When Ben Tyler was to recall that afternoon in the years that followed—and he did so frequently, unable to dismiss the dreadful images from his mind—he had no hesitation in placing that day by the river among the most harrowing, most awful events in his life. It was right up there with the day his parents told him they were getting a divorce, or the time his dog got run over by the man who drove the laundry service van.
It started out well enough. Luke, his best friend from school, had invited Ben to come along on a family picnic. The whole of the Havers clan was spending the day by the river in Mytholm Bridge, and Ben was welcome to join in the fun. He thought they probably felt sorry for him, a visitor from abroad and presumably lonely. The sentiment was misplaced, but Ben was glad enough of the invitation. The Haverses were a lively bunch and fun to be around.
The family outing consisted of Luke’s mom and dad, little sister, Grace, and his grandparents who were visiting from London. There was ice cream to be had, sticky buns, and Ben’s personal favourite, homemade chocolate brownies. Luke’s grandma made the most wonderful brownies in the entire world, and she always produced enough to feed an army. There was probably other stuff, too, but Ben couldn’t remember and in any case the brownies sold it to him.
It was an idyllic spot, the place chosen by Mrs. Havers to lay out their picnic, flat and grassy, the river just a few yards away. They ate, they drank, Ben made polite conversation with the grandparents who never stopped oohing and aahing at his American accent. Mrs. Havers fussed over the baby, a sweet enough little thing with a mop of dark blonde curls and a particular fondness for her brother’s friend. Grace was just mastering the art of walking upright, though her skills were haphazard at best. Whenever she could escape from her mother or grandparents she made a beeline for Ben in order to cling to his knee and gurgle up at him. Ben would, obviously, ignore her. He was thirteen, and didn’t play with toddlers.
After the food was finished, Ben and Luke wandered away from the rest to kick a football about. The older folk needed the loo and Mrs. Havers went with them. Mr. Havers remained with the picnic, or what was left of it, and the baby stayed with him to snooze in her pushchair. It was hot, a lazy, heavy day in the last week of the summer holidays. Soon, Ben and Luke would be back at school, grappling with algebra and the intricacies of conversational French, but for today, for now, they could charge about on the grass and pretend they were trialling for Manchester United.
Ben’s father worked for a telecoms company and the family had been in the UK for almost a year while he helped establish a new branch in the North West of England. Mrs. Tyler was English, though, and they were staying with her sister who ran a bookshop and tearoom in the town centre at Mytholm Bridge. The flat above his aunt’s shop was a bit cramped but still better than a hotel, Ben thought, or a rented house. And there was always plenty of cake.
Their real home was in New York, and Ben knew they’d be going back sometime, but he hoped not for a while yet. He liked England, and he enjoyed hanging out with Luke. And he adored football—or soccer as he always thought of it.
The ball hurtled past him and Ben spun around to race after it, determined to reach it before it bounced into the fast-flowing river a few yards away. He looked up to gauge the distance, and he saw the pushchair at the same time as Mrs. Havers’ ear-splitting scream tore through the sleepy gathering.
The pram was in the river, bobbing about, face down. Ben gaped in helpless, horrified dismay as the navy blue and white plastic buggy floated past him and started to skim away downstream. He didn’t think, never hesitated. Both he and Luke charged along the bank until they were ahead of it, then they leaped into the water and started to wade out. The current was strong, dragging at their legs, but the water was only chest deep. Fuelled by adrenalin, they were making headway. Mr. Havers joined them while other passers-by shouted encouragement from the bank. Mrs. Havers just screamed at them to save her baby.
Everything after that happened in slow motion. It seemed to Ben that it took ages to fight their way through the rushing stream to where the pushchair bobbed on the surface of the water. They did it, though. Between the three of them they managed to get within reach. Mr. Havers grabbed the handles and hauled the buggy upright.
It was empty. The safety harness dangled from the seat, loose and useless. Mrs. Havers’ screams subsided into an awful keening, which Ben found much more heart-rending. In mounting desperation Ben, Luke, and Mr. Havers splashed about, trying to find the toddler under the water.
