The Girls Who Disappeared
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“Claire Douglas is a mistress at weaving the reader into a web of domestic deceit.”—Jane Corry, author of The Dead Ex
A journalist’s life is threatened when she investigates the truth about a mysterious car crash that happened twenty years earlier in this gripping thriller from the internationally bestselling author of The Couple at Number 9 and Just Like the Other Girls.
A car accident.
Three missing girls.
A twenty-year mystery.
A woman on the verge of discovering the truth . . .
In a rural Wilshire town lies the Devil’s Corridor—a haunted road which has witnessed eerie happenings, from unexplained deaths to the sounds of a child crying in the night.
In this bucolic stretch of Southwest England famous for its otherworldly sites, nothing is more puzzling than the Olivia Rutherford case. Four girls were driving home. After their car crashed only one—Olivia—was found.
What happened to the girls who disappeared? On the twentieth anniversary of the tragedy, journalist Jenna Halliday has arrived in Wiltshire to cover the case. The locals aren’t happy with this outsider determined to dig into the past. Least of all Olivia.
Soon, Jenna starts receiving menacing notes. The locals have made it clear she’s not welcome. But someone is going to make her leave one way or another. Jenna’s been warned: she must get out of this town before she suffers a dark fate . . . and becomes another mystery attached to this place.
Release date: January 10, 2023
Print pages: 400
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The Girls Who Disappeared
VOICE MEMO:MONDAY, 26 NOVEMBER 2018
THE DEVIL’S CORRIDOR IS AN APT NAME FOR THIS LONG, STRAIGHTA-road that leads to the market town of Stafferbury in Wiltshire. Over the years there have been reports of many strange happenings: unexplained accidents, apparent suicides, sightings of hooded figures and the sound of a child crying in the dead of night. But none more mysterious than the Olivia Rutherford case twenty years ago this week. Three young women disappeared from a crashed car and haven’t been seen since . . .
I pause the recording on my phone as I take in my surroundings. There is definitely something eerie about this road. It looks as though it’s been built straight through a forest and all I can see at either side are thickets of tall, dense evergreen trees that reach towards the bruise-coloured sky and the swollen black clouds. So far I haven’t spotted any houses or buildings along here. I could be somewhere Scandinavian rather than the depths of Wiltshire. I’ve been parked on the verge for the last ten minutes and only two cars have gone by.
A presence in my peripheral vision makes me jolt. A man is peering in at me through the passenger window and my heart races. He must have come from the forest. He looks early fifties, maybe a little older: craggy face, a bushy beard, shaggy grey eyebrows beneath a fisherman’s hat. His shoulders are rounded under a long waxed overcoat that reaches mid-calf. He’s holding the lead of a white whippet-type dog with three legs and a brown patch over its left eye. The dog stares soulfully at me. I reach down for the mace in my handbag and place it on the seat beside me, hidden by my thigh.
The man makes a rolling motion with his hands. I lower the window just a fraction and keep my finger on the button. The smell of pine and unwashed clothes hits me.
‘Can I help you?’
‘I was going to ask you the same,’ he calls, in a thick West Country accent. ‘Have you broken down? You shouldn’t pull up here. It ain’t safe to be on this road all alone, like.’ He has a missing front tooth.
Thunder rolls overhead, a low beastly growl that adds to my unease.
‘I was . . .’ I hesitate. Perhaps it’s best he doesn’t know I’m a journalist yet. ‘I’m just on my way to Stafferbury.’
‘Are you lost?’
‘No. I pulled over to do . . . something.’ I’m aware I sound vague.
‘Right.’ He frowns, his suspicious gaze sweeping over my modern Audi Q5 before landing back on me. His eyes are very dark, almost black. ‘Well, Stafferbury is just another two miles or so down this road. You can’t miss it.’
‘That’s great, thanks.’
I quickly close my window to discourage any more questions, my hands trembling as I slide the gearstick into drive. I pull away from the grass verge so quickly the tyres screech. From my rear-view mirror I see him standing there, his dog sitting at his feet, staring after my retreating car.
