girl shot me a suspicious look. ‘I like dogs.’ Her voice was rough as if she’d been shouting. ‘Not allowed dogs . . . Make me ill . . . ’ ‘Are you running from someone?’ I had to get her away from the edge, but I didn’t want to risk moving closer. ‘I’m with the police. I can help you.’
She stared at me with huge owl eyes, too close to the drop behind. Heart thumping, I said, ‘Shall we take him home for his breakfast?’ The dog’s tail wagged. ‘Is that okay?’ She shifted forward a little and touched the dog softly on the head. A stone splashed into the water below. ‘He needs a drink,’ she whispered. Elaine had been right. The girl’s nightdress was smeared with blood. A lot of blood. ‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Let’s take him back for a drink and some breakfast. Shall we do that?’ The girl nodded and stepped away from the edge. I picked up the end of the lead and handed it to her, hoping the dog would be keen to get home. I wanted the girl inside and warmed up before she got hypothermia or frostbite, but I sensed I couldn’t rush it. I walked slowly away from the gorge, and the dog followed, leading the girl. Her feet were bare, one of her toes bleeding. ‘What’s your name?’ I asked. I thought she wasn’t going to answer. She shuffled along, looking down. ‘Abbie,’ she said, finally. ‘I’m Meg. Were you running from someone?’ I shot another look into the trees. She whispered, ‘My dad . . . ’ ‘Were you running from your dad?’ No answer. I tried to remember the substance of the calls we’d had from the woman in the house in the woods. Someone following her. Nothing definite. Nothing anyone else had seen. ‘Are you hurt? Is it okay if I have a look?’
She nodded. I crouched and carefully checked for any wounds. She seemed unharmed, apart from the toe, but there were needle marks on her arms. I was used to seeing them on drug addicts, not on a young girl. ‘I have to get injected,’ Abbie said. I wondered what was the matter with her. My panic about her welfare ratcheted up a notch. I grabbed my radio and called for paramedics and back-up. ‘There’s a stream,’ Abbie said. ‘He needs a drink.’ The dog was still panting hard. ‘No, Abbie. Let’s – ’ She veered off to the right, surprisingly fast. ‘Oh, Jesus,’ I muttered. Abbie pulled the dog towards the pale statues, darting over the bone-numbing ground. I chased after her. There were four statues in total, arranged around the edge of a clearing. They were children of about Abbie’s age or a little younger, two weeping and two screaming, glistening white in the winter light. I ran between them, spooked by them and somehow feeling it was disrespectful to race through their apparent torment, but Abbie was getting away from me. I saw her ahead, stepping into a stream so cold there were icy patches on the banks. ‘No, Abbie, come this way!’ I ran to catch up, wincing at the sight of her skinny legs plunging into the glacial water. She called over her shoulder. ‘He can drink better at this next bit.’ She clutched the dog-lead as if it were the only thing in the world. I was panicking about her feet, about hypothermia, about what the hell had happened to her, and who might still be in the woods with us. But she was determined to get the dog a drink. And I sensed if I did the wrong thing, she’d bolt.
‘Abbie, let me carry you to the drinking place, okay? Your feet must be really sore and cold. We’ll get him a quick drink, then head back and get warmed up.’ She looked at her feet, then up at me. Worried eyes, blood on her face. She nodded, and shifted towards me. I reached for her, but she lurched sideways and fell, crashing into the freezing water. She screamed. Heart pounding, I reached and scooped her up. She was drenched and shivering, teeth clacking together. I pulled her inside my coat, feeling the shock of the water soaking into my clothes. I took off my scarf and wound it loosely around her neck. I stumbled through the mud, filling my boots with foetid bog water, and finally saw a larger stream ahead, flowing all bright and clear. The dog immersed his face in it, gulped for a few moments, and looked up to show he was done. ‘Right, let’s go.’ I shifted Abbie further up onto my hip and limped back in the direction we’d come, trousers dragging down, feet squelching in leaden boots. The dog pulled ahead, shifting me off-balance even more. Through the boggy bit again, past the cold gaze of the statues, and at last to the fence where Elaine was waiting. ‘Oh, thank goodness!’ Elaine said. ‘She’s alright.’ I gasped for breath. ‘Could you go on ahead and put your heating on high? It could take a while for the paramedics to get here. We might need to warm her up in your house. She’s frozen.’ ‘Shall I run a bath? Not too hot. Like for a baby.’ ‘No, it’s okay. Just the heating.’ ‘Like for my baby.’ Her eyes seemed to go cloudy. ‘My poor baby.’
