Before She Falls – Dylan Young

Depending on the tides, Louise Griffiths either walked the beach or up along the cliff path at least twice a week, rain or shine. She always parked in the Dunraven Bay car park and dressed accordingly. Today, the tide was in and so the beach was out of bounds. It was late September, the day cold and blustery, and Louise wore an anorak, hat and gloves. Toby, her energetic cocker, preferred the beach because the cliff top meant he’d have to stay on a lead. Louise had read lots of horror stories about dogs chasing birds and jumping off viaducts and mountainsides in pursuit. Southerndown Cliff was two hundred and ten feet high when you reached the top. It wasn’t worth the risk. Toby would just have to wait until they reached the other side and the river mouth to run amok. Unlike Toby, Louise preferred the cliff path. Though it flanked the Bristol Channel, this far around it was an almost west-facing coastline and open to the Atlantic. It made for a bracing stroll, and more often than not, Louise would stand at the very top and wonder at the view. To the south, she’d look out across the channel towards England. Below, at the bottom of the cliff, was the beach, though the rocky limestone shelf and the lack of sand barely qualified. Still, it made for a spectacular landscape that went a long way towards explaining why this spot was such a popular location.

The sharp easterly whipped up the surf and Louise took a handkerchief to her running nose before turning back towards the path to continue her walk, through the second car park at the top of the rise and out on to open common. There was someone else approaching on the path and Toby looked up, his tail already in overdrive, ready to greet a fellow walker. A smile formed automatically on Louise’s lips and her brain formulated a greeting: a mutual appreciation of nature and the weather that had become her standard gambit over the years. But it froze halfway as the girl came closer. No, strode closer, because there was a determination about this walker that, as she neared, seemed out of place. She would have seen Louise. There was no way of avoiding that, but there was no happy reciprocal smile on her face. As she neared, the girl put her hand up to her forehead and kept her face lowered so as not to make eye contact. Louise was no psychiatrist, but she’d taught at a local comprehensive for almost fifteen years, so she knew when things, with girls especially, were wrong. ‘Are you OK?’ Louise asked.

The query triggered a reaction. The girl looked up briefly. Louise flinched and felt something, a mixture of shock and alarm, ripple through her. It wasn’t only the girl’s lost, hopeless expression but the large mark on her face that made Louise start. A dark stain like the curved rays of a black sun, obtrusive and obvious, designed to startle. The exchange of looks lasted the briefest of seconds before the girl passed by on a spur that left the main path and headed towards another viewpoint. ‘Hello,’ said Louise to the girl’s back, her voice taut and urgent. But the girl took no notice. She walked on to where the land began to fall away, where earth started to crumble. ‘Hello?’ Louise said again, but she got no further.

The girl hesitated, half turned and let out one shuddering sob before swinging back to face the sea and, without warning, running towards the edge of the cliff where she dropped, like a stone, into the void. Something imploded inside Louise and she fell to her knees. Toby barked, unnerved by the strange emotions he sensed, but his voice was drowned out by another’s. Louise’s anguished wail was lost amidst the sound of the gulls and carried off by the wind into an uncaring sky. ONE FEBRUARY – FIVE MONTHS LATER Sunday Detective Inspector Anna Gwynne watched her dog, Lexi, sprint away, plant both feet in a controlled skid and duck her head for the retrieve just as the ball she was aiming for hit a pebble and bounced. Lexi lost all footing and rolled. Twice. Whether through sheer luck or canine judgement, she then sprang upright and took the ball cleanly in the air as it bounced once again. Looking enormously pleased with herself, she performed a rolling shake of her torso to get rid of most of the sand and began trotting back towards her owner. Anna shook her head, smiling.

It made the muscles under her eyes bunch up. ‘She’s going to need another bath.’ Next to her, Ben Hawley grinned. ‘Good pickup, Lexi. The old wipeout and snatch.’ Lexi trotted up to where they were standing and dropped the ball at Anna’s feet before looking up at her entreatingly. Anna tried chastisement. ‘Your muzzle is more sand than fur.’ Lexi wagged her tail. Anna pressed the end of an orange Chuckit launcher over the ball, picked it up and threw it forty yards towards the water.

Lexi followed. They were west of Friars Point in the Old Harbour in Barry, near Cardiff. Boats had moored here since before the sixteenth century. With the tide out, a huge expanse of yellow sand made it a haven for dog walkers. Anna smiled. Even after two months of having Lexi in her life, it tickled her to think of herself as one of those. She’d finally taken the plunge just before Christmas and, with Ben’s help, rescued Lexi, a brown Borador – a Border collie Lab mix – from a shelter near Bristol. Anna still didn’t know why, out of all the dogs, she’d chosen Lexi. The easiest answer was that the dog, who’d sat calmly and watched with bright, intelligent eyes as Anna walked past her kennel, had chosen her. Something in that appraising look had struck Anna instantly and the deal was done.

