Mark’s house burns down. His partner’s five-year-old son dies in the blaze, and his partner blames Mark for the tragedy. They split.
Kate’s five-year-old daughter dies of cancer. Kate’s husband seems not to care, and even tries to sleep with Kate the night of their daughter’s death when she’s stricken with grief. Kate tells him to go to hell. They divorce.
Mark and Kate meet and find comfort in talking about their tragic pasts. They fall in love and Kate becomes pregnant.
But there’s a psychopathic child murderer at large who sets houses on fire. The hunt for him threatens Kate and Mark’s new found happiness and the life of Kate’s surviving daughter.
More about the book: http://www.night-running.com
For those who run in the dark–
There is always a reason
One day in November, when a few snow flakes had settled on the ground, and the air temperature had fallen to two degrees below freezing point, a man wearing a black canvas jacket, with a black scarf wrapped tight around his face, took a step from the shadows and watched the flames engulf the child’s bedroom. For several seconds they licked around the windowsill then shot upwards, making silhouettes, dancing against the dark night sky. Soon, the top of the house became engulfed in a fireball. He knew nobody would survive, and pulled the collar of his jacket up around his neck, turned, and started to run back through the dense woods. The snow had begun to thicken, but he didn’t notice, his mind full of what he’d achieved and what he still had to do. He ran fast, dodging and twisting to avoid trees and bushes. Twigs and bracken snapped loud beneath his pounding feet. The wail from the sirens from the emergency services’ vehicles deafened him, telling him they were near. He started to sprint.
Emma turned to the left and gasped. Big red sparks exploded with ferocity in the night sky above the roofs of the houses in the next road. Her road, where she lived, but she couldn’t reach it. The traffic in front and behind had ground to a standstill: blocked solid. People had left their cars to gape at the spectacle: large, intense, and furious, almost like a firework display.
I have to get there. Oh God, it could be our house. She gagged, and thought she’d throw up. Her hand shook as she reached for the car key, almost like she suffered from Parkinson’s diseases or a neurological disorder. She slammed the door behind her, and started to run along the grass verge, passing the stationary cars. A searchlight from a helicopter, hovering low over the fire, shone through the dense smoke, making an eerie sort of haze. At the top of the road, she turned left, and ran another two hundred yards until she reached the first house in the street where she lived.
‘I don’t believe it. It can’t be.’ Thick smoke shrouded the houses. Two fire appliances stood in front of her home. An ambulance with its doors wide open was parked next to them. Emma stumbled a few paces forward and collapsed. She was sick. Vomit covered her face. She forced herself onto her hands and knees and tried to crawl forward. Chunks of sharp gravel and stones dug into her flesh. The pain made her yell, and she made herself stand up. She staggered two paces forward then fell over again.
‘Oh God, someone help me, that’s my house burning down there.’ Tears poured down her face. ‘My son, my son, my partner,’ she sobbed. ‘Where are they? Please someone help me. Please, please, please…’
‘You alright, luv?’ a policewoman asked a few minutes later, her hand on Emma’s shoulder.
Emma twisted her head up a little. ‘Where’s Sean? Where’s my son? Where’s John? That’s my house that’s burnt down.’ The policewoman knelt down and pulled Emma up to a sitting position. Emma’s head flopped onto the policewoman’s shoulder. She started to sob again.
He grieved. She grieved.
Grief comes in phases. Sometimes you can coast through a day, several days, without being affected. Then it hits you like a sudden tidal wave, a tsunami: engulfing you, shaking you around, churning your stomach, destroying your mind until you become useless and your emotions are shredded into tatters. It happened on a Monday morning as I drove to work. I commute in heavy traffic. It’s an uninspiring and dull journey, so I listen to loud music and enjoy my car: a classic, charcoal-grey BMW convertible that my ex-husband bought me and didn’t want back when we split so acrimoniously. I was surprised. He was anal, particularly about the divisions of our so-called joint possessions. He piled our belongings up in the middle of the living room, made a precise list of everything and its value, and then shared it up in the way he thought fit. I didn’t argue with him. I’d had enough, and just wanted to end it all. But he never mentioned the car.
That morning, I’d flipped the sound system to FM to catch a news bulletin. A child, the same age as Claire, had been killed in a house fire. I lost it. The painful events of the last year flooded back. My tears drenched the steering wheel. I couldn’t see, and had to pull off the road until I was able to continue.
‘Double espresso,’ I said to Dave, the friendly six-foot student with long black hair and at least a week’s stubble who manned the Costa coffee kiosk in the lobby of the offices. I’d worn my sunglasses and didn’t look at him. I stared at his back and said nothing while he prepared my drink.
