Extract: The Search by Howard Linskey
Little Susan Verity went missing during the heatwave of 1976. An unprecedented amount of police resources went into finding her, but to no avail. Until now. Serial killer Adrian Wicklow was always the prime suspect. He’s lied to the police about Susan’s whereabouts repeatedly but this time, he says, he’ll tell the truth. Because Wicklow is dying.
As the case re-opens DS Ian Bradshaw works with investigative journalists Tom Carney and Helen Norton to find Susan. But this is Wicklow’s life’s work. Would a killer on death’s door give up his last secret so easily?
Read on for the first chapter from The Search!
by Adrian Wicklow
I screamed from day one.
I was born screaming, or so my dear mother told me. I screamed from the moment they dragged me into this ridiculous world.
‘This one has plenty to say for himself,’ the midwife told her, and she was right about that but no one was listening. Nobody paid me any attention. Not for years.
Then I started killing and it all changed. All of a sudden, people cared. I killed again and again. They were desperate to find me then. Some of them became obsessed with me. It felt so good to know I was in everybody’s thoughts. You see, everything changed when I started taking their children.
They noticed me then.
‘I dare you to do it,’ she told him, ‘I double dare you.’
So it was a double dare and he couldn’t just ignore it.
‘Why should I?’
‘Because I double dare you,’ she repeated, and there was no arguing with that. It was reason enough for a ten-year-old boy to do as he was asked. The fact she was a girl, and he didn’t want to look like a coward in front of her, clinched it. If he didn’t do this dare, she’d tell all the other girls and they’d flap their elbows like chickens and make clucking noises when he walked by. He couldn’t bear the thought of that.
But it was a very long way down.
Maybe she would tell the girls if he did do it, and then he’d be a bloody hero. That gave him courage and he took a step closer to the edge, but only a step. He was still a little way back from the perimeter fence, but he could see the great expanse of the old limestone quarry ahead of him. Most of the basin of the huge quarry was flooded, and nature had reclaimed it. Vegetation grew where once bare rock had been, while thick bushes thrived all around the flood water, from the bottom of the slopes until they hugged the steep sides of the quarry, which were covered in moss. Even trees grew out of the ledges here, before stretching upwards, as if trying to climb the cliffs of the quarry so they could haul themselves out and make a break for freedom.
The limestone had been hewn out years ago for building projects, and all that remained was a huge crater. Most of the stone became part of the new houses that widened the village of Maiden Hill on all sides during the boom years of the sixties. These two-up two-downs ringed the village like the circled wagons in a western.
The enormous hole that remained seemed to stretch for miles and miles, but he could still see the other end. It wasn’t how wide the crater was that was troubling him; it was how deep it looked. Every kid in the village was frightened of the quarry. They had all heard tales of children who had disappeared out here; swallowed up by the dark water at one end of the crater or dashed to pieces on the rocks at the other. Everyone knew that ghosts lived out here and bogeymen, and there was a grey lady too, who haunted the place after dark and could scare people to death with just one look. You were all right as long as you went in a group or with a friend, but if you came out here on your own those evil spirits would rush out at you and push you over the edge of the quarry just so they could watch you fall and listen while you screamed.
Every kid knew that.
The adults didn’t believe it, though. His mum had told him it was all nonsense. ‘Don’t you think I’d have read about it in the paper,’ she asked him, while she was baking in the kitchen, ‘if a kid had gone over the edge of that quarry? Don’t you reckon we’d have heard about it if someone was missing a child?’ And she laughed at his fears and offered him her wooden spoon to lick the cake mix from. Adults didn’t understand these things. They had forgotten what it was like to be a child; to believe in something because you just know it deep down to be true. They had to be told things by the TV or newspapers, but they were just stories as well, so how did they know they weren’t made up?
He knew the stories were real, so he couldn’t understand why the girl wasn’t scared, and this meant he couldn’t be frightened either. He wasn’t allowed to be more scared than a girl. That was another rule.
He hesitated now and looked at the gap in the wire.
‘I’ll go through the fence as well,’ she assured him, ‘just to watch you. I’m not doing it, but you can do it. I bet you can.’
He took his time thinking about it then gingerly edged further forward until he was able to stretch out his leg and push it through a gap in the fence. He wondered who had pulled at this first and how long it had taken them to worry away at it until they were able to bend the wire up and apart, forcing a hole in the fence that had been placed here to keep everyone away from the sheer drop that lay beyond it. He wondered how many other kids had gone through it, as he was about to. He had to hold on to the wire and lower himself virtually to the ground so he was almost on his back, then slide his feet through the gap first, his coat catching on the ragged wire until he managed to wriggle free.
