Free taster of my psychological thriller 'The Witness'.
It was six thirty in the morning and Josie, sat on a folding stool beside a riverbank was painting. Her eyes hardly had time to focus as she glanced from landscape to paper, her brush dancing merrily as it conveyed colour and form to her work.
It never ceased to amaze her just how quickly time went once she became fully engrossed in her work, she had been sitting there for just over an hour but it seemed no time at all. She liked to paint in the early morning when the light was clear and the day was fresh and new.
Standing up she stretched out the stiffness in her shoulders then scrutinised her work carefully. Tilting her head to one side, she squinted through half closed eyes and chewed at the end of her paintbrush. It was a moment before she would admit that her work was done, and with a sigh of satisfaction, she smiled. Josie studied the iron bridge in the foreground of her picture, it was a true representation of the real thing, the bridge that spanned the river Spey. She had replicated the colours of the water perfectly. Sunlight dancing on the surface played mischievously with the multi-coloured stones until they shone like semi-precious jewels in the shallows, and where the water ran deep, delicate shades and movement made the river appear pleasingly realistic.
Josie was delighted with the results and she sighed contentedly. Her week had been a great success, not only was her sketchbook full but she had also completed three paintings. In the morning, she would be heading back to London but first she was looking forward to spending the rest of the day with Molly. Josie smiled again delighted at the prospect of shopping with her aunt. Later they would drive into Elgin, she wanted to photograph the cathedral ruins. Josie was planning a series of dramatic paintings based on the fire that had destroyed the beautiful cathedral generations ago.
Molly had left London the moment she retired, moving hundreds of miles north she went in search of a quieter life and found it in the small village of Garmouth. Situated close to the ancient city of Elgin in Morayshire, Molly loved this part of the world and wondered why she had not discovered it years earlier.
Josie had spent many summer holidays as a child in and around Elgin but she could not remember having come across the village before. She felt certain that Molly had not either. Josie often thought that her aunt had simply driven a pin at random into a map and moved to wherever it pointed. Whatever her motives, Molly had decided to uproot and move north. No once did she discuss her plans to retire to Scotland, but Josie was glad that she had. There was so much to see and she wanted to paint everything, she was also happy in the knowledge that her landscapes were very well received back in London. Josie felt certain that one day she would move from the city and settle in the village herself.
Before discovering Garmouth, she had been blissfully happy living in suburbia. Content with her city lifestyle, she loved the idea of being able to shop for groceries at any time, day or night and culturally she was spoilt, there was a variety of museums, galleries and theatres not far from where she lived. Having access to anything she wanted regardless of the time, was something that she treasured but coming to Garmouth for the first time had been a shock, everything here was done at a much slower pace. The village was set firmly in the past, the people who lived there were content to spend their time chatting over garden fences or meeting up at the post office or corner shop. There was no urgency and best of all there was no noise, it was very different from what she was used to and she just loved it.
Josie poured water from her bottle into a little pot and washed out her brushes before packing them away. Suddenly a scream shattered the silence and startled, she looked up. Scanning the riverbank she looked towards the iron bridge but could see nothing out of place, the sound must have come from a rabbit falling victim to a fox or an osprey. She stared up at the sky searching for the birds that operated along this stretch of the river. Usually they would be fishing for salmon, but would probably consider a rabbit a welcome change from their habitual diet.
Shaking her head, she smiled and cleared her mind of such thoughts. Stuffing her brushes into her bag, she reached for her paint box and mixing palette then dried them off with an old cloth.
Without warning, another scream echoed along the valley and this time there was no mistaking the sound, her skin crawled as she sensed danger.
Josie looked up, there was movement near the bridge then she spotted a man dragging a woman along the ground roughly by her hair. Her cries carried clearly on the still morning air, and Josie watched in horror as the man slammed his fist into the woman’s face knocking her down into the long grass. Standing over the spot where she had fallen he reached down and grabbed her, the sound of the woman crying as he hauled her to her feet spurred Josie into action. Moving quickly along the path she was determined to help. Perhaps she could distract him for long enough to allow the woman to escape but suddenly she felt vulnerable and very much alone. The nearest house was over a mile away and there was no one else in sight.
