The story so far:
After failing in his attempts to discover the whereabouts of his brother Michael, Joe Palliser has to deal with an aggressive journalist, and we learn that Jennifer Allthorpe, the journalist’s associate is to remain in the locality dig up some further dirt on Joe.
Meanwhile, Joe honours his commitment to Sophie Forbes-Pattinson, and takes her to a small café in a little harbour town for an evening meal. The date gives them the opportunity to learn more about each other, and provides evidence, if any were needed, that they share a mutual attraction…
By the time Sophie and Joseph began their drive back to Hallbury the hour was late and the roads almost free of traffic: on their way Joseph asked Sophie how much she knew of the Violet Parkin story.
“Only what I’ve read in the local ‘paper. Village gossip tends to get filtered out before it reaches us.”
And Joe said that was good because he needed to confide in someone who could weigh the facts impartially.
“I am she!” Sophie volunteered brightly. “Prattle on!”
So he told her the story – about the murder and how Violet’s body was found, how evidence had placed Jack Parkin near the scene sometime on the fatal afternoon. Then he retold Aaron’s account of the coven, and his concerns about Michael. He resurrected little Christian Matheson, together with the stories that surrounded his disappearance; concluding with the slaughtered crows and the sad demise of Benjy the cat.
“All rather grisly, Joe. I heard about the graves – that happened the other day, didn’t it? Before Mrs. Parkin was buried?”
Joseph had half-expected Sophie to suggest he was falling victim to parochial superstition; even to ask why he really cared anyway. But she didn’t. She fell silent for a while, as the final miles passed.
“It all ties together, doesn’t it,” She said at last, “but witchcraft, Joe? I’ve read about so-called witches who were just herbalists, or odd-looking octogenarians who managed to offend the wrong people. There were a few bad apples, I suppose; who cursed people for a fee, brewed up nasty poisons, tried to invoke the devil, that sort of stuff. Mostly rubbish, I should have thought, though the thing that strikes me is the probability that Mrs. Parkin counted herself as a witch. Would one witch really murder another – black against white, maybe?”
Joe replied, grinning, that if Annie Parkin was a witch of any colour it would be black. He was secretly pleased by Sophie’s interest.
Their last mile was covered and they were driving the lane through the centre of Wednesday Common when Joe slowed the car, bumping off the metalled road onto a grassy track. After a hundred yards or so, where a clump of small trees offered concealment, he stopped, cutting the engine.
The inflection in Sophie’s tone was unmistakeable. “Now I wonder why we’ve stopped here, Joe?”
He chuckled: “It’s my surprise. Time for adventure. Come on!”
After opening the passenger door to let Sophie out, Joe extracted a canvas bag from the car boot. Then, taking her hand for reassurance he led her, not back along the track towards the road, but further into the depths of the Common. Sophie kept pace, refraining from complaint, though bracken scratched her legs and she could barely see in the darkness. “Where are we going?”
“For a walk.”
“Oh, absolutely! For a walk with a bag that clanks.” Sophie’s voice shook a little. “What have you got in there; tools to cut me up with?”
She seemed so capable and confident; it hadn’t occurred to Joe that he might frighten her, that he was still a comparative stranger who she might not completely trust. “I’m sorry,” he said. Emboldened, he found her in the darkness, gently taking her shoulders. She was breathing quickly. “I could never do you harm, Sophie.”
“It’s Okay,” She whispered: “I didn’t really think you would….”And she turned into him, pressing her cheek to his. “You’re sort of scary.” She said; “And that’s sort of nice.”
He asked: “You enjoy being scared?”
“Mmmm, sort of. I enjoy being scared by you.”
Her cheek was cool, very soft. Joe knew he must kiss her then and he did, though it was not in his plan; and the taste of Sophie, her warmth against him gave him an unfamiliar sense of self-worth, of companionship. It was a long kiss, sweetly comforting, that invited more.
“Down to business!” He exclaimed, breaking away with difficulty and the feeling that, if fate should provide him with a dragon now, he would be able to slay it easily. “Not far!”
