Authors: Dorothy Cannell
Tags: #Mystery & Crime
To the residents of Flaxby Meade in the Cotswolds, the avenue was known as Abbots Walk, a remembrance of a gentler time, of centuries gone by, when the famous monastery, Chantwell, stood near this place welcoming beggars to its alms-gate and tending the infirm and ailing. Those were Popish times, and the village was now staunchly Church of England, but the residents could be tolerant—when they chose.
On both sides of the walk’s earth-trodden pathway, ancient elms arched upwards in graceful latticework to meet at last in gentle supplication: a cathedral ceiling of green, fragile as filigree. This was September and radiant afternoon sunlight filtered through the leaves, turning the ground to a mosaic of gold and brown. Somewhere high in the pure blue sky a bird chanted its eternal song. Surely a monk, or even the abbot himself, might still pass this way; his tonsured head bent low, fingers tolling the beads with the patient ease of daily ritual.
Some of the superstitious old folk claimed the walk was indeed haunted, and sometimes children hid amidst its trees, whiling away the hours, playing jacks or cat’s cradle, waiting to glimpse a spectral brother dressed up for the outing in his best hair shirt. There were also the cowards—namby-pambies afraid to pass along that shadowed pathway—but Abbots Walk was a sacred place, not a place of treachery and evil. Serenity, a gift from the earth and its history, had laid a hand upon it in benediction. Stillness and peace were the offerings bestowed here, woven in quiet shadows across the ground. Many the passerby who gazed upwards, awed by the rich carving of bark and jade, and bowed his head to pray a mumbled verse or two.
Tessa Fields was certainly praying as she precariously pedalled a rusty old bicycle into Abbots Walk. She was belligerently demanding that the Man upstairs drop any paperwork with which he was presently occupied and take care of that arch-demon of them all—Harry Harkness—pronto. Harry was the one who had insisted on the bicycle. He was the one who deserved to meet his Maker fifty years before his time—not her.
At twenty-one, Tessa wasn’t ready for the Pearly Gates ... but she would make her grand entrance if she flew over those handlebars and was impaled on an outstretched branch. Damn! she thought. Those trees were snickering at her. And she really couldn’t blame them. To meet one’s end taking a toss from a bolting black stallion held a certain poignancy; a fatal fall from a piebald metal nag was a sick joke.
The bike erupted over a moss-covered rock, bucked wildly, and shied to the left. No wild screeching of brakes; the brute didn’t have any. A tree stump loomed in their path, and Bronco reared wildly before plunging to a whimpering halt. The whimper was from Tessa. When she opened her eyes and adjusted to the sunlight filtering dappled gold and green through the trees, she found she was in the middle of the walk. And walk was what she should have done, she mused bitterly.
Her friend Harry had insisted on the bicycle, claiming it was essential to everything the afternoon entailed. Had it mattered that she had never even mastered a tricycle? Not a bit! Harry had informed her it was all in the mind—like parachute jumping. Yesterday, when giving her that ten-minute lesson, he had assured her that her only problem seemed to be confusing fore with aft. She did, however, recall his admitting that pedalling might have been a tad easier if Bronco had possessed pedals instead of steel rods.
Tessa shook back her thickly curling mop of wild, honey-colored hair without prying her hands off the handlebars, and gave the bike a vicious kick. Decidedly un-Christian of her. This palsied metal beast was not the one to blame. Harry was the only villain, and he was compounding his sins by being late. “Men!” she seethed. Not one of the Creator’s finer achievements. But, as Fergy would say, practice makes perfect—look what He achieved with one spare rib only minutes after His trial run with Adam.
Straddling the bicycle, Tessa peered towards the opaque green light at the end of the walk. “Come on, Harry!” she muttered under her breath. “The least you could do is show up on time.” She didn’t exactly like all this hushed beauty. Made one feel like a turkey smelling Christmas on the wind.
