cover

Contents

Cover
About the Book
Title Page
Dedication
Chapter 1
Part One
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25
Chapter 26
Chapter 27
Chapter 28
Chapter 29
Chapter 30
Chapter 31
Chapter 32
Chapter 33
Chapter 34
Chapter 35
Chapter 36
Chapter 37
Chapter 38
Chapter 39
Chapter 40
Chapter 41
Chapter 42
Chapter 43
Chapter 44
Chapter 45
Chapter 46
Chapter 47
Chapter 48
Chapter 49
Chapter 50
Chapter 51
Chapter 52
Chapter 53
Chapter 54
Chapter 55
Part Two
Chapter 56
Chapter 57
Chapter 58
Chapter 59
Chapter 60
Chapter 61
Chapter 62
Chapter 63
Chapter 64
Chapter 65
Chapter 66
Chapter 67
Chapter 68
Chapter 69
Chapter 70
Chapter 71
Chapter 72
Chapter 73
Chapter 74
Chapter 75
Chapter 76
Chapter 77
Chapter 78
Chapter 79
Chapter 80
Chapter 81
Chapter 82
Chapter 83
Chapter 84
Chapter 85
Chapter 86
Chapter 87
Chapter 88
Chapter 89
Chapter 90
Chapter 91
Chapter 92
Chapter 93
Chapter 94
Part Three
Chapter 95
Chapter 96
Chapter 97
Chapter 98
Chapter 99
Chapter 100
Chapter 101
Chapter 102
Chapter 103
Chapter 104
Chapter 105
Chapter 106
Chapter 107
Chapter 108
Chapter 109
Chapter 110
Chapter 111
Chapter 112
Chapter 113
Chapter 114
Chapter 115
Chapter 116
Chapter 117
Chapter 118
Chapter 119
Chapter 120
Chapter 121
Chapter 122
Acknowledgements
About the Author
Also by Sharon Bolton
Copyright
Also by Sharon Bolton

Sacrifice

Awakening

Blood Harvest

Now You See Me

Dead Scared

Like This, For Ever

A Dark and Twisted Tide

Little Black Lies

Daisy in Chains

DEAD WOMAN WALKING

Sharon Bolton

TRANSWORLD PUBLISHERS
61–63 Uxbridge Road, London W5 5SA
www.penguin.co.uk

Transworld is part of the Penguin Random House group of companies whose addresses can be found at global.penguinrandomhouse.com

image

First published in Great Britain in 2017 by Bantam Press
an imprint of Transworld Publishers
Copyright © Sharon Bolton 2017

Cover photography: Getty Images/Colin Thomas
Design by Richard Ogle/TW

Sharon Bolton has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.

This book is a work of fiction and, except in the case of historical fact, any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Every effort has been made to obtain the necessary permissions with reference to copyright material, both illustrative and quoted. We apologize for any omissions in this respect and will be pleased to make the appropriate acknowledgements in any future edition.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Version 1.0 Epub ISBN 9781473527096
ISBNs 9780593076422 (hb)
9780593076439 (tpb)

This ebook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorized distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

For my friends in Ealing,
who have been wonderful.

1

THIS WOMAN – JESSICA Lane – should have died. Eleven people were killed in that crash. Not only did Lane survive, she walked away. She’s still walking.

‘So, I want to know where she’s going. I want to know why she hasn’t been in touch. Why she isn’t seeking help. Why she’s deliberately avoiding the police.

‘I want to know who she’s running from.

‘Most of all, I want her found.’

PART ONE

2

Wednesday, 20 September

THE BALLOON HUNG in the air like an inverted Christmas bauble, its voluptuous, candy-striped sphere reflected perfectly in the lake. In the early light, the water glowed with the colours of a ripe peach, pale gold towards its edges, a deeper, richer pink at its heart. There was no wind. No sound. The trees along the shoreline had ceased their pre-dawn rustling and none of the balloon’s thirteen passengers was either moving or speaking. The world seemed to be holding its breath.

Below, as far as the passengers could see in every direction, lay the heather-swept moorland of the Northumberland National Park. Acres of grasses rippled like the pelt of a huge waking animal, streams shimmered like silver snakes and the burning sunrise set the hilltops on fire. The landscape was vast, wild, unchanged in hundreds of years, as though the balloon had become a time machine, floating them back to when the far north of England was home to even fewer people than it is now. They could see no roads, no train lines, no towns or villages.

But for the thirteen of them, the world seemed empty.

The basket was large and rectangular, as is common with pleasure flights, and subdivided into four sections to restrict on-board movement of the passengers. The pilot had his own space in the centre of the rectangle. In one of the compartments were two women in their mid to late thirties. One wearing black, the other green, the two were not quite alike enough to be twins, but obviously sisters. The one in black breathed out a soft bubble of sound, too audible to be a sigh, too happy to be a moan.

‘You’re welcome.’ The sister in green smiled.

The sisters were sharing their compartment with an accountant from Dunstable. His wife and two teenage children were in the one adjacent. On the other side of the pilot were three men on a hiking holiday, dressed like traffic lights in red, orange and green anoraks, a middle-aged couple from Scotland and a retired journalist.

