November 29th, 1997 – Goodsprings, Virginia
It was already dark by the time we got into town. I can’t recall the time exactly, but our flight had been delayed and so too had our ride out of Richmond; naturally, we found the nearest place that might serve a half-decent drink.
James insisted on finding the hotel first, presumably worrying about the already triple-checked arrangements. Alex and I took a seat at the bar of this little place, O’Driscoll’s, I think it was. My God, it was run-down, but I’d have settled for anywhere. I ordered a whisky and pulled a cigarette from my almost empty pack. I remember the flint jamming on the lighter – I knew I needed to get it repaired at some point.
“Bloody thing,” I said, meticulously adjusting the wheel. It sparked eventually, as it always did. I could sense Alex looking over with that condescending stare already.
“Feeling alright?” she said, softly.
“I will soon.”
“Come on, a change is as good as a rest. Put it all out of your mind. There’s no reason we can’t enjoy our stay, you know.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t bring you down the spiral with me.” I forced a smile and turned to meet her gaze. “You’re right, it will be a good week. I just hope we can get something good here, or else I’m not sure there’ll be much work for us afterwards.”
“Trust me, there will be plenty to shoot here. This thing has been documented since the fifties. I already have two interviews lined up for Monday. Tomorrow, we can just ease into it, get some establishing shots.”
On top of everything else, I was worried that the end of my media career would come before it even had a chance to really start. It was no secret that the small company we had unfortunately found our way to had real financial problems. We’d been fucking about with small time documentaries in London without picking up any real interest, but I had to admit, Alex had really done her research on this one. She managed to convince our boss that there really was something here (not that we believed in any of it, of course), and so the last of our budget was used up on three plane tickets, reservations at some shit heap hotel and an extremely modest expense allowance for the week.
After a while, and a couple more drinks, James wandered into the bar with his usual look of perplexion. “Hotel’s sorted,” he said, carefully propping himself up on the seat next to me.
“What’s the place like?” Alex asked.
“Well, it's not the Ritz, but it’ll do. Gives me the creeps a bit, though.”
“Why?” I said, “what’s up with it?”
“I don’t know. The guy there is nice enough, but there’s just something about it.”
“Well, whatever. It’s just a place to sleep, anyway. Are you not getting a drink?”
“No, man. I’m exhausted. God knows what time it is in London right now.”
“Let’s go then.” I sunk the last of the whisky and settled the tab.
The hotel was a short walk along the main road to the edge of town. It looked like it had been converted from one of those old colonials, and its creaking ‘vacancy’ sign was the only indication that it was in fact a hotel. On closer inspection, there was a faint inscription above the door saying Priory Guest House, its engravings chipped and worn away. The door was stiff, taking a few attempts to get open, and when I stepped through, there was a stale smell that hit straight away. I walked slowly up to the desk, the others following behind. It was a bare reception, just a few notices and leaflets on the wall to the side of the desk and a small, solitary bell placed on the counter, the sound of which echoed ominously around the room when I rang it.
The wind had picked up outside, and a tree branch rattled on a large window above the front door. We all studied it for a moment as it rhythmically tapped on the glass, slowly getting quieter and then ceasing altogether. I turned back to the desk and shuddered at the sudden sight of the owner, who had appeared silently.
“Sorry mate,” I said, “I didn’t hear you come through.”
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said in a raspy, quiet voice. “Tom Delaney, at your service. Now, it was the two twin rooms, wasn’t it? Your name, sir? Ma’am?”
Alex and I gave our names and signed on his paperwork. I could feel the old man’s heavy gaze pressing on me. I say old - he must have been in his late fifties or so. I remember him being quite tall but without any dignified posture. His hair was dark and messy, with a slight streak of white curving away to the side of his fringe.
"Now, just a couple of rules for your stay," Delaney began. "I don't allow smoking inside, and no dogs are permitted either. Allergies, you know."
"That won't be a problem," said Alex.
“Also, please make sure there is quiet after nine-thirty." He took the papers back from Alex and me. "What do you intend to do over your stay?” Delaney said, his eyes staring intently into mine. I looked down, pretending to organise some papers in my notebook.
