Nine-year-old Charlie Standish’s stomach let out a growl so loud it made her giggle. She was starving. Her mum was arguing on the phone with her dad, again, so she shut the kitchen door to block out the noise. She opened the fridge door and stared at the contents with a grimace on her face. Salad: she hated it and didn’t know why her mum bothered buying it, because she never ate the stuff and they ended up giving it to next door’s rabbit. There was some cheese and a half-empty can of Spaghetti Hoops. She was looking for the leftover pizza; at least she could warm it up in the microwave, if her mum hadn’t eaten it all when she was at school. Lifting the corner of a plate she grinned. There it was: the last two slices. She took the plate and put it in the microwave, then spent the next few minutes blowing on it to cool it down, so she didn’t burn her tongue.
After eating the pizza, she decided to go outside, away from the shouting. She liked being outside and watching everyone. Her dad called it watching the world go by; her mum called it weird. She didn’t care, that was what she liked to do. They could call it
what they wanted. Next door kept their rabbit in the front garden. She liked the rabbit and the cat from down the street more than she liked people. Any animal was better than a person, even birds and she didn’t really like their flapping wings. She had changed out of her school uniform today because she was going to her dad’s and he always made her wear the new, horrid, scratchy clothes that Pippa, his girlfriend, bought for her. She hated them, the clothes, not her dad and Pippa, although she was a bit annoying. The house was too tidy and she wasn’t allowed out on their front street, not that much happened because it was the strangest street she’d ever known. The houses were all in a horseshoe shape and the cars had to turn in a circle to get out of it. No one ever wandered up and down Pippa’s street like they did here, and the kids that lived there were mean. They stared at her. The kids around here left her alone which was how she liked it. She could play in the front garden or walk up and down the street without worrying someone was going to be mean to her or call her names.
Letting herself out of the front door, Charlie decided to go for a walk and see if the big ginger cat was around. She liked him; he was really ugly in a cute kind of way. As she wandered down the street, she saw her mum come out of the front gate with a wine bottle in one hand – off to Julie’s again. She spent more time at Julie’s house than she did with her, but Charlie
didn’t care. Her dad would be here soon. She would see his big, loud black truck drive up and he’d take her away for the night. She spied a bushy tail disappear through the broken fencing of the front garden to the house where it lived and hurried to go see it.
The cat stopped, turned to look at her and stuck its nose through the fence for her to stroke. Bending down she began to rub its head and it began to purr as loud as her belly had grumbled, and Charlie laughed. Reaching further in to stroke its back, her fingers trailed along to its bushy tail and she let them brush along it. A sharp, hot pain on her forearm made her snatch her arm away from it. She looked down at the long, thin scratch which was quickly turning red with blood. She hated blood; it was icky and made her legs feel all wobbly. She began to cry. Big wet tears rolled down her cheeks as she stared at her arm.
‘Hello, are you okay?’
She looked up to see who was speaking to her, nodding her head slowly.
‘Did Tiddles scratch you?’
Charlie held out her bleeding arm. It was stinging so much it felt as if it was on fire.
‘Oh dear, she’s such a nasty thing. That looks really sore. You better go and tell your mum so she can get it cleaned up.’
‘She’s out.’ Her voice wasn’t much more than a whisper.
‘Who’s at home then?’
She shrugged. ‘Nobody, just me.’
‘When is she coming back?’
She shrugged again. ‘She’s gone to Julie’s, could be hours. I like your trainers. They’re pretty cool.’
‘Thank you. Do you want to come inside so I can get that cleaned up for you? You might get poorly if we don’t; cats carry all sorts of germs and it could get infected.’
‘It might go green and your arm could fall off.’
Her eyes opened wide and her mouth followed suit. She didn’t want her arm to fall off.
‘I’m kidding. It won’t fall off, but it might get red and very sore.’
She looked down at the long, deep line of blood. ‘It already is.’ Then she stood up. ‘I don’t want my arm to fall off.’
He smiled at her. ‘Then you better come inside and I’ll get it cleaned up for you. When your mum comes home you can tell her what happened.’