‘Here you go,’ he said as he pushed my coffee towards me. He was looking at me with screwed up eyes and a What’s wrong? expression. Most days I stopped and chatted with him. I actually flirted with him. I fancied him. ‘How was your weekend?’ he asked while I fumbled to pay.
‘Great.’ I’d lied.
‘Look, I’m sorry, Dave. I’ve a really busy day with a lot on my mind, so if you don’t mind, I’ll scoot. Catch up with you later.’ I picked up my coffee and headed for the lift.
Lou Richards, a junior social worker–one of my team, and my friend and confidant–met me as I walked in to the office. She pushed her black, curly hair–which came down to her shoulders–away from her forehead and grimaced.
‘Lou, what’s up? Something’s bugging you?’
She was smaller than me–about five one, I thought–skinny, with ebony-coloured skin, big brown eyes, pretty, and dressed in funky, fun clothes. She nearly always seemed happy and upbeat with an expression that looked like a ray of sunshine. I knew there was trouble.
‘Danny Williams was taken into hospital at the weekend.’ Lou’s lips puckered. I thought she was about to cry.
‘Go on,’ I said. We strode together toward my desk.
‘His aunt took him in. He’d been stabbed.’
‘Jesus,’ I said as I stopped in the middle of the floor and turned to Lou. ‘Is he okay?’
She nodded. ‘Yes, but he’s rough.
‘There was a family argument. His father turned up, unannounced, and a row broke out.’
‘So? What? His father stabbed him?’
Lou shrugged. ‘Don’t know. His father told the police that Danny picked up the knife and went for him.’ They fought. Danny’s father said Danny stabbed himself.
‘No way.’ I looked into Lou’s eyes. ‘How many stab wounds does Danny have?’
‘The police wouldn’t tell me, but it’s several.’
‘How do you know then?’
Lou’s eyes lit up. She smiled. ‘I know a nurse on the ward.’
I stared at her for a moment, screwing up my eyes. ‘Right. We need to move.’ I raced to my desk, ignoring waves and good morning greetings from my colleagues. The screen on my computer was up with my day’s agenda. I grabbed my phone and pressed one of the pre-set number keys. I glanced at Lou then the screen while waiting for someone to pick up.
8:30 a.m. Section Head weekly meeting
9:15 a.m. Call Carl Foreman, solicitor, re Williams family
9:30 a.m. Conference meeting with all county practitioners
10:30 a.m. Visit Williams family
12-1:00 p.m. Read report on Roberts case
1:30 p.m. Team meeting re Williams visit
2:30 p.m. Case study review with Section Head
4:00 p.m. Lou Richards. Personal review
A man answered. ‘Carl, listen. We need to see a magistrate immediately to get an emergency protection order for Danny Williams and the other four children who live there. I’ll do all the paper work. Can you set it up? Meet you here in thirty minutes. I’ll have it all ready. See if you can set the meeting with the magistrate for ten; give us enough time to go through it all. See you later…’
‘What’s changed since Friday? I thought…’
‘Danny was stabbed over the weekend. He’s in hospital. That’s what’s changed. Tell you more later.’
I cut the call and looked at Lou, who stood next to my desk, staring at me. ‘Cancel us out of all meetings this morning. Get hold of Rona and come with her to the meeting room ASAP with Danny’s file and the police reports on the stabbing. We’ve got to move.’ I clapped my hands together. ‘Action.’
As Lou scuttled off, my phone rang. ‘Hi, Caroline.’ Caroline was my boss, the head of the child protection section.
‘Just a quick one. Know you’re busy. Did you hear about the five-year old boy who was killed in a house fire?’
I bit on my bottom lip. Since Lou had met me at the door earlier, the Danny Williams crisis had swept my own bout of anguish and distress away. I hoped it wasn’t going to come back. ‘Yeah, I caught a quick flash on the news, but I don’t know the details.’
‘Well, let’s hope it’s no more than a tragic, unfortunate, straight-forward accident, but the police have not made a statement yet, so we need to keep up to date as there’s another child involved, who luckily was unharmed, wasn’t in the house at the time.’
‘You think there was foul play, then?’
‘Don’t know. No evidence at all. Just saying we need to be ready to act if necessary.’
I shivered. ‘Okay. I’ll watch out.’ I looked up. Lou and Rona were walking past with files in their hands. ‘I gotta go now.’
‘Okay. Good luck with Williams case.’
‘Thanks,’ I said and we both ended the call. As I picked up my notepad, I noticed I had 267 unopened e-mails in my inbox.
My name is Kate Swift. I’m thirty-five and a social worker, a senior practitioner, and work for the child protection unit of South Bucks county council. I live in Beaconsfield and work in Slough, eight miles away: a journey that should take no more than fifteen minutes but takes thirty to forty because of dense traffic and a rash of speed cameras. Even when there are hardly any other vehicles on the road the journey remains depressingly slow.
