It was early evening in mid-July. A strong breeze came in from the east as Arnie Walker and AJ, his nine-year-old son, reached the top of the point. The sky was an unspoiled blue, but the wind whipped around them, pulling at their hair and clothes, and Arnie was glad he’d made the boy put on a hoodie before leaving their holiday home.
“You’re not cold, are you?”
“No way,” AJ replied, hurrying ahead.
“Stay away from the edge,” Arnie warned.
North Point stood a hundred and six feet above the town of Nyemouth on the Northumberland coast, where the River Nye met the North Sea. From its peak they could see the entire town beneath them, nestled in the steep valley. The river ran through the center of the gorge, a broad curving waterway separating the two sides of the town. On the south bank, in a wide basin, was the marina, and just beyond, the green park and bandstand in the town square.
Ahead of them, to the east, was the vast, open vista of the North Sea. The strengthening wind created white tips on the waves of the incoming tide. Arnie gazed appreciatively at the view, filling his lungs with fresh, salty air. He’d missed this place. Coming here now, with his son, awoke memories of his own childhood, long-ago summers when he’d played on the point and the beach below, fishing in the rock pools at low tide or watching the yachts sail into the harbor. Some of the happiest, most innocent days of his life had been spent here.
“Dad, can we go down to the beach?” AJ asked.
Arnie saw some of that long-lost innocence in his son’s face. He heard it in the pitch of his voice. “Not tonight. The tide is coming in. Besides, we’ll be having dinner soon. Aren’t you hungry?”
AJ stared at the rocks below and the sandy stretch of beach farther north. “The sea is miles out yet. Can’t we go down for ten minutes? Five?”
“I’ll take you to the beach tomorrow. I promise. The tide might look a long way out now, but it comes in fast. Really fast. The path to get down is a good mile ahead. By the time we get there, that beach will be gone. And we don’t want to get stuck down on the rocks. The sea can come in and wash you away. It’s dangerous.”
AJ gazed longingly at the shore, unconvinced by his father’s warning.
“Tomorrow,” Arnie said firmly. “Remember, we’ve a whole five weeks ahead of us. That’s plenty of time to play on the beach. When the summer is over, you’ll be sick of picking sand out of your bum”
AJ giggled, thumping his hand playfully against his father’s waist. “Sand doesn’t get in your bum.”
“Sand gets everywhere. In between your toes, in your ears, in your hair.” He mussed AJ’s short blond hair for effect.
The boy squealed with delight and squirmed away. “Stop it.”
“Come on, we’ll walk five more minutes before heading back. Are you hungry yet?”
“Well, I’m starving, so let’s go.”
They continued north along the cliff, keeping clear of the edge. Safety on the point had been something drilled into Arnie by his own parents from a young age, and it was a message he’d never forgotten. Like all coastal areas, the cliffs and rock faces here suffered from erosion and collapses. Harsh winters and rough seas took their toll.
When Arnie was AJ’s age, the father of a boy from school had been killed on a beach outside of town when the cliff face collapsed. It was a vivid memory. Another summer, two people had died when they’d fallen over the edge and had been washed out to sea. A week later, one of the bodies had become tangled in the nets of a fishing boat. They had never recovered the second corpse. Despite the beauty here, there was immense danger. The natural elements had to be respected at all times.
Arnie had spent his life until the age of eighteen in Nyemouth, in the town below. He had moved to London to study drama and film editing but had never lost touch with the area. His parents were still here, in the house he grew up in. Though his career prevented him from coming back as often as he’d like to, a part of his heart remained.
Arnie Walker was thirty-four years old. He had dark blond hair, thick on top and conservatively short at the back and sides. His eyes were an intense, icy shade of blue. With an angular jaw and wide mouth, he was classically handsome. His six-foot-four frame and wholesome good looks were a striking combination. Arnie was a familiar one to TV audiences, having starred in several high-profile series, but despite a brief period of international success in his midtwenties, he could walk around without attracting too much attention. He’d never been the type to court publicity, avoiding the media throughout his career and preferring to focus on his work. Though they recognized him, most people respected his privacy, especially when he was with AJ.
That was especially true here in Nyemouth. It was a small community with a population of just over six thousand. Many of the long-time residents knew his family or remembered him as a kid. Arnie Walker was just a local boy who’d done well for himself. He’d never lost touch with where he came from. A Nyemouth boy, he was one of them, and people respected him for that.
