Penny wasn’t surprised to learn that Mrs Chamberlain had left her part of her coin collection in her will. The pun inherent in the act was obvious, but it was also a gesture of genuine friendship. Her family had been Mrs Chamberlain’s neighbours for 11 years, until Penny had moved out of the home, and then her parents had moved to a bungalow in the adjacent village.
She hadn’t left Penny the most valuable coins. Those had no doubt been bequeathed to her only child, Robert. That was just fine with Penny.
As she waited for said only son to appear, Penny thought back to the day she had moved in. Mrs Chamberlain had looked at Penny oddly, then broke into gales of laughter when her parents introduced her.
“Why, isn’t that a coincidence!” she said, “I’m a numismatist. I collect rare coins. Little pennies just like you!”
The front door cracked open at last, and there was Robert, all grown up.
“Hi, Penny,” he said, holding out his hand for her to shake, although Penny didn’t think that was really necessary. Still, she shook it anyway.
“Hi! Sorry about that, was lost in my own head for a second there.”
He smiled in a polite but bemused way. “I know how that is. Come on in.”
He held the door open as she stepped inside. The house didn’t appear to have changed a great deal since the last time that she had been here – it was almost like stepping into a time capsule. Robert guided her into the kitchen and went to fetch the coins.
“Feel free to make yourself a cuppa,” he called as he ascended the creaking stairs. “You’ll remember where everything is. Mum never was one for change.”
Penny smiled privately at the joke and sat down at the kitchen table. The hideous yellow-patterned paper was still there, having apparently survived the kitchen fire that had happened after Penny had moved away. There was only a few scorch marks to indicate that anything had occured at all.
Robert returned to the kitchen and set down a box on the table, followed by a mason jar with three small half-pennies in them.
“What’s this?” she asked, indicating the jar.
Robert frowned, “You’ve never seen these before?”
“Oh.” Apparently he hadn’t been expecting this. He had assumed – quite reasonably – that Penny would know about them already. “You remember the old well in the garden, right?”
“Sure, of course. Kept saying she was going to fill it in after you fell in it, but I don’t think she ever did.”
“Correct, she never did. Well, I found those three coins at the bottom and brought them out with me the day I fell in. For luck, I suppose.” He looked distant then, the corners of his mouth pulling down in distaste. Robert apparently didn’t feel that they had brought him much luck. “And she kept them in that jar ever since.”
Of course she had. Mrs Chamberlain had no doubt also believed they were lucky, given that her son had escaped from his fall unharmed.
“Surely you should keep these then,” Penny said, indicating the jar. “Finders keepers and all.” She had meant it as a little joke, but Robert didn’t so much as crack a smile – in fact, a look that seemed almost like horror flitted across his face. Then he shook his head and he looked normal again, and Penny decided that she had imagined it.
“Really, it’s fine. She wanted you to have them.”
“Seriously, I don’t mind.” His tone seemed slightly shrill, and Penny thought back to that look she thought she had seen on his face, that horrified look.
No. Absurd. He doesn’t want them, and why would he? What use does he have for three muddy little coins when he has the crème de la crème of the collection to either save or sell.
“Okay.” She tucked the jar into her shoulder bag, where it just about fit inside. She picked up the collectors box and held it carefully. These were the valuable pennies after all.
“I better be going,” she said, hoping she wasn’t coming off as rude by leaving so soon. Robert didn’t seem to mind.
“Sure you don’t want a drink before you go?”
“I’m fine. And I do have to get back. One of the great pleasures of modern life is that you’re expected to work from home.” She rolled her eyes dramatically. “It was nice to see you again Robert.”
“You too, Penny.”
When she got back to her flat, Penny took the jar out of her bag and stared at it thoughtfully. She had no idea where she could put it, and ended up setting it down beside the couch while she pondered that. It didn’t exactly go with the decor.
She sat down on the couch, took out her laptop and began to type. She hadn’t been lying to Robert – she was expected to work from home most weekdays, on top of the 8 hours she spent at the office. Luckily, she mostly had the weekends free, a luxury plenty of her friends did not have. There was only the one Saturday a month that Penny had to sacrifice. It could be worse.
As she typed, her thoughts turned to the jar again. She would find a better place for it tomorrow.
She was running. Trees flashed past her as she stumbled along a path, a path that tweaked her memory, but Penny could not seem to place it. It hardly mattered because she had to keep running, had to…had to…
Her foot caught on an exposed tree root, pitching her forward, but she managed to stay on her feet and keep running…keep running.
Penny’s alarm clock was screeching insistently. 7:15. She felt as though she had only just closed her eyes.
She slapped the off button with more venom than usual (and she had never been a morning person), and climbed out of bed. As she got dressed, snatches of her dream came back to her. She had been running.
