DESPERATION POINT - AN EXCLUSIVE SNEAK PEEK

The second terrifying chapter of the Devil's Cove series

Devil's Cove used to be a safe place to live. Until a serial killer was discovered hiding in its midst.

Now, as the Cornish community deals with the aftermath, Carrie must face the fact that her missing son may be implicated in the grisly crimes.

Meanwhile mystery author Aaron Black is intent on saving his flagging career by writing a book about the murders. But he needs Carrie’s help and he’ll do anything to get it; even if it means endangering her family.

Because there’s more to the horrifying truth than anyone can imagine. And for Carrie, the real nightmare is only just beginning…


 

CHAPTER ONE

  

The scream was piercing and racked with pain. Ross Quick’s eyes snapped open and stared into darkness. He sat up, his head spinning as he fumbled for the light cord. Somewhere below him, Meg’s barking was angry and urgent.

The room now illuminated in a soft orange glow, Ross stared at the bedside alarm clock. It was just after 2 a.m. He’d fallen asleep in his clothes. An empty bottle of gin lay next to him.

He was still drunk. Nausea and disorientation climbed his throat.

It took him a moment to remember the scream.

Had he been dreaming? Meg’s incessant barking said no.

Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, he took a moment to find his balance. Cold air bit his feet as he scanned the clothing-strewn floorboards for shoes. Finding none, he staggered to the window.

He had left the curtains open. This far out in the countryside the darkness was absolute. Now that winter had settled over the land like a death shroud, there was no escaping it. Darkness greeted him in the morning and whispered him a goodnight. It made the solitude of his existence on the farm even more of a void; made the allure of alcoholic oblivion that more tempting.

The scream…

Pressing his face against the glass, Ross stared into the yard. It was too dark to see anything. Downstairs, Meg’s barking grew frantic.

“All right, girl!” Ross bellowed. “Settle down!”

The dog’s barking continued as he stumbled from the room. The cold was worse out here, attacking him through his clothes, freezing his breath in frosty plumes. Shivering, Ross flipped on the light switch and squinted at the low-ceilinged landing. A dull throb had started at the base of his skull and was now reaching up to drag nails across his scalp.

Taking the stairs two at a time and yelling at the damn dog to shut up for a minute, Ross descended into darkness. Mistiming the last step, he slipped and drove his knee into the banister.

He yelled, pressing a hand against the wall to prevent from falling. Upright again, he scrambled for the hall light and switched it on. The dog’s barking was now unbearable.

“Meg! Shut your damn mouth! Or I swear to God I’ll–”

His feet went out from under him. His left temple slammed against the wall. This time he went down.

Ross sat on the floor and groaned as pain ripped through his skull.

He checked for damage. There was no blood, but a lump on his temple was already surfacing. Allowing a minute for the farmhouse to stop spinning, he hauled himself back onto his feet.

The drinking needed to come to an end. It had been getting worse lately; this need to lose himself at the bottom of a bottle each night. But what would he replace it with? He was alone out here. His evenings felt vast and empty, as if he were lost in darkness and waiting to die.

Ross tore the thought from his head. He staggered along the hall in the direction of the kitchen. Meg’s barking hammered against the inside of his skull.

Throwing open the door, he flipped the light switch and stared across the cluttered kitchen.

Cold seeped through the flagstone floor and gripped his bones.

The black and white Border Collie was at the back door, her nose pointed upward as she filled the room with noise.

Lurching across the floor, Ross laid a clumsy hand on the dog’s head.

“Easy girl. Calm yourself.”

Meg’s barking came to an abrupt halt and was replaced by a deep, guttural growl.

Pulling back the curtain of the kitchen window, Ross peered into the yard. Still unable to see anything, he reached across and flipped a switch. The exterior light blinked on. Shadows receded, hovering at the edges.

Ross cocked his head, trying to listen above Meg’s growls.

The yard was still. He heard no more screams.