The good thing about my job is I that I love it. It’s interesting, varied, demanding and rewarding. I work with bright, lively people. I like my boss, and our office is new, open-plan, and filled with all the latest up to date technology. Slough, however, is grim. I’d give it the award for being the most boring town in the UK. It’s a town of grey, badly designed, high-rise offices that give the impression of being built around a series of roundabouts. I’ve never seen anyone who looks as though they live there, just unhappy-looking people trudging back and forth to work or to the various shopping centres that have no connection. It has no heart.
In my job, much of the time, if a child is at risk of serious harm or death and we have sufficient facts and evidence to back it up, we’re granted a protection order and take the child away from their family and into care. It’s a distressing occurrence, but necessary, and protects the child. It’s not something we do lightly, nor is it something we’re reluctant to act on. If we fear for a child’s safety we’ll move, and quickly. There have been too many cases where the local authorities have been slow to intervene and a child has died, often in appalling and horrendous circumstances.
On Monday evening, when I arrived home from work, the small, two-up, two-down nineteenth century cottage that I moved into at the weekend looked no different: a mess, with unpacked and half-unpacked crates all over the place. The low wooden beams, lathe and plaster walls, tiny, wooden-framed windows, each divided into four panes, gave the place charm and character, but it was too small. I’d made a mistake. My dishwasher wouldn’t fit. It sat, where it’d been dumped, in the middle of the living room. There were no wardrobes, only tiny fitted cupboards. My clothes were piled high on my bed and the floor. The Lilliputian-sized kitchen–it was pretty–had just about enough storage space for one day’s groceries. Somehow, I’ve got to make this place work, I told myself as I chucked my car keys on an empty chair, pulled a bottle of white wine from the fridge, filled a glass, took a large slurp, and left the glass on the floor. I nudged a crate a little so I could see the television, moved a plastic container of cutlery a few inches to make space on the sofa, and dropped down, within reach of my wine glass. I took another sip and flicked on the TV. There were pictures of a burnt out house in a part of Slough I never knew existed. When the presenter mentioned a child was killed in the fire, I figured it was the case Caroline had been talking about. I turned up the volume.
‘Here’s Fay Standon from the scene of the fire,’ the news presenter said. ‘What’s the latest, Fay?’
Fay, who looked about forty with her black hair tied back to show most of her face, wore a grim expression. She stood in the middle of a small public green in front of the blackened remains of the house with a microphone in her hand. ‘This was a tragic accident. John Swain, the partner of the mother of the five-year-old boy who died in the fire, left the boy asleep in the house while he slipped out to buy a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of wine. According to the preliminary investigations by the police and fire service, the boy knocked over a lamp on a bedside table in his sleep. The bulb in the lamp exploded, setting the pillow alight, and burnt the poor child to death. It’s all so sad.’ Fay stopped. Her expression started to change. It seemed contorted. Her bottom lip turned down. The camera switched from her to the burnt out house.
‘John Swain,’ she said a few second later, looking more controlled, ‘returned to the house to see it engulfed in flames. He tried to get in to save the child, but the fumes coming from the front door stopped him. The fire service turned up several minutes later and had to carry the charred remains of the boy out of the house. Emma Fisher, the child’s mother arrived home from work, and found John sitting alone on the grass, near where I am now standing, with his head in his hands and sobbing his eyes out.’ Fay stopped for a moment to wipe a small tear from her left eye. ‘I’m sorry, but this is such a tragic accident…’ Fay looked down at the ground and put a hand to her mouth.
‘The family are being comforted by relatives,’ she said, looking straight at the camera with watery eyes.
The TV switched back to the studio presenter, whose eyes had narrowed and who had a glazed expression.
My God, that’s so awful. Leaving a child alone for a moment is wrong, but I’ve done it. I stood under the shower with my head back. The jets of water washed away my tears and streaks of mascara. He’ll never get over it. He’ll blame himself for the rest of his life. I stayed under the shower for a little longer thinking about Danny Williams and his family. Danny had been critically injured but was expected to pull through. He’d been stabbed three times, making his father’s story of an accident in which Danny ended up stabbing himself unbelievable. The magistrate saw it that way too, and signed the protection order. Danny’s four siblings were removed from the family home and taken to a care home. Danny would join them as soon as he had recovered fully and was well enough.
