Foxglove Copse (A Porthkennack novel)

Foxglove Copse by Alex Beecroft
 
Author: 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-546-3
eBook release: 
Sep 4, 2017
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-547-0
Print release: 
Sep 4, 2017
Word count: 
66,700
Page count: 
245
Type: 
Cover by: 
 

This title is part of the Porthkennack universe.

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After a massive anxiety attack, Sam Atkins left his high-powered job in the City and committed himself to life on the road in a small van. Six months in, he’s running out of savings and coming to the conclusion that he might have to go home to his emotionally abusive family.

Needing time to think, he takes a walk through a copse by the Cornish roadside, only to stumble upon the body of a ritualistically killed sheep. As he’s trying to work out what the symbols around the animal mean, the sheep’s owner, Jennifer, and her nephew, Ruan Gwynn, come upon him.

Ruan is a kind-hearted young man with a large supportive clan, and since he and Sam feel almost instant attraction, he doesn’t want to believe Sam is a sheep-killing cultist. In fact, the moment he lays eyes on Sam’s miserable solitary life, he wants to rescue the man. But as the killings escalate, he and Sam need to stop whoever is actually to blame before they can concentrate on saving each other.

Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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Chapter One

Sourton Cross service station had a picnic site with toilets, a shower, and an outside potable water tap. Luxury. Sam Atkins stopped there under a sky as downcast as his future. He parked the van as close to the toilet block as possible and filled his water tank with a hose he was almost too numb to feel, his fingers livid white with cold where they poked out of his red-and-black fingerless gloves.

That done, he took a damp and comfortless towel into the chill ceramic loos in search of warm water and free soap. Not unexpectedly, it smelled of mould and piss and mud inside. The floor was wet with boot prints, and the tray of the shower half-silted with sand and leaves. Some large dog, perhaps, had been sluiced down there before bounding back into its owner’s warm, carpeted four-by-four.

But Sam had been on the road for nearly half a year and had come prepared. He let the water run for a while, to take the worst of the dirt down the plughole, then he took flip-flops and a large plastic bag from his pocket. Stripping, he put his clothes on the bag, stepped from his boots into the flip-flops, and got into the shower moments before the unforgiving December air took all the breath from his body.

Hot water! An unceasing flood of it, kneading his scalp and soothing his shoulders. This time last year he’d had a wet room, in a house, a room finished in marble, with a power shower of gleaming copper, the size of a hubcap. If he closed his eyes, here in this cold winter car park, the sense of decadence was the same. But with the memory came the choking sensation that he had also felt in that room, while trying to wash off panic, sleeplessness, and stress.

He opened his eyes to find a mottled brown terrier nosing at his coat, a bespectacled man at the nearest urinal watching him out of the corner of his eye.

“All right?” he challenged.

The man looked away, but Sam’s brief moment of indulgence was undone regardless. He kept the water running for the warmth of the steam as he stepped out, rubbed the clammy towel over himself, and struggled to pull back on the clothes he’d been wearing since the launderette in Hackney, over a fortnight ago.

He had no idea what kind of perversions or judgements were going through the bespectacled man’s head, but he breathed easier when the guy left, taking his mongrel dog with him. Now he could at least dry his hair and his towel under a hand drier in peace.

It felt good to be clean. These days, even that was an achievement.

Outside, the light had faded further, and it had begun to rain. He put up his hood and sprinted for the van, getting through the door and into the driver’s seat before he lost all traces of warmth. Starting her up, he moved from just outside the toilet block to just outside McDonald’s, checking his phone while he tried the three closest spaces one after another.

A glance in the driving mirror said he still looked shaggy, suspicious, so he plugged his electric shaver into the cigarette lighter. A number-one comb took the beard down to designer stubble, and a number sixteen cropped his fair hair until it was only beginning to show a curl.

There. Now, with the Barbour waterproof coat and hat left over from better days, the Aran sweater and the briefcase containing his laptop, he passed for a gentleman farmer. Someone who wouldn’t be side-eyed in the toilets by the respectability police.

Inside McDonald’s, everything glowed warm and bright—a different culture, one to which he no longer belonged. Jingly Christmas music, the smell of fat, and the rumble of people talking. Red and yellow plastic toys in a glass display cabinet. Green plastic on the chairs, sticky with spilled sauce—the details assaulted him. The inside of the windows had steamed up; the whole place was crammed with bodies breathing the same air, and Sam’s heart got stuck somewhere in his viscera, tangling them up until he thought he was going to puke.