“But running to where?” she murmured. It didn’t matter, it was only a dream after all. She could’ve been running the London Marathon, such was the logic of dreams.
Still, her legs felt awfully stiff, as though she had been running hard and fast. Odd.
Penny found it impossible to concentrate at work that day. Whenever her mind drifted it seemed that she was plunged right back into those woods (definitely NOT the London Marathon), the ghostly trees whipping past. Several times she even found herself panting for breath, which earned her some very puzzled looks from her co-workers. Puzzled and not a bit wary. She had never been more relieved to see the clock reach half past five.
When Penny got home, exhausted and ready to collapse into bed, she saw that the jar of pennies had been knocked over, the contents scattered across the carpet. Penny stopped dead in her tracks, her first thought being that somebody has broken in. She slammed the door behind her and groped inside her shoulder bag for her phone, hands shaking and clumsy. She had dialled the first ‘9’ before she realised: nothing was missing. Nothing else was remotely disturbed at all, in fact. Her laptop, her TV, her DSLR – catnip to any burglar, yet they were all untouched.
She lowered her arm and turned around, opening the door behind her. She walked a careful and somewhat hesitant circle around the flat. Everything was where it should be, including the valuable coins Mrs Chamberlain had left her.
Only the lucky coins from the well had been disturbed. She stared at the coins as though they could give her answers, but of course they couldn’t tell her anything.
How the hell did they get there?
She had been pretty knackered this morning, but Penny was sure she hadn’t managed to knock them over herself. But that had to be it, surely? They couldn’t have knocked themselves over, for goodness sake!
Sighing, she bent down, scooped the coins up off the carpet, and plopped them back inside the jar. She thought for a minute, and then settled on putting them in the cupboard where she kept batteries and light bulbs.
After the jar was safely tucked away, Penny made herself some hot chocolate, pointedly ignoring the slight tremble in her hand as she lifted the mug to her lips.
A large, warm arm was clasping her own and leading her home. Everything would be okay now. She smiled and looked down at her tiny hand held firmly in the woman’s…the hand that looked nothing like Penny’s own.
She startled awake, but not because of the dream: it was the unmistakable sound of breaking glass that had roused her. Penny immediately reached for her phone where it was charging on her bedside table, heart hammering so loud she was sure whoever else was in the flat could hear it. She listened intently for any more noise, but everything was silent. What if somebody had broken in before, and had left because what – or rather, who – they were looking for was not there?
Penny lifted the phone, then lowered it. Her hesitation didn’t make sense, she should be dialling the police right now, it was the reasonable thing to do, but something stopped her. It was the jar she was thinking of: how it had seemingly fallen over on its own, and now the sound of breaking glass…but that was crazy.
Eventually, she climbed out of bed and tip-toed to her bedroom door, phone still firmly clasped in her hand. She cracked the door open and peeked out, groping for the hall light switch and flicking it on. The sudden assault of light temporarily blinded her, and it was all Penny could do not to bolt back into her bedroom and slam the door shut again.
Again, nothing moved or stirred.
Swallowing thickly, Penny crept down the hall to the living room doorway, where the sound had seem to emanate from. She opened the door and snapped the light on in two swift motions, heart hammering faster than ever.
Nobody there. Nothing disturbed.
The flat’s little kitchen area was in an alcove off the living room. There wasn’t really anywhere for someone to hide in there, but she still approached cautiously. She already had an idea of what she would see before she saw it: the jar containing the pennies lay smashed on the floor, the three coins scattered once again.
Which shouldn’t have been physically possible. Penny had shut the cupboard door after putting them in there. The door was wide open now. It was solid oak, expensive stuff. Either someone opened the door and yanked the jar out…or something pushed the door open from the inside.
She was more frightened than ever now.
Penny backed out of the room as swiftly as she could and ran back to her bedroom, slamming the door closed behind her. She buried herself under the covers, thinking over and over and over not possible, not possible, not possible.
As the first gray light of dawn began creeping through the gap in her bedroom curtains, Penny finally gave up on the idea of getting any more sleep and timidly got out of bed, shuffling meekly to the living room like one of the little children from her dreams.
The coins were waiting for her, shining dully in the light that Penny had not bothered to switch off when she had run out last night.
She scooped them up, holding them gingerly as though they were made out of nitro-glycerine. They rested coolly on her palm, small and entirely innocent now.
Looks can be deceiving.
Still, there had to be some kind of a rational explanation for everything that had been happening lately.
And the dreams? What about them?
Surely unconnected to all of this. Sighing, Penny settled down on the couch, pennies still clutched in her fist, and shut her eyes. She only meant to rest for a few minutes, try and clear her head and make some sense out of everything, but instead she drifted off to sleep.