I came back downstairs dressed in my bathrobe, my hair still wrapped in a towel. I hunted around in a few crates until I found a picture of my daughter, Claire. I knew I’d cry, but after the events of the day and the tragic news of the fire, I wanted to put her picture up somewhere I could see it. She’d died six months previously of cancer. It had been diagnosed a year earlier. I’d taken her to every specialist I could find; none gave her more than a year to live. She had an advanced form of a rare cancer. It grew quickly and aggressively, affecting first her back, and then all her bones until she was unable to walk, talk, or feed herself. I’d nursed her to the end. My ex-husband Sebastian did nothing to help and never gave up work to be with her, saying he was too busy making money. He was a high-flying, successful, rich banker, but his money couldn’t save Claire. The day she died, when I finally managed to crawl into bed, weak from almost constant crying, he reached out to me and wanted to have sex with me. ‘Come on,’ he said as he started to slide his hand up my thigh. ‘It’ll help relieve the pain and grief.’
I pushed him away, leapt from our bed, and stared at him. ‘My god. You’re unbelievable. You did nothing to help me with Claire, didn’t take any time off to visit her in hospital, came home late every night when I was worried sick about her and wanted to talk to you about it.’ I shook my head at him. ‘I was so wound up about Claire, I didn’t think to question you. I guess I didn’t care. Claire was too important to me than stopping to think about your uncaring behaviour.’ I stopped, crinkled-up my eyes, and glared at him. He had a pained expression. ‘Look at you. You think I’m being unfair. All you can think about is yourself and your own gratification.’
‘I just thought it’d be a good idea, a comfort. We haven’t done it for…’
‘Oh fuck you,’ I yelled, and grabbed the nearest object–a pewter-framed picture of the two of us on a beach somewhere–and threw it at him. It hit him on the mouth. He bled. ‘I’m moving out.’ I grabbed a few things, stuffed them into a holdall, and went to my mother’s house with Georgie, Claire’s twin. We started the divorce proceedings after Claire’s funeral.
I placed Claire’s picture in the middle of the wooden mantelpiece over the open fireplace, stood back, and looked at it. It had been taken on a summer’s day before we knew about the cancer, when she was about three. She wore a sleeveless, blue and white checked gingham dress. Her blonde hair was tied in two short plaits that fell either side of her face; the ends level with the bottom of her ears. Her blue eyes shone out against her light tan. Her complexion looked like a bowl of peaches and cream. I gasped. My god she was beautiful. I knew I was about to lose it again.
My phone rang. ‘Hello, Mum.’
‘Hey, darling, listen. It’s entirely up to you, but Georgie is having such an lovely time, and seems so happy here, and, as it’s half-term, I wondered if she could stay a few more days, say until Friday.’
‘Yes, of course. In fact it suits me. The move was a nightmare, nothing fits, and I’m having a hell of a week. If that’s alright with you and Dad, I could cancel my days off for Thursday and Friday and catch up with some work.’
‘No problem with us. You know we love having her here. Why don’t you pick her up on Saturday?’
‘Oh, Mum. You sure? That’d be great. I could catch up on work, and try to get this place a bit straight.’
‘We’re sure. Hold on, Georgie wants to talk to you. Before I pass you over, why don’t we bring her round on Saturday morning? You can show us the new place.’
‘It’s not wonderful. It’s tiny, but I guess I’ll sort it, somehow. Saturday’s fine, about eleven-thirty. I’ll get something for lunch.’
‘Okay. See you then. Here’s Georgie.’
‘Mum, Mum, Mum. Hi.’
You okay, darling? Do…’
‘We went swimming.’
‘Great. What else have you done?’
‘Ice cream, Granny’s pasta.’
‘Sounds good. What’re you doing tomorrow?’
‘She’s fine, darling,’ my mother said. ‘Very excited. Don’t worry about her.’
‘I’m not. I know she loves being with you both. What time’s she going to bed?’
‘Soon. Why? What time is it?’
‘It’s gone nine.’
‘Oh, yes. Okay, she’ll go soon. She’s just watching the end of a Curious George movie with your father. She’s curled up on the sofa with him.’
I smiled. Georgie was happy. Why should I worry? ‘Okay, Mum. Thanks again. See you Saturday. ‘Bye then.’
Georgie was Claire’s twin. When Claire’s illness started, my parents stepped in and looked after Georgie whenever I needed to be with Claire. I didn’t have to ask them. They’d known when I wanted them, and were there. Their house became like a second home to Georgie. I never worried about her. I don’t know how I would have coped without them.
So, I’d better get this place in some sort of order, I thought, as I poured another glass of wine, flopped back down on the sofa, and flicked the TV back on. I caught the end of another bulletin about the house fire.
‘…the police and fire service are still finalising their investigation into the fire, but have issued a joint, preliminary statement saying they do not believe there was any foul play and extend their sympathies to the child’s mother and her partner in what they see as a tragic accident.’