“How can I help you?” said the plump Indian girl at the till for the second time, breaking him out of his spiral. Goddamn it, he had to fake normality better than this.

He smiled. “Sorry. Miles away. Um, just a white coffee please.”

Pressing his card to the contactless reader, he tried to effect the nonchalance of a man who had all the money in the world and no cares. No one liked to give you things if they thought you were actually in need. “And, uh, can I have the wi-fi password?”

He downloaded his emails sitting in the free warmth, sipping at the coffee for as long as he could make it last, then he returned to his van, where he made sandwiches, wrapped himself up in his quilt, and piggybacking on the wi-fi signal that spilled over to the car park, made the Skype call that he’d been putting off since November the first.

His mother picked up. He could see her in a brightly lit box in the corner of his screen, artfully made up, her beautiful silver hair feathered around cheekbones that still turned heads. “Sam! Oh my God, where are you now?” She literally clutched her pearls, which he had the resilience to find amusing.

“Hi, Mum.” A tiny point of pain flowered under his right shoulder blade, as though someone had just pierced the skin there with the point of a pickaxe, and was driving in with excruciating slowness. “How are you doing?”

“Sam,” she said, warningly. “Don’t take that tone.”

He smoothed his fingers through his newly shaven beard, reminding himself that he had achieved something today. He was not—yet—a complete failure. “What tone?”

“The tone where you keep pretending that nothing’s wrong. When are you coming home? When are you going to come to your senses and find a new job? You can’t drive around parking in lay-bys for the rest of your life.”

“Short answers?” Long answers would have taken a novel, one for which he didn’t have the words or aptitude. “I’m not. I’m not. And yes, I can.”

“Yes, of course you can.” Her grey eyes were as sharp as the points of stilettos. “How are you going to keep feeding yourself? Buying petrol—”

“Diesel,” he coughed, as though it had been driven out of him by the skewer that was still pushing through his back. Axminster carpet was visible over his mother’s tailored shoulder, and the long scarlet edge of Three Sunflowers and a Bottle of Water by David Hockney, which she had bought from him when he had been selling off the contents of his house.

“Same thing,” she snapped. “My point is that by now the paltry amount you kept for yourself after your episode must be running out. I understand that you had a shock, and you’ve needed time to get over it, but really, I am beginning to be seriously concerned about your mental welfare, Sam. You can’t carry on the way you’re going. You must come home.”

“Is that Sam?” He recognized his sister’s voice, sounding tinny at a distance. Tabitha eclipsed the red line of the painting as she strode into the webcam’s view and waved: tall and even fairer than him, impeccably suited, with the gleam of permanent triumph in her green eye. “Have you starved to death yet, darling? Do you need me to lend you a couple of thousand?”

“Sam!” His mother must have caught the look on his face. “Don’t hang up. Tabby, go and sit somewhere else.”

For a marvel, Tabitha did, though her long legs in their Christian Louboutin shoes poked into the upper corner of the frame. She had been the underachiever when Sam had been earning fifty thousand pounds a year plus an extra fifty thou’ in bonuses, and now she was the family’s darling. She did so enjoy reminding him of it.

“I know you’ve been having some problems, emotionally,” his mother continued, as though she were gingerly picking up a disgusting rag. “We can fix that. Come home. Come home for Christmas, at the very least, and we can start finding the right medication for your anxiety problems. Daddy can find you an easier job. A nice little flat. You can start again, here where we can help you.”

By now the skewer through his back had expanded to the diameter of a golf ball, all the muscles around it locking down in panic. He could barely gasp a shallow breath around the unyielding pressure of it, this imaginary pain that felt like a spear through the lung. “I’ve got to go.”

“Don’t do this to me, Sam. How can you be so selfish?”

He shut the computer down and curled up. Breathing, breathing in the quiet, wood-lined room that was the back of his converted van, with the blind down over the rear window so he wouldn’t be seen.

It was true that he had three hundred and seventy-five pounds eighty-four pence to his name, and he didn’t know what he would do when it ran out. But if he found somewhere more permanent to stop, he could certainly eke it out until after Christmas. He could not bear to put himself in their clutches for the season of goodwill.