He opened the gate and pushed the wheely bin out of the way that he had dragged down the path to put on the front street.
‘I’m not supposed to talk to strangers or go with them.’
‘Good, I should hope not. But I’m not really a stranger, I live on the same street as you. Have you seen me before?’
‘I guess we’re not strangers then if you’ve seen me before and know who I am.’
She bit her bottom lip, looked up and down the street then at him again. She followed him through the gate, staring at the large, run-down house with a cracked window and the paint peeling from it.
‘I’m Charlie. Is your house haunted? Because I don’t like ghosts.’
He turned to look at her. ‘Who told you that? It’s not haunted.’
‘Kids at school say it is.’
‘Hmm, kids at school say a lot of things that are rubbish. I have some biscuits if you want one.’
Charlie liked the sound of biscuits. She hoped they were chocolate Hobnobs; she skipped the rest of the way along the path to the front door, which was open. He turned to her, lifting a finger to his lips.
‘You have to be quiet; my mother is sleeping and we don’t want to wake her.’
Charlie nodded. She wouldn’t say a word. She just wanted a biscuit and her arm fixing so it wouldn’t get infected.
Detective Constable Morgan Brookes and her sergeant, Ben Matthews, got out of the hire car that Ben had driven to the police headquarters at Carleton Hall in Penrith.
‘See, we made it in time, thanks to your speedy driving, and in case you didn’t know, you look very smart.’
Ben glanced down at his navy blue suit, and she couldn’t miss the tinge of redness creeping along his collar line.
‘What this? It’s old.’
‘Is it? I haven’t seen it before.’
‘That’s because it didn’t fit me before. It’s been hanging in the bag inside the wardrobe since I bought it. You look very nice too; I like how you have a pair of Dr Martens for every occasion.’
‘Right, now we’ve complimented each other are we almost good to go?’
Emily, her neighbour, who lived above in the top-floor flat, got out of the back seat of the car, and Morgan wondered how she could look this damn gorgeous so early in the morning. The three of them were here to receive commendations from the chief constable for their roles in apprehending a
serial killer who had terrorised the small town Rydal Falls, where they all came from.
‘It’s okay, Morgan, you deserve this and I promise it won’t be too painful.’
She hated how he seemed to always be able to read her mind.
‘Thanks, I’m not sure I deserve a commendation for capturing Taylor Marks, though. It was more a right place at the right time kind of thing.’
Emily was smiling at Ben, and Morgan wondered if there was something going on between them. How had she missed that one? She was glad for him if there was. If anyone deserved to be happy it was Ben.
‘Sorry I made you wait so long earlier by the way. My flipping hair straighteners blew up and I had to iron my hair.’
Both Morgan and Ben turned around to stare at her hair. Morgan smiled.
‘You could have just borrowed mine instead of risking third-degree burns.’
‘You actually used an iron on your hair, like to iron it?’ Ben asked, the shock in his voice making Emily’s cheeks turn a deep crimson. She nodded. Ben turned back, giving Morgan a side glance, as if to ask if Emily was nuts, which made her feel slightly better.
‘Well I think this is a waste of time, not for you, Emily, you deserve it. You didn’t sign up to serve your queen and country, but for me and you, Ben, it’s just everyday life, isn’t it?’
Ben shook his head. ‘No, Morgan, it’s not everyday life. That’s twice now you
have been in life-threatening situations, and how many lives have you saved by putting yourself at risk? You deserve a bit of praise. Me, well I’m just clinging onto your coat-tails and taking some of your glory. I’ve been doing this job a long time and never got into any of the messes you have.’
Morgan let out a long sigh. ‘Come on then, let’s get it over with.’ Unsure of where they were going, she let him lead the way into the maze of buildings to receive their commendations.
Morgan took the certificate from the chief constable, shook her hand and forced herself to smile for the photos, then made a quick exit out of the room which was unbearably stuffy.
Ben, who hadn’t been able to shake off Emily the entire time, watched her leave. He opened his mouth to speak to her, but she was out of the door before anyone else grabbed hold of her.
