A shrill piercing scream vibrated through the still, silent air. A plump middle-aged woman ran down the wooden steps from the bell tower – breathless and terrified at what she had just witnessed. She ran into the nave of the old church, running towards the voices and hurried steps she had heard coming from the vestry.
“There’s a woman hanging from a bell rope,” she screamed, pointing back to the way she had come. Her face was ashen in colour due to her terrible shock; she visibly shook from the sight of the horrific scene.
The four men looked at each other in total surprise!
“Ring the police!” she frantically cried. She was stunned at their behaviour – why were they just stood there doing nothing? She thought to herself.
The Vicar tried to calm her. “Come with me, I’ll make you a strong cup of tea, let these men see to her and ring the police, you must have had a nasty shock!” She heard the three men run up the wooden steps as she and the kind young vicar walked out of the church.
“Shouldn’t I stay for the police, they’ll want to interview me?” the frightened woman asked.
“Don’t worry, the men will tell them where we are,” he gently reassured her.
They walked towards a house nearby; the sign on the tall, wrought iron gate had the words ‘THE NEW VICARAGE’ written in bold black letters on it. There was a lovely old rambling building at the back of the house.
“Was that other house, the original vicarage?” she asked, trying to take her troubled mind off the body hanging from the bell rope.
“Yes, it was, but this house is more manageable. Come in and sit yourself down, I’ll pop the kettle on.” He left to go to the kitchen and she sat in a comfortable armchair, still trembling from her ordeal. The room was full of tall, old fashioned bookcases crammed with books on theology. A long-carved table stood in the middle of the room with 10 chairs placed around it – possibly where the parishioners conducted their parochial business, she thought.
“Here we are, this will help calm your nerves, what a dreadful shock you’ve had. We don’t generally have visitors coming to our village as it’s so very remote. I hope it hasn’t put you off coming again!” the cheerful vicar told her.
“No, I’ll come again, I didn’t take the photos I wanted.”
The vicar offered her a biscuit covered in a white powder, probably icing sugar, most unusual she thought. Her hands were still trembling as she raised her cup to her lips, she definitely didn’t like his choice in the brand of tea, it tasted awful and it was full of sugar. She politely drank it anyway and ate the strange biscuit.
“I came to photograph the tower; I’m very interested in bell towers. When I came to stay with my sister this morning, it was the first thing I wanted to do.”
“Yes, it’s a very beautiful old church, the square bell tower was added on later, I believe.” They chatted some more about the old church.
She began to feel lightheaded, perhaps it’s the shock, she pondered or was she suffering from a virus? She was beginning to become confused.
“I’ll take you back to your car,” the vicar told her, unaware of her condition. He helped her out of her seat.
“But…the…pol-police…wi-will…be…here… soon.” She was feeling very strange and her words were beginning to slur.
The vicar saw her to her car parked on the grass verge; she didn’t feel well at all and in a very confused state. She turned the car around and drove off down the 10-mile single tarmac road and turned onto the main road, to head back into the town. She was experiencing anxiety and began to hallucinate. The trees were walking into the road! They were like people; their roots had become legs and feet! She was horrified at the frightening spectacle evolving before her. She swerved wildly, to avoid hitting them!
The telephone rang loudly at the police station in the nearby town.
“Hello, I’m really worried about my sister, Christine Holmes,” a woman began to explain. “She went to Deadend village this afternoon, she is very interested in bell towers and was going to go and take some photographs there. She hasn’t returned! I’ve tried to ring her mobile phone but she must have forgotten it as it rang here!”
“Don’t worry, she’s probably been delayed by something or was chatting,” the police officer tried to reassure her.
“We had arranged to go out to celebrate her birthday but that was four hours ago!” she exclaimed.
“I suggest you ring the vicar and see if he knows anything. They have probably been talking about the old church and forgotten the time.”
She frantically rang the vicar’s number several times but there was no reply. She was extremely worried for her sister’s safety as the light had faded. She couldn’t drive out there herself, to look for Christine, as her own car was in the garage for repairs. She decided to ring the police again.
“Hello, my sister, Christine Holmes, has still not returned home.”
“I’ll send someone out to take some details from you, perhaps tomorrow if someone is available. If she does return home in the meantime please let us know,” came the reply.
She was dismayed at their lack of concern; she had a restless night worrying about the whereabouts of her sister.
“What is your sister’s name and address?” the pretty young police officer asked the following day.
Details were given from the anxious sibling. She continued: “She has greying dark brown hair. She wears glasses, they have a gold coloured frame… She was wearing a dark blue anorak, red jumper, black trousers and black ankle boots.”
“What kind of car was she driving and the registration number?”
“A Vauxhall Corsa, SG62… err…something, I can’t remember all the registration number.”
