The silence was eerie. No birds singing, no noise from the wind. Just an oppressive silence. Only his own footsteps through the dried leaves made any sound. A soft, muffled crunch. Something was out there. He wanted to run, to get as far a way as humanly possible. But he knew he had to stay; he had to help. As long as it didn't kill him first.
James Hathaway bolted upright in bed, breath heaving and heart thundering. The buzzing of his phone as it vibrated across the bedside table finally penetrated his awareness; it was likely what had woken him from the dream. Working on autopilot, he answered the call, took a note of the brief details of the crime scene and hung up again.
He was thoroughly shaken by the dream, but he couldn't really pinpoint why. There was a forest, he recalled. And a threat. Though for the life of him he couldn't say what that threat had been.
As he pushed himself up from the bed, and headed for a shower, the memory of the dream started to fade. By the time he was lacing up his shoes and checking his jacket for his warrant card and pocketing his phone he'd almost entirely put it out of his mind.
It was a shame it didn't stay like that.
That creeping feeling of unease, and an underlying vague dread picked up again as he pulled off the main road at the crime scene. A patrol car, lights flashing and lighting up the shaded road in the predawn gloom, was parked just off the road. PC Hardiman stood by it, holding a tablet to note down arrivals. She bent to the window to speak to Hathaway.
"They're about half a mile down the track," she told him, "You'll get the car through ok, as long as you take it easy. Not too much mud. SOCO arrived about twenty minutes ago."
James thanked her and slowly took the car over the rutted ground and followed the obvious track heading into the forest. He switched on his main beams in the hope of dispelling the feeling of fear that sent shivers up his spine. The creepy shadows created as the headlights shone onto the trees didn't help.
The feeling of deja vu was undeniable as he finally jumped down from the embankment of the forest track and into the large clearing.
Even with the lights and police tape, and suited scene of crimes officers buzzing around, it was unquestionably the same.
As far as he was aware, James had never set foot in these woods in his life, and yet he was absolutely certain that this was it. This was the same place. That exact clearing in the exact forest where less than an hour ago, he had stood in his dream.
Once they were back in the office, having done all they could on scene, they were trying to decide where to start with an unidentified victim while they waited for some preliminary findings from Forensics. Robbie Lewis could see that his sergeant was out of sorts. Though several years gaining experience in the care and feeding of one James Hathaway meant that he knew better than to ask outright what was wrong.
"Funny one, this." he tried as an opening gambit. James only hummed in a non-committal sort of a way in response. "Lone woman; shallow grave in the woods. No ID, but no sign of a sexual motive either it seems."
"No immediately obvious sign of a violent sexual assault." James corrected. "Doesn't rule out a sexual motive."
Robbie was pleased to get a response out of James, even if only to be pedantic about the lack of concrete information on the case so far. The only things they had to go on were that she was a woman, probably aged somewhere between 25 and 40, and that she was likely strangled. Even the location of her death was uncertain, with SOCO only being able to offer: probably not here….
"You got anything from missing persons yet?" Robbie asked. James was doing the bulk of the task of trawling through the missing persons' database to see if they could identify their anonymous victim from that. Robbie meanwhile was compiling a list of contacts for the forest and its owners and managers, to see if they could shed any light on matters.
"Only bleak despair at the ephemeral nature of human existence."
"Well that's a normal Tuesday for you, isn't it?" Robbie asked, with a grin.
Dragging James kicking and screaming out of his sombre moods was sometimes a winner. Not this time though. James merely snorted an unamused laugh, and continued to stare at his screen as he slowly scrolled down the page.
"Do you ever get deja vu?" James asked after a few minutes of silence.
"Of course; doesn't everyone?"
"No, but...Really strongly. You know you've never been somewhere before except that your own brain is telling you it's completely familiar?"
Robbie leant back in his chair and looked at James. This sort of information, volunteered seemingly at random, had to be of relevance. James was still staring resolutely at his screen, but tellingly his hand was no longer scrolling the mouse wheel.
"Not recently, no. I take it you have, sergeant?" he finally asked.
James glanced over, met his gaze fleetingly, then returned to stare again at his computer screen.
James was quiet again for a moment, and Robbie was just about to give up on getting a response.
"I was dreaming. This morning when I got the call out. I was dreaming about a forest. And then when I got to the woods, it was the same."
"Ah, association of ideas. Coincidence, man. You know as well as I do, you put two unrelated items near each other, and people want to make a connection. Normal human brain reaction. So when it's two similar things it's no surprise that it would seem even stronger."
