Chapter One

The storm broke mid-afternoon, finally bringing an end to the oppressive humidity. The heavy, lead coloured clouds that had hung over the town for days, holding in the heat like a vast, iron saucepan lid, swirled and churned, lit up here and there by flashes of lightning as if announcing the appearance of the Valkyrie from Wagner’s opera.

Torrents of water ran down the hill from High Street onto Middle Street, washing away the accumulated dust and cigarette ends that had lain undisturbed for weeks. At the Ironworks, sweaty, grime covered men stepped out into the rain, removed their shirts and raised their hands in the air to welcome the downpour.

In Witchy Wood, a four acre mass of Holm Oaks, Lindens, Sycamores and Aspens, interspersed with thick tangles of Blackthorn and Hawthorn, a lightning strike hit the eaves of a long abandoned cottage causing the eastern end to collapse outwards, opening up an old storeroom that had been hidden away behind a crumbling stone wall and a thick covering of Wisteria for decades.

 

‘Thank goodness!’ Amy Rowlings exclaimed as a deafening thunderclap sounded overhead. Even with every available window open inside the London Connection fashion shop, the customers and staff mopped their brows with already sodden handkerchiefs. The atmosphere had been oppressive since the doors opened at nine o’clock that morning. The humid air enveloped her like a heavy shroud as the strategically placed electric fans whined and strained, only moving the sultry air from one place to another.

Amy resisted the urge to wring out her sopping handkerchief and dropped it instead into the waste bin at the side of the counter. She still had a clean one in her bag after buying two new ones from Jimmy Cousins’ market stall earlier in the day.

Amy worked two and a half days a week at the shop where her keen eye for fashion and her sympathetic manner when quietly explaining to a customer that the particular tight fitting dress she had her heart set on buying wasn’t quite the dress for her. The rest of the week was spent behind her sewing machine at Handsley’s Garments, a clothing factory known locally as ‘The Mill’ because it was once a cotton mill driven by a long-dismantled water wheel that had powered the factory in the late eighteenth century.

Amy wasn’t a clock watcher by any means and thoroughly enjoyed both of her jobs, but today had been stressful with a stream of bad tempered customers, all intent on finding someone to complain about the conditions inside the shop to.

At five-thirty, Amy breathed a big sigh of relief and after ushering the last grumbling, sweating, middle-aged lady of the day out of the front door, she hurried through to the staff room where she half filled the sink with lukewarm water from the tap and plunged her face into it.

‘Move over,’ Jill, the trainee seamstress said, nudging Amy aside in her hurry to get her own face into the water. Amy put her head back, looked up at the ceiling and allowed the refreshing water to run onto her neck. After reaching for a towel, she dried her face and stuck her head out of the open window, relishing the cooling breeze that had replaced the stagnant heat.

‘Whoever’s turn it is to lock up tonight. Don’t forget to close all the windows or Josie will arrive to find she has no stock left on Saturday morning.’

Jill pulled her head out of the sink and reached out for the towel that Amy was offering. ‘You’re so lucky getting every Saturday off, Amy. I’d like just one Saturday a month to myself.’

‘Ah, but you get every Wednesday afternoon off,’ Amy replied. ‘When I leave here at one, I have to get the bus straight to the Mill. I have to be at my machine for half past. I don’t even have time for lunch.’

‘It’s still better than working on Saturdays.’ Jill patted at her damp hair as she looked forlornly at Amy. ‘Everywhere closes for half a day on Wednesdays. There’s nothing to do except walk around the blooming market. My young man, Sidney, works through the week, but he gets Saturday afternoons off. Not that he can see me until the evenings. He has to spend his half day watching Spinton United playing blooming football.’ She sighed. ‘He’d much rather be spending that time with me.’

Amy shook her head and smiled to herself. ‘I bet the poor lad has to go to the pub at lunchtime too, just to pass the time.’

Jill sniffed. ‘Yes, but I know he’d much rather be spending time with me than with his mates. He gets to see them all week at work.’

‘Who has the keys tonight?’ Josie, the manager said as she walked through from the shop.

‘Me, Madam,’ Jill said, holding out her hand for the large bunch of keys.

‘Make sure you close all the windows. Don’t forget what happened when Jenny Harris forgot to lock up properly. We found a tramp on the floor of the fitting room when we opened up the next morning.’

‘I’ll make sure everything is safe and secure,’ Jill replied, giving the Guides salute. She dropped her hand to her side quickly as Josie gave her a stern eye.

‘Make sure you do.’

At the front of the shop, Amy waited as Josie used her spare set of keys to unlock the half glass doors, then stepped smartly outside as the manager prepared to lock them again.

‘I’m tempted to wait across the road and check that she has locked up properly,’ Josie said as Amy hung her bag over her arm and turned towards the street. ‘She’s meeting her young man later tonight, so she’ll be in a hurry to get away.’

‘She’ll do a proper job, Josie,’ Amy said with a quick nod of her head. ‘She knows she’s lucky to be working here.’

‘You’re right, of course,’ Josie replied. ‘I still haven’t forgotten that tramp though. I had to get Elsie the cleaner to disinfect the entire shop. I almost convinced myself that I’d picked up head lice.’

Amy laughed. ‘Right, I’ll get off then. See you next Wednesday.’

Josie put her hand on Amy’s arm. ‘I really wish I could convince you to work here full time, Amy. You know how much the customers love you.’

‘You wouldn’t think so today. I took the worst of the flak from ill-tempered so and sos.’

‘The customer is always right. Isn’t that our motto?’

‘It is,’ Amy replied flatly. ‘Even when they insist they can fit their size eighteen frames into a size twelve dress.’

Josie grinned. ‘Ah, but you explain why it isn’t possible so inventively.’

Amy smiled back and turned to walk across the street to get her bus. ‘Oops, sorry,’ she said as she bumped into a tall, dark-haired man, wearing a shiny suit and an extremely crumpled shirt.

‘Just the lady I was hoping to find,’ the man said. His eyes lit up as he smiled at her.

‘Bodkin? What are you doing here? I didn’t think I was seeing you until tomorrow.’

‘That was the plan, but things can change quickly,’ Bodkin replied. ‘Especially when there’s an unexplained death to investigate.’ He paused, nodded to Josie, then took Amy by the arm. ‘You know your way around the Witch Wood, I take it?’

‘Of course. Alice and I spend a lot of our summers in there when we were young.’

Bodkin grinned. ‘Good, you’ll know that long abandoned cottage on the west side of the wood, then?’

Amy nodded. ‘We used to call it the Creepy Cottage. No one’s lived there in my lifetime. It’s pretty much a ruin.’

‘It’s even more of a ruin now,’ Bodkin said. ‘An end wall has fallen in during the big storm this afternoon. When it was over, a dog walker and his pooch discovered something very interesting when they walked past it.’

Bodkin was silent as he led Amy towards his Morris car that he’d parked just around the corner.

Amy dug him in the ribs. ‘Come on Bodkin, stop teasing. What did they find?’

‘A skeleton,’ the Inspector replied. ‘A skeleton that may have suffered a brutal attack while it was still attached to a living body… or at least, that’s how it appears. There is severe skull damage.’

‘How it appears? Couldn’t the wall have done the damage when it collapsed?’

‘I doubt it,’ Bodkin said as he unlocked the passenger side of the car and opened the door to allow Amy to climb in. ‘There’s a rusty old pickaxe buried in it.’