Our extract this week is from Ask No Questions, the latest crime thriller from Claire Allan. Marian Keyes herself called it ‘amazing’. We hope you enjoy…[restrict]
Who’s at the window, who?
Who’s at the window, who?
It’s the wee bogey man
With a sack on his back
Come to take you away.
Where will he take you to?
Where will he take you to?
To a wee dark shed
Over the hill
Far, far away.
– Traditional song, sung to the children of Northern Ireland, source unknown.
I was ten years old when I found out that monsters are real and they walk among us. I can pinpoint the exact day that everything changed, when the world I’d found to be fun and innocent and good turned into something dark and frightening. Looking back, I pity my mother having to find the words to tell my brothers and me what had happened. I pitied all the mothers and fathers who were forced to have that same conversation with their children at the dinner table that evening. There’d be no playing out in the street any more. Not on these dark nights.
There’d be no nipping in and out of neighbours’ houses, or knocking on doors looking for a glass of water when we were parched from playing tig or Red Rover, or riding our bicycles all over the estate in and out of the dark alleyways. We were never to go out on our own. Nor walk back from school on our own. Even though it would still be light then. We absolutely were not allowed to take the short cut through the overgrown fields at the back of the school, either. And we were never, ever, ever to go into anyone’s house on our own. No matter how well we knew them. No matter how many times we’d been there before.
Because Kelly Doherty had been found and she was dead. And someone, some bad man or bad woman, had hurt her and killed her and our mothers didn’t know ‘how they would ever be able to cope’ if something like that happened to us. I didn’t sleep that night. I couldn’t. For the first time, I hated that I had a room all to myself and my brothers got to share. They got to keep each other company. I curled into as tight a ball as I could manage, hugged Daisy, my tatty stuffed puppy, to me and squeezed my eyes tight shut. But every noise, every creak, every sound from the street had my imagination running wild. I was scared to move.
Scared to breathe. I prayed over and over again, channelling my earnest childhood belief in prayer and a greater good, for Jesus himself to protect me. ‘Oh, Sacred Heart of Jesus, I place all my trust in you,’ I muttered over and over and over again until I was stumbling over the words and trying to shake the image of Kelly, dead – like actually dead – from my head. What did dead people look like? I wondered. Had she been scared? Had she been alone? Who was the bad man? Or the bad woman? At some stage during the long, dark night I heard voices on the street. Whispers. I couldn’t make out the words, but I guessed they could only be talking about one thing.
One person. It was all everyone was talking about. It was all everyone was thinking about. I wondered if I crept to the window, if I ducked my head through the curtains, would I be able to hear more? I slipped out from under my duvet, still grasping Daisy tightly, and tiptoed to the window. My breath was loud, heavy, misting against the cold glass. My heart thumping so fast I wondered was it possible for a ten-year-old to have an actual heart attack and die. I almost, almost, didn’t look out of the window, but I steeled myself, took a deep breath and opened my eyes. There was a man, dressed in black, a woollen hat pulled down over his forehead, a scarf, or jumper or something high on his neck. But I saw him, and he saw me.
He looked straight up at me, raised a gloved hand to gesture to me, to bid me to come to him, and I fell to my knees, then curled into a ball, squeezing my eyes as tightly as I could. Because monsters were real. The bogeyman we had always been told was just make-believe stalked our streets.
Chapter One: Declan
Thursday, 3 November 1994
Declan and Niall Heaney had gone against their mother’s express wishes and had not come home straight after school. They had been on their best behaviour all day in their stuffy classroom and now all the energy they had managed to control for six long hours needed to be expended. And they had a den to visit, one they went to every day. Little more than a hole in the large bushes and trees that ran along the side of the reservoir at the Creggan Country Park (or ‘the rezzie’ as they called it), it was the Heaney twins’ favourite place on earth.
One day it could be headquarters for the Power Rangers. The next a soldier’s dugout. Or a ninja training camp. Most of all, though, it was theirs. It had just the right amount of foliage cover to provide a shelter of sorts in the rain and shade in the summer. And the old lunch box they had buried, telling the long-suffering Mrs Heaney it had been lost, held a trove of treasures fit for any ten-year-old boy. Chewing gum. Match Attax trading cards. A box of matches. Two cigarettes they’d secreted from their daddy’s stash but hadn’t dared smoke yet, half a packet of bourbon creams, fifty-six pence exactly in loose change, a pair of dice, a knife that had been blunted a long time ago and a folded page from one of their school jotters in which they gave the girls in their class marks out of ten.