The lights of the village were clear. House windows, an occasional street lamp offered sanctuary, but Joe seemed intent upon avoiding them.
Sophie restrained him. “No, we don’t. Not until you tell me where we’re going, Joe Palliser.”
“Why, Sophie! We’re going housebreaking!”
“Oh!” Sophie cried, a world of doubt lifted from her shoulders. “Excellent! Why didn’t you say?”
The Parkin farm was in darkness when they stole through the gate, keeping in the shadow of the wall as they worked their way around to the back of the house.
“I want you to know;” Sophie whispered: “I rather liked kissing you.”
“I liked it too.”
“If we’re arrested, do you think they’d let us share a cell?”
“I doubt it. Please stop, this is very bad for my concentration!” Joe begged. Now hidden from view behind the farmhouse, he ferreted as quietly as he could in the bag of tools he had borrowed from Owen’s garage that afternoon (without Owen’s permission, of course); they rattled disturbingly in the silence.
“What’s that?” Sophie asked, as he produced something metallic and heavy from the bag.
“I think housebreakers would call it a gemmy.”
A kitchen window, half-rotten, yielded to Joe’s assault with little resistance. He pulled it wide open.
“You first.” He joked.
“Certainly not! You’ll get a perfect view of my bum. After you, Raffles!”
“I told you to wear jeans.”
It was an easy climb. Joe made his way in, to find himself standing in what he assumed to be the kitchen sink. Sophie passed him the bag of tools then focused upon retaining her dignity as she managed her short skirt through the window.
“Don’t stare!” She chided.
“It’s too dark!” He complained.
What had Joe expected? The smell of fungal damp was oppressive, but otherwise the limited light of his carefully-shielded torch flicked around a typical farmhouse kitchen; picking out an immaculately blacked range in a wide chimney breast, cupboards and a sideboard of polished wood, a scrubbed table, a couple of functional wooden chairs. The red flagstone floor seemed to be clean; a mat (over which he almost tripped) protected an area around the sink. It was a frozen moment: there were two plates on the table, remnants of food on one from which Jack had probably eaten when he returned for his tea: had he thought his wife was out somewhere, possibly visiting in the village? A cup with dregs on the sideboard – tea, probably; probably Violet’s: Joe could not imagine Jack Parkin drinking tea.
Producing an extra torch from his bag, Joe passed it to Sophie so she might scan the room for herself. “My Goodness!” She exclaimed under her breath: “Didn’t they bother to search this place at all?”
There was certainly no sign of disturbance: everything was neatly arranged – too neatly, was Joe’s immediate thought. He cringed at the creak of the kitchen door, casting his light back and forth along the narrow passage which sufficed for a hall. A besom was propped by the front door. Sophie gestured meaningfully.
“Probably just to sweep the step?”
A panelled door on the opposite side of the hallway revealed a living room so pungent with the aroma of dry rot it almost choked them. Joe’s torch hurriedly scanned shelves of bric-a-brac lining one wall: an armchair, its colourless upholstery worn into holes, a settee in such an advanced state of dilapidation it looked as if it might swallow its next unwary visitor, a rocker that quivered eerily as he stepped across the sagging floor. Sophie held both torches while he searched through drawers and cupboards for anything that might reveal a clue to what happened the afternoon Violet died. All he found, though, was the paraphernalia of everyday living. A damp-damaged photo of Jack Parkin peered from a wooden frame on the mantelshelf; otherwise there seemed to be no personal effects at all. What was he looking for?
“What are we looking for?” Asked Sophie. “An edition of ‘Witches Weekly, or something?”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful! So good to have a plan!””
They inched their way up threateningly unsteady stairs to a small landing that became a passage running the length of the house. Two doors admitted them to rooms ostensibly above the kitchen, the furthest a tiny space at the end of the house crammed with enamel bowls, wooden chests, stacks of newspapers, what looked like a trouser press, a folding frame from a chair, even a Union Jack. There was also an almost uninterrupted view of the stars where roof tiles were missing and the ceiling had collapsed. Nothing that anyone prized could be concealed in this space.
