Jotnar's Wood | By: Nigel Robert Felton | | Category: Short Story - Horror Bookmark and Share

Jotnar's Wood


Jotnar's Wood by Robert Felton
1

Detective Inspector Elias felt sick before he saw the body. These days, he started feeling nauseous as soon as he woke up in bed – or wherever he happened to be.2

Those short stretches of death were his only respite from consciousness when he had to function as an adult. Increasingly, he yearned for longer hours of sleep.3

There were about a dozen cars parked around the site, yellow tape already stretched around the area of woodland. An ambulance and crew waited for the scenes of crime team to release the body.4

This was how it began. The clumps of men talking in low voices, dressed in long dark coats, smoking damp cigarettes.5

Elias ducked beneath the tape and followed the torchlight. The woodland path was saturated. His shoes sank up to his socks, but the discomfort didn’t matter. He felt the cold like a weight inside, his mind fresh out of the deep freeze.6

Three men in white overalls were taking photographs of the victim. After six, seven shots, Elias collared the nearest scene of crime officer and pulled him aside.7

‘Yeah,’ said Elias. ‘She’s got a good body, and the bondage thing’ll be good for the wank bank. Enough fucking pictures. Cut her down.’8

The SOCO curled his lip but gave his colleagues a tap on the shoulder. They turned, listened to a few instructions, and glanced over at Elias. There were some angry faces, evidently ruffled by his comments, but they put their cameras away.9

Eventually, the body lay on a plastic sheet.10

‘Any ID?’ asked Elias.11

The SOCO supervising the gathering of forensic evidence produced a plastic bag. There was a slim wallet in it.12

The detective took it, opened the bag, and looked inside the licence holder.13

This was the worst part. Putting a name to the body, matching the face of the living person to the meat ready to be bagged up and then butchered.14

This one was Catherine Tarrant. She was twenty-five years old, averagely pretty, but she had already spent too much time as a star attraction, lying there exposed to the stares of the other officers and the cold and the rain. 15

The next step was to find out who her friends were, her enemies, her family, where she worked, what she did with her time if she did not. He found out everything.16

That was probably his weakness. He rooted out the most intimate details and habits of the victim. To be any good at this job, you had to know the person, but Elias had found himself, on a couple of cases, falling in love with a murder victim. Too late, just too fucking late, because some tosser had made sure that no one else ever got the chance to get to know her. Or bed her.17

Catherine Tarrant: average pretty face, great body, drove a car, had an address. That was it.18

The SOCOs zipped the bag and stretchered it. The ambulance crew took their time, but finally the sirens were faint, somewhere near town by now.19

It was too dark to get much from the murder site. A plod watched the area. The rest of the officers piled back into their cars, heading for the station, or a boozer, not necessarily in that order.20

Elias lingered for a while, talking to the constable as they sat in his van, waiting for someone to relieve him. 21

‘Vicious, this one,’ said the officer. Williams, he said.22

They opened the windows, despite the rain, and sat in silence for a bit.23

‘I used to play down here,’ said Williams. ‘There’s a bridge, just behind those bushes by the path. We caught sticklebacks in the stream and dug around in the mud and stone for bugs.’24

‘Kids still play here?’25

‘Nah. Youngsters want to hang out where they’re seen. They want to know who’s wearing what, who’s listening to which DJ, swapping mobiles and stuff. It’s probably just as well. This isn’t the first body to found in these woods.’26

‘Yeah?’ Elias was new to this patch. He’d been transferred a couple of months ago.27

‘Couple of kids. Not much left of them. Still unsolved.’ Williams blew smoke down his nostrils. ‘Come to think of it, pretty much all of the bodies were found around here. Which is odd, because it isn’t the thickest part of the wood. This is what could have been a main footpath, all the way from Hulderstone to Solsbury.’28

‘Short cut?’ said the detective, lighting another cigarette from the butt of his first. 29

Williams wrinkled his nose. ‘Not really. It’s quicker on the main road. This route takes about an hour.’30

‘Not in a rainstorm.’31

‘Some might. But a lone female…I wouldn’t think so.’32

‘Any tyre marks found?’33

Williams laughed. ‘Possibly, but there were already enough vehicles around here to fill a car park.’34

Elias decided to have a word with SOC about that, later. Find out who all those useless bodies were, cracking lousy jokes and doing nothing useful.35

Elias adjusted his hat and pulled his coat collar closer around his neck. ‘Thanks, Williams.’ He opened the door and climbed out. Before he closed it, he said ‘Er. Williams? You said there’ve been other murders in these woods. Would you do me a favour?’36

Williams was taken aback by that. Detectives didn’t ask for favours from plods. They just barked. And this bloke was polite. ‘Sure.’37

‘Find out what you can about the other murders and come and see me. Is that all right?’38

The constable beamed at him ‘I’ll have it for you by tomorrow. Oh, and I didn’t say “murders”, Sir.’39

Elias cocked his head.40

‘I said bodies. They never proved murder – no suspects, no witnesses. Just scraps of anatomy.’ Williams picked up the handset from the dash and answered a call.41

Elias left him to his work, his last words heavy in his mind. Access to the scene, from where the cars were parked, was easier – the bushes and undergrowth had been trampled down. He wondered how much evidence size twelve boots had destroyed.42

Once on the path, walking became treacherous. Even with his torch, the track was difficult to negotiate. Bramble grew across and he snagged his coat several times. He tripped on windfall and, once or twice, almost lost his shoe in thick mud.43

Eventually, the track began to dogleg to avoid a dense stand of trees directly in front. The vegetation was more abundant here. He could see no sign of a bridge. 44

Elias was drenched through; every step he took sent jets of muddy water out of the sides of his shoes. However, if he’d been able to continue without the use of a machete to clear the path he would have. He trained the beam of his torch ahead but it didn’t penetrate any further than the low, overhung branches and the thick clumps of blackberry. 45

The sky brightened for a few seconds. Multiple forks of lightning overhead, thunder close behind. He turned the torch off. He enjoyed these displays. It reminded him of how Man still had to bow before other forces.46

