Josh Jackson didn’t worry when his cousin failed to come home. It was Saturday night and Kevin was eighteen. Josh wasn’t about to impose a curfew on the kid. Neither was he going to babysit. Kevin was old enough to take care of himself.
Josh checked Kevin’s room when he came home from work at one o’clock. The spare bed hadn’t been made since Kevin had gotten out of it that morning and yesterday’s clothes were all over the floor—discarded jeans with his boxers still inside them, a scruffy T-shirt and a pair of dirty socks. The smell of the socks hit him from the doorway. Despite the reek of cheap deodorant and aftershave filling the room, the socks were pungent. Teenagers. Josh wasn’t about to tidy up after him so he left things as they were, including the damp towel draped over the foot of the bed. The kid was only staying a few nights. If he wanted to live in a mess like that, so be it, so long as he left the place as he’d found it when he moved on.
Josh shut the door and went to bed. He wished his cousin luck. If the boy wanted to get laid, he’d rather he did it somewhere else. It was bad enough that Josh’s lodger, Bobby, regarded the place as a Grindr pit stop, without his cousin treating it like a knocking shop, too.
Josh read for a while and half-listened for the sound of Kevin coming home, but eventually fell asleep.
He wasn’t overly concerned in the morning to find Kevin’s room just as he’d left it, though by now it smelled considerably worse. The fancy fragrances had worn off and all that remained was the fetid odor of teenage sweat and damp towel. So, he stayed out all night. Good on him. Josh had been a teenager once, a horny one at that, so he could totally relate. Kevin wouldn’t get the chance to fuck around much when he was at home. His mother had very rigid views on that. It wouldn’t have mattered whether Kevin had turned out straight or gay. His mother had raised a good boy and intended to keep him that way.
Kevin will be going back to her in a couple of days. He might as well have fun while the leash is off.
He was a good-looking lad. Josh knew he’d be popular in town. A little baby-faced for his age, but with the family features of blue eyes and blond hair, his fresh twinkie image would attract plenty of attention. He looked a lot like Josh had at that age. Josh had been a slim-looking twink until well into his twenties. It was only in the last few years he’d filled out with muscle and looked more like a man. The beard helped. How grateful he’d been when the ability to grow more than a few wisps of pale chin-fluff finally occurred. He kept it neat with a regular trim, but now that he had grown a beard, he couldn’t ever see himself being without one.
Josh called Kevin’s mobile while waiting for his morning coffee to brew. It rang a few times before going to voicemail. “Hi, it’s me,” he said. “Not checking up on you, I just want to know you’re okay. Give me a ring back, or a text when you get this message. Just to say you’re alive… Otherwise I’ll have to call your mother,” he added jokingly and hung up.
He had bigger concerns than a randy teenager. His restaurant, The Cellar Steps, was short on staff today and fully booked for both lunch and dinner. He’d asked all his remaining staff to come in early to help with the prep and service, which meant getting in even earlier himself. As the owner, it wasn’t necessary, since he employed a manager for the day-to-day running, but Josh believed in setting an example from the top down. That meant rolling up his sleeves when things got tight. He thought about putting a little cash Kevin’s way to help out, if he arrived home in decent time and wasn’t too hung over.
He heard the heavy thud of the newspapers landing in the hall. Perfect timing. A little news and some freshly brewed coffee. A relaxing start to an otherwise hectic day.
Josh sat at the kitchen table with multiple Sunday supplements spread all around him when Bobby stumbled out of his bedroom in just his boxers and a T-shirt, yawning and scratching his belly and balls at the same time. His semi-hard dick waggled in the front of his shorts. Bobby lurched into the bathroom and returned a few minutes later, looking fractionally more awake, minus morning wood.
“Coffee?” Bobby asked. “Okay if I help myself?”
“You know where it is,” Josh said, drawing back from the stench of alcohol that came off him in stale waves. “Jesus, your blood must be one hundred proof.”
“I think I’m still drunk,” Bobby observed. “The hangover hasn’t kicked in yet.”
“I don’t envy you when it does.”