Perhaps it had been a fox that had woken him. It would explain Meg’s behaviour — she hated the animals. Ross wasn’t fond of them either; last year, one had broken into the coop and slaughtered half of his hens.

He’d since made the coop more secure. But foxes were sly. If there was a way in, no matter how imperceptible, they would find it.

As Ross stared into the backyard, he was struck by a sudden realisation. With all the noise Meg was making, the sheep were being unusually quiet.

Pulling back the locks, he opened the door.

Cold rushed in. Meg bounded out, shooting across the yard and disappearing into darkness.

Ross yelled after her. That damn dog was going to be the death of him. Grabbing a wax jacket from the back of the door, he stepped outside. Motes of dust and frost drifted through the air. His teeth chattered. Very quickly, he was sobering up.

He turned his head, staring into the night. Meg was still barking, somewhere in the near distance. If there was a fox on the property, the dog would chase it away. But if it was something else…

An uneasy feeling reached out from the darkness and coiled around him. Returning to the house, Ross grabbed a torch from the kitchen window and his shotgun from a locked cabinet in the hall. Two shells already sat in the barrels. He filled his pockets with more.

Now completely sober, he switched on the torch, and with the shotgun perched over his right arm, he crossed the yard.

A narrow beam of light illuminated his mud-splattered Range Rover and an abandoned shell of an old harvester.

Meg’s barking echoed in the night.

Passing outbuildings, Ross pointed the torch in the direction of the chicken coop. Everything looked as it should be. He could hear the cluck of resting hens. The ground was clear of feathers and blood.

Perhaps the fox hadn’t been able to break into the coop after all. Perhaps Meg had scared it off.

Stumbling forward, Ross reached the large wooden barn. Meg appeared in the light. She glanced back at him, acknowledging his presence, then returned to growling.

After a day of bitter cold and rain, the sheep were inside for the night to dry off. They were eerily silent.

Meg’s head was down low, her teeth glittering in the torchlight.

“Easy girl,” Ross said. “Easy now.”

Foxes rarely bothered with sheep, unless it was lambing season. Perhaps a stray dog then?

Then, his brain catching up with his vision, Ross tightened his grip on the shotgun.

Once, last week, he’d been drinking before bringing the sheep in and hadn’t closed the barn doors. The sheep had wandered all over and it had taken him and Meg most of the next morning to herd them back to their usual field.

The barn doors were shut now. There was no stray dog. No animal of any kind.

An intruder?

It was unusual. People didn’t tend to trample through the countryside at night, especially mid-winter.

Unless they meant to cause trouble. Unless they meant to steal.

Staring at the barn doors, Ross remembered the scream that had woken him.

He felt the sudden urge to wrench open the doors, to rush inside. The sheep were his livelihood. The food that he put on his table. The clothes he wore on his back. No harm could come to the sheep because if it did, harm would come to him.

He stared at the doors, unnerved by the silence.

Meg sniffed the bottom of the barn doors and scratched the ground with a paw.

Brushing her to one side, Ross tucked the torch under his arm and removed the latch.

The doors swung open.

His breaths came fast and heavy. Ross aimed the shotgun into the darkness.

Immediately Meg began barking. But she wouldn’t go in.

“Someone there?” Ross called out. “You’re trespassing. I’ll give you ten seconds to leave or I’ll fire.”

The shotgun trembled against his forearm as he spread his feet and waited.

There were no sounds. No bleats. No shifting of wool or bodies.

He stepped forward.

The smell hit him; deep and coppery like rusted metal.

Lowering the shotgun, Ross lifted the torch and pointed it into the barn. Meg’s barking grew to a skull-splitting crescendo.

“Dear God…”

The torch shook in Ross’ hand. The shotgun swung limply by his side.

The sheep lay on the ground, unmoving.

The blood was everywhere, splattering their white wool, soaking the ground, painting the walls.

They were dead. All of them. Every last one.