Speaking of birds. There were plenty of those, twittering and tweeting away. Tessa could sense their eyes, hundreds of little black stabs of darkness, pinning her onto a piece of paper like a dead butterfly. She wished Harry would get here. Harry with his laughing eyes.... Ages ago, when she had been madly (and childishly) in love with him, she had written a poem to his eyes, likening them to bluebells on the first May morning. Now she winced at such sentimental gush and damned Harry’s eyes. He was going to ruin all their fantastic plans for this afternoon. Already he was two and a half minutes late.
Even the trees tensed and the light at the end of the tunnel clouded. Something waited there. Something human? Tessa was surprised at her unease. What she and Harry planned for this afternoon would never have met with her father’s approval, but until minutes ago she had been convinced that it was what she wanted, that it was right. The ruffled collar of her cream silk blouse brushed her neck like cool quick fingers. If only Harry had not informed her that this place was haunted.
“Hello! Anyone there?” Tessa called. Banish Harry’s quip about earthly abstinence making for very lusty ghosts. She was wearing her brown corduroy knee-length britches with the dozen minuscule buttons down the front. Let Vapour Fingers try having a go at those! Instantly she was sorry. Vulgarity was not acceptable here. Even the birds had stopped tweeting, as though their beaks had fallen open. Quickly she crossed herself. Her father was very ecumenical in spirit. A slight breeze stirred, surprisingly chill.
A dim form stepped forward, and something else gleaming silver was hunched by its side.
“Harry, is that you?” The whispered words were drowned out by a gust of shrill twitterings. She saw now that the silver monster was a motorbike which the creature had leaned up against a tree.
“Hey there, my lovely!” The voice was male and not the least bit vapourish. His only resemblance to a monk was that he wore brown—a dark brown leather jacket and form-fitting taupe trousers. He walked leisurely, almost indolently, towards her, eyes glinting in his sun-darkened face, thick chestnut hair lifting a little in the breeze. Those eyes—alert, yet somehow amused—made her think of fire and ice, and idiotically she was a little afraid. Perhaps it was the too-sleek clothes. She disliked leather jackets on men, and despised silk cravats knotted at the neck.
The man was carrying a small branch, flicking off leaves in a little trail as he came. He was tall, but tilting her neck to look at him was not what caused the cold tickle down Tessa’s spine.
“So I can find my way home.” He flicked off another leaf, watching her eyes watching him. “Remember Hansel and Gretel?”
“That was bread.”
“I got hungry and ate the lunch my mummy packed in my little kerchief.” He smiled slowly, displaying exceptionally fine white teeth. Thumbing back at the silver monster, now several yards behind him, he continued, “You think it safe for me to leave Petrol Breath by that tree? I haven’t seen any ‘No Parking’ signs posted, have you?”
She shrugged. “I’m just here minding my own business.”
“Guess I’ll chance it.” He smiled again. “You’re not trying to scare me, are you, standing there eating me up with your big bad eyes? What about you, Little Red Riding Hood?”
Tessa’s knuckles ached from gripping the handlebars, “I’m not unescorted. I’m meeting a friend. He will be here any minute.”
The man had stopped a pace or two away from her, still yanking leaves off the branch. Tessa half expected to hear a series of “ouches” as they fluttered to the ground. “That’s a good one,” he said. “Almost as good as my favorite line—the cheque is in the post.”
Reaching out long brown fingers he unclenched her hands from the bike and gave the handlebars a playful jerk. Looming over her, his breath fanned her face. Then, lips tightening, he directed the tree branch at her like a pistol. “Stand and deliver, my lovely. Ah, how this place fires up the imagination!” He covered the lower half of his face, masklike, with his free hand, then dropped it. “Don’t you love those old yarns of highwaymen appearing out of nowhere on deserted stretches of road? Such high old times those jolly dogs had despoiling innocent damsels.” His voice surged to a rasp and Tessa jerked back, scraping her shin on the mudguard.
“A high old time and a swinging one, too, at the end of a gibbet,” she tossed back. Fear sharpened her voice to an unnatural pitch.
“My, what big beautiful eyes,” he said in a soft, almost musing voice. “You know, I consider myself a connoisseur and I don’t believe I have ever seen anything quite like them. Topaz. No—sherry, warmed lovingly in a crystal glass. Eyes to drink a toast to and then smash.” He extended the word—toying with it with his tongue. “The glass, of course.”
