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The morning sea was calm, the gentle ripple of its waves washing nothing but stray flecks of foam upon the rocks on the shore. Overhead, low clouds enveloped the skyline. They would hang there for the rest of the day. At this time of year, the sun was too distant to fully burn through them.

It was now almost 24 hours since the body washed up, and at least 36 since it ceased living. So far no formal identification had been made and, if foul play was involved, neither a motive nor a perpetrator had been established.

If these things existed at all, they were surely known to someone. Someone out there knew who she was, who she had been before she fell to her death. And someone out there knew whether she threw herself to the waves or found herself thrown by another. Until the small clues that washed up like seaweed-entangled fishing nets were unravelled, these secrets would remain hidden in the blind alleys and dead ends of Bridgelands Cross.

The village’s secrets were hidden so well that the casual visitor would sense nothing wrong beneath the picture-postcard scenery. At the head of the peninsula, an unmanned lighthouse stood proud and white above the cliffs. Rows of ornate cottages on the far side of the coastline silently showcased ideal retirement homes. All this whimsical beauty drew the eye away from the dereliction found elsewhere.

In the wasteland behind the Forest View Lodge, the village’s lone hotel, a disused water tower perched upon rusty tripod legs, its weathered exterior discoloured by fetid algae. Between the forest and the main road, the dilapidated buildings of an abandoned industrial estate formed a ghost town of bankrupt venture capital. Someone must once have thought there was money to be made here, and that someone had surely lost significantly on their blighted ambition.

It was precisely this damned ruination upon which the village of Bridgelands Cross had originally been built.

Bridgelands Cross. Even the name was a misnomer. There were no bridges anywhere near. Even if there were, there was nothing for those bridges to cross. According to local lore, though backed up by not a single history book, the name derived from Charles Bridgeland, a monied settler who’d made his wealth operating mills during the Industrial Revolution.

The land was deserted then; no more than an enclave of a few hundred acres running from where the forest ended to where the sea began. Without any real shore, there was no chance of building a port and the potential for industry was negligible.

Charles Bridgeland himself only happened upon the area after getting lost in the deep woods that cut the land off from civilisation. Reluctant to acknowledge any sign of misfortune, he maintained to his dying day that he’d been led there for a reason beyond mortal understanding.

He had not been a rich man then; merely one of many entrepreneurs who’d grasped the profit implicit in the latest mechanical advances. With the right location, he could import material cheaply, transform it into finished goods and then export at a significant mark-up. As his other investments started to pay out, he sent workers to the enclave he’d uncovered, and tasked them with clearing enough woodland to build an access road to the land.

Bridgeland had always fostered the seed of insanity, and as his wealth grew his madness grew with it. By the time he laid claim to the area, he was convinced he was receiving messages from a higher power and had cultivated the unfortunate habit of making unpredictable proclamations during public gatherings. Although his pronouncements were tolerated, Bridgeland knew most everyone found them objectionable, and he feared he would soon be crucified as retribution for delivering this divine communication.

Stamping his title on the deserted land, he was said to have predicted his eventual crucifixion would take place there, and instructed his carpenters to fashion the finest cross known to man. Bridgeland had no desire to die, yet if this was what it took for the heathen majority to heed his teachings, he accepted it as the price he’d have to pay.

When he wasn’t berating his peers for their insidious evil, Bridgeland was with his carpenters, instructing them on the ever more ornate detail his cross should adhere to and critiquing their handiwork, which consistently failed to meet his satisfaction. Such was his perfectionism that no cross was ever completed and, rather than become a divine sacrifice, Charles Bridgeland and his paranoia passed away from natural causes, the details of which were lost to the mists of time.

With no such superstitions, several of his workers made their home in Bridgelands Cross upon their employer’s death, where they supposed their proximity to the sea would help them prosper. This was, after all, partly how their deceased master had made his fortune elsewhere.

Their plans soon ran aground when they discovered the coastline of Bridgelands Cross could contain no permanent harbour, and the tides were too temperamental for any vessel to navigate. When the sea was silent, boats could bob in a fixed position without anchor for days. Then, without warning, renegade waves would lift those same boats out of the water and smash them against the cliff-face.

Their short-lived venture bestowed little more than a name upon the area. Before long, all had returned to the industrial docklands from which they first arrived, the access road lain for their master serving as their final exit.