The man continued his assault and hearing the woman’s terrified screams Josie realised that it would be a bad idea to draw attention to herself. Frozen to the spot she was filled with guilt and indecision and all she could do was look on helplessly. The man stepped back and forced the woman to her knees then very slowly reached into his pocket and pulled out a pistol. Thrusting the weapon into the woman’s face, they stared silently at each other. Although defeated she remained defiant, it was the last thing she did. The force of the discharge threw her back into the grass like a broken toy.
Covering her mouth with her hands Josie stifled a scream and staggered backwards. Her vision blurred as her eyes filled with tears and she wanted to vomit. She could hardly believe what she had just seen, it had to be true because the sound of the blast was still rolling like thunder around the bay.
The man moved calmly pocketing his pistol and glancing around searching for witnesses. Removing his cap, he dried his forehead with his sleeve and turning very slowly towards Josie, he grinned. She froze; it was as if he had known she was there all along. The evil that surrounded him seemed to reach out towards her and she shuddered. His grin turned into a sneer as he held her gaze then slowly he began to move towards the bridge. He didn’t need to rush, his strides measured it was as if he had all the time in the world.
Josie brushed away her tears with the back of her hand, her mind was in turmoil but she knew that she had to move quickly. Glancing towards the bridge, she wondered if she could get to in time. It was the only way to cross the river and the man had made his intentions clear enough but it was no good, he had almost reached the bridge.
Retracing her steps back along the path, there was no time to collect her things; she would have to abandon her painting in an effort to save herself. Emotions run wildly inside her head but despite this, she refused to succumb to panic. Running as quickly as she dared, she missed her footing on a clump of grass and fell heavily. Crying out in frustration and gasping for breath, she glancing back over her shoulder, he was closing in fast. Picking herself up she pushed on and managed to increase the distance between them and reaching the point where the path split she hesitated. To the right it followed the curve of the bay going towards a distant golf course. Turning her head the other way she could see the visitors centre standing beside an ancient icehouse. This had once been used to preserve salmon but it was now a museum. The place looked deserted, there were no visitors this early in the day and the staff who worked there would not arrive for at least another hour.
Heading that way Josie charged breathlessly into the yard and slipped on the loose gravel. Picking herself up, she pressed her back up against the wall of the nearest building and in an attempt to control her racing heart took some deep breaths. Pulling her mobile phone from her pocket, she flipped it open and with trembling fingers began to press out a number, holding it to her ear she waited, nothing happened. Glancing desperately at the tiny screen it was a few seconds before she realised that there was no signal. Groaning with frustration pushed it back into her pocket. It was futile calling for the police, it would take ages for them to get to Spey Bay from Elgin.
He was very close now and she could hear him coming, so moving further around the building, she searched for a place to hide. The walls were curved, the bricks worn smooth by erosion and time, there were no recesses in which she could conceal herself and it soon became obvious that he would easily find her. There was nowhere else to run and as the man charged into the yard, he slipped on the gravel and fell heavily. The noise that he made sent a sea bird screeching overhead and Josie, looking up, heard the sound of waves breaking over the stony shore. Moving towards the pebble beach, she stumbled noisily over the loose gravel, and making her way awkwardly down the slope found the coastal path. She started to run along it as fast as she could.
Sunlight flashed lemon yellow against the grey swell of the sea and as she went she managed to pull away from him, but she did not realise until it was too late that she was running into a trap. The path ended abruptly as it dropped down to meet the mouth of the river and stopping at the top of the steep bank, she could see it curving back the way she had come. Josie glanced around desperately searching for another way to go, she could see him moving slowly towards her, he seemed to be in no hurry and was obviously aware of her error.
She considered making her way back along the path but that would not work, as soon as he saw her moving in that direction he would head her off and there would be little chance of slipping past him. Turning her back to the water, she considered running straight at him, push past and maybe even knock him down but he looked much heavier and stronger than her so dismissing that idea she had to find another way.