“We’re making a documentary. We do supernatural stuff, you know. Haunted buildings, ghosts and whatever.”
“The Woodsman,” he said, chillingly. I looked up at him. “Yes, that’s what you have come for, no?”
“It is,” Alex said. “Have you…”
“How interesting,” he interrupted. He set about his work, retrieving three keys from the wall. “It’s not been seen for a while, now,” he continued. “Of course, people still tell the stories. Some say he takes those that walk through the woods alone. A shadowy figure, glowing red eyes that lure and petrify. A shape-shifter, sometimes winged, sometimes clawed, always watching.”
“And what do you say?” Alex asked, after a moment’s eerie silence.
He handed the keys over to us in turn, his eyes halting over each one of us. “People love their stories.”
We had spent the morning shooting footage around the town in a few key locations. Most of the historical sightings of the Woodsman had been on Priory hill, just West of Goodsprings. The forest there spreads over the hill further West and South, linking up with Burford and Mellar’s Fork. According to Alex, they too had had sightings and even missing person reports connected. We couldn’t have asked for a more atmospheric day to shoot – thick fog lay across the hill the entire morning, and the trees stood motionless against a pale sky, their veined branches sharp as thorns.
I had maintained my scepticism, though it had to be said, even then, there was something about the place – some unseen malevolence that struck a chill. I think it was the quiet. Taking up a shot between the trees, I listened out for any sound, hearing none. Not a bird, nor squirrel, nor even the buzz of a fly. We quickly got what we needed and headed back to Goodsprings.
James took on his usual routine of refusing each diner on some small infraction until I dragged him through the door of the next one with food on its menu. Alex got out her notes - a folder as thick as the stack of waffles she had ordered - and regaled us with her findings.
“You know,” she began quietly, “there’s been seventeen missing person cases filed in this area since 1952. Seven of those have been connected to sightings of the Woodsman. None of those seven was ever seen again.” She flipped clumsily through the pages of her folder and found an old newspaper report which she took out and showed to James and me. The headline read: Boy Missing in Goodsprings.
“So, what’s the story there?” I asked.
“This was the first case, back in ’52 – Jack Hawes. A local woman declared Jack, her fourteen-year-old son, missing after he never came back from school that day. He took the route over Priory hill every day, so they sent search parties out that way first. One of those parties gave the first description of the Woodsman. They said they were attacked by some kind of giant creature in the woods there, a massive shadow with…”
“Glowing red eyes?” Alex sighed at me. “It’s just… no, carry on.”
“They said it raised its height… yes, here we are, changing its shape to a bird-like creature, chasing them off the hill.” She put the page down, noticing mine and James’s look of cynicism. “Look, I’m not saying it's real, but if we get some good stories, artist interpretations and the rest, it will make great viewing.”
“If you say so. And none of these people were ever found?”
I took the page to look at myself. The photo was missing from the page, cut out with scissors. “Where’s the rest of it?”
“I’ve put the photographs together, hang on.” She flipped through her pages again. “Wait, I think they must be in the other folder.”
I sighed quietly. “What about the other cases? The missing persons?”
“So, six others have been connected to confirmed sightings.”
“Confirmed?” I yelled, seeing some other patrons look over. I lowered my voice. “By who?”
“You know what I mean. Matching descriptions. Anyway, the next happened four years later. The most recent was in 1993. Each time, the missing person was never found.”
“Any connection between them?”
“None that I can see. Different ages; occupations; two female, the rest male.”
“Yes, as far as I can tell.”
James then chimed in. “What do the police reports say?”
“Not much. They all have the descriptions as eye-witness reports, either happening just before or just after the disappearances. No leads, no discoveries.”
“And how many sightings have been reported besides these?”
“All in all,” Alex began, checking her notes, “Including the missing persons cases, eighty-five, the last one being the case in 1993.”
“My God, eighty-five? Everyone here must be delusional.” I smiled at the waitress as she passed, unsure if she heard my comment.
“Delusional or not, there’s definitely enough content here for a decent doc.”