Then he was through the gap and he stood up on the other side, a giddy, dizzying feeling sweeping over him, part excitement, part fear.
‘See,’ she said from behind the fence. ‘You did it, and there’s plenty of room.’
And there was.
He was standing on a plateau that jutted out into the bowl of the quarry’s giant crater but there was nothing now to protect him from a long fall on to sharp rocks. The fence had been placed around the quarry in a large, uneven circle. Most of the time, it went right to the edge, and there was nothing beyond the fence but a sheer drop. The crater wasn’t a perfect circle, though, so here and there slabs of land became imprisoned beyond the fence and jutted out into the quarry like jetties on a lake. The bit he was standing on was easily large enough for her to join him, and she wriggled through. On one side, tall, thick bushes created a natural barrier at the edge. The other side of the plateau was unprotected. He felt sick just standing there now. He knew if he were to close his eyes and take three steps he would fall over the edge, then be dead and gone for ever.
‘You’ve done it… almost!’ she said, but that wasn’t true. The really hard part, the bit she had double dared him to do, still remained. She wanted him to hold on to the wire fence from the inside and leave the relative safety of their rocky outcrop to make his way along the edge of the quarry, which had only a small, rutted bit of grassy land against it to keep him safe. He would have to plant his feet on a ledge that wasn’t much wider than his shoes while holding on for his life with splayed fingers that clutched the octagonal gaps in the wire as he went hand over hand.
He leaned forward again and looked at the ground far below. ‘I don’t know,’ he said, trying to sound calm. ‘What if I fall?’
‘You won’t fall. Freddie Andrews didn’t fall.’
‘Yeah, but he’s thirteen,’ he reminded her, ‘and his dad’s in prison.’ This meant Freddie had nothing to lose because his life was already horrible and it wasn’t ever going to get any better, not never. Freddie had scrambled around that edge from the inside like he didn’t care if he fell or not. He’d reached the other gap in the wire, which had to be at least twenty steps along the ledge, before you even knew it. Then he’d climbed out to cheers that must have been the highlight of his sad, young life.
‘Naah,’ he said. ‘I could do it…’ He wanted her to know he was capable of the act. ‘I just don’t want to.’
‘Go on!’ she urged him. She smiled then, and the smile seemed to come from deep within and something lit up inside him. That smile made him want to do anything she asked.
There was a fire in her eyes when she said, ‘I triple dare you.’
‘So I suppose I was the last one to see her alive,’ Billy told the awestruck girl in the pub. ‘Well, not the last, obviously,’ and he gave her the grim half-smile he always used at this point.
‘Oh my God,’ she said. ‘That’s terrible,’
He was already wondering if he had overcooked it or whether the line had grown stale from repetition over the years. It hadn’t quite tripped off his tongue this time. He felt like an old club comedian who has told the same joke once too often.
And he was drunk. Perhaps too drunk.
None of this stopped her from taking his hand in hers and giving it a supportive squeeze, so maybe there was some hope. The barren run had to end sometime, right?
‘It’s just sooo sad and awful,’ she was empathising now, her eyes wide and tears beginning to form in them. ‘I don’t know how you’ve coped with this for so long.’ She shook her head solemnly and he wondered if she would lean in for the hug, or if perhaps he should risk it, but he hesitated, mindful of the age gap between them. Was it really eleven years? Apparently so. He was thirty and this student just nineteen. It had been so much easier when he was the same age as them. Teenagers were always so emotional with one another and everything seemed huge and overblown. He would pick one who was sitting on her own ‒ the depressed girl at a party who was maybe not as good-looking as her friends, say ‒ then he’d ask her if she was okay. He’d permit her a few self-indulgent minutes to moan about her sadness and isolation while offering more sympathy than it was worth, then he would gradually give up his own tale, one sentence at a time, as if reluctant to do so. This was of course also the story of poor little Susan Verity, and almost everyone had heard of her.