The basket continued its slow, lazy spiral as they drifted above the lake. The constant movement had been one of the biggest surprises of the experience, as had the feel of the air at altitude. It was sharper, somehow, and fresher than it ever felt on the ground. Cool, but not uncomfortably so in the way that frosty mornings are. This air tingled against the skin, fizzed its way down to the lungs.

The woman in green, Jessica, edged closer to her sister, whose face had grown pale and whose hands were clutching the rim of the basket. Her eyes, staring directly down at the water’s surface, were wide with wonder. Jessica was suddenly disturbed by the most alarming thought. That her sister might be about to jump out.

A short while later, she was to think it might have been better if both of them had jumped, that one or two petrifying seconds and a painful encounter with the water’s surface wouldn’t have been so bad. The cool, choking blackness might have finished them off, but equally might have buoyed them up and carried them to shore. Had they leapt at that point they might both have lived.

‘Isn’t it fabulous?’ she said, because she’d learned a long time ago that distraction could sometimes halt a reckless course of action on her sister’s part. ‘Are you enjoying it? I can’t believe we never did this before.’

Isabel smiled but said nothing, because a reply would have been pointless. She was clearly besotted with the whole experience.

‘It’s gorgeous, isn’t it? Look at those colours.’

Still no reply, but Jessica had the satisfaction of seeing her sister lift her head and beam at the trees growing right to the edge of the water. They were like ladies at a ball, jostling for space, their floating gowns trailing down, twisting together, until it was impossible to tell where one ended and another began. Beyond the trees the hills, glowing like precious metals, went on for ever.

‘We’re now above the Harcourt Estate.’ From take-off the pilot had been the only one to speak above a whisper. ‘The original house was built on the rise directly ahead, but destroyed by fire in the late nineteenth century.’

‘Do we need a bit more height?’ The retired journalist with the thinning hair and thickening waistline was frowning at the rapidly approaching trees.

‘Don’t worry, folks, I’ve done this before.’ The six-foot, red-haired Geordie pilot tickled the air above the burner with a short burst of flame and those closest to him felt the oven-blast of hot air on their heads. ‘I like to stay low at this point because these woods are one of the best places in Northumberland to see red squirrels. Also, whilst it’s a bit late in the year, ospreys.’

There was a sudden flurry of camera activity, and a pressing towards the side of the basket closest to the woods. Neither of the sisters had brought a camera, so they were the first to see the ruined upper sections of the house come into view, rising from the tree canopy like badly stained teeth. The sister in black shuddered.

‘The sixteenth-century house was built here for defensive purposes,’ said the pilot as the balloon rose a little to skirt the treetops. ‘Back then, you’d get an uninterrupted view of nearly fifty miles of countryside. Fifteen minutes from landing, folks.’

‘Is that one? Top of the wide tree with yellow leaves? Greyish-brown feathers.’ One of the hikers was pointing back towards the treetops and the focus of attention shifted away from the house.

‘Could be.’ The pilot raised his binoculars, turning his back on the direction of travel.

‘There’s someone down there.’

‘Where? In the woods?’ Jessica followed her sister’s gaze, but her own eyesight had never been as good. Isabel’s hearing was better too, and she had always been the first to pick up scents, to detect the strange flavours in food. As though she were the sharper, clearer-forged of the two.

‘Behind the house.’

Jessica stood on tiptoe. Over her sister’s shoulder she could see the great gaping holes in the roof, the collapsing walls.

‘A girl. Running.’

Low enough to make out tiny pillows of moss and broken roof slates, the balloon passed over the house. The pilot, distracted by his attempt to spot an osprey, had allowed them to fall lower still.

‘There.’

A darting figure – a young woman, slim and dark-haired, wearing blue clothes that had an eastern look about them – had reached the far wall of the garden.

‘What’s she doing?’

Behind them, others were trying to photograph the osprey and the journalist was advising on how best to capture wildlife. Only the two sisters were watching the girl on the ground. Jessica glanced round, unsure whether to alert the others or not. Reaching into the pocket of her jacket she found her phone.

Down in the garden, from around a line of bushes, a man came walking slowly, but purposefully. From above, the two sisters could only make out his build, short but stocky. He wore an oversized leather jacket and a dark trilby. White shirt. His dark hair curled down below the rim of the hat.

Trotting along by his side was a large German shepherd.

‘Oh!’ Jessica pressed even closer to her sister. ‘Bella, hold still, let me just—’

At the sight of the man, the girl cowered down, her hands clasped tight above her head.

‘What?’ said Isabel.

‘I don’t believe it! It is him.’

‘Who? Jess, do you know that man?’

‘Sean!’ Jessica reached back, touched the pilot’s arm. ‘You need to see this.’

‘What is it?’ He turned their way, so did the accountant.

‘He’s got a gun.’ The accountant’s teenage son had spotted the pair on the ground, was pointing to what appeared to be a rifle or shotgun in the man’s left hand. In his right, he had a large stone.

‘Oh my God, he has,’ said the teenager’s mother. ‘What do we do?’

They were still talking in shrill whispers.

Others in the basket had lost interest in the osprey and more heads were turning their way. The girl on the ground looked up, saw the balloon, and began to scream. The man, who hadn’t seen them or heard them yet, raised the stone high. The girl seemed to be trying to press herself into the ground. The man brought the stone down.