I woke early, not feeling any more refreshed than I was the previous night. Alex had arranged for these interviews to take place today. God knows what I expected to hear from them. All I knew was that I refused to end up like any of these crazies.
We walked over the hill to Mellar's Fork that morning. The fog persisted, and it was bitterly cold even in the still air. Alex insisted on getting more shots on the way. I left James to get them, but it meant more waiting around. When we eventually got to Mellar's Fork, I wanted to leave immediately. It was the very definition of 'dead-end' - there wasn't even anywhere to get a drink.
We had three people to see in the village. The first was an old lady, Mrs Keller. Nice enough by most accounts, but somewhat senile. I started by asking her about her life and such, how long she'd lived here and all that. Then we got into the Woodsman sightings. She'd seen something at some point, I can't even remember what it was now but it was the typical stuff - big dark shape, glowing red eyes. I pretended to seem interested and wrapped it up sharpish.
The next one, Mr Courtway, was of even less interest. He couldn't seem to remember what he had seen or where he had seen it, but had lots of anecdotes about the local fishing scene. Alex chastised me afterwards; apparently it was my fault that we had no usable content from our morning's work so far. Luckily, our third guest proved more useful.
Mrs Thompson lived in a grand house on the edge of the village all on her own. Her hallways were full of paintings, many of which, we learned, were her own works. After a considerable welcoming routine and making of tea and coffee, we set to it. James set up two cameras - one on me, one on her.
"So, Mrs Thompson," I began, "Tell me your experience of the Woodsman."
She spoke with a soft, yet confident voice. "Well, I had heard about it from a young age, of course. Everyone had stories about it, but I never thought much of it until Huey Conway."
"Huey Conway was one of the missing persons here in Mellar's Fork, correct?"
"In 1986, yes. There were many sightings that year; I had friends here who were convinced they saw it outside their houses. I didn't see anything at the time - not until a couple of years later. I remember coming back from Goodsprings one night along the old forest path. I heard a sound behind me, a whooshing sound, like a strong and sudden wind. I turned around and saw it there - bright, red eyes among a black shadow." She trailed off after the comment, looking past me.
"What did you do?" I asked, eager to continue.
"For a moment, I did nothing. I just began backing away slowly."
"How close did it get to you?"
"Oh, as close as you are to me right now, dear." I judged the distance at about six feet or so. "Anyway," she continued, "I fell back, and then tried scrambling away. Suddenly, I heard barking, and John Piper came running over with his beagle, Fritzie. When I turned back, it was gone."
"And John, did he see it too?"
"Well, I don't see how he couldn't. But he says he only saw me fall, that's why he came over so quickly. I tell you though, that sight is still burnt into my mind." Her eyes turned bloodshot and teared up. "I just think of those poor people that never came back... Huey, Jack - I knew most of them by some connection. Not family, but still, it's a tight-knit place."
Alex offered her a tissue. We carried on when she had had a moment to recover. She told me of more sightings in the area, of the details surrounding more missing persons cases. I began to see just how much this had affected life in the town. I think it was the first time I felt some empathy for the townsfolk. But still, I thought, it was a waste of everyone's energy to be talking about the paranormal. They should be looking for a murderer.
I asked one last question. "Do you have, or know anyone that has, a photograph?"
"I don't. But I have the next best thing." She led us into the next room. James switched to the hand-held camera and continued filming. The room was an artist's studio. A new canvas was set up and an array of materials were placed around a cluttered desk. "One moment," she said, picking through an assortment of painted canvases by the wall. Eventually, she took two large pieces out and propped them up on a couch. Upon them, she had painted her interpretation of the creature. They sent a cold chill through me as I studied them - the subtle yet piercing red eyes popped out from the pitch-black shadow surrounding them. On one, great wings stretched out to its sides, raised high as if to strike the beholder. James continued filming for a few seconds, then carefully closed the viewer on the camera.
That night, back at the hotel, I helped James to prepare the cameras over a few whiskies. He seemed on edge after the interview, so I thought some drinks might do him well. Once the cameras were sorted, I put the radio on and took out a cigarette.
