The burning soul, p.1
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       The Burning Soul, p.1
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           John Connolly
The Burning Soul


  About the Author

  John Connolly was born in Dublin in 1968. His debut – Every Dead Thing – swiftly launched him right into the front rank of thriller writers, and all his subsequent novels have been Sunday Times bestsellers. He is the first non-American writer to win the US Shamus award. To find out more about his novels, visit John’s website at www.johnconnollybooks.com

  THE BURNING SOUL

  John Connolly

  www.hodder.co.uk

  First published in Great Britain in 2011 by Hodder & Stoughton

  An Hachette UK company

  Copyright © John Connolly 2011

  The right of John Connolly to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright,

  Designs and Patents Act 1988.

  All rights reserved.

  No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

  All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.

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

  ISBN 978 1 848 94217 2

  Hodder & Stoughton Ltd

  338 Euston Road

  London NW1 3BH

  www.hodder.co.uk

  For Joe Long, secret agent

  Excerpts from ‘The Dead Girls Speak in Unison’ by Danielle Pafunda have been used with the kind permission of the author.

  I

  Put the case, Pip, that here was one pretty little child out of the heap, who could be saved; . . . the legal adviser had this power: ‘I know what you did, and how you did it . . . Part with the child . . . Give the child into my hands.’

  from Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

  1

  Gray sea, gray sky, but fire in the woods and the trees aflame. No heat, no smoke, but still the forests burned, crowning with red and yellow and orange; a cold conflagration with the coming of fall, and the leaves resignedly descending. There was mortality in the air, borne on the first hint of winter breezes, the threatening chill of them, and the animals prepared for the coming snows. The foraging had begun, the filling of bellies for leaner times. Hunger would make the more vulnerable creatures take risks in order to feed, and the predators would be waiting. Black spiders squatted at the corners of their webs, not yet slumbering. There were still stray insects to be had, and further trophies to be added to their collections of withered husks. Winter coats grew thick and fur began to lighten, the better to blend in against the snow. Contrails of geese arrowed the skies like refugees fleeing a coming conflict, abandoning those forced to stay and face what was to come.

  The ravens were motionless. Many of their far-northern brethren had headed south to escape the worst of the winter, but not these birds. They were huge yet sleek, their eyes bright with an alien intelligence. Some on this remote road had noticed them already, and if they had company on their walks, or in their automobiles, they commented on the presence of the birds. Yes, it was agreed, they were larger than the usual ravens, and perhaps, too, they brought with them a sense of discomfort, these hunched beings, these patient, treacherous scouts. They were perched deep among the branches of an ancient oak, an organism approaching the end of its days, its leaves falling earlier each year, so that by the end of every September it was already bare, a charred thing amid the flames, as though the all-consuming fire had already had its way with it, leaving behind only the smoke smudges of long-abandoned nests. The tree stood at the edge of a small copse that jutted slightly at this place to follow the curvature of the road, with the oak as its farthest point. Once there were others like it, but the men who built the road had cut them down many years before. It was now alone of its kind, and soon it too would be gone.

  But the ravens had come to it, for the ravens liked dying things.

  The smaller birds fled their company, and regarded the intruders warily from the cover of evergreen foliage. They had silenced the woods behind them. They radiated threat: the stillness of them, their claws curled upon the branches, the bladelike sharpness of their beaks. They were stalkers, watchers, waiting for the hunt to begin. The ravens were so statuesque, so immobile, that they might have been mistaken for misshapen outcroppings of the tree itself, tumorous growths upon its bark. It was unusual to see so many together, for ravens are not social birds; a pair, yes, but not six, not like this, not without food in sight.

  Walk on, walk on. Leave them behind, but not before casting one last anxious glance at them, for to see them was to be reminded of what it is to be pursued, to be tracked from above while the hunters follow remorselessly. That is what ravens do: They lead the wolves to their prey, and take a portion of the spoils as payment for their labors. You want them to move. You want them to leave. Even the common raven was capable of disturbance, but these were not common ravens. No, these were most uncommon birds. Darkness was approaching, and still they waited. They might almost have been slumbering were it not for the way the fading light caught the blackness of their eyes, and how they captured the early moon when the clouds broke, imprisoning its image within themselves.

  A short-tailed weasel emerged from the rotted stump that was her home, and tested the air. Its brown fur was already altering, the darkness growing out of it, the mammal becoming a ghost of itself. She had been aware of the birds for some time, but she was hungry and anxious to feed. Her litter had dispersed, and she would not breed again until the new year. Her nest was lined with mouse fur for insulation, but the little pantry in which she had stored her surplus of slain rodents was now empty. The weasel had to eat forty percent of her own body weight each day in order to survive. That was about four mice a day, but the animals had been scarce on her regular routes.