I touched her lightly on the arm. ‘I’ll bring the girl back. Just put the heating on high and get some blankets or fleeces or whatever you have, to wrap round her.’ Elaine nodded and helped me lift Abbie over the fence, before heading off at a frustratingly slow walk. I picked Abbie up again. ‘Not far now,’ I said, as much to myself as her. ‘We’ll get you inside and warmed up.’ ‘Thank you,’ she said in a tiny voice. ‘Thank you for letting me get a drink for the dog.’ Her ribs moved in and out, too fast. That could be the start of hypothermia. I clasped her to me, enveloping her in my jacket and pulling the scarf more snuggly around her neck. My feet were throbbing, so I dreaded to think what hers felt like. ‘Where do you live, Abbie?’ I said. ‘In the woods.’ She held on to me with skinny arms, trusting in a way which brought a lump to my throat. She rested her head against my shoulder. Her voice was so quiet I could barely hear. ‘I’m tired. . . Will you make sure I’m okay?’ I swallowed, thinking of all that blood. I could smell it in her hair. ‘Yes,’ I whispered into the top of her head, ignoring all the reasons I couldn’t make any promises. ‘I’ll make sure you’re okay.’
We eventually arrived at the edge of the woods, and crossed the road to reach Elaine’s cottage. I hammered on the door and it flew straight open. I wrenched off my muddy boots and sodden socks, followed Elaine through to a faded living room, and lowered Abbie onto the sofa. ‘Get some blankets around her,’ I said. ‘I’ll be back.’ I dashed
barefoot over the road to my car, grabbed some evidence bags, and slipped my feet into the spare trainers I’d shoved in there in a fit of sensibleness. My toes felt as if they’d been dipped in ice, rubbed with a cheese-grater, and held in front of a blow-torch. Back at the house, Elaine had swaddled Abbie in a couple of towels and about five fleecy blankets that looked like they could be the dog’s. I decided it was best not to smell them. ‘Do you have anything she could wear?’ I asked. ‘So we can get that wet nightdress off her?’ Elaine hesitated. ‘I still have . . . ’ Abbie looked up from her nest of fleeces and mumbled, ‘Where’s the dog?’ Elaine called him, and Abbie stroked the top of his head gently, her eyelids drooping, while Elaine went to fetch some clothes. The room was clean and tidy but had a museum feel, as if it had been abandoned years ago and not touched since. Something caught my eye beside the window behind the sofa. A collection of dolls, sitting in rows on a set of shelves. I’d never been a fan of dolls and had dismembered those I’d been given as a child, in the name of scientific and medical research. And there was something odd about these. I took a step towards them and looked more closely. A floorboard creaked. I jumped and spun round. Elaine stood in the doorway, holding up some soft blue pyjamas. ‘These?’ They must have belonged to a child a little older than Abbie. I nodded, walked over and took the pyjamas, then sat on the sofa next to Abbie. I opened my mouth to thank Elaine and ask if she had a child of her own, but I glanced first at her face. It was flat, as if her muscles had been paralysed. I closed my mouth again. I persuaded Abbie to let me take off the sopping-wet,
blood-soaked nightdress and replace it with the pyjamas. Her teeth chattered, and she clutched my scarf. I put the nightdress in an evidence bag. ‘My sister Carrie knitted that for me.’ I was better at saying her name now. ‘When I was very young. It’s the longest scarf I’ve ever seen.’ Abbie touched the scarf against her cheek, closed her eyes and sank back into the sofa. I looked up at Elaine. ‘Do you know if she lives at Bellhurst House? She said she lived in the woods, but she’s pretty confused.’ Elaine stared blankly at me. ‘Yes, I suppose she must. They own the land that goes down to the gorge.’ A pitter-patter of my heart. The guilt that was so familiar. Again I tried to remember what the woman from Bellhurst House had reported. Someone in the woods, someone looking into their windows, someone following her. She hadn’t lived alone; I remembered that. There was definitely a husband, possibly children. ‘Is that your house, Abbie? Bellhurst House?’ She nodded. ‘A car went down there,’ Elaine said. ‘In the night. I couldn’t sleep. Down the lane. I didn’t think much of it at the time. But now I’m wondering . . . ’ ‘What time?’ ‘I’m not sure exactly. About three or four, I think.’ ‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Police are on their way to the house. What colour was the car?’ ‘I couldn’t see – it was too dark.’ I turned to Abbie. ‘Do you remember anything about what happened?’ I said. ‘Where the blood came from?’ She leant close to the dog and wrapped her arms around him. He gave me a long-suffering look. Abbie spoke softly into his ear, so I could barely make out the words. ‘Everyone always dies. Jess. And Dad . . . ’ I looked at her blood-stained hair. ‘Who’s Jess?’ ‘My sister.’ I imagined her sister and her father bleeding to death in those dark woods, surrounded by statues of terrified children. ‘Where are your sister and your dad, Abbie?’ No answer. She closed her eyes and flopped sideways towards me. I caught sight of the dolls again. It felt as if someone had lightly touched the back of my neck with a cold hand. It was the eyes. In some of the dolls, the whole eye was white – no iris or pupil. In others, the iris was high, so you just saw the edge of it as if the eyes had rolled up inside the doll’s head. I turned away, feeling Abbie’s soft weight against me.
My Review of The Devil’s Dice ~ #1 in the DI Meg Dalton Series
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