If he pitched it exactly right, the girl on the receiving end of his story would not only feel sorry for him but would usually be mortified at having bothered him at all with her own trivial problems. That would be his ‘in’. If things went really well he might even ask to crash at her place for the night and, once he was in her room…
Danny called him the king of the sympathy-shag, but Billy wasn’t bothered. The notion amused him, in fact, and he had come to think of this as the only perk of the millstone around his neck. Billy Thorpe would always be the last person on earth to have seen poor little Susan Verity alive before she was taken by a monster, and this had stayed with him, as if, somehow, he shared the blame for the village’s guilty secret.
Subconsciously, people tended to steer clear of him. Girlfriends, in particular, were always very hard to come by, as if he carried a form of baggage they were unwilling to take on. Billy learned early on that what happened that day held the power to completely overshadow the rest of his life, even though he was only ten years old at the time. So he didn’t feel bad using this tale to get his end away. Why should he? What else did he have to offer a young woman like this one? He wasn’t tall, he wasn’t good-looking; he didn’t even have a job. He had no other stories with which to impress her; nothing other than his proximity to that tragic girl on the day she was lost.
‘I read about in the paper just this morning,’ the pretty student told him earnestly, her eyes wide, and he tried hard to remember her name. She’d told him at the beginning but it had gone from his mind almost instantly because of the drink. ‘It’s nearly the anniversary, isn’t it?’
He nodded sadly. ‘Yeah, so it’s impossible to forget about it all, even if I wanted to. Which I don’t,’ he added quickly, in case she thought him callous.
‘You poor thing,’ she said. ‘Twenty years ago,’
‘And it still seems like yesterday,’ he confided.
‘I wasn’t even born then,’ she said. He could have done without the reminder. He already realized he was punching above his weight with this one. She was not only young but beautiful, with long, dark hair and full red lips he wanted to smother with his own. Her skin was pale and blemish-free.
The girl was back in County Durham from uni and already looking as if she had outgrown the place. The village was no bigger than his own but the pub always attracted a sizeable young crowd, which in turn had attracted him, and it was only a short bus ride away. She let go of his hand then; not suddenly or cruelly, but with a sympathetic, ‘It must be very difficult.’
He gave her his tight-lipped, I’m-a-survivor smile. ‘I have good days and bad days.’
They were interrupted by a great roar from the next room, followed by raucous laughter, which indicated that something was about to get out of hand in the karaoke bar. ‘I’d better be going,’ she said.
He followed her out of the pub and, when they were on the pavement, said, ‘Where do you live again?’ even though she hadn’t told him.
‘The new houses.’
‘They’ve been there six years,’ she reminded him.
He grinned. ‘They’ll always be the new houses.’ He knew how the real villagers here would view outsiders like her parents who’d bought the posh new-builds. ‘I’ll walk you home.’
‘Oh, no. It’s fine, honestly.’ She wasn’t keen on that idea.
‘Can’t have a young girl going home on her own at this hour,’ he said, then looked at her meaningfully. ‘Of all people, I’m never going to let that happen.’
‘Okay.’ She was weakening now he had made it all about Susan’s disappearance. ‘But won’t it take you out of your way?’
He hadn’t told her where he lived or that the last bus had left ten minutes ago and he faced the prospect of a four-mile trudge home in the dark. He fell in next to her without replying and they walked across the village. ‘You can’t be too careful,’ he said, when he realized she wasn’t going to strike up a new conversation. ‘They never did catch him, you know.’
‘I thought some man admitted it. That’s what it said in the paper.’
‘Yeah, he confessed eventually, but a lot of people still reckon it wasn’t him. That bloke Wicklow killed a bunch of kids, so it made no difference to him whether he admitted it or not. Reckon he just told the police what they wanted to hear. You see, most of his victims were found, except for three other kids and her.’
‘God,’ she said, suddenly interested again now. ‘So you think he’s still out there ‒ the man who killed poor Susan?’
It was never just ‘Susan’. Always ‘poor Susan’ or ‘tragic Susan’.
‘Reckon so. He could be dead, I s’pose, but there’s more than one other kid gone missing since that day.’
‘That’s awful. I can’t imagine what it must be like for the parents,’
‘No one can.’
‘And you never saw anyone? You know, following you, when you were with her?’
‘That’s what the police kept asking, but I never saw a soul. I was only ten, but I’d have remembered if I had.’ He realized she was more than a little interested now. They always were. Once they’d heard the story of Susan Verity, they couldn’t get enough of it. They all wanted a few ghoulish titbits to take home with them, something they could tell their pals in the pub. They would boast about knowing him, the last boy to see the vanished girl alive. ‘They said he was probably stalking us all that time.’