“One cup of this and I’m crawling back beneath the duvet.”
Josh looked at him uncertainly. An idea had just occurred to him. He hoped he was wrong. “I don’t suppose my cousin is under that duvet with you?”
Bobby chuckled, his dark eyes crinkling. “Wouldn’t that be something? He is kinda hot. But little blond cupcakes are not my thing. In Kevin’s case, I could make an exception. Maybe.”
“But did you?”
“Too close to home, bro. The kid’s a cutie but he ain’t worth the earache. I’d never hear the last of it.”
It was some relief. Josh didn’t have a problem with his young cousin fucking around—but with Bobby, no way. His lodger was a good friend but a total slut. Kevin would need a lot more experience under his belt before he was ready for that old hound. “I don’t suppose you do know where he is? He hasn’t been home.”
“He’s between somebody’s sheets, all right. I walked into town with him last night, had a drink and showed him where to go.”
“You left him on his own?”
“No, he left me. I guess I cramped his style. He headed off toward Gala Square with a group of studenty types. He didn’t know how fast to ditch me once he got to talking to people his own age.”
Josh loosened up again. He’d been right about Kevin. He knew what he was doing. A young man in a new city making friends fast. There was nothing to worry about.
* * * *
The lunch shift at The Cellar Steps was as frenzied as Josh had predicted. Sundays were always lively. He never had to worry about advertising the restaurant. It was the kind of place where, once people found it, they always came back. The main entrance was on Sadler Street in the center of Durham, close to the cathedral and castle entries. A low doorway on the ancient cobbled street led to a narrow stone staircase. First-time visitors were always excited by what they found below—a grand restaurant across two floors, built into the old cellars that dated back to the thirteenth century. The original stone arches and features survived, creating intimate dining alcoves. But it was the view that took people by surprise. From the upper floor, wide windows gave a magnificent view of the River Wear, which looped around the city.
Josh had fallen in love with the building the first time he had come here. It had taken three years of hard work to establish a reputation. The Cellar Steps was one of the few independent restaurants left in a city taken over by large chains. His chefs used the freshest local produce to create ever-changing, seasonal menus. The trick was to get people talking. Once word of mouth had spread, he had never looked back.
Sunday service was so busy that he didn’t have a chance to worry about Kevin until things wound down around three-thirty. He helped his staff clear the tables, then left them to reset for the evening. Josh snagged his phone and climbed the steps to Sadler Street. Outside, he breathed in the fresh air. It was warm, but nothing compared to the heat of the packed restaurant. The glorious weather had drawn visitors to the city and the narrow street was thronged with people.
Josh studied his phone. Still no message from Kevin. Not even a text. What is he playing at? He dialed the boy’s number. It went unanswered before again going to voicemail.
“C’mon, man, where are you? Drop me a line to say you’re okay?”
Josh tugged at his bottom lip. He knew better than to worry. Kevin was an adult, and yet… Each year there were several untimely deaths in the river. Young kids, generally students, had too much to drink and sometimes tumbled into the unexpectedly fast-flowing currents. And it wasn’t that long since a serial killer, The Durham Strangler, had preyed on young men in the area. Men like Kevin. No, he told himself, you’re fretting about nothing. The Durham Strangler was dead and the river had been low all week. There had been no significant rain since June.
Still, once planted, the idea took root.
Josh called Bobby. “Has he come home yet?”
“Who?” Bobby grunted.
“Kevin. Who do you think?”
“No. Not heard him.”
Josh sighed. “Check his room, will you?”
“I’m watching Four in a Bed,” Bobby grumbled.
“Just do it,” he snapped. He listened to the heavy-footed lumber as Bobby moved from the sofa to the spare bedroom.
“It’s empty. Shit, man. Have you seen the state he’s got this place in? He’s only been here a few days and it looks like a crack house. It smells really rotten, too.”
Something tightened in Josh’s lower belly. “All right, now I’m worried. He’s not answering his phone. Do you think I’m overreacting?”
“Dunno. I’d have thought he’d have the decency to stay in touch with the guy who’s putting him up for free, but that’s just me. He’s a kid. Fuck knows what goes on in their heads.”