She realised that he was not carrying his gun, if he meant to kill her that would surely be the most effective way. She had already seen him commit murder so he must be capable of doing it again. This time there would be no witness, no one to see where her body fell. The thought sent a shiver through her, forcing these unwelcome thoughts aside, she glanced towards the opposite bank willing someone to be near, a jogger maybe or somebody out walking their dog, anyone who might be able to help.
She could feel his eyes boring into her back and turning towards him was unable to see clearly, the sun was still low in the sky and he appeared like a shadow. The sight of him lumbering down the slope made her skin crawl and she cried out as the cold hand of fear ran its fingers along her spine.
Taking a few steps backwards, she stepped into the shallows and water seeped into her boots, it was cold against her skin but she hardly felt it. Glancing desperately at the opposite bank there was no one there to help and now she had nowhere left to run. An idea began to form in her mind, perhaps she could reason with him but then realisation took hold, he was not going to let her live, she had seen too much.
He was so close now that she could hear his ragged breathing and looking up he appeared black with evil intent. There was nothing left for her to do so plunging into the water she struck out for the opposite bank, it was not too far and she was a strong swimmer. Adrenaline coursed through her body as she propelled herself into midstream but the cold grey water was merciless, it pulled her down until she began to struggle. The current was too strong, she had underestimated its strength and as it took hold, it swept her away.
Gasping for breath, the cold was shocking and as her chest tightened Josie did what she could to keep her head above the surface but to fight it was impossible. Her muscles were burning now and struggling to stay afloat was becoming painful, wave after wave poured over her head, and it became a relentless battle that was proving impossible to win. She was amazed at how quickly she had been defeated.
The man watching from the safety of the bank was keeping pace with the flow of the river. He was hardly surprised by her plunging into the water in fact he expected it, she had nowhere else to go and he didn’t think she would give up easily.
Josie could feel her strength ebbing away, her limbs going numb with the cold it was all she could do to keep her face above the surface. The weight of her waterlogged clothing dragged her down and struggling only made it worse. Waves constantly washed over her head, the water so cold it was as if a thousand tiny needles were pricking at her skin. Here the water was tinged with salt, it was almost the point where the river met the sea. Gradually the waves were becoming larger and in the grip of the swell, she could feel the pull of the tide, it was attracting her body as effectively as a magnet draws iron. Josie began to panic, the North Sea was no place to be and struggling for breath was powerless against the flow. She would have to wait for the current to ease before attempting to swim back towards the shore, she realised that she would be swept further from the beach and the thought terrified her. She had to keep calm, and most of all she must remain conscious. She needed to keep moving, try to generate some heat into her muscles that was the only way to keep them from seizing up altogether.
The man standing on the shore watched as Josie was swept further away. He made no attempt to help or to alert the Coastguard and now she had almost disappeared from view. Licking his lips, his tongue flashed reptilian like from between his teeth and his mouth became a cruel thin line across his face.
He felt a stab of regret, distracted by a jumping dolphin, he took his eyes off her for a moment and now she was gone, lost from view in the vastness of the sea. He would never see her again and as the smile faded from his face, his eyes narrowed. He began to imagine the fun he could have had with her then his thoughts turned to the woman he’d left lying in the grass. He would have to be quick, tidy up the mess before others wandered along the path.
His pulse quickened, oh what fun he’d had with this one, she was the best so far, now it was like a drug and he craved for more. The voices in his head would soon return and their demands would become even more shocking, he would know no peace until he had done their bidding, but for now he was safe, their hunger satisfied.
Josie was slipping away, unconsciousness beckoned offering her a merciful release. This was nature’s way of relieving pain and suffering, but she must resist the urge, to give up now would be the end of everything.
She managed to improvise a life jacket by trapping air under her shirt, it helped by keeping her head above the waves. This was a skill learned many years ago as a child at the local swimming pool, she had never imagined that one day she would have to employ the techniques for real.
