Authors: Sharon Jones
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #General
Michael followed Poppy, watching her strawberry blonde hair bouncing around her shoulders as she jogged through the crowds. She was moving surprisingly fast given the tonnage of secrets she was carrying around. He quickened his pace to catch up to her.
‘Who are you looking for?’
Poppy stopped abruptly, making him crash into her, and then she ran.
‘Where are you going now?’ he shouted, but she didn’t stop. What had got into her?
She darted between a couple of men, almost knocking one of them over. The guy had a hawk tethered to his arm. It flapped its wings and squawked its displeasure at being dislodged.
‘Watch it!’ the hawk man shouted.
But Poppy had gone. Michael gave a quick apology, edged past the sharp beak of the bird and took off after her.
He reached her just as she grabbed the arm of a guy Michael had never seen before.
‘Is she dead?’ Poppy shouted at the stranger. She looked wild.
The guy was six foot five at least. All his hair had been shaved apart from a green tuft at his forehead. He had on green combats and Doc Martens and looked like a member of the BNP or something. What the hell did she want with someone like him?
The guy looked down at her but he didn’t reply.
‘Maya!’ Poppy shouted, drawing interested glances from the people walking past. ‘Is she dead, Kane?’
‘Yes,’ the guy said, quietly.
‘But I saw her!’
‘I didn’t say she was gone.’ The guy said it so calmly that it sounded perfectly reasonable. But it wasn’t. He was making no sense at all, and neither was Poppy. Michael edged forward, trying to get her attention before...
‘Did you kill her?’
Oh shit! ‘Poppy!’ Michael grabbed her by both arms and pulled her back. ‘What are you doing?’
Her cheeks were red and her eyes wide like she was on something. He shook her, but she wouldn’t look at him – her gaze was fixed on the guy.
Kane took a step forward, closing in on her. Michael didn’t like the way that the guy looked at her – like that hawk back there when it spotted a rat. He shoved Poppy aside and put himself between them.
‘I’m sorry, mate,’ he said, quickly. ‘She didn’t mean to accuse you of—’
‘Murder?’ Kane finished for him. His gaze drifted over Michael’s shoulder to where Poppy was. ‘This must be the King, Sceptic. Well, isn’t he gallant?’
King? What the hell was he going on about? He turned. Poppy’s cheeks had drained of colour.
‘Ready to rethink that rationalism of yours?’ Kane asked.
Poppy shook her head. Michael could see she was trying to act cool, but whatever this guy was going on about had freaked her out.
‘If you didn’t kill her, how do you know she’s dead?’ Her voice had returned to its normal pitch but her golden eyes stared at the guy, wide and unblinking.
‘I told you the last time you questioned me,’ Kane said. ‘We argued. She stormed off. I never saw her again. Not alive, anyway.’
‘What did you argue about?’
Kane glanced around, as if afraid someone might be listening. ‘He had money and she wanted it. No, correction: she thought it was rightfully hers. She called herself a child of Lughnasadh. Said she was conceived at one of these gatherings so I assumed Daddy was someone here. And maybe he didn’t want to pay.’
Poppy shrugged. ‘That’s all she told you?’
‘Maya only ever told you what she wanted you to know. Do you do that with his majesty here?’ Kane asked, nodding towards Michael.
Michael nearly laughed. The guy was talking crazy, but he’d got that right.
Poppy’s brow furrowed. ‘No. I’m not like her.’ She said it like she was trying to convince herself as much as Kane.
‘Really? I bet if we asked him he’d say different. I didn’t kill Maya, Sceptic. I was in love with her, regardless of what she was. I feel her now. Smell her scent. Catch a glance of her in the distance. She comes to me in my dreams. She haunts me, Poppy. I think maybe she’s haunting you too. She wouldn’t like that you were alive – a pale imitation of her.’ Kane leaned in to Poppy, and lowered his voice. ‘And it’s not just looks. You’re almost as bitter as she was.’
‘I’m taking it that was Maya’s boyfriend?’ Michael asked.
Poppy nodded but said nothing. He had no clue what half of that conversation had been about but it was clear she’d understood every word. At least now Kane had gone she wasn’t looking quite so strung out. For a moment there she’d gone so pale he thought she was going to faint. But now she was looking better he was going to get answers. He was sick of being kept in the dark.