And not only dead. Parts of them were missing.

Ross stared at the massacre, his head swinging from side to side, his lips twitching up and down. The stench of death was overwhelming.

A hundred sheep. Dead. Mutilated.

Meg barked and growled and scratched at the ground. Ross staggered back. The world spun around him.

An anguished, guttural sound climbed his throat and shot from his mouth, shattering the night.

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

 

Aaron Black killed the engine of the silver Peugeot and stared through the windscreen. In the distance, heavy charcoal clouds rolled and churned above a foaming slate ocean. In the foreground, the beach was colourless and barren. A beach bar called The Shack was currently closed. Blustery winds battered its walls, flinging sand, dried seaweed, and shell fragments.

Bleak, Aaron thought as he leaned forward to observe the towering cliffs that flanked the cove. The Mermaid Hotel sat on top of the left cliff, its blackened exterior encased in construction scaffolding. On the right cliff, a rusty looking lighthouse stood like an ancient guardian, while behind it, the coppery-green canopy of Briar Wood was effervescent against the brooding sky.

Aaron’s gaze returned to the left cliff and slipped down to the arch of rock jutting into the ocean.

He shivered. Bleaker than bleak.

And cold.

The temperature inside the car was already beginning to drop, leaving icy tendrils to seep through the cracks. Buttoning his dark winter coat up to his neck, Aaron turned his attention to the rear-view mirror.

His was the only vehicle taking up space in the seafront car park. Behind the car park was Cove Road, which circled the town of Porth an Jowl like a hangman’s noose, providing the only way in and out by land. A row of old stone cottages sat on the other side.

No one was around. It was as if Aaron were the only person on earth.

A blast of wind hit the car, howling and whistling as it hurtled by. Aaron winced as he stared at his reflection in the rear-view mirror. There were faint shadows forming beneath his dark brown eyes. Days’ worth of stubble covered his usually clean-shaven face. His hair was a straggly mess, well overdue a cut.

He turned away, suddenly feeling decades older than his thirty-seven years. As soon as he got back to the hotel, he would have a hot shower, take a razor to his face, perhaps pop a sleeping pill and sleep for fourteen hours straight.

But right now, he had a job to do.

Pulling his long coat tightly around him, he grabbed his bag from the back seat and opened the door.

The cold hit him like an open-handed slap.

The wind howled. The sea roared. The sky grew dense and black; rain was on its way.

And in an hour, maybe two, darkness would fall.

Exiting the car park, Ross stepped onto the faded pink promenade and stopped short of the protective iron railings. The beach lay below. Stone steps led down to the sand. Aaron thought about heading down there, but the cold was already eating into his skin and chewing through his bones.

He would make quick work of his task, then find somewhere to grab a hot drink, maybe something to eat.

From his bag, he pulled out a digital SLR camera, slung the strap over his neck, and removed the lens cap. Adjusting the aperture, he snapped pictures of the beach and the cliffs, the hotel and lighthouse.

He lowered the camera for a second, mesmerised by the view. He’d read Emily Brontë and the Poldark novels, and had expected to find a rugged and romanticised wild beauty. Perhaps at any other time of the year, such a view would have been his. There were traces of that beauty still lingering, but Cornwall in mid-December, as he was quickly learning, was harsh and brutal; a world away from the sunny pictures found in tourism brochures.

Turning his back on the crashing surf, Aaron gave his attention to the town.

Porth an Jowl was a small community with a population of four thousand people, most of whom lived in rows of two-hundred-year-old cottages that climbed all the way to the top of the cove.

His research revealed that the town had started life as a busy fishing port, but as years went by and larger towns had sprung up, Porth an Jowl could not compete. Its fishing industry had gradually receded, and the town had morphed into what it was today: a reasonably popular tourist destination that sold surfboards and ice creams in late spring and summer, and for the rest of the year became a veritable ghost town.