A young Mrs Chamberlain loomed over Penny, who was currently sitting in the mud nursing a badly grazed knee.
“Poor dear,” Mrs Chamberlain said, offering Penny a hand so she could get to her feet. Penny hesitated. Mrs Chamberlain’s voice was light enough, but there was something off about the way she was smiling at her: Penny couldn’t remember having ever seen that look on her old neighbour’s face before.
Seeing her hesitation, Mrs Chamberlain said, “It’s Claire isn’t it?”
Penny opened her mouth to reply that no, she was Penny, silly, but instead heard herself answering in the affirmative.
“Well, come along,” Mrs Chamberlain said briskly, and finally Penny – no, she was Claire, apparently – took her hand and Mrs Chamberlain helped her to her feet. The knee throbbed, but she could walk okay.
“I think we should get that knee fixed up, it looks nasty.”
“But my Mummy -“
“But she what, Claire?” There was that smile again, that did not seem to be a smile at all, but a baring of teeth, a predatory gesture.
Claire swallowed, but continued determinedly, “she’ll be wondering where I am.”
“It’ll only take a few minutes. And you’re with me.” And what could possible happen with me? was the unspoken implication. Claire apparently understood that well enough. Some of the tension eased out of her.
They began to walk back through the woods – which Penny now recognised as the woods she herself had played in as a child, building dens and taking part in games of hide and seek in those days before the internet and Minecraft.
…suddenly they were at Mrs Chamberlain’s house, in Mrs Chamberlain’s kitchen in fact. A jump in time.
Mrs Chamberlain was fiddling with some plasters and a little square of cloth. She set the plasters down, went over to the sink and ran the cloth under the cold tap for a second. She knelt down before Claire and began to dab gently at the scrape, cleaning it carefully. Once the blood and dirt was gone, she applied the biggest plaster she had, pressing lightly to ensure it was stuck on properly.
“There, all done.”
Claire got to her feet, relieved it was all over. She still wasn’t sure she liked this woman.
“Before you go,” Mrs Chamberlain reached behind Claire’s ear, and when she drew it back she was holding a coin between her thumb and finger. Claire smiled politely, familiar with the trick, but really just wanting to get home. “I think this is for you,” she handed it to Claire, who took it and pocketed it without really looking at it.
Finally, she led Claire back through her house and out the front door. She waved as Claire walked up the path and Claire returned the gesture. Once she was out of sight of the house, she reached in her pocket and pulled the coin out: it was an old half-penny. Why had the lady given her this? You couldn’t spend those anymore. She considered just dropping it on the pavement, but guilt prevented her from doing so: it was a gift, and you didn’t throw away gifts. Even if they were rubbish.
She shrugged to herself, and pocketed it.
Penny bolted upright. It was now half seven, and normally she would be getting ready for work at this time.
But not today.
Nobody answered the door at Robert’s house. This put Penny in a bit of a bind. If she went around the back to the old well, she would be trespassing with no good reason, and that could lead to legal trouble. And even if there was something in that well, her story was utterly insane.
Yet she had to know, one way or another. And the only way to know was to see for herself. Robert said he had found them in the well. What if there were…other things that he hadn’t seen?
Anyway, even if Robert had been in the house, what plausible story could she have given for wanting to look in the well? None sprang to mind.
She backed up a few steps so she could glance at the adjoining houses: all quiet in the village at 8:30 in the morning.
As nonchalantly as possible, Penny sauntered around to the back garden. It looked neglected and rather woebegone: obviously Robert did not share his mother’s love of gardening.
She looked around her one last time, and then started down the little garden path to the well.
The well had always seemed deep to her from the few times that she had peeked into it when she was a girl. As an adult she could see that it wasn’t actually deep at all. There was a lot of soil at the bottom, as though someone had started to fill it in then changed their minds. Carefully, she lowered herself down, until she was holding onto the rim and her legs were dangling over the last few centimetres. She let go of the rim and landed with a thud. The air was musty and damp down here, and Penny realised that she had brought nothing to dig with.
What on earth was I thinking? Still, she hunkered down and studied the dirt. It looked pretty compact. She hooked her fingers and dug in. The soil was surprisingly moist, and it looked like her hands would have to do for now. If she didn’t find anything, she’d try another day with the proper tools.
Yet somehow, Penny knew that wouldn’t be necessary.
She hadn’t gone particularly far down when she hit something solid and gray-ish white. A stone? Had to be. A pretty big stone. Almost the size of a –
But it isn’t that! It can’t be. I lived next door to this woman for 11 years!