There were sirens, flashing lights. The police came, lots of them, and an ambulance. Ben, Luke, and Mr. Havers were pulled from the swirling water to shiver and drip on the banks in helpless despair, huddled under blankets supplied by the ambulance crews. Their place in the water was taken by police divers. A motor launch arrived, started a slow, steady sweep of the stretch of river for several miles downstream.
The search continued all that evening until darkness finally halted the rescue efforts, but activity resumed at first light. Ben got up at dawn, not having slept a wink all night anyway, and returned to the river to help with the search. His parents joined in, as did most of the town. By now, though no one said it, Ben knew they were looking for a body.
Baby Grace was never found. The police were diligent. They tried, Ben had to hand it to them. It was a grim task, but they never flinched. They dragged that river, searched every clump of overgrown reeds, every secluded niche, any place at all that a small girl might end up.
Nothing. Not. A. Trace.
The overhead signs flashed. Fifty. Maximum speed limit. As she approached, that changed to forty.
Rain lashed the windscreen as Lily decelerated, the wipers skimming back and forth in a frantic rhythm as they fought to keep the screen clear. Her little Ford Fiesta was never built for these conditions. There was a leak at the top of the driver’s door and her tyres were probably not up to this sort of punishment either. She dreaded aquaplaning off the motorway and slowed to a cautious thirty-five miles per hour.
Through the Biblical deluge she was just able to make out the roadside sign that heralded this as the highest point on the M62, the motorway that traversed northern England from Liverpool to Hull. Her destination was halfway along, and the junction she needed was coming up soon.
There. One mile to go then she could get off this asphalt death trap. Lily hugged the nearside lane, looking for the markers that counted down to the exit.
Once off the motorway her route was hardly less arduous. The moorland road would have been bleak at the best of times but in this weather, it was, Lily concluded, the least hospitable place on the planet. She drove cautiously, glad at least that she was going downhill, so surely, soon, she would reach somewhere less exposed.
The small towns she passed through were deserted. She felt as though she had the world to herself, though in reality it was just that most people had the sense to stay indoors on the worst night of the year. It was only November, but the air had a distinctly wintry feel to it and Lily knew that had the temperature dropped a degree or two more she’d have been making this journey in the teeth of a blizzard.
Telling herself it could have been worse, she trundled the final few miles down into Mytholm Bridge, grateful to reach the small mill town in West Yorkshire before her windscreen wipers finally gave up the unequal struggle.
Lily found the Black Horse Inn easily enough, right on the main road, just after the railway bridge as per the directions she had downloaded from the internet. The country pub offered bed and breakfast accommodation, with a promise of cosy fires and hand-pulled real ales. Lily wasn’t too bothered about the ale, but a fire right now would be most welcome.
It was only just after nine in the evening when she pulled into the pub car park. The lights were on inside the building, but when she hurtled through the door, soaked from just the dash from her car, she found the lounge deserted.
“Hello…” Lily leaned over the polished wood bar to peer into the room beyond. “Anybody there?”
Footsteps in the deeper recesses of the old building sounded promising. Lily called out again. “Hi there. I have a reservation…”
“Coming. Won’t be a minute…” The woman’s voice sounded friendly enough. “There’s fresh coffee if you want to help yourself…”
Sure enough, a jug of filter coffee steamed on a hotplate behind the bar, a stack of white cups beside it. Lily didn’t need to be asked twice.
“Thank you,” she called to her disembodied hostess. “I will.”
She was halfway down her cup and contemplating a refill when the barmaid—or would that be landlady?—emerged carrying a crate of mixer drinks. The woman looked to be about thirty, attractive, and very capable. She dumped the crate on the floor behind the bar and rushed out to greet Lily.
“You’ll be Miss Jamison? I see you brought the weather with you.”
“Er, right. Yes. It’s awful out there.”
“I’m Gina, barmaid, licensee, and chief bottle washer.” The woman beamed and held out her hand. “I’ll help you bring your luggage in if you like.”