Aaron took pictures of the stacked rows of cottages. The town was picturesque, he supposed, which seemed ironic considering the horrors that had taken place here just three months ago. Once he was done, he followed the promenade with his eyes. At the far end, below the right cliff, he saw a small harbour and a handful of boats. He considered walking down there to get more pictures, but now the cold had seeped into his marrow.

Movement pulled his attention to the road.

Three youths, dressed in loose jeans and dark hoodies, were rolling through the car park entrance on skateboards. They moved in tandem, turning in a half circle, then coming to a halt a few feet away from his car. They stared at the vehicle, then across at Aaron, their faces masked by their hoods.

Aaron eyed them suspiciously. If they touched his car, he would break their hands. But only if it came to it; confrontation was not his way of doing things.

The youths were still staring at him, muttering to each other.

Aaron waved a hand.

“How are you doing?” he called out.

The trio stared. One of them whispered something, provoking sniggers from the other two.

Aaron narrowed his eyes. It didn’t matter where they came from, teenagers were always the same: moody, self-involved little shits. But maybe these little shits could be useful.

Returning his camera to his bag, he made his way back to the car.

“Kind of cold to be out here skateboarding, isn’t it?” he smiled.

The trio, two boys and a girl, he thought, stared at him.

Aaron smiled again, closed-mouthed this time. “Hey, do you know Jago Pengelly? Or where I can find his mother, Tess?”

The trio turned to each other. Something was muttered. They turned back. One by one, all three dropped their skateboards to the ground.

Aaron watched them roll out of the car park and onto Cove Road. None of them looked back.

“Thanks for your help,” he muttered.

A blast of wind roared across the car park, making his jaw clench. Above his head, a flock of gulls appeared, screeching as they soared towards the tide.

Following in the direction of the skateboarders, Aaron exited the car park. Crossing the road, he cut through a narrow alley nestled between the cottages.

Moments later, he emerged in the town square, which was small and paved with cobble stones. At its centre, a circle of seats surrounded a stone plinth, from which a Victorian style street lamp protruded.

Shops lined all sides. The more touristic stores had banners taped across their glass fronts, all conveying the same message: CLOSED FOR WINTER. The rest were closed for Sunday and would resume business tomorrow.

One shop caught his eye.

Pressing his face against the glass, he stared through the window of Cove Crafts. Empty shelves peered back. Taking out his camera, he took a photograph, then turned and snapped a few more of the empty square.

Porth an Jowl really was a ghost town.

But there was one shop open, he noticed, as he crossed the square and headed away from the direction of the seafront, his shoes slapping against the cobbles.

Aaron nervously licked his lips as he entered Porth an Jowl Wine Shop. He was greeted by a welcome blast of heat. It was a small shop, crammed with shelves of alcohol and snacks.

An old man stood behind the counter, wiry white hair protruding from his scalp. He stared at Aaron and offered a polite nod.

Aaron nodded back. For a moment, his eyes pulled away from the man to stare at the shelves of bottles behind him.

“Afternoon,” the man said. “Surprised to see your face in here.”

Aaron stared at him. Had he met this man before? He didn’t think so.

“I know a visitor when I see one,” the man smiled, as if this would explain everything. “A tourist. We don’t get many of your kind this time of year.”

“I’m not a tourist,” Aaron said, moving to the counter and offering his hand. “I’m Aaron Black.”

“Jack Dawkins.” The man shook his hand, then recoiled. “You’re freezing, boy. Need to get yourself a decent pair of gloves.”

Aaron’s eyes lingered over the rows of whiskey bottles on the shelf behind. “You’re probably right.”

“Where did you come from, then?” Jack asked, eyeing him curiously.

“London.”

“Never much liked the city. Prefer the peace and quiet. On holiday, are you?”

Aaron shook his head. “Work.”

Jack regarded him for a second longer. “Oh? I hope it ain’t any kind of outdoor work. You ain’t dressed right for that. Anyway, what can I get you Mister Black?”