In time other settlers would find other ways to cultivate the land. A number of the houses they’d built still stood today and, several generations later, many of those families remained in the area. The Hagstroms, the Sheehans, the Unwins. Having perished childless and unmarried, none of today’s inhabitants were descended from the village’s founder.

Much had changed since Charles Bridgeland first stumbled upon the place. The road he once commissioned had later been expanded, and now ran in a horseshoe to the coastline before exiting through the trees on the far side of the village. A small school had been opened, along with a handful of shops, a cafe and a pub, to service the small community that blossomed in the years that followed.

Yet some things stayed exactly the same. A pathway leading down to the rocky shallows of the shore may have been constructed, yet the sea remained as treacherous as it had ever been.

During the recent storm, the waves had reared up with almost supernatural force, each one a giant liquid claw reaching for the cliff face. The walkway stretching the length of the clifftop became hazardous to walk on, even the sections with a guardrail. At midnight, the sweep of the lighthouse beam cut through the darkness, highlighting the ruination wrought by the delinquent tides.

The body had only been discovered once the storm passed. Jack Lacey, the local forestry worker who found it washed up on the rocks, could tell the police only three things about his find. The victim was a white female. By his reckoning, she’d been in her early to mid-twenties. She was not anyone he recognised.

Max Sheehan, the local chief of police, told Lacey to keep news of his discovery to himself. In a village this size, however, it didn’t take long for news of a death to reach everyone. The death of a stranger only heightened local fears. What, everyone wanted to know, had the woman been doing in Bridgelands Cross? Was her death a tragic accident or were there undesirables lurking in their neighbourhood?

So far, those questions remained unanswered and a hushed anxiety hung invisible in the air.

This morning there was no sign there had ever been any storm, no sign that any body ever washed up on angry waves. But the calm was deceptive. Having feasted on the dead girl, the sea was simply no longer hungry. Now it slept with the silent satisfaction of knowing the secrets of her passing; the mysteries those left behind would have to figure out for themselves.

* * *

Midway between his home and Bridgelands Cross, Ethan Cole took the slip-road off the motorway and pulled into a service station. He was 26, though the dark circles hanging heavy beneath his eyes aged him by a decade. Right now he felt older still.

The call had reached him the previous day. After the unknown girl’s details were filtered through a database of missing persons, his name had come up as a possible next-of-kin. If Ethan could provide a positive identification, the authorities would have one less name on their database.

He was on his way to identify her now. He had no idea whether he could help the authorities with their investigation and was even less sure if he wanted to. If he recognised the body, he would know for certain that Sophia was dead. The grieving process that should have started when she disappeared five years ago could finally begin, and the doubts that plagued his nightmares could be buried for good.

Yet, in recognising the corpse, he would also be burying the hope that lay on the flipside of his despair. There would no longer be any possibility – however remote – that he would one day hear Sophia’s voice when he answered the phone, no chance that he might someday open the door and find her standing on the other side. The sun would no longer light either face of the moon.

If the body in the mortuary was that of a stranger, Ethan would have no further answers of his own, but the grief would be someone else’s. His elderly acquaintances could still light candles when they prayed. When his anxiety kept him from sleeping, Ethan could still look into the night sky and see stars in its darkness.

Waking in a hotel room in Bridgelands Cross, Clara Dalle propped herself up in the bed where her partner still lay sleeping. She and Malcolm had arrived in the village just as news of the body’s discovery was moving by word of mouth among the locals.

Perhaps it was paranoia brought on by a day of travelling, but Clara was sure she’d sensed hostility upon their arrival, as if their presence was somehow connected to the stranger found dead on the shoreline. A tightknit community, the villagers talked to each other in whispers that fell to silence whenever she was within earshot.

Clara had seen suspicion on the faces of those she’d passed, and she’d seen that same suspicion in the aged hoteliers while booking into the decrepit residence where she now lay. They might simply have been frowning upon the age difference – people often cast judgement when they saw a middle-aged man accompanied by a woman young enough to be his daughter – but Clara felt it was more than that. Even with a night’s sleep behind her, she still couldn’t shake the feeling that she and Malcolm were irrevocably entwined with the unfortunate woman’s death.

While the locals might wonder what she was doing here, Clara could ask the same question. She had no reason to be here, but then she had no reason to be anywhere else. She’d never had any reason for the things she did, but she did them anyway. Malcolm assured her he had important business to attend to in the area, although what sort of business might be conducted in such a seemingly forgotten corner of the world was a mystery to Clara.

