Dark Tides by Chris Ewan is a standalone thriller, set in the landscape of the Isle of Man, following Claire Cooper through a series of dark and eerie happenings centererd around the Manx Halloween tradition of Hop-tu-naa (Available December 8, 2015).
When Claire Cooper was eight years old her mother mysteriously vanished during Hop-tu-naa, Halloween on the Isle of Man. At fourteen, Claire is still struggling to come to terms with her disappearance when she's befriended by a group of five teenagers who mark every Halloween by performing dares. But Claire's arrival begins to alter the group's dynamic until one year a prank goes terribly wrong, changing all their futures and tearing the friends apart.
Six years later, one of the friends is killed on Halloween in an apparent accident. But Claire, now a police officer, has her doubts. Is a single footprint found near the body a deliberate taunt? As another Halloween dawns, bringing with it another death and another footprint, Claire becomes convinced that somebody is seeking vengeance. But who? And which of the friends might be next? If she is going to stop a killer and unlock the dark secrets of her past, Claire must confront her deepest fears, before it's too late.
PART ONE: DARES
31 OCTOBER 2001
Sometimes I think about how it all started for me and I’m struck by an odd paradox: that the kindest of intentions can lead to the cruellest of outcomes. Call it fate, if you like. Call it destiny. But I prefer to think of it as plain bad luck. I know there are people who believe in reincarnation, karma, all of that stuff. Some people say that the misfortunes we face in this life are payback for our past sins. All I can tell you is if that’s true, then I must have been a seriously bad soul to know the last time around, and be sure to stay out of my way if I come back again. While you’re at it, you’d also be wise to keep clear of Rachel Cormode, because when we were both fourteen years old, it was her kindness that doomed me to the worst outcome of all.
Rachel was everything I wasn’t. She was provocative, not plain. Blonde, not mousy. She dated older boys, smuggled vodka and cigarettes into school, applied make-up while I was scribbling notes in class. If my life were one of the black-and-white movies that I loved to watch on rainy weekend afternoons, then Rachel would be the Veronica Lake to my Doris Dowling. Never heard of Doris Dowling? Well, exactly.
Case in point: back in that autumn term of 2001, legend had it that Rachel had taken the hand of Mr Lyle, the young student drama teacher, and had made him touch her between her legs after the school’s summer performance of Grease. Naturally she’d played Rizzo. Nobody had seen it happen, nobody could confirm it for sure, but when school started again in September, word went round that Mr Lyle had left the island. There was talk that he was no longer training to be a teacher. Mandy Fisher, whose father was a parent-governor, swore that the police had been involved.
For a while, it was all anyone would talk about, and that seemed perfectly normal to me. Whatever she did, wherever she went, Rachel was the girl everyone was aware of.
And one Wednesday at the very end of October, for reasons I still don’t fully understand, she sauntered over to me in the library at break, swung her denim bag down on to the table I was working at, and said, ‘Hey, Claire.’
I blinked at her. I’m pretty sure my mouth opened and closed a few times. I didn’t say ‘hey’ back. I didn’t say anything at all.
I remember thinking: She knows my name. Which was crazy, because of course she knew my name. We’d been at primary school together. And back before the tragedy – before my life had been for ever warped and branded – she’d played at my house a few times.
But still, I was shocked. And it wasn’t just because she’d used my name. It was the way she’d said it. As if there was nothing remarkable about it whatsoever. As if we were always hanging out together.
‘Do you have any plans for tonight?’
I like to think I shook my head. I like to think I didn’t just sit there like a complete dope, gawping back at her.
‘Not tonight,’ I mumbled. Not any night, I might have said.
‘A few of us are going out. My cousin and some of his friends.’
Was this a set-up? Were a group of girls huddled behind a nearby bookshelf, smothering giggles?
This time my name had become a question. Strange. It often felt that way to me – as if I was some kind of transient being who faded in and out of existence. I’d long known that I was capable of vanishing in any social situation, at any given moment. Perhaps, somehow, Rachel knew that, too.
‘Are you in?’
I should have said no. I should have told her that I was going to study, write an essay, read a book – any of the responses she might have expected from me. But I was lonely, an outcast in some ways, and as difficult as Hop-tu-naa always was for me, I wasn’t a complete martyr. This was an opening. Maybe even the chance I’d been waiting for.