As he turned to retrace his steps, he heard branches snap. He froze, crouched, watching the bushes.47

Movement, up ahead, beyond the reach of his torch.48

The sky lit up again, and this time he saw something. A shadow, above the undergrowth, almost a silhouette against the false daylight. He blinked. It was gone.49

No. There was no way that that would have been possible. It had been too big.50

Nevertheless, when he walked back to the car he made sure that he checked his back, glancing over his shoulder at every noise and rustle. He was not a country boy. Woodland, at night, was full of sounds and scurryings, branches blown off trees. It would be better to come back in the morning.51

When he returned to his car he found that Williams had gone. Another van, a larger one, was in its place. The driver was munching a take-out.52

Elias got into his car and sat still for a few minutes. He closed his eyes and sought silence in his mind and the peace he needed. He could feel another panic attack coming on and this was the best way to stop it before it grabbed him by the bollocks. Using the breathing exercises, Elias kept his head down and his face turned away, ensuring that the constable in the van didn’t see him.53

After a few minutes, he felt ready to drive, but he wanted to do one more thing before sleep and distraction removed the details. Slowly, his breathing became regular without conscious effort and he drifted into the mind-set required to do The Trick.54

He saw the other cars, the ambulance, parked up with engines left running, undergrowth flattened, saplings broken.55

The smell of exhaust fumes on the air, masking the natural odours of a wet woodland – organic smells that did not fill his nostrils until he was past the cars.56

The taped-off area, the SOCOs in their boiler suits, flashes going off as they recorded the victim’s resting place.57

Catherine Tarrant hanging by a ligature tied around her ankles, arms hanging loosely, hair lank and sodden, leaf litter and twigs lodged in it. Her body, white, breasts full, a good figure.58

…He did not dwell on that, moved on through the scene…59

Her throat…the hole, the great flap of skin and muscle that had been ripped out. Eyes gone. Tongue gone.60

Multiple bruising – huge contusions across her torso, defence wounds on her arms, broken fingernails.61

The smell of faeces, urine. When she’d been hanging he hadn’t seen it. Cut down, her body rolled to the side, her legs and back were covered in excreta where it had run down while suspended.62

There was another smell. 63

It was like old, stagnant water. Water that might have been left for thousands of years, untouched, layer upon layer of rotting vegetation floating…the stench of an ancient cesspit.64

The sweet, cloying, sinus-tweaking sharpness of decomposing meat.65

The smell was at its worst closer to the victim. The rope, bagged up for forensics – crude, roughly woven, leaves entwined in it. 66

“The body was found by a rambler”, the detective in charge had said. “He’s being treated for shock. Suspected heart attack. He’s not a local, so we’ll need to make sure he doesn’t go anywhere until we’ve interviewed him”.67

The body, bagged and posted.68

The officers cracking foul jokes, forced laughter.69

Now. The path. No one had been through this way for years. Smell the water, the earth, the heavy pungent odours. Sharper than this, the smell of ozone: lightning. Thunder.70

Branches breaking.71

Shadows. 72

Focus.73

Shadows…74

The smell…75

Elias snapped, as if an internal coil, over-wound, had suddenly broken. No explosive release, just an absence of tension. Anticlimax. 76

Just the way it always was.77

He wrote it all down, saving the details. Elias took one last look at the tree from which Catherine had hung by her heels and turned on the ignition.78

Catherine had been hanging at least thirty feet, the rope that tethered her thrown over a branch twenty feet above her, the end tied off at about the same height as Catherine. 79

The trunk of the tree was scarred, as if generations of youngsters had carved into it with their penknives.80

He backed out of the clearing, anxious to be away from the place. There were bits that didn’t fit, and he needed to stop turning the pieces around.81

What he needed, tonight, right now, was to get stoned and laid. 82

* * * * * * *83

Claire was out.84

He threw his key on the coffee table, took off his jacket, and went to the kitchen. At the back of the cutlery drawer, he found her stash tin. He walked through the lounge, sat at the table, and began to put together a large, well-stacked joint.85

He looked around at the pictures on the walls. They were collector’s pieces, illustrations from old children’s stories. Her favourites were those from the Masters – Grimm, Andersson. Some were woodcut prints.86

Claire’s own work was not on display. Her paintings, and commissions-in-progress, were kept in the studio. Elias wasn’t allowed free entry in there. Not unless she was there to supervise. Perhaps she didn’t trust him not to draw little pictures of stick men doing rude things in the corners, or knock a bottle of water over a damp painting.87

Claire’s illustrations were full of light; renderings of sprites, elves, dryads, naiads…angels. She made a fair living. Elias couldn’t understand her admiration for writers like Grimm, however, but he was glad that her work did not reflect the darkness in such stories. She was, by analogy, the sun to his night. 88

He needed her here.89

He thought about calling her mobile, but that would have been unfair. Wherever she was, Claire was probably having a good time. He didn’t want to drag her back and shit on her parade.90

Again, his mind returned to the murder.91

The body, hung like livestock on a conveyor belt, carrying the victim to the spinning blades. The way that her throat was taken out reminded him of a gangland-style execution. The tongue and eyes, too. It was all so…technical. Methodical. The body covered in bruising – a beating, before the humiliation of being stripped? Maybe she’d been raped, too.92

In any case, the woman had suffered before she died. Died in terror. He could, too easily, imagine her screams and pleas for mercy, nobody listening, and no one close enough to get help.93

He lit the joint and lay back on the leather couch, ashtray on his chest, and stared into the darkness.94

But those screams would not die. 95

* * * * * * * 96

He woke with Claire’s elbow in his ribs. 97

‘How long have you been here?’ she said.98

She smelled as if she’d just walked in out of the fresh air. Her hair was cool against his face, damp, apple-scented.99

Elias glanced at his watch. It was three thirty.100

‘Sorry. Must’ve-‘101

‘Passed out?’ She waved her stash tin under his nose.102

‘You’re kneeling on my balls.’103

Claire stood up and put the tin down. She went to the kitchen and returned with a damp cloth, used it to wipe spilled ash from his shirt.104