“You know you can’t smoke in here, right?” He said in his pedantic way.
“Delaney told us, remember? No smoking, no dogs, no noise.
“Well, who’s going to know.”
“I will, if he doesn't. I don’t want to breathe that stuff in.”
“I’ll open a window.” James turned and gave me that pleading stare. “Ah for fuck’s sake. Fine, I’ll go downstairs.”
The rest of the hotel was empty. There was no evidence of any other guests checked in that week. Delaney was nowhere to be seen downstairs, but I found my own way to the back garden. It was a simple affair, just a porch that looked out onto the woods at the base of Priory hill. When I opened the door, I was greeted by a security light so bright I had to shield my eyes for a moment. I paced down the porch and lit my cigarette.
After a few seconds, the light went out. I looked out at the forest, barely illuminated by the clouded moonlight and could just make out the thorny treetops swaying slowly in the breeze. It was freezing; I’d left my coat upstairs and the wind, though light, brought a stinging cold with it. As I stood shivering, a flock of birds suddenly left their roosts in the woods all at once. I saw something moving in the trees. I couldn’t make it out at first, but it seemed to be coming out of the treeline towards me. I stood stock still, trying to force my logical thoughts to take control. Suddenly, the security light popped back on with a loud click, giving me a jolt like nothing else. I flicked my cigarette away and made for the door. I closed it behind me and stood, heart beating like a drum. I saw the light go off through the curtained window of the door.
I dared myself to check through the curtain. I got low to the ground, edging up to the glass to look through. As I did, two red eyes stared back at me through the glass. I threw the curtains closed and leapt back. The handle on the door began turning – I grabbed it and put my weight against the door. There was a howling wind, as if the fiercest hurricane was concentrated on that very wall. With all my strength, I couldn’t hold the handle up, and I was suddenly thrown back when the door flew open.
“Are you alright there?” came Delaney’s raspy voice as he stood over me in the doorway.
I couldn’t stop my shaking. I surveyed the room; just he and I were there. He gave me his hand and helped me to my feet. “Sorry mate,” I said, laughing nervously.
“You look mighty shaken, are you feeling alright?”
“Yeah, just the jet-lag I reckon.”
“Do you need anything at all?”
“No, thanks. I just came down for a smoke. I’d better get back to my room.” As I turned, I noticed two roses on the mantelpiece, facing outwards in a small vase. Was that what I saw? Their reflection in the glass?
More whisky, that’s what I needed. I didn’t bother explaining anything to James or Alex, but I analysed it all in my own thoughts. I was tired; we’d been talking about things all day; I was just seeing things.
I had convinced myself as best I could that I saw nothing out of the ordinary. At about midday, we met in the guesthouse dining room for lunch. Delaney had been asking if we'd like to take lunch there since we arrived, so we obliged reluctantly. Lunch was a modest affair involving bland coffee and some meager sandwiches. Still, I'd had much worse elsewhere. He came in with another pot of coffee.
"Hey, man," I said quietly, trying to get his attention subtly. "Have you got anything stronger?"
"Hmm, I might have some Brazilian beans somewhere."
"No, no... I mean..." I gestured an empty glass to him.
"Ah, I see." He looked at his watch. "I guess so."
As he walked away, I felt Alex's usual stare again. "Really?" she said coldly. "It's lunchtime."
"Yes," I replied, "but it's gone five in London." I couldn't quite see but I know she rolled her eyes at me.
"Well, before you get sloshed, listen to this. Forester's Hollow has had the most standalone sightings of Woodsman of any place. That's where we're filming tonight."
"Why? What do you expect to find?"
"I don't know," she said angrily. "Maybe nothing, but come on. Doesn't this stuff interest you? Why did you get into this stuff in the first place?"
"Fair point. Look, I'd just rather not waste time standing around in the freezing cold. Why not get some more interviews? At least these people have heating."
"We can do that today. If you'd rather stay here and get to know Jack Daniel, fine. We're going to meet with George Wester." Alex took my vague stare as a prompt to continue. "His daughter, Jane, went missing in 1993."
