The Whistler’s fourth victim was his youngest, Valerie Mitchell, aged fifteen years, eight months and four days, and she died because she missed the 9.40 bus from Easthaven to Cobb’s Marsh. As always, she had left it until the last minute to leave the disco, and the floor was still a packed, gyrating mass of bodies under the makeshift strobe lights when she broke free of Wayne’s clutching hands, shouted instructions to Shirl about their plans for next week above the raucous beat of the music and left the dance floor. Her last glimpse of Wayne was of his serious, bobbing face bizarrely striped with red, yellow and blue under the turning lights. Without waiting to change her shoes, she snatched up her jacket from the cloakroom peg and raced up the road past the darkened shops towards the bus station, her cumbersome shoulder-bag flapping against her ribs. But when she turned the corner into the station she saw with horror that the lights on their high poles shone down on a bleached and silent emptiness and, dashing to the corner, was in time to see the bus already halfway up the hill. There was still a chance if the lights were against it, and she began desperately chasing after it, hampered by her fragile, high-heeled shoes. But the lights were green and she watched helplessly, gasping and bent double with a sudden cramp, as it lumbered over the brow of a hill and like a brightly lit ship sank out of sight. “Oh no!” she screamed after it, “Oh God! Oh no!” and felt the tears of anger and dismay smarting her eyes.
This was the end. It was her father who laid down the rules in her family, and there was never any appeal, any second chance. After protracted discussion and her repeated pleas, she had been allowed this weekly visit on Friday evenings to the disco run by the church Youth Club, provided she caught the 9.40 bus without fail. It put her down at the Crown and Anchor at Cobb’s Marsh, only fifty yards from her cottage. From 10.15 her father would begin watching for the bus to pass the front room where he and her mother would sit half-watching the television, the curtains drawn back. Whatever the programme or weather, he would then put on his coat and come out to walk the fifty yards to meet her, keeping her always in sight. Since the Norfolk Whistler had begun his killings, her father had had an added justification for the mild domestic tyranny which, she half-realized, he both thought right in dealing with his only child and rather enjoyed. The concordat had been early established: “You do right by me, my girl, and I’ll do right by you.” She both loved him and slightly feared him, and she dreaded his anger. Now there would be one of those awful rows in which she knew she couldn’t hope to look to her mother for support. It would be the end of her Friday evenings with Wayne and Shirl and the gang. Already they teased and pitied her because she was treated as a child. Now it would be total humiliation.
Her first desperate thought was to hire a taxi and to chase the bus, but she didn’t know where the cab rank was and she hadn’t enough money; she was sure of that. She could go back to the disco and see if Wayne and Shirl and the gang between them could lend her enough. But Wayne was always skint and Shirl too mean, and by the time she had argued and cajoled it would be too late.
And then came salvation. The lights had changed again to red, and a car at the end of a tail of four others was just drawing slowly to a stop. She found herself opposite the open, left-hand window and looking directly at two elderly women. She clutched at the lowered glass and said breathlessly: “Can you give me a lift? Anywhere Cobb’s Marsh direction. I’ve missed the bus. Please.”
The final desperate plea left the driver unmoved. She stared ahead, frowned, then shook her head and let in the clutch. Her companion hesitated, looked at her, then leaned back and released the rear door.
“Get in. Quickly. We’re going as far as Holt. We could drop you at the crossroads.”
Valerie scrambled in and the car moved forward. At least they were going in the right direction, and it took her only a couple of seconds to think of her plan. From the crossroads outside Holt it would be less than half a mile to the junction with the bus route. She could walk it and pick it up at the stop before the Crown and Anchor. There would be plenty of time; the bus took at least twenty minutes meandering round the villages.
The woman who was driving spoke for the first time. She said: “You shouldn’t be cadging lifts like this. Does your mother know that you’re out, what you’re doing? Parents seem to have no control over children these days.”
Silly old cow, she thought, what business is it of hers what I do? She wouldn’t have stood the cheek from any of the teachers at school. But she bit back the impulse to rudeness, which was her adolescent response to adult criticism. She had to ride with the two old wrinklies. Better keep them sweet. She said: “I’m supposed to catch the nine-forty bus. My dad’ud kill me if he thought I’d cadged a lift. I wouldn’t if you was a man.”