So I told her yes.
But of course, I didn’t have the vaguest inkling of what I was letting myself in for. I had no idea how that one small decision would alter the course of the rest of my life. I couldn’t know, back then, just how desperately I’d come to regret it.
We took the bus together to Ballaugh. It was a long and anxious journey for me. Rachel was a whirl of teen perfume, glittery make-up and cigarette fumes. I’d showered before coming out and I smelled of soap and Dad’s anti-dandruff shampoo. I felt scrubbed down, washed clean. Ready to be rewritten.
The first thing Rachel did when we were sitting at the back of the bus was to pass me a lipstick. The label on the side read Nude Pink.
‘This will look amazing on you.’
I stared at the glitzy tube for a long moment, then turned towards the blackened window glass and smeared it on as if I knew what I was doing. I could tell right away that I’d used too much.
‘Better,’ Rachel said, when I turned back to show her.
I blushed, lowering my eyes, and Rachel started fussing with my hair.
‘You should really think about highlights. Listen, you don’t have a boyfriend, do you, Claire?’
I didn’t say anything to that. It was a perilous question. There were any number of possible wrong answers. None I could think of that were right.
‘Good. There’ll be three boys tonight.’ A pause. ‘Plus my cousin David will be there, too.’
I might have been socially backward, might have spent an unhealthy amount of time by myself, but the message was clear enough. Pick one, she was saying. But not David. He’s off-limits.
‘What about you?’
‘What about me?’
‘Is there one you like?’
‘Oh.’ She waved a hand, bangles jangling from her wrist. ‘Maybe. I haven’t really thought about it.’
The bus rumbled on, stopping every now and again to let people board or get off. There weren’t many passengers. A maximum of eight at any one time. It was a big double-decker. The top deck was empty. My instinct would have been to sit upstairs on my own but that wasn’t an option for Rachel. There’d be no one to admire her up there.
Before coming out, I’d panicked that we’d have nothing to say to each other, but I needn’t have worried because she spent most of the trip talking to me in a rush about school, about our teachers and the affairs they were supposedly having, about the ones she’d caught staring at her in the wrong way, and the ones she claimed liked her a little too much. I listened to her words and the odd kind of music they were making – a fast, giddy crescendo of scandal and gossip – and I knew that barely a word of it was true, and cared less and less.
We were pulling away from Ballacraine, following the route of the TT course, when she finally paused and changed the subject.
‘So … was your dad OK about you coming out tonight?’
Here it is, I thought. She expects me to hand over a piece of myself now – the most secret, most precious part – in return for her company.
Perhaps I should have been shocked by what she was really asking, but the sad truth is that I’d sort of expected it. I knew how the sheen of celebrity clung to me still. I understood its power. Sometimes I could almost feel it shimmering round me like a force field as I walked the school corridors with my textbooks clutched to my chest; the sorry glimmer of the tragic teen. And it wasn’t as if the deal hadn’t been offered to me many times before. Hell, I could have led an entire pack of goths if I’d wanted.
But I didn’t. Never had. The past was something I refused to let slip so cheaply.
I stayed quiet and looked out of the window at the blurred darkness beyond. I tried to think of nothing other than the smudged shapes outside. Tried, in particular, not to think of the way I’d sneaked away from home without Dad even noticing. He’d been staring at the television in the lounge at the time. The television hadn’t been turned on and the screen had been as black as the room all around him. He hadn’t stirred as I’d passed by. He hadn’t been aware of my presence at all. There were times when I felt like a ghost in my own home, invisible to Dad, unable to be heard. There were times when I could have believed that I’d died many years ago, doomed to haunt those around me ever since, unaware that none of them could see or interact with me.
Rachel shifted in her seat. I could tell she wanted to ask again – ask more – and I felt the hot surge of anger building inside.
But then she let go of a small breath, almost a sigh, and she rested her perfumed head on my shoulder and gave my arm a small squeeze. And in that instant of unexpected salvation, I knew that my life had changed for ever.
I can trust this girl. I might tell her anything.
The boys weren’t nearly as impressive as they thought they were. They never are. We found them parked in a rusty blue Ford Fiesta outside the village store, just along from the humpback bridge that features in so many photographs of TT bikes being catapulted into the air.