Alex sighed and sat back in her chair. James stood up awkwardly and left, presumably heading for the toilet. As soon as he did, Alex leant over the table and spoke in hushed tones. "Did you see something last night?"
"What? What do you mean?"
"Delaney came to find me this morning. He said you were shaken up by something last night in the garden." I tried to dismiss it, but Alex could always tell when there was something up. "What was it?"
I hated the idea that I had seen something inexplicable. I still forced myself to believe it wasn't, but I hated even more that somebody else knew that of me. "I didn't see anything,"
"So why were you shaken up?"
"I was... I don't know. I've just had a lot of things on my mind."
"I don't think the drink is helping, you know. Look, James and I can get the interviews today. Why don't you take some time to yourself? Go on a long walk or something. Just promise me you won't spend the day at the bottom of a glass."
I reluctantly agreed. Maybe that was what I needed. Within the next half hour, Alex and James had left for Burford, cameras and folders in hand. I returned to the room to sort myself out. As I contemplated my plan for the day, I went to the window and looked out across the street.
I remember thinking how picturesque the place actually was, in a bleak sort of way. Over the main road, a still lake stretched off into the distance, meeting a dark green conifer wood at the other side. Looking out, I noticed a man and his dog walking along the pathway. As they crossed in front of me, suddenly the dog stopped still and looked straight up to me. After a few seconds, it started barking viciously. The man tried pulling the lead, but the dog continued, intent on its threats. I waved to the man, hoping for some reaction, but he kept his head down, tugging desperately on the lead. Eventually, he led the dog away, but still it turned against the pull and continued its barking. I watched with perplexion as they made their way up the road, only breaking my gaze when startled from behind.
"How was the whisky?" came Delaney's voice from behind me. I shuddered and cursed at the sudden interruption. I couldn't quite think of what to say; why was he in my room at all? It that the done thing here?
"Not bad," I said, "can I help you?"
"I'm sorry, I just wanted to let you know I won't be around tonight, so make sure you have your keys with you."
"Alright, no worries. We'll be back past time tonight anyway."
"Oh yes? What are you doing?"
I thought it a bit pressing, but I answered. "Filming over at Forester's Hollow."
"Ah, yes. Well, I hope you get what you need." With that, he left. I'm not sure if it was that that changed my mind, but I decided to break my agreement and headed out to find a bar.
Time passed slowly. I had a few drinks in a bar, then walked around the town for a while. I knew Alex would want me to find people to talk to but I couldn't bring myself to ask those questions. I smoked a cigarette, then another bar. More walking, another smoke, another drink, until eventually I ended up back at the hotel. I felt embattled with a strange form of fatigue; my eyes were heavy and my movements sapped at my energy, but I had no urge to sleep, and no matter how I tried, it never came.
While still caught in my waking slumber, I was disturbed by a knock at the door. James, who had unexpectedly found a rare sense of optimism, bounded in and began swapping films in the cameras. "I hope you're ready," he said, "Alex wants to get out there as soon as we can."
"I'm not going," I replied.
"Don't be like that. Come on, you've had the entire day. Time to do some work."
"No, I'm not going. You and Alex get it. I'm staying here."
James put the cameras down and sighed. "Look man, staying here and moping isn't going to help." He sat on the edge of my bed, like a mother would to her ill child. "What happened back in London - it was awful. I get it. But you wanted to come here to get away from things."
I put my hands to my face and turned away. I hated hearing it. "I don't know why I did. I hate this place."
"Well, in that case, the quicker we get things done, the quicker we can leave."
After a few seconds of painful contemplation, I heaved myself up from the bed. "Yeah, you're right. Fine, give me a minute."
"Also, you can get fucked if you think we're going out there by ourselves."
Forester's hollow was exactly what Alex had been looking for. A hidden, sheltered piece of ground in the dead centre of the forest, thick with skeletal pines and void of all but the faintest of light. The two torches we had went to Alex and me, and I kept mine fixed ahead. Every step I took gave a crunch of twigs and leaves, but aside from that, there was deathly silence.