"Of course, sir. It was daft of me to mention it." James replied. He still wouldn't meet Robbie's eye, and Robbie was suddenly certain that he'd given the wrong response. In most things, James was just as cynical and realist as he was. But it seemed that something about his dream had him rattled.
Robbie sighed and scrubbed his face with his hands. He'd found himself becoming more and more concerned about James's welfare these days. If he was truly honest with himself he was rather more invested in James's happiness than was perhaps proper for an inspector to feel about his sergeant.
"C'mon," he announced. "Let's go and get some proper coffee. Once we're back it should be a decent enough time for me to start making some of these phone calls."
That night, it took James a long time to fall asleep. They'd got no further with their identification. The woman's fingerprints and DNA had failed to provide a match with any known records, and so far there were several missing women in the right age bracket, but none of them were obvious matches for the dead body.
He was also still feeling rattled about his dream and reluctant to sleep for fear of dreaming again. It was a deeply unsettling feeling to know that he'd had the place in his head before he had seen it in real life. And no matter what Lewis said about the association of ideas, he was certain beyond all doubt that it had been the same forest. The same clearing.
He rolled over again, once more flipping his pillow and thumping it into submission. And why did he have to go and admit that about the dream to Robbie anyway? He didn't want to look like an idiot. In fact he was finding more and more lately that he really didn't want to look stupid in front of his boss. And not because he had an eye on career advancement either…
He closed his eyes again, frustrated at the lack of sleep and the inevitable passage of time later and later into the night.
He must be asleep he supposed. There were trees. And there was the dead woman, pale with long hair trailing down her back.
She half turned to look at James and beckoned him forward. On the one hand James knew it must surely be a dream. But also he was compelled to follow her. She wanted to show him something.
He followed her through the woods, again they were eerily quiet. He could feel the leaves scrunching under his feet but there was barely any sound to go with it. The woman was too far ahead for James to see her properly, and as she stepped into and out of the shadows of the trees it was as if she flickered in and out of reality.
The trees were denser here. More undergrowth that grabbed and snagged at his trousers as he passed.
Then, as she turned a corner, she flickered once more and disappeared entirely. But it was obvious why she had brought him here.
Another clearing, much like the one they'd started in; like the one where her body had been found the previous morning. Only this one also contained the ruins of a wall: obviously once a small cottage or a well-built storage shed. The grey stone was partially collapsed, and overgrown with moss, lichen and fungus. James stepped closer. He reached out a hand and touched the wall. It was cold and rough and wet.
He clambered up and over the wall at its lowest point, and that's where he saw them.
Three small figures, swaddled in white cloth, blank faces and staring eyes. The bodies of three children, lying prone and gazing sightless at the tree canopy above. James crouched down over the nearest child, a little boy, and reached out a hand to touch that cold cheek.
With a jolt, and what felt like a freezing burn from his fingertips all down his arm, James awoke with a start. Panting and sweating in the dim light of his bedroom.
Robbie arrived early in the office the next morning, yet still he saw his sergeant had beaten him to it. And hadn't slept well, by the look of it.
James was slumped forward over his desk, his hands clutching at handfuls of what hair he had grown over the past few months. The weight of his head clearly being supported by his elbows, which in turn were resting on what looked like an Ordnance Survey map of the woods where they'd found their body.
"Everything ok?" Robbie asked by way of greeting.
James didn't seem to have heard him approach and his head jerked up, startled. He stared at Robbie, looking pale. Dark smudges under his eyes, and faint lines apparent around them. Robbie's gut twisted: he hated seeing James in such a state. He longed for nothing more than to take him home, settle him in safely, and keep him cocooned from whatever horrors he was obviously facing.
"We need to do a wider search of the woods." James told him, his voice sounding rough and raw. "We've missed something."
"Oh?" Robbie prompted, perching on the edge of James' desk.
"There's a building. Was a building. A ruin now. Look," James poked at a black outlined rectangle, the word 'ruin' printed neatly next to it. It was even further into the woods than they had been yesterday, further from the track.
"If you'd dumped a body a distance from the track before driving off, why would you risk delaying your getaway in order to go further into the woods?" Robbie asked.
"Do you trust me?" James asked.
"You know I do."
"Then trust me on this? Please?"
Robbie sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose.
"It's not really a matter of trust, James. I can't send SOCO in to an inaccessible building on the word of my sergeant who assures me we must have missed something."
Before James could offer a response, the phone rang on Robbie's desk. He leaned over to answer the call, spoke briefly and hung up.
"We've got a provisional ID on the body: missing person's record from over in Midsomer, young woman called Jane Danvers."
James rocked back from the name as if he'd been slapped.
"What?" Robbie asked.