The girl didn’t scream again. The strangled cry, perfectly audible in the dawn air, came from someone in the balloon. It was the only sound they made. Shock held them tight. The man on the ground turned and looked up. His dog did the same. The dog began to bark. The passengers in the balloon saw the man drop the rock and lift a hand to his head, holding his hat in place as he craned his neck and stared upwards.

‘Oh Christ,’ said Jessica.

The air around them roared as Sean opened the valve and released the flame, but he’d told them in the briefing that up to ten seconds’ delay would follow any action on his part. It could be ten seconds before the balloon was rising properly. Isabel, probably remembering the same thing, was counting softly. ‘Ten, nine …’

Jessica brought her phone up, flicked to camera mode and took the man’s picture. He saw her do it. For a second he stared directly into her eyes.

‘Eight, seven …’

The man on the ground passed the gun into his right hand.

‘Get down! Everyone down!’ Jessica pushed her sister below the rim of the basket and dropped down herself, reaching back to tug on the accountant’s arm. Unable to duck completely, there simply wasn’t room for all of them to kneel in the basket. She left her eyes pinned on the man below, the top of her head dangerously exposed.

His dog was running in excited circles now, barking up at the strange thing in the sky.

‘Six, five …’ counted Isabel.

Jessica thought perhaps they were rising, but slowly. People were still on their feet. ‘Get down,’ she tried again.

Another flame burst upwards, just as the man on the ground raised his gun. The sounds of terror erupted into the still dawn air. Passengers began to scream, to shout to each other, to the pilot. As the accountant reached across, pushing his family below its brim, the basket began to turn, taking the two sisters further away from the drama on the ground.

‘Four, three …’ They were definitely going up, faster now.

‘Hold tight!’ Sean burned a third time.

‘Two, one.’ In her head, Jessica counted another second, then another. Yes, they were climbing quickly now. The balloon passed beyond the walled perimeter of the garden, gaining height with every second.

‘Oh thank God! – Quick, take us up – Oh my God! Everyone, keep your heads down.’

The basket swung back and she could see the garden again. Through an archway, where a sturdy wooden door would once have hung, the man on the ground had stepped out into the open space behind the house. Jessica brought her phone up and took his picture again. A clear shot this time. Unfortunately, he had the same.

‘Heads down! Heads down!’

She had no idea who was shouting, she thought it was probably the pilot, but she couldn’t move, couldn’t duck completely below the basket rim. She continued to stare at the man who was holding the rifle, had the butt tucked against his shoulder, was steadying himself against the wall.

He was aiming at her. She was sure of it.

The shot – so loud, so clear, and so very, very close – was followed by several seconds of shocked silence. Then low mutterings and a stifled moan. The teenage girl began to sob.

The balloon was rising very fast now, the ground shrinking away. Already the two figures, one coiled like a felled snake, the other striding fast along the rise of land as though it might catch him, were becoming indistinct. In the corner of her eye, Jessica saw another head appear over the rim. She could hear movement, scrabbling against the rattan framework of the basket. The other passengers were getting to their feet. Her sister pushed and she leaned back, allowing her to rise.

‘Did that really happen?’ ‘I can’t believe that just happened!’ ‘Is everyone all right?’ ‘Helen? Poppy? Nathan? Talk to me.’

The man on the ground raised his rifle again and the basket swung as people ducked for cover. This time, the two sisters stayed where they were. They were very high now, probably as high as they’d been since the trip started, and several hundred metres away. They must be safe.

‘Is there a signal up here?’ The journalist was still below the rim of the basket. ‘We need to call the police.’

Jessica had already checked her phone. Nothing. There was little or no signal in the Northumberland National Park. It remained one of the most remote, sparsely populated, least accessible regions of the country.

Heads began appearing again. The accountant, who’d introduced himself earlier as Harry, reached out for his wife, who had one arm around each of her children. People, visibly shaken, were looking down at the rise of land, the ruined house, the autumn patchwork of woodland. The lake was still shining in the dawn light like a discarded penny. It seemed a long way away.

‘It’s OK. Everybody be calm. Nat, are you all right? It’s over. We’re too far away now. I can’t even see him any more. Jesus wept, did I really see that?’

Jessica could feel tension settling as terror gave way to relief. She checked her phone again. Down on the ground was a woman who couldn’t get away. Someone with a different network might have more luck. She opened her mouth to ask them all to check their phones—

The screaming thumped against the side of her head like a hammer blow.

As one, the passengers turned towards the sound. On the other side of the basket stood a middle-aged schoolteacher called Natalie. Her screaming continued, her hands clamped tight to her face. Her husband clutched her shoulders, trying to turn her face towards himself.

The other passengers looked at her, followed her eyeline and saw immediately that something was missing. And that its absence spelled disaster.

Sean, the big, red-haired pilot, was no longer standing upright in his separate compartment in the middle of the basket, one hand on the burner valve, the other clutching his binoculars. Those closest to him craned forward, as though he too might be cowering out of sight. The teenage boy was pulled back by his father. A male hiker turned away, revulsion on his face.

‘What?’ ‘Where is he?’ ‘Where’s he gone?’

Jessica pressed closer and stood on tiptoe to see over the accountant’s shoulder, then raised her phone again and began taking photographs.