“Thank you.” Lily accepted the handshake. “I’ve brought rather a lot, I’m afraid. There are a couple of bags, my laptop…”
“Oh, I’d assumed you’d be up here for the walking. Mind, you could have picked a better week.”
Lily shook her head. “No. Not walking. I’m doing some research, actually.”
“Research? As in science?” Gina tilted her head critically. “You don’t look like a scientist.”
Lily glanced down at her unassuming hoodie and jeans, and the comfortable trainers she’d worn for the long drive up from Devon. “No, not a scientist, unless you count social sciences. I’m a sociology student, researching for a PhD.”
Gina looked impressed. “Oh, brainy then. You don’t look old enough to have even done your GCSEs, let alone all that university stuff.”
“I’m twenty-five.” Lily hoped not to sound too defensive, but she could do without a lot of comment on her youthful appearance if she was to convince the population of Mytholm Bridge that she was, indeed, a serious researcher.
Gina shrugged. “Good thing I know you or I’d be asking for proof of age before serving you a drink. Sociology, eh? What’s the PhD in?”
Lily paused, wondered how best to describe her project. “It’s a sort of forensic social work study. I’m looking into the impact of unexplained deaths on families and the wider community.”
Gina furrowed her brow. “Sounds a bit grim. What does that have to do with Mytholm Bridge? Deaths round here are easily explained—too many burgers and not enough exercise.”
“Well, there was one… It’s a quite a few years ago now…”
“Oh? Right, well, I’ve only been here a couple of years so it’ll be before my time then. You’ll have to tell me all about it, after we bring your stuff in and get you settled upstairs. I’ve a nice corner room ready for you with a view of the main street. Not that there’s much to see, though the market on a Friday is nice enough, I suppose. Have you finished that coffee?”
“What? Oh, yes.” Lily placed her empty cup on the bar.
“Come on then. Is your car unlocked?”
“No. I have the keys here…” Lily scurried to catch up with Gina as she marched outside, seemingly oblivious to the filthy weather. She waited by the rear of the car while Lily popped open the boot and started to haul out her suitcase and rucksack.
“I’ll take that.” Gina grasped the largest of the bags and set off back inside at a sprint. Lily hoisted the rucksack onto her back and followed.
The corner room with a view of the main street was pleasant enough. It would do nicely, thought Lily as she placed her collection of tops and leggings in the drawers provided. Her laptop graced the dressing table, and her toiletries were neatly lined up in the en-suite shower room. Lily sat on the end of the bed and peered at her reflection in the mirror.
She was still slightly startled by the shock of dark, straight hair with just a shimmer of plummy purple. The colour was new, and though expertly and expensively done at the best salon in Paignton, as far as Lily was concerned the jury was still out. Maybe she’d like it more once she was used to it. The cut was nice though, a sleek, stylish bob. That was definitely staying. The rest of her was, she thought, somewhat nondescript. Grey eyes, framed by dark-rimmed glasses, a small, straight nose, unremarkable mouth. She was of average height, perhaps a little on the skinny side, and her taste in clothes could most kindly be described as conservative. Dowdy might be a better, more honest description and certainly that would have been her mother’s verdict.
But Mrs. Jamison was dead, so no longer entitled to an opinion. Lily stifled a shudder at the memory of her overbearing, domineering mother who had passed away almost two years previously but who still cast a long shadow across her daughter’s life. Susanne Jamison had been a woman who knew what she wanted in life and went after it with a ruthless energy that often left both Lily and her father reeling. Susanne let nothing get in her way, and had unceasingly urged Lily to grow into an equally driven and demanding personality. She had failed, utterly.
Or had she? Lily was certainly doing her own thing now, regardless of what her mother might have had to say. Perhaps something had rubbed off after all, though the late and not-much-lamented Mrs. Jamison would be spinning in her grave if she knew what Lily was up to.
