A sneak preview of Return to Blackwater House by Vikki Patis…
Three little words. They have the power to change everything, to turn your world upside down and make you question your own reality. I love you. I’m leaving you. I hate you. The three words that kept me alive when I was a child: I’m not here. This
isn’t real. And then: I’ll save myself.
And I did. I escaped a childhood I’ve tried so hard to forget, memories stuffed into boxes, ghosts smothered by the will to survive. Shadows in the corner of the room, fingers reaching out to me like tendrils of smoke, banished by the power of three little words: I’m still here. From denial to refusing to be beaten. From fear to defiance. I’m still here. I’m still here.
I have worn many guises in my life. Wayward child, victim, survivor. Colleague, friend, partner. So many roles have been forced upon me, so few I have chosen myself. Now I am the concerned stepmother, cast into the role by the disappearance of the girl I love like my own daughter. Another role forced upon me. Another nightmare to endure.
Now, three different words have taken over, turning my world upside down and changing the course of my life, of our lives, forever. It was me who uttered the words for the fi rst time, the breath catching in my throat, my heart pounding in my ears in time with the ocean crashing against the rocks below.
Ava is missing.
1st January 2020
I pace the living room floor, my heart beating in time with my footsteps. Eleven steps, stop, turn, eleven steps, stop, turn. My foot hits the coffee table and I halt, focusing on the throbbing in my toes, relishing the pain. Anything to stop the chaos in my mind, to release myself from the fear. But it is inside me, coiling around me until it is hard to breathe, hard to think about anything other than Ava. Ava Ava Ava.
At almost two a.m. this morning, my world was turned upside down by Ava’s friend hammering on the front door. The police arrived quickly, blue flashing lights illuminating the garden, but it will still take Daniel a while to get home. I picture his car flying down the motorway from London to Cornwall, his fingers tightening on the wheel as he drives without stopping, desperate to get home. The roads should be clear, at least. It is the first of January, a new year, a new decade, but the sun hasn’t even risen and already we are thrust into a new world, one we would never have chosen.
I am standing at the living room window when he arrives; I hear the stones skittering beneath the tyres before his car comes into view. I throw open the front door and stand on the step, hands twisting in front of me, as Daniel slams the car door and rushes towards me. The wind blowing in off the sea is cold, the air full of salt, stinging my cheeks.
He stops before he reaches me, his face pale and eyes wide. I’ve never seen him like this, fear written so plainly across his face. ‘Where is she?’ he asks, breathless, his voice small.
‘I don’t know.’
Three little words. What power they have. His expression changes to something more recognisable. He needs to take control of the situation; it is his way.
He strides up the front steps and past me into the house.
‘Are the police here?’
I look up to see Kate’s blonde hair disappear through the door at the end of the hall. ‘In the kitchen.’ I follow Daniel down the hall, remembering the uniformed officers in their heavy boots standing in the hallway hours before, their expressions unreadable as I told them what happened. The helicopter went out a few hours ago, making the whole house vibrate, and I heard them mention the coastguard, but they have found nothing. No sign of her, except the scarf dropped on the grass before the low wire fence at the edge of the garden. Nothing but sea.
She wouldn’t have gone over there, I told them. Ava wasn’t stupid; she knew it was dangerous to play on the cliffs. But they’d looked at me with a pitying expression, one that told me that they knew better. In their eyes, Ava is a fourteen-year old girl, a reckless teenager. She is capable of getting on a train or into someone’s car of her own volition. Capable of running away. She doesn’t know the area, this county we brought her to only three months ago. She might be new here, she might be missing her old friends, but she would never run away. She would never leave me. Us.
Kate, our family liaison officer, is washing mugs in the sink, shirtsleeves rolled up to protect them from the suds. I open my mouth to speak, but then two other officers come in through the back door, their cheeks red with the cold.
‘Mr Everley?’ the male officer says to Daniel. ‘I’m Detective Inspector Allen. This is Detective Sergeant Tremayne, who I understand has already spoken to your fiancée, but I wondered if you might answer some questions as well.’
‘What questions?’ Daniel demands, and I see something flicker across the officer’s face.