A half an hour later, he came back to himself to find he was watching the rain snake in silver serpents down the windscreen. As his brain rebooted, he discovered he was tired but ready to move on. Slipping into the driver’s seat, he started her up, easing back out into the A30 traffic with no clear destination in mind. Maybe Bodmin. Perhaps he could stop somewhere on the moor and live in a neolithic shepherd’s hut, like Sherlock Holmes.

But Bodmin was featureless and grey in the rain, with a bleakness he didn’t need on top of his own. On a whim, he turned up the B3274 and headed towards Porthkennack instead.

As if by omen, the rain slackened as he came within sight of the sea, and the sunset drew brief bands of gold across the horizon. The road crested a small hill, from which he could see down into a galaxy of homely windows, and afar off the silent pulse of a lighthouse.

To his left, a gap in the hedgerow beckoned. He slowed, the only vehicle on the road, and turned his lights to it. Yes. There was a faint track. Beyond it, a swaying shadow against the stars, was a woodland, where the glint of a brook vanished into glossy rhododendron and the low, broad leaves of foxgloves open like imploring hands in the gloom.

Running water and camouflage—he might stay there for some time without being seen. Making an instant decision, he rolled gently up the bank and carefully, carefully into the wood.

Three trees in, a fallen stump leaned across the track. At one point the wheel ruts had continued out into the distant fields, but it seemed that when the tree fell, the path had been abandoned to grow ferns and briars. That suited him; no one would be coming in or out. He would not be blocking anyone’s access if he stayed here awhile.

Turning the engine off, he grabbed his torch from the glove box and stepped out into a shocking silence. No cars moved on the unlit road and the sky was end to end with stars, bleak and magnificent as the glitter of an iceberg. For a moment, it felt as though time itself had stopped, that he was the only human left in the universe. A chill crawled up his back.

But then the wind swept from the sea and sighed through the treetops around him. The moment passed as he folded out the mast for the wind-turbine and connected it to its battery.

Fallen branches littered the ground. He picked up some sprays of rhododendron and leaned them against the van’s green side, camouflaging it. Walking back to the road, he looked in and could not see her. Good. The concealment might not survive the coming of the dawn, but he should at least be able to sleep in peace.

He collected branches for the wood burner and stacked them in the passenger side footwell to dry out, laid his laptop on the fold-out table, and considered browsing the job sites for temporary work nearby. Just the thought of it narrowed his chest until he couldn’t squeeze in a breath. Clocking in at a regular time, talking to people, pay cheques, responsibility . . .

Turning his back on everything, he decided to take a walk and then go to bed early. Maybe, when he’d had a good night’s sleep, he could face his future.

Barely five minutes’ walk down the overgrown, abandoned path, the wood gave way to rough grazing land on a one-in-seven slope. Once he had come out of the trees, he could see down, in shades of dun and grey, past humps of rocks, to the solid black presence of a distant farm house, with lights burning behind its windows. The flecks of white scattered across the hillside must be sheep.

It took him a while of watching the fluffy white dots move, sweeping in one scatter from a nearby epicentre, before it occurred to him that this was not how sheep normally behaved. The baas that gusted to his ears on the wind were high-pitched and full of panic. Something had spooked them—something over by that cluster of rocks.

Curiosity drove him down the rough hummocks of the tussocky slope, heather and grass slippery under his wellies, his wind-up torch dimming as its charge ran out. The circle of light turned to umber and vanished altogether. He didn’t wind it again, because the moon and stars were shining brightly. He could see enough, and he didn’t want to be seen.

As he approached the rocks, he saw with a lurch of foreboding that they were not just tumbled there by the landscape. Five of them stood up on their narrow ends like the fingers of a buried hand, and in the centre of the “palm” something dark and small lay.

He thought it was another stone at first—an altar stone, where tens of thousands of years ago the neolithic people here had placated their gods. But then the gusting wind brought the smell.

Before, the night had been all newly washed rock and grass, distant seaweed. Now, his already unsettled stomach writhed inside him like a hatching alien, because this was a warmer scent. Blood. Blood and shit and acrid fear—the smell of death.

Why he ran forward, he didn’t know. Maybe to help. But the animal in the stone hand was past help. One of the sheep, its white coat so sodden with blood that even under the moon it did not gleam. It lay on its back, the rib cage cut open with ugly, tearing wounds, the bones severed at the back so that it could be opened like a flower to show that all of the organs had been removed.