She got to her feet and pulled on the first T-shirt to come to hand. She had already changed into fresh, dry jeans and a pair of slip-on shoes. Although the Black Horse didn’t actually serve food in the evenings, Gina thought she could probably rustle up a bowl of soup and some bread, to save Lily from having to venture out in search of a takeaway. Lily was grateful for the offer and trotted happily back down to rejoin Gina in the still deserted bar.
“Tomato and basil all right?” Gina was already ladling the aromatic broth into a bowl.
“Yes. Lovely.” Lily eased herself onto a tall barstool and thanked Gina when she placed the bowl in front of her. “This is delicious,” she announced, three mouthfuls later.
“More coffee to help wash it down?”
Lily nodded and Gina poured two cups. The landlady busied herself arranging the mixer drinks while Lily finished her meal, then she offered a second helping.
“No, thank you.” Lily laid down her spoon. “That was wonderful though. And I was ready for it.”
“How long did it take you to drive up here? You’re from Devon, is that right?”
“Yes, a village just outside Paignton. It took about eight hours, but I did stop on the way. Then I ran into this foul weather and that slowed me down. Still, I’m here now.”
“That you are. So which university are you with, then?”
“University? Oh, right, the PhD.” Lily collected her thoughts. “Exeter.”
“Okay. So, what’s this about an unexplained death?”
Lily settled onto her stool and sipped her coffee. “It happened about twenty years ago. The family was called Havers.”
Gina offered a blank smile. “So, who died?”
“A little girl. A toddler. She fell in the river and drowned.”
“Oh, poor little mite. But how’s that unexplained? Seems pretty obvious to me.”
“She was assumed to have drowned though no one actually saw her fall in. Her pushchair was pulled out, empty. They never found the body.”
“It sounds awful, but surely there’s no chance of turning up any new information after all this time.”
“I suppose not,” agreed Lily, “but I was hoping to talk to the family, find out more about what actually happened, what they remember of little Grace before she disappeared. And what happened afterwards.”
“So you’ll be wanting to track down these Havers people, then?”
“Yes. I don’t suppose you know anyone by that name?”
Gina shook her head. “Can’t say I do. They could have left the area, though. How long did you say it’s been? Twenty years?”
“Almost that, yes.”
“You’ll be needing the electoral register, but you’ll have to go into Halifax for that. The council offices.”
“Right. I’ll go there tomorrow morning.” It seemed a reasonable place to start.
“Or you could ask old Mavis at the post office. She’s been here since God only knows how long, and if there’s anyone called Havers living in Mytholm Bridge she’ll know it.”
“Old Mavis? Right.” Lily added the postmistress to her mental list as she contemplated the rivulets of rain streaming down the windows. “While I’m at it, I could do with a couple of new tyres on my car. Is there a decent garage around here?”
“Certainly is. You need Murgatroyd’s, down behind the Asda supermarket. Mel and Harry’ll sort you out, and their prices are reasonable too. You can leave your car there and go into Halifax by train. The station’s just a five-minute walk.”
“Sounds like a plan.” She could drop off her car, hop on the train, check out the official records, and come back via the post office. “I’m going to be busy tomorrow so I think I’ll turn in now, if that’s all right.”
“Of course, love. Breakfast’s in here, any time after seven. Let me know if you need anything else.”
The rain had stopped by the time Lily emerged into the Black Horse car park the following morning, well fed and topped up with copious amounts of Gina’s coffee. She got in her car and started the engine. First stop, Murgatroyd’s garage.
She found the place easily enough, tucked away on the street behind the supermarket. The huge doors stood wide and a Renault was parked in front, its bonnet propped open. A pair of denim-clad buttocks dangled from the yawning jaws of the engine.
“Er, excuse me…” Lily got out and stood beside her car. “Do you have a minute?”
The mechanic bobbed up, ponytail swaying. As the figure turned to face her, Lily was surprised, and pleased, to see that it was a woman. She reached for a grimy rag and wiped the worst of the oil from her hands, though they were protected by latex gloves.
“Can I help you?” The mechanic offered a friendly, enquiring smile.
“I was wondering if someone could check my tyres. I think they need replacing.”