The interior of the pilot’s compartment looked as though someone had shaken a lidless can of red paint around. Blood and a glutinous grey slime dripped down the rattan sides. In the bottom of the basket was slumped a tangle of limbs and torso.

The pilot’s head had been shot clean from his body.

3

TAKING OUT THE pilot with a single shot had been one of the most satisfying experiences of his life. Patrick felt his entire body tingling with excitement, energy coursing through his veins as though it had been Tasered into him. Now, though, he had his sight upon the dark-haired woman in the green jacket. He took a breath, held it, and felt his trigger finger glow. She was staring straight at him, dumb as a rabbit, and in a split second her brains would be spraying through the air like a firework. He felt the familiar stirring in his groin at knowing the hunt was coming to an end and, in the middle of his chest, the outline of the crucifix burned through his shirt and into his skin.

But the freaking basket was spinning again, taking the woman’s head out of the sight, partially obscuring it behind one of the balloon’s strong supporting wires, and with every passing second they were getting higher in the sky. Other heads began to appear, darting below the rim again when they caught sight of him. He counted six, eight, maybe more. Very little time left now.

‘Shut it, Shinto.’ He aimed a kick at the dog. It dodged him with the skill of long practice.

He could shoot the basket. The woven material wouldn’t hold back bullets. He could take out most of them simply by peppering it. There, the cleanest, tidiest shot he’d ever get. She was looking directly at him again, had even raised herself up, was staring down at him, almost as though she knew him – he pulled gently on the trigger.

And stopped. He could not shoot any more of them. Even one might have been too many. This had to look like an accident. The rest would have to die on impact.

No problem. Actually, a lot more fun.

Patrick lowered the gun, watched as the balloon sailed out of reach and then pulled out his phone. No signal. There never was a signal out here. None of them would be calling for help or reporting the incident any time soon.

From close behind, a low moan reminded him he wasn’t done here yet. He walked back into the garden, the dog at his heels.

The girl on the ground still had a pulse, but it was faint. She was bleeding from the cut on her head and possibly also from one ear. He lifted a strand of black hair, leaned low and pressed it to his face. It smelled of oil and sweat and when he let it fall in disgust, her eyes opened. She couldn’t focus. Her eyes were black but there was no gleam in them any more. She moaned, but made no attempt to move.

He watched her for three minutes that he couldn’t spare. He arranged her long hair until it covered her face but didn’t bring his fingers up to his nose again. The colour was right, the colour was what he liked, but the smell was wrong. He stepped back, looking at the outline of her thin body beneath the dirty clothes, and had thoughts that according to his ma would send him straight to hell.

Time was running on. Shouldering his gun, he ran across the garden, through the ruined house and back out the front. His quad bike was waiting. He tucked his hat into a pocket, turned on the ignition and steered around the front of the house. Shinto followed. He could keep up with the bike all day if he had to.

4

SHOCK HAD WRAPPED itself around the balloon like a chill wind. The hiker in the far corner of the basket was shouting instructions that nobody could properly hear. The teenage boy, using his phone to take pictures of the dead pilot, was a mass of jumpy, nervous movement. His father, by contrast, seemed frozen in place. The mother and daughter were locked tight together as far from the dead man as they could get.

Natalie was clinging to her husband and yelling that she had to get down, they had to get her down, that she really couldn’t cope with any more and could they please get her down now.

Below them, the earth had lost most of its colour, all of its shine. Almost from nowhere, heavy clouds had massed in the sky, draining the park of its beauty. Now it looked desolate and empty. A place from which no help could come.

The balloon was still rising, picking up speed, its shadow racing along the ground. The air around them was colder too. The gentle tingling against the skin of the first part of the flight had given way to the harsh nip of almost-winter mornings. For the first time since they’d taken off, Jessica experienced the dull ache of nausea.

A cold hand closed gently around hers. ‘What do we do?’ Isabel asked.

On the other side of the pilot’s compartment, the three hikers were on their feet, pale but composed. The journalist too.

‘We need a new pilot.’ Jessica willed her voice not to show the terror she was feeling. ‘It’s not a fighter jet. We go up, we go down. How hard can it be?’

One of the hikers, a man called Nigel, said, ‘I’m a mechanical engineer. Anyone think they’re better qualified?’

‘Somebody do something now,’ wailed Natalie. ‘I don’t want to die.’

‘Nobody’s going to die.’ The hiker in red, Walter, was a loud man, a man who spoke and laughed noisily. Being scared was making him louder.

‘We have plenty of time,’ the journalist, Martyn, said. ‘We can get up to something like ten thousand feet before we need oxygen. The important thing is not to panic.’

Such wise words. So hard to obey. Panic had swooped down from above like a giant bird of prey. Jessica didn’t want to look up in case she saw it, perched on the supporting framework above their heads, leering down, waiting for their control to break. She glanced over the side instead. The landscape below didn’t seem to be getting smaller.

‘Give me a leg up, Walt.’ Nigel reached up to grasp the leather-covered uprights.

Natalie broke away from her husband and began screaming, hurling her terror out into the thinning air.

‘Shut up!’ The last of the three hikers – Bob – pointed at Natalie’s husband. ‘You, shut her up. All of you, shut up now or I will throw you overboard myself.’

An angry red face looked back at him. ‘There’s no need for that.’

‘We should all try to be calm,’ Jessica heard her sister say. ‘I know we’re frightened but there are lots of things we can do.’