They didn’t need much more. They had their imaginations, after all, and they used whatever they could get their hands on as props for whatever world they created that day. They knew that Kelly Doherty was missing. Of course they did. Everyone in the estate did. They imagined that probably everyone in Derry, maybe even all of Northern Ireland knew about Kelly. She’d gone out collecting for Halloween with her friends and had become separated from them at some stage. It was now a whole three days later and she still hadn’t come home, so the search had shifted to the land surrounding the reservoir. Kevin McCay had told them that he heard his mammy and daddy say that poor Kelly was probably dead now and it was probably better for her that she was.
Neither Kevin nor the Heaney twins understood what that meant, but they were happy to parrot it anyway. ‘We have to go and maybe help look for her,’ Niall had said. ‘This is like something off the TV or a movie.’ Declan had resisted at first, but his brother had a point. It was a big deal and besides, if they went home, their mammy would just make them do their homework straight away like she always did. It would be more interesting to see the search in full swing, but he didn’t actually want to look for her, especially if Kevin McCay’s mammy and daddy were right. They’d watched as a group of maybe a hundred grown-ups had set off walking around the country park at the top of the reservoir. They were wearing bright yellow jackets, carrying torches and sticks, which they used to poke around in the grass.
From where Niall and Declan sat in their den, close to the water’s edge, they could hear the repeated shouts of Kelly’s name. ‘They’ve a van up there with tea and soup and biscuits and stuff,’ Niall said. ‘For all them people searching. Do you think they would give us some?’ Declan had considered this for a moment and had shaken his head. ‘Nah. I bet it’s only the grown-ups that get that.’ He sniffed, drawing the sleeve of his duffel coat under his nose. It was cold and the sky looked like it could open and dump buckets of rain on them at any time. ‘Da says he’s going to go out and look with them later,’ Niall said, digging out the old lunch box from its bed of leaves and dirt and taking out two bourbon creams. He bit into one and handed the other to his brother. They didn’t need those free biscuits or the soup anyway. They had their own supplies. ‘Do you think he’ll want us to go, too?’ Declan had asked.
He’d shuddered at the thought of searching in the dark. Niall shook his head. ‘Not a chance. Even if Da wanted us to go, Ma wouldn’t. Besides, we’ve homework to do tonight.’ ‘Bloody sums. I hate the seven times tables,’ Declan had said dejectedly, finishing his biscuit. Declan lifted the stick he had been using as a sword earlier and started to poke at the leaves and mud, sending a fat black beetle scurrying for cover. ‘There’s no craic here today at all,’ Declan added. ‘And I’m freezing. Shall we just go home?’ Reluctantly Niall, the younger of the two by seventeen minutes, agreed and stood up, hefting his school bag onto his back. ‘C’mon, then,’ he said to his older brother and the pair started their walk along the banks of the reservoir, Declan still dragging his stick, leaving a line in the dirt as they went.
It was Declan who saw her first. Not that he knew what it was he saw when he first looked. He thought it was a piece of rubbish. Discarded carrier bags, floating on the water, lapping towards the shore. Dirty white plastic. He didn’t think anything of it at first glance. Then, as he bowed his head against the squally shower that had started, he spotted what looked like a black school shoe, patent leather, mired in the mud at the water’s edge, and he glanced up again. The dirty white plastic had morphed into a white dress – lace and satin.
A mottled hand, bloated and grey, had floated to the surface. He knew that Kelly Doherty was dressed as Glinda the Good Witch of the North from The Wizard of Oz when she disappeared. Recycling her first communion dress from the year before. And still, he couldn’t make sense of what he was seeing. It couldn’t be . . . His vivid imagination was playing tricks on him.This was just rubbish. The hand, it looked so unreal, so fake, it was probably a discarded Halloween prop. It couldn’t belong to a person.
Ask No Questions by Claire Allan is published by Harper Collins and is available to buy now.