It was the sound of his panicked breathing that scared Ben the most.
A late autumn sun collapsed beneath a line of naked hornbeam and oak, its rays shrivelling against a pale grey sky that receded through an expanse of tangled branches.
The last tentacles of heat retreated from a dirt path, withered away under rotten ferns and bracken, then surrendered the woodland to a damp biting cold.
He tipped back his head and swore.
A blackbird scuttled out from under a buckthorn shrub then took flight, its brittle parting cry rebuking him for the disturbance.
Ahead, an algae-covered pond sat nestled within a grove of birch trees, taunting him.
It was their third meeting within the space of forty minutes.
The stench hadn’t improved since their last parting, the rancid aroma from the stagnant water wafting on the breeze.
He placed his hands on his hips, and then turned his back on the fetid pool and took off down the next fork in the path, a renewed urgency in his stride.
This route was narrower, twisted, less used.
The boughs above his head crowded in as if curious to know who walked amongst them.
Hazel saplings poked and prodded at his padded black jacket that looked great, but allowed every cold tentacle of wind to wrap its way around his body as he pushed his way through the thickening undergrowth.
He began to hum under his breath, a tune from his college years to fight against the silence encroaching with every step.
His heart rate quickened at a gap in the trees, the promise of escape.
He hurried, stumbled forward, broke through the branches that barricaded his way.
In the glade, under a natural arch of oak and ash and accompanied by a choir of flies, was a grave.
Scuff marks scratched the dirt around it, scraped and scoured to create a hole, then backfilled in a hurry.
Dead leaves covered the churned soil, a feeble attempt to hide the secrets beneath.
Somewhere off to his left, a twigged cracked, the noise as loud as a shotgun as it echoed amongst the tree trunks.
He bolted for a narrow path leading off to the right that soon became clogged with saplings and tendrils of ivy.
Reaching a crossroads in the dirt, he spun around, hands clasped on top of his head, his gaze sweeping left and right.
The late afternoon sun had turned to twilight now, shadows deepening and crawling towards him from the gloom between the undergrowth.
Pausing to pull out his mobile phone, he held it aloft and snarled at the screen.
There was no signal here, no way to check his location or work out where he went wrong.
Ben’s gaze fell to the path as he shoved the phone back in his pocket.
Something had been dragged through here.
He checked over his shoulder.
The scuff marks continued east, two parallel lines carving an uneven path.
Towards the grave.
His eyes followed the scuff marks as they disappeared into the distance, heading west.
Fear turned to desperation—maybe that was the way back to the park entrance.
Maybe that was the way out.
He set off, started humming again, a habit borne of nerves.
No birds accompanied him now; no far-off calls and whistles reached his ears.
Afraid to stop, afraid to register the silence that was so alien to him, Ben ploughed on, his pace quickening with every passing second.
He broke into a run, swiping his hands at the thin reed-like saplings, ducking under low branches.
Sweat beaded across his forehead, pooled between his shoulder blades as his lungs heaved from the exertion.
Ben blinked as the trees began to thin out and the path began to widen.
He could hear voices then.
Close, so close.
Just a little farther to go …