‘Bad night?’105

‘Bad day.’ Elias eased himself up, found that his clothes had stuck to the couch. ‘And I need a bath.’106

‘Well, I can do something about the bath.’107

Elias listened to the tub filling. It was the sound of sanity, of normality, his reality check before stepping back through the looking glass and into a dimension where monsters lived among us. The nightmare of not knowing which was which.108

Claire came back through. She was naked.109

‘Why didn’t you call?’ she said, sitting beside him. 110

‘You were out.’111

‘I thought that women had cornered the market on fuzzy logic,’ she said, licking cigarette papers and joining them.112

Elias managed to pull himself free of the sofa and took off his shirt. Then, glancing at Claire, he shrugged and pulled off the rest. He had to admit, the finished product was nowhere near as easy to look at. And he hummed.113

‘When did you last go home?’ she said.114

‘I think it was this week. I wouldn’t put cash on it.’115

She put the finishing touches to the jay.116

‘Come on. Tub’s waiting.’ She held out her hand and he took it.117

* * * * * * * 118

He eased himself into the water, aware of every ache and creak. She joined him.119

‘You don’t want to talk about it, do you?’120

‘Murder has no place here,’ said Elias. ‘Right here, that’s where my world begins.’121

‘Bad, eh?’122

‘It’s always bad. How about your day?123

He listened to her voice, the rise and fall of it, and beneath the bubble-bath he smiled.124

‘The book deal is just about done. I need some inspiration, though. Still a couple of pictures left to do. I reckon I’ve earned some time off.’ She glanced at Elias, and her eyes became hooded. ‘You remember that weekend you promised me?’125

‘The one where I tie you down, feed you intravenous aphrodisiacs and fuck you senseless as and when I please?’126

‘Similar. Except you were the one tied down.’ She blew smoke at him and then passed the jay.127

‘I’ll need to eat large amounts of sugary foods if I have this,’ he said, smoking anyway.128

She moved toward him, positioned herself, and straddled him.129

He’d got it totally wrong. He was getting stoned and laid simultaneously.130

* * * * * * * 131

The day was looking up. 132

Later, after a plateful of sugary foods, Elias told her about Catherine. 133

‘Jotnar’s Wood?’134

‘You know it?’ 135

‘Every kid who grew up here knows about the Wood. It used to scare the crap out of me.’ She chuckled. ‘Actually, it’s the reason I first started reading the old stories.’ 136

He rolled toward her and rested his head on his hand, propped on an elbow. ‘Williams said-‘137

‘Williams?’138

‘Oh – uh, he was the poor sod CID left behind to watch the crime scene. Anyway, he mentioned that the Wood has a sinister history. Bodies, and such.’139

‘That’s true. Every kid for miles around were threatened, upon pain of death and zero pocket money for eternity, not to go within a mile of the place.’140

‘Do you remember any of the stories?’ He didn’t really want to talk about it in any depth, but she would hear about it sooner or later, and he wanted a fresh perspective from a native of the neighbourhood, uninfluenced by the media.141

‘I remember children from school who went missing. The first place they searched for clues was Jotnar’s Wood, but I don’t think that they found anything conclusive.’ Claire was still rosy from their sex, earlier. She had always been uninhibited and could match him for appetite, but tonight…well, he’d never actually felt bruised before.142

Claire turned toward him. ‘Feeling horny?’143

‘Um. Give me a few minutes.’144

Her hand was suddenly on his crotch.145

‘Anyway, it wasn’t only children who disappeared,’ she said. ‘Since I was at school, at least half a dozen adults have gone. Police occasionally found bits and pieces – a finger, perhaps. A wad of hair, still attached to the scalp, sometimes shreds of clothing.’146

Elias frowned. ‘Enough to start hunting a serial killer, surely?’147

‘Oh, I think that they did. Sometimes there were years between incidents and there were never any clues or witnesses. Hardly anyone goes there any more.’ She sat up suddenly and reached for her tin.148

‘Another one?’149

‘R‘n’R, detective. I’ve been working sixteen hour days this week. Deadlines are a bitch.’ She began to put one together.150

‘Well, we have a witness now.’ He rolled onto his back, hands behind his head, while her toes played with his dick.151

‘That’s a breakthrough, isn’t it?’ she said.152

‘Only if he survives. Had a coronary after calling the police. Might pull through, might not. Who said that rambling was safe and healthy exercise?’153

Claire lit her rollie and sucked in smoke, closing her eyes. With one hand, she began to rub her right nipple and it sprang up almost immediately. ‘Wa-hoo,’ she said, Homer Simpson style. ‘I must be horny too.’ 154

In response to watching her and the continuing stimulation from her foot, Elias thought that he was about ready for round four.155

‘What was it about the Wood that frightened you most?’ He took the jay from her and puffed.156

‘Dunno…old, I suppose. Not like the commercial pine forest you get these days. I think the Wood has a preservation order. The bridge, too.’157

Elias nodded. ‘Williams mentioned that. What about it?’158

Claire’s right hand began to stroke, working down her body to her inner thigh. ‘That’s something else. It’s listed, although it’ll probably fall in on itself. Too unstable to use, anyway. The council put barriers across to stop bikers using it. I always think that it’s the kind of bridge they were thinking about when they wrote about the Troll.’159

‘That’s one of the many gaps in my education,’ said Elias. Watching her caress herself had made him hard. He had one last, strong toot on the joint and then passed it back. He was off his face and the idea of being straddled by her again was making his heart thud against his ribs like a lump hammer. He was overjoyed when she finished the smoke and laid the ashtray aside. Claire smiled down at him and her hair hung loose and still damp from the bath. She straddled him.160

Looking up into her face, feeling her thighs open up to receive him, he almost shot immediately.161

But her face had someone else’s superimposed upon it. It was a face with dark hollows where eyes should have been, long, dark hair hanging down, arms dangling, almost as if reaching for him as she swung from her heels…162

* * * * * * * 163

Next morning, he woke to find the mattress next to him cold. Her clothes were gone. 164