"Woah," Alex exclaimed. "This is perfect."
"Perfect?" I said. "What the hell is there to see out here?"
Alex ignored me and forged ahead, taking us to the base of a high ridge. James perched on the trunk of a fallen tree and set up the cameras.
"We'll get some shots from here," Alex said. "Start off with you in shot - you can do some narration."
I forced down a sigh and did as Alex said. James shot in night-vision while I reeled off what I could remember about the place. All the while, I couldn't get the eerie silence off my mind. Not even the rustle of leaves in the wind disturbed me.
After my shot, James and Alex continued filming random bits of forest. We could have shot it anywhere. My torch began to flicker. I hastily set about hitting it back into life. With light restored, I left them to it and drifted aside for a smoke. My lighter was still playing up. After a few attempts, I was lit, and I took a long drag, looking out into the dimly lit trees. The fresh smell of the forest seemed somewhat dampened now; something odd, yet strangely familiar. I held the torch down to my side and turned it slowly, surveying the area. The silence took hold once again - an ominous emptiness that seemed to tease the arrival of something.
I couldn't even hear Alex and James by then. I dropped the half-smoked cigarette and stamped it out, turning back to see what was happening. James was busy changing the battery in the camera, but I couldn't see Alex anywhere.
"Where's she gone?" I asked.
"She's just gone up to the ridge," James replied, not looking up from his work.
"Really? Man, we've got to stick together. We'll get lost out here."
"Don't worry, it's just up there." He pointed vaguely toward the ridge to our left, about thirty feet above.
"Come on, let's see where she is."
When we got up to the top, there was still no sign of her.
"Bloody typical." I shone the light in all directions - still no sign. "What did she say she was doing?"
"Just that she was going to take a look for the next shot."
"How many do we need? Come on, we need to find her." We began calling out for her in the darkness, but no answer returned. We dared not split up - after all, she had the other torch. James stayed close to my side as we searched on. He said nothing, but I knew he was shaking as he walked. I was too by then. We went back in what we assumed was the direction we had come by. After a few more minutes of searching, calling and hoping, I saw something up ahead.
The forest was still as thick as a brush, but I glanced her outline among the trees in the distance. I swung the torch back to focus on it. It was her.
We called out again. No reply came. James yelled after her, but still she didn't turn. As I squinted into the distance, a shadow spread through the trees, and a massive black shape engulfed her, ripping her from view. I darted forwards, dropping the torch as I stumbled on the uneven ground.
I cursed between heavy breaths, my heart drumming in my chest. "Did you see that? Fuck, James, did you see it?"
He said nothing. Suddenly, there was an almighty gust of wind, and the trees shook violently. It chilled the skin on my fingers, and as quickly as it came, it ceased again. I pulled the lighter out, desperate for light in the now pitch-black wood. Nothing happened when I turned the wheel - not one spark. "James, help me find the fucking torch!"
We scrambled around through the leaves and twigs. Eventually, I put my hands on its familiar shape and turned it back on. I pointed it straight at the trees ahead. Nothing.
We ploughed on through the wood, desperate to reach Alex. I reached the very same spot, finding nothing - no trace that anyone had been and gone. On and on through the trees we searched, never finding a thing.
For four hours, James and I had searched the wood, calling out for our friend. We decided to head back to the hotel. I made my way into the office in Delaney's absence and used the phone to call the police. Within a couple of hours, and with the morning light breaking softly through the windows, the local sheriff and deputy arrived.
"So, your friend left you in Forester's hollow, and then what?"
James stayed silent, staring ahead. "We went to find her," I said, continuing our story. "We were calling her name, and we eventually saw her up ahead. Then, she was attacked. I dropped my torch - couldn't see a thing after that. But when we got it working again, she was nowhere to be seen."
"Right, and can you describe the attacker?"
I hesitated a moment. "It was so dark, I couldn't see clearly."
"It was the Woodsman," James said gravely.
"James, please. We don't know what we saw."
"Hang on," the deputy interjected. "You're saying the Woodsman took your friend?"