I’m feeling a little less rattled as I arrive in Stafferbury. The town is just how I imagined it would be. Just like the black-and-white photographs I’ve pored over before driving more than two hundred miles to get here from Manchester. It’s hardly changed since the late 1890s and, of course, the standing stones are even older. I notice them first. They are in the adjourning boggy-looking field to my right, set five metres apart in a semicircle, large and ugly, like a set of uneven teeth. They don’t seem to be in any particular formation, not like Stonehenge. Even from here I can see that a film of green algae has formed over them, like plaque.
A family in brightly coloured raincoats, the kids in funky wellies with a small dog in tow, clamber over the stile into the field where the stones are. I wonder what Finn would think of it here. As an image of my floppy-haired ten-year-old son swims in my mind I feel a pang of longing so strong it’s painful. Since the separation from his dad I’m used to being away from him – I have no choice now that we share custody. But I hate it. It feels like part of me is missing.
The high street is set in a horseshoe shape with a war memorial separating the two roads, and in addition to the one I’ve just driven down there is another heading away from the town, snaking between two medieval-looking buildings with an ominous-sounding pub, The Raven, on the corner. Its sign – a big black bird with sinister beady eyes set against a grey sky – gives me the creeps. From my satnav, that road leads to the back-streets and countryside beyond.
I’m staying in the forest in a cabin that looked beautiful and modern on the website. I’d wanted to see the high street before heading to my accommodation so had deliberately missed the turning from the Devil’s Corridor, and now I go back on myself. I continue through the town, which has been dressed up for Christmas, taking in the little boutiques selling mystical ornaments, jewellery and incense, a café in one of the Tudor buildings called Bea’s Tearoom, a few clothes shops sporting tie-dye T-shirts and fringed skirts, and a place called Madame Tovey’s – she professes (according to the large sign outside, complete with a tarot card illustration) to be able to tell your fortune. It’s a cute town, small and quaint, with its Tudor buildings, cobbled streets and Christmas lights twinkling at leaded windows. I can see why tourists are attracted to it, but there is an air of the rundown about it. It’s like Avebury’s poor relation. Maybe it’s more bustling in the summer, I think charitably. It is a cold November Monday, after all, with only a few people about.
As if on cue the rain comes, fast and furious, drumming loudly on my roof. I notice a young couple dart into a nearby shop, holding hands and giggling, and I experience a tug of envy. Gavin and I were like that once. I drive around the war memorial, the stones now on my left, as I head out of the high street and onto the sinister-sounding Devil’s Corridor once more. There is a dirt track that forks off, no more than half a mile from the field of standing stones, which will take me further into the forest. As I turn down it, I wonder if it’s a little too remote. Perhaps I should have booked a B-and-B in the town.
After a few hundred yards I come to a purpose-built holiday cabin similar to the type you get at Center Parcs, surrounded by beech, pine and fir trees. I slow down to get a better look at the name on the front door. Fern. I’m staying in Bluebell, though I’ve no idea where that is. In the distance I think there are two or three more, but it’s hard to see clearly with the rain battering my car and the phalanx of trees as deep as the eye can see. When I spoke to Jay Knapton, the owner, on the phone to make the booking, he’d explained that the complex wasn’t fully built yet and that only half a dozen cabins were dotted through the forest at the moment. He had sounded impressed when I told him the reason I was visiting.