Elias looked at the window, saw the daylight, and panicked. 165

The clock said eight thirty.166

The morning briefing would be over by now and his chief would want an explanation.167

He searched for his clothes, but when he found they were gone, he ran through to the utility room. The washing machine was running and, through the suds, he saw his blue shirt.168

That was Claire. Kind of mumsy.169

Then he remembered that she’d done this before, and he checked her wardrobe. His black suit hung there, shirt and tie beneath it.170

He dressed while the kettle boiled, drank a cup of instant fast enough to blister his mouth, and then headed for the street. He was almost at the door before he remembered something.171

Elias found the back of an envelope by the door and scribbled a brief apology for last night, promised a full and unaborted performance to restore his reputation. 172

He couldn’t give an explanation.173

As he drove to the station, he could still see the disappointment on her face as he wilted inside her.174

Her long, dark, damp hair hanging in his face, arms reaching down for him…175

* * * * * * * 176

The bollocking was brutal, but fair and to the point. 177

There were many swear words. He had better shape up if he wanted to stay in this division.178

His first job was to go and see the pathologist. The Guv’nor had no time to give another briefing. Elias would have to catch up. 179

He drove across town to the Forensics Department, parked in a restricted bay, and went to look for Fielding. He found him, bloodied to the elbows, as he finished his examination of Catherine.180

Fielding looked up as he peeled off his greens and gloves.181

‘Elias, isn’t it?’182

‘Yes.’183

‘I suppose you want the layman’s version, eh?’184

‘Time is short.’185

‘I don’t know why they make pathologists learn long fancy words. I never met a detective who didn’t prefer “guts” to “transverse colon”.’ He shook his head. ‘Okay. Short version is, Miss Tarrant here was killed by shock.’186

Elias closed his eyes.187

‘I mean,’ said Fielding, ‘instantaneous. Well, apart from the first few blows. She’d have felt those, but certainly within the first half minute. She was struck in the sternum…ah, that is-‘188

‘I know basic anatomy, doctor.’189

‘Really? Well, good for you. Anyway, I believe that this victim suffered major trauma from that blow. Major haematoma to her pericardium, heart swelled up. It just couldn’t pump. She was then bound by her ankles and left to dangle, supposedly to facilitate the removal of her throat and eyes.’ Fielding frowned. ‘I don’t understand that. The orbits were wrenched out – the optic nerves were stretched and snapped. Her tongue was gouged out using a crude instrument, probably a bill hook.’190

‘Have you examined the rope yet?’ said Elias. He was close to retching.191

Fielding smiled. ‘Not my department, lad. Upstairs.’192

Elias turned to go, but then something occurred to him. ‘I saw how far up she was – thirty feet. If her throat, tongue and eyes were removed after she was strung up, how is that possible?’193

‘I’m not a detective, Elias. The killer would have to have used ladders, or one of those platforms on a mechanical arm. But that just isn’t practical. Besides, there was no trauma to the tissues on her ankles to suggest that she was hoisted from ground level. Puzzling, isn’t it?’194

Fucking ay, thought Elias.195

‘Thanks, doctor.’196

Elias left the autopsy room and headed for the Forensics Evidence Department. He’d met the head of the department before, and he found him at a microscope examining a slide.197

‘Dr Brooks?’198

Brooks held up his hand. ‘Inspector. Come and take a look.’199

Elias approached, took Brooks’s place at the ‘scope.200

‘What am I looking at?’201

‘Fibres from your rope, Inspector. Note the crudity?’202

‘I saw the rope, doc. It didn’t look as if it had been bought in a shop. Home made.’203

The fibres were green, bits of soil and other debris stuck to it.204

‘In a sense,’ said Brooks. ‘It wasn’t done with any finesse.’205

Elias looked up from the microscope and saw the doctor holding the rope. Brooks yanked it between both hands.206

‘Strong,’ he said. ‘Leave it a week or two, though, and it would probably become part of the soil. Very eco-friendly. The curious thing is this: it was made, on the spot, from available materials.’207

‘Such as?’208

‘You were at the scene Inspector. Grasses, bark, blackberry. There are even bits of seed and fruit and,’ said Brooks, ‘the whole thing was wet. It was woven out in the open, in that rain storm yesterday.’ Brooks passed the rope to Elias. ‘It’s the sort of thing that a survivalist might use. Certainly, there aren’t many who would know how to make such a thing. I think you’re looking at army, ex-army, possibly commando or SAS trained.’ Brooks rubbed at his whiskers for a second.209

‘You might also consider looking for, um, unusual spoor.’210

‘What?’211

‘Tracks, or piles of faeces that don’t look right. You see, we also found skin cells on the fibres. We’ve run DNA tests, obviously, but…’212

‘What exactly are you saying? What has that got to do with it?’ Elias was nursing the mother of headaches and none of the information he was being given made any sense.213

Brooks looked bewildered. ‘Well, it wasn’t human. I can’t say that it matches anything animal, either. At least, nothing living in the British Isles. It isn’t reptilian, it isn’t mammalian. I’ve sent samples off to the British Zoological Society, to see if they have any ideas.’214

‘How big?’215

Brooks smiled. ‘Inspector, as advanced as the techniques are, we can’t possibly tell you that. One thing I can say is, it’s probably spent a lot of time in water.’216

It didn’t get any better.217

‘But that’s impossible.’218

‘I know. But there it is. The make up suggests similarities with amphibious life forms.’219

‘But there’s no body of water deep enough or large enough locally…is there?’220

‘No reservoirs or lakes, no. I don’t think that there’s even a river within thirty miles. However, there are always subterranean sources.’221

Elias watched Brooks’s face, but there was no sign of a wind-up. Elias suspected that his Guv’nor had sent him on a fool’s trail, an initiation for the New Kid in Town. However, that wasn’t likely. He couldn’t spare the man power for silly tricks.222

‘Sewers?’223

‘Or underground lakes. The geology around here is dotted with caves and such – hollowed out by run-off from the hills.’ Brooks shrugged. ‘Just a suggestion.’ 224