 

Chapter Two

Above the sheep’s head, a circle of stones and twigs marked out a pentagram, with symbols at its points. Academic curiosity pricked Sam out of his automatic recoil, made him put his boot back down with a squelch in what he now realized must be a swamp of blood. Instead of running away, he leant down over the mark to try to puzzle it out.

Six months on the road. He’d had plenty of time to delve deep into the arcana of the internet and study the things that interested him. One of which was the occult. If someone had copied this from a design on the web, they had not made a very good job of it. He couldn’t work out what it was trying to achieve. None of these sigils made any sense.

Sam was winding up his torch again when he heard a click behind him—the sound of a shotgun barrel being snapped into place. He stood up and raised both hands even before one voice said, “What the—” and the other growled, “All right, then. You turn around.”

Keeping his hands by his ears, he did as they suggested. There were two of them. The older woman must be the farmer—straight silver hair under a flat cap, her face baked by an outdoors life, straight brows, straight mouth, and an implacable steeliness in the dark eyes. She held the shotgun with an ease that spoke of years of practice. Probably potting rabbits and winging poachers from the day she was born.

The second was a younger man in a town dweller’s impractical coat and trainers. In one hand, he held a lantern, the yellow light of which gilded the curls of his black hair and brought a sheen of amber to his kindly grey eyes,—worried, uncertain, and startling. His other hand rested gently on the head of a nervous black-and-white sheepdog.

“Drop what you’re carrying,” said the woman, voice harsh with rage and hurt.

Sam didn’t think the young man would let him be shot. There was something very reassuring about him, standing there with his light like a romantic allegory. “It’s—”

“Drop it!”

Sam dropped the torch and backed away as youth and dog came forward to pick it up.

“It’s just a torch,” he explained, seeing the young man puzzle over the fold-out wheel on the side. “You wind it up, so it doesn’t need batteries.”

The farmer barked out a bitter laugh; clearly she was not there to discuss the latest gadgetry. “What the hell d’you think you’re doing with my sheep?”

A fine tremor vibrated up Sam’s backbone, down his legs to his knees, and in every particle of his lungs, but oddly enough the clench of his anxiety had eased. Plain threat was not sneaky enough to terrify him. “I’m not doing anything,” he said. “I went out for a walk. I saw the sheep tearing away from this place, so I came to see what had frightened them. And I found . . .” He gestured at the corpse. “I was examining it when you arrived.”

“Right,” the farmer mocked. “This here’s none of your doing? Expect me to believe that do you? Corpse is still steaming, and you’re a stranger. Now, I can call the police, or you can pay me what she was worth and then get the hell off my land. Which is it going to be?”

“It is a torch, though, Auntie Jennifer. See?”

The young man with the light had been winding all this time. Now he flicked Sam’s torch on, illuminating his own green University of Truro sweatshirt and the hand-knitted rainbow scarf wound copiously above it. Out-of-touch Christian hippy? Or gay? Sam flicked him a thankful glance regardless, but hoped for option two.

“And look,” he turned the beam on Sam, sweeping it over his hands and the cuffs of his white Aran sweater that poked out beneath his coat. “There’s no blood on him.”

Sam had only just begun to wake to the fact that he was in trouble. He didn’t know how much a sheep cost, but was sure he couldn’t afford to pay for it. And the police? If he got involved with the police, his family would instantly sweep in, deprive him of his liberty, and set about retraining him to their own lifestyle once more. And that would kill him. It would outright kill him. He shuddered.

“Thank you,” he offered the young man a somewhat pleading smile. “Also, notice that the organs are gone, and I don’t have them. Whoever did this must have taken them away with him.”

“Ruan, you get behind me with the dog.” Jennifer jerked her chin to her nephew, then motioned with the shotgun, indicating that Sam should start walking down towards the farmhouse. Sam took a step to indicate willingness, wondering if he should break for it—if the woman would miss her shot in the dark. If he would have time to start the van and back it out of that narrow gap before the locals could catch up with him.

No. She’d just shoot the wheels, and then he’d have tyres to pay for too.

“If you look at the rib cage,” he said, stopping, “you can see where it’s been cut away from the spine. I think whoever did it must have had a chainsaw. I don’t have a chainsaw.”