"I know her." James's voice was barely a whisper. "At Crevecoeur. There were two girls on the estate, the Davers sisters. Jane and Mary."
"Could be a coincidence?" Robbie asked. He was aware that something was going on here for Hathaway, but he was damned if he knew what it was.
James was shaking his head slowly.
"Right age bracket. And I heard that they were living in Midsomer now. After the trial," he glanced at Robbie then away quickly, "I just wanted to see who was left. They'd both moved. Mary is married now, lives in Causton. Jane was nearby. Badgers Drift, I think."
Robbie reached out a hand and squeezed James's shoulder.
"How about we get out of the station for a bit. I'll buy you a coffee and a bacon sarnie, and you can tell me your theory about this abandoned building."
Sandwiches eaten, they settled with their coffees on a bench. James lit up a cigarette and blew the smoke up into the air in a long exhale before speaking.
"This sounds mad. I know it sounds mad. But I dreamed last night that I was back in the forest, and that the dead woman - that Jane - was there too. She led me through the trees and to an abandoned building and there were the bodies of three dead children."
Robbie resolutely stared straight ahead and made a conscious effort to process his thoughts before responding. His immediate instinct was to brush this off. To reassure James that it was clearly nothing more than a silly dream. But James seemed so shaken; so certain. He was normally very calm and unflappable and so very cynical. To simply dismiss this out of hand would be to belittle James. And he wasn't willing or able to do that.
"Why should this be anything more than a dream, sergeant?" Robbie finally asked in careful tones.
"I told you yesterday, I'd dreamed about those woods. And then I dream about them again, and our dead woman, and then it turns out I know her. It's too much. Too much to be a coincidence."
"Prophetic dreams, James? Really? Next thing I know you'll be telling me that you believe in ghosts!"
James huffed out a breath. He ground the stub of his cigarette out under his heel then tipped forward, resting his elbows on his knees and clasping his hands behind his head, fingers interlocked on his neck.
"Ghosts are real." he mumbled. So low that Robbie was sure he couldn't possibly have heard him.
"What?!" Robbie asked. He was so close to demanding to know if this was a wind up, but… James didn't do wind ups. Not like this.
"Forget it. Forget I said anything." James lurched suddenly to his feet and was striding off back to the station before Robbie could stop him.
But the subject didn't entirely go away.
A fingertip search had been done of the area surrounding the body in the woods, which suggested a trail where the assailant had gone deeper into the forest. Given the dense undergrowth and uneven surface in the end they'd brought in dogs to help search.
And even with a shallow grave dug, the sniffer dogs weren't going to miss the scent of three bodies. Wrapped carefully, and buried side by side within the walls of a ruined building.
Robbie stared at the report on his computer screen. The map showing where the additional bodies had been found, photos of the scene. The phone call from the scene of crime officer alone had sent shivers down his spine. But the email that followed, with real hard evidence. He moved mostly on autopilot.
"Hathaway is off this case, ma'am," he told Innocent as soon as they were granted a meeting with her. Next to him, James stared resolutely at the floor and said nothing. "He was friends with the first victim, and her death is upsetting him."
It wasn't the truth exactly, but there was no way that James could possibly say that he'd known that the additional bodies would be there without getting himself locked up: either awaiting a psychiatric assessment, or on suspicion of putting them there himself.
Robbie's protective instinct was in overdrive.
"Pack a bag," Robbie instructed as they pulled into a parking space outside of James's building. "You're coming to stay at mine until this is sorted."
James didn't acknowledge the order, but in five minutes he dutifully reappeared with his gym bag in hand.
"Right, I'm taking you to mine. Then I need to go to the scene and speak to the onsite team, get the investigation underway. And then I'm coming back here with food and beer and we're going to talk about this. Is that understood?"
James nodded, and satisfied, Robbie pulled out into a gap in the traffic, steering the car towards his own flat.
Essential duties sorted for the day, and all the necessary tasks delegated or parked until tomorrow, Robbie settled in on his sofa.
"Tell me what's going on, James." he asked gently. Nothing like his manner in an interview room.
James sighed, took a fortifying swig of his beer and began to talk.
"When I was a child. At Crevecoeur. I wasn't. I didn't. ...Something happened to me there. No! It's not what you're thinking. But that's sort of the point.
"The maze there. People disappeared sometimes. Never for long. For a few hours at most. They would sometimes get in trouble for hiding, or for running away from the grown ups. But there was a place we could go. If you were under attack. If he was after you, you could go into the maze and...then you would be somewhere else. It's hard to explain. There were all these children there. They were real, but also, they seemed other. They used to play in the maze, but the adults couldn't see them. They had a tiger who would play with them and guard the maze. And one day Mortmaigne, he, he'd been trying to get me on side.
