Prologue: I. Tree
The solitary tree had numerous branches but little foliage. It stood atop a sandy mound in the centre of a field of dry, yellow grass. It seemed as though the tree was supervising and controlling the surroundings. A dozen or so yards from the tree, the field was enclosed by a forest, which formed a near-perfect circle around it.
Occasionally, there was some movement near the shrubbery that marked the forest’s edge. Small or medium-sized animals would appear and swiftly dance back again into the shadows. Sometimes, one of them would venture all the way to the tree in a straight line, fast like an accurately shot arrow. After some nervous sniffing and scavenging, it would shoot back to the forest's safe shelter.
This time, the creature showing at the edge of the wood was a little bigger. It cautiously looked about and then vanished again. A few yards further on, it reappeared. Again, it looked about apprehensively, then slowly but decisively moved towards the tree.
The creature was a human, a woman, walking towards the tree, bent forward as if struggling against an imaginary storm. She was scarcely dressed. Her headscarf flapped loosely and she held up her skirt with her right hand to protect the small bundle that she kept pressed against her hip. She was small and lean, with a bony face and big, hollow dark eyes.
After reaching the tree, she unwrapped the bundle from her skirt and gently placed it in the shadow of the tree. Then she sat herself down next to the bundle, leaning against the tree. There she sat until the falling evening blurred her image and gradually made her disappear.
She was fourteen years old, yet nobody knew.
Part One: II. Town
The origin of the name Crawlack was not altogether clear; the local historian and bookstore owner claimed it derived from Ville de Grand Lac as it was supposedly entered in the Domesday book, and, according to him, Grand Lac was later anglicised to Crawlack.
All this, however, was never verified or confirmed. In the end, it did not matter much to anyone. It seemed, however, that the Norman name-givers mildly suffered from delusion of grandeur, as their grand lac in reality was little more than an oversized pond.
Crawlack was a small town, a regional centre, with a modestly sized police force. Including administrative staff, some eight people worked at the constabulary, which was now housed in a renovated building, the result of recent modernizations and financial injections by the government.
Detective Chief Inspector Frank Lewis had worked there since he left the academy at 19 and had worked his way up by experience and seemingly endless courses and workshops.
Part One: III. Frank
DCI Frank Lewis sat at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee, admiring his wife Liz as she bustled about fixing his breakfast and lunch for the day. Now in their mid-forties, they had been together for more than twenty years, and he still found her wonderfully attractive.
She called upstairs to their children, Mark and Lilly, to come down for breakfast. Upstairs, the kids replied by making thumping sounds.
“Anything interesting happening today?” she asked him.
“This new intern will be in. You know, the one I told you about, over thirty, looks like a teenager; pretty smart guy, I’m told.”
“Well, let’s hope he won’t distract you from your own work too much,” she said. “Interns are nice, but they can be a time-consuming nuisance.”
“Already got something in mind for him,” Frank answered. “I’ll put him in charge of the Musgrave case, if you can call it that. That will give me some breathing space. You remember, the young girl who drowned herself, but her mother cannot accept the idea. I do feel for mum, but she is such a nuisance… Calling the station at least five times a day. Anyway, she is all for Mr Neil Yard now.”
“That’s an interesting name,” Liz said. “Is he from Scotland?”
“Scotland? No, why?” Liz just chuckled. “Ah, I get it…you’re so funny,” he said.
Part One: IV. Case
The body of a young woman was discovered in Crawlack this morning by two early fishermen. She was identified as 23-year old student Alicia Musgrave. The police have not released any further information.
The two fishermen were in fact two young boys, 12 and 14 years old, who found her body face down in the mud.
Her death was classified as a possible accident, probable suicide.
Part One: V. Mother
Death means pain, shock, bewilderment. It was impossible to accept that her daughter took her life.
Why? Jennifer could not believe that Alicia had just stepped out.
Their relationship had always been good and open, and Jennifer was convinced that Alicia would at least have given signals. Mothers have an antenna for that, she told herself.
Accident, what did that mean? How accident, why accident, where? There could never be a reason for Alicia to be even near that lake. Why?
It was almost impossible to find any person of authority who was willing to simply listen to her.
The reactions were all similar: “The reports are clear, there are no indications at all of foul play or anything like that, I understand you’re in pain, please give it time.”
After numerous calls, she had been invited to the police station just once.
There she sat down with a friendly, middle-aged officer for about half an hour, telling him what she thought but she hit a wall. A wall of kindness, of understanding and empathy, but a wall.