‘Really? Crikey.’ She already sounded like some posh southern girl because of that fancy university of hers.
‘So they told me. The police said it was more than likely he’d spotted us when we were all playing in the fields together then followed her after we split into smaller groups. They reckon he must have waited till Susan went off on her own before he approached her.’
‘What do they think happened then?’
She was hooked, wanting to know every gory detail. ‘They don’t know,’ he said, ‘it’s always been a mystery’; and he could see she was disappointed: ‘But there were several theories that didn’t make it into the newspapers’ ‒ and that piqued her interest once more.
‘Like what?’ she asked, and she stopped walking at that point so she could turn to face him.
‘Well, I shouldn’t say,’ he said, and she looked disappointed, ‘but if you promise not to tell anyone…’
‘Of course,’ she said.
‘Cross your heart and hope to die?’
‘Figure of speech,’ he said, and he jerked his head to indicate they should keep moving. He didn’t want to run out of stories before he reached her front door.
‘They said he probably lured her away,’ he explained. ‘Offered to show her something interesting, like puppies or kittens, or maybe he said her mother was ill and she had to come with him.’ They were almost at her street now. ‘But I reckon he forced her.’
‘Picked her up and just carried her off,’ he said. ‘She was only a little thing, barely anything of her, really.’
‘But wouldn’t she have screamed?’
‘Maybe, but if he jammed his hand over her mouth…’ he said reasonably. ‘And anyway, who’s going to hear you out there? We were in the fields, remember; miles from anywhere. It was different back then, kids were allowed to roam; their parents didn’t realize how many bad people there were in the world.’
‘God, that’s chilling.’
‘Anyway, I don’t reckon screaming helps.’
‘You don’t?’ The notion alarmed her.
He shook his head. ‘People don’t really react, do they?’
‘I hope they do.’
‘How many times do people hear a shout and think it’s someone having a row that’s none of their business? No,’ he concluded firmly. ‘Screaming doesn’t help.’
He realized she was looking for something in her bag, probably her front-door key. He needed to think quickly. ‘If you’ve got time for a coffee, I can tell you more.’
She understood that he was inviting himself into her home and looked a little alarmed at the prospect. ‘Oh, I can’t. I’m sorry. I’ve got to be up in the morning.’ That was a lie, she was a student. What the hell did students have to get up for anyway?
‘Oh, don’t be boring,’ he said.
‘I’m not,’ she said firmly, ‘I just have to go.’ She could be formidable when she wanted to be. Sometimes, you could pressure a girl into doing things by making her seem like a dull plank, but not this one. ‘But listen, it was great talking to you, and I mean, really, it was all… wow.’ She had either lost the power of speech or was concentrating on getting away from him as swiftly as possible.
‘You, too,’ he said quietly, ‘and thanks for listening to me. Most people don’t understand, but you…’ He gave her his best sad look then. ‘Well, let’s just say, you get it.’
‘Aw… thanks,’ she said, and he got the hug he was hoping for then. He held her close and breathed in the sweet scent from her hair and whatever it was she sprayed her body with before putting on her clothes. God, it felt good, and he wanted it to last for ever, or at least until morning.
She broke free then and, even though he knew it was a long shot, he still leaned in for the kiss, because you never knew.
‘Let’s not,’ she said, pressing both her palms firmly against his chest.
‘I felt like we had a connection.’
‘But I just want to be friends.’
‘I understand,’ he said, though he didn’t, and not for the first time he wondered how she could be so moved by his amazing story ‒ the story of poor, tragic Susan, at any rate – without wanting to be more intimate. What was wrong with him? ‘I’ll still walk you to your door, though,’ he said, but she backed away.
‘No, it’s fine,’ she said. ‘I can literally see my front door from here.’
‘Well, no, you can’t, not really.’ He was taken aback by the lie. At best, she could see the start of the cut that would lead into her street, but it seemed she would rather risk walking through that dimly lit alleyway on her own than go down it with him. He felt the anger begin to bubble up inside him, fuelled, as it always was, by booze and the reality of rejection.
But she was gone already. She’d run across the road, as if she had spotted a brief gap during rush hour, even though they hadn’t seen a single moving car since they left the pub together. ‘Bye!’ she called, and gave him a little wave.
He watched the girl go, taking all his hopes with her.
‘Bitch,’ he said quietly to himself.