I drive on, my tyres sluicing through the wet mud. I hope the first cabin, Fern, is occupied, although it certainly looked empty. I don’t like to think about being alone in the forest. I slow down as I approach the second cabin trying to catch the name on the grey front door. Bluebell. Relieved, I pull up on the driveway. It’s only matting and turf underfoot, and as I step from the car my heel sinks into it. What was I thinking wearing heeled boots to come to a forest? Thank goodness I have my wellies in the car. I stand for a moment, looking up at the cabin, ignoring the rain seeping through my wool coat and soaking my hair. I’m besieged by the memories of our family holiday to Center Parcs last Christmas. Finn had been so excited – the house among the trees, he’d called it. My heart twists when I realize there may never be another family holiday with all three of us, or a Christmas Day spent all together. From now on, it will be Finn with either me or his dad – and in time Gavin’s new partner. Because, of course, there’s going to be a new girlfriend, if there isn’t already. Why else would Gavin announce, late one night four months ago, that he needed ‘space’ from our fifteen-year marriage? And our nineteen-year relationship? Why else would he move into a studio flat near his office?
This is not the life I’d envisaged. This is not the future I want.
And I’m still bitter about it. I’m furious that the life I’d had, the life I’d loved, has been ripped away from me. That our little family unit has been broken up. This is not what I wanted for our son. For me. Sometimes I want to hurt Gavin so badly – to punish him, to stop him seeing our son – that it eats away at me. But I know that’s selfish and unfair on Finn. I know that. I do. And I’d never do it. Yet this anger . . . I take a deep breath. Get it together, Jenna, I tell myself. I won’t think about all that now. I won’t wallow. I’m here to do a job. This is a career-changing opportunity for me and I can’t let my emotional turmoil over Gavin mess it up.
I turn back towards my car, plipping open the boot to retrieve my large holdall. It weighs a tonne and I curse myself for packing too much stuff. It used to infuriate Gavin, who only ever needed the bare minimum. I like to pack for every eventuality and can’t go anywhere without my heated tongs. There is a small porch, which I shelter under while I release the key from the coded safe on the wall as per the rental instructions. The hallway is warm and welcoming, with a coat rack, a padded bench and pull-out wicker boxes for shoes. I hang up my wet coat and perch on the bench to take off my boots.
The open-plan interior is even nicer than the photos suggest: white walls, wooden floors, which must be warm due to the underfloor heating, a modern orange L-shaped sofa, sheepskin rugs, snuggly blankets and cushions. There is a fabric deer head on the wall that has coloured fairy-lights entwined around its antlers, which Finn would love. The living area has an open fireplace with a stack of logs in a basket beside it, and beyond the sofa there is a small dining-table. A white high-gloss kitchen overlooking the front driveway leads off the living room. It has grey stone worktops and an island with chrome-legged bar stools. I take in the gadgets: the fancy sound system that I’ll never be able to get working but if Gavin was here he’d have on within minutes, the instant-boiling-water tap, the scary high-tech cooker and hob. I’m used to an old range. I wander back through the living room and along the hallway to the bedrooms. There is a master bedroom with an en-suite and next to it a twin room. I try not to think of Finn and what a kick he’d get out of this place as I dump my bag on the king-size bed.
I return to the living area and take my mobile from my bag. Then I snap a close-up of the deer’s head to send to Finn, before opening the front door and taking a photo of the forest, grateful for the porch. The result is an atmospheric image of the woods and the rain, which softens the edges of the trees, the purple uplighters through the branches giving the image some colour. I’ll add this later to my Instagram page. It will help whet the appetite for when the podcast comes out.
It was my idea to make this podcast. As soon as the press release landed on my desk a few months ago I became obsessed with wanting to know everything about the case. And I was surprised to learn that, apart from reports of the late 1990s and early 2000s, it seems to have been largely forgotten. I’d remembered it as Olivia Rutherford’s friends had been in their late teens, like me, when it happened and, as I stared down at that crumpled press release, I suddenly knew that I needed to cover this – and not just as a cursory three-paragraph article on the BBC website marking the twenty-year anniversary, but a proper in-depth investigation. Thankfully, my editor Layla at the Salford office agreed that it would be perfect for their new streaming service so I’ve been sent here to gather as much information and record as many interviews as I can. Layla will help me edit it into a six-part series when I return to Manchester. I’m excited about the new challenge as, even though I’ve been a reporter for seventeen years, I’ve never made or hosted a podcast before.
