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The story so far:

Joe Palliser’s mind should focus on the Parkin murder, but instead his dreams remind him of his last drug-intoxicated night with Marian, and the mystery obscuring her death.

He encounters Sophie Forbes-Pattinson for a third time, finding her snobbish and detached.  Later, recalling Tom Peterkin’s suggestion that Violet Parkin’s father was a witch, Joe ‘phones Ian to ask if their brother Michael could have had any association with the occult, but Ian discounts Michael’s ravings on the subject to be a symptom of his illness.

On Sunday Joe goes to church, hoping to see more evidence of a darker side to the villagers and is rewarded by the attention of a group of local women, one of whom is Janice Regan…

After church Joseph ate a light, appetite-less lunch, then defied the heat to go for a walk.

Albert Regan was in his garden.  He waved over his shoulder at an open side door.  “She’s in the kitchen,”  He said. “You’d better go on in.”

The Regans lived on the west side of Hallbury, in a ‘tied cottage’ which could only be their home for such time as Albert kept his job. The house was not in a good state of repair. Once-white paint around its sash windows had peeled, the grey render cladding its random-rubble walls cracked in several places, while the gable-end wall was split down its centre by a fissure like a scar that Albert had stuffed with mortar to keep weatherproof.  But it was a home, tidy and clean, with oil-cloth on the kitchen table and a fire burning forcefully in the range.

Janice Regan was busy.  “Oh ‘tis you, Joe Palliser.”   It was scarcely a greeting.  “What brings you to my door?”

Albert’s wife, a pinched-looking woman whose iron-grey hair clung to her head like sculpted plaster, had prominent veins at her temples, throbbing through barely enough opaque flesh to stretch over the razor-sharp bones beneath:  she had a fever-bright look of starvation about her, even though their garden suggested that she and her husband ate very well.

There was a time, Joe could recollect, when he would have been more welcome.  Janice had been a smiling, fulsome woman once, with flashing humour and a ready greeting for the rather shy child who called each Saturday to ask if “Teddy could come out?”

The Regans had tried for many years before Edward Regan came into their world, and there is no child so treasured as a child born to parents in their middle age.  Teddy was the delight of their lives and they lavished their love upon him with ice-cream, chocolate, fish and chips, and his favourite spaghetti hoops.  So Teddy, though spoilt, of course, ample in girth, naturally, was nonetheless a popular playmate for the village boys; because when Teddy “came out” good things to eat came out with him; treats he would share among his friends.  A tractor rolled on Teddy, crushing the life from him, when he was just twelve years old.

Thereafter Janice Regan, changed.  She never mentioned Teddy: if anyone broached the subject of Teddy, she would walk away.  She began to withdraw from people, became dour, humourless – a narrow, unlovely woman whom life had dealt a shallow hand, and who had more than a single reason to resent Joe’s appearance at her door.

“Tea?”  She asked.  It was a formality, scarcely an invitation.

“No thank you Mrs Regan.  I won’t stay.”  Joseph felt awkward, out of place.  “I wanted to ask you about Violet.”

This earned a glance of arrows from Janice.  She had been washing something in the kitchen sink:  now she stopped, drying long, spidery hands on her apron.  “Oh aye.  What about ‘un?”

“You were the one who found her, Mrs Regan.  There’s been a lot of rumours and I just wanted the truth, if it isn’t too painful for you.  I was going to ask you how she died?”

Janice Regan’s laugh was harsh.  “Rumours!  Yes, there’s rumours!  There’s one rumour says you’m already party to a lot of the truth, Joseph.”  She stood opposite him, glaring across the table:  “So what you want to know for, eh?”

“I didn’t have anything do with it, Mrs Regan.  Why should I want Violet Parkin dead?  I don’t think Jack did, either.  I’m trying to find out what actually happened, that’s all.”

Janice thrust out a wrist.  “See that?”  She pointed with one tendril-like digit.  “Through there!  Through each wrist, driven straight through and into the bliddy timber behind her, they was – pitchforks!  Like that!”  She spread her arms outwards:  “Like she been cruesy-fied, or sommat!  And then….and then they went to work on ‘er.  Oh aye, they knowed how to make ‘er suffer, Joe Palliser!”