‘C’mon,’ he said, putting a hand on her back and guiding her through the crowds. Ahead was the main stage – like something you’d get at a music festival. By the number of people sitting on picnic blankets it looked like someone was about to come on.
‘Do you want to check out whatever this is?’ he asked.
She shrugged. She was back in her head. The barriers were up and she had no intention of letting him in. Well, tough.
‘OK, talk to me. What
that? Maya’s dead?’
‘But you said you saw her.’
‘I thought I did. It must have been someone else. It was dark, I must have got it wrong.’ She didn’t sound sure.
‘And you think that guy killed her?’
‘He’s sleeping in a circle of salt. It’s an old superstition that spirits can’t cross salt. You heard him; he’s got it into his head that she’s haunting him. But how would he know she’s dead if he hadn’t killed her?’ She hugged her arms across her chest and began to walk faster, as if she was trying to run away from him. Again, he speeded up.
‘OK, calm down. If you seriously think that’s what happened, we should go to the police.’
She looked away from him. ‘I tried this morning; they won’t listen to me.’
‘And you’re sure that guy killed her? Because I’m not sure he’d have said all those things if he’d murdered someone.’
Poppy stopped and turned to him. ‘I don’t know.’ Her face crumpled and she rubbed her forehead. ‘I don’t know anything any more.’
He wanted to put his arms around her, comfort her, but he didn’t dare. She was so jumpy at the moment and every time he touched her she pulled away. He took a deep breath and scanned the stalls, looking for something to distract her with. ‘You know what my gran would say at a time like this?’
Poppy’s face turned to him. ‘What?’
‘When you’re handed lemons, make lemonade.’
She blinked a couple of times and then screwed up her face. ‘That’s totally random!’ she said, shaking her head.
‘Not random. It just so happens that there’s real lemonade over there, made with real lemons, apparently.’ He pointed to the trailer van. ‘Come on, I’ll buy you a real lemon lemonade.’ He forced himself to smile.
He led her over to the van.
‘Bet it’ll be disgusting,’ Poppy said, sounding more like her old self.
Michael shoved his hands in his pockets. ‘So, err – what was that Kane going on about? All that stuff about me being the king. I mean, I’m not complaining. Being king of the universe is clearly my destiny.’
‘Had you spoken to him before?’
Poppy folded her arms. ‘I went to have my Tarot cards read.’
He laughed. ‘What? After all you’ve said about that kind of stuff you take part in a sweat lodge and have your Tarot cards read? Are you changing your mind about—’
‘—It was research, that’s all. Bob told me that Kane was Maya’s boyfriend – he suggested going undercover.’
‘So what did your cards say?’ he asked in the spookiest voice he could muster.
‘The usual crap. Y’know, you’ll go on a long journey, meet a tall dark handsome stranger.’ Poppy bit her lip and there was a distinct red tinge around her cheeks.
Michael felt his grin drain away. Tall, dark, handsome stranger – he supposed she thought that meant Burger Boy. He really wanted her to have someone. He’d even thought about trying to set her up with his friend Mark, who definitely had a bit of a thing for her. But Burger Boy was too old for her and from what he’d seen that morning he was definitely into something dodgy, even if he was wrong about it being drugs.
Should he tell her about what he’d seen? She was in a state already. Was it fair to push that on her too? The last thing he wanted was to give her another mystery to investigate.
Sod it! He’d tell her and deal with the consequences.
He’d just opened his mouth when he was interrupted by a guy with long curly blond hair wearing a hideous Hawaiian shirt.
‘Excuse me, would you mind if I took a picture of you two for the festival archive?’ he asked in a broad Aussie accent.
‘Archive?’ Poppy asked.
‘Yeah, y’know, the one on the website. It’s my job this year and I don’t think I’ve got a picture of you guys yet.’
‘How far back does it go?’ Poppy asked.
The guy pulled a face. ‘Uhhh...since the start, I guess. Can I take a picture? Do you mind?’
Poppy glanced at Michael.
He shrugged and pulled her to him. Immediately he felt her stiffen. Her discomfort hurt, but he pretended not to notice and forced a smile onto his face.
The guy took their picture, thanked them and moved on to his next victims. Michael let Poppy go and she jerked away from him, like he was radioactive. That was it. He couldn’t keep ignoring it.