“Then what the hell were you doing? You were leaning right over the thing when we got here. What d’you do that for, then, Sherlock, if you weren’t doing no wrong?”

“These symbols.” Sam cast a look of appeal Ruan’s way, took off his wide-brimmed rain hat to let the wind ruffle his newly fluffy, newly cut hair, in case that would sway the young man further in his favour. “I have an interest in the history of the occult, and I wanted to see if I could understand the working that was being performed here. I mean, it’s a sacrifice, obviously, but you’d expect it to say who to, and what it was meant to achieve.”

Auntie Jennifer gave another bark of laughter, though even she was now scanning the ground around them as if she hoped to find the missing viscera neatly piled beside one of the standing stones. “Right. So what you’re saying is that two people who understand this kind of witchcraft turned up here tonight, at the very same time, and you’re the good one.”

“What do you mean ‘at the same time’?” Sam asked, his bravery taking a sudden drop, hollowing out his stomach with it.

“Them sheep,” Jennifer nodded at them. The distant flock had dispersed and were now slowly wandering and grazing as Sam would have expected of them. “It weren’t more than a moment after I saw ’em bolt that I came up and found you. If you didn’t do it yourself, he must still be round here, with his chainsaw and his bag of guts. You must’ve seen him go.”

“Or he saw me coming,” Sam whispered. “Oh my God!” He had so little left in the world, only Diane the green van, and his laptop. His state-of-the-art MacBook Pro. “I had my torch on. Maybe I startled him? If he heard me coming across the field, he would have looked around and seen you two with your lantern.”

If he couldn’t afford to replace a sheep, or a tyre, he most certainly could not afford a new laptop, and the laptop was his only link home, his only link to the rest of the world. He didn’t count the phone— He couldn’t search for jobs or code or do his banking or . . . or live without his laptop. “Oh my God, I left the van unlocked. I’ve got to go and make sure it’s all right. I’ve got to. Please.”

 

Chapter Three

“So you’re admitting that you’re squatting on my land without permission?” Jennifer narrowed her eyes at Sam, like a woman who’d had just about enough for one evening.

Sam knew how that felt. Already there was something in his chest, tightening around his windpipe and his heart. Some bastard of a thing that never killed him but did everything it could to make his life miserable. “Stress, darling,” his mother had said dismissively when he’d mentioned it to her. “Everyone has that.” But how could anyone ever know that they were having a heart attack, in that case, if the feeling of being strangled in the chest was so very common?

“I only meant to stop for the night,” he said, wheezing around the constriction in his throat. “Please. I’m trying to live off-grid, sustainably, you know? I could see the copse wasn’t being used, so I thought no one would mind if I stayed until the morning. And then I came out for a walk and found this. Please.”

Ruan raised his lantern and came a step closer. His slenderness had misguided Sam into thinking him small, but as he closed the distance between them, Sam had to raise his head to meet his eyes. They were grey eyes, like water under starlight, in a face whose long nose and long chin put him in mind of a curious puppy, nosing him out to see if he would play.

Maybe the young man could see that he was desperate and frightened and no threat, because his mouth quirked up a little at the edges, and that was all it took to give him the air of the friend that Sam had not known he needed. “Why don’t we go and look, Auntie Jennifer? Maybe the guts and the chainsaw’ll be there and then we’ll know.”

The van door stood ajar when they reached the copse. Sam’s torch caught the edge of it, and the spot of light fluttered all over the clearing as his hand began to shake. He had to stop and bend over, panting to get air into his lungs. The whole of his back had turned to stone, and his ribs were metal bars that ached as if they’d been dunked in liquid nitrogen. When Ruan put a hand under his elbow, he all but jumped three feet.

“Are you on something?” Ruan asked, his voice lowered, presumably so that Jennifer wouldn’t hear. She had already reached the door and pulled it fully open, letting the light from inside spill out into the night, and peered in before she stepped inside.

“No,” Sam managed, struggling not to zone out or to scream. “I get . . . anxiety. It’s like . . . It hurts. I just need . . . everything to stop.”

Ruan tightened his grip, reassuringly, letting that lopsided smile gleam out again. “Not your night, eh? If you’re a sheep-mutilating cultist, you want to move into a different line of work, certain sure.”