Elias thanked him and left. His Guv’nor was going to love this.225

* * * * * * * 226

‘Amphibious?’ said Chief Inspector Marks. ‘What - some kind of giant frog?’ 227

Elias blushed. ‘I’m just telling you what Brooks said. The skin cells weren’t anything he recognised, he merely told me what the DNA suggested. Talk to him yourself.’228

‘I will.’ Marks closed the file he’d been reading and slapped it down. ‘In any case, I didn’t call you in to my office to talk about newts and toads. We found tracks at the murder scene. Someone is playing silly buggers, Elias, and I want the fucker found.’ He picked up another file and opened it. He turned it so that Elias could look at the photograph inside. 229

It was barely discernible – probably washed away by the rain last night – but it was still there. 230

‘Footprint.’ 231

An unshod foot, at that. ‘Look at the scale,’ said Marks.232

The photographer had marked off the scale in pen below the print. According to the measurement, it was about five feet in length, three feet broad. It had five long toes, like a primate’s. 233

‘A hoax.’ 234

‘It looks that way’ said Marks. ‘It might be someone who’s read the old stories, trying to revive them. Whoever it was, they were there last night. They might have seen something.’235

Elias ground his teeth. ‘Why do I feel that I’m missing something here? Everyone seems to know something about the history of the Wood, but nobody wants to be specific.’ 236

Marks removed another folder from his desk, then produced a bottle of malt from the same drawer. ‘Sit down, Elias. Have a glass.’237

Elias knew better than to pass up. When you Guv’nor invited you to drink with him, you said "thanks". He sat in the only available chair and took the whisky Marks offered to him. 238

‘There have been rumours about Jotnar’s Wood since I was a kid, and I know for sure they’ve been around before that. My Gran told tales about the place.’ He laughed. ‘She stopped when the nightmares began. Cheers.’239

They drank, and Marks offered Elias a cigarette. This wasn’t going to be a five-minute talk. 240

‘Old village gossip turned legend. There are lots of different versions but the basics are these.’ 241

Marks stood and began to pace around his desk as he talked. 242

‘The Domesday Book mentions Hulderstone, and even back then the village was well established. There is archaeology that suggests a Viking presence. The local Historical Society occasionally brings out a collection of folksy-tales with a supernatural bent.’243

‘Ghost stories. Great.’ Elias swallowed his glassful quicker than he intended. Marks raised an eyebrow but refilled him. 244

‘Strictly for the tourists, you understand. But it keeps them out of the Wood after dark.’245

‘So what, exactly, is the story?’ Elias was getting impatient with this. ‘What is it that could keep a legend alive over centuries?’ 246

‘Trolls, Elias. Like the one in the fairy story. Like those in The Hobbit.’ 247

I don’t f****** believe this, thought Elias. Claire is going to piss herself. 248

‘You’ll have to fill me in on the whole fairy-tale thing,’ he said. ‘I’m into Sartre, myself.’ 249

'No s***.’ 250

Oh please, God. Get me out of here.251

‘Okay. So your basic Troll is attracted to water – dark places, mostly, but water mainly. A master of camouflage - you don’t see it until if wants to be seen, and then it’s too late, because that’s just before it rips you to pieces. Big meat eater, your average Troll.’ 252

‘Do they suffer from hardened arteries, too?’ 253

‘Shut up, Elias. This is embarrassing enough, and you wanted to know. By day, they turn to stone, but only if they get caught in sunlight. They’re nocturnal-‘ 254

‘-Natch-‘ 255

‘-Shut it. And they can take different forms.’256

‘The camouflage thing.’ 257

‘I’m glad you’re paying attention. Now the story goes that the Hulderstone Troll lived near a bridge. Not under a bridge, necessarily, like the Grimm character.’ 258

‘I never read it.’ Elias rolled his eyes. 259

‘That’s why I’m telling you. The bridge is just about being protected from direct sunlight and being close to water,’ said Marks. 260

‘I grasp the basic idea. So how did the villagers get rid of it?’261

Marks shrugged. ‘Not sure that they did. It’s a supernatural entity. Maybe it can be summoned or banished by magic. I don’t know. It’s at its most vulnerable when it is turned to stone, so a lump hammer is probably as good as anything.’ 262

‘How does anyone get to know this shit?’ said Elias. ‘I mean, has anyone ever killed one?’ He drank half his whisky and dragged hard on his smoke. ‘And how does a Troll end up in Hulderstone? I thought those stories were Swedish, or Norse, or something.’263

Marks was laughing now. ‘Maybe it came over on a longboat, Elias. I don’t fucking know, all right? You asked me about the legend of the Wood, so here it is. The bridge in Jotnar’s Wood was infamous for a series of slaughters. A whole troop of the Sheriff’s soldiers was sent to stake out the bridge, and they used a lone female as bait. Problem: the Shire has run out of available comely wenches – the Troll seemed to prefer ‘em sexy – so the Sheriff orders his only daughter to lure it. Troll pokes its head out to go snap-snap, the local coppers nobble ‘im. But not before the thing trashes all but one of the plods. The last man standing fights all night long to save the maiden, but finally the poor sod is beaten to his knees. It’s curtains for him and the wench. Just as the beastie rears up to finish them off, dawn breaks, and the thing gives off a howl that is heard from Scotland to Cornwall, Anglesey to Norfolk. It scarpers, heading for its lair, and the copper gives chase. He almost loses it, but just as the first rays hit the deck, our hero does a flying rugby tackle and brings the mother down. Hey presto, one big block of stone. The story goes that the locals then came out and broke it up. They each took a piece and used it to form the foundation of a new building.’ 264

‘And so Hulderstone village was born. Shit. That’s long-winded enough to get into the King James Bible.’ Elias finished his malt and then eyeballed the bottle. That was the problem with good whisky. It was criminal to leave anything. 265

Marks was aware of how much they’d had, but he recharged the glasses anyway. Here it comes, thought Elias. The real reason for inviting me in here.266

‘Anyway,’ said Marks. ‘History lesson over.’ He sat on the desk like a teacher trying to "relate" to an errant pupil. ‘How are you settling in?’ 267