“What colour is it?”
“White, it has a dent in the car’s front bumper.”
“What time did she leave here? Did she appear her usual self, not depressed or anything like that?”
“No, she was a happy kind of person; she left after lunch about 1.40 pm.”
“I’m sure there is a reasonable explanation, so don’t worry. A police officer will go to the village and make some inquiries.”
A policeman drove up the lonely 10-mile country road. He noticed it was the first road he had ever driven on and not met another vehicle, not even a tractor! The little old church was the first building he saw; a few hundred feet away beyond the graveyard was The New Vicarage. There were fields on the opposite side of the road.
The young vicar opened the door.
“Hello, I’m making some inquiries about a middle-aged woman who I believe came to photograph the bell tower two days ago. Did you see her at all?”
“No, I’m sorry I didn’t, I was working around the church all day; if she was there, I would have seen her, I’m sure of that. Is she missing?” The policeman replied, “Yes, her sister reported her missing.”
The policeman wondered if Christine Holmes had decided to start a new life somewhere, which wasn’t breaking any laws; or perhaps her sister had something to do with her disappearance. Until more details could be obtained, the case wasn’t going anywhere.
Christine’s sister was beside herself with worry. It was definitely not like her sister to disappear like that without telling her what was going on.
A few days later an angler was walking along the banks of a lake near to the main road. He thought he could make out the top of a white car just below the surface of the murky water. He saw there were tyre marks in the steep embankment from the road as if the car had careered off the road and travelled down into the lake below. He rang the police on his mobile phone.
It was a day’s job lifting the car out of its watery grave – using a large crane brought in from elsewhere. A female body was found inside; she was still strapped into her seat belt. She was wearing a dark blue anorak, red jumper, black trousers and black ankle boots; all dripping wet. The clothed body was removed from the car and placed in a black body bag and taken away to the hospital mortuary, to be examined by the pathologist. The car was identified as Christine Holmes’ car; it was a white Vauxhall Corsa, with the part registration her sister had remembered. Christine’s camera was found in the foot well on the passenger side; her gold-coloured rimmed glasses were found smashed on the pedals by her feet. Her sister was told the dreadful news – she was half expecting that something like that had happened but was still very traumatized.
The police surveyed the scene from the road. It was obvious that Christine was travelling away from Deadend village back to the town when she veered off the road. There were tyre marks suggesting she was swerving erratically. Measurements were taken and calculations made to suggest she was only travelling at about 49 miles per hour. There were now more questions than answers. Had she been to the village and no one saw her? Or did she turn around to go home as she wasn’t feeling very well perhaps? Why did she veer off the road? Perhaps sheep in the road she was trying to avoid, was probably the answer.
The post-mortem revealed that Christine Holmes had drowned, her lungs were filled with muddy water. She had no alcohol in her blood or in her urine samples taken from her body, so it was determined it was an accidental death. Her sister arranged the funeral and Christine’s burial took place in the town’s cemetery. Her sister could only assume Christine had swerved for a rabbit or a deer and lost control of her car and it had careered down the embankment into the lake.
About six months later, the phone rang at the police station. “I’m very worried about my cousin, she lives at Deadend village, I haven’t heard from her in months. She doesn’t reply to phone calls, emails or letters; I live in Canada.”
“Perhaps she is on a long holiday,” the surly policewoman replied.
“She would have told me if she was going away on holiday, besides she didn’t even send me a Christmas card and she always does!”
“If you would like to give me her name and address, we will see what we can do.”
“Mrs Hilda Redford-Hamilton, she lives in The Old Vicarage.”
The following day, a police officer entered the sleepy village. There were snowdrops in clumps dotted around the grass verges. He drove up to the old rambling house. It was a magnificent limestone building with tall chimneys on a slate roof and had steeply pitching gables; it was three storeys high. The policeman walked up to the arched doorway; he was feeling the chill in the February air. He passed a Range Rover that looked very dusty. He knocked on the oak front door. There was no reply. He walked around the old stone building, and a black cat scampered after him. It was meowing softly, its tail held high. He peered in through the windows but couldn’t see Mrs Hilda Redford-Hamilton. He noticed a window at the back had been replaced – the putty around the window looked new compared to the other windows.
He drove down to the new vicarage but there was no one there, so he drove further on to a row of cottages and knocked on a brightly painted red door. A spritely lady in her eighties answered.
“Hello, I’m looking for Mrs Hilda Redford-Hamilton, I’ve been to her house at The Old Vicarage, but she isn’t in. Do you know where I can find her?”
“Folks say she’s away on a long holiday somewhere. She kept herself to herself so we don’t know much about her. She moved in a few years ago, very wealthy I believe – well she must be to be able to buy a big old house like that. The upkeep must be tremendous.”