“I hope not. And your father’s perfectly right to be strict about it. These are dangerous times for young women, quite apart from the Whistler. Where exactly do you live?”
“At Cobb’s Marsh. But I’ve got an aunt and uncle at Holt. If you put me down at the crossroads, he’ll be able to give me a lift. They live right close. I’ll be safe enough if you drop me there, honest.”
The lie came easily to her and was as easily accepted. Nothing more was said by any of them. She sat looking at the backs of the two grey, cropped heads, watching the driver’s age-speckled hands on the wheel. Sisters, she thought, by the look of them. Her first glimpse had shown her the same square heads, the same strong chins, the same curved eyebrows above anxious, angry eyes. They’ve had a row, she thought. She could sense the tension quivering between them. She was glad when, still without a word, the driver drew up at the crossroads and she was able to scramble out with muttered thanks and watch while they drove out of sight. They were the last human beings, but one, to see her alive.
She crouched to change into the sensible shoes which her parents insisted she wear to school, grateful that the shoulderbag was now lighter, then began trudging away from the town towards the junction where she would wait for the bus. The road was narrow and unlit, bordered on the right by a row of trees, black cut-outs pasted against the star-studded sky, and on the left, where she walked, by a narrow fringe of scrub and bushes at times dense and close enough to overshadow the path. Up till now she had felt only an overwhelming relief that all would be well. She would be on that bus. But now, as she walked in an eerie silence, her soft footfalls sounding unnaturally loud, a different, more insidious anxiety took over and she felt the first prickings of fear. Once recognized, its treacherous power acknowledged, the fear took over and grew inexorably into terror.
A car was approaching, at once a symbol of safety and normality and an added threat. Everyone knew that the Whistler must have a car. How else could he kill in such widely spaced parts of the county, how else make his getaway when his dreadful work was done? She stood back into the shelter of the bushes, exchanging one fear for another. There was a surge of sound and the cat’s-eyes momentarily gleamed before, in a rush of wind, the car passed. And now she was alone again in the darkness and the silence. But was she? The thought of the Whistler took hold of her mind, rumours, half-truths fusing into a terrible reality. He strangled women, three so far. And then he cut off their hair and stuffed it in their mouths, like straw spilling out of a Guy on November 5th. The boys at school laughed about him, whistling in the bicycle sheds as he was said to whistle over the bodies of his victims. “The Whistler will get you,” they called after her. He could be anywhere. He always stalked by night. He could be here. She had an impulse to throw herself down and press her body into the soft, rich-smelling earth, to cover her ears and lie there rigid until the dawn. But she managed to control her panic. She had to get to the crossroads and catch the bus. She forced herself to step out of the shadows and begin again her almost silent walk.
She wanted to break into a run but managed to resist. The creature, man or beast, crouching in the undergrowth was already sniffing her fear, waiting until her panic broke. Then she would hear the crash of the breaking bushes, his pounding feet, feel his panting breath hot on her neck. She must keep walking, swiftly but silently, holding her bag tightly against her side, hardly breathing, eyes fixed ahead. And as she walked she prayed: “Please, God, let me get safely home and I’ll never lie again. I’ll always leave in time. Help me to get to the crossroads safely. Make the bus come quickly. Oh God, please help me.”
And then, miraculously, her prayer was answered. Suddenly, about thirty yards ahead of her, there was a woman. She didn’t question how, so mysteriously, this slim, slow-walking figure had materialized. It was sufficient that she was there. As she drew nearer with quickening step, she could see the swathe of long blond hair under a tight-fitting beret, and what looked like a belted trench coat. And at the girl’s side, trotting obediently, most reassuring of all, was a small black-and-white dog, bandy-legged. They could walk together to the crossroads. Perhaps the girl might herself be catching the same bus. She almost cried aloud, “I’m coming, I’m coming,&rd...
From Publishers Weekly
Copyright 1989 Reed Business Information, Inc.