‘I’ll be fine,’ said Elias. 268

‘That’s not what I asked you. Heard from Jacqueline?’ 269

Elias put his glass down. ‘No. Have you?’270

Marks poured more whisky. ‘Don’t get sensitive, Elias. I knew Griffiths before you did. I also knew him long before she did. He was, and still is, a complete prick. It’s my guess that Jackie will work that out for herself eventually. Beats me how she got involved with him in the first place.’ 271

‘Seventy thousand a year and fast-track promotion, is my guess. But then I’m jaded and cynical. And it doesn’t help knowing that she preferred a complete dick to me.’272

‘Stop feeling sorry for yourself, Elias. You’re a good detective. That’s why you’re here and not back on the beat and transferred to the Isle of Wight.’ He gave Elias his glass back with a fresh refill. ‘You’re a stupid bastard. You could have picked a more discreet place than the Awards Dinner.’ 273

‘He humiliated me. I owed him one. And I only punched him once.’274

‘In the cobblers. Yeah, I was there, mate. I laughed so hard I had to throw my underwear away.’ 275

Elias found himself laughing. ‘Thank you. That will be an enduring and treasured thought.’ He raised his glass. ‘To your underwear,’ he toasted. 276

‘Up yours,’ said Marks. ‘And take the afternoon off. You look like shit, and you’ve drunk too much.’277

‘Er, you know that saying about people who live in glass houses?’ 278

‘I invented it,’ said Marks. ‘Get the fuck out of my office. Go home. Get some sleep.’ He put the bottle away. ‘Oh, and get a uniform to drive you home.’279

* * * * * * * 280

Elias found Williams in the canteen. Williams was just finishing his pie and chips. 281

‘I’ve got that information for you.’ 282

‘Thanks. Marks just gave me a potted history, but I’d be interested to know what you’ve got. Look, are you busy?’ 283

Williams shrugged. ‘I was due to do a "Community Policing" bit at the comprehensive school, but it’s been cancelled.’ He wiped his mouth. ‘Why?’ 284

‘I’d like to go back to Jotnar’s Wood.’ Elias sipped his coffee, winced, spooned sugar into it. 285

‘The bridge?’ 286

‘Yup. I couldn’t get through the undergrowth last night. Machete job.’ 287

‘Don’t have one of those,’ said Williams, ‘but there’s an army surplus shop in town.’ 288

‘When you’re ready, then.’ 289

* * * * * * * 290

Jotnar’s Wood was still sodden. As the two policemen made their way along the path, Elias told Williams what Marks had told him.291

‘He should stick to detection,’ said the constable, swinging his long knife. It had a good working edge and it cut through the foliage easily. ‘The Troll under the bridge story isn’t a Grimm fable, specifically. It’s Scandinavian in origin. "The Three Billy Goats Gruff" is just one version of a style of fairy story - 292

"Eat Me When I’m Fatter". It typifies the Troll as a human-hating monster. But there were other species of Troll. Some – the Wind Trolls - could become invisible and travel on the air currents. The word "Jotnar" refers to the Norse myth of the Old Ones - the Giants. They were supposed to live in mountains or under mounds.’293

Elias glanced at him. ‘You’ve put a lot of time into this.’ 294

Williams chuckled. ‘Sorry. It’s a hobby. I’m one of those sad bastards Marks probably referred to. Local history is an interest.’ 295

‘So you know that the village goes way back?’ 296

‘Hulderstone. "Hulder" is a corruption of "Huldre", the Norse noun for Troll - Trolls being referred to as "Huldresfolk".’297

Elias stopped walking. ‘The village was named after a legend?’ 298

Williams nodded. ‘Except, back then, it wasn’t so much legend as recent news.’299

The DI nodded. ‘If you accept the reality of the things.’ He unsheathed his machete. ‘The foundation stones of the village are supposedly bits of Troll.’ 300

‘There are a few building with stone like that – lumps of masonry that aren’t quarried locally. I suppose it makes sense to separate the bits so that they don’t find each other.’ 301

They set to work on the blocked path. Williams kept up his monologue on Troll lore. If it had been anyone else, Elias’s eyes would have glazed over. The constable was a fount of knowledge, but he had an easy, conversational style and he wasn’t afraid to laugh at himself. 302

‘Trolls were notorious tricksters, too. They were known to abduct human newborn babies and substitute them for children of their own – a "Changeling". These Changelings were easily spotted. They usually displayed unusual wisdom from an early age, and if you could trick them into revealing this wisdom, they would disappear.’303

They were making slow progress. The sky was already darkening by the time they caught sight of the bridge itself. In the gloom, the grey stone construction did not invite you to walk across it. 304

‘Claire told me that it’s probably a death trap,’ said Elias.305

‘She’s probably right.’ Williams cut the last rope of blackberry and, as it fell, they heard a low rumble across the hills. 306

‘Looks like Thor’s on the prowl,’ said the constable. 307

‘What?’ Elias was only half listening. There was a smell that wafted on the breeze that blew across the bridge. Above, thunderheads that promised another deluge. 308

‘The Thunder God. He hunted the Jotnir, killing them by throwing hammers in the form of lightning bolts.’309

‘No shit,’ said Elias. ‘Can you smell that?’310

Williams sniffed, wrinkled his nose. ‘Gross. There’s a pond nearby, though. It’s usually rank by the end of autumn.’ 311

Elias was sweating. It was an unhealthy sweat, heavy on what he now realised was fear. As if picking up on the detective’s thoughts, Williams said ‘Kind of spooky.’ 312

Elias was listening, now. He had the strongest feeling that they weren’t alone. He was about to dismiss his paranoia when, in his peripheral vision, he saw movement down by the brook. 313

Williams, perhaps infected by the atmosphere created by the early dusk and the strengthening wind that made the Wood came alive with strange rustlings and cracks, babbled constantly. Elias had already switched off. There was such a thing as information overload. 314

‘Yeah, the pond features in old documents. Probably been there since the village was founded. Some divers went down there, found that it was much deeper than it looks - about fifty feet. There’s a tunnel but they didn’t have enough air to follow it through - probably connects to a series of caves….’315