“You have to be patient, give yourself time,” Detective Chief Inspector Frank Lewis had said. “I understand you’re devastated, confused. Try not to blame yourself, it was your daughter’s decision, she was a grown woman and her own person. If you wish, I can get you into contact with people who might, you know, guide you through this process. I promise you, even though you will never forget, you will find a way, you will have some sort of closure. You may not think that is possible now, but you will. It just takes time.”
But time did not heal.
All it did was make her pain and frustration grow. About the unwillingness to listen to her, the condescending, almost patronizing phrases, the complete lack of action.
All that friendly advice, she might have accepted it if it were followed by at least some sort of investigation.
She kept calling, every day. When she got Frank Lewis on the line, he would patiently repeat what he had said before and to her plea that her daughter was just not like that, he would reply: “I know, I understand what you’re saying.”
After a while, Frank appeared not to be in most of the time and notes were said to be left on his desk. But her calls were never returned.
Part One: VI. Neil
One morning, at around eleven o’clock, the doorbel rang. A slim, young man, dressed much older than he looked, held out some form of identification.
“Good morning, madam, my name is Yard, Neil Yard. I’m, erm, from the police. I was hoping I might talk to you about your daughter, Alicia. Would that be possible?”
He chose his words with care, as if he had been rehearsing them on the way. He sounded as he was dressed: much older than what would match his boyish, spotty face.
My god, Jennifer thought, they’re actually sending someone, hallelujah! He may be just a schoolboy, but at least they’re sending someone!
“Well, how can I help you, erm, detective?” She did not try to hide a slightly contemptuous tone.
“Well, madam, I was hoping, I mean, could I have a word regarding, you know, if I could just, if it’s convenient, of course…” His confidence was obviously dented.
“Oh, do come in,” she said, trying to sound as motherly as possible.
When he followed her through the hall, she asked: “Mr Lewis sent you?”
“Well, yes, DCI Lewis asked me to see you.”
“Please sit down, Mr Yard. I reckon you were briefed on what a pain in the neck I am…”
“DCI Lewis has done considerable research and he feels sorry there is no, well, outcome. He sent me to get some more information and keep the investigations going,” he lied.
“How long have you been working for the police, Mr Yard?”
“I graduated from the academy some ten years ago. But it’s my first day in Crawlack.”
“I see,” Jennifer said. She was surprised. He must be older than he looks, she thought, unless he left the academy when he was twelve…
“Coffee, tea?” she asked.
“There was never a Mr Musgrave?” Neil asked after Jennifer had returned with his coffee. She glanced at him with an almost offended look. “My husband died eight years ago,” she said.
“Oh, no, I am sorry,” he stammered, “no, I was just wondering, no, I didn’t mean that really, I was just wondering, you know, because Alicia’s last name was Musgrave, just like yours, if she had ever been married…but then it wouldn’t have been a Mr Musgrave, of course. I’m sorry.”
“Ah, I see what you mean now,” she answered. “Well, Alicia did have boyfriends I imagine. She didn’t tell me much about those things. I think in her circle relationships were a little loose.”
She told him that she had Alicia cremated, just like her husband, the same undertaker, the same contact person. Some of Alicia's acquaintances or friends had attended the service, people Jennifer didn’t know. A tall man, Bradley something, and a blonde lady called Ida, she remembered. That was it. Alicia never had many friends.
No one of the police showed up.
She had left the urn with the crematory. To have it on the mantlepiece was not her thing, and scatter her ashes, where? Over that stupid pond?
She had a memorial spot in the backyard. Nothing with flowers, just a spot. That's where she remembered her husband and Alicia.
Her voice had become milder, calmer, and less unfriendly, and Neil began to feel a little more confident.
“That’s nice,” he said, and inadvertently glanced at the window.
A few minutes later they found themselves in the small garden, near some shrubbery in a corner. With a shawl loosely draped around her shoulders, she stood next to him with her head down.
“About here.” They just stood there, in silence. She looked fragile and small.
Part One: VII. Friends and Stories
The administrator of the university had been very helpful in giving Neil the names of some of Alicia's fellow students: Kevin Bayles, Elspeth Baran, Bradley French, Ricky Galsworthy, Ida Williams, Andrea Wolf. A good start, he thought.
Ida Williams had become what so many literature students became: an English teacher at a country secondary school that was so close to Crawlack that Neil rode his bicycle to get there.