‘Are you OK?’ he demanded. But Poppy didn’t reply: they’d reached the front of the queue.
Poppy’s face creased with horror. Then she made gagging noises.
Michael laughed. The three quid was totally worth it just to see that face.
‘You’d better drink it,’ he warned. ‘That’s one pound fifty’s worth of lemons in that cup.’
‘Was there any sweetener back there?’
Michael sipped the lemonade. It was intense, and a bit sour, but not nearly as bad as she was making out. ‘It’s all right.’
‘Then you can have mine,’ Poppy gagged a few more times, her face screwed up comically. She handed him her cup and fished her mobile out of her pocket. She pressed a few buttons and frowned. ‘No signal. Again. Honestly, how hard would it be to put a mast up around here? I mean, it’s not like there’s loads of land or anything.’
‘Who did you want to call?’ he asked, and swigged back the first cup of lemonade.
‘No one. I just wondered if I could get onto the festival website.’
‘If there’s photos going back to the beginning of the festival then maybe there’s a picture of Maya’s mum with her dad.’
‘That’s a long shot.’ More commonly known as a wild goose chase.
She stared blankly at the sky.
‘Does this mean that you think Kane is telling the truth? That Maya really was looking for her father?’
‘Not really. But if he’s right then Maya’s dad could be here and maybe he’d know something. It’s the only lead we have.’
At least she was saying ‘we’ now. Something inside him unknotted. He watched her thinking. Every thought, every emotion flashed across her face. He loved watching her. He’d never known anyone go through the whole range of human emotions as quickly as Poppy, and every one of them showed in her eyes.
Her gaze flicked around the festival ground, over the heads of the people sitting in front of the stage, back to where the wicker man’s head reared over the tents and marquees. Her gaze stalled, and he thought he heard a sudden intake of breath.
Michael followed her gaze across the festival ground. Standing beside the lemonade stall, Kane was sipping from a cardboard cup and making no effort to disguise that he was watching them.
Could be just coincidence, Michael told himself. Or he could be following them. What if Poppy was right and Kane had murdered that girl?
‘I’m going to talk to him,’ he said, but Poppy’s hand on his arm stopped him.
‘I wonder if a different network gets better coverage around here,’ she said, stepping in front of him, drawing his gaze away from Kane. Her grip on his arm tightened, making it clear she didn’t want him going over there.
‘What do you think?’ she prompted, when he didn’t reply.
‘Doubt it. My phone reception’s not too bad, but I’ve got no 3G. We could drive into the village if you like, it might be better there,’ he said. And suddenly it seemed like a good idea. He wanted her as far away from that guy as possible.
Poppy shook her head. ‘No, I’ve got it.’ Her eyes narrowed with determination and Michael’s heart sank. What now?
The rising humidity made the climb up the bluff to the farm property a real trek. By the time the barns and outbuildings came into view, Poppy was puffing and blowing like she’d run five miles. She glanced at Michael and was glad he looked just as out of breath as she was. He had no excuse: he spent every other weekend climbing mountains. She was glad to get away from the festival though. Well, glad to get away from Kane.
The farmhouse was built of grey stones that seemed piled on top of one another without any cement, as though gravity was the only thing keeping them from tumbling down. Poppy picked her way carefully across the uneven cobbled yard, afraid that if she took her eyes off the cobbles she’d go flying. She was relieved when they reached the gravel path that led towards the white front door.
‘You can’t just ask to use their computer!’ Michael muttered for the tenth time.
She waved at him to be quiet, wiped the sweat from the back of her neck and knocked on the door.
For a very long time, there was no reply. She was about to give up hope when the door swung open and they were met by a woman whose face was as round as the pregnancy bump that was stretching her checked shirt.
‘Yes?’ The woman clutched the door like she was ready to slam it in her face.
‘Hiya, I’m Poppy. Pete—’
‘Poppy!’ the woman gasped. Her eyes almost popped out of her face. It was like Poppy had just told her she was royalty or something. ‘You’re the girl who found the body!’
‘Yeah.’ Poppy glanced at Michael, who was looking more sullen than usual. ‘I just wanted to say thanks to him – for all he did.’
‘Come in, come in.’ The woman beckoned, smiling. ‘I’m Sally, Pete’s wife. Pete’s out seeing to a broken fence on the top field, but I shouldn’t think it’ll be too long before he’s back looking for something to eat. I’ve just made some lemonade, if you’d like some.’