The nearer door was a bedroom – or was it? More the scrape of a wild hare than a room: a single iron bed, its springs sagging, made up with a rag-bag of blankets, sheets and an old bolster pillow. There were men’s unwashed clothes strewn neglectfully on the floor. Cider bottles were everywhere: some filled, some refilled and corked, mostly empty.
Joe heard Sophie trying to restrain a retching in her throat. He felt for her. It was unlikely she had ever seen squalor like this. “Is this what he comes back to if he’s freed? He’s better off in jail!”
Across the landing the other bedroom, over that damp lounge, was larger: here there were feminine touches. There was a hint of boudoir, conflicting somewhat with Joseph’s recollection of Violet and her masculine stamp. As they searched amidst the frills and favors they found more and more of Violet Parkin in this room.
“Photographs?” Sophie pulled an album from a drawer in the bedside table. She flicked through old sepia pictures titled in neat handwriting, depicting a younger if not much slighter Violet in her teenage years. There were family groups in Edwardian dress with Violet the little girl in the company of a plumply optimistic woman and a wiry dry stick of a man not half her size.
“That must be Ben Wortsall,” Joe commented. “He doesn’t look exactly fearsome, does he?”
A charabanc-load of posing faces followed (outing to Marsden, summer 1924), and some seaside snaps. As Sophie neared the back of the book a small flat package, tied with some coarse thread fell from between pages and dropped to the floor. It was just large enough to fill the palm of her hand.
“Oh, how tiny!” She tried to undo the knot securing the wrapping. “I believe it must have been sealed with something: I might break it.”
“We’ll look at it later,” Joes said, slipping it into his pocket.
They left nothing unturned – took such clothes as there were from Violet’s ancient wardrobe, turned the bedclothes and the mattress from the bed. They even looked beneath the carpet, but found nothing untoward. No clue that would unlock the mystery of Violet’s death, certainly; in fact, apart from a few photographs, very little about Violet at all.
Defeated, Joe gave Sophie’s arm the gentle tug that indicated they should leave. “I’m sorry,” he said, “it’s been a wasted evening.”
“Not entirely wasted, Joe darling.” Sophie gave his hand a squeeze. “Although it would help if you told me what the bloody hell you hoped to find!”
“Something. I can’t explain, Sophie, but I know it’s here. Whatever it is that made Violet into a real person; that made her the way she was. This house has a secret, I’m sure of that.”
They were descending the creaking stairway, careful in the torch’s limited light, when they heard the scrape of a key in the front door.
“Oh god! Someone’s coming in!” Sophie hissed. “What now, Raffles?”
“Now?” Joe whispered. “Run!”
He grabbed her hand. Throwing caution to the winds, they stumbled down the remaining stairs, bolting for the kitchen. Their flight must have been heard, for the turning of the door-key paused.
“Who’s there?” A man’s voice demanded. “Who’s that?”
Now the front door was opening with some urgency – a heavy shoulder crashed against it to force it to yield, and swift footsteps advanced into the hall.
In the kitchen, Joe collided with the table, shooting a javelin of pain into his groin. Cursing incoherently, he jammed the table against the door then, in the few precious moments thus gained he limped to help Sophie, who was struggling through the window, lifting her quickly by her hips. She scrambled, squealing her indignation, before disappearing into the darkness outside. As Joe grabbed his bag of tools the table shot out into the room and the kitchen door burst wide His feet followed him in a headfirst dive through the window and he landed shoulder first on the cobbles.
“This way!” He was back on his feet in an instant, grabbing Sophie’s hand as together they ran for the back of the yard – for the field gate that hung, half-open there; and the shielding darkness of the meadow beyond.
“Don’t look back!” He warned. “Don’t let him see your face!”
Sophie hopping to remove her heels, Joe wincing at the latent ache in his groin; both ran, and sheltered finally under a cloak of night, they chanced a peek behind them to see a man’s head in the window they had forced, silhouetted by the light of a hurricane lamp. It was difficult to identify the figure, although something about him seemed familiar.