  The ravens seemed to ignore her appearance, but the weasel was too shrewd to risk her life on the absence of movement. She turned herself so that she was facing into her nest, and used her black-tipped tail as bait to see if the birds were tempted to strike. If they did, they would miss her body in aiming for her tail and she would retreat to the safety of the stump, but the ravens did not react. The weasel’s nose twitched. Suddenly there was sound, and light. Headlights bathed the ravens, and now their heads moved, following the beams. The weasel, torn between fright and hunger, allowed her belly to choose. She disappeared into the woods while the ravens were distracted, and was soon lost from sight.

  The car wound its way along the road, traveling faster than was wise and taking the bends more widely than it should, for it was hard to see vehicles approaching from the opposite direction, and a traveler unfamiliar with this route might easily have found himself in a head-on collision, or tearing a path through the bushes that lined the road. He might, were this the kind of road that travelers took, but few visitors came here. The town absorbed their impact, the apparent dullness of it dissuading further investigation, then spat them back the way they came, over the bridge and toward Route 1, there to continue north to the border, or south to the highway and on to Augusta and Portland, the big cities, the places that the peninsula’s residents strove so hard to avoid. So no tourists, but strangers sometimes paused here on their life’s journey, and after a time, if they proved suitable, the peninsula would find a place for them, and they would become part of a community with its back to the land and its face set hard against the sea.

  There were many such communities in this state; they attracted those who wished to escape, those who sought the protection of the frontier, for
this was still an edge state with boundaries of wood and sea. Some chose the anonymity of the forests, where the wind in the trees made a sound like the breaking of waves upon the shore, an echo of the ocean’s song to the east. But here, in this place, there were forest and sea; there were rocks ringing the inlet, and a narrow causeway that paralleled the bridge linking the mainland and those who had chosen to set themselves apart from it; there was a town with a single main street, and enough money to fund a small police department. The peninsula was large, with a scattered population beyond the cluster of buildings around Main Street. Also, for administrative and geographic reasons long forgotten, the township of Pastor’s Bay stretched across the causeway and west to the mainland. For years the county sheriff policed Pastor’s Bay until the town looked at its budget and decided that not only could it afford its own force, it might actually save money in the process, and so the Pastor’s Bay Police Department was born.

  But when locals spoke of Pastor’s Bay it was the peninsula to which they were referring, and the police were their police. Outsiders often referred to it as ‘the island,’ even though it was not an island because of the natural connector to the mainland, although it was the bridge that received the most traffic. It was wide enough to take a decent two-lane road, and high enough to avoid any risk of the community being entirely cut off in foul weather, although there were times when the waves rose and washed over the road, and a stone cross on the mainland side attested to the former presence on this earth of one Maylock Wheeler, who was washed away in 1997 while walking his dog, Kaya. The dog survived, and was adopted by a couple on the mainland, for Maylock Wheeler had been a bachelor of the most pronounced sort. But the dog kept trying to return to the island, as those who are born of such places often will, and eventually the couple gave up trying to hold on to it, and it was taken in by Grover Corneau, who was the chief of police at the time. It remained with Grover until his retirement, and a week separated the deaths of the dog and its owner. A photograph of them together remained on the wall of the Pastor’s Bay Police Department. It made Kurt Allan, Grover’s replacement, wonder if he also should acquire a dog, but Allan lived alone, and was not used to animals.

  It was Allan’s car that now passed beneath the old oak and pulled up before the house across the road. He looked to the west and shielded his eyes against the last of the setting sun, bisected by the horizon. There were more cars coming. He had told the others to follow. The woman would need them. Detectives from the Maine State Police were also on their way following the confirmation of the AMBER Alert, and the National Crime Information Center had automatically been notified of a missing child. A decision would be made within the coming hours on whether to seek further assistance from the FBI.

  The house was a ranch-style dwelling, neatly kept and freshly painted. The fallen leaves had been raked and added to a compost pile at the sheltered side of the building. For a woman without a man to help her, a woman not of this place, she had managed well, he thought.

  And the ravens watched as Allan knocked on the door, and the door opened, and words were spoken, and he stepped inside, and there was no sound or movement from within for a time. Two more cars arrived. From the first vehicle stepped an elderly man with a worn leather physician’s bag. The other was driven by a woman of late middle age wearing a blue overcoat that caught in the car door as she rushed to the house. It tore, but she did not stop to examine the damage after wrenching it free. There were more important matters to which to attend.

  The two people came together and were halfway across the yard when the front door opened wide and a woman ran toward them. She was in her late thirties, carrying a little weight on her waist and her thighs, her hair flying loose behind her. The new arrivals stopped at the sight of her, and the middle-aged woman raised her arms as though expecting the other to fall into her embrace, but instead the younger woman pushed her way past them, jostling the doctor, one of her shoes falling from her foot, and the white stones on the drive tore at her skin so that she left smears of blood across them. She stumbled and landed heavily, and when she rose again her jeans were ripped, and her knees were scratched, and one of her fingernails was broken. Kurt Allan appeared in the doorway, but the woman was already on the road and her hands were at her mouth and she screamed a name over and over and over . . .