“Does she own a black cat?” asked the policeman.”
“Yes, come to think about it, I believe she does. She calls it Winston.”
“Has she had a break-in recently? Or perhaps had a window accidently broken?”
“Not that I know of,” the smart white-haired woman replied.
“Who would you go to around here to have a window replaced?”
“Alan Grey is our glazier in the village, he lives at 3, Fell View Cottages, down the road.”
“Well, thank you for your time,” the police officer replied.
He spoke to Alan who was eating his tea in his small kitchen – the police officer was invited in for a mug of tea. The wood burning stove’s warmth was welcoming as he came in from the bitter cold wind.
“Aye, I did put the glass in window for Mrs H.R.H. – that’s the nickname we give her, it’s the initials of her name, it’s just easier to say than her long winded posh name, Mrs Hilda Redford-Hamilton.”
“Did she have a break-in?” asked the policeman.
“No, the window was cracked, probably from the frost of the winter before; it was very old glass.”
“Did she employ a gardener and a cleaner?” queried the policeman.
“Aye, Fred Smith at the small cottage next door to the village hall and Lotty Sanders, the cleaner at 2, Fell Road Cottages.”
He next spoke to Lotty, a tall slim woman in her 40s. She was quiet and hadn’t a lot to say for herself.
“No, I’ve not worked for her for about six months. Not since she went on holiday.”
“Where did she go on holiday and when will she return?” asked the policeman.
The woman looked away and lowered her eyes. “I don’t know, she didn’t tell me.”
“Do you have a key to her house?”
“No,” she replied. “She’s always there when I go to clean, she supervises me in everything I do.”
“Is that her black cat wandering about at the house, Winston is it called?”
“I think so.”
“Does she normally take it to a cattery when she goes away?”
“I don’t know, perhaps someone is looking after it for her.”
He was suspicious, he knew she wasn’t telling him all she knew.
The policeman drove up the village; he could see snow still on the fell tops. He saw the dead end in the road where the fell rose steeply almost a sheer drop from the top. It was a quiet, pretty little village nestling in the foot of the fells, with about 50 houses; he knew there was zero crime rate here. It was very clean and tidy; all the gardens were immaculate apart from The Old Vicarage. There was a small fire station run by volunteers. He knew it was a well-run village and more or less self-sufficient.
There was a small school, with an old-fashioned school bell in an archway above the roof. On the opposite side of the road was a village hall which served as a pub and a post office. The school bus used the village hall car park to pick up the older children and turn around for the journey back into the town.
He drove up to the small white cottage next to the village hall. Fred was attending to his garden at the front of his cottage.
“Hello, I believe you are Fred Smith, Mrs Hilda Redford-Hamilton’s gardener?” he asked.
“I am,” Fred replied, getting up from a kneeling position.
“When will Mrs Redford-Hamilton return from her holiday?”
“I’ve no idea, she never told me she was going on holiday – that’s a rumour going around the village, I think. If she’s on holiday then she left me with no instructions with what to do with her garden and hasn’t even paid me for work done.”
“When did she leave?”
“It must have been about six months ago now, how time flies.” He took off his flat cap and brushed his grey hair back with his hand and slid his cap back on.
“What kind of woman is she?”
“She’s a widow – very wealthy an’ aloof, not like us round ‘ere.”
“Does she keep herself to herself?” the policeman asked.
“Aye, mostly, she never goes to our pub nights in the village hall next door.”
When Hilda Redford-Hamilton’s cousin rang the police station from Canada, to enquire if Hilda had been found, she was dismayed at what she was told.
“She would never leave poor Winston wandering about, fending for himself while she went away on a long winter’s holiday! She would have taken him to the best cattery in the area! She adored her cat.”
The policeman was shocked.
“And as for – ‘she kept herself to herself’ – that’s not my cousin at all! After two years there, she will have taken control of everything and everybody. She will have – ‘shot down anyone in flames’ with her curt tongue, whoever dared to resist!”
The policeman was astounded.
“I urge you to check her house, she could have had an accident or died from natural causes or something,” the distraught cousin declared. The same police officer arranged to return with a younger fellow officer, with a court order and a locksmith to access the house. They needed to investigate if she had perhaps died there. They went around the back of the large house and entered through the back door with the assistance from the locksmith. The door creaked and groaned on its rusty hinges. The black cat suddenly darted into the house, startling them.
The police officers found themselves in a whitewashed room with thick stone slabs supported on stone walls. The shutters on the small window were closed and light streamed through the cracks. Hilda’s flowery patterned wellington boots were tucked underneath a stone slab with a white rattan wicker storage basket stood next to them. Hung from the hooks on the low ceiling were bunches of dried herbs and flowers. Her green gardening coat was hung on the wall hook with her white woolly hat. The floor was paved with grey stone slabs.