"Ah Jamie. There you are! I hear you've been doing very well in your lessons. You know, if you ever want to practice, you're very welcome to use the piano in the summer house. Any time. You just ask boy, and I can take you over there. Let you practice for a while."
"And I was pleased. That he'd heard I'd been doing well at my music lessons. That he was singling me out. That someone thought I was special. After Nell was born, my mother was...distant. And Dad was increasingly stressed. He was working all hours, but my mother was struggling to cope with the baby, and looking after the house, and I just kept my head down and stayed out of the way. I was always quiet and bookish, and happy enough off playing with the other kids. So it was nice, to have an adult tell me I was special and recognise that I was good at something.
"It was after that that I saw them for the first time. The others.
"I'd heard the stories. We all had. A ghost story told in the dark, under blankets with torches. The maze is haunted. That there were children who lived in there. Who'd been killed and came to haunt the maze. There was a tiger who lived with them, and he would kill any adult who tried to hurt a child hiding in the maze. And if you were ever in trouble you can hide there, but you risked becoming one of them. They might keep you, if you stayed too long then you'd never be able to leave.
"I didn't really believe it I don't think. I mean. I was just a little kid still, so I didn't necessarily disbelieve it. But I knew there was no such thing as ghosts, not really.
"But that day I saw them for the first time."
James took another long drink of his beer, and glanced over at Robbie. Robbie said nothing but just sat quietly, his full attention focused on James and his story.
"I know what you're thinking; you think I've gone mad. But I swear to you it was real. I was heading home for tea, and I didn't want to go because I knew the baby would be screaming and Dad would be angry and Mum would just...sit there. And I was dreading it, and wondering how soon I could get away again, and go and read in my room. It must have been autumn because it was getting dark as I walked past the maze, and I saw them out the corner of my eye: a little girl, in old fashioned dress, standing staring at me, and next to her, a tiger. But when I turned to look properly they were gone. And I thought it was my mind playing tricks on me.
"But after that I kept seeing them, always out the corner of my eye, usually at dusk. Never in full daylight.
"And I took Mortmaigne's offer of practicing piano in between my lessons. There was a music room in the main house, and loads of the estate kids would have lessons if they were interested, but it was right by the main dining room, so we weren't allowed in to practice in between lessons. Too loud for the family. But the summerhouse was out of hearing, and so it was perfect for practicing."
James trailed off, staring down at his hands, wound around the beer glass.
"James, what happened to you there?"
"Nothing. That's the thing."
"Nothing? I've sat through the exact same training seminars on child abuse that you have. A child who's particularly vulnerable, like whose parents are overwhelmed by work and a new baby, and what sounds a hell of a lot like a bad case of what we used to call baby blues; being singled out and told you were special. Getting special treatment that others didn't get. It sounds like a checklist of grooming behaviour to me, James."
"Whatever, it probably was. It doesn't matter though."
"It damn well does matter!"
"Listen to me!" James pleaded, cutting through Robbie's ire.
"Sorry. Go on."
"One day, I was heading to the summerhouse. I had agreed to meet Mortmaigne there; he said he had a surprise for me. A special surprise for you, Jamie. It'll be our little secret."
Robbie felt vaguely sick but let James continue.
"But on the way to the summerhouse, I went into the maze instead. I don't know why I did it. I don't think it was even a decision really. I just found myself wandering in there. And they were there. The other children, and a tiger. And we played there for a while. When I think about it now, it seems like a dream. But it was so real. I don't know how long I was there, only that when I left it was getting dark and I had to run all the way home to get back in time for tea.
"After that, Mortmaigne cut me out. He still let me practice music, but he wasn't interested any more. I worked so hard to try and impress him, but it was as if I was beneath his notice. Not worthy of his time. Still...the hard work got me a music scholarship, I suppose." he snorted a wry laugh, devoid of any mirth, and drank the last of the beer.
Robbie reached out and settled a hand on the top of James's thigh, squeezing it firmly in reassurance.
"I think she must have been one of them too. One of us. The kids who knew about the maze; who'd seen the ghosts."
"Yeah. I...it's the only thing I can think of. Why I would have this connection."
Robbie sighed again.
"C'mere, soft lad," he ordered gently, pulling James round to rest his blond head on Robbie's shoulder. "We'll get this sorted. I promise. We'll get you some answers."
James didn't reply, but he snuffled quietly, holding back a sob, and curled further into the solid support. He didn't understand the dreams, or the ghosts, or why he was getting advance knowledge of the crimes in his dreams. But it was ok, Robbie would look after him. Robbie would make everything ok again.