"No," I said sharply. "We don't know..."
"I know what I saw," James interrupted. "It was the Woodsman - a massive creature with red eyes..."
"You didn't see his eyes, you couldn't have."
The sheriff put up his hands to stop our arguing. "Okay, calm down, both of you. Boys, had you been drinking last night?"
"Come on," I said, "That's got nothing to do with it. Look, whatever we saw, there's a missing person here."
Suddenly, there were sounds from the front door. The handle turned, and Delaney's hunched figure entered the room. We all looked as he made his way, perplexed, over to us. It was then, as he approached, that I smelled it again - that odd, yet familiar smell.
"Morning, sir," the sheriff said calmly. "You must be the owner here - I'm afraid one of your guests has gone missing."
Before his sentence had finished, I was on my feet. "It was you," I said - calmly at first, then I repeated it with a yell and ran over to Delaney, grabbing him by the shirt. "Where is she? What have you done?" I was immediately pulled back by the deputy and the sheriff came between us.
"What are you talking about?" Delaney stammered.
"I know it was you!" The deputy pushed me back. I stared daggers at him and continued yelling. "It was him there. I smelled his aftershave or whatever the fuck it is he has on him. It was him!"
The deputy calmly but forcefully took me to sit down. "What makes you think it was this man?" The sheriff asked.
"I've just told you - I smelled him out in the wood. He knew we were going to be there - he was the only one who could have known."
"Please," said Delaney. "I was out of town last night, I told you that."
"What were you doing out of town?" asked the sheriff.
"Well," Delaney began, hesitating. "I was visiting my mother in Richmond."
"And she can confirm that?"
"She's not doing well, sheriff. She has dementia, I'm not sure she can confirm anything, but people will have seen me come and go."
"How fucking convenient," I said bluntly.
Delaney became enraged. The deputy took him through to the next room while the sheriff stayed with James and me, ensuring we wouldn't do anything.
"Come down to the station," he said. "Get some coffee and you can make your statements."
James and I did as we were asked. We made our statements - another chapter in the story of the Woodsman. For the remainder of the day, we stuck around, waiting for any progress to break. No real progress came, other than the sheriff's attempts to exonerate Delaney of the crime.
I was told that his story checked out. He had an alibi, and there was no tangible evidence to suggest I was right. An investigation was set up - posters printed, broadcasts made, but no answers.
I kept telling myself that it had to be him. It had to be. If it wasn't, then what was the alternative?
January 15th, 1998 - Richmond International, later Heathrow, London.
Six weeks and no news. Over that time, I had made and received many difficult phonecalls with Alex's family. Our budget was depleted early, then our own savings. There was no job to go back to now either, but this was all superficial.
I played the events through over and over in my mind. I began to doubt myself on every point. James's statement to the police quite clearly described the Woodsman in all its infamy. I still can't say what I saw out there. I can't say what I saw at the hotel that night. I'd started to doubt that I was right about Delaney too.
James and I had a flight booked for the afternoon. We had to borrow money from back home - God knows how we were going to pay any of it back. I wanted to stay and search, or at least be around if Alex was found. James eventually convinced me that there was nothing else we could do there.
We had taken most of Alex's belongings back with us. I dreaded the thought of seeing her loved-ones back in England. Still, at least we had some things to hold on to.
We boarded the plane and sat in silence. I ordered a drink and quickly lost myself in my thoughts.
While looking through my bag for some tablets, I came across Alex's folder. I'd made sure that that and some other important items came in my hand luggage - you know what airlines are like with checked baggage. I don't know what it was that I thought I was doing, but I took the folder out and looked through. Reading her notes perhaps would keep some part of her with me.
I flicked through the pages and came across the missing persons files. Here were the elusive photos that Alex had mentioned that day in the diner. Each photo was accompanied by hand-written notes. I could hear her voice in my head reading out each word.
'Jack Hawes, 1952. Reported missing on Priory Hill...'
There he was, the fourteen-year-old boy in a clear photograph. Jack Hawes. A tall yet hunched boy in scruffy clothes, and a streak of white curving away from his fringe.