While he may not have been able to boast the psychic talents of Brenda Woodson, Tony was right –Ruth Coles wasn't home. Kevin's voice, all enthusiasm deflated, had called to let Carol know. She in turn gave him directions to the childhood cottage of their number one suspect, or at least, its location, thirty-five minutes outside of Bradfield.
"Bring Don with you," she told him. "I'm leaving right now."
Though she refrained from turning employing the siren, she was driving fast enough to cause Tony to grip the door tightly as she crossed several junctions at high speed. It was only as they reached the outskirts of the city and broke clear of the traffic that he relaxed. And it was only then that Carol spoke. Once again alone with the one person to whom she could confess her insecurities, she said, "If it's not her, I…"
He turned away from the warm breeze that whistled through the open window and looked at her. "If it's not her, we'll deal with that when the time comes."
She gripped the wheel and nodded. "You're right." Sneaking a glimpse across at him, she laughed at his expression –a blank stare that said he was not impressed by the lack of conviction in her answer. "You're right, of course," she praised, a bit too earnestly.
"Very funny," he rebuked. "Anyway, what have we got? We've got a woman with a severe psychological issue with children, based on a childhood event involving her brother. A brother who was the same age as these boys; a brother who, for all intents and purposes, died in her care."
"But you can't blame a ten year-old for something like that."
"I don't," he replied, "but she obviously does. Whether or not her parents perpetuated the blame or absolved her of it doesn't matter either. She felt she was the one to blame."
"And she's taken the children, why? And why now?"
Tony squinted as he looked out the window. "I thought perhaps it was how comfortable she felt around Kieran Fisher that sparked her, but it doesn't seem like it would be a dramatic enough stimuli to trigger these events. Those memories were repressed so severely that it would take something more direct to open that door again. I think it was the death of her father."
Carol hummed in agreement. "So you're saying that it gave her an opportunity to finally put it behind her, but by the same token, it brought everything back to the forefront again."
"Exactly. And I bet she went to the cottage before she had it demolished."
"Makes sense," she nodded. "Her father died a year ago. The boys started going missing almost five months ago. But you haven't told me why. And why she'd be out here." As the words came out of her mouth, the answer came to her. "Oh, God. You think she really has drowned them."
"I… I don't know, Carol. Maybe she has a place out here to keep them, to protect them. That would be an understandable motivation for her –she wants to protect the boy she wasn't able to protect when she was ten." Though his hypothesis was sound, what he thought was a far more likely, and terrible, scenario was playing out in his mind. He caught Carol's glance and couldn't lie. "I don't know. I think she might be trying to re-create that event; that moment when her brother needed her and she failed him."
"But you said she's hydrophobic."
She gripped the steering wheel again. "So isn't this re-creation or whatever it is she's doing, pointless? Won't the outcome be the same as it was twenty-five years ago?"
He heard her curse under her breath. "That's why we have three missing boys instead of one. So they are dead."
He had no reply, instead he pushed his hands deep into the pockets of his jacket and looked off into the distance.
The soft crunch of gravel as the car rolled to a stop was the only sound to mar the beauty of their surroundings. They got out, quietly closing the doors behind them, and Carol walked to the front of the car.
She turned a complete circle. "This is incredible." They weren't the only ones to blemish the landscape; about fifteen yards to the left stood a silver hatchback. "Ruth Coles," Carol said.
They had driven up a slight incline to get there, and it seemed as if they were surrounded by hills.
"Did you see anything resembling a body of water on the way here?" she asked rhetorically, knowing they had seen no such thing.
Tony answered automatically anyway. "No. But I do see Kevin." He pointed across the way, where a blue saloon car was following the same route they taken just a short while ago. However, the distance was deceptive; Tony knew it would take Kevin at least another ten minutes to reach them. Carol walked over to Ruth's car as he spoke, bending to peer inside and find nothing out of the ordinary.
Turning her back to the car, she walked back towards Tony and pointed to a large flat plot, an obvious reminder of the recently razed cottage.
"Well, we're at the right place," he remarked.
"But where's she?" Carol completed another circle, only this time her attention was not taken by the beauty of the place, but on the possibility of evidence the place might yield. Midway through her third careful sweep of observation she abruptly stopped: blindly reaching out to her side, her hand fluttered until it grasped Tony's.
He narrowed his eyes as he tried to follow her line of sight and although it was partially obscured by scrub that had sprung up to reclaim the area it didn't take long for Tony to see what had (taken hold of) captured Carol's interest. There it was, on the far side of the razed plot.