“They?”

“Can’t have been just one:  can’t have been.  Violet, she were a large woman and she’d have fought ‘em.  Too big for thee, Joseph.  That’s why I don’t believe that rumour, meself.  ‘Less you had help, that is.”

“Janice,”  Joseph collected himself.  “Was it a ritual killing?”

Janice Regan stared at him.  What was behind those eyes – anger?  Fear?

“What you sayin’?  What you trying to say?”

“Violet was a witch, Janice, wasn’t she?”

The expression he got back was blank, windowless.   “What?”

“A witch, like her father.  You know, spells and potions, the old religion, that stuff?  You were one of her closest friends, weren’t you?  I have to know, Janice.”

Janice rounded on him.  “There ain’t no bliddy rumour out there like that, and don’t you bliddy start one!  Violet weren’t no ‘arm to no-one.  There’s those didn’t get along with ‘er, but she never had a bad word to say about no-one, and don’t you!”  Her voice was rising.  “Violet weren’t no ‘arm to anyone, and to see her like that, all open and with her insides all over, and her poor blood soakin’ ever’thing…Violet weren’t no ‘arm!  She didn’t have to die like that!”

Albert’s large form filled the open doorway:  “Now, then, Janice!”

But Janice was fierce – her eyes were anything but expressionless now.  “Had to be a madman done that!  Had to be!  Alright I don’t think you done it, Joe Palliser, but I don’t think you’m so innocent, neither!  ‘Twas a bad day you come here, you Pallisers!  A bad day.”

Joe felt Albert’s hand on his shoulder.  “She’s upset.”  He said quietly.  “You better go now.”

Nodding, Joe turned to walk out of the door.  “I’m sorry to cause you pain, Janice.  I just had to know what you saw.”

“Yes, well, now you do.  Take my advice, Joseph and go back to Lon’on where you belongs!  We don’t want you ‘ere!”

Joe would have replied, but Albert stilled him.  “Just go.”  He said.

In the lane outside, Joseph let his true wretchedness overcome him for a minute – for long enough to let a tear roll down his cheek in sympathy for a woman he had never really known; for Violet Parkin’s undignified and ignominious end, about which he could do nothing, other than to prove somehow that it was not her husband, the man who in some fashion had been her lifetime companion, who had brought it upon her.

His aimless feet took him down Feather Lane with Janice Regan’s ‘We don’t want you ‘ere!’ ringing in his ears, towards the solitude of the Common and the places of his childhood – those he could recall without pain.  But it was pain, really.  Always the outsider, always playing to other people’s rules and getting nothing in return, and nothing had changed or would change.  Janice was right:  he should not have come back to Hallbury.

As if the heavens were attuned to his moods, as he turned the corner by the Parkin farm it began to rain:  not just in a light, balmy shower, but with vigour.  Thunder banged from nowhere; a hustling wind raked the fern, and drops like saucers spattered onto the tarmac road.  Facing the prospect of adding a drenching to his blackened circumstances, Joseph sought shelter, and the only place which offered was the hay-barn at the end of the Parkin’s yard.  He took a quick decision.

Although police tape surrounded the yard and its main buildings were locked, the open end of the hay barn could not be so secured.  Joseph simply lifted the tape and ducked beneath, wincing at multiple blows of rain on his t-shirted back.

In the protection of the barn roof he stripped off the wet shirt, spreading it across a hay-bale to dry.  Blinking in the half-light he could see the old place looked much as he remembered it; sweetly scented bales of hay six or seven deep, stacked high into rafters.   His head instantly filled with far-off childhood sounds – Ian’s irrepressible giggling, Michael’s shouts of command as he and his brothers clambered among the bales, which their imaginations arranged into dens and forts to attack or defend.

Lost in the tympanic din of rain, Joseph might scarcely have noticed a clatter of hooves from outside, but he could not possibly escape what followed;  a confusion of hoof beats punctuated by torrents of feminine abuse, then a rear view of an unseated rider as she stumbled backwards into the barn in her riding boots;  Sophie Forbes-Pattinson, clutching frantically at the reins of her big roan horse, the same horse that had shied upon meeting Joseph by the common some days before. The beast was white-eyed with fright, rearing and turning so quickly Sophie, helpless in its path, was thrown to the floor.   It was right above her, ready to pound her into the flagstones with its hooves, yet she would not release the reins: instead, uttering a further string of invective, she clung to the leather as though it was her last straw before drowning.  Without thinking Joe rushed to lend his own weight to the rein, trying to swing the animal’s head away from its erstwhile rider, making every steadying noise he could think of.

