The Proto-Haunted Cottage
When I woke, it was still dark. I could hear various animal and bird noises from the moors. I guessed someone unaccustomed to the countryside, as Felix’s wife presumably was, would find them spooky.
I decided to do a double check on the spirit world. Sitting upright, I gradually relaxed into my fugue state. To my surprise, I could hear someone crying, although it sounded from some distance away.
“Hello,” I called out.
The crying stopped. “Hello, is someone there?” replied what sounded like a young girl.
“I’m Seamus, what’s your name?”
“Hello Emily, I’m pleased to meet you.”
“I’m dead, aren’t I?”
I didn’t know how to sugar-coat the truth. “Yes, I’m afraid you are.”
“This isn’t Heaven, so it must be Hell, mustn’t it?”
“No, you’re stuck in limbo, waiting for something.”
“Are you dead too? You’re the first voice I’ve heard since...”
“No Emily, I’m not dead. But I have a special ability which allows me to talk to you. And I’m going to try to help you move to where you belong. Can you tell me how you died?”
“I think so. My Uncle Walter started hurting me between my legs and making me bleed and I wouldn’t stop screaming and he put his hands round my neck. That’s the last thing I remember.”
“How old are you, Emily?”
“How long have you been there?”
“I don’t know. It feels like a very long time.”
“Can you tell me what was in the news when you you died? What was top of the pops?”
Emily named a pop song that I remembered well. It was my daughter’s favourite for a time. I estimated it had been current about twenty years earlier.
“Very good, Emily. Now can you tell me where you are? Can you see anything?”
“No, it’s all black.”
“What can you feel?”
“Emily, Emily, are you there?”
There was no reply.
As my senses retuned to the corporeal world, I noticed that dawn had broken. Perhaps Emily could only make her presence felt at night; I’d encountered far stranger constraints on the spirit world, such as a tortoise that could only move a wheelbarrow when nobody was watching.
While listening to the dawn chorus, surprisingly less loud than in town where the birds have to compete against traffic noise, I drew up a plan to find out more about Emily in the hope that would help me find her remains.
After breakfast, I tried to telephone Verity, but Hopkins said she had had a late night and had asked not to be disturbed. I left a message that I had found something, but I wasn’t sure what, and I needed to do some more investigating.
I wandered down to the village, eventually settling on the village shop as my best potential source of information. As I went in, a couple of the locals gave me a hostile stare and left.
“Can I help you?” asked a woman behind the counter. It was that sort of shop.
“Where’s the nearest police station?” I asked.
“Is there a problem?”
“No, I’m looking into something and I need their advice.”
“The only police we have is a PCSO who drives through once or twice a week. He’s based at the police station in Tauncester.”
“Thank you. I may pay them a visit. Is there a local newspaper?”
“Yes, the Coombe Ottery Advertiser. It’s published once a week on Fridays.”
“Do you still have a copy of last week’s?”
“There’s a shelf of newspapers over there. If there’s any left, that’s where they’ll be.”
I followed the woman’s finger to the newspaper section and bought the last copy. Inside the front cover it gave the name and address of the publishers. They too were in Tauncester.
Tauncester was the largest nearby town and it didn’t take me long to reach it by car. I visited the police station first.
“Good morning Sir, what can I do for you?” asked the officer behind the front desk.
“I’m interested in an old case from Coombe Ottery. A missing girl named Emily about twenty years ago.”
The police officer tapped away on his computer.
“I’m afraid you’re out of luck, Sir,” said the officer. “Twenty years ago there was an officer stationed full time at Coombe Ottery and his house served as a police station. Fifteen years ago all the local constables were consolidated here and their records were supposed to be brought here too but the Coombe Ottery records appear to have been lost in transit. We have no Coombe Ottery records prior to fifteen years ago.”
After sandwiches from a bakery cafe, I set out to find the publishers of the Coombe Ottery Advertiser. Eventually I tracked them down to a small industrial estate on the edge of town.
“Hi,” I said to the receptionist, “is this where the Coombe Ottery Advertiser is printed?”
“No,” she replied. “This is the office the local reporters work from but most of the work, including the telephone services and the printing, are based in Bristol.”
“Would it be possible to speak to a reporter?”
“I think there’s one in at the moment. Let me check.”
The receptionist telephoned someone. “You’re in luck, Simon is in. He’ll be with you in a moment.”
Simon turned out to be a youngster barely out of school.
“Hi,” I said, “I’m interested in a news story from about twenty years ago. A young girl went missing in Coombe Ottery.”
“I’m afraid you’re out of luck,” he replied. “None of the local papers were making any money so they were all consolidated into one. Basically we now produce a single local newspaper with different mastheads. The archives were put into storage until they could be digitised onto computer, but they were all lost in the floods five years ago. The Environment Agency banned the clearing of drainage channels to create a more natural look to the landscape and when we had a month of wet weather, the water had nowhere to go so it came here. Of course I wasn’t working for the paper at the time.”
“You’re the second dead end,” I replied. “The police have lost all their records from twenty years ago too.”
“All I can suggest is talking to some of the locals. Try the Poacher’s Arms in Coombe Ottery. Lots of old people drink there, and they serve decent pies too.”
“Thanks.” I meant it. Despite his youth, the reporter had come up with a good suggestion.
By the time I got back to Rose Cottage, it was early evening. I decided on a meal at the Poacher’s Arms so I’d be back at the cottage and ready in case I was able to speak to Emily again once it was dark.
The Poacher’s Arms was a cliché, exactly what you’d expect a pub to look like when it catered for locals rather than visitors. I stuck out like a sore thumb and the conversation quietened dramatically when I went in.
“I’ve been told your pies are good,” I said to the disconcertingly young barman. The clientele may have been old but he wasn’t.
“So I’ve been told. They come with peas, mash and gravy. What would you like?”
“What would you recommend?”
“Steak and kidney is the most popular.”
“Please. And do you serve Guinness?”
“We only have bottles, I’m afraid.”
“I’ll have one.”