"A narrow path," was all she said at last.
They both stood, motionless and silent, until finally Tony, his hand still in hers, pulled her towards the path. Carol could sense the urgency of his curiosity mounting as his brisk stride broke into jog and finally she was forced to let go of his had as he began running up the hill, away from the remains of the cottage, not once looking back as she did. She was caught between waiting for Kevin to arrive and following Tony's retreating form as he disappeared over the brow of the hill. The decision was an easy one.
"Tony!" she called out as she gave chase.
Whether it was the distance of the roar of the blood rushing to his head, he wasn't sure, but he only faintly heard her calling his name. When he reached to top he bent over at the waist to catch his breath, resting his hands on his knees he took a moment to look around. No wonder neither he nor Carol had seen the lake along the way; it was sheltered at the bottom of the basin by the sloping landscape around it, very much like a small bowl. The water was a startlingly deep blue, offset by hues of green on all sides; the surface was still and smooth, like glass. On any other occasion, he might have sat down and admired the view, but that would have to wait. Right now, his eyes were scanning the bottom of the hill, trying, hoping, to find Ruth Coles. He started jogging down the hill just as Carol reached the top.
"Hold on!" she commanded.
The downward incline lent her speed and she caught up with him easily.
"Don't run off like that again, yeah?" she managed to get out.
He nodded absently, but was looking down the rocky shoreline. "Carol," he said.
She saw it, too. About fifty yards away, a figure standing on a small outcrop of rock that stretched out across the water.
"She doesn't look so afraid of water now."
Tony ignored the remark and instead replied, "We need to get over there." Before he had finished speaking, he was precariously picking his way across the loose earth and stones towards Ruth.
"Careful," Carol said as she followed him.
They were twenty yards away when Ruth spotted them. Looking down, she stammered out her shock. "Who… who are you?"
Holding out his hands in a non-threatening manner, Tony answered, "My name's Tony Hill. This is Carol Jordan. We're here to help you."
"You can't help me."
Although he had slowed down his approach, he continued to inch his way closer.
"Stop right there!" she ordered.
He spoke very calmly. "We're just going to come up. That's all. I promise." With some difficulty, he kept his hands out and carefully climbed the short but steep incline. Once at the top, he realized how deceptive the size of the rocky plateau was –from the shore, it stretched out into the water about twenty feet, but it couldn't have been more than five feet across. On the plus side, with him and Carol at the entry and Ruth at the point, she wouldn't be able to run past them. Of course, he wasn't sure anyone would be running with any kind of confidence on such a narrow course in the first place.
As if she read his mind, Ruth said, "It seemed so much larger when we were children."
He nodded and tried to gauge the depth of the water. From where they stood, he and Carol were still over land, but the water crept up the base of the escarpment about ten feet in front of Tony's line of sight. He tried to look past Ruth to get a better sense of the depth.
"Straight down," she told him. "And I should know."
"How did you get the children here, Ruth?" he asked.
"They knew me," she replied. "Parents leave their children alone when they should be protecting them!" The anger washed away from her face when she said, "I invited them over. Crushed some sleeping pills into their lemonade."
"They must have been frightened when they woke up."
Her anger quickly returned. "What about me? I was frightened!"
"What happened to your brother?" She pressed the heel of her palm against her forehead at the memory. "It's okay, Ruth," he soothed, "it's okay to tell us."
Clenching her eyes shut, the words tumbled out of her mouth. "We were throwing stones." She reached into her pocket. "Just like these ones. Right here. He was laughing. We were sharing crisps. Then I turned around to get more stones. I didn't take my eyes off him for more than a minute!" She began to softly hit her forehead with her fist. "It was quiet; then I heard him scream my name. I came back to the ledge and saw him in the water. I tried to reach for him, but I couldn't." Tony nodded his understanding. By his guess, the distance between the edge and the water was at least seven feet; out of the reach of an adult, let alone a ten year-old child.
"Did you try to save them, Ruth?"
The tears came as she sobbed. "I tried. I couldn't save them. I couldn't save him."
Carol tried to keep her anger in check. "They're dead," she said flatly.
The sobbing continued, uncontrollable now. "I tried! They… they were in the water, their eyes begging me for help. And I couldn't reach."
"You couldn't have gotten a stick?" Carol asked harshly, her compassion wearing thin. "Maybe in the twenty-five years that have passed you would have learned how to swim."
"No, she's right," Ruth agreed.
"We're not here to judge you," Tony flashed an angry look at Carol. "We're here to help you."