“Dad, can we get a dog?”
An inevitable question, though Arnie hadn’t expected to hear it so soon. They’d arrived yesterday and had spent two days catching up with family, including his sister and her black Labrador, Benji. AJ had fallen in love with the animal at first sight.
“We don’t have time to look after a dog properly,” Arnie said.
“We can make time.”
“It’s not that easy. I have to go to work. You have to go to school.”
“I’ll look after it. I’ll get up extra early to take it for walks.”
“And what will it do all day when we’re not there? Dogs need to go out for the toilet. It’s not fair to leave them locked up so long.”
“It can stay in the garden when we’re out.”
“And in the winter? When it gets cold. Then what?”
“You can buy him a kennel.”
Typical kid, Arnie thought. He had an answer for everything. He’d been exactly the same at that age. It had probably driven his parents crazy. “Let’s see how the summer goes,” he said. “You can play with Aunty Sophie’s dog and take him for walks.”
“Then we’ll get our own dog when we go home?” AJ’s eyes were wide and opportunistic.
“I didn’t say that.”
“But you’ll think about it?”
“We’ll see how it goes. That’s all I’ll say for now.”
AJ grinned, on the face of it convinced his father had committed to buying him a puppy. “Can we have fish and chips for dinner tonight?”
Arnie laughed. “If that’s what you want.”
A female runner came up behind them, swerved out of their way and jogged ahead, an impressive sight in her pale blue sportswear. Arnie watched her admiringly. He’d promised himself a couple of lazy days off before getting back into a fitness routine. The cliffs along the point would make an attractive route as long as the weather held. If he came out of town, followed the walking trail, then looped back around, he would arrive where he’d started on the north bank of the river. It would be a five-, maybe six-mile trek. Not bad at all.
“I think we’ll turn around in another minute,” he told AJ. The wind was strengthening and the warmth of the sun had faded in the early evening.
“Can we go for fish and chips, then?”
Arnie nodded. “I said so, didn’t I? Am I right in thinking you’re hungry now?”
“Starving,” AJ said.
Up ahead, the runner drew level with a small, bushy hollow. As she passed, a figure stepped out of the bushes. Dressed in a black hoodie and dark pants, they must have been hiding there. In an instant, Arnie knew something was not right.
The dark stranger rushed at the woman, came up behind her and threw both arms around her. The next moment, the figure lifted her off her feet and carried her toward the cliff edge.
“Oh my God.” Arnie couldn’t believe what was happening. They were around two hundred yards ahead of them. “Stay here,” he shouted at AJ, running forward.
The woman struggled in the stranger’s grip, but he held her tight. She kicked her legs helplessly against empty air and the sound of her scream was carried away on the wind. It seemed to happen with the heavy feel of a nightmare. Arnie’s legs were leaden as he ran toward them, making painfully slow progress. This can’t be happening.
The stranger was less than two feet away from the edge of the cliff. They swung the woman to one side, gaining momentum, and as they did, Arnie caught a glimpse beneath the hoodie. Their features were black and blank—a ski-mask or balaclava under the hood. The stranger bent at the knees, then swung, straightened up and threw the woman clear over the edge.
With a roar of despair, Arnie pressed forward.
The woman appeared to hang weightless in the air—a terrifying trick of the mind—before she plummeted from sight. The hooded figure didn’t wait to admire their malicious handiwork. They were already running back in the direction they’d come from. Arnie raced for the spot where he’d last seen the woman.
Please let her be hanging on, just over the edge. He knew before he got there it was a hopeless thought.
“Dad,” AJ yelled from somewhere behind.
He was about to tell him to stay back when he remembered the danger they were in. He looked around. No sign of the stranger, but it didn’t mean the psycho had gone. Given the ease with which they’d thrown a grown woman over the cliff, a boy like AJ would take no effort. “Come here,” he urged. “Stay close.”
“What happened to the lady?” AJ asked.
“That’s what Daddy needs to find out.” Arnie glanced around again. The hollow from where the stranger had ambushed the woman was clear. There was no one else in sight. He pointed at the area. “AJ, I want you to keep looking that way. Do you hear me? Keep watching in that direction and if you see anyone coming—anyone—you shout at the top of your voice. Do you understand?”
Pale-faced and shaken, AJ nodded.
“Good lad,” Arnie said, managing to sound far calmer than he felt. “Dad is going to see if he can help the lady, but remember, I want you to shout as loud as possible and let me know if anyone comes this way.”
