Extract from THE BLACKBIRD
They should have been dead.
That was what people kept telling me in the days before I went out to see the scene for myself. I spoke to family and friends, to the medics and fire crews who were actually there on the night it happened, and they all said the same thing – there was no way Cate and Aiden Gascoigne should have been able to survive a crash like that.
On the morning I was due to drive down to what was left of the scene, I got up early and, over breakfast, used my laptop to repeatedly inch back and forth along the lane where it had happened. It was on the eastern edges of the Surrey Hills and what I saw online looked benign. The route was a sloped, two-lane road, hemmed in by trees on both sides, with a ravine to the west – the Gascoigne’s right as they travelled down the hill – although the ravine wouldn’t have been visible from their vehicle. Top to bottom, the lane was less than a mile long, with a junction for the M25 at one end and a village called Gatton at the other. There were two minor bends enroute, the road itself was in good condition, and the night the Gascoigne’s plunged ninety feet into the ravine, it had been a dry evening in early January. No frost, no ice, not a hint of rain.
So it wasn’t the weather that had caused the accident.
And it wasn’t the layout or the quality of the road.
Their car had been a black Land Rover Discovery, two years old. The history on it showed no issues and it had only just been through its service, so everything – including the tyres – had literally been checked days beforehand.
That meant it wasn’t the car or the tyres either.
Yet something had happened to cause the accident because – three minutes after exiting the M25, and only ten seconds after a CCTV camera halfway down Gatton Hill captured the two of them on film, apparently untroubled inside the car – Aiden Gascoigne lost control of the vehicle and the Land Rover nose-dived into the ravine.
The photographs of the scene in the casework, taken by forensic techs in the aftermath, were certainly better than nothing, but the portrait they painted wasn’t as lucid as it could have been. The crash had happened at dusk, so a lot of the shots were too dark, even when I adjusted the levels on them, or they were the opposite: bleached by a flash, or over-saturated because of the big, mobile lights that had been craned in and erected in the gully. Other pictures in the file were scanned-in physical photos, originally developed so that presumably – unlike digital shots, which would stay on a police database – they could be pinned to a board somewhere in an office at Thames Valley Police and studied. Overall, they were better quality but, by the time the case wrapped up – still unresolved – and the pictures were taken down from those boards, they’d accumulated a mesh of hairs, creases and pale, coffee-coloured water damage.
There was, however, one clear shot.
It had been taken from the flank of the ravine, about twenty-five feet up from the crash, by an accident investigator. He or she had climbed part of the way up a sloping carpet of scree which covered one side of the gully, and tried to get an angle on the wreckage. There were a couple of trees in the way – both of them stripped to the bone by winter – and a very light spotting of frost at the foot of the chasm, although none around the circumference of the Land Rover. Instead, because of the fire, there was only a pitch black ring, the grass, ferns and overhanging branches all scorched.
In the centre of the ring, the Land Rover – on its roof – barely looked like a car at all. It had been transformed into a ragged tangle of metal, the front concertinaed all the way into the dashboard, every single window smashed. Investigators had drawn an illustration of how they believed the descent had gone, the impact points on the slope of the ravine, but in the end, maybe it didn’t matter all that much: the damage was obvious from just a single photograph, its severity stark and brutal, and however many times the Land Rover turned, whichever part of its chassis crunched against the scree – however hard its roof hit the floor of the gully at the end – there should only have been one outcome for the husband who’d been driving, and the wife beside him.
They should have been dead.
But that was the thing about the accident. That was why the photographs of the crushed Land Rover spent so long pinned to a board at Thames Valley Police. It was why the media began labelling it ‘The Mystery of Gatton Hill', and why the footage of the Gascoignes, captured by CCTV ten seconds before the accident, had got over three million views on YouTube. In the video, everyone could see it was them, Aiden at the wheel, Cate looking out of her window. Everyone knew they should have been dead, that the accident should have crushed them, or broken them in half; it should have severed limbs, and arteries, and blood vessels. It should have incinerated them both.
But it didn’t.
Because when members of the emergency services got to the bottom of the ravine ten minutes after the crash, there was something wrong with the Land Rover.
It was empty.
The Gascoignes had vanished.