She simply shook her head sadly. "Can you swim, Mr. Hill?"
She took two steps back and disappeared from sight.
It only took him a second to register what had happened, but it seemed like hours. Shedding his jacket and kicking off his shoes, he ran towards the edge and leapt in. Carol blinked, stunned at the sudden turn of events.
"Jesus Christ!" she exclaimed. Throwing off her own jacket and shoes she dived in the water after him.
Whether by design or accident, Ruth's flailing arms made it almost impossible for Tony to grab her. Twice she hit him in the face, causing him to see stars. What he couldn't understand was why she was sinking so quickly. She hadn't been wearing anything of –'The stones,' he thought. 'She had a pocketful of stones.' Panicking, he dove under, his eyes open in the dark water, his lungs burning as he made one last attempt to reach for her. Desperately, he grabbed her sleeve, but gravity was working against him. Yet he would not let go. It was the pull of an arm reaching under his and across his chest, yanking him backward that finally severed the connection.
He broke the surface, gasping for air. Hearing someone behind him doing the same, he realized Carol had jumped in after him.
"Carol," he gasped. "Carol!"
Rather than reply, she pulled him tightly to her, and he rested his head back against her shoulder. As they slowly treaded backwards towards shore.
"What the hell?" Kevin yelled halfway down the hill.
"Christ!" Don swore. Hurtling past Kevin, he waded out into the lake until he reached Carol and Tony grasping her collar and pulling them in. "Now I know why you had Kevin bring me," he quipped, his uncertainty of the situation bleeding into his tone.
Once on dry land, he helped them stagger away from the rocks, where Carol dropped to her knees to catch her breath, and Tony unceremoniously flopped down, his body prone on the ground.
"Kevin," she said, then paused for a breath. "Call the divers –Ruth Coles just committed suicide." She ran her fingers through her wet hair and felt the rivulets run down her neck. "We think they'll find the children, too."
Kevin leaned his head back. "Shit," he bit out.
"Is he going to be okay?" Don asked, looking down at Tony with concern.
"Yeah," she answered, taking another breath before she added darkly, "And once he's recovered, I'm going to kill him."
He sat on a small rock, a blanket draped across his shoulders, as the methodical activity of divers and pathologists went on around him. Carol had not spoken a word to him since he had jumped into the icy lake. He couldn't really blame her, he thought as he watched her standing on the very ledge onto which he had followed Ruth Coles. She stood alone hugging herself, her face in profile, her eyes never leaving the water. They had found Ruth almost immediately, but he knew that wasn't what Carol was waiting for. Eighty-eight minutes after the divers arrived the body of David Cromwell was discovered. She turned away then; she didn't need to wait for more.
As she scrambled down the slope towards him he wondered idly why his gaze was drawn to her bare feet. Such an odd thing to notice among all this death and sadness. Or maybe he just didn't want to see her face, hard and angry. Angry that the children really had suffered the fate that had only been horrible theory up to that point. Angry that Ruth Coles had committed suicide, thus denying the families some measure of justice. And, he suspected, she was quite angry with him.
He stared at her feet until he realized they had stopped right in front of him. Craning his neck up to look at her, he waited for the resentment to rain down on him. Much to his surprise, she held out her hands and helped him to his feet. The blanket slipped off his shoulders and fell to the ground but he made no movement to retrieve it. Instead, he held her gaze and wondered what she was thinking.
"I don't know whether I should slap you or hug you," she said at long last, her voice raw and sharp.
He shut his eyes and braced for the impact of her hand on his cheek and was startled when he felt her arms go around him. He froze at the unexpected contact then relaxed in her embrace. As his hands went crept around her back, she gripped him tighter, one arm around his shoulders, and one hand in his still-damp hair.
Her lips were soft against his ear and she simply whispered, "Don't ever do that to me again." Then she pulled back and discreetly wiped her eyes, wary of her surroundings and the place for emotions in them. His fingertips hung on to her forearms in silent support. The contact broken as she bent down for his blanket and draped it over his shoulders tucking the ends in his hands. She stepped away and coughed.
"Listen. Um, you're going to have to come back to the station with me and fill out a report." When she saw his nod, she asked, "Do you want to do that now? I'm not sure there's much left for us to do here." Again he nodded, and waited as she walked over to Kevin. He couldn't hear what she said but he saw Kevin nod in agreement.
Don walked up to him with a clear plastic bag nicked from one of the divers. Inside were Tony's jacket and shoes, as well as Carol's.