I close the door on the rain and go back into the kitchen, dropping my phone on the worktop, then stand at the sink looking out of the window at the forest, trying not to think how depressing as well as beautiful it is. I have a side view of the cabin opposite, set further into the trees, mostly obscured, apart from a right angle with a narrow rectangular window. There is a light on and the amber glow is comforting. I’m relieved that I won’t be alone in the forest after all. It’s not yet 4 p.m.
I pour myself a brew with the fancy boiling-water tap, grateful that the owner has provided milk, bread, butter and teabags, then sit at the table and get my paperwork out of my bag, spreading it in front of me. I’ve printed out old newspaper reports from November 1998 when the three girls went missing, and a photo of Olivia’s smashed-up white Peugeot 205. It’s a miracle anyone got out of it alive.
A dog barks, interrupting my thoughts, and I stand up to get a view from the window. I see a figure coming out of the cabin opposite with a big German Shepherd on a lead. It’s hard to tell if it’s a man or a woman, as they’re wearing a coat with a peaked hood pulled up and tied under the chin but, whoever it is, they’re tall. I move closer to the window, leaning across the sink to get a better look. The person stands for a second in the rain, looking towards my cabin. Then they turn right, taking a path further into the forest, the dog pulling at the lead.
I close the curtains, returning to my paperwork, ignoring the shadows that dance in the corners of the walls, determined not to dwell too much on the fact I’m alone in a place where spooky things seem to happen and people disappear.
THE RAIN IS HEAVY, THRUMMING ON THE BACK OF OLIVIA’Swaxed jacket as she bends over to pick out her pony’s hoof. Her knee and calf ache. They always do in this weather. She knows the weight of Sabrina’s leg will cause her own to buckle if she doesn’t hurry up. The only light comes from the flickering bulb inside the stable, and it casts such a weak glow that she can barely see what she’s doing. Not that she needs to. She can pick a hoof in her sleep.
Since the accident Olivia prefers the company of horses to people. Solid, dependable and comforting. They don’t let you down, or judge you, or get angry with you, or nasty, or manipulative. They don’t answer back or hurl cruel words at you, or trick you into doing something you aren’t comfortable with. You know where you are with them. Since recovering from the accident, Olivia has surrounded herself with them, which was easy to do, considering her mother owns the town’s only riding school and livery stables. She hasn’t driven since that fateful night, but she can still ride horses. It’s her only freedom.
She doesn’t hear her mother crossing the yard until she’s beside her, a frown on her face and a tangle of head-collars thrown over her shoulder. Olivia glances up, lowering Sabrina’s leg.
‘Are you okay, love? You look tired. Maybe call it a night?’
‘I’m nearly done.’
‘Okay. I’m finishing up here and then I’ll put the jacket potatoes on. Are you seeing Wes later?’ Her mother’s greying bob is plastered to her head so she looks like a Lego character, and a raindrop is snaking down her face to hang off the tip of her nose.
‘No, not tonight.’
‘Great. We can catch up with This Is Us.’ It’s just what Olivia needs tonight. To snuggle up with comfort food and her favourite show. Perfect escapism. Her mother heads towards the tack room.
Sabrina neighs and blows out through her large nostrils, her breath clouding in front of her. Olivia buries her head in the animal’s neck. She loves the smell of horses, the warm, wet, steamy scent of them. She leads the pony back into the stable and unclips her collar, quickly runs a brush over Sabrina’s chestnut coat and throws a rug across her back. She wonders if her mother has remembered it’s the anniversary on Wednesday.
Twenty years. She can hardly believe it. Sometimes it feels like yesterday. And at others it feels like a lifetime ago.
The yard looks dark and menacing now everybody’s gone home. She should be used to it, but she’s not. She never will be. The dark freaks her out, that’s the truth of it. It always has. Maybe if she’d been less fearful, more courageous back in 1998, if she’d told the truth, her friends might still be here now.