‘When did you arrive, Mr Everley?’ DS Tremayne asks.
Her tone has changed since she interviewed me a few hours ago. There is something different in her, a hardness I hadn’t noticed before.
‘Just now. I left the hotel as soon as Rebecca called.’
‘You drove? Weren’t you at a party last night?’
Daniel exhales loudly through his nose. ‘I didn’t have anything to drink. I was perfectly fine to drive. And besides,’ he says, his back straightening as his voice increases in volume, ‘I think this is more important, don’t you?’
I put a hand on his arm, both in support and restraint. He looks terrible, his eyes wide and bloodshot, his face pale, and I’m sure I can smell alcohol coming off him. But he’s right: this is more important. ‘What else do you need to know?’ I ask the officers. ‘I’ve already explained everything.’
‘Ava had been having a sleepover in the annex,’ DI Allen reads from the notes DS Tremayne must have made when she questioned me earlier. ‘It’s recently been renovated?’ He gestures towards the kitchen window and the building beyond. I nod. ‘It used to be a garage. We intend to let it out to holidaymakers.’
I ignore the expression that flickers across his face.
‘Five girls including herself, all fourteen or fifteen, were here overnight with their parents’ permission,’ he continues, then pauses to look up at me. ‘We’ll need to speak to them all, of course.’
‘Of course,’ I echo, and he turns to DS Tremayne.
‘Uniform has gone out to see them all this morning,’ she confirms, and the DI nods, returning to his notebook.
‘They ordered pizza, which you picked up from the village, and they were watching movies while you were here in the house alone. Is that right, Ms Bray?’
‘Well,’ I begin, feeling my cheeks heat up as Daniel turns his gaze upon me. ‘A friend popped in for a drink. At around eight? Then I fell asleep on the sofa.’ The memory of Poppy banging on the front door, suddenly looking so much younger than her fourteen years, feels like a punch to the stomach. Ava’s gone. I clear my throat. ‘I was woken by Ava’s friend Poppy hammering on the door. She said Ava had come into the house to get something, but she hadn’t come back to the annex.’
‘What friend of yours came here?’ Daniel asks at the same time DI Allen speaks.
‘And what did you do? Were you immediately concerned?’
I glance at Daniel before turning back to the officer. ‘No, not really. I thought she must be somewhere in the house, but I had a look around and couldn’t find her. It wasn’t until I found her scarf that I started to worry.’
‘Her scarf?’ Daniel demands. ‘Where was her scarf?’
I feel like a pendulum, swinging between the two men, and start to feel sick. ‘At the bottom of the garden, by the fence.’ And you touched it?’ DI Allen asks.
‘What? Yes. It was so dark . . . Like I said earlier, I picked it up, to see what it was. It was new – I’d bought it for her for Christmas.’ Daniel moves suddenly and I fl inch, but he is turning towards the sink, filling a glass with water and gulping it down. The FLO, Kate, is standing in the corner now, watching him, her lips pressed into a thin line. She’s been so quiet, I’d almost forgotten she was there.
‘What happened next?’ DI Allen asks. My emotions must be written across my face, because he softens his tone when he speaks next. ‘I know you’ve already gone through it all several times, but if you could tell me again, now your partner is here.’
I try not to think about why it matters that Daniel is here. They’re looking for holes, something that doesn’t quite add up, or maybe they want to see if I’ll change my story now Daniel is here. Whatever it is, I’m not going to give it to them.
‘I . . . I checked the rest of the garden, and then the annex, where the girls were. They all said the same thing, that Ava had gone back to the house to get something more than thirty minutes before but hadn’t come back. Then I called you.’
‘Did you worry she might have fallen?’ DI Allen asks, his implication clear. I shiver at the thought of Ava falling into the murky sea beyond the cliffs and shake my head.
‘No. No, I told your officers that it was a waste of time looking for her down there. She’s never climbed over the fence before. She knows how dangerous it is. She wouldn’t be so reckless. Her friends all said the same thing, that none of them
had been anywhere near the end of the garden. And Poppy said she saw Ava come in through the back door of the house.’ He nods. ‘When did the girls’ parents come to pick them up?’