‘Williams, shut up for a second.’ Elias had brought his torch. ‘Unsheathe that machete.’ 316

The constable did as he was told. His face was a pale globe in the darkness that descended with unusual haste. 317

And then they heard it. A splash, down at the bank of the brook, now in full spate due to run-off from the hills that surrounded the village.318

‘How did they get down there? We just spent two hours cutting through.’ 319

Elias made throat-slashing motions, showing his teeth. 320

Williams put his finger to his lips. Got the message. 321

They split up, each taking a path to either side of the bridge, and worked their way through the thick tangle of vegetation that grew, unchecked, on the bank. Luckily, most of it was nettle and grass.322

The brook was a torrent. Elias really didn’t want to fall in to test its depth. He unsheathed his machete, holding it up with one hand, torch ready with the other. His breathing was becoming rapid and his vision blurred. Dry swallowing, he decided that he had to make his move before the panic attack immobilised him, or sent him squealing back down the path to the car. That would finish him. 323

There was movement to his right, inches from him, but before he could respond a flash of sun-bright light blinded him. The after-glow blotted out the face that now loomed before him and the blow, iron-hard, that caught him across the jaw floored him. 324

* * * * * * * 325

When he came to, it was almost completely dark. It was probably the steady drip of rainwater through the overhanging branches of a sprawling Oak that woke him. Two figures were kneeling close by; they stared down at him. Disoriented, he began to thrash and lash out. A torch beam suddenly uplit a familiar face, making his ashen pallor even more ghoulish. 326

‘It’s all right, Inspector. It’s just me.’ 327

‘Williams? Did you get-‘ 328

‘It wasn’t what we thought,’ said the constable. 329

Claire’s face appeared next to Williams’s. 330

‘Elias, you scared the fucking shit out of me.’331

‘Jesus, Claire, what did you hit me with?’ His jaw felt as if it had been broken, reset, then broken again. He felt with his tongue, detected two missing teeth. His mouth tasted foul with blood. 332

Claire held up her camera, flash unit attached to the top. She didn’t believe in digital, or built-in "poxy red-eye flash bulbs". 333

‘Luckily, you didn’t damage it.’ 334

‘Droll,’ said Elias. ‘Help me up.’335

The world was playing silly buggers. It couldn’t decide if it wanted to stay in focus. Then, without warning, he threw up onto the flattened grass between his legs. 336

‘Nice,’ said Claire. 337

‘Concussion, said Williams.338

Then, overlaying the stink of puke - strong, whisky-smelling puke - came a stronger aroma. Somewhere, across the bridge and behind a screen of trees, the sound of a large volume of water being displaced. Like- 339

‘-Someone getting out of a bath,’ said Claire. 340

‘A big, big bath,’ said Williams. 341

This is not happening, thought Elias. 342

‘Claire, get out of here.’ 343

‘What?’ 344

‘Run!’ 345

‘What’s he talking about?’ said Claire. 346

‘It’s worse than I thought,’ said Williams. ‘The ambulance should be here soon.’ 347

‘Ambulance?’ said Elias. ‘Someone hurt?’ 348

Claire shook her head. ‘Lie down, tough guy.’349

That smell was getting stronger. And there was another rumble, like the one they’d heard before his brains started running down his nose, but it belonged in a zoo. In the elephant enclosure. 350

‘What the fuck was that?’ Williams got to his feet, switched on his torch. 351

‘Williams, don’t-‘ 352

The constable turned. He didn’t see what seized him; fingers closed around him and pinned his arms to his sides. He didn’t even have time to yell. But Claire did.353

The scream, mercifully, drowned the worst of the noises that followed. Williams was whimpering pitifully between tearing sounds, and then, as Claire’s scream faded, Williams’s began to rise. Claire flattened her palms against the sides of her head, trying to block out the sounds of the constable’s death. 354

There was a loud snap, another elephant roar and then nothing but the sound of mastication, the splinter of bone and the splash of liquids pattering to the ground.355

Claire’s eyes rolled back. Her mouth gaped, locked in a soundless scream. 356

Elias was alerted by the sudden silence, and he moved fast. He shoulder-barged Claire and knocked her into thick bracken, just as something too big to be a hand closed on empty space. It was almost comical; the appendage faltered, as if confused, and then flattened out to pat the ground where Claire had been kneeling, catatonic with terror.357

Elias planted his machete through the glistening, mucous-covered hand and leaned against the handle, thrusting the blade further, pinning it to the ground. Whatever it was attached to roared again, and Elias’s grimace of triumph was savage. 358

‘That’s got to hurt, motherf-‘ 359

The ground was too soft to keep the hand immobile. With a moist wrench, the machete came out, but it was still embedded deep. 360

The skin was mottled, green-blue, splashes of brown the colour of well rotted algae and reeds. It had iridescence, and the sheen and glutinous look of it made him think of an octopus. 361

He was proven wrong when he saw the face that appeared through the branches. Two heavily lidded eyes the size of cartwheels stared down at him beneath a heavy brow. It was bald, although the strings of algae and moss growing on its head made it look like an Oasis band member. An elongated nose completed the impression of something straight out of a storybook; the only thing that marred this notion was the glare of pure malevolence that blazed from its eyes. 362

Elias could feel the onset of a panic attack and he had to do something before he froze. He would be an easy target, and then Claire…. 363

Getting to his feet, he put his hands out to steady himself and one of them found his torch. He switched it on as the face appeared at ground level, thrusting forward beneath the branches. 364

‘How did they ever make a twat like you look so cute?’ said Elias.365

It opened its mouth, revealing teeth like obelisks and, worst of all, strings of gore - muscle, sinew, intestine - hanging from them. Its breath was almost enough to render the detective senseless again. Instead, he projectile vomited into its maw. 366

The thing gagged, withdrew its head and Elias felt the ground tremble as it stumbled off a few yards. The sounds of retching were like a main sail tearing from corner to corner. 367

Elias dived out after it.368

He wasn’t prepared for the ferocity of the storm. The rain seemed to come down as a solid sheet, like a bucket of water emptied from a great height. 369

