Today's Reading

Jeremy looked down, past her, and shuddered. The drop was almost a sheer cliff lined with projections as sharp and potentially lethal as sharks' teeth. His mind skittered along the likely scenario. The pushchair would have bumped and rattled and torn its way to the bottom, probably ejecting the child halfway down, abandoning it to injury, possibly death. Had she planned to follow it?

She reached out as though to grab the pushchair again but he was much stronger. He was in the way and he was not going to let go. The child's big, round, blue eyes regarded them both curiously. Without any fear. Not crying or making any sound.

But now he had a problem. What to do next?

He switched his attention back to the woman and tried again to squeeze out some sort of explanation. What were you doing? What were you thinking of? Do you know how far down it is? The child. He... she... could have been... His voice trailed away as he realized this was pointless. He wasn't getting through. Nothing was registering. She was regarding him with mild interest, head tilted to one side. He could have been someone she'd just passed in the street.

He tried again, touching her bare arm now which was as cold as a corpse's. Who are you? Where have you come from? How did you get here?

The young woman simply shook her head with apparent bemusement. He stared at her, uncertain what to do next.

There was, in this lonely spot, just the three of them, the child now kicking in his pushchair, the silent woman and the uncertain Jeremy Western who had just been out for his morning constitutional.

He turned his attention back to her, trying to glean something that gave him a clue, answers to his questions. She had light brown hair, straight and fine, which hung in dripping rats' tails around a face which was as pale as a vampire's starved of blood. She wore a long brown cardigan over a red dress, possibly a uniform. A nanny then, or a nurse? Her feet were encased in olive green wellingtons which ended just below the knee. Her legs were bare, her arms bare to the elbows as though she had found the cardigan too warm and had pushed them up though the morning was actually cold and the wind still blew ice along the ground. She'd dressed in a hurry, he thought. No coat? Again he looked around him, scanning 360 degrees of the landscape for some assistance or to give him a cue as to what to do next. But the three of them were still alone himself, the woman and the child  and he felt a sudden frisson of fear, cold fingers on his neck. She looked strange to him. Not quite the full ticket, he thought. Maybe she was an escapee from a mental hospital and had abducted the child. He scolded himself. There was no mental hospital anywhere near here. In fact, there was nothing anywhere near except a few isolated farms, a restaurant closed since the virus and a pub, also closed. He hadn't noticed another car when he had parked his.

She was still looking at him, or rather looking to him for a resolution to this situation but he had none. He was in a dream  floating through a nightmare  where nothing made any sense. This felt out of kilter, surreal as a scene from a nightmare film, but there was no one else to help and so he focussed on the practical. 'How did you get here?' He added, 'Miss?'

No response. Nothing but that blank, unsettling look, the eyes flickering over him not even displaying curiosity. And he was left with the thought: what now?

TWO

8.15 a.m.
Leek police station

'You look awful, Jo.'

'Well, thanks for that,' DI Joanna Piercy snapped. The realities of parenthood were draining her spirit. 'You try feeding a bloody baby at two a.m., then again at six a.m., changing its nappy and trying to get to work for eight o'clock.'

DC Alan King smirked. 'Who's got him today?'

'His father,' she said shortly. Then she couldn't help but smirk. 'He's experiencing the wonderful joys of fatherhood.'

She could have added more. The word, 'doting', for a start, the fact that this was what Matthew had wanted, his heart's desire, and now he'd got it. The son he had lusted over, like Henry VIII. Instead all she managed was a mighty, all-encompassing yawn, her chin on her hands as she waited for her computer to fire up. In truth she was ready for one thing only. When had a few more hours' sleep been worth a pot of gold?

Sergeant George Alderley burst in. 'Sorry, Jo,' he said. 'But there's someone in reception.' She lifted her head with difficulty. 'And?'

'We can't make out what's going on.'

'So...?' She was about to add the classic Hollywood response: 'And that's my problem because...?' But stopped herself. Since when had she become so prickly, so sarcastic? Was it motherhood? Missing Mike? She gave in, almost apologizing to Sergeant Alderley. George was in his late fifties. Weeks off retirement. He'd done his thirty years and he knew when something was important. He didn't need her showing him up. He wouldn't have asked her to intervene unless he'd felt it warranted her involvement.

'Sorry, George.'
...

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