He handed Tony the bag. "I thought you might like these back."
"Thank you, Don."
The big man shuffled from one foot to the other several times before saying, "That was a pretty brave thing you did there, Dr. Hill." Tony's only response was a wan smile. "But if you don't mind me saying," he went on, "if you try anything that stupid again, if you put your own life at risk like that again, she'll kill you."
'She' didn't have to be identified by name; Tony knew exactly who it was. This time his smile was genuine. "I will definitely take your advice into consideration, Don."
"You will if you know what's good for you!"
The two men shared a quiet laugh, a sharp aberration amid the somber cloud that enveloped them all.
"Thank you, Don," Tony said again, this time, heartfelt and sincere.
"What was that all about?" Carol asked as she watched Don walk away.
Tony's eyes swept over the scene. A gentle breeze blew through the trees and brushed across the long blades of grass that were everywhere, a thousand shades of green. The sun burned brightly, touching everything with warmth and light. He saw a diver break the surface of the cool water, and the spell was broken. 'We shouldn't be here,' he thought bitterly. 'We shouldn't be here looking for the bodies of children.' Shifting his focal point to something closer, Carol came into focus. She had combed her blonde hair back with her fingers, still damp it was a darker shade than he recognized. The lines around her soft mouth told stories of laughter as did the fine creases around her eyes. He wondered if he had been a part of any of them. Her lips twitched, her subconscious 'tell' that she was waiting for an answer. His blue gaze met her brown eyes which looked back at him patiently. For the first time he had allowed himself the luxury of really looking at her, knowing that she was looking back.
"He was just reminding me of my own mortality," he smiled before the tears fell.
While there were always aspects of the job she hated, Carol was sure nothing compared to that lonely moment on the doorstep of a stranger's house, before she had to tell them their loved one wasn't coming home. It was a task she had to do three times that day, none of them easier than the last. She had learned to harden her heart over the years –you had to or you'd never make it through the day, she knew- but watching mothers and fathers crumble before her eyes was almost more than she could handle. Walking past the evidence room she saw Kevin taking down the photos and placing them in folders. A soft brush over the board erased the last seven days and the white board now waited patiently for the next case.
"Thanks, Kev," Carol said gratefully.
His head jerked up from the folders. "Oh," he said, surprised by her appearance. "Yeah, no problem. I figured you had enough to do, what with… anyway, you didn't need to do this, too."
She smiled. "Thanks. You'll make a great DCI one day."
"Nah, I told you. Right to the top." He winked at his bravado.
"Ah, right," she nodded. "Well, always remember the little people," she advised.
They laughed, though Carol's seemed a bit hollow.
"You should go home," Kevin said. "I was just going to file these then head out myself, if that's all right."
"Yeah," she answered, "on both counts. I'll see you tomorrow, Kev."
"Get some sleep!" he ordered as she walked away.
An insistent knock on the door slowly roused her from an uncomfortable slumber. She sat up and grimaced at the sharp pain that stabbed through her neck and she rubbed her eyes put as everything came into focus. She had fallen asleep on the couch. Checking her watch, she thought perhaps she hadn't rubbed her eyes enough. Twenty past ten, the hands dutifully informed her. Sunlight flooded in through the window; it was twenty past ten in the morning. She had slept all night on the couch.
"No wonder my neck hurts," she muttered. The knock on the door repeated. "Coming!" she yelled, not entirely welcoming.
Unlocking the door she swung it open, her "I'm not buying anything" face on. It was quickly replaced by one of surprise.
"Tony," she said needlessly.
He looked around to check if there was anyone else with him. "Yes," he smiled.
"Cheek," she laughed. "What are you doing here? And what, is that?" She gestured to a fairly large object behind him that was covered by a dustsheet.
"I've come bearing gifts. Or, a gift. But you're going to have to help me carry it in. The delivery man gave up on me when you didn't answer the door."
Her brow furrowed. "What on earth are you talking about? How long have you been out here?"
"About half an hour. I'm sure he thought I'd lost my mind."
"We've been trying to prove that for years," she quipped. "Now, spill. What is it?"
He picked up the corner of the sheet and tugged until it revealed the object underneath.
She gasped in surprise then burst into laughter. "Your chair!"
Tony sighed dramatically. "No. Your chair." Pleased with her reaction, he said, "I thought you might need it. And by the looks of you, I was right."
"Besides," he smiled, "I want to make sure you're not using me just for my chair."
"My chair," she corrected.
Despite the events of the last twenty-four hours, they laughed. It was all they could do.