This time, Lexi took the ball in full flight as it bounced and, in contrast to the pile-up of moments before, ran a graceful arc before cantering back. Anna’s work phone beeped a message. Superintendent Mark Rainsford’s name appeared in the text window. Anna frowned. Rainsford rarely texted on a weekend. It must be something important. She glanced at the message. Take a look at this and we’ll talk later. https://tinyurl/coronercardf Ben looked at her. She shrugged and handed him the Chuckit.

He stepped away to give her some space and called the dog to him. Anna watched Lexi glance her way, as if asking permission. ‘Go to Ben,’ she said. The dog complied. Lexi had bonded deeply with her and was startlingly intelligent. In a moment of stark self-awareness, Anna looked across at the two living creatures she cared most about in the world and shook her head, wondering what had brought on this sudden, and for her unusual, emotion. Ben had been the significant other in her life for only a few months longer than she’d owned Lexi. Six months previously, Anna would have scoffed at the suggestion that within half a year she’d have a lover and a dog. And this feeling that now sprang up, this warmth, did so unbidden, leaving her a little hot and bothered. Emotions always did, mainly because they were not at all amenable to analysis and logical explanation: the twin disciplines she used to navigate through life.

She stared at the brown dog with white-tipped paws and at the man with a quick smile and healer’s hands. Must be the ozone making me a little high, she thought. She pressed the link Rainsford had texted over. It took her to a newsfeed. CORONER DEMANDS ACTİON AS İNQUEST HEARS HARROWİNG DETAİLS OF HOW INTERNET CHALLENGE CAUSED SUİCİDE OF 16-YEAR-OLD GİRL A coroner raised concerns yesterday about the increasing danger of children becoming entangled in an Internet challenge known as the Black Squid. Kimberley Williams, 16, died after jumping off a cliff at a notorious suicide black spot in Southerndown, South Wales. After police examined Kimberley’s social media and Internet activity, her family revealed she had been goaded into leaping by her involvement in a suicide game. In a statement read out to the court, Miss Williams’ sister described how the teenager had become increasingly withdrawn after a recent break-up left her depressed and receiving counselling. Responding to questions, pathologist Richard Murphy confirmed that Miss Williams died from multiple injuries as a result of the fall and that her face had been painted with the crude image of a black squid. Dr Katia Piercy, a forensic psychologist, explained to the court that suicide games are thought to have begun as an elaborate hoax, with some children wishing to participate and use the narrative to explain their experiences of selfharm.

However, in May of 2017, the Russian authorities, in the wake of some 130 deaths linked to online suicide challenge games, passed a law imposing a maximum of 6 years imprisonment for anyone caught inducing suicide in minors online. Dr Piercy explained that the game Kimberley Williams chose to participate in, known as the Black Squid, involved completing twenty tasks designed to psychologically channel vulnerable participants towards a final suicidal act. Family members paid tribute to Miss Williams and described her as a bubbly member of the family. Her sister Vanessa said, ‘Kimberley was my best friend. We all loved her to bits. She was an amazing person who got caught up in something really horrible.’ The coroner, Caroline Masters, said she would be writing a report to the chief medical officer as well as to the Chief Coroner for England and Wales. It will also be circulated to the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners. Anna read it twice more and then rang Rainsford. ‘Morning, Anna.

What do you think?’ ‘How long have you known about this, sir?’ It came out sharp, almost an accusation. ‘I got a heads-up half an hour ago from a colleague in South Wales Police who knows about you and Shaw.’ Anna suppressed an ironic laugh. You and Shaw. Three little words that were the signpost to a minefield. Hector Shaw was a convicted serial killer whose own daughter Abbie had been a victim of the Black Squid. Anna, through her work as the operational lead of Avon and Somerset Constabulary’s cold case squad, had needed to interview Shaw on more than one occasion. As a result, she had become embroiled in his complex case. Still, the thought that she’d become something of an expert on Shaw in other people’s minds was no cause for celebration. Not in the slightest.