The thing was obviously done with regurgitating its last meal. Again, he felt the tremor as it planted those huge, long-toed feet. It was coming after him. 370

The snag of it was, it was between him and his car. He had no option but run for the bridge. It was close.371

Elias remembered, just before impact, that barriers had been erected to stop scramblers using the listed construction. He hit it just below his navel and he went over, landing heavily on his back. 372

The creature reached down, snatched him up and held him around his torso. Elias flailed his fists, but the soft skin absorbed his blows. He stared into those crater-sized eyes and panic took over, fists flexing and relaxing in spasms. He was being pushed between those gravestone teeth. 373

His right hand closed over something sticking out of the back of the monster’s hand. He gripped it, wrenched, and it came free.374

The swing was wild, but it lodged in the long, fleshy nose. It threw back its head and squealed. Elias dropped twenty feet. The splash was spectacular. The shock of the cold, fast-flowing water was even more so. 375

It pushed Elias back into full consciousness and out of his panic state. He pulled hard for the bank, catching hold of the thick weeds along it. It was steep, and muddy, but he managed to pull himself up and out of the brook just as the troll picked the blade out of its nostril, eyes streaming and screwed tight with pain. It howled. But not for long.376

It turned. 377

It saw Elias. 378

Then, behind it, he heard someone yelling, a torch beam waving, cutting the night. The Troll turned again. Claire was standing on the path, hair plastered flat against her face, trying to distract it. 379

‘No!’ Elias scrambled up the bank, skidded on the path and went down. The Troll blinked, looked from one potential meal to the other. It was what Elias needed. He regained the vertical, ran for the bridge. He stood in the centre of it, hopping up and down, screaming abuse.380

‘Over here, you ugly mother. What’s the matter - IQ not up to it? I’m bigger, fatter!’ He pounded his belly. ‘And I’m marinated in scotch.’ 381

Whether it was the logic of the argument - big, bulky and spicy versus petite, sickly looking and shrill - or just the fact that Elias happened to be a few paces closer, the detective never knew. The Troll made its decision and lumbered toward Elias.382

The detective stood his ground until the last second. Above him, the creature came crashing onward, arms outstretched. This time, it would have its prey and by the snarl it gave it intended to take its time, stripping the flesh off him strand by strand. 383

Elias turned and ran. The Troll threw caution to the gale that pushed the thunderheads over the valley. It did not see the steel barrier. Arms windmilling, it lost its balance and brought one leg forward to stop itself from falling flat on its face. 384

Behind him, Elias heard the masonry split and fall inwards, and the foot that the Troll had planted went through and into the brook, its shin scraping against the edge of the shattered stone, splitting the soft skin. Green, viscid gore spouted. The stench was indescribable.385

‘You must be getting tired of this,’ screamed Elias. ‘Give it up, you son of a whore.’ 386

The Troll threw back its head and roared. The first fork of lightning hit a tree. It exploded. The Troll tore itself free. It was too fast for Elias. He saw the fist come down and it blotted out his world. The second strike hit the Troll in the centre of its skull; the third struck it in the back. 387

Four, five, six… The smell of cooking Troll made him pass out. 388

* * * * * * * 389

The rain had stopped. The stars were out. Elias would have been able to see them better if it wasn’t for two heads peering down at him. ‘This is getting ridiculous,’ he said. 390

Claire slapped him. ‘I’m fucking conscious,’ shouted Elias. ‘My friggin’ jaw.’ 391

‘I know you’re awake, you stupid bastard. What were you trying to do – get yourself ripped apart?’ 392

‘I could ask you the same question,’ said Elias. 393

‘Heroic, though,’ said Williams. 394

Elias squinted. 395

A torch flicked on. Williams’s schoolboy face, uplit like a Halloween mask. ‘Hello, Inspector.’ 396

‘You’re dead,’ said Elias. 397

‘Actually, very close. The ambulance arrived, as they say, in the nick of time. It’s a pity about that paramedic, though. Must be something about green overalls and traces of blood that made the thing drop me and go after him. His partner almost crashed the ambulance, going for help.’398

Elias could see movement, now, down the path. He was lying on the ground in the clearing, where Catherine had been found. Where the cars had been parked the night before, large vehicles now pulled up. Olive-drab coloured trucks, army, for the use of.399

‘Let’s get you packed off to the Infirmary,’ said Marks. 400

Elias managed to turn his head halfway, but he stopped when he felt the bones in his neck crack. ‘Guv’nor,’ he said. 401

‘I told you to go home.’ Marks squatted in front of him. 402

‘I know. I’m an insubordinate, stupid bastard.’ 403

‘Just get into the ambulance, smart arse.’404

The paramedics brought a stretcher. ‘He doesn’t need that,’ said Marks. 405

‘Yes I fucking do,’ said Elias.406

* * * * * * * 407

It took a month of painful surgery and physiotherapy before Elias was fit for discharge. His relationship with Claire had grown closer. It had come to the Meet My Parents stage. 408

He sat in the chintzy living room of Claire’s family home, wondering if he ought to stick his pinkie out while he slurped his tea. Claire was in the kitchen, cutting cake.409

‘Claire was such a bright child,’ said Mrs Strunk. ‘Always in the woods.’ 410

‘Yes. She mentioned a fascination with the bridge.’ 411

Mrs Strunk – "Call me Margaret" – began to chin-wobble. 412

‘She told you about that?’413

‘Well…yes.’ "Call me Margaret" had lost her healthy pink complexion. ‘Is there something wrong?’ 414

‘Er. No. No, not really. It was just such a traumatic phase in her life. She was…unhappy for a while. A long time. She kept having nightmares, and she was obsessed with that bridge.’ She shrugged. ‘Of course, she snapped out of it eventually. She always was older than her years. Very sensible.’ 415

Elias’s hand trembled. He caught a whiff of a smell he’d hoped to forget. It wafted through from the kitchen.416

‘…A rather wise child. She’s an exceptional girl, don’t you think?’ 417

THE END. POSSIBLY. .. 4
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