“What, all of them?” The mechanic grinned as she crouched beside Lily to inspect the closest wheel. “Let’s have a look, then.”
She let out a low whistle. Then shuffled along to check on the rear tyre. Next, she strolled around to the passenger side and repeated the exercise.
“You’re right. Both front tyres are below the legal limit, so you need those changing now. There’s maybe a few weeks left in the rear tyres, but they’re not great.”
“Could you do it? The two front ones, I mean?”
“The replacement tyres will need ordering and they’ll be about forty quid each, plus ten pounds for the fitting, wheel balancing, and such like. A hundred should cover it easily.”
“Ordering? How long…?”
“Should be able to have them here by lunchtime. Can you leave the car with me until this afternoon?”
“No problem.” Lily handed over the keys, then provided her name and mobile phone number, which the mechanic jotted down in a grimy notebook. “Which is the quickest way to the station?”
“Straight back down the road into town, then turn right just after the bakery. It’s sign-posted.”
“Thank you. I’ll see you later, then.”
“You will. Have a nice day.”
The visit to the council offices was both productive and disappointing. Only one person by the name of Havers was listed, but Lily was able to discover his full name and address, and looking back through the records she could ascertain that Mr. Charles Havers had been resident at the same address in Mytholm Bridge for twenty-seven years. He had to be one of the people she was looking for. But what about the rest? The newspaper reports she’d studied mentioned a mother, grandparents, a brother. Where were they?
She caught the train back to Mytholm Bridge and headed to the post office, only to find it closed. She checked her watch; it wasn’t even three o’clock. However the sign on the door announced that this was Wednesday, half-day closing. The post office was locked and bolted until nine o’clock the next day.
Her plans a little dented but not irretrievably damaged, Lily made her way back up to Murgatroyd’s garage via the ATM where she collected a hundred pounds in cash. She arrived as the mechanic was putting the finishing touches to balancing her wheels. Ten minutes later, and ninety-seven pounds poorer, she drove out of the small forecourt on shiny, new front tyres. She headed for the suburban housing estate on the edge of the town where Charles Havers apparently still lived.
The house was easy enough to locate on a quiet cul-de-sac. The garden was neat, the paintwork fresh, and the drive swept clear of the leaves that were scattered everywhere along the street. Mr. Havers obviously looked after the place. From the newspaper reports she knew he’d been forty one at the time of his daughter’s death so he would be in his early sixties now. Was he retired, perhaps? Was he still in touch with his wife and son? What did he recall of that fateful day in nineteen ninety-eight?
Lily marched up to the door and knocked before she could think better of it. She waited, listening.
Nothing. She knocked again, louder. Still no response. She tried a third time, and even bent to call through the letterbox. “Mr. Havers? Charles? Are you there?”
“What do you want?”
Lily yelped, startled at the snappy tone behind her. She whirled around. A man in late middle age stood at the gate, a shopping bag dangling from each hand. He scowled at her.
“Do I know you?” he demanded. “What are you doing here?”
“Mr. Havers? I… I was looking for you.”
“What for?” He made no move to pass her to unlock the door.
“I wanted to talk to you. About Grace.”
“Grace. Your daughter.”
His eyes narrowed. “She’s dead. Drowned.”
“I know, but—”
“That’s all there is to it. Nothing more to say, nothing to talk about.”
Lily tried her most winning smile. “I was wondering if you might—”
“Get away from my house. You’ve no right coming here.” Now he did move forward, even elbowed Lily out of the way to reach his door. “Go on, bugger off.”
“Charles, wait. Please…”
“You’re either police or a reporter, and I’m not talking to either. I know nothing about what happened. I said so at the time. I told the police all I could and nothing’s changed since. Now get off my property.” He opened the door and stepped inside, then slammed it in her face.
Lily was left to stare at the gleaming white paintwork, the sound of the lock inside quelling any remaining hope that Charles Havers might even now relent and agree to talk to her. She turned and trudged back to her car, and dashed the moisture from her eyes.
So far, this was not going well.