They went through a latched wooden door into a utility area. A row of white appliances including a large wardrobe freezer stood on the stone slabs.
“If you went away for months at a time wouldn’t you empty your freezer and save electricity?” one of them asked, hearing the hum from the freezer.
“I hope she’s not inside,” the younger one replied looking apprehensive.
“You’re joking!” “Have a look and see.” He gingerly opened the door of the freezer; it was full of frozen food and badly in need of defrosting. They both sighed with relief.
“There’s washing still in the washing machine, look!”
“She’s not away on holiday, that’s for sure.” They entered a very large modern kitchen with a central island incorporating a breakfast bar and a fridge.
“Hilda certainly has money from somewhere to buy a place like this and keep it running.” There was an unpleasant smell as they walked further into the kitchen.
They checked the fridge; the chiller had obviously iced up so much, it had forced the door ajar, the electric motor had probably burnt out as it was no longer working. Mice had got in the defrosted fridge and had made a foul smelling mess of the food inside; there was mould everywhere. They noticed there were still plates and cutlery in the washing up bowl, in the sink – showing mould growth.
“She would have emptied and washed the fridge and wouldn’t have left those there, if she was going on a long holiday, surely!”
They entered an inner hallway and opened a door.
“It looks like a walk-in cupboard.” It was fitted on each wall with wooden shelves from top to bottom.
“Probably an old linen cupboard – the house was used as an orphanage a long time ago.” It had several artificial Christmas trees stacked up in the far corner and boxes of Christmas decorations laid on the shelves. They opened another door into a toilet area.
Another door opened into a huge walk-in pantry – what could have been pies, cakes and bread had been eaten by mice. The remains were covered in green and blue moulds. A pan of something, probably a stew, was on the side; all that was left inside the pan were mould growths. Mice had nibbled holes in the plastic containers stood in a row on the unit top. Some of the contents had spilled out – flour, pasta, rice, sugar and lentils were everywhere. Mice droppings and dead flies were littering the shelves, unit tops and the floor. A kitchen roll had been shredded by the mice to make a nest. Even the cork tops on the spherical glass jars had been eaten into and raided, dead mice still trapped inside. A plastic milk bottle had been nibbled into at the base; the milk had obviously run out onto the floor staining the flooring. There was a mouse trap with a grizzly looking dehydrated carcass of a mouse trapped by its head.
Black mould was growing on parts of the walls, ceiling and on the floor. They both put a handkerchief over their noses as the stench was overbearing. They quickly hurried out of the room. They opened a heavy door into a hallway; the house felt very cold. There was a pile of letters at the front door; one of them gathered them up and saw a few had arrived from Canada.
“These dates will perhaps tell us when she stopped reading her letters.”
A smart brown coat and a cloche styled hat hung from a row of coat hooks by the door. A brown handbag stood on the ornate hall table. They examined it – her purse contained money, credit cards and her driving licence. Also, in her bag was her red spectacle case containing her glasses. There were her car keys and a small makeup bag but no mobile phone or house keys.
“She’s definitely not gone on holiday; these would be the first things she would have taken with her.”
“It’s looking more like a death by natural causes, suicide or a homicide,” replied the other officer.
A glass door led into a large dining room with a splendid candle-style chandelier hung from a large beautiful white ornate ceiling rose. In the middle of the room, there was a long oval table covered in a film of dust with twelve high backed chairs placed neatly around it. The red velvet curtains draped the mullion windows which overlooked the view at the front of the house.
Beyond the dining room was a drawing room, with sofas and chairs. There was a grand piano in one corner, with the piano keys visible. Large paintings hung on the walls in gold frames, a large black cobweb straddled two of the paintings. The house was becoming more and more eerie; they both shuddered.
Across the hallway was a large lounge with an impressive fireplace; the room was furnished and decorated in the Victorian style, rich in reds and gold. Beyond that a study – it was mainly decorated in shades of green. They could see immediately that the computer was missing, only the cables, keyboard and the printer remained on the walnut wooden desk.
“I wonder if that was why the window was broken – to steal the computer – and the glazier was lying about it?”
“Hey look here, these box files numbered one to ten – the seventh one is missing!”
“The lock on the drawer of the desk has been tampered with, someone has definitely been here and stolen things,” the senior officer remarked, pulling the drawer open using his handkerchief – it was empty. “No one locks a drawer if there is nothing in it! I think forensics will have to come and see if there are any prints.”
“Perhaps she caught them in the act and they killed her!” exclaimed the other.
“Hey look what I’ve found in this drawer, it’s her passport! We can rule out that she is holidaying abroad...