He nodded vigorously. “I will.”
Arnie took a deep breath and approached the precipice. The grassy surface gave way to sandstone for the last few feet. Craning forward, he looked down. The tide came across the rocks below with some force, throwing up huge white plumes. He couldn’t see her.
“Hello,” he yelled, holding out hope she was clinging to the rock face below him. “Can you hear me?”
Nothing, just the crash of waves and the howl of wind. He put his foot right on the edge and leaned farther out. Now he could see more of the base. There she was. A tiny figure, a hundred and fifty feet below, in her blue and black Lycra. She lay face down, one arm beneath her, the other stretched to the side, about two meters from where the waves crashed against the rocks.
“Shit.” It would not take long for the tide to reach her. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and dialed emergency.
“Which service do you require?” asked the operator.
“Coastguard,” he said urgently. “A woman has gone over the cliff at North Point.” He explained what had happened as calmly as he could and gave their exact position. “She’s beneath me right now, but hurry. The tide is rising fast. She doesn’t have long.”
There was a lifeboat station in Nyemouth marina. Once a crew was assembled, it would only take the boat minutes to reach this spot, but raising a crew was a bigger concern. Like most lifeboat stations, Nyemouth was run by volunteers. Their pagers would already have gone off, but the boat, an Atlantic 85, required a crew of at least three before setting off. Depending on where they were when the pagers sounded, it could take ten minutes before the boat was ready to launch.
Looking at the incoming tide, Arnie wondered if the woman had that long. There was no way to reach her from here. The rock face was steep . A proficient climber with the right equipment could do it, but they would never get the woman back up that way. The only other route was the distant footpath down to the beach, but the section of rocks on which she lay would already be cut off by the tide.
The lifeboat was her only hope of survival. Provided they reached her in time.
Provided she was still alive.
“Dad,” AJ called from behind. “Dad, is the lady okay?”
The boy was facing the other way. Arnie went to him. He trembled, frightened and cold. Arnie crouched and put his arms around him. “Don’t worry. The lifeboat will soon be here. They’ll look after her.”
“Why did the man throw her off the cliff?”
He hugged AJ tighter. “I don’t know, son. Try not to think about that. The man has gone now.”
“He…he might come back.”
“Sssh. It’s all right. I won’t let him hurt you.”
They had witnessed a murder. An attempted murder at best. Impossible. It was what happened in TV shows and movies. In his own career, Arnie had played victims and murderers, but it was always fake. Even with detailed research, he’d never considered the reality of the crime. Until now. Watching a man—surely it had to be a man—pick up a woman and throw her over a huge precipice without hesitation.
A cold shudder ran through him.
It was an act of complete evil. Would AJ ever be the same after seeing that?
Arnie rose, stretching to look down into the Nye valley. Too far away to make out any activity in the marina. How long had it been since he’d made the call? Five minutes? Longer? Then he saw it. The gray and orange streak as the Atlantic 85 lifeboat shot out of the marina, leaving a wide wake as she headed for the mouth of the river and the open sea. Thank God.
Arnie told AJ to stay where he was while he went to look down again. The sea was lapping over the edge of the rocks, the spray washing over her body. His heart raced faster. She did not have long until the cold water claimed her. The lifeboat had turned left out of the river mouth and powered up the coast.
Would they even see her? How visible could a prone figure at the foot of a cliff be to anyone watching from the sea? He looked down again. She was so tiny. They’d be sure to miss her.
Arnie pulled out his phone and activated the flashlight. He was directly above the woman. He stood with the phone held high, the light directed toward the boat.
“Come on,” he cried, desperately. “She’s here. Right here.”
“Dad,” AJ called. “Is the lifeboat coming?”
It did not look like it. The boat cruised north, scanning the shore. They were going too far. Arnie stretched higher, waving his phone frantically.
“Over here.” AJ, right behind him, waved his arms and shouted. “Here.”
“Don’t come too close,” Arnie warned him.
“But they’re going the wrong way.”
Then, at sea, the boat turned and headed directly toward them.
“They’ve seen us,” he told AJ with relief. “It’s all right, they’ve seen us.”
They fixed the boat on the spot where the woman lay. With the treacherous rocks and back flow from the waves, getting to her would not be easy. The Atlantic 85 was built for maneuverability, but even that would struggle in these circumstances.
Arnie prayed they were not too late.