Aaron pulled his gaze away from the shelves and back to Jack. “Actually, just some information. I’m looking for someone. Tess Pengelly. Do you know her?”

A strange expression fell over Jack’s face. His smile faded.

“Tess Pengelly?” he repeated. “Of course I know her. She don’t live here anymore, though.”

Shit. Aaron’s mind raced. “She moved?”

“Last month. After all that terrible business.”

“You know where to?”

Jack rested his hands on the counter as he stared at Aaron. “A friend of hers, are you?”

Aaron smiled. “Not exactly.”

The old man’s brow crumpled into a frown. “I can’t say where she’s got to. All I know is she took her boys and left. Don’t blame her, neither.”

Aaron felt a jab of frustration. This was going to make things difficult. But not impossible. Someone would know where she could be found. He turned back to Jack.

“How about Carrie Killigrew?”

Now, Jack folded his arms across his chest. His initial friendliness was gone. “What are you? A journalist or something? Because you’re about three months too late for that story. We’ve had enough of reporters writing rubbish about Porth an Jowl. So, if you don’t mind, if you’re not buying anything, I’ve got things to do.”

Aaron flashed the old man a disarming smile. He was a tricky one, this Jack Dawkins. He liked him. But he still needed to tread carefully. It was far too early to be making enemies of the locals.

“I’m not a journalist,” he told him. “I’m an author. A mystery writer. Maybe you’ve heard of me.”

“A mystery writer, eh?” Jack raised his eyebrows. “Aaron Black… Nope, can’t say I have.”

“What about the Silky Knight Mysteries?”

“I like to read the newspaper. Leave all that hokum to the wife.”

Ignoring the sting of his ego, Aaron laughed. “So, you’re a facts man? In that case, you just might be interested in my latest project. It’s why I’d like to speak to Carrie Killigrew and Tess Pengelly.” He paused, waiting for Jack Dawkins to look up. “I’m researching a book, you see. Not a mystery this time, but a true crime account of Grady Spencer’s horrific legacy. Did you know him?”

Across the counter, the old man raised his eyebrows. Then narrowed his eyes.

“Everyone knew Grady Spencer,” he said. “And I don’t know what you’re doing writing a book about the awful things he done, but I’ll tell you this for free, Mr Black — no one in this town is going to help you with that. All we want is to be left alone. For the world to forget all the terrible things that happened here.”

“Surely you know that’s not going to happen. Not for a long time. Maybe not ever.” Aaron turned for a second, distracted by light bouncing off bottles of amber liquid. A wanton thirst was growing inside him. Pushing it away, he turned back to the old man. “Look, I’m not here to cause trouble, Mr Dawkins. I want to write a completely accurate account of what happened. No embellishment. Just the facts. People need to know the truth, to understand exactly what went on here.”

“People need to mind their own business,” Jack Dawkins said. “Now, you buying anything or what?”

Aaron shook his head. “Can you at least point me in the direction of Grady Spencer’s house?”

Jacked leaned across the counter, his eyes cold and steely.

“That’s easy. It’s the last row on the left, on your way out of Porth an Jowl.” He leaned back again, folding his arms across his chest. “Do yourself a favour, Mister Black. Go back to London. That can of worms has already been opened. You go stirring things up again, no good will come of it. I promise you that.”

Aaron held his gaze for a moment longer. He felt a smile tugging at his lips and quickly pushed it away.

“I’ll bare that in mind,” he said. “Thank you for your time, Mr Dawkins.”

The cold attacked him the moment he stepped outside. Pulling his coat around his body, he hurried back to the car and started the engine. He could no longer feel his hands and he rubbed them together as he waited for the heaters to kick in.

His first encounter with the locals had gone as expected. But now he knew where to find Grady Spencer’s house of horrors.

Turning the car onto Cove Road, Aaron shivered as he wondered what was waiting for him inside.

Copyright © 2018 Malcolm Richards

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