The timbre of his voice had deepened again and his breathing became decidedly ragged. Tessa tried to yank the bike backwards, but he held on. “And the way your mouth tilts down at the corners—charming. The only part I am not sure about is the hair.” Reaching out he flicked at it with the stick. “Gorgeous colour and masses of it, but I don’t care for the style. Too unkempt. What it needs is brushing—lots of brushing; long, smooth, languorous strokes.” Eyes baiting her, he tossed the stick away. Catching up a handful of hair he forced her head backwards. “Red Riding Hood, you really are something.”
“Not something, someone,” she snapped back, the tangled cloud of hair flaring out as she pulled free. The bike stood between them like a chastity belt.
“Oh, cripes! Don’t come over all bloody high-minded.” He closed his eyes and sucked in a pained breath. “Life’s too short not to pounce on each chance encounter and wring every last drop of pleasure from it. Come on! You look like a girl who’s great at thinking up highly inventive fun and games. Know what else I think?” His voice was gentle now, almost beguiling.
“No.” Tessa tilted her head sideways as she rammed the front wheel of the bicycle into his legs. His eyes darkened.
“I don’t think that friend of yours is coming,” he said slowly, as if savouring every word. “But the way I see it, his loss is my gain.” In one lithe movement, he reached out an arm and lifted her from the bike. Holding her for a moment before releasing her, he picked up the bicycle as if it were a child’s kite and flung it across the walk, where it shuddered into a tree stump.
“Calm down, precious.” The man had both arms around her now. “Don’t fight the inevitable. I could break every bone in your body just by blowing on you. But be a good little mousey and this nice tomcat will play with you first.”
“You’ve been going to the pictures too often.” A separate part of Tessa was listening, not to this creature with the steel arms, but to the quivering silence. She had the feeling of being watched by secret eyes.
“Look.” She was shouting now. “You’re not scaring me—you are not going to murder me. No one in his right mind would pull something like that in daylight, in a place that isn’t”—her gaze shifted around the walk—”all
“Oh, but it is ... and you see, my pretty, I make no claim to being in my right mind. Not when I look upon those eyes. By the way—if you give me your address before we’re through, you have my word that I will write something really touching on the card attached to my floral offering.”
She was choking as his lips sidled, warm and hungry, up her neck.
“Relax,” he breathed, teeth nipping at her ear. “This is what you want, isn’t it?” His voice was a creeping-crawling thing holding her mesmerized, the muscle and steel of his body and hands moulding her against him like melted plastic. “This is what all you women want, isn’t it? None of that sissy drivel that made your mothers froth with delight. You want a man who will do his stuff and not ask you how you enjoyed it, right?” The words stopped when his mouth clamped down on hers.
“No,” she gasped, twisting her mouth away, heart knocking wildly in her chest. She had to make him stop. She should never have come to this place. Beneath the beauty and serenity lay something evil. The ghosts weren’t nice people. “Harry!” she gasped.
“Harry isn’t here.” The man smiled. “There’s only me, Mr. Evil Incarnate.”
“Don’t be so stupid.” Tessa tried to blink away the tears of rage and fright but they were trapped in her lashes. She could smell the sun on the man’s leather jacket. She could smell the dark moistness of the earth following that morning’s shower; the woody fragrance of the bark; the green pungency of the leaves. Such a lovely day. The lump in her throat threatened to choke her. And then she heard it—the crunch of twigs underfoot. Someone was coming. Someone perhaps to disturb those sly twittering birds, and whatever else lurked amidst the trees.
“Scoundrel!” shouted a high, quavering female voice. “Rapist! Murderer!”
Tessa wrenched sideways, peering over the man’s shoulder. A flurried elderly lady in a grey-and-white striped dress was thrusting her way through the trees, hampered somewhat by a wide straw sunhat. A bulging string bag swung from the crook of her arm, and her lavender crocheted shawl kept getting snagged on twigs.