“I was just thinking about, you know… The river. And the strangler from a few years back.”
Bobby laughed. “Ooh, the drama!”
“I’m serious. What if something’s happened to him and I’ve done nothing?”
“What’s happened to him is that he’s off his face on pills someplace. Or getting his brains fucked out. Or both.”
“That doesn’t make it better,” Josh said.
“It’s what kids do these days. Apparently.”
“Damn. I need to find him.” Josh paced the pavement. He’d never experienced this kind of responsibility, not for anyone. When Kevin had asked if he could stay a few days, he hadn’t thought it would involve all this shit. Kevin had a place at Durham University, starting in September. He had said he wanted to check out the city and get a feel for it before his first term commenced. It had sounded like an innocuous request.
“When you called him, was his phone switched on or did it go straight to voicemail?” Bobby asked.
“No, it rang a few times first. Why?”
“GPS. If the phone is still on, you can track it.”
“You’re joking, right?”
Fifteen minutes later, and with the help of Rachel, a nineteen-year-old kitchen assistant, Josh had downloaded an app to his smartphone and paid twenty pounds to register for an account with an online phone tracker.
“What? It’s as easy as that? For twenty quid, I can find out where anyone is via their mobile phone? That’s got to be a stalker’s dream app.” Josh stared at the screen. This couldn’t be right. It was a huge breach of privacy. Maybe Kevin didn’t want him to know where he was.
Then he should answer his bloody phone so I know he’s alive.
Josh programmed Kevin’s number into the app and hit Search.
The app tracked the handset to a position outside of the city. Josh began to doubt the accuracy of the system as he drove farther into the country. The landscape became more winding and rural with every mile. There had to be a mistake. Kevin wouldn’t have come all this way for a one-night stand. Would he? As he navigated the route through a thickly wooded area, Josh pulled over to the side of the road and checked the phone number he had entered. Perhaps he’d miskeyed a single digit and was tracking somebody else’s phone.
No. It was Kevin’s number, all right. Shit. This made little sense. There was nothing to see on either side of the road, just dense forest. The trees overhung the road and formed a canopy that blocked out most of the afternoon sun. Josh’s concern deepened. What if Kevin hadn’t come here for a one-night stand? What if he had been forced against his will? What if he was already dead, lying in a ditch somewhere ahead?
No, Josh was being absurd. Bobby was right. He was a drama queen. Plenty of people from these rural areas came into Durham on the weekend. If Kevin had met someone he liked, there was every chance he would have gone home with them.
Josh checked the app again. It located the phone a little over a mile away. What the hell? He’d come this far. He drew the car back onto the road and followed the trace.
The tracker took him off the main road and down a track. The car jerked across the uneven trail, hardened after weeks of summer sun. He slowed to under fifteen miles an hour. He didn’t want to fuck his suspension on top of everything else. Eventually the road widened again and he came upon a set of high, wrought-iron gates.
Josh got out of the car and approached the entrance. A red brick wall extended in both directions, tall and imposing. The message couldn’t be clearer—keep out. There was a brass plaque mounted at the side of the gates. Winterstone Grange.
What the hell is Winterstone Grange? Josh had lived in Durham his whole life and hadn’t heard of the place. It wasn’t a hotel or spa. It had to be some kind of private estate. He pressed his face to the gates. A winding drive twisted through another area of woodland. Through a break in the trees, he made out a large manor house ahead. A long rectangular-shaped building with dozens of sash windows. There was an ornamental lake in front of the house.
What is Kevin doing in a place like this?
Uncertainly, he dialed Kevin’s number again. It cut to voicemail after the customary few rings. He didn’t bother with a message this time. The tracking app placed the phone within these walls. He wondered again how accurate the thing was. The website claimed it could trace a phone to within a hundred meters in urban areas, less so in rural spots. But he was hardly in the middle of nowhere. The city was less than ten miles away.
Kevin’s phone was here.
Josh pressed the intercom on the wall. No answer. He jabbed the buzzer again, holding it longer. Still nothing.
What the hell?