They listened to Isabel. Screams were stifled, sobs held back. The new calm was fragile, though, like a bubble made from soap. It could burst at any second.

Nigel, dangerously exposed, wobbled on the brink of the pilot’s compartment. His face was ashen as he dropped down. ‘Shit.’ He turned back to his two mates. ‘I can’t see a bloody thing in here. We have to get rid of Sean.’

Walter stared. ‘What do you mean, get rid of him?’

‘Look at him.’

As those closest pressed forward, Bob did something that seemed stupidly daring. He took hold of the uprights that held the basket to the balloon and jumped up so that he was sitting on the basket’s rim. Everyone looked down. The space in the centre of the basket was tiny, built for one person to stand upright. The pilot had been a big man. Slumped in death, he took up the entire floor space.

‘We have to throw him over.’

‘We can’t do that. Lie him down.’

‘It won’t work, we won’t be able to move.’

Martyn said, ‘Get him into this basket.’

A fresh wail from Natalie. ‘Don’t bring him in with us. I couldn’t bear it.’

The journalist turned on her. ‘We can’t just drop him.’

‘For God’s sake, he’s dead, he couldn’t be more dead.’

Jessica had to say something. ‘We’re not rising any more,’ she called. ‘In fact, we’ve lost quite a bit of height. Whatever we do, we have to do it quickly.’

Bob jumped down from the rim. ‘Natalie has a point. This is no time for sentiment. We have to get rid of him.’

Walter said, ‘I’ll climb over, Nigel, give you a hand.’

Nigel nodded. ‘Martyn, are you OK to help? Ladies, I’m sorry to ask, but I might need you to shove his legs and feet.’

‘No problem,’ said Jessica.

As Walter began to climb over to join Nigel, Jessica couldn’t help glancing over the side again. The ground was an awful lot closer. Was that a good thing, or …?

‘Don’t look,’ said her sister, quietly in her ear. ‘We’ve got time.’

‘He’s a big bloke.’ Nigel and Walter were bent over in the pilot’s compartment. ‘Martyn, grab an arm and pull when I say. OK, guys, and lift.’

The three men heaved. The pilot was heavy in death, but they got his torso over the rim and then gravity took over.

‘Wait!’ Jessica yelled. Too late. One final heave and the pilot’s legs scraped over the rattan and he slid out of sight.

The balloon responded immediately to the lost weight. It went up, faster than it had previously, swimming up towards the thickening cloud.

Fresh wails broke out from all sides. Up they went.

‘What’s happening?’ someone shouted.

‘We’ve lost the pilot’s weight,’ Jessica yelled. ‘He was a big man, the balloon was bound to react. It will sort itself out. Hold on and don’t panic.’

Easy to say, when the seaside-rock colours of the balloon seemed to be growing bigger and brighter above them.

In the pilot’s space, Nigel was looking at the variometer, the one instrument in the basket that was clipped to an upright. He stared as though willing it to stop showing ever-higher numbers. ‘Christ, I should have thought of that.’ He ran a hand over his face, leaving behind red smudges from the pilot’s blood. ‘We’re nearly at two thousand feet,’ he said.

‘It’s not a problem,’ Jessica shouted. ‘We were very low over the house. There’s a lot of sky above us. It will sort itself out.’ She turned to look at the scared faces. ‘We’re getting an unexpected lesson in physics. I think it’s slowing already.’

It wasn’t. They were still rising quickly, but the filthy black bird above them had spread its wings. She could feel its shadow cloaking them, its vile stench settling.

‘She’s right,’ the journalist yelled. ‘We can’t go up indefinitely. I did some reading before I booked this trip. Also, the terminal velocity of a balloon like this is roughly eight hundred feet per minute.’

‘What the hell’s that got to do with anything?’ said Bob.

‘That’s about the same as an old-fashioned parachute.’ The journalist looked across at the sisters. ‘It means we won’t die, ladies. We might break a few bones, but even if all we do now is drift back to earth, we should be OK. There really is no need to panic. And no jumping out, at any point, or the balloon will fly up again.’

Around the basket, faces creased in concentration as people processed his words and tried to understand them.

‘Thanks, Martyn,’ said Nigel. ‘Walt, you use a radio on the boat, see if you can figure out how to work this one. We need to let people on the ground know what’s happening and get some help. They can talk us down. It can’t be that hard.’

‘Does anyone have a signal?’ Jessica was holding up her phone, trying to catch the attention of the others. ‘We still need to get help for the woman on the ground, if we can. We need to get the police looking for that guy. Phones will be quicker than waiting for Walter to work the radio. Can you all check, please?’

Nigel dug into his pocket and handed over a slim phone. Jessica shook her head in frustration. ‘Same as mine. Anyone on anything other than Orange?’

People were taking out their phones, holding them up, waving them around, tapping them against the side of the basket.

‘Keep trying, please. We have to get in range sometime.’

Nigel, still staring at the variometer, was breathing heavily, as though he’d just run a race. ‘OK,’ he said, ‘one of the last things Sean told us was that we were fifteen minutes from landing, so we must be close.’ He glanced over the side. ‘What I need you to do, ladies and gents, is be my lookouts. Look for the ground crew, for a suitable landing site, somewhere big and flat. Most importantly, look for obstacles. We don’t want to go flying into a big tree or a mountain.’