Next, she attempted to remove her jeans but it was impossible, they were heavy and weighed her down, each time she moved she went under and choked. They would make a more effective float but it was not as easy as she remembered, practicing this in a heated swimming pool with help at hand was one thing, doing it for real was quite another. Frustrated and rapidly becoming exhausted she abandoned the idea and made do with her shirt.
The chill from the water continued to press in around her and her body, acting like a sponge, soaked up the cold until gradually her muscles began to shut down. She had very little feeling from her waist down and now her arms were beginning to feel heavy and tired. Her skin felt as if it was on fire even though she was freezing to death.
Josie was terrified; the thought of drowning filled her with dread. The current was gaining in strength and with her strength failing she would soon no longer be able to swim back to the beach.
At least now she was moderately buoyant, if she could just relax and go with the rhythm of the swell, precious air trapped beneath her shirt would not seep away so quickly. Often she had to refill it by lifting the hem above the water and scoop in more air, inflating it like a balloon. The effort of this process gave her something to focus on and moving her arms kept the blood flowing into her frozen fingers. This simple but vital act gave her hope, without it she would almost certainly drown.
The grey water was sapping her strength and she knew that she would have to do something quickly to help maintain her body temperature. The initial burning sensation of cramp from rapidly cooling muscles had now given way to a dull ache and the situation was becoming hopeless. She had tried to swim but the movement deflated her buoyancy aid and she no longer had the strength to stay afloat without it. Her eyes ached from the cold as waves slapped relentlessly against her face and it was as if a band of steel had been wound about her head, the pressure mounting by the second.
Gritting her teeth she moved her arms slowly, raising each in turn above her head but the effort was too much and she cried out in frustration, the pain was becoming too much to bear. Air escaped from beneath her shirt as she moved then she had to go through the inflating process all over again. It was a relentless battle but she had to ignore her nagging doubts, she was determined not to give up.
How long had she been in the water? The thought came from out of nowhere, it confused her and paying it no attention she focussed on more pleasant things. Going to her favourite place, she could feel the sun on her back. It was a delicious sensation, the warmth invading her mind soothed her body and she imagined herself dancing in a soft breeze. She could feel grass as soft as fur brushing gently against her bare legs and closing her eyes, the smell of freshly ground coffee invaded her thoughts, she could even hear the sound of breakfast sizzling in a pan.
How long had she been in the water? Faces appeared before her eyes, friends from long ago, colleagues from places she had worked and people with whom she socialised.
How long had she been in the water? Absurd thoughts burst into her head but were gone before she had a chance to grasp them. Was this what it was like to die, her life flashing before her eyes?
How long had she been in the water? Reluctantly she forced herself to open her eyes. She was crying with frustration, warm tears washed away by cold water, this was just another unwelcome emotion. Suddenly she was angry with herself, angry with the man who had put her in this situation but there was no time for self-pity, not now.
How long had she been in the water? There it was again that infuriating voice filling her head, always the same question over and over again. Like a tattoo drumming laboriously into her skull, she had no choice but to deal with it. With an effort she focussed on her wristwatch, she could hardly see the time the face was too small. It was then she decided to buy another watch, one with a larger face, she was always having to squint at this one. She almost laughed at the absurdity of it and concentrating on the task, recalled the last time she had checked her watch. It had been six thirty, just after she had finished her painting and now the time was six fifty five. Going over the events in her mind, she realised that everything had taken place during the last twenty five minutes. She estimated how long it had taken to run along the riverbank and evade capture by diving into the river. This must have taken fifteen minutes; that left ten. She was shocked, only ten minutes, it seemed as though she had been in the water for much longer. How long could someone survive in the North Sea at this time of the year? She started to think about seasonal water temperatures around the British Isles. She considered body mass and insulating layers of fat and for once in her life regretted being so slim, there was not an ounce of fat on her. She was in grave danger; there was insufficient insulation to protect her from the extreme cold.
If you have enjoyed reading Chapter One of my novel 'The Witness' then why not look it up on Amazon and purchase a copy.