Wrestling a little more of the blanket away from her partner’s sleeping form, she wrapped a pillow around her head but doubted she would get back to sleep. It was hard to relax when the description of the girl who’d died sounded so similar to Clara herself. While there might be no foul play at work, if Clara was to stay in the village any length of time, she prayed the investigation would be thorough.

Like Clara, DI Nick Ingram had woken early. Unlike Clara, he’d risen from his bed, dressed and driven over to the central police offices for the region.

‘Pressing 240 at the gym,’ he called to DC Jeff Donohue, who loitered by the coffee machine.

‘Pleased for you,’ Donohue replied, sounding not at all impressed by Ingram’s latest feat.

Ingram knew Donohue wasn’t one for exercise. Donohue mightn’t be in bad shape now, but that wouldn’t necessarily be the case in five years’ time. Ingram, on the other hand, was more toned than any man less than a year from his fortieth birthday had any right to be. His wife once told him that he was too handsome to be a policeman and, after ten years of marriage, Ingram knew better than to argue with his wife.

Leaving Donohue, he returned to his desk to look over the case notes, as minimal as they were, for the woman who’d perished in Bridgelands Cross. An accident like this wouldn’t normally concern him and, officially, the job was still with the local constabulary.

However Bridgelands Cross was a quiet area with a police force unused to dealing with suicide, let alone a possible homicide. Max Sheehan was in charge of the locale and, knowing this, Ingram wanted to keep a close eye on developments. If the case turned out to be more than an unfortunate accident during a heavy storm, he didn’t want Sheehan blundering his way through the inquiry.

He was aware Sheehan had a long and unblemished record with the force. He was also aware of the many years of experience Sheehan had over Ingram’s own. Yet Ingram hadn’t progressed as far as he had by turning a blind eye to the shortcomings of more experienced officers. He suspected Sheehan’s methods would be less than methodical and, as much as he hated to rely on gut feeling, his instinct told him there was more to this one than initial appearances suggested.

If there was someone out there who knew who the woman was, Ingram wanted them brought in. If there was someone lurking in those dark forests surrounding the village with any involvement in her death, Ingram wanted them charged. If this meant riding roughshod over Max Sheehan, then this was a problem Sheehan would have to deal with.

Ingram didn’t care that Bridgelands Cross was small and remote; he knew those dense forests hid as many secrets as had sunk beneath its sea.

Through those woodlands walked a man known locally only as Michael. His thinning white hair was plastered across an equally pale scalp, and his piercing blue eyes peered up at the sky from a curiously ageless face, as if following the disappearing stars for guidance. He was here because he could be nowhere else. And he kept walking because he knew only too well the dangers facing him if he stopped.

Whatever happened, he had to keep one step ahead of them. He knew someone would take the blame for the girl’s death, just as he knew that if they caught him, they would be quick to apportion that blame. Regardless of their laws, Michael was in no mind to take the rap for this one. If they wanted to mete out their punishment, they would have to catch him first.

When he remembered what had happened, Michael no longer saw the trees or bushes surrounding him. He no longer heard the birds in the branches, nor the crunch of dead leaf underfoot. When he remembered what had happened, all Michael saw was the storm. And the cliffs. And the woman, unknown to all, prepared as a sacrifice to the water.

He’d been walking through the forest ever since, tracing a constricting spiral into its hidden core as the storm blew itself out. He was tired now. Too tired to feel any guilt, regardless of whether or not he should feel remorse at the woman’s passing. Yet he was determined to keep moving. It didn’t matter that they’d always found him before. There was a first time for everything.

‘What is it you want me to do?’ he groaned at the skies.

Then, one somnolent foot in front of the other, Michael continued to walk. If he walked deep enough into the forest, the trees would shield him from the ever-present sound of the waves rolling in from the coast. It was a sound he could no longer bear to hear.

He heard the squawk of a gull flying above the trees, its wings flapping as it headed for the shore. For all Michael knew, it too had witnessed the woman’s demise and was now returning to the coast to share its secret. Thinking it a secret best left unshared, Michael moved deeper into the trees. All the while, the sea lapped a gentle rhythm against the stones and rocks. Placid and innocuous, and laughing quietly at its own culpability.

Follow: Ethan / Clara / Ingram / Michael (this option not available for preview)

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