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Dark thunderheads blanketed the Suffolk sky, and fat droplets of rain began to spatter the golden leaves scattered across the ground. In the distance, silver lightning streaked between the clouds above, illuminating rolling hills and terrified sheep scampering for shelter.
Jack began to count the seconds as his father had taught him, barely reaching eight before an enormous crack of thunder boomed across the sky. One of the cabinets in the study contained four or five model cannons, and he imagined this was how their functioning counterparts must have once sounded.
He looked over his shoulder towards Nighthill Manor, his home, distant and aloof on the cusp of the valley, unsure if he was expected to go inside now that the weather had turned foul. Although, in truth, Jack didn’t consider it foul at all; a storm like this would be perfect for playing soldiers. Anyway, his father would come and collect him in the jeep if he wanted Jack home early.
He’d been shooting Nazis for about ten minutes when he heard the bleating. It was almost inaudible over the now considerable rumbling overhead, and it took Jack a few seconds to locate the source.
There, just beyond the fence marking the border of King’s Forest, in a dense patch of withered brown bracken. He squinted against the rain, and a pair of twisted horns resolved themselves, curving down around a head covered in shaggy black fur. He didn’t need to see the snapped tip of one of the horns to recognise the visitor.
‘’Sebastian!’’ Jack shouted, dropping his plastic Luger in the grass and hurrying over to the fence, all thoughts of war and soldiers pushed aside by the delight of the sudden reappearance of his friend.
It had been over three weeks since he’d woken up to find the goat absent from its pen. His father had merely grumbled about loose latches and set Maxwell to fitting a new gate, convinced the marauding animal would make its way home in due course. But to Jack, after Jiminy Cricket and Pinocchio’s escape the week before, Sebastian’s disappearance had upset him quite considerably.
So it was with no hesitation that he scrambled over the wire fence and followed the retreating goat into the forest.
He’d been walking for quite a while, picking his way through autumnal foliage and around withered trees with only fleeting glimpses of Sebastian’s shaggy head to guide him, when he stepped into the clearing. As he did so, a deafening peal of thunder sounded above, and he flinched despite himself.
Then he noticed the long, low table standing in the middle of the clearing, and when he saw the pair seated at it side by side, he began to smile.
Jiminy Cricket, holding a pink floral teacup in one furry paw, a dark green flat cap cocked back on his head and a yellow scarf fluttering gently in the breeze, and Pinocchio, who looked simply marvellous in a deep burgundy waistcoat, top hat and matching cravat. The hares twitched their heads to regard Jack as he took a few tentative steps across the clearing, and Pinocchio motioned stiffly with a thin foreleg for him to join them at the table.
There were others there who Jack didn’t recognise; a grinning fox whose tooth-filled snout poked out from beneath a black trimmed fedora; a slim white ferret, similar to those that Maxwell kept behind the stables, stared at him with glazed yellow eyes as it sipped from a teacup; something that looked like a small monkey crouched at the opposite end of the table, its humanlike features obscured beneath falls of lace and a frilled pink bonnet.
Jack sat down in the only empty seat, opposite Jiminy Cricket and Pinocchio, beside a large badger, its snouted face dominated by pale white eyes, and a tabby-and-white cat with long drooping whiskers. Behind Cricket and Pinocchio stood a huge tree with withered, drooping branches and a hollow trunk. Sebastian’s face was barely visible in the darkened hollow, but his dull red eyes winked in the gloom and Jack waved for him to come out. The goat seemed reluctant to leave, however, and shook its head in response, retreating further into the murk.
Something cold and filthy with bristles touched Jack’s hand, and he instantly recoiled before realising that it was only Jiminy Cricket, reaching across the table to place his diminutive paw on top of Jack’s equally tiny hand. The hare’s mouth pulled back in a lopsided grin, and the boy smiled back.
So engrossed was he as the hare showed him the plates and cups and teapots and cutlery lining the table, that he didn’t hear the dried out leaves crunching behind him.
A gloved hand clamped over his mouth and a strong arm wrapped itself around him, yanking his hand away from Jiminy Cricket’s and pulling him down, down, down into the darkness.
Martin dreamt of music, soft and distant, but beautiful nonetheless.
Faint noises in the corridor roused him from his fitful slumber. Was that a pair of tiny feet slapping against the plush maroon carpet, a slight form running past the slightly ajar bedroom door?
No, of course it wasn’t. Maxwell would have retired to bed by now, and even if he hadn’t the boxer-turned-groundskeeper’s days of running anywhere were long since passed.