The beam from her torch shines onto the rain-slicked concrete as she lets herself out of the stable. ‘Goodnight, my precious,’ she whispers, as she fastens the latch on the door while the wind whips at the corner of her jacket. She turns in the direction of the tack room. It’s quiet, in darkness. Her mother must have gone back to the house. Olivia eyes the five-bar gate that separates the riding school from the house in trepidation. The security lights have gone out and only one window is lit up in the distance. The space between here and the house is dark and expansive and she shudders. The rain comes down heavier now, pelting onto the iron rooftops of the stable buildings, dancing a rhythmic tune. She pulls her hat firmly over her fair hair. I do this every night, she reminds herself (although more often than not her mother waits for her), and tonight is no different. It doesn’t matter that it’s the anniversary on Wednesday, or that, for weeks, she’s felt this undercurrent of something she can’t name rippling through the town. She says this over and over to herself as she hurries towards the gate as best she can even though she’s limping on her left leg, the beam of her torch sweeping over the path ahead, illuminating the rain.
When she reaches the gate she pulls back the latch, lowering her torch as she does so. The gate crashes closed and suddenly someone is in front of her. A white face peering out of the darkness. Olivia screams and jumps back in fright.
‘Liv, it’s me, you idiot,’ says a familiar voice. Wesley. It’s just Wesley. Of course it is. He’s holding a golfing umbrella and moves forwards so that she’s under it too. ‘You’re soaked, you wally,’ he says, wrapping a protective arm around her shoulders and squeezing her to him so tightly she can barely breathe. ‘I knocked and your mum said you were still finishing up.’
‘What are you doing here?’ she shouts, above the rain. ‘I thought we were having a night off.’
He guides her towards the house, buffeted by the wind and rain. ‘I wanted to see you. Is that a crime?’ His voice carries over the wind. ‘What a fucking awful night.’ She nods although he can’t see her in the dark and she leans against him. Her head only reaches his shoulder and she finds his height and weight comforting, despite how firmly his arm is clamped around her waist. She realizes, with a sudden jolt of horror, that he’s been holding her up for the past twenty years. She’s surprised he still hangs around. Maybe their relationship – which has never moved beyond the dating stage even though they’re in their late thirties – suits him. It must do, she supposes. She’s thought about it a lot, alone in the bedroom of the house she grew up in. But she feels she’s living a static kind of life, the kind of life she’s lived ever since the accident, like she’s been stuck, unable to move on, to move past it, to grow. So it’s only natural her relationship with Wesley would be stunted too. She knows others think it strange that they have never married or even moved in together. But this is the life she deserves, she supposes, when she is here and her friends are not.
They don’t speak until they’ve reached her mother’s odd, mismatched pebbledash house. They fall into the glass lean-to that smells faintly of feet and rubber. A bare light bulb hangs above their heads as Wesley shuts the door against the noise of the wind and rain and Olivia’s ears ring with the sudden silence.
‘How’s your leg?’ he asks, as he closes his massive umbrella and shoves it in the corner. A spoke has come loose from the fabric.
She rubs her knee. It aches so much she wants to cry. ‘I think I need my painkillers,’ she replies. She perches on the wooden bench while he helps her take off her boots. She can do it herself but she knows he likes to feel useful. She was in a wheelchair for six months after the accident and Wesley had been her saviour, pushing her around the narrow streets of Stafferbury, fending off unwanted words and attention like a shield.
And he’s still doing it.
He looks up, his blue eyes serious, and inclines his chin just a fraction, his jaw set. He bends down and takes her hands in his. ‘I’ve spoken to Ralph,’ he says, his voice sombre. ‘And I came here to warn you.’
‘Warn me?’ She feels a flash of panic.
‘There’s a journalist sniffing around. Just remember what we’ve always agreed. Okay? No interviews.’ When she doesn’t say anything he adds, more harshly this time, ‘I said, okay?’ He clasps her hands even tighter so that she feels like an animal caught in a trap.
She nods, swallowing her cocktail of anxiety and doubts. ‘Okay.’
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