“We were a pretty close group at the time. Much reading, discussing books, writing… well, not me, really, but Bradley French did, and Alicia. Mostly poetry, I believe. She would read some to us occasionally. Pretty, but a bit sad. I had the feeling there was something going on between Bradley and Alicia.”
“Why, it was a suicide, wasn't it?” Bradley asked. “At least that’s what the papers said. Terrible thing.”
Bradley French still lived in the city and worked at a publishing house.
“Either that, or a tragic accident, that's the idea,” Neil had said, “but we promised her mum to sort some things out. It's important for her to know what her daughter has been experiencing during those final days, you know.”
“She and I got along pretty alright,” Bradley said. “We were both writers, of a sort, so that's something we talked about.”
“Ida Williams thought something was going on between you and Alicia,” said Neil.
“I see, you spoke to Ida. What is she up to?”
“She works at a school, teaching English.”
“Ah, that figures. Well, something going on, something going on… we went out to dinner once, that was it. Nice girl but not quite my type, a little bit too serious, sombre, almost.”
“I'd rather think there was something going on between her and Ricky Galsworthy. In a negative sense. She clearly hated him. Now he was a jerk, I admit. Everybody had to know he was related to the great John Galsworthy. Don't know if that's true or not. Couldn't care less.”
“There was a hell of a row between those two once. She said she got strange messages in her mailbox or something, inappropriate videos that popped up and vanished again. She thought Galsworthy was behind that. Quite a thing: bastard here, arsehole there...!”
“Jeez, dead? Alicia Musgrave?”
Ricky Galsworthy seemed genuinely surprised. “That little viper? When, you said? I have been abroad for a while.”
“She was a bit, you know, odd. Well, not a bit, she was very odd. She thought I sent her videos. Outraged, she was. Raving and ranting in front of everybody.”
“What kind of videos, I don't know. Must have been dirty stuff she got. But not from me! Had the nerve to call me once in the middle of the night.”
“You must stop it now, you must stop it now!” “Completely mad.”
“No, you must stop,” I told her. “Where are those videos that I sent you, show them!”
“But then they had suddenly mysteriously disappeared. Completely off her rockers, she was. But dead... Jeez. Suicide, you believe? You don't think that’s because of what went on between her and me...? Now that would be a rotten idea.”
Neil wondered why this altercation between Ricky and Alicia had not been mentioned by Ida Williams. When he called her, she remembered.
“Oh, yes. Ricky Galsworthy. Arrogant brat. Yes, she fell out with him a couple of times. He sent her videos or something like that. She didn't like it. No idea what kind of videos, she never showed me. I never really asked. Must have been something filthy, that would have been just like him.”
“And those videos, were they sent to her phone, or her computer?”
“To her computer, I guess. One of those tiny laptops. We all had one, easy to carry. Alicia had one too, of course. Used it for her writing as well. The brand? No idea. Korean or Japanese, aren’t they all?”
“Now that I come think of it, perhaps Elspeth knows more, Elspeth Baran, Alicia used to hang out with her sometime. That's all I can think of.”
“Her whereabouts? No, I really wouldn't know. Her father owned a bookstore somewhere in the city. I remember, because that's how she got to love books, she told us.”
Tracking down Elspeth Baran had been quite easy. Baran's Books was prominently on the internet, phone number and all.
After her studies, Elspeth had returned to the city and got a job in her father's store. Neil had arranged to meet her.
The store was in the city centre. Near the door, an employee was stacking some books away, and Neil asked her where he could find Elspeth. The young woman immediately got up, reached out her hand, and said cheerfully: “I am Elspeth! And you're Mr Yard.”
“Neil will do,” he said.
“Come, let's have some coffee somewhere. Easier to talk.”
“Dad!” she yelled into the store. “Be out for a minute!”
From behind the counter, an older, grey gentleman raised his hand in approval. “See you later!”
“Alicia Musgrave, oh yes!” Elspeth started after they had ordered coffee. “I heard she passed. How come, then?”
Neil told her what had probably happened.
“That poor girl! But she did have a heavy heart, that one.”
In short, Neil told her what he had agreed with Alicia's mother. “We try to give her some support, something of a closure. We want to leave her an image, a picture of who her daughter has been, those last few years. That's why I have been asking questions, here and there.”