  ‘Anna! Anna! Anna!’

  She was crying now, and she wanted to run, but the road curved to the right and to the left, and she did not know which way to turn. The middle-aged woman came to her and wrapped her in her arms at last, even as her charge fought against her, and the doctor and Allan were approaching as she screamed the name again. Birds took flight from the surrounding trees, and unseen creatures burst from brush and scrub as though to carry the message.

  The girl is gone, the girl is gone.

  Only the ravens remained. The sun was at last swallowed by the horizon, and true darkness began to fall. The ravens became part of it, absorbed by it and absorbing it in turn, for their blackness was deeper than any night.

  Eventually the weasel returned. The fat corpse of a field mouse hung limply in her jaws, and she could taste its blood in her mouth. It was all that she could do not to tear it apart as soon as she had killed it, but her instincts told her to control her urges. Her self-restraint was rewarded, though, for a smaller mouse had crossed her path as she returned to her home, and she fed on that instead before hiding its remains. Perhaps she would retrieve them later, once her larger prize was safely stored away.

  She did not hear the raven’s approach. Her first awareness of it came with the impact of its talons upon her back, tearing through her coat and into her flesh. It pinned her to the ground, then slowly began to peck at her, its long beak carving neat holes in her body. The raven did not feed upon her. It simply tortured her to death, taking its time over her agonies. When it had reduced her to a mess of blood and fur, it left the corpse for the scavengers and rejoined its companions. They were waiting for the hunt to begin, and they were curious about the hunter who was to come.

  No, the one who had sent them was curious about him, and they watched on his behalf.

  For he was the greatest predator of them all.

  2

  There are some truths so terrible that they should not be spoken aloud, so appalling that even to acknowledge them is to risk sacrificing a crucial part of one’s humanity, to exist in a colder, crueler world than before. The paradox is that, if this realm is not to be turned into a charnel house, there are those who must accept these truths while always holding fast in their hearts, in their souls, to the possibility that once, just once, the world might give them the lie, that, on this occasion, God will not have blinked.

  Here is one of those truths: after three hours, the abduction of a child is routinely treated as a homicide.

  The first problem encountered by those investigating Anna Kore’s disappearance arose out of the delay in activating the AMBER Alert. She had disappeared from a small but busy strip mall on the mainland where she had gone with a school friend, Helen Dubuque, and Helen’s mother to do some Saturday shopping, and particularly to pick up a copy of The Great Gatsby for school. She left the Dubuques to go to the new-and-used bookstore while they went into Sears to buy school shoes for Helen. They were not excessively worried when twenty minutes went by and Anna still had not joined them; she was a bookstore child, and they felt sure that she had simply curled up in a corner with a novel and started reading, losing herself entirely in the narrative.

  But she was not in the bookstore. The clerk remembered Anna and said that she had not stayed long, barely browsing the shelves before collecting her book and leaving. Helen and her mother returned to their car, but Anna was not there. They tried her cell phone, but it went straight to voice mail. They searched the mall, which did not take long, then called Anna’s home, just in case she had caught a ride back with someone else and neglected to inform them, although this would have been out of character for her. Valerie Kor
e, Anna’s mother, was not at home. Later, it would emerge that she was having her hair done by Louise Doucet, who ran a hairdressing business from the back of her home off Main Street. Valerie’s phone rang while she was having her hair washed, and she could not hear it above the sound of the water.

  Finally, Mrs. Dubuque called, not 911, but the Pastor’s Bay Police Department itself. This was force of habit and nothing more, a consequence of living in a small town with its own police force, but it created a further delay while Chief Allan debated whether or not to alert the sheriff’s department and the state police, who would in turn inform their Criminal Investigation Division. By the time the AMBER Alert was issued, more than an hour and a quarter had gone by, or more than a third of the three-hour period regarded as crucial in any potential abduction of a minor, after which the child would be presumed dead for the purposes of the investigation.

  But once the alarm was raised the authorities reacted quickly. The state had set procedures for such disappearances, and they were immediately activated, coordinated by IMAT, the joint organizational incident-management team. Police patrols converged on the area and began riding the routes. An evidence response team was sent to Pastor’s Bay, and plans were made to forensically examine Anna Kore’s computer, and to seek a signed waiver from her mother granting them access to Anna’s cell phone records without subpoena. Her service provider was alerted, and efforts were made to triangulate the location of Anna’s phone, but whoever had taken her had not only turned off her phone but also removed its battery, making it impossible to trace it by ‘pinging’ the towers.

  The victim’s details were passed to the National Crime Information Center, whereupon Anna Kore officially became a ‘missing or endangered person.’ This in turn triggered an automatic notification to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and to the FBI. Team Adam, the NCMEC’s specialized missing children’s squad, was prepped, and CART, the FBI’s regional Child Abduction Response Team in Boston, was put on alert pending a formal request for assistance from the Maine State Police. The game wardens began preparations for a full search of the natural areas surrounding the scene of the presumed abduction.

 
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