‘I can’t actually see a radio at the moment,’ Walter muttered. ‘Anyone know what it should look like?’

Jessica glanced up from her phone. ‘The old house will be our best landmark. The old Harcourt Estate. There’s nothing else in view. We just need to work out how far we’ve travelled.’ She checked her watch. ‘Twelve minutes since we passed over the house. I’d say we’ve gone about two miles.’

Nigel had one hand on a red-painted metal valve. ‘If I’m right, this will release the gas and send us up.’ When no one objected, he turned the valve. A burst of flame shot into the air.

‘No! Don’t take us up. We need to go down.’

‘I need to figure out how it works.’ Nigel fired the burner again.

‘Stop it! Take us down.’

‘Am I going blind?’ Walter was on his knees and only the two sisters heard him. They looked at each other.

‘Hush, love, he knows what he’s doing,’ said Natalie’s husband.

‘No, he doesn’t. He hasn’t a clue. None of us have.’

There is no radio in this balloon. Jessica mouthed the words, making no sound, but feeling them echo around her head all the same. Above her, the bird with its rotting black feathers opened its beak and screeched down at them.

The balloon responded to the hot air and began rising.

‘There is no radio in this balloon.’ Walt repeated her words quietly, glancing up at the two sisters.

‘There must be,’ Jessica said. ‘We all heard Sean using it.’

‘I’ve got a signal.’ The teenage boy was holding his phone up high, twisting it around in the air, as though trying to capture the elusive signal. ‘It’s faint though. Only one bar.’

‘Call 999,’ Jessica snapped at him. ‘Tell them what’s happening. They’ll know what to do. Give it to me if you have any problems. Walter, what’s that over there? Behind that canvas?’

Nigel spoke to the journalist. ‘Martyn, the fire extinguisher’s next to you. When we land, one of the biggest dangers is going to be fire, so I want you to figure out how to use it. Don’t set it off too soon.’

‘Right you are,’ replied the journalist.

‘Oh my God, we’re not going to burn, are we? I can’t burn.’

‘Someone please shut her up.’

Natalie’s husband had one hand wrapped tight around the uprights. ‘She’s scared, OK? We all are.’

‘Yeah, well some of us are trying to be constructive.’

‘I’ve lost the signal again,’ the teenage boy said. ‘Sorry, guys.’

‘Keep trying.’ Jessica was intent on her own phone. ‘Everyone keep trying. We have to get a signal sometime.’

‘We’re too high.’ The mother and the teenage girl were locked together. ‘Don’t send us any higher.’

‘OK, I won’t.’ Nigel gave them a nervous smile. ‘I think I’ve figured out how the vent works – we pull on this coloured line here – so I’m going to let us drift lower now. I’ll only use the burner if I think we’re descending too quickly.’

He wrapped his hand around a coloured cord, hesitated for a second, and then pulled. There was an audible intake of breath and then everyone looked up to see that the central circle of the balloon had collapsed down, revealing a ring of daylight in the top. As Nigel released the cord it vanished. Jessica started to count to ten in her head. At eight, the balloon began to sink.

In the pilot’s space, Nigel gave a little grunt of satisfaction. ‘Everyone, I want you to keep looking round. Don’t look at me. Don’t look at the balloon. We need to spot that ground crew. If you have phones, I want you using them. Nathan, is it? Any luck yet?’

‘Not yet.’ The teenager looked up briefly. ‘It keeps cutting out. I’m going to try a text.’

‘How we doing with the radio, Walt? I could really use some advice from the ground.’

‘Dad?’ said the teenage girl.

‘Keep trying, Nathan. Did anyone get photographs of that bastard back at the house?’

‘Dad?’ said the girl, a bit louder this time.

‘I did.’ Martyn held his phone aloft.

‘Good. Post them on Twitter, Instagram or something. People need to know what happened.’

‘What are you doing?’ Jessica heard her sister’s voice in her ear.

‘Sending Neil the password for my laptop,’ she replied. ‘Lot of important stuff on it.’ She looked up and forced a smile at her sister’s worried face. ‘Just being cautious, you know me.’

‘Nige, I really don’t think there’s a radio in this basket.’

‘Dad! Everyone!’

This time they gave the girl their attention. She was pointing back the way they’d travelled.

‘That guy with the gun is following us!’

5

THE BALLOON WAS already some distance away. Getting a quick fix from the sun and checking the wind by breathing in deeply and processing the various scents, Patrick set off easterly along the treeless, wind-scorched, tundra-like landscape. Few people knew these four hundred square miles of nothing better than he did, and if the wind held he had a pretty good idea where they were going to come down.

The heather, just starting to glow purple in the early sun, grew thickly on the downward slope but his large bike wheels travelled over it easily. The hidden stones, hard and sharp as knives, were more of a problem. He was leaving tracks but the grey clouds on the horizon would be here in less than an hour. The bright day was turning dark. Rain would piss right down and his tracks, if not obliterated, would be indistinguishable from those made by farmers and park rangers.

He lost sight of the balloon as he steered down through a patch of scrubland but found it again when he came out the other side. It was much lower in the sky now. He began counting again, starting with the woman in the green jacket. Six, nine, ten, eleven. Twelve, he thought. Yes, he was sure, definitely twelve.