Nobody ran in Nighthill Manor’s panelled corridors now. Not for almost a year. Not since Jack. Oh God.
Martin swung his legs out of bed, elbows resting on his thighs, put his head in his hands and began to cry.
He should have sent Maxwell to fetch Jack that day. He should never have let him play so far from the manor in the first place. Without Maria, he hadn’t had a clue how to care for their son. When he was young, his parents had let him roam far and wide, so it was his natural assumption that Jack should be allowed to do the same.
Of course, back then paedophiles and child murderers had been relatively unheard of. The world had changed, but Martin hadn’t changed with it. Raising his head he looked around the room – the Napoleonic oil paintings; the gilded furniture; the gold-trimmed oak panelling. Even this God-forsaken manor house. He’d tear it all down with his bare hands if it would bring Jack back.
Standing, he crossed to the window, which opened onto Nighthill Manor’s rear garden and the valley beyond.
And the woods. The woods where, detectives reasoned, his only son had been stolen from him forever.
Martin’s breath caught in his throat, and he felt as though an ethereal hand had reached into his chest and taken hold of his heart.
About halfway down the valley, moving away from the house towards the woods was a bobbing orange light: A lantern. Martin narrowed his eyes, but was unable to discern the shape or size of whoever was carrying it.
Maxwell? No. The elderly man wouldn’t risk the valley with its holes and pitfalls at this hour; he would know better. There was no need for either of them to go into the woods at all, let alone this late at night.
Martin wasted no time at all in scrambling into a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, pulling on his jacket as he hurtled down the sweeping spiral staircase to the entrance hall. On his way to the front doors, he passed a dark shape against the far wall, frozen in a stream of moonlight. The piano. His son’s piano.
Oh Jack, he thought as he pulled on his walking boots. Oh Jack, I’m so, so sorry.
He had his hand on the antique silver door handle when his mind fully registered what he’d just seen. The piano, yes. But he’d actually seen the piano, seen its polished teak surface and ivory keys, bright white like rows of teeth.
Nobody had touched the piano since…since Jack. Maxwell had thoughtfully covered the beautiful instrument with a thick velvet sheet, and that was how it had stayed. Now, the sheet was pooled on the floor to the right of the piano, yanked aside and left where it had fallen.
Rage welled up inside Martin like a ferocious storm. Somebody had been here, in his house. But that intrusion paled in comparison to the fact that the intruder had touched his son’s piano.
He snatched the door open and dashed out into the night.
From the shadowed doorway to the dining room, a pair of burnished yellow eyes watched the man leave. Satisfied, the stoat slipped out the same way it had entered, through the kitchen. Its breathing was torn and ragged, its blackened tongue lolling from a mouth bursting with needle-sharp teeth. The faint groan of shifting wood and the near-inaudible hum of whirring gears followed it through the darkness.
The woods were black as pitch, and Martin cursed himself a fool for not bringing a torch. He’d lost sight of the orange light when it disappeared into the clusters of spindly trees, and now he caught only the merest snatches of its flickering glow in the distance.
His shins were bleeding and he’d cut his face the first time he’d fallen, but that didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. Nothing except catching whoever it was that had defiled his precious memories of Jack. The only things he had left.
There was a definite awareness of perception here. He cautiously scanned his surroundings for inquisitive eyes.
Something moved in the bracken off to the left, but by the time he’d snapped his head in that direction the motion had ceased. The light reappeared, directly ahead of him, and he hurried towards it. He kept low to the ground, moving as silently as possible, but was almost shocked into screaming when something sleek and furry brushed past his legs before vanishing into the undergrowth.
Composing himself and breathing deeply, he stepped into a clearing that had once been flooded with yellow tape and ultraviolet light.
There, beneath the eaves of a drooping willow where he’d held a distraught Maria as forensic teams combed the area, was a table. Pink plastic with garish chairs to match, it was the sort one would expect to see at a little girl’s tea party, were it not so stained and filthy.
It wasn’t the table that snatched the breath from Martin’s lungs. Nor was it the chairs. It was the slumped forms seated upon them.
The lantern he’d seen the figure carrying had been placed on the table and its flickering light illuminated his surroundings with sickening clarity. As he stepped closer, Martin raised a hand to cover his mouth. Dear God, the stench was enough to make him vomit.
The warm, welcoming glow of the lantern belied its surroundings. The things at the table were monstrosities. The closest of them was an egregious fox; a fedora perched almost comically atop its head and a grimy plastic fork in its hand. What the devil was going on here? There was a bloody fox in –
About to turn away, Martin froze. Its hand. Since when did foxes have hands?