She kept digging reluctantly, already knowing in her heart what it was. Within an hour she had uncovered enough of it to be certain. It was big for a stone, but not for a skull. It was definitely a child’s skull.
Slowly, she stopped digging and sat back against the wall, the top of the skull’s eye sockets glaring back at her, pinning her there.
Oh god,” she whispered. “Oh god, oh god, oh god.”
She phoned the confidential tip line of the county police, giving the address and a description of what she had found. She didn’t indicate that there were possibly two more bodies, although Penny was all but certain that there was..
And then she waited.
Three months later the intercom to her flat buzzed, and when Penny answered it, Robert Chamberlain was on the other end.
“May I come in?” he asked in a shaky voice.
“Of course,” Penny replied.
Robert looked terrible. Penny was not a bit surprised. He’d found out his own mother was a serial killer, a serial killer of three little girls. There surely wasn’t much that could be worse than that.
She busied herself making tea, the English Solution to all impending awkward conversations. As she set the mug down on the coffee table in front of him, he said, “I didn’t know.”
Penny frowned, settling herself in the chair beside him. “I never thought that you did.”
Robert laughed harshly. “You’re one of the few, then.”
Penny was silent for a long time. She hadn’t considered any of the many consequences of her discovery. But then the alternative was to keep this hideous secret, to keep the families of Claire Langdon, Mary-Ann Lightfoot, and Kelly Monroe from ever finding out what had become of them.
Something of what she was thinking must have shown on her face. “Don’t get me wrong, Penny, I’m not angry with you.”
“How did -”
“Three pennies, three girls. Not hard to figure out.”
“Why didn’t you tell the police it was me that tipped them off?”
“Didn’t see the point.” He took a swig of his tea, frowning.
“Why did she leave me those coins?” It was one of the many questions that had been nagging at her since the well.
Robert considered that carefully before answering. “I think it…was funny to her. Flaunting what she had…” he trailed off, and took another sip of his drink.
Penny felt nauseous.
“I didn’t know that she was capable of such a thing,” Robert continued. “But I knew she was awful. Truth be told…I was glad when she died. I was glad. She made my life hell.”
He didn’t offer anything further and Penny didn’t press. Her gaze drifted to his scarred arm, the scars currently hidden under his shirt sleeves. He saw what she was looking at and nodded. “Yeah, that was her.”
“Why?” Penny asked croakily.
“I hadn’t done something for her, maybe. I don’t really remember anymore. That was the only time that she left a scar. I was an adult, see, so I suppose she figured it didn’t matter if she left a mark. Who is going to believe a kindly old woman is abusing her adult son? I mean, usually it is the other way around.”
He sighed. “What did you do with the coins, Penny?”
This, Penny realised, was what Robert had come here to ask. He needed to know.
“I buried them. And I’m going to sell my half of the collection that she left me.”
“You had those dreams too, didn’t you?” Penny said.
He didn’t startle at her question, or even look remotely surprised by it. “Yes. It went on for several years. I just didn’t…even though everyone remembers about those girls going missing. I just thought I was, I don’t know, projecting my mother into these nightmares where she’s after them…luring them. And maybe…maybe I didn’t want to think about it too hard. I couldn’t deal with that.”
“You were a child,” Penny said firmly.
Robert was clearly not soothed by that, his shoulders hunched and tense.
“You know something that I have been wondering about ever since?”
Robert looked up at her.
“What made me different? Why am I alive and they aren’t? It’s so narcissistic, yet sometimes I can’t help but wonder.”
“I can understand that. I mean, why am I still alive? Dad never wanted anything to do with me, and she didn’t have any family that bothered with her. There were plenty of times, looking back now, that I’ve no doubt she wanted to get rid of me.”
Some of the tension lifted from him as he spoke. As terrible as what he was describing was, it seemed he was finding the experience cathartic.
“All I can think,” he continued. “Is that she thought it was too risky.”
Penny laughed at that, a harsh, barking and humourless sound. She couldn’t help it, it just seemed so…banal.
“You mean, we were too close to her?”
“Yes. A kid goes missing, you look at the family first. Then the neighbours.”
“Those girls didn’t live far away.”
“Yes, but once they ruled out family, they started looking at male neighbours,” Robert said patiently. Now that Penny thought about it, she remembered hearing whispers about some of the local oddballs, how nobody knew where so-and-so was on the date Mary-Ann disappeared, and he’s so weird and lives on his own. People always went straight for the outsiders when terrible, inexplicable crimes happened where such crimes were not supposed to happen. Easier than having to look closer to home.
“Do you think they are,” Robert gestured vaguely, “at peace, those girls?”
Penny thought that one over. All she could tell him was that she had not had any more dreams, and that would have to be answer enough. He agreed, and finished his tea.