“I’m not—” By sheer force of willpower, Sam propelled himself another step forward, into the long rectangle of gold light spilling into the clearing from the lamp on his fold-down table. His empty fold-down table.

Where the laptop had been, there was now a pair of reddish-brown smudges, such as might have been made by fingers in bloody gloves. The MiFi dongle—which allowed him to connect to the internet out here—had been knocked free and had fallen onto his seat, drawing his eye down, beneath the table. There, sagging with a horrible suggestion of liquidity, an unfamiliar black plastic bag squelched when Jennifer yanked it free.

“Oh my God!” Sam didn’t want to see what was inside—had to see what was inside. Had to know. Didn’t want to know. “What—”

Jennifer unknotted the loose knot in which the bag was tied and eased its mouth open. Even in the cold winter air, the gust of warm meat scent was sickening. Ruan’s lantern light picked out swells of smooth ruby organs like gory giant kidney beans, and long grey ropes of intestine, and folded, bleeding things that were probably lungs, and then Sam was wrenching his arm out of Ruan’s grip and running, running.

No! the sane watcher in his head told him. Don’t do that. They’ll think you’re guilty. They’ll think you’ve got something to hide.

But that in itself just made him want to run more, to get away. He had to get away!

The ground was soggy, waterlogged, treacherous. Old fallen branches were everywhere, and where they weren’t, the hummocks and dried stalks of foxgloves deceived his footing, tugged at the lacing of his boots.

A metallic click behind him, and a sheet of ice water seemed to break over his head and freeze his belly. His whole spine shuddered. That was Jennifer taking the safety catch off her shotgun.

Don’t run! Don’t run! whined the voice of his superego. Damn you. Are you mad? And now even his most level-headed part was off, panicking about exactly how insane he was and how the hell it was going to rein him back before he was shot, or just went permanently insane and ended up in an institution somewhere.

“I can’t,” he choked out, his ankle turning under him on the uncertain ground. “I can’t—”

Couldn’t what? Couldn’t think, for a start. Oh God, now he was panicking about how badly he was panicking, in a recursive, sickening spiral he couldn’t stop or slow down. Putting out both hands in front of him, he seized the bole of a tree and pressed his face into it.

Cold.

Cold.

Damp.

Solid.

Real.

He closed his eyes and clung on as he might have clung to a life raft in the middle of a stormy sea. Anchored, he tried to get a grip on his breathing. Failed. Tried again.

An odd patch of warmth on his lower back helped, spreading comfort like a hot water bottle pressed against an aching nerve. This time when he grabbed for his breathing, he caught it. Although it was like trying to wrestle himself into the driver’s seat of a car being driven by a heart-attack victim, he was eventually able to get back the wheel from his lizard brain, put his foot down on the brakes, and with long, wrenching, continuous effort, slow everything down until he could almost pass for normal.

“Maybe you should be on something.” Ruan’s voice startled him, close to his ear and concerned. When he thought he could open his eyes without losing it, he did so, and found Ruan hunkered down next to him, one hand on his shoulder, the other slid under his coat and resting in the hollow of his spine, reassuring, warm and still. “Meds of some kind.”

“I’m— It’s normally not this bad,” Sam whispered, shivery and aching for a cup of tea and blankets. Not prepared to think about his laptop yet, but very aware that he wasn’t thinking about it. “I went in for the off-grid life because it’s . . .” the chuckle threatened to become a full-blown hysterical cackling fit, but he put his foot down on that too, held on, “low stress. But I. I write code to keep me calm—shareware, you know? Websites and apps I can improve and give away. It’s soothing. I need my laptop for that. I don’t—”

“Did you kill Auntie Jennifer’s sheep?” Ruan withdrew his warming hand to tuck back a windblown strand of hair behind his ear. His curly dark hair was too long for fashion, too short for a statement. It looked soft, and so did his expression. Suspicion would have sent Sam into another spiral, but this gaze of friendly concern made it feel safe to reply.

“I really didn’t. I don’t know who did, but whoever it was must have come back this way. They took my laptop, and they left the—” oozy innards “—stuff to make it seem like it was me. But it wasn’t.”

“I’m going to have a rummage for that chainsaw,” Jennifer announced at high volume, and then paused as though this had been less of a statement, more of a request for permission.