Against his better judgement, he looked back down. A swollen fly crawled across the small pale hand protruding from the sleeve of the fox’s tweed jacket. The flesh had blackened in places, sloughing away to reveal glimpses of yellowing bone. It had a strange, burnished finish to it.
Steeling himself, he reached forward and tugged the fox’s sleeve back. The wrist – so tiny he could have encircled it with thumb and forefinger – ended in jagged stitches an inch or so from the hand. The remainder of the arm to be seen was thin and covered in glossy red fur. He stumbled away in horror, screaming aloud as he backed straight into the fox’s neighbour, an abominable hare with a jaundiced yellow scarf wrapped tightly around its neck.
It tumbled out of its seat and…hung in the air.
The air itself seemed to pull taut. Wires, so fine as to be almost imperceptible, ran from every major joint of the hare’s body, up into the branches of the willow, suspending it in mid-air like some deplorable puppet. The wires hung from the willow’s branches like a giant spider-web, ascending to lofty heights before descending the trunk and disappearing into the darkness of the hollow.
The scarf slipped from the hare’s neck and fluttered to the ground. Martin fell to his knees and vomited. Its head was nestled atop the stump of a human neck, rudimentary stitching holding the animals furred cheeks in place. Needing to tear his eyes away from the bloodless, marble-like neck, he looked up at the hare’s face.
Realisation smashed into him like a sledgehammer. Jiminy Cricket.
It could be any hare, of course, but Martin knew that it wasn’t. He stumbled to his feet, standing groggily on legs threatening to give way any second.
Pinocchio’s paw jerked into motion, sending a rigid wave across the table to Martin. He screamed and staggered backwards. The police. He needed to call the police.
In the willow’s hollow trunk, twigs cracked underfoot.
Martin exploded over the table in a spray of cheap plastic dinnerware, nausea and law enforcement forgotten, knocking Pinnochio aside and crashing into a monstrous, monocle-wearing pig. He shoved the thing away in disgust, repulsed at the feel of its clammy skin, snatched the lantern from the table and squeezed into the hollow.
The stench was overwhelming. One summer, when he was a boy, he’d visited his uncle’s slaughterhouse. Beneath a scorching August sun, the odour of decaying flesh had infested every inch of the place. This was worse. Martin immediately saw why.
Leaning against the wall was a long metal pole. Impaled upon its tip was a goat’s head. He knew it was Sebastian without even looking. Aligned vertically next to it, a row of wooden levers and cogs; so that was where the wires led.
Dear God, how long had this maniac been watching his family?
He raised the lantern higher and answered his own question. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of Polaroids were pinned to the inside of the stump; Jack laughing and petting Sebastian; Jack standing on Martin’s shoulders, wearing his Spider-Man t-shirt and waving an ice-cream above his head. They had been taken from the edge of the treeline, judging by their angles.
The next photo turned Martin’s blood to ice. Wrapped in a duvet adorned with purple dinosaurs, Jack dozed peacefully. One hand was clutching the duvet. The other was snaked around Martin’s shoulders as the two of them dozed peacefully.
That had been on Jack’s fourth birthday.
He was crying now, tears streaming down his face as he took in the twisted visual history spread before him. Two A4 sized photos were tacked in the center. Martin howled in agony.
The first showed Jack, wearing the same khaki shorts and brown t-shirt as the day he’d disappeared. He was laying on his back, pale and motionless, eyes closed and hands clasped on his chest. Next to him was a pig, bloated and bloody. Beneath them both was a sheet of light blue tarpaulin. Between them, small clear bags of what looked like sawdust, tiny blocks of wood and a pile of miniscule cogs and gears.
In the second, Martin lay sleeping in his own bed. Standing beside him, staring fixedly at his prone form, was a monocle-wearing pig. The photograph was dated September 22nd.
Something shuffled behind him, fallen leaves crunching beneath its cloven hooves. Martin couldn’t turn to face it, couldn’t even move.
Silence. He stood in the reeking hollow with his heart thudding in his ears. The lantern slipped from his grasp, and something was pressed into his palm to replace it.
Holding the plastic Luger in a white-knuckle grip, Martin sank to his knees.
Small arms enfolded him from behind and a cold snout pressed itself against the back of his neck. The subtle click of hidden machinery was followed by a shallow breath.
From the darkness, a rasping voice.
Credit To – Tom Farr