David was behind the wheel. You can take your driving test at sixteen on the Isle of Man and I guessed he must have passed just recently. I hadn’t known David could drive. But then, I didn’t know much about him full stop. He went to school in Ramsey. I’d heard he was clever – some kind of maths nerd according to Rachel. Although as far as Rachel was concerned, anyone who did their homework or raised their hand in class was a nerd. That made me one, too. Maybe it gave us something in common.
The boy sitting alongside David in the front of the Fiesta was wearing a plastic Dracula mask with blackened eye sockets and a bloody mouth. One of the lads in the back had on a werewolf mask and he raised his hands like claws as we approached. The final boy’s mask was fixed to a black felt hood and was designed to look like the face of a ghost, only drooping badly, its mouth hanging open in a permanent howl. I recognised it from the Scream movie franchise, which had been big in the past few years. I hadn’t watched the films myself. I’d been careful to avoid them.
David stepped out of the car as we approached. I couldn’t see the mask he’d chosen because it was flipped up on top of his head, the thin elastic strap cutting into his chin. He was tall and slim and fresh-faced, though his mouth was swollen by a set of dental braces that he was doing his best to disguise by blowing into his cupped hands.
I can’t pretend he made me swoon. I can’t claim that I looked at him and knew right away that he was the one; that my heart went bam; that there was some impossible-to-explain connection when he locked on to my eyes. First, he didn’t look at me that way – he could barely bring himself to look at me at all. And second, it was obvious that he had just as many insecurities as I did. But I liked him. I thought he was handsome, in a preppy, your-parents-would-approve kind of way (assuming, unlike me, that you had normal parents). And at least his hair wasn’t spiked up or gelled down with way too much gunk like most of the boys in school.
‘Hey, dork.’ Rachel waved at him. ‘What mask do you have?’
He slid the mask down.
The devil. Red face. Razor teeth. Arched eyebrows, a goatee and a pair of horns.
‘Dork,’ Rachel said again.
‘Don’t worry.’ His voice was distorted by the plastic mouthpiece. ‘We got you some, too.’
‘You mean I got them.’
‘Yeah.’ David jerked his thumb over his shoulder towards Dracula. ‘He got them.’
He blew on his hands again, then seemed to realise that his braces were already hidden by the mask. He was wearing dark jeans and a black parka with a furred hood. Lucifer, in casual street wear.
I was beginning to regret not dressing in warmer clothing. I had on a thin denim jacket over a checked blouse. It had rained earlier and the chill from the saturated tarmac was working its way through my canvas shoes.
‘So hurry up.’ Rachel hugged her arms about herself and twisted at the waist, her pink Puffa jacket swishing with her movements. ‘It’s freezing just standing here.’
The boys in the car turned their masked heads and shrugged at one another, then got out and lined up around David. The Scream guy was dressed in khaki combat trousers and a black fleece jacket over a black polo neck. He was broad-shouldered with an athletic physique. Like David, he was wearing hiking boots.
The werewolf looked even bigger and stronger than the guy in the ghost mask, but he had a slouched posture, his long, muscular arms hanging down by his sides. His grey trousers were worn and torn, the cuffs frayed and a little too short. It was only later that I’d learn how most of his clothes came from charity shops and jumble sales. For now, I liked the coat he had on. It was a faded army-surplus jacket with an embroidered GDR flag on the sleeve.
Dracula was boyish and wiry in comparison to the others. He was wearing a black nylon raincoat with some kind of motorbike motif on the front and he was holding a plastic mask in each hand, plain white interiors pointing outwards. He offered one to Rachel, then passed the other to me.
I looked down at the mask Rachel had thrust into my hands. A haggard old crone. Rachel had already put on the mask that she’d snatched away. It was a cute cartoon rabbit. White face. Long ears. Goofy teeth. Her pupils glittered mischievously behind the eye-holes.
‘Sorry.’ David shrugged at me. ‘It was all they had left in the shop.’
I gazed down at the hag’s face. She had enormous nostrils. Hairy eyebrows. A ghastly wart.
‘Put it on,’ Dracula told me, and when I did, he snorted. ‘Way better.’
The werewolf punched him. Hard. He drilled his big fist into Dracula’s upper arm with barely any wind-up and Dracula wheeled away, swearing.
‘Ignore him,’ the werewolf said. He had a gruff bass voice that complemented his mask. ‘He’s an ass.’
