April 18th, 1943
Hagley Woods, England
Morning in Hagley Woods is cold and wet and I’m exhausted from walking miles in muddy weather. Even in daylight, the canopy of trees casts deep shadows around me. According to Lex and Viv, this is “our best lead in months.” The last dozen leads were the best at the time too and they were all ghosts, shimmering into nothing. Besides which, it’s always me who ends up doing the jobs where there’s a lot of waiting around. I understand why Lex can’t, but Viv is just plain spoiled.
Mist hangs over the forest floor and there’s an eerie quiet creeping through the woods that unsettles my stomach. I’m seeing shadows everywhere, but I brush it off as nerves. I’m chilled to the bone, crouched in a tree hollow. My hair is frizzy and damp and when I shake it out drops scatter. Soon it’ll rain, but I wait, not relishing the though of getting wetter than I already am. I pull my knees to my chest and breathe into the scratchy wool of my sweater. I wish I’d had time to watch this location before I came out here. Sitting in the damp staring at a tree feels useless, but if it’s actually there, I don’t want anybody barging in on me. I’ll need time to extract it and that might require digging if Viv’s theories are right.
Through the trees I hear crashing and muffled laughter. Four teenage boys are headed my way. Instinctively, I creep into a nearby tree; a branch snags my sweater on the way up and slows me for a moment and my heart beats faster, but a quick yank sets me free. I find a good place to wait things out and curl into myself, hoping to stay unseen. It’s amazing I can fold this body up so small. I sink deeper into the tree, drawing my scarf over my bright hair, tucking a flaming strand in just as the boys near the wych hazel, or is it an elm? I can’t tell. Lex would know.
I watch closely as the boys close in on the elm. Let’s call it an elm. They’re chattering happily to one another, telling jokes interspersed by emphatic utterings of “SHHHH!” and laughter, trying desperately to remind one another that they’re on a secret mission. As annoyed as I am by their intrusion, it’s hard not to smile. One boy spots a nest and points emphatically. The others nod in agreement, they’re trying even harder to be sneaky now, and he scrambles up the tree. I swear softly, they need to go. I got to the woods sooner than I’d expected and I’ve been waiting all morning for my chance at the tree. These little ruffians could ruin everything if I’m not careful. I don’t want to hurt them, but I need to inspect the tree, and soon.
The blond boy who climbed up reaches the nest and shakes his head. No luck. The eggs are all gone. I squint, waiting to see what he’ll do next. His face lights up and he reaches for something, holding it aloft. I gasp-- he’s found a skull. I have to clap a hand over my mouth to keep from shouting. It’s really there. “What is it, Bobby?” calls the one on the ground who’s almost as redheaded as me. “Looks like a possum skull” Bobby cries cheerily. I roll my eyes in frustration, as that is clearly not a possum. What are they teaching in schools? Then Bobby drops the skull and practically leaps from the tree. I catch my breath as he falls, making a heavy thud.
From my vantage point, I see Bobby’s eyes fill with anxious tears as he gasps, “There was fillings in the teeth, and hair… and… skin.” The boys look at each other in alarm and the short, dark haired one smirks, “Bobby, you idiot, possums don’t have fillings.” Instantly, I hate that boy. He reminds me too much of someone I’d rather not think of. Not now, not here. I close my eyes and try to breathe before the panic can rise.
“You’re a baby” the nasty child whines and I wince. Bobby vomits and I hate the dark haired boy more. I feel my palms begin to flicker with heat and I clench my fists. Poor Bobby, I do feel for him, but revealing myself now and in this way would be disastrous. “Shut up, Fred” says the redheaded boy acidly, and then more kindly, “what did you see, Bobby?” Bobby shakes his head violently. “Come on, man, tell us” urges the redhead. Bobby wipes his mouth on the sleeve of his jacket, “It was a human skull. It couldn’t’a been anything else.” He’s sobbing and I suppress a groan.
I lean forward in the tree, aggravated by this turn of events. Things are not moving in the right direction, but I need to be patient. There’s more at stake here than inconvenient children and I can just imagine Viv’s reaction to my failure. The branch moans loudly against my shifting weight. The boys look around, startled, but don’t see me. I take a deep breath and wait. Eventually, Fred hisses, “Let’s get out of here before someone finds us, the old man’ll have our heads if he finds us in the woods.”
Bobby’s face goes white at the mention of poaching, “We have to tell someone. We have to tell” he murmurs. “No, we do not” says the oldest looking boy, who’s countenance has been thoughtful this whole time. Bobby stares into his friend’s face, “Rob, you didn’t see it. We have to tell.” “I agree” says the redheaded boy. “See, Tommy thinks so” insists Bobby. “Tommy would” sneers Fred and my desire to hurt him is renewed. “Enough!” Rob practically shouts. “Not one of you will breathe a word of this to anyone. You know how much trouble we’d catch just for setting foot in here. Let’s go. NOW!”