His attention in the sky, he steered too close to an outcrop of rocks. His front left wheel struck a stone, sending him lurching forwards and he had to stop, reverse and find his way around the rock pile. The ground here was rough, the steep hills of the Cheviots giving way to bogs and hidden rocks, and he couldn’t get the bike up to its top speed. On the other hand, the wind wasn’t strong and he was gaining on them.

He figured another ten minutes, fifteen at most. He shifted on the seat. One day. Two hunts. He’d had worse mornings.

6

NO, NO, NO, guys, you can’t all look back. I need you looking where we’re going. And keep still. Stop jumping around.’

Ignoring Nigel, the passengers pressed towards what had become the rear of the basket, facing the way they’d travelled. On the ground, far below them, a male figure riding a quad bike appeared to be following their course.

‘I’m taking us up.’ Nigel burned as he spoke. ‘Until we know for sure.’

‘He can’t catch us, can he?’ asked the teenage boy.

Another blast of flame. The balloon began to rise. Nigel said, ‘Has anyone made contact with the ground yet? Any phone signals? Walt, any luck with that radio?’

‘I’ve posted a tweet,’ said the teenage boy. ‘I’m not sure anyone’s spotted it yet. I’ve only got forty-three followers.’

His father said, ‘My emergency call was answered but I lost the connection.’

Jessica checked her phone again. Still no signal. The photographs she’d taken of the man on the ground and the dead pilot were safely stored, though. The message to Neil would go through as soon as she had a signal.

‘He can’t follow us for long,’ said Nigel. ‘There’ll be rivers in his way. Walls, all sorts of things. Guys, I need you to look forward not back. I can’t do it all myself. Walt, talk to me.’

‘There are woods ahead,’ Jessica heard her sister call out. ‘We need to avoid those. And some electricity pylons to the south.’

‘He’s gone. I can’t see him any more.’

Jessica turned to see the bike and its rider had indeed disappeared.

‘He’s in a small valley,’ said the journalist. ‘Going up and down steep slopes will slow him down. Keep trying the phones, everyone.’

Walter was back on his feet, his face drawn and pale. ‘Nige, there’s no radio in this basket.’

‘There has to be. We heard Sean using it.’

‘I’ve looked everywhere. I’ve looked in every pocket, every bag, everywhere. It isn’t here.’

‘I know where it is.’

Jessica turned to see tears gleaming in her sister’s eyes. ‘Sean was wearing the radio around his neck, on a strap,’ Isabel said. ‘When he wasn’t using it, he must have tucked it into a pocket.’

‘What are you saying?’ one of the men asked.

‘You wouldn’t have seen it. Wouldn’t have known. It wasn’t your fault.’

Every other passenger was staring at her calm-faced sister in dismay. ‘We threw it overboard? We threw it overboard when we threw Sean?’

‘I told you,’ wailed Natalie. ‘I told you not to do it.’

‘No, you fucking didn’t,’ yelled Walter. ‘You told us not to put him in with you.’

‘There’s no need for language like that,’ snapped her husband.

‘Jesus, are you a moron? Look at us. Can you suggest when bad language might be appropriate?’

Frightened eyes glared across the basket. ‘You should have some respect.’

‘Enough! Quiet.’

They obeyed Nigel, thank God. He was in charge now.

‘We have no means of contacting the ground?’ Nigel asked.

‘We’ve got phones,’ said Bob. ‘Sooner or later, we’ll get a signal. We’ll have to stay up a bit longer, that’s all.’

‘I’ve sent another tweet,’ said the teenager. ‘And my first one’s been retweeted. And I might have got a text through to Gran.’

Thank God for the young, Jessica thought. ‘What’s happening with the guy on the quad bike?’ she said. ‘Have we lost him?’

‘No. He’s fallen back but he’s still following us,’ the journalist said. ‘We should definitely stay up.’

‘OK, staying up seems sensible right now.’ Nigel was looking from one gas cylinder to the next. ‘Trouble is, this tank’s getting low,’ he said. ‘We need to figure out how to switch them over.’

‘I’ll have a look,’ Walt said.

Nigel burned. The balloon rose again. As a wail of protest began he said, ‘We have to be quite high before I risk disconnecting the tank. And, guys, keep looking round. Can anyone see a road? A vehicle? Keep trying your phones.’

Nigel burned again. The variometer said 4,000 feet … 4,200 … 4,500 … The balloon speed picked up. It was noticeably colder now.

‘I think I know how to do it, but I’d like someone else to check,’ said Walt.

‘We’re leaving him behind.’

‘Well, that’s something.’

Suddenly, the world darkened. A shadow had fallen over them. Above, the balloon swung sharply round and its perfect shape began to billow and twist.

‘This can’t be good,’ said Martyn, looking up.

‘We’ve hit a squall,’ said Nigel. ‘We probably should go down now, see if we can get out of it. Walt, let me have a look at that.’ He moved to Walter’s side of the balloon. ‘You give the vent a quick pull.’

The two men swapped places.

‘This?’ Walt said, taking hold of a thin, coloured line.

Nigel didn’t look round. ‘I’ve got it. We need to unscrew this valve and swap the pipe over. Yeah, mate. Coloured cord. Give it a gentle tug.’