“What’s his name?  What’s his name?”  And when Sophie managed to gasp the name out he repeated it:  “Tumbler!  Steady, Tumbler!  There boy!”

For a few extremely anxious seconds Joe felt as though he were trying to placate a Brahma bull.  But then, as suddenly as his peace had been disturbed, reason prevailed.  Wooed, possibly, by the fragrance of hay the horse calmed, began to accept his reassurance. Blowing hard and shaking still, he allowed Joe to restrain his head as he stroked and patted, talking as much nonsense in a low voice as occurred to him until finally Tumbler consented to have a tangle of police tape removed from his legs.  Joe tethered him to one of the stanchions that reinforced the barn walls, and broke open a bale for him to eat.

A mortally embarrassed Sophie struggled to her feet, brushing dust and rain from herself as though she were under attack by angry wasps.  “Thank you.”  She avoided his eyes.  Her china-white skin was wet from the rain and pleasingly flushed.  Limping slightly, she walked across to the horse, petting him affectionately.  “He’s always been scared of storms, you see, and the lightning struck quite near to us.  I had to try and get him indoors.  I hope you aren’t hurt?”

“I’m fine.”  Said Joseph.  Lightning flared, illuminating the whole barn.  The horse snickered.  “I’m not so sure about him, though.”

“Oh, he’ll be alright now.”  Sophie assured him.  “No more rain on his back, some nice fodder.  I suppose it belongs to someone.  Who should I reimburse, do you think?”

“I’ve no idea.  You, are you hurt?”  Joe wondered at the concern his voice betrayed.

She caught his tone instantly and sought refuge in her strange little smile.  “Only my dignity.  You seem to have a penchant for catching me at a disadvantage.”

Joe raised an eyebrow.

“Mummy told me – when you brought some papers up for her the other day.  I have to be more careful, was how she put it.  You caught me sunbathing, didn’t you?”

Joe didn’t answer.  “You’re very wet.”  He pointed out.  “You’d better get that jacket off, I think.”

Thunder banged.  Sophie said:  “Anyway, I think you’re quite the knight in shining armour, Mr Palliser.  Thank you.”

“Joe, please.  Call me Joe?”

Sophie shrugged her hacking jacket from her shoulders.  The rain had penetrated it easily, soaking both shoulders of the white blouse she wore beneath.  It clung to her skin, informing Joe’s experienced eye.  She caught his glance with amusement.  “Too hot for excess clothing.”

“I’m sure.”  Joe was uneasy at being so quickly found out.

“Oh come on!  You must let me score some points!”  She spread the jacket over a bale.  “You’re a bit of an intrigue, Joe.  You didn’t tell me you had a home here already.”

“I’m staying with my aunt and uncle, I don’t really belong in the village.  Although I was thinking of buying a house here, I admit.  I would have acquainted you with more detail last time we met, but you didn’t allow me much opportunity.”

He seated himself on a hay-bale.  Sophie hesitated for a moment, then sat beside him.  Both stared out at the storm.  “Well!”  She said at last.  “Where do we go from here?”

“More small talk?”  Joe offered.

Sophie shook her head.  “Not my thing, really.  Mummy’s good at that.  She’s very smitten with you, you know.”

He laughed: she insisted.  “She is!  She was absolutely full of you after you left the other day.  Foolish me, I didn’t make the connection when I met you outside the Lamb House.  And why shouldn’t she?  You’re a very attractive man, Mr Palliser.”

Again, Joseph laughed. The malaise that overcame him at the Regan’s was lifting.   Sophie’s ice-cool frankness, so clinical at their last meeting, had an artless way with flattery.  Her eyes sparkled and in spite of himself, he was pleased.

“You have a gift with horses, and Tumbler’s an awfully good judge of character,” She went on.  “Nice face.  I think you could be kind.  Tall; a good, strong body….”