“Well, she was a bit paranoid. Silly.” Elspeth said. “She said someone sent her things, disturbing messages. No, nothing sexual or the like. Pictures and videos of dry landscapes, wars, starving people, undernourished children, dying babies, what have you. She could never show me any, because she said they vanished as quickly as they appeared. ‘Message deleted’, it read. She had hundreds of those.”
“She said somebody of our group had special software to do this.”
“Did she say who this somebody was?” Neil asked.
“Yes, Ricky. Ricky Galsworthy was his name. She said he had bothered her in other ways too. But that's what he did to everybody, especially after he had a few drinks. Ricky was a bit of a nuisance.”
Part One: VIII. Jennifer
A few days later, Neil visited Jennifer again.
“I spoke to some of Alicia’s classmates,” he said.
“This Bradley and Ida you mentioned. But also a few others. Did you know that Alicia wrote poems?”
“Oh, yes,” Jennifer said. “Even as a young child. Always reading and writing small poems. Uncles, aunts, cousins, everybody got a poem for their birthdays. But I wasn’t aware she still did.”
“Her fellow students were quite impressed with her poetry,” said Neil. “And that means something, all being linguistic students.”
Pleased, Jennifer poured him another cup of coffee; she felt taken seriously by Neil’s efforts.
“Do you know anything about a laptop computer Alicia had?” he asked.
“No idea, I’ve never seen it, but yes, she must have had one. As a student you can’t do without it, I would think…”
Part One: IX. Laptop
“Now, how am I supposed to know?” Frank sounded impatient and a bit annoyed on the phone. “Some guys of forensics went through her room, and yes, probably there was something like a computer there, I assume it was given to mum.”
“Oh, she doesn’t have it. Well, it’s not here, I’m sure. I’d have known. Her file is just a few scraps of paper, I imagine, death certificate, some notes, that’s all. Nothing like one of those big cardboard boxes with evidence and stuff. As I said, it's never been a case.”
Benny was in charge of archives.
“Musgrave, Musgrave…not immediately. Must be in the Finished section. Couple of months ago, you say?”
Benny disappeared between the cabinets. After a few minutes he reappeared.
“Got it. Folder is heavier than usual. Has a little laptop hiding in it.”
“Can I have it?” Neil asked.
“The whole thing? Sign for it, will you.”
Part One: X. Evocative power
The mind is a treasure box; to Neil, it had always been like that.
Filled with pictures, words, images, fantasies. Stories washed ashore and deposited like sediment on his mental coast by untiring tidal waves.
All was new, all was his.
From the moment he could talk, he told stories, hovering around him like a sweet perfume. Every flower, tree, and rock told a story. Every word evoked an image. He felt rich and happy.
His parents loved this little vivid, cheerful boy, but they both died in a car crash when he was six. His aunt and uncle took over, with just as much love, but it felt different.
By the time he was fifteen, he had grown into a somewhat shy, insecure boy. He was smaller than other boys of his age, and his childlike appearance caused him to be laughed at and teased.
But the stories, they had always been there, embedded silently in his mind.
Of course, the battery was dead, but that was easily remedied.
When Neil opened the small laptop, there was a welcoming tinkle when it lit up. Even when he was prompted for a password, he did not lose much time. The third attempt was successful: Jennifer.
Alicia’s computer was organized in just a few folders. All appeared to be empty, as if someone, probably Alicia herself, had made an effort to clean up. But one folder, ironically named Deleted, had not been emptied.
When Neil opened it, he saw it was divided into a dozen or so subfolders, all numbered and titled. Neil opened the first one, 01 Sibye. It contained just one short poem.
But when he read it, the few words translated into images of an unexpected vividness.
“Your daughter was a remarkable person,” Neil said.
They sat at Jennifer’s small living room table. Neil placed a small laptop computer in front of them. Jennifer looked down, almost timidly.
“And she must have loved you very much. Her computer password was your name…” He laid his hand on hers.
“All I found in her computer was a dozen or so poems, some quite short, some longer.
That doesn’t seem much, but they’re very powerful. I believe they tell a story and I think I have it in me to, sort of, reconstruct the story. I’ve had that since I was a child…”
His hand was still on hers. “Thank you,” Jennifer whispered.
“I believe there was an ache in her that grew stronger and stronger,” Neil continued, “whether there have ever been real images or videos, I can’t know. I don’t see how Ricky Galsworthy can be blamed for anything. Alicia’s story is here.”
Jennifer looked up at him with teary eyes.
“Please, let’s go”, she said. “Show me.”