“Okay.” Sam rubbed his open hands over his face and nodded, gathering the strength to get to his feet. He staggered back closer to the van as Jennifer stepped inside, was scarcely aware that Ruan’s hand was under his arm again, holding him up. They watched together as Jennifer opened all the cupboards, Sam picturing the contents as each was opened—the bedding folded under the floor, the dwindling stack of groceries beneath the sink, the tiny tiled shower room and toilet behind the driver’s seat, the fold-out shelf of the bed.

Strangely, he could see Ruan beside him getting more and more upset. The young man’s face paled, even his lips paled, and in the deep cold of the night, the smoke of his breath wreathed those starry eyes in mist.

“What?” Sam asked, as Ruan’s mouth set downwards.

“Do you live here all the time?”

“Yes.” Sam wondered what he’d done now. “Well, for the last six months.”

“All alone?” Bemusement and horror mixed in Ruan’s tone. “With no family, no people?”

Sam felt now like a saucepan left on the heat—he had boiled until he was empty and the residue of his emotions had stuck and burned. There was nothing left inside strong enough to counter the bitterness that welled up at the way Ruan said family. “They were the problem. Family! They fuck you up. You’re better off without them.”

It was extraordinary how much it hurt when Ruan let go of him and stepped away, looking like a worshipper whose sacred places had been trampled. He was probably one of those extroverts who thought the world revolved around relationships, who was never more happy than when he was surrounded by four or five generations of squabbling relatives.

“The English are weird.” Ruan dismissed the subject in a voice that put an unwelcome distance between them, and addressed his next remark to Jennifer. “You find anything?”

She emerged from the van with the bag of guts in one hand and Sam’s keys in the other. “I see no chainsaw, nor nothing else that could have made those cuts,” she conceded, locking the door behind her. The straight lines of fury around her mouth echoed straight lines of puzzlement on her brow. “And it’s true he’d have had to have sommat of the sort. Nor I don’t see him keeping the offal and throwing away a good saw. Be more likely the other way around.”

“What am I going to do?” Sam asked. Trying and failing to scrape together some dignity, he held out his hand for his van keys. “That laptop was my lifeline. I can’t afford another one.”

He squeezed his eyes closed against the sudden awareness of the hard square of his phone in his pocket. His mother’s voice nagged in his head, telling him to phone home. To let them come and rescue him.

Dew settled lightly on his bare palm. He snapped his eyes back open as a jangle of untuned metal heralded Jennifer putting Sam’s keys in her pocket. “What? My keys!”

“You come along down to the house with us.” Jennifer’s voice had lost a little ice but none of its implacability. “Looks like this is a police matter after all. You can wait for them there as well as here. I don’t want you skipping out on us.”

“Where would I possibly go?” Sam said wearily, surrendering to a life in which he had no say over anything. He followed them back out onto the star grey meadow, back to the standing stones, where Jennifer lowered the guts in their plastic bag back into their original owner.

“You sure it’s not witchcraft?” Ruan asked Sam, watching this with his hand back between the sheepdog’s ears. She had been whimpering at the smell ever since the bag came out of Sam’s van. In the frosty light of the milky way, the pentagram over the dead sheep’s head was surrounded by shadows so dark it might have been levitating above the ground.

Sam sighed. “Not really,” he conceded. “A commonly held belief among Wiccans and witches of other traditions is that whatever energy you put out returns to you threefold. So ill-wishing someone would lead to you being harmed worse yourself. That tends to rule out trying to hurt people. But there are folk out there who don’t believe in the rule of three. And there are people who will experiment with magic without joining a religion or a tradition, who therefore haven’t been warned of potential consequences to themselves. It’s a very diverse community. This sigil is nothing I recognize, but it could be a threat. Or a warning. Or a hex. I’ve got to assume that anything that involves killing your livestock without permission probably doesn’t mean you well.”

“You think it’s a curse? On Auntie Jennifer?” Ruan’s shiver was pronounced enough that Sam could watch its progress in the flex of his shoulders, the nervous twitch of his fingers. Belatedly he recognized that while he was intrigued by what he regarded as a fascinating intellectual puzzle, Ruan was genuinely afraid.

“Don’t talk cack, you,” Jennifer growled and pushed them both out of the stone circle and down towards the electric light of the house. “It’s some sicko thief, nothing more.”

from Publishers Weekly

This is an appealing, heartfelt tale.