Chapter 15

The policeman's yellow jacket glistened with rain and dripped water onto Flaky's sleeve as he leaned into her open car window.

"Can't go up here, miss," he said.

Flaky was at the foot of the cliff road, behind two barriers with blinking orange lights on them. "Why not?" Flaky said. "What's the matter?" Nerves made her voice shrill.

"Nothing to get excited about," he said, looking at her strangely. "Mudslide. A couple of trees down about halfway up. You just can't drive up yet, that's all."

Flaky relaxed slightly. Visions of Giggles being stalked and hurt faded for a moment. But then she had to get to her. She couldn't wait.

"Listen, I have to get to the house at the top, I have a job there. Isn't there another way up?"

The policeman straightened up and rivulets of water rolled down his jacket. He looked around, then leaned on Flaky's door again. "Well, you can drive around to the back of the woods," he said. "There's an old dirt road that cuts off into the trees. I know it heads up toward the house, but how far it goes…?" He shrugged and shook his head, pelting Flaky's sleeve with more raindrops. "You'd be better off calling, saying you'll be late."

"You're probably right," Flaky said. "Thanks."

He straightened up again and touched the brim of his hat. Flaky smiled.

Then she backed the car up and drove off towards the dirt road.

She had to get to Giggles.

The flat part of the cliff road merged into the main road, so Flaky didn't have any trouble finding her way. It took her in a broad curve, then straightened out after about five minutes. On her right, she could see the thick forest stretching up gradually toward the cliff. She couldn't see the house; it was probably a mile or more away.

It wasn't long before she saw the turnoff. Just as he'd said, it cut off toward the right; into the woods. And it was dirt. Mud, actually. But once she drove a few yards, the mud wasn't too bad. The trees were so thick their branches made a canopy overhead. It hadn't kept the road dry, but she was pretty sure she wouldn't get stuck.

Wet branches slapped against the car windows as Flaky drove father into the woods. It was dark under the trees. She turned her full beam on.

The road sloped gradually uphill, but not in a straight line. It meandered through the trees. Flaky tried to judge whether she was to the right or the left of the house. Maybe she'd get lucky and it would come out right at the back, where the lawn met the forest.

She hadn't gone very far-maybe only half a mile- when she took her foot off the gas to let the car ease itself through a deep rut.

The car rumbled, started to shake, and died.

It started up again immediately. Flaky let it idle a minute. Then she put her foot on the brake to shift into drive. The car shook and died again.

Flaky started the car again. And again.

But every time she took her foot off the accelerator, the engine shuddered to a stop.

Flaky turned off the headlights and sat for a minute, listening to water splattering on the roof.

Okay. The main road wasn't very far behind her. She could walk back to it. Then what? Hitch-hike? Not a great idea. She might be able to flag down a car. But if she couldn't, she'd have to walk all the way back to town.

Or she could keep walking this road, toward the house. She knew she wouldn't get lost, and it wasn't that far.

She had to get there.

Flaky got out and slid the rolled-up magazine into a back pocket of her jeans, pulling her jumped over it so it wouldn't get wet. She locked the car, out the keys in her pocket, and started walking.

As the forest closed in on her, Flaky shivered. It was like moving through a dark, damp cave. Fog drifted through the trees like something alive. Water dripped onto her head and rolled down her neck. She felt cold all over.

Keep going, she told herself.

A sudden noise made her jump. It sounded like a twig snapping. Had somebody followed her?

Her heart thudding in her ears, Flaky tried to listen. There it was again. A snapping, rustling sound. And then a shrill cry overhead.

Just a bird.

Get a grip, she told herself. Nobody's out here but you.

She kept going. Low-growing ferns whipped at her jeans and her sneakers gradually turned brown with mud. The magazine poked her in the back.

She was shifting it to her other pocket when she suddenly realised that the road had come to an end.

It wasn't a gradual end. Suddenly, there was simply no more road. Just a forest.

For a moment, Flaky was tempted to turn around and walk back. But then she saw a slight opening through the mass of trees.

A footpath? Somebody must have walked through these woods sometime. Maybe even Giggles. After all, this was her property.

It was a path. It was overrun with trailing vines and once in a while a fallen tree, so it hadn't been walked on much lately. But it was definitely a path.

Flaky took it.

It was much harder going. Vines snagged her jeans and branches grabbed at her hair. And the forest was starting to smell. No wonder, Flaky thought. Nothing ever got much chance to dry out around here. Things rotted from the damp in the thick woods.

She breathed through her mouth and kept going.

After about twenty minutes of very slow walking, the path opened up on a small clearing. There were a few fallen trees around the edge of it, and Flaky sat down on one. She had to rest, just for a minute or two.

Still breathing through her mouth because of the smell, Flaky looked around and saw a bunch of rocks in the middle of the clearing. Some were scattered, but the rest were still in a ragged half-circle.

A campfire.

Suddenly, Flaky remembered: Petunia told her that Giggles had invited the backpacker to camp on her property. What had she said? The woods go on for miles behind the house and Giggles' family owns it all.

Getting up, Flaky went over and stared down at the fire-blackened rocks.

This could be where he'd camped. Russell Something. A great-looking guy with a metal hook for a hand.

He'd camped here and then left.

And it was around the same time Giggles fell.

Could he be the one Giggles was trying to tell her about?

But if he'd gone, then who was after Flaky?

She didn't know. Only Giggles knew. Time to get going.

She took a deep breath through her nose and winced. The smell was worse. A sickly smell, like rotting rubbish. She couldn't wait to get out of these woods.

The path was even less of a path now. The roots and vines were so thick in places that Flaky wasn't even sure she was following a trail at all. Some of the vines and thorns. When she wiped her forehead, her hand came away bloody.

Flaky had to walk slowly, stepping high to avoid the vines and roots. But it was impossible to avoid them all. She took a step, felt a vine twist tight around her ankle, and started to fall. Unable to catch her balance, she went sprawling face down in wet leaves and pine needles and soft, slithery muck.

As Flaky dragged her hands back to boost herself up, her fingers caught on something. She thought. She thought it was a vine, but she was wrong.

It was some kind of woven strap.

Flaky dropped it and sat back on her knees. Sat back on something hard and sharp. A rock, probably. Pain shot through her knee and she got to her feet. Some of the muck came with her clinging to her shirt and the front of her jeans.

She started to wipe it off.

And stopped, staring at the ground in front of her.

It was the hard, sharp thing she'd felt under her knee.

But it wasn't a rock.

Slowly, Flaky bent over, grabbed hold, and pulled.

When she straightened up again, she was holding a slightly rusted hook.