This was not her thing, if she was honest. Lately, people weren’t her thing either, so combining the two together was bound to result in disaster. She wished she had come in her own car so she could leave, but she hadn’t. She was stuck waiting for Ben to finish conversing with the top brass before she could get her ride home. If she’d had the foresight she’d have asked him for his car keys so she could have at least sat in the car. As she walked along the side of
Carleton Hall, which had once been a grand residence and now housed Cumbria Constabulary’s Headquarters, she shivered. There was a definite chill in the air today. The narrow road which led to the car park had a blanket of red, gold and yellow leaves lining the sides, which she purposely walked through, listening to them crunch underneath her heavy boots. She loved October; it was her favourite month of the year. Cosy candlelit evenings, jumpers, reading, pumpkin spice everything and Halloween. What more could she ask for? Maybe someone to share it with; it had been so long since she’d been out on a date she’d forgotten what it was like.
‘Morgan Brookes, is that you?’
The voice called to her from the modern building next to the car park which housed the gym and occupational health department. She looked up and smiled to see Richard, who had trained her when she was a student, waving at her. Crossing towards him she nodded.
‘Hello, Richard, how are you?’
‘I’m good, you look great and from what I’ve heard you’re some kind of super cop. Congratulations on the commendation by the way. It took me twelve years to get one of those.’ He pointed at the certificate she was clutching.
She laughed. ‘Thanks. However, I don’t think it’s because of my superpowers. It’s more a case of being a magnet for every disaster that seems to happen.’
‘Why aren’t you drinking coffee and eating cake with them?’ He nodded his head back in the direction of the main building she’d just escaped from.
‘I hate a fuss; I’m just waiting for my ride home to tear himself away from them so I can get back to work.’
‘Do you want to come and wait in here? It’s a bit warmer than the car park.’
Her phone began to ring and Ben’s name flashed across the screen. ‘It’s okay, thanks, Richard. If he takes much longer I’ll come back.’
She walked off answering, ‘Yes?’
‘The car is open; we won’t be long.’
‘Should I bring you some cake back? I’ll wrap some up in a serviette.’
‘No, I’m good, thanks. Don’t rush on my behalf. I’m okay.’
The line went dead, and she wondered how he knew her better than she knew herself. He’d expected her to bail as soon as she’d got her certificate and she hadn’t even known she was going to do that herself. She didn’t know if it made him even nicer or just plain annoying. It didn’t matter what she thought of him anyway; it was obvious there was something going on between him and Emily. Ben deserved some happiness and Emily was lovely. She got inside the car and lay back against the headrest and closed her eyes. She had a pounding headache. Inside her pocket her phone began vibrating again and she tugged it out.
‘I don’t want any cake.’
‘What? I haven’t got any. Morgan, are you still at HQ?’
She opened her eyes, realising it was her colleague, Amy Smith, on the other end of the phone.
‘Yes, hopefully not for long though. Sorry, Amy, I thought you were Ben, what’s up?’
‘There’s a missing child, Charlie Standish, and it’s possible she’s been missing since last night. The mother has only just realised she’s not there.’
‘What? How did she not know where her kid was?’
‘Exactly, response officers are with her now but she’s hysterical and not making much sense. I’m going there, but you and Ben need to come. It’s a possible abduction. Can you tell him to come back now? I’ve rung him but he didn’t answer.’
‘Yes, of course, we’ll be there soon.’
Amy hung up, and Morgan felt a sinking sensation in her stomach at the thought of a missing girl. She was about to ring Ben when she saw him jogging down the road towards the car. Emily was some distance behind struggling to keep up. He threw open the car door and clambered inside.
‘I know, the control room inspector came to tell me. Christ, I hate missing kids. It’s your worst nightmare, isn’t it?’
He started the car and they drove to pick Emily up, who got in panting. Morgan looked over at Ben.
‘They turn up though, don’t they? When I was in training, some four-year-old had wandered off and was found at Morrisons by a teacher from his school.’
‘Yes, they do.’ He glanced in the rear-view mirror at Emily, and Morgan shut up talking, realising this might be highly sensitive information. Ben drove back to Rydal Falls even faster than he’d driven to Penrith.