They were supposed to be having a weekend away, but things had started to go wrong before they’d even reached the country hotel they had been aiming for – optimistically, as it turned out.
The car had broken down somewhere in deepest Shropshire, halfway down a country lane and still about seven or eight miles from their destination. The last village they had passed had not been much nearer, but they were only a few yards from stone gateposts that promised some kind of civilisation beyond and, having pushed the car safely off the road, they set off down the drive in the hope of aid and preferably a can of petrol from whatever house lay at the bottom of it.
“It’s rather overgrown,” Alleyn observed. “I hope there is something at the end.”
“We’ve come this far – we may as well try. Maybe they just don’t have a car.”
“In which case, they won’t be likely to have any petrol.”
Troy refused to be down-hearted yet. “You never know. And they might have a telephone.”
They rounded the last corner at that point and saw the house. It had once been the centre of a proud estate, no doubt: an elegant Georgian manor building, but its east wing was moss covered and crumbling. The rest seemed to be holding together for the moment, but there were no signs of it being inhabited. The sun was beginning to set and there were no lights in any of the windows while the gravel in front of the house was patchy. Weeds were growing with abandon. It would have made for an atmospheric painting had Troy been in the mood, but it wasn’t what they’d been hoping for at the start of what should have been their holiday weekend.
“Damn,” said Alleyn. Still, he walked nearer and gave the front door a try, despite its peeling paint and rusted knocker.
Troy walked past him, peering in empty windows. “I don’t think anyone’s been here for some time. I suppose we’d better try going on down the lane and seeing if we can find that village. What was it called again?”
The weather then decided to weigh in, as a savage crash of thunder was rapidly followed by a downpour.
“In normal circumstances, I can’t say I condone breaking and entering – but there are limits!”
Troy nodded, setting about trying to light a fire with a few last pieces of coal from the coal scuttle. The good half of the house seemed to have been abandoned in a hurry at some point and never entirely emptied. There was some remaining furniture under dust sheets and the kitchen still had some basics, suggesting that at some point there had been a caretaker, or someone had planned to return. Layers of dust on everything, though, would indicate even to someone who wasn’t a detective, that whoever it was had not been around for a considerable time.
“Given that the window was open, it’s only entering,” she said, finally successful in coaxing a flame into life and pulling back to admire her handiwork. “Or trespassing, I suppose.”
“Hardly appropriate behaviour for a member of the CID.”
Troy bit back a grin.
“You are on holiday, darling.”
Alleyn didn’t dignify that with a reply, although he reflected that if that logic held true, he should probably have aimed for robbing a bank at the very least, if not an elaborate homicide . Only lowly local bobbies should celebrate their holidays with a minor offence such as trespassing.
“I must say, it’s a nuisance. We can’t even let the hotel know that we’ve been unavoidably detained.”
Since the storm seemed in no hurry to cease and desist, Alleyn made his way back to the car with a still-functioning umbrella that had been abandoned in the lonely stand in the grand hallway and recovered the two small cases, into which he’d added the packet of sandwiches and thermos flask of coffee they’d had in the back, and the picnic blanket as well as the torch.
“There’s one of the bedrooms that doesn’t seem too bad,” Troy said once he returned, hastily shedding the sopping coat and taking his place by the fire. “It still has a bed and a mattress, although I don’t think I can promise much more than that. But with the blanket it should be passable – better than spending the night on the floor or in the car.”
“I am sorry,” he said. “I hadn’t planned on dragging you on a camping trip.”
“I don’t think I mind as much as you do. And there’s one thing you can say for it – we aren’t likely to be disturbed by anyone, not even the Yard.”
Even that turned out to be untrue. The mattress smelled a little damp, once they’d settled on it, only half-undressed, but nothing worse. However, when Alleyn got to sleep, he was plagued by an unusually vivid and disturbing nightmare. He was, in the dream, being shut in somewhere, someone pressing a heavy lid down on him, encasing him in darkness as he struggled to breathe. It seemed so intensely real that when Troy woke him midway through the second replaying of events it took a long moment before his actual life made any sense again.
“Rory?” said Troy. He could see her pale face; there must be moonlight coming in from somewhere.
He pulled himself up. “A nightmare, that’s all. I’m sorry. Did I disturb you?”
“You seemed to be engaged in a life or death battle with the blanket.” She hesitated, and then asked: “A case?”
“No, that was what was so odd. Nothing that I can remember. I expect some mind doctor would know how to explain it at a fantastic cost.”
Troy squeezed his hand. “What else is it, then?”
“Nothing. I rather think there’s something I want to look at downstairs.”
“I’m sure we brought all our things up.”
Since Alleyn couldn’t entirely explain the urge himself, he said nothing, merely reached for his jacket and retrieving his shoes and the torch.
“Should you?” said Troy. “If you put your foot through a floorboard and break a leg, then we’ll really be in the soup.”
“I’ll do my best not to.”
Troy was right – it wasn’t in the least bit sensible to wander round a decrepit old Georgian mansion in the middle of the night and yet Alleyn persisted. It felt as if there was something important he’d left downstairs, even though he was sure that Troy was right about that, too: a quick mental run through backed her up. It felt good to be moving about freely after that oppressive dream, that was true enough. Perhaps that was all it was.
