The 10th novel in the Ben Cooper and Diane Fry series.





On the banks of the river, Ben Cooper was running. His breath came ragged and hot in his throat. The sweat ran into his eyes. All around him, water rushed over stones, pale rocks gleamed under the surface, wet slabs of limestone caught the glare of sunlight trapped in a narrow valley. As he splashed at the edge of the water, he saw shimmers of steam rising from the wet grass, bursts of foam on the edge of his vision. And he saw long streams of blood, swirling in the current like eels.

A hundred yards away, someone had started to scream. The noise echoed off the limestone cliffs, and shrieked among the caves and pinnacles of the dale. He wanted to put his hands over his ears to block out the noise, to stop the pain of the screaming.

But he knew it would never stop, would never be out of his head again.

Behind him, other people were running. He could hear them stumbling and gasping, crashing into trees, cursing each other. The outlines of the Twelve Apostles swayed against the sky above him, jagged stone spires bursting from the hillside like teeth.

Cooper stopped to swipe the sweat from his eyes, wondering whether he was seeing anything properly. The sun reflecting off the water created impenetrable shadows and glittering fringes of light, caught strands of grass waving below the surface like hair. A fish popped up to the air, another jumped and splashed across the river. Water foamed around an obstruction, a shape lying deep on the gravel bed.

Cooper shook his head. Who was screaming? Why didn’t someone tell them to stop? There were enough people here by the river. Scores of people. Dozens of families had been drawn into Dovedale by the hot May bank holiday weather. Sensing the sudden burst of excitement, they milled aimlessly on the banks like panicked sheep. In the distance, he could see them lining the stepping stones in a dumb row.

Nearby, a man stood on the bank, his hands raised, water dripping from his fingers. Cooper had the mad impression that he was some kind of priest, performing a blessing. High on an arch of rock another figure hunched, silhouetted against the sky, his face invisible. A predator on its perch, scanning the valley for prey.

In the water, Cooper saw another rock. More rocks everywhere, lying half in and half out of the river, worn as smooth as skin. Pale, wet skin, everywhere in the water. What chance did he have of distinguishing anything? No chance. No chance, until it was too late.

He looked up again. Was it really someone screaming? Or was it just a bird, startled from its roost in the birches on the limestone edge? A whole flock of birds screeching to each other, over and over, a cacophony of despair. It felt as though the rocks themselves were screaming.

He breathed deeply, tried to focus, forced himself to be calm. Now wasn’t the time to lose his head. He was a police officer, and everyone was looking to him to do something. He lowered his eyes, and kept running. Still there was too much light glaring off the water, too many shadows, too much random movement. The roots of an ash tree covered in algae crouched at the edge of the water. A broken branch lay like a severed limb.

There were shouts up ahead now, and the sound of an engine. Voices calling questions, and shouting instructions. Finally, someone was trying to take charge of the chaos. He stumbled into the water, splashed spray in a wide, glittering arc. The coldness of the water was a painful shock, a blast of ice on his hot skin. He missed his footing on a wet stone, slipped, found himself crouching low over the water, staring at a broken reflection of his own face.

No. Not his own face. It was smaller, motionless – a white face, hair floating, the blood washed clear by cold, crystal streams, a green summer dress tangled on the body like weeds. A green shroud of weeds barely stirring in the water.

He plunged his hands into the river and grasped the limp arms. With a heave, he drew the body up out of the water, into the air, and held the cold form in arms, hardly daring to look at the white face. The limbs flopped, her head lolled back on her neck. Water cascaded from the folds of her dress and oozed from the sides of her mouth.

Finally, Cooper raised his voice.

‘Here,’ he called.

And then the screaming stopped. The limestone gorge fell silent. And there was only the roar of rushing water – the endless sound of the River Dove, never stopping, continually washing clean. A torrent of water, purifying death.

Cooper turned towards the bank. And that was when he saw them. They were standing close together, but apart from the crowd, as if the onlookers had instinctively drawn away. Two adults, and a boy of about thirteen. He stared at them in despair, his mouth moving but no words coming out.

Their isolation, the tense attitude of their bodies, the desolation of their expressions – they all told him the same story. This was the dead girl’s family.



Copyright Stephen Booth 2010



LOST RIVER is published in hardback in the UK by HarperCollins in April 2010


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