Yet it was the obvious answer to why Rainsford’s contact might have told him. Any Black Squid-related search entry on HOLMES, the Home Office Large Major Enquiry System, would flag up Abbie Shaw, and by extension her notorious father. And, terrifying as it might seem, Anna’s name was now inextricably linked to him. Shaw had targeted his victims because of their involvement as peddlers or administrators of the game. His killing spree had been a vengeful act, in the course of which he’d gleaned intelligence about other Black Squid victims. Intelligence he’d kept to himself until the last few months when he’d inexplicably chosen Anna as his conduit for revealing the burial sites of more than one of these victims. Even so, Anna did not have the brief for investigating Black Squid deaths, so Rainsford’s motivation in telling her about Kimberley Williams, especially as it was off their patch, intrigued her. Operational bubbles were the reality of police work. You existed in your own, or at least your own force’s, little world full of details and minutiae that meant sod all to anyone outside your team. Anna barely knew what was going on in the rest of Avon and Somerset.

Her squad, South-West Major Crimes Review Task Force, was a regional unit investigating historical cold cases over three or sometimes four force areas. A suicide in an area outside the MCRTF’s remit would not appear on their radar unless it had some kind of supra-regional significance, or unless someone savvy realised that there was an overlap. Kimberley Williams’ death would need to tick both of those boxes. Shaw’s past wasn’t enough. ‘So why have you sent me this, sir?’ The two long beats of silence answered Anna’s question almost before Rainsford could. ‘This report was in yesterday’s papers. It would explain why I got a call from Whitmarsh this morning. He will have seen it, I’m sure.’ He. And there it was.

The big, lumbering elephant that stomped into the room whenever Rainsford mentioned Whitmarsh prison. Hector Shaw. Rainsford continued, ‘George Calhoun, Whitmarsh’s governor, says Shaw is bleating about meeting you but that there’s no need to go to Whitmarsh. He says this one is much closer to home.’ This one. Another body? ‘How close?’ ‘Bristol. He won’t give us a location, of course.’ Anna snorted. Of course. He never did.

Not revealing the actual location of a buried body was the only way Shaw could guarantee one of his little awaydays from prison. He’d already had a couple and ‘enjoyed’ Anna’s company on both occasions. ‘When?’ ‘Tomorrow… Anna? Are you OK with this?’ OK with watching another rotting corpse being dug up while Shaw stares at me with his eyes full of accusation? Why wouldn’t I be? ‘Yes, I’m fine with it,’ she said, despite her true feelings. ‘Good. We’ll catch up tomorrow. I’ll get on to Whitmarsh and get the ball rolling. Enjoy the rest of your weekend.’ She killed the call. Rainsford’s sign-off might have come across as sardonic to someone who didn’t know him. But he didn’t do sarcasm.

He’d meant it. Anna allowed herself a little ironic smile at that. They both knew how dangerous Shaw was. His decision to suddenly cooperate after years of admitting nothing about his knowledge of the Black Squid deaths mystified police and prison authorities alike. And Rainsford was right. Shaw had probably seen the news and it would have upset him. Odd to think that a serial murderer might get upset, but Anna knew that anything to do with the Black Squid was highly likely to get under Shaw’s skin. He’d killed at least six people in his hunt for the person he deemed responsible for his daughter’s suicide. A suicide in which she, too, had drawn a facsimile of a black squid on her face before throwing herself under a train. Shaw had conceded to Anna that he’d failed to find the twisted mind behind the sickening game.

The published details of Kimberley’s death would have rekindled the burning desire for vengeance that had driven him to kill in the first place. And it was that which scared her. Somewhere along the line, Shaw’d seen a way to use her as a tool, revealing the buried victims of the Black Squid to her periodically in order to keep the investigation alive. And though the discoveries had given closure to several families as a result, still Anna found his cat-and-mouse tactics repugnant. She could not say no to Rainsford since Shaw flatly refused to talk to anyone else. To that end she felt as trapped as a buzzing fly in a spider’s web knowing that she had a moral and professional obligation to comply. There were the obvious sniggering comments from colleagues whenever this was brought up, of course. Anna was a physically fit, attractive, young, female police officer. Why wouldn’t Shaw show an unhealthy interest? Yet in all of her interactions with him, Anna had never sensed the slightest innuendo. Indeed, on more than one occasion he had reminded her that his daughter, had she lived, would have been around Anna’s age.

But Anna doubted that Shaw would ever have discussed with his daughter any of the topics and details he’d revealed to her. Even now, she could hear his nasal voice describing how he’d tortured his victims into telling him what he wanted to know. Delivered always in a stone-cold, matter-of-fact way. And now she was about to invite him into her life once again. The thought of what the working week might bring made her suddenly shiver. She looked up and out over the expanse of sea and sand and inhaled deeply, savouring the moment and reminding herself that it wasn’t Monday yet.

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