Crouched low, tool bag tucked beneath Joe’s arm to silence it, and with Sophie laughing so hysterically as to make any attempt at stealth futile, the pair struck out across the grass. Joe deliberately avoided the most obvious route, allowing his memory to direct him to a gap in the hedgerow which he knew would lead out onto Church Lane.
“Through there?” Sophie complained; “I hope you’re going to recompense me for this hair-do, Joey Palliser.”
From the lane they doubled back, eventually arriving undetected – or so they believed – at Joseph’s parked car. Guided by what he hoped was inbuilt radar, supplemented by large helpings of luck, Joe manoeuvred the unlit Wolsey back to the road. He drove the best part of half a mile before he felt confident enough to switch on the lights.
Although confident they were not followed, still Joe did not want his car’s headlights to be seen, or give away either his or Sophie’s connection with the village. So he drove, not back into Hallbury, but towards Walcotter Bridge, the next large village. He sought out a lay-by shielded from the road and pulled over; slumping back into his seat.
“That was close.”
Sophie had said nothing throughout this journey. She was engaged in meticulous preening, pulling large amounts of green stuff from her fine, long hair and collecting it, thoughtfully, in the car’s ashtray. Now she accorded him a cool look.
“Well, it was interesting.” She said dryly. “See the state I’ve got myself into? I’m an absolute scarecrow!”
“A very beautiful one. I’m really sorry. Shall I take you home?”
“No.” She shook her head, staring down at herself, “Although I suppose we will have to soon. I’m all scratched!” She raised her right leg, placing her bare foot on the car dashboard so Joey could verify in the dim interior light that her pale flesh was indeed a mass of minor scratches.
“How am I going to explain this away? How? Look!”
She laid the abraded leg across Joe’s lap. He took her foot gently in his hand and she giggled girlishly at his touch. Very tenderly, he stroked the wounded skin of her calf. He was of a mood to explore further.
She flexed sinuously, “Oh, you are good! You really are! But it is awfully late.” She disengaged herself gently, sinking back into her seat. “I can’t quite make you out, Joe Palliser – are you someone really special, or just the sad old Lothario they say you are? I saw someone different tonight – I see someone different every time we meet.”
“I thought you were supposed to be the chameleon?”
“True. But I think perhaps I pale to insignificance beside you. My camouflage might not be able to keep up, you see. If I weren’t careful, I should become prey. That much vulnerability isn’t something I’m used to.”
“No, I guess not.” Together, they stared out into the night. Finally, he said: “I don’t think I like being a chameleon: disguise isn’t me, Sophie; it really isn’t. It’s nice to be vulnerable sometimes…take it from someone who’s vulnerable all the time. Anyway, who are ‘they’?”
Sophie was lost in thought. “They?”
“The ‘they’ who say I’m – what was it – an ‘ageing Lothario’?”
“Jennifer Allthorpe, for one; she seemed very interested in you. Knew you were staying in the village, knew about your brother. She told me quite a lot about you, Joe, quite a lot.”
Joseph asked, in a dead voice: “So you heard about my life in London?”
“Some. I don’t know how much there is to tell.”
“Yet you still wanted to come out with me?”
She nodded; “Of course!” Then: “Because you’re interesting, Joe! Because the world is full of two-dimensional men and you’re certainly not one of them! Tonight’s been fun – different, but fun!”
“It lived up to expectations, then?”
Sophie reached for his hand and grasped it. “I’ve enjoyed it, I really have. Thank you.”
He slipped the Wolsey into gear. “Then we can do this again?”
She laughed: “Breaking and entering, you mean?” She studied him carefully. “I don’t know; should I?”
Highlands House was in darkness when the Wolsey crunched up to its doors. Sophie turned Joe’s head to her for a goodbye kiss which lingered, just a little, before she broke away. “I’ll call you.” She said, “Promise!” And she was gone. Joe watched her pause in the porch to tidy herself, then returned her wave.
© Frederick Anderson 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.
Photo Credit: Brandon Morgan on Unsplash