SO HARD TO FIND A RELIABLE WITNESS
What else was he supposed to do? They told him to pull the trigger.
Peter ran, as fast as he could, their cries of shock and anger pursuing him through the tangled thicket.
Within sight of the bridle path, he skidded to a halt and listened. Against the loud thrum of his heart, the forest seemed eerily quiet. Over his shoulder, he heard the snap of a twig, something moving in the undergrowth. Out from the dense bramble, he burst through a gap in the fence, onto the path that ran alongside the woodland track. Using every garden outhouse, pergola, and trash-can for cover, he watched for his pursuers, feeling like a fox at the first bugle-call.
At last, exhausted and spattered with mud, his t-shirt flecked with blood, he arrived home. He slipped quietly through the kitchen door, making straight for the utility room. He closed the door and quickly shrugged off his clothes. Everything, including his trainers, was bundled into the washer.
Breathing heavily, he clutched at the stitch in his side, drawing in as much air as his small frame would allow. Dropping onto a chair, he slipped into a clean pair of jeans, his shaking hands fumbling the buttons on a freshly laundered shirt. Leaning over the sink, he splashed cold water on his face.
He'd never seen so much blood.
All at once, the knot in his stomach unclenched and he retched. On tiptoe, his whole body twisted in spasm, he purged the remains of his school dinner. After a few false starts, the nausea slowly came to a hiccuping stop. With the last of the shepherd's pie flushed away, and with still no sign of his pursuers, Peter could, at last, breathe. Shivering and weak with fear, he crept along the hall and up the stairs toward his bedroom.
He'd forgotten about the creaky floorboards.
'Peter,' his mother's shrill voice called. 'Get down here -- this instant.'
Glancing at his reflection, he wiped his mouth and combed fingers through his matted hair, rehearsing what he hoped was a casual smile. Framed by a singly dimpled cheek, his sometimes cute, lopsided grin, looked forced and unnatural. Steeling himself, he straightened his collar and took a deep, shuddering breath.
'Hi, Mum,' he said cheerfully, opening the living-room door. 'Sorry I'm late, I had-'
He stopped mid-sentence, his mouth opening and closing, framing words that died in his throat.
'Ah, so this is young Peter.' Peering over his spectacles, the shorter of the two men spoke first. 'We'd like to ask you a few questions.'
Peter swallowed, his eyes riveted on the taller figure, whose uniformed profile dominated the room -- his bulbous headgear making him appear eight feet tall.
In a daze, he allowed himself to be steered onto an empty chair, barely registering their names.
'... Detective Sergeant Wallace, and this is my colleague PC-'
'Mummy Mummy, look! I found a dead frog!'
In through the patio doors, skipped a distraction in the shape of his younger sister, her pigtails bouncing merrily as she held out her hands.
'Ew, Bethany,' said her mother in exasperation, reaching for a box of tissue.
Clearing his throat, the detective pulled from his pocket, a small notepad. 'So, Peter, I expect you know why we're here.'
How did they get here so quickly?
'It's OK, lad,' said Detective Wallace, his blue eyes twinkling. 'We just need to go over a few things. Corroborate witness statements, that kind of thing.'
Witnesses? thought Peter. Since when did Gypsies give witness statements?
The detective was still talking. '... observed running from the scene of a serious assault.'
It was only an air rifle.
'Excuse me,' said Mrs Russell, running a comb over her daughter's hair. 'I gave you permission to ask questions, Detective, that's all. I will not allow careless accusation.'
Before he could respond, the little girl said, 'Has my brother been naughty again? Ouch! Mummy that hurts!' The little girl jumped to her feet, pulling the braids free of her mother's grip.
'Go wash your hands.' With a playful slap on the bottom, she sent her daughter skipping through to the kitchen.
Detective Wallace looked up, his eyes narrowed.
'Now, where were we?'
Unbidden, and with fear stoking the engine of his heart, Peter blurted out, 'I didn't mean to, it was an accident -- I'm really sorry.' Sobbing, he rushed into his mother's open arms.
Wallace stole half a glance toward his unsmiling colleague, and with a satisfied expression, he said, 'Of course you're sorry, Peter.'
The boy was hardly listening; his mind formed a zoetrope of images: the relentless taunts "Pull the trigger, pull the trigger", the loud report of the gun, and the unbridled shock as the teenager's arm exploded with blood.
Something of what the policeman was saying caught his ear. 'Who?' Peter asked, wiping his eyes.
Flipping his notepad back over, Detective Wallace repeated, 'Um, a Mr Alan Hopkins.'
Nonplussed, Peter looked up at his mother.
A loud cough and the uniformed officer spoke for the first time. 'You may know him better as Granddad,' he said. 'That's what all the children call him, apparently,' he added by way of explanation.