Walter pulled on the line and the world fell away.

Jessica felt a second of weightlessness akin to being in a rapidly descending lift. Her stomach lurched and she realized the basket was falling.

‘What’s happening?’

‘Jesus, what’s going on?’

The basket continued to fall. They were picking up speed. She was on her knees, hurtling towards the earth, her hair flying up around her head. A great weight was pushing her down, squeezing the bones of her skull.

Up. Up. Get up!

She reached out, clutching for something, anything, to give her a purchase on the world and her hands found the basket side. As though she was pulling herself out of water, she dragged herself upright.

The basket was tilting as it fell, the heavier passengers taking their side down faster. Over the rim she could see the grey, green, brown patterns of the earth spinning up towards her.

Everyone in the basket was screaming. Maybe she was too.

‘Let it go! Walt, let it go!’ Nigel had one arm wrapped around the support wires, his feet braced against something on the basket floor. ‘Let it go!’

Somehow Jessica’s eyes fixed on the variometer: 4,000 feet … 3,500 … The distance to the ground was melting away.

Walter was slumped in the bottom of the basket, his hands empty. ‘I have.’

‘What the hell did you pull?’ Nigel screamed at him.

Walter, his face ashen, pointed to the thin red line.

…3,000 feet … 2,500 …

Panic rippled across Nigel’s face as though an invisible hand had struck him. ‘That’s not it. That’s not the one I’ve been pulling.’

Above their heads, the balloon had lost all shape, had collapsed in on itself, was almost close enough to touch.

… 2,000 … 1,800 … 1,500 …

‘No, no, no.’ Natalie, out of sight on the other side of the basket, was wailing.

‘Use the burner!’ Jessica heard the words in her head, wasn’t sure whether they were audible above the rushing wind and the screams. ‘I can’t reach it. Nigel, use the burner.’

Keeping one hand on the burner frame, Nigel reached out and released the flame. It shot up high. Ten seconds. She wasn’t sure they had ten seconds. The ground was flying up to meet them now, was getting ready to swallow them whole. Nigel burned again but the giant flame, so hot and so bright, was making no difference. The balloon was limp and dead, kept above them only by the speed of descent.

… 900 … 550 …

She was staring at the red line that had deflated the balloon. A short distance away was the candy-striped one that Nigel had been pulling. ‘There are two lines,’ she shouted up at him. ‘Pull the other one.’

… 300 … 250 …

‘We could make things worse.’

‘How can they get worse?’ Jessica leaned over, thought for a split second that she was going to leave the basket, took hold of the candy-striped cord and tugged.

Their descent continued. Silence fell, as though people around her were too terrified to scream. She looked up.

The balloon billowed and swayed, then burst into its former shape. The basket bounced once and then seemed to hang in the air, as though giant hands had caught it. The sensation of falling had stopped.

… 200 feet … 180 feet … 150 feet … They were still going down but more slowly now. Nigel burned again … 140 feet … 120 …

She started counting. Seven, eight, nine, ten….

70 feet … 50 feet … 55 feet … 60 feet. They’d stabilized. Someone threw up, noisily.

‘Thank God.’ Beads of sweat had broken out on Nigel’s face. ‘Nobody touch the red line again.’ He was breathing heavily as he turned to Walter. ‘Keep burning. I’m going to switch tanks.’

They seemed tantalizingly close to the ground now. They could make out detail in the trees again. In the distance, a cluster of buildings was visible, and the gunmetal gleam of a road.

‘Can anyone see that bloke?’ Bob had climbed up on to the basket rim again. ‘We must be in range at this height.’

‘We have to go up,’ Isabel yelled. ‘We’re going to hit the pylon. Now!’

All heads turned. They were dangerously close to a string of electric wires, crossing the park at height.

Walter fired the burner. Then a second time. The pylon was getting closer with every second. Still too many seconds before they started to rise. The balloon began to lift, slowly, sluggishly.

‘Hold on,’ yelled Martyn. ‘Hold on to something.’

They flew past the tip of the pylon, close enough so that Jessica could have leaned out to touch it. The occupants of the balloon breathed a collective sigh of relief, just as the bottom of the basket crashed into the wires.

The bang seemed deafening. Sparks littered the air around them. The basket bounced and tipped, tossing out Natalie and her husband as though they’d been emptied from a refuse bin. They sailed through the air, still clinging together, leaving a smell of burning in their wake. There was a sound like a siren going off as the teenage girl began to scream.

The basket hit the wires again. Bob, still perilously high on the rim, overbalanced, clutched at the air around him, then he too toppled. Fewer than ten feet below the basket, he landed on the wires. He was close enough to the pylon for the power to leap across, run through him and complete the circuit. His body started to shake and jitter and smoke crept out of his clothes like escaping snakes. Screams leapt from his mouth like the bolts of electricity that were causing them.

Below him, Natalie and her husband had hit the ground.

‘Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.’ The mother’s fingers were white on her children’s shoulders.

‘Fasten your harnesses.’ The accountant leaned over to reach his family. ‘All of you, clip yourselves on.’

Nigel tried to burn but the flame was too small to make any real difference. ‘Guys, we’re coming down. I’ve got no more control. Fasten yourselves on.’

‘We’re going to hit those trees.’

‘Bella, I’m clipping you on. Shit, stop moving.’