At their leader’s command the boys start walking swiftly away from the tree. The one called Tommy, the redhead, stops and looks back. His eyes are wide and frightened and I know he sees me. We both breathe at the same time and I imagine that the terror in his eyes is reflected in my own. I put a finger to my lips, a silent plea. He opens and closes his mouth several times, as if he wants to speak. Then he nods once, a vague understanding crossing his face. I try to wish him away, but the sinking in my gut says he’ll never forget seeing me and that can only mean trouble, for him and me both. I’m sorry for it, and as he runs after his friends I wonder why I didn’t kill them all. It might be more merciful than what could happen to them now. They disappear into the distance and I haven’t time to think about it more.
I collapse against the tree in a momentary sigh of relief. I unfold and climb down from my perch. I stare hard at the tree in question and walk a few feet towards it and stop suddenly. Tommy will tell, probably his father. I know it like I know it will rain within the quarter hour, washing away all evidence that I, and the boys, have been near the tree. What I’m unsure of is how long it will take Tommy’s father to tell a policeman and subsequently how long it will be before the woods are crawling with the law.
I growl softly. I don’t have time to dig for the hand I know is buried somewhere around the tree. Viv was right about everything, so that means the hand must be somewhere and we need the whole skeleton for anything to work. I have no idea where to start, so I turn from the tree in disappointment and then think better of it. I climb the tree quickly and find the hollow the skull rests in. I feel a lump rise in my throat, but I push it back as I touch the lower jaw gently. I close my eyes in concentration and when I open them, the well formed jaw has shifted forward and the once straight teeth overlap rather hideously. I put the skull back exactly where I found it. Then I step gracefully to the forest floor, just as the first drops of rain began to fall.
I snuggle into my scarf, and give one glance back toward Bella’s resting place as I run deeper into the forest and toward the road. In my peripheral vision I catch sight of a dark figure, too tall to be Tommy or one of the others, hurrying the other way. Someone else was here, looking for her too. There’s plenty of people who’d care to find her, but only one I can think of smart enough to track her this far. A desire to vomit lurches through my gut, but there’s nothing I can do now but run.
There’s a black car waiting for me on the road out of town. I slide in and Lex takes my hand and squeezes hard, “How’d it go?” he asks. I respond, “It didn’t. There were people there. Teenage boys.” Lex frowns, his beautiful face a mask, “But was she there?” he asks softly. He knows the answer; he can feel it in the tension that’s snapping around me. It’s not that I don’t want to have found Bella, a part of me does, desperately. Once we have her back, things will unravel quickly and I’m not sure I’m ready for that yet.
I have to answer him though. My left hand twitches, I’ve been clenching my fist, “They found her skull and I had to leave.” Lex’s eyes narrow, “That’s not good, Ava. We need the whole skeleton, the skull included.” I snap, “You think I don’t know that? I couldn’t risk them finding me. How would that look, Lex? Or did you want to go do it? What do you think they’d do with you?” He shakes his white head, his blood red irises glowing. He doesn’t answer. He slows the car a bit as we race toward London. “I’m sorry,” he whispers softly, “It must have been difficult for you.” He doesn’t know the half of it. An old pain unearths itself in my heart and dances through my body. I turn my head toward the window and close my eyes as rain splatters hard against it.
Just outside London, Lex halts the car abruptly in front of a dark alley. A raven-haired woman glides out of the shadows and steps into the car. I keep my eyes squeezed shut when I see her, knowing she’s going to be angry. “Well?” Viv purrs from the back seat, “Do we have it?” Lex is calm, “there were human children.” Viv leans back in her seat and opens her handbag, pulling out a tube of lipstick and a mirror. She wipes a smear of red from her lower lip and chin before reapplying her lipstick. She’s silent and I feel her temper from here.
“There’s something else,” I whisper. I don’t want to tell them this part. Everything in me screams that if I tell it will make it real. In the rearview mirror I see Viv’s eyes narrow into dangerous slits, her long lashes brushing her cheeks. I have to tell them. My fists are clenched so tightly that I feel my own blood wetting my palms, “There was someone else in the woods, someone other than the boys.” “Who?” Viv asks. I wait for her to reach the same conclusion I have. In an instant, she is gripping my shoulder, digging crimson nails in hard. She’s afraid. I can smell it. I squeeze her hand in reassurance.
“We ought to leave England at once” remarks Lex thoughtfully. “We can’t go back for the bones and if we can’t he can’t either. The police will take possession of them and we can go back later, after they’ve formed their theories.” I grit my teeth. His plan involves more waiting and I’m anxious to get Bella’s bones and go. The sooner we have them the safer she’ll be. Lex squeezes my hand again, “Darling, I know what you’re thinking, but we’ve worked so hard to stay hidden, we can’t risk this now. I think we should go.” I know he’s right, and if we stay, I’ll have to fight and that scares me more than anything else.
Viv and I nod, agreeing on something, at least. “Well, where do you want to go now, my dove?” Viv asks as she leans her dark hair against Lex’s shoulder. He reaches behind the seat and takes her hand, pressing it to his lips. I don’t wait for him to answer. “Home” I say, “I just want to go home.” With a faraway look in her eyes she agrees, “There’s nothing I’d like more mon ange. Perhaps we should pick somewhere we can actually go, though. Where seems safest?”
She asks, but we know that nowhere is safe now that Bella has been found. Word will spread. As we drive into an uncertain future, that much is undeniably true.