‘I called Daniel and then I called their parents. I thought . . . I thought they’d want to collect them straight away. The girls were quite upset.’
‘And there were just girls here?’ he asks. I frown at him, not understanding. ‘No boys?’
‘Boys?’ Daniel echoes. ‘Were there boys here?’
‘No, Daniel,’ I protest, looking to DI Allen for help. ‘There weren’t any boys. Just the girls.’
‘Does Ava have a boyfriend?’ the officer asks. I see Kate shift out of the corner of my eye.
‘Of course not,’ Daniel snaps. ‘She’s fourteen.’
DI Allen gives me a look and I sigh. Are we just another set of parents who have no idea what their teenager is up to? But I would know if Ava had a boyfriend. She would have talked to me at least, if not her dad.
‘Not that we know of,’ I say. ‘She’s new here. We only moved into the area a few months ago.’
‘But Rebecca is from here,’ Daniel adds. ‘Originally.’
‘I wouldn’t have guessed,’ DI Allen says, and I know he is referring to my accent, the accent I shed like a skin when I moved away to Hertfordshire. I wonder what Cornish people hate more – the comers-in, those who move into the area and buy up properties that sit empty for half the year, or those of us who leave and never look back.
I say nothing.
‘Rebecca and I knew each other when we were kids,’ Kate says, surprising us all. ‘We went to school together.’
DI Allen seems to scowl at her as a memory jogs in my mind. Kate had been a couple of years younger than me, and we usually didn’t run in the same circles, but I remember taking her back to my childhood home once, something I almost never did. Why did I take her that day? I can’t remember, but I can remember the look on her face when she saw the state of that house. I look up to find her staring at me, and I wonder if the same images are flashing through her mind.
DS Tremayne clears her throat and I turn to look at her. ‘Do you still have family in the area?’ she asks.
‘No. My mother is dead and I never knew my father.’
‘And you didn’t keep in touch with any friends?’ She glances up at Kate but she stays silent. ‘Apart from Lou Tregenza, that is? The friend who popped in for a drink last night?’ I nod and DS Tremayne taps her pen against her bottom lip. ‘I know that name. Tregenza Electrical, is it? I think they did a job for me once.’
‘That’s right. She works with her dad,’ I say, emphasising the pronouns so that Daniel doesn’t jump to the wrong
conclusions and think Lou is a male friend.
‘Hmm. Small world.’ She turns back to Daniel. ‘And are all of your family still up country, Mr Everley?’
Daniel frowns at the unfamiliar phrase. I nod. ‘Yes. Though, to be honest, he doesn’t have much family left either.’
‘Just a cantankerous great-aunt,’ he supplies. ‘Dementia. She’s in a care home.’
‘And Ava’s mother? Any family left on that side?’
I hesitate. ‘Yes. She has a grandmother and two aunts, plus their families.’
‘Do they see Ava often?’
Not as often as they would like, I think but don’t say. ‘They used to, when we lived closer.’
‘They dropped in at Christmas,’ Daniel says. ‘Boxing Day, wasn’t it, darling?’ He squeezes my shoulder. DS Tremayne gives me a look and I try not to react.
‘So they weren’t here last night?’ DI Allen asks.
I shake my head. ‘No. They stayed at the hotel in the village for one night, then left in the morning of the twenty-seventh. Aisha, one of Ava’s aunts, is heavily pregnant and has young children at home.’
‘What happens now?’ Daniel demands, his voice so loud I flinch away from him. ‘Will there be a search party? A television appeal?’
‘The coastguard is going out shortly, but like I said, we’re speaking to those who might be able to give us some information,’ DI Allen says carefully. ‘Poppy and the other girls who were at the party.’
‘But what could they tell you? They’re children.’
‘Teenage girls often confide in one another. There might be something Ava didn’t want to tell her parents. A secret she didn’t want to share.’
‘My daughter doesn’t have secrets from me,’ Daniel says, glaring at the police offi cers. ‘There’s nothing we don’t know about her.’
Oh, but there is. Ava is very good at keeping secrets. And so am I.