Clearly at a loss, the boy asked, 'They call him Granddad?'
Seeing the youngster's obvious confusion, Wallace looked to his stony-faced colleague and frowned.
The crackle of static from their police radio made everybody jump.
'Foxtrot Charlie to control, say again.'
Stepping through the hall, the young constable spoke into his radio as Detective Wallace continued to study the boy. If he didn't know any better.
'Sir?' The constable reappeared, and with a covert shake of his head, the atmosphere in the room changed.
'Look, before we go any further,' Wallace began, with more than a hint of frustration. 'I think it's important we retrace your footsteps.'
'Yes, it's now just after 7 o'clock in the evening, and I'd like to know where you've been for the last three hours?'
'Why?' said Mrs Russell, stroking the child's hair. 'Why should he answer any of these questions?'
With a sigh of resignation, Wallace said, 'I'm afraid, it's become much more serious, Mrs Russell. The victim, Mr Hopkins, has just died in hospital, and we need to establish Peter's exact movements-'
'What?' Peter was on his feet. 'But it was only his arm-'
What was going on? Was this a trick of some kind?
'No, Peter. Mr Hopkins died from head injuries.'
'What are you talking about?' said Peter.
'What are you talking about?' said Detective Wallace.
The boy stayed silent, looking utterly lost.
'Shall I tell you what we know? What we've been told at least?' said Wallace. 'According to a number of reliable witnesses, at just after 4 o'clock this afternoon, a young boy, matching Peter's description, was seen running from Mr Hopkins' office.'
Peter turned to his mother, his dark eyes wide. Meeting his gaze, and unseen by the two policemen, she gave an imperceptible shake of the head.
'The victim sustained severe head injuries, from which-'
'Detective,' interrupted Mrs Russell gently.
'I don't understand,' he said at length, after reading the note for the third time.
'It's very simple, Detective. As you can see from that letter, at 4 o'clock this afternoon, my son was still at school serving a detention.'
'They made me do lines. I must not swear at teachers,' Peter said in a sing-song voice, his tears practically forgotten.
'Can this be verified?'
'Phone the school,' she said. 'There's a number on the letter. Somebody should still be on duty, I think.'
'... only said bloody-hell,' Peter added in mitigation.
Bethany skipped back into the room, her mouth opened in shock. 'You swored!'
Wallace handed the letter to his colleague, who after reading it, looked equally confused. 'But he admitted it, Sir,' he said.
'Probably threw a stone at someone,' said Mrs Russell evenly, reaching for her mobile phone. 'I'd like this matter cleared up before you leave tonight, Detective.'
Bethany stood on tiptoe; cupping her hand, she whispered something into her mother's ear and giggled.
'I know, my darling. Be quiet now, don't interrupt.'
Pressing a finger to her lips, the little girl made a loud shushing noise, staring at her older brother and grinning stupidly.
In the hallway, just out of earshot, the two officers made a number of protracted phone-calls. Within the hour, they were standing at the front door, both of them looking suitably embarrassed.
'I can only apologize, Mrs Russell. Each of over a dozen witnesses named your son. I questioned most of them myself. I really don't know why they would lie...'
'Well it's all sorted now, that's the main thing,' she said.
'Yes. We will need to get a signed statement from Peter's teacher in the morning. We'll also be speaking to some of the other students.'
'Yes well,' Wallace said, his kindly smile reinstated. 'Seems that young Peter here, was not the only one they kept back after school.'
Smiling and laughing, and wishing them luck with their investigation, Mrs Russell swept them out of the front door and waved them off into the night.
With a soft click, she closed the door and rested her forehead against the jamb, breathing slowly.
Turning back to her son, her expression fierce, she said, 'Well? What do you think you're waiting for?'
As Peter climbed the stairs, grumbling to himself, she called after him. 'Don't forget these.'
One handed, he caught the small bottle and turned on his heel.
Up on the second floor, he pulled a length of rope, releasing a ladder that reached up into the attic. Climbing through the hatch, he threw the switch on a solitary pendant.
Peeling wallpaper hung from the sloping walls of a sparsely furnished, makeshift bedroom -- in the corner, a small figure sat on the edge of a single bed, stock still, peering up at the shuttered skylight, humming placidly to himself.
Framed by a singly dimpled cheek, his sometimes cute, lopsided grin, looked forced and unnatural.
Into his open hand, Peter doled out a single orange pill; he looked across to his twin brother, and with a heavy sigh, added a second.
Bethany had climbed up through the opening. 'Have you been naughty again?' she asked, peeping out from behind her brother's back.
From prompt two: Interview by police of a murder suspect.