“What does your father do?”  He asked quickly.

“Daddy?  He’s a consultant surgeon.  He spends his week in London, so poor mummy gets most terribly lonely up there at the house.  What do you do, Joe?”

“Nothing at the moment.  If I do come to live back here, I shall have to find a job.  No skills, no prospects – future extremely uncertain.”

“Oh dear!”

“You needn’t sympathise.”

“I’m not.  ‘Oh dear, we’re making small talk’.”

“No,” said Joe, getting to his feet.  “We weren’t.”

On an impulse, he dug his fingers into the hay, hoisting himself up towards the top of the bale stack.  It was not vertical, so there were ledges, places to get a foothold.  “When my brothers and I were young;” he said as he climbed; “We used to play here.  We used to build ourselves hidey-holes and have battles and secret meetings and stuff.”

Sophie stood up.  “Would you give me a hand?”

Joe reached down for her, took her hand in his.  Together they scrambled to the top of the haystack, crawling between the bales and the rafters of the barn.

“Hope you don’t mind spiders.”  He offered, teasingly.

“Spiders completely fascinate me.”  She rejoined.

Joe was moving bales, stacking them to one side to create a hollow.  “You can go down two or three layers – with a child’s imagination, they can make anything you like.”

Sophie slipped into the space he had made.  Her riding boots made climbing difficult.

“Anything?”

“Yes.”  He moved a few more bales.  “A fort to defend – seats, you see? “  His words tailed off apologetically, “Alright, I know it seems feeble, but we were only kids.”

“A bed?”

She was behind him.  He looked around, to see her stretched out over the soft hay, looking up at him with mischief in her eyes.  “Mmm.”  Her appraisal was almost drowned by the sound of the rain.  “What should a poor damsel do if her noble rescuer insists upon his reward?  Such a quandary!”

“Perhaps,”  Joe replied, attuned to her thought and not a little surprised.  “But a rescuer of true nobility really could not insist.”

“Ah, Sir!  Imagine the damsel’s relief!”  Sophie chuckled.   “Oh my goodness!  Quite, quite excellent!”

Relaxing into the warm fragrance of the haystack, Joe allowed himself to stare – and Sophie luxuriated in his gaze; moving softly beneath her clothes, tantalising him gently.  But the moment the look in his eyes altered, she saw.

“What is it?”

His fingers, idly probing between the bales had discovered something pressed into the tight-packed hay.  He withdrew the object cautiously.

“Oh my!”  Sophie sat up.  “Whatever is that?”

“I’m not sure.”  Joe said.  “Somebody’s been doing a little whittling I expect.”

He turned the object over in his hand.  A crudely-carved effigy made from wood, with long arms and a stubby, short body; an effigy exactly like one concealed in his aunt and uncles’ garden wall.  As its significance dawned upon him he stiffened, clamping it in a grip so fierce it gave him pain. 

There are things I know.  Michael had said.  There are things I know.

Conscious he was shielding the effigy, for some reason, from Sophie’s gaze, Joe slipped it into his trousers pocket.  And seeing the gravity of its effect upon him, she did not inquire further.

Above their heads, the drum of rain ceased as suddenly as it had begun.  Unspeaking, they made their descent, Sophie falling the last four feet with a somewhat unconvincing girlish squeal, Joe catching her neatly around the waist to break her fall.  Their faces were only inches apart.

Sophie’s eyes brightened with challenge:  “You wouldn’t take advantage of me, would you, Joe?”

“The thought occurred,”  Joe said.  “Look, I suppose….would you like to go out sometime?”

“You mean, like a date?”  Sophie asked.

“I guess so, yes.”

“I’m sorry, Joe…..”

“Oh, no.  I’m the one who should apologise.”  He stumbled.  “Sorry I asked.”

She turned on her heel with a playful buck of her hips.  “I don’t steal my mother’s boyfriends.”

Her placated steed was waiting patiently.  He watched as she dried the saddle with her jacket and mounted.

“However, if you’re not doing anything on Thursday night?.”

“No, I’m not doing anything.”

“Seven o’clock, then.  No dressy dinners or anything like that, though.  I don’t do those.”

“I’ll think of something.”  He said

. © 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.