‘A total ass,’ I muttered, though nobody seemed to hear.
My breath wafted back against my face. I could smell the cheap plastic the mask had been formed from. Could feel the elastic strap bunching my hair. I felt completely alone all of a sudden. Felt lost and out of my depth. Why had I agreed to come here with Rachel? It already seemed like a mistake.
‘It’s getting late.’ David’s throat pulsed from behind the devil mask. ‘We should start.’
They all looked at me: a gang of storybook creatures, gathered together as if in some weird, hallucinatory trip.
‘Seriously?’ The ghost showed me his palms. ‘Why do you think we’re dressed like this?’
We followed Dracula – I still didn’t know his name, or the names of the werewolf or the ghost – through the village. Modest terraced houses fronted on to the street on either side of the main road, some with turnip or pumpkin lanterns outside, others with front windows decorated with plastic skeletons, witches’ hats and brooms. The narrow pavements were jammed with little kids in costumes, carrying bags and buckets filled with sweets and coins, accompanied by a supervising adult or two.
We passed a young mother dressed as a fairy, complete with fairy wings. A little girl about eight years old skipped alongside her in a princess get-up, waving her mother’s wand. My stomach fluttered. I felt my head go light.
Rachel bumped into me from behind.
I watched the little girl skip away, swiping the wand round and round.
‘Claire? What’s the matter?’
I swallowed hard and grabbed the sleeve of Rachel’s jacket.
‘Aren’t we a bit old for this?’
Dracula glanced over his shoulder. ‘You’re never too old for Hop-tu-naa.’
He pushed through a low iron gate and marched towards the front door of a townhouse with a miniature coffin propped up in its cramped front yard. The coffin was partially open, revealing a flickering green light and a wisp of dry ice.
Ready for what, I wanted to ask Rachel, but she was busy unzipping her jacket to reveal the cream V-neck sweater she had on. She threw back her shoulders and jutted out her breasts. She’d been one of the first girls in our year to develop. All of the boys had noticed. Some days, it seemed like they never stopped noticing things like that. I’d experienced it myself in the last year – the particular greedy appraisal they did with their eyes.
The front door opened and a tall man with a ponytail and a Metallica T-shirt emerged. He was looking down at an angle, as if he’d expected to find someone much smaller on his front step. He found a teenage Dracula and an imposing werewolf instead.
The tin of sweets in his hand dropped by a fraction. He reached for his door.
The ghost shoved Rachel forwards between Dracula and the werewolf. She elbowed them aside, then raised her chin and exposed her cleavage.
The man hesitated, gaze lingering.
And that’s when the others started to sing.
They sang like I’d never heard teenagers sing before. This wasn’t the embarrassed mumbling I’d grown used to from the school carol service. They gave it volume and power and verve. Gave it everything they had.
My mother’s gone away,
And she won’t be back until the morning …’
I started to shake. I wanted to clamp my hands over my ears. Wanted to turn and flee.
‘… Jinny the witch flew over the house,
To fetch the stick,
To lather the mouse …’
Those lyrics haunted me in my dreams. Gone two in the morning, I’d sometimes wake into the dim iridescence of the night-light I secretly kept in the corner of my room, filmed in clammy sweat, my duvet knotted in my fists. My throat would be raw and parched, my tongue fat and treacherous in my mouth, and I’d tremble with the awful suspicion that I might have been chanting.
My mother’s gone away,
And she won’t be back until the morning.’
I stumbled backwards and grabbed for the gate, tightening my hands until flakes of paint loosened against my skin.
The group had fallen silent. There was an awkward pause. Then the man in the doorway rattled his sweet tin.
‘Suppose you’d best take some of these.’
‘Actually,’ Rachel told him, voice husky, breasts high, ‘we’d rather have cash.’
Copyright © 2015 Chris Ewan.
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Chris Ewan, who lives on the Isle of Man, was voted one of America's favorite British authors in a Huffington Post poll. He is the author of the stand-alone thrillers, Dark Tides, Dead Line, and Safe House, which was named by The Telegraph as one of the top ten crime novels to take on vacation, and the Good Thief mystery series. The first in the series, The Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam, was named one of the “best books for grownups” by Publishers Weekly and AARP The Magazine, and one of the best thrillers of the year by the London Times; and both his series and stand-alone books have received starred and rave reviews.