Out of the corner of her eye, Poppy saw Michael’s down-turned mouth suddenly perk up. ‘That would be great,’ he said, eagerly. ‘Poppy’s a big fan of real lemonade. I’m Michael, by the way.’ He offered Sally his hand and a disgustingly sweet smile.
She shook it and grinned. ‘Both of you come on through to the kitchen. Don’t mind the mess, will you?’
Poppy couldn’t help rolling her eyes at him the second Sally’s back was turned. His smile widened.
The kitchen was a mess, even compared to what Poppy was used to at home. Half-chopped vegetables were strewn across the kitchen table. Pots filled with liquids were bubbling on the range and there were heaps of laundry piled up in front of the washing machine. The air was filled with so many conflicting smells that it made Poppy’s head spin. She suddenly felt woozy again.
‘Busy time of year for us. And what with the baby due soon…’ Sally smiled and tucked an escaped curl of blonde hair back into her ponytail. She poured out two large glasses of lemonade and handed them to Poppy and Michael.
Michael grinned. ‘Thanks, that’s just what we needed.’
Poppy couldn’t help glaring at him.
‘How are you, Poppy? Must have been a shock,’ Sally said, nodding for them to take a seat at the table.
‘Yeah, it was. But I’m OK, thanks.’ She plonked down the lemonade as far away from her nose as possible and sat down in a slightly sticky chair.
‘Pete said that you knew her – the girl?’ Sally smiled prettily. Despite the roundness of her face, her features were small and a bit elfin. She reminded Poppy of Julia, which probably meant Michael was being nice to Sally because he fancied her.
‘Not really. I met her the night before. We just chatted for a bit,’ Poppy said, sounding a little more offhand than she’d intended.
‘What about? I mean, do you think that she was depressed or something?’ Sally was trying to sound casual, but the hungry look in her pale blue eyes gave her away.
Poppy shook her head. ‘I didn’t think so.’
‘So what did she say? Pete said she wasn’t a participant. What was she doing here?’ Sally smiled and looked down at the slate tiled floor. ‘Sorry, you must think that I’m really morbid, it’s just I feel like I’ve been locked up in this house for weeks. I’m so bored!’
Poppy smiled. She couldn’t imagine what it would be like to live out here all alone. Especially when the poor woman was carrying a whale in her stomach. ‘Isn’t the baby due soon?’
‘Last week!’ Sally rolled her eyes. ‘But nobody seems to have told him that. You know Bob, don’t you? Well, he brought me this raspberry leaf tea concoction,’ she said, holding up a red mug. ‘It’s supposed to bring on the baby but I think I’ve drunk a gallon of the stuff and the little sod still hasn’t come out. Just hope he hasn’t got too comfy in there.’ She patted her stomach fondly. ‘I was on the computer this morning to see if there was anything else I could do to help him along. I’m making a curry for tonight – that’s supposed to be a good one.’
Poppy glanced at Michael. ‘So you have internet access up here?’
‘Broadband, would you believe. I’d have gone mad if not.’
‘My phone signal’s useless – I was trying to look up something from the festival website but couldn’t get on.’
‘Go on Pete’s computer if you want.’
Score! ‘That would be great. But are you sure you don’t mind?’ It was a struggle to keep the excitement out of her voice.
‘Of course I don’t mind. Come through to the office.’ Sally got up slowly, using the chair arms to balance out the bump. Michael rushed over to help her.
‘Eh, you’ve got a good one here, Poppy,’ Sally said with a wink. ‘Not many men with manners these days. Mind you, even the good ones you have to watch. Always on the look out for a better offer. Ruled by your pants, you lot.’
Michael laughed. Poppy’s cheeks started to burn. She was about to correct Sally’s assumption when Michael butted in.
‘She doesn’t know how lucky she is. Don’t forget to bring your lemonade, Pops,’ he said, with an innocent smile. ‘You wouldn’t want to forget about it.’
going to make him suffer when they got out of there. Poppy grabbed the glass of lemonade, and Michael’s – he wasn’t getting away without drinking the horrid-tasting muck – and followed him and Sally through the house to a study that looked a bit, but not much more, organised than the kitchen.
The walls were covered in bookcases filled with box files and lever-arch files that had dates and codes on the spines.
Sally went behind the desk and typed something into the computer. ‘There,’ she said, picking up a few stray used mugs from the desk and heading for the door. ‘You go ahead and do what you need to do.’ There was the sound of a door slamming. She smiled. ‘That’ll be Pete. I’ll go and tell him you’re here.’
As soon as Sally was out of the room Poppy darted to the computer. She opened the search engine and typed in
John Barleycorn Gathering
Michael followed her around the desk, grabbed the back of the chair and leaned down so that his face was right next to hers.
‘This could take hours, Poppy. Do you even know when she was born?’
She could smell the lemons on his breath and the forest-smelling shower gel he used religiously. She caught her breath. His closeness made her feel dizzy and slightly crazy – like she might do something stupid.
‘She can’t be that much older than us,’ she said, swallowing hard and trying to concentrate. ‘I’ll try the early nineties.’
The archive turned out to be huge. And not all the photos had labels.
‘This is no good,’ Michael said. ‘You’re not going to find anything this way.’ He batted her hand away from the keyboard, opened a new window and clicked on ‘image search’. ‘Let’s try
and...what’s her mother’s name?’ He looked away from the screen, right at her. She could feel his gaze burning into her cheek.
He was so close. So close that if she turned her face they’d be millimetres away from kissing. A voice in her head told her to do it, and to hell with the consequences. That voice, it was Beth’s.
Have you kissed him? Have you tried? What’ll happen if you do nothing? Say nothing? Watching him with someone else, it’ll eat you up, Poppy, until there’s nothing left.
She held her breath and squeezed her eyes shut.
she screamed silently.
Love is like fire. Unless it’s channelled it destroys everything.
‘Poppy? Poppy, are you OK?’
She heard the worry in his voice. Felt a finger brush a strand of hair behind her ear. When she dared open her eyes at last, Michael was perched on the edge of the desk, staring at her with a worried expression.
‘We should leave this,’ he said. ‘You’re not well.’
She tried to swallow back the queasiness that had lodged in her chest. ‘I’m fine. Just a bit of a headache.’ Before he could object, she typed in
and pressed return.
There were ten or twelve results, and from the thumbnails she could tell that all the photos featured the same woman. She had waist-length straight blonde hair, so white that it must have come out of a bottle.
Michael stopped frowning at her and shifted so he could see the pictures. ‘Any names?’
Poppy glanced from one to the other until she saw someone she hadn’t expected to see. And there he was again. And again.
‘Bugger!’ she whispered.
‘What is it?
’ Michael said, catching on.
He’d barely changed. Same long grey hair and beard. Same Druid robes. The beer belly was smaller and the face was a little thinner, but there was no doubt who it was. And he was kissing Sandra – Maya’s mum.
‘Nice to see you, Poppy,’ a voice said from the door.
Both she and Michael jumped away from the computer like they’d just been discovered looking at porn.
‘Hiya, Pete.’ Poppy jabbed a finger at the mouse and closed down the search engine.
The farmer ran a hand through his gingery hair and shrugged. ‘Sorry about the state of me,’ he said, glancing down at his mud-splattered jeans and work shirt. ‘Those damn sheep are escape artists. I’m constantly mending fences. Nice to see you, though. How are you feeling?’
‘Fine,’ Poppy said. She attempted a smile. And it was true. She was fine apart from the fact that her heart was trying to beat down the wall of her ribcage and her head was filled with a swarm of angry bees that were making so much noise she could barely hear what he was saying.
‘Any news from the police?’
‘They’re pretty convinced it was an accident.’
Pete nodded seriously. ‘Does seem likely. Poor lass. So,’ he said, perking up. ‘You’re the lucky lad who’s Poppy’s boyfriend, eh?’ He shot Michael a laddish grin.
‘I’m not sure lucky is the word,’ Michael said, and slipped his arm around her shoulder.
At his touch, the hairs on Poppy’s neck bristled and her shoulders tensed. Michael must have felt it, because his arm tightened and he frowned down at her.
Through the open window came the sound of a hunting horn.
‘Oh heck, sounds like something’s afoot,’ Pete said.
And there was something afoot. Something important...somewhere she was meant to be.
Poppy jumped up. ‘Mum’s handfasting. I’ve gotta go!’