Downstairs, he turned left along the corridor and then on into a room they hadn’t touched earlier. A cold draft brushed over him. There must be plenty of cracks and broken windows in this place, he supposed. To imagine it was anything else was ridiculous.
Outside, as if the weather had decided to play along, there was another crash of thunder and he dropped the torch with a curse. Its light died, leaving him to get down on his hands and knees to feel around for it.
That was when he found the discrepancy in the floorboards on the far side of the room, and he finally knew what he was after.
He’d prised the nails up with the aid of a couple of the kitchen knives. They seemed to come away too easily, as if someone or something wanted the boards removed and the least he could do was oblige. He should have stopped – it was most certainly not his business, whatever his calling, and it wasn’t even his property – but the house seemed expectant around him, holding its breath, waiting for him to uncover… something.
Underneath where the floorboards had been was an opening, leading down into a cellar of some kind. Shining the torch along the floor, he noted that the room had been extended slightly at some point. Probably, there had originally been a closet or boarded off section around the lost staircase.
He directed the torch down the stairs, but it revealed little, only grey stone steps descending into the black unknown. There was only one thing for it, he decided, before he was halted by the sound of footsteps outside the room and tensed, listening.
“Damn,” said Troy on the other side, and then peered in. “Rory, what are you doing?”
The question brought him fully back to his senses and he stared down at the uncovered staircase again, at a loss to explain himself.
“I thought you were the one worrying about us damaging the place,” she said. She might, he suspected, have been enjoying this, at least a little, but she was also puzzled and she crossed over to him. “What is it?”
“There’s something odd here.”
Alleyn turned. “Anyway, what you were you saying about me wandering around an unsafe property at night? At least I had the torch.”
“I used matches,” she said. “Didn’t you hear me burning my fingers on the way in? But why have you been pulling up the floorboards? What’s wrong?”
Alleyn looked again at the hole in the floor. “I think I’ll know that when I’ve been down there.”
“Can’t it wait till morning?”
“It seems to have been waiting long enough.”
It wasn’t sensible, but Alleyn felt convinced that if he left it, he’d only find himself falling into the same dream again, and twice had already been enough. He wasn’t sure what he felt about spectral activity – by and large everything that he delved into had an all too human explanation – but there were more things in heaven and earth than were ever dreamt of in Scotland Yard's philosophy, etcetera, etcetera, and he wasn’t currently in a position to argue with Shakespeare.
“Yes, but do watch where you’re walking.”
“Don’t you feel anything?”
Troy shook her head. “Apart from chilly, tired, and wondering if I should take your temperature when you come back up here? No, I’m afraid not. You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“I seem to be,” he said, and then concentrated on making his way down into the cellar. Watching where he was walking was good advice. There were empty, cobweb-strewn, dusty racks, so it might perhaps once have been a wine cellar, but no bottles remained – worse luck, he thought with a brief grin. It must have been shut up for years, maybe even a century or so. Anything that remained would have been of a spectacular vintage, if it was still drinkable.
Then something seemed almost to pull at him and he turned to the right, the torchlight illuminating a large, dark wooden chest. He crossed over to it. There had been some sort of cloth covering it, but it had begun to rot or been eaten and there was little of it left. There was a padlock on the box, but it had grown rusty and one blow with the torch was enough to send it falling onto the stone floor.
The lid sprung open, causing him to step back hastily, and then give a yell as hands gripped his shoulders, even as common sense intervened and told him it was Troy. He twisted around to see her kneeling on the stairs behind him.
“Hell,” he said, shining the torch ahead of him and taking in the chest’s contents. “I must be mad.”
“Certifiable, I should think,” said Troy, coming down to join him. She didn’t sound entirely steady. “Rory, have you just broken into the family crypt?”
He shook his head. “No. An old wine cellar, I think. Besides,” he added, crouching down by the chest and examining the marks of fingernails inside of the lid, “even the worst families didn’t generally run to burying people alive.” He felt a momentary flashback to the dream: the lid coming down, being unable to see or breathe –
“But how did you…?”
“Damn it, I don’t know,” he said. “But it’s wrecked everything, blast the whole business. Even when we finally get out of here, I’ll have to report it to someone. Can’t leave him lying about like this. Might still technically be an open case, and even if it isn’t – damnation! I’m sorry, my darling.”
“Alas, poor Yorick,” said Troy, ignoring Alleyn’s look, and shivering slightly as she took in the finger marks and then let her gaze slide down to the skeleton in the chest. “Probably best not to think about it yet. For what it’s worth, you still seem all there to me.”
“Thank you. Although something like this does leave one wondering.”
“There are more things in heaven and earth –”
“Yes,” he said, managing a smile, despite his irritation. “I did that bit myself.”
“Do you think you can go back to sleep now?”
Alleyn nodded. “Yes. At least, I devoutly I hope so – I’m going to need my wits about me to explain this one to the county’s Chief Constable in the morning!”
Troy took his hand. “Queer things do happen sometimes.”
“Yes. Although usually only to friends of a friend, in my experience.” He took one last look at the contents of the chest. “Until now, that is,” he said, and then carefully replaced the lid. “Poor chap.”