surged back in and drowned out the other sound he thought he’d heard.

“This is awkward, isn’t it?”

He nodded and then remembered that she couldn’t see him. “It isn’t usually like this,” he said. “It’s probably me. I’m tired and frustrated.”

“Is it that young man, the one who was stabbed?”

“Yes… it’s always about him, lately. I can’t seem to shake it. I need to find out who did it, bring them in, and file it all away neatly.”

“Life isn’t like that. You know it isn’t. How many unsolved cases have you been involved with? How many dead people were buried without the answers to why they ended up that way? You know better than anyone that these things can’t be tied up in a bow and put away on a shelf somewhere, all neatly packaged. It doesn’t work like that.”

She was right. She was always right. About this, and about everything else. About them, their relationship, the way they had to live apart if they were to stand any chance of getting back together.

“How’s the drinking?”

He knew she’d ask. She always did.

“The same.” He waited for the sigh but it didn’t come.

“But are you working on it?”

He looked at the whisky glass perched on the arm of the chair. The amber fluid glimmered with light reflected from the window.

“Yes,” he said. “Slowly. I’m working on it slowly.”

He heard a soft smacking sound as she pursed her lips or sucked her teeth. He imagined her small, pink tongue poking between her lips.

“We’ll get there,” she said, and for a moment he wasn’t quite sure what she meant. “You and I, we’ll get there in the end.”

“I hope so. This can’t go on — not once Baby’s born. We tried so hard, we were so desperate for a family, and now that it’s happened we have to make sure that we are a family.” He felt like crying. The force of emotion was staggering; it made his body ache, filled up his head with acid.

“We’re getting closer, Craig. I can feel it. Things are changing and that can only be a good thing. The fact that we both want to be together makes me confident that we will be.”

His hand clenched around the glass. He stared at the hand, as if it belonged to someone else. He had no sense of trying to make a fist; he could barely even feel the hand as the fingers tightened around the glass. He wondered if it would break, and he’d cut himself on a shard, bleeding onto the chair.

“I’ll let you go now.” Her voice sounded so incredibly far away, a distance that could not be measured by common means. The words meant so much more than she intended, and for a moment he wished that he could explain to her exactly how he felt. Then he realised that he couldn’t do that, because he didn’t understand it either. There were no rules of engagement in the war he was waging against himself. He was making it all up as he went along, hoping that the casualties would be slight. He felt like the walking wounded, travelling along a road towards a salvation that might not even be there when he got to the end.

“I love you,” he said, his voice trembling with emotions that were so new to him they didn’t even have a name.

“I know.” She hung up the phone.

Royle returned the handset to its home on the sill and once again stared out of the window. The empty play park opposite looked different, as if subtle changes had occurred. The swings rocked slowly, the roundabout turned as if it had been pushed gently by an invisible hand; the climbing frame seemed as if it were tensed for movement, like a large spider waiting to pounce.

Five years ago, on this day, a seven year-old girl called Connie Millstone had disappeared from that park. Royle was in charge of the case — his first high-profile assignment after he’d been promoted to Detective. There was a big fuss made in the press at the time, articles in the red-top papers about predatory paedophiles, low-rent journalists calling for citizens to unite against a perceived societal threat. It had been absurd; a witch-hunt.

Despite the case having never been solved, Royle had been praised by his superiors for the way he’d handled the media-created outrage.

But little Connie Millstone was only the first of what soon became a spate of disappearances. The press began to call them The Gone-Away Girls.

Over the next year, three other kids went missing, all young girls. The disappearances were linked by a similar M.O. and the demographic of the victims. The only child to be linked directly to the Grove estate was a girl called Tessa Hansen; the rest had lived outside the area.

These were all children aged between seven and ten. Each one went missing from a supposed safe place (if anywhere in the Concrete Grove could be called that). A playground, a supermarket car park, the Far Grove skateboarding park, and in Tessa Hansen’s case a corner sweetshop on Far Grove Way — a street which formed part of the unofficial boundary between the estate and the district of Far Grove. There were never any witnesses, and no reports of anyone suspicious hanging around. The kids just… went away.

Connie Millstone, aged seven.

Alice Jacobs, aged eight.

Fiona Warren, aged nine.

Tessa Hansen, aged ten.

They were all in the same approximate age group. Each of them had fair blonde hair, a slight build, and was said by relatives to have a certain dreamy aspect to their personality and a loner’s ability to enjoy their own company. There was a link between them, but Royle had never discovered what it was. Other than the superficial similarities in their appearance and the fact that they each lived within a two or three mile radius of the Concrete Grove, there didn’t seem to be anything that connected the girls. They didn’t even know each other; they all went to different schools and moved in separate social circles. The fact that each subsequent girl was a year older than the last might be relevant — some kind of pattern — but he couldn’t see how or why. It was simply another part of the puzzle whose meaning eluded him.

It was maddening.

Like Simon Ridley’s smile, those disappearances still haunted Royle, and with this being the five-year anniversary of the first incident he was unable to rid his mind of the memories. He saw the places where those children had been, the holes they’d left in the fabric of existence, wherever he looked. Child-shaped gaps in the world. The Gone-Away Girls didn’t seem to be coming back, and every drink he took was a reminder that he’d failed them, failed their families, failed everyone, including himself.

Peering out into the darkness, he spotted something in the playground. There was something perched on the bottom of the slide. From this distance, it looked like it might be a bundle of clothing someone had dumped there, or a particularly small vagrant sleeping on the slide. He stood, leaning closer to the window, and tried to make out further details.

The bundle was about two-feet long. It could be a child, lying there on the end of the slide. Was it happening again, or could this be one of those missing children returning?

No, that was impossible. They’d be teenagers by now, if they were even still alive.

He blinked and then refocused his vision, hoping that the image would be gone. But it wasn’t. There was somebody on the slide.


Some body.

A body.

He moved quickly across the room, grabbing his coat, and was out the door, down the stairs, and in the street before he realised that he had not brought along his mobile phone. He’d left it by the chair after reading Vanessa’s text. There was no way to contact the station if this was in fact a dead body, or if he got into any kind of trouble investigating the scene. He could have run back up to the flat and grabbed the phone, but he experienced a sense of urgency that would not let him turn back.

He ran across the road, stepped over the short fence that surrounded the playground, and moved towards the slide. As he watched, the bundle began to move. It twitched several times, rolled over, and slipped off the edge